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Award-winning alumna and author of the new historical fiction, TRILLIUM, talks mentorship, motivation, and the business of art.

margaret lindsay holton

PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Tessier

Margaret Lindsay Holton


Creative Writing, Humber School for Writers

At Humber, I was most fortunate and delighted to understudy with 2x Giller prize winner, M.G. Vassanji. I had a particular desire to work with him as his roots are Indian-East African. I was raised on exotic stories of East Africa by my mother who had grown up in Dar Es Salaam, the major ocean-side port of Tanzania, and I welcomed the opportunity to share our inherited visions - albeit from two distinctly different points of view. 

During the day I was working hard at developing my practice as a Canadian fine furniture designer. At night, I worked hard on my writing in conjunction with Vassanji's meticulous notes. His careful and exact readings of my, at that time, short-stories-in-development, helped me a great deal to refine and define my own literary voice.

By 1988, after apprenticing for two years with my father at his Hamilton-based wood-working shop, Holton Fine Furniture, I had established my own Canadian fine furniture design and custom-build studio in Toronto, MLH Productions. Over the next decade, I designed over 400 signature Canadian fine furniture pieces that amplified the skilled wood-working traditions of local craftsmen working with a wide assortment of wood materials from across Canada. 

One example of that kind of work was a wonderful commission I did in the mid-1990s called 'The Four Canadian Fireside Chairs,' made from century-old black walnut harvested from a private mill on the outskirts of Ancaster. 

In the front legs of the four chairs, the northern sea goddess of the Inuit, Sedna, swirls up the knees in burnished copper leaf. For two of the armless side chairs, I sourced unmarked deer hides from a seasoned hunter near Gravenhurst. These high-end historically-fused chairs now stand as a very real contribution to Canada's evolving identity in the global sphere of humanity's Decorative Arts.

the four canadian fireside chairs

'The Four Canadian Fireside Chairs' by M.L.Holton. Designed & made in Canada for $40,000.

In 1998, I wrote about the making of distinctive Canadian material culture in my second semi-fictional novel, 'The Gilded Beaver by Anonymous.' It won the Hamilton Arts Council 'Best Fiction' Award in 1999.

After 14 years in the Canadian fine furniture design business, I embarked on a different, yet tangential, career. I began to devote myself full-time to my 2D artworks: painting and photography.

"Creating art, like designing, or writing for a living, really is a business as much as it is a creative endeavor."

chess at lakefront

Chess at Lakefront - Pinhole Photograph.

During the 2000s, I had numerous exhibitions, at both private and public galleries, and continued to sell many of my 'naive-surreal-folk-abstract' paintings, pinhole and photo-collage photographic images, into private and public collections.

My earlier apprenticeship with my father had instilled good working habits. I ran my art studio in Toronto from 9-5pm with all the attendant requirements of running a growing business. In this 'learn-by-doing' way, I developed a solid basis for continuing on as a self-employed artist. 

Today, I know I have significantly contributed to the material culture of Canada, not only through my published efforts but through my assorted 2D and 3-D artworks done over a period of 40 years. Overall, it is an artist legacy that I am proud of.

Throughout the years I have received an assortment of awards. Ribbons, trophies and award certificates are wonderful, but, realistically, one cannot build a successful career on accolades from one's peers. The greater reward comes from a completed work that exceeds another's expectations. When others find value in your service, or written words, and are willing to pay you for it, you know you've got it right. Your next piece, your next job, your next commission or your next book is the most important point in your evolving life's work. 

The journey of an artist is not an easy one. You must keep at it. Keep your eyes and ears open. Absorb the highs and lows as part of the grand mystery of Life. Constant exploration and questioning is essential to your own evolution.

Margaret Lindsay Holton is the editor and author of:

The Spirit of Toronto, (Image Publishing, 1984). A compiled social history about Toronto's 43 different religious faiths. (Available in Toronto metro libraries.)

Her first novel, Economic Sex, (published under pen-name with Toronto's literary press, Coach House Press, 1985), chronicles a bewildering love affair between a Canadian and an American. (Available via Antiquarian booksellers.)

Her second novel, The Gilded Beaver by Anonymous, (MLH Productions/AcornPressCanada, 1999), details the story of an ambitious Canadian fine furniture designer's attempt to satisfy the aesthetic desires of a billionaire client.

During her artistic career, she has also written two books of poetry, (Bush Chord and On Top of Mount Nemo), produced a spoken-word and electro-pop album for Canada's sesquicentennial, CANADADA: TAKE TWO, and crafted several limited edition art-books that explain her art practice, such as CANADADA: A Painter's Nature. These titles are available through her website.  

When not at the easel or behind a camera, Lindsay continues to write poetry and short stories. One short story, The Frozen Goose, was published in 2014 in a WW1 anthology entitled, ENGRAVED: Canadian Stories of the First World War. In 2016, she transcribed that tale into a screenplay, then produced and directed her first narrative film The Frozen Goose

Her latest novel, TRILLIUM, MLH Productions/AcornPressCanada, 2019), is a hybrid historical fiction that spans 250 years starting from the mid-1750s. The story follows three very different young men who arrive from disparate backgrounds and make a go of it in the burgeoning wine-making district of Niagara on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. A compelling family saga, TRILLIUM offers a timely overview of who and what they – and we – as Canadians – are becoming.