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Natural Calling

Heron Dance Art Gallery finds a nest in Middlebury


Published June 4, 2003 at 1:19 p.m.

Rod MacIver says he's not a "people person." But tell that to the 18,000 subscribers of his eight-year-old publication Heron Dance -- readers who have found inspiration, solace and beauty in the pages of a small journal devoted to, well, the inspiration, solace and beauty of nature and living simply. The Heron Dance founder does make clear that he prefers solitude to socializing in the bio on his publication's Web site. Indeed, the clipped style of his writing suggests that MacIver is not a man to either mince or waste words: "I was born in 1956 in Canada. I started Heron Dance after careers in real estate and investment research, and after a serious cancer diagnosis."

MacIver then fills in a few details be-tween those two blunt sentences, making clear that his early experiences exploring the vast wilds of northern Canada, living in the forests and working with Indians set a standard for him that later business successes could not match. Oddly, what he neglects to mention is that along the way -- from Ottawa to New York City to Middlebury, Vermont -- MacIver became an artist.

Heron Dance is filled with his peaceful, misty watercolors, every one of them a scene from nature, including, yes, herons. Though birds and animals, lakes, skies and trees are MacIver's favored subjects, sometimes a human interloper -- a canoeist, a camper -- appears. The text -- interviews, essays, poetry and quotes from writers as diverse as Emily Dickenson, H.L. Mencken, Flannery O'Connor and Joseph Campbell -- suggests more than anything how complicated we humans make ourselves. Without being too preachy, it espouses a decluttered, close-to-nature existence. The pictures enhance this idea by quietly and reverently honoring the wild. MacIver has donated hundreds of artworks to nonprofits, particularly wilderness protection groups.

A former nature photographer, MacIver began teaching himself to draw and watercolor from books about a decade ago. "For months and months, I painted every day," he says. "When I started Heron Dance, I began to put sketches and tiny paintings in the margins. Over the years, people have reacted more favorably to the art than the words."

And that explains in part Heron Dance, the gallery. With his wife Ann O'Shaugh-nessy, MacIver is launching a small outlet for his paintings -- not to mention limited-edition prints, note cards and other gift items -- in Middlebury. The gallery, tucked in the Marble Works complex near Waterfront Video, opens with a reception this Saturday.

O'Shaughnessy, a former high school teacher and rock-gym manager, has been the creative director of Heron Dance, and an essayist and interviewer for the journal, since she and MacIver found each other three years ago. As a "word person" and outdoors enthusiast she had to be convinced that retail was the way to go. The words in Heron Dance "are a solace for people who feel like outcasts, who are trying to live values that aren't real popular," O'Shaughnessy suggests. "But I've come to see the role of beauty, of honoring it in one's life. The art strikes a chord with people because it's soft and emotive. It's a strong representation of what we're all about."

After years of "pouring heart and soul" into Heron Dance, the couple realized that, ironically, their efforts to grow and maintain the advertisement-free publication prevented them from living a simpler life themselves. "It's been a real contradiction," MacIver acknowledges. "I felt I had this message that was important to me and that I wanted to share. I sacrificed simplicity in order to do it."

That epiphany -- and a reappearance of MacIver's cancer -- led the couple to make some changes. Thus, the journal has been pared down to a newsletter, a smaller, less expensive option that can be sent out 10 to 12 times a year. The artwork, most priced modestly under $200, has found walls as well as Web space. Heron Dance -- in print and pictures -- provides the sole income for the couple, which O'Shaughnessy calls "a gift. How many people get to do what they want," she asks, "and be around beauty?"