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Lives lived: Linda Joyce Fairfield Stechesen, 77

Linda Fairfield Stechesen

Sheila Spence/Globe and Mail Update

Artist. Natural history collector. Wit. Mentor. Born Dec. 2, 1940, in Winnipeg; died Jan. 3, 2017, in Winnipeg, of cancer, aged 77.

Linda Fairfield Stechesen was a Winnipeg painter whose elegant demeanour belied her gifts as a wise-cracking dame. She was also an accomplished mahjong player, gourmet cook and painter. A passionate naturalist, she stored bird and small mammal specimens in her freezer next to her bundt cakes and almond soup.

Linda is best known as an exquisite illustrator of Manitoba botanicals. Her goal was to paint every plant species in the province. For nearly 50 years, she collected specimens from her naturalized garden in the south Winnipeg flood plain, as well as from around her childhood cottage on Lake Manitoba – all for her illustrations.

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She once described her intense creative process as entering "a deep meditative state to make each delicate stroke perfect before the plant starts to wilt."

For decades, these botanical paintings held pride of place at the popular Assiniboine Park Conservatory café. She also illustrated the 1987 guide Wildflowers of Churchill. She made many trips with Dr. Karen Johnson, an alpine plants specialist, to Churchill. Together, they were working on a second Manitoba plant text when Linda died.

Linda spent her childhood in Portage la Prairie. She said she lived outside most of the time with her friends – pretty much raising herself. Her mother was a nurse and her father a physician. Her only sibling, Georgeanne, died at age 50 in 1991. This loss resulted in her Memento Mori, Fairfield's passionate mixed-media installation at the Ace Art Gallery in Winnipeg, which evoked a tomb with dried flowers.

Linda graduated with an Interior Design degree from the University of Manitoba in the early 1960s. She married Les Stechesen (an architect) in 1963 and the couple moved to London, England, for a year for his graduate studies. Back in Canada, they had two children, Erica (now a French teacher) and Aaron, who works as a lab technician.

Linda's eye for detail and beauty extended beyond her art. She also amassed a sizable collection of rare and unusual art deco china, Victorian jewellery and large exotic plants.

For many years, Fairfield was a popular instructor of architectural rendering at her alma mater, in part because she stood up for her students. Always a dedicated volunteer, she joined local causes and mentored younger artists. Over the decades, many cultural groups benefited from her enthusiasm.

Linda continued to teach and paint until the end. She liked to call her diverse body of work, which included quirky installations and paintings of horses, the Garden. Her dream was to build a wing on Winnipeg's Pavilion Gallery Museum (which is dedicated to white male artists Ivan Eyre, Walter J. Phillips and Clarence Tillenius) so, she said, "there would be at least one woman!"

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Her model for this project was the Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens in London. While in hospital, she charged her closest friend with the task of finding a prestigious home for hundreds of her highly detailed, scientifically important botanical watercolours.

She will remain funny, beautiful and inspiring: a mentor, friend and unique artist.

Bev Pike is Linda's friend.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, visit tgam.ca/livesguide.

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