Galen Mercer Looks Back on 2020

galen mercer
"Back Slough" shows Mercer's appreciation of the pictorial drama inherent in high horizons.

by Brooke Chilvers

The tea towel that’s humorously inscribed, “You never realize how Anti-Social you are, until a Pandemic Strikes and… Your Life doesn’t change that much,” makes me think of both authors and artists.  

Yet the outdoorsman within artist Galen Mercer reminds us that when borders started closing, “Through a sportsman’s eyes, the effect was wholly different.” In fact, his own plans for painting/fishing excursions to Quebec, Iceland, and Croatia were “torpedoed.”

As for the output of the Toronto-born artist, who uses brushes, palette knives, his fingers, sponges, scraps of cloth, and even sticks to achieve his surfaces, “Reflecting on this dolorous period of Pandemic, surprisingly little has actually changed in my day-to-day routine. Making paintings requires both commitment and a remove, a certain stillness in which to consider, then press forward within a canvas.”  

For Mercer, who was completing a commissioned series of large oils of Florida’s coastal waters when “things fell off a cliff” last March, “The world slowing down amplified a condition that already exists for most painters. With fewer distractions and obligations, there was more time to work and concentrate on ideas. It’s been a beneficial upside to an otherwise dreadful situation. The heightened focus allowed me to bore in.”  

Interestingly, as result of creating this group of works, the physical size of Mercer’s paintings has expanded over the past year. “I’m painting larger canvases and with greater assurance and enjoying the challenges that come with that.”

Two oil paintings Mercer completed in 2020 demonstrate his preference for employing either a very high horizon, as in Back Slough,  or a very low one, as in Thunderstorm Over a Tidal Marsh, a late-August scene in southern New Jersey.

galen mercer
“Thunderstorm Over a Tidal Marsh” was inspired by a moment in late August in the tidal marshes of southern New Jersey. 

“I love these low salt marshes, which seem so vast and also anomalous in that state. They possess a rich history of both wildlife conservation and shooting,” writes Mercer, pointing out that 100 years ago Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) painted rail-shooting parties on the Cohansey marshes in Pushing for Rail and Starting Out After Rail.

“This was high summer, and the storm developed off-ocean, blackened swiftly, then swept inland to unload over the back-water channels. I was struck by the system’s momentous energy and dynamism, the way it spread rapidly to engulf the region, as well as the marvelous contrasts of color and light.”

What did change for Mercer when, “for wholly understandable reasons, many people sought refuge and solace in the countryside, and our rivers were suddenly crowded and contested places – like when myriad hatchery trout are suddenly introduced into a wild environment,” he adjusted his own patterns and began fishing earlier in the day, leaving before crowds began to build. “I found a slice of experience I’d pretty much left behind many years ago.” 

“We get lazy and sometimes need to be forced to vary our routines,” says the artist, who is naturally drawn to the inherent poignancy of scenes “in flux,” such as moving waters and shifting skies. 

Along his most cherished waterways, Mercer saw things and experienced behavior he’d never witnessed before. “How this all bodes for the essential experience of solitude and ‘wildness’ in the future is anyone’s guess.”


For Brooke Chilvers, these days, “wildness” feels more like what one is likely to experience in the city than in rural Virginia.