Michael Rubbo: village painter and filmmaker

Michael Rubbo: village painter and filmmaker

By Michelle Prévost

Morin-Heights abounds with artists whose work was marked by their life experiences in the community. One of the best was Michael Rubbo, who could often be seen with his easel set up in the centre of the village in the early and mid 1990s, painting a local scene. Five of his works were featured in full colour on the back page of Porcupine 9 in 2010. He loved painting local scenes and donated to the community dozens of paintings depicting daily life in the village; some of the collection hangs on office walls at town hall.

After graduating from Stanford University in California with a Masters degree in communication, Michael—originally from Australia—worked for 25 years at the National Film Board in Montreal as film producer, director and scriptwriter. As a man who loved cross-country skiing, and nature in general, he lived in Morin-Heights for many years.

A multi-talented man whose art knew no limits, he called himself a Sunday-afternoon painter. His book Travels with My Art highlights the importance he gave to painting outdoors, and he loved painting Morin-Heights scenes. “When village people stopped to watch me work,” he said, “I often asked them to add a few touches to the canvas. One day someone told me he was going to build condos on the ski hill. Are you really going to do that to such a beautiful mountain?” I asked him. “Why not paint it instead?”  Rubbo continued “Make your mark, but leave no mark. Painting is really an excellent way to capture a view without really possessing it.”

During his mandate at the National Film Board, Rubbo made many films on Canadian subjects. His 1976 documentary Log Cabin features Morin-Heights builder Lionel Belisle and four local helpers. This heritage film is loved by everyone who appreciates traditional log house construction, as it shows all the steps involved, from felling the trees to a party celebrating the completion of the new ‘loggie.’

It was through the art of Vincent Van Gogh that Michael learned to paint in nature. To fully understand Van Gogh’s techniques, Rubbo copied 30 of the master’s originals. “My copies of Van Gogh’s work (perfectly legal; Vincent copied his own works regularly) became a story of its own when my film Vincent and Me came out,” Michael explained. That film (Vincent and Me) earned him a prestigious Emmy award in 1980.

Another example of Rubbo’s great talent that contributed to his worldwide reputation was Waiting for Fidel; even today that film is studied at film schools around the world.

Michael is a well-known personality in his native Australia. He was a co-founder of Film Australia dedicated to the promotion of Australian films. In 1996 he was named head of documentaries for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC TV). Now in his mid-80s, Michael and his family live in Avoca Beach near Sydney. Over his long career, Michael produced more than 50 films and inspired many great documentary makers (including Michael Moore). But locally he will be remembered forever for the great body of work he produced in Morin-Heights.

Scenes of downtown Morin-Heights dominated Michael Rubbo’s art in the 1990s. Many are in the collection of the municipality at town hall.