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Isobel MacLaurin, Whistler’s ‘spark and light,’ defied everyone’s expectations but her own

Considered Whistler’s first professional artist, the irrepressible 92-year-old died last week surrounded by loved ones

Isobel MacLaurin’s defiant streak started early.  

At the tender age of six, she skipped class one day at her New Brunswick schoolhouse simply because she found home more entertaining. The consummate party host, for her birthday one year, she invited the entire class over to celebrate, much to the dismay of her teacher. By the time she finished high school, she already knew what she wanted to be—an artist, an unlikely career path for a young, single woman in the post-war ’40s—and there was nothing or no one that could have stood in her way. 

“Grandpa Joe thought she would just be a homemaker. She wanted to be an artist,” explained Jill, one of Isobel’s four children. “She was a bit of a character. She was always going to be the one who did her own thing.” 

Isobel, a mainstay of the Whistler community since the early ’60s, did her own thing until the very end. She died, surrounded by loved ones, in the home she cherished overlooking Alta Lake, on Feb. 13, at an impossibly vital 92 years old.

“She lived to the absolute fullest, honestly, to the last minute,” said Mo Douglas, executive director of Arts Whistler. “Because of her karma, because she lived such an awesome life, she really got everything she wanted in the end.” 

Isobel and her husband settled in Whistler in 1961, securing a 25-year loan from CN Rail for their little piece of lakeside land, where her beloved Don, a renowned forester and economist, helped build the cabin, nicknamed “Sno Use,” with its sprawling windows and airy studio, that Isobel would spend countless hours in painting, entertaining, and enjoying the views. 

“She so appreciated the solarium, the view, her sitting room, her bedroom with the view,” said daughter Lee. “I think the mountainous environment they created and lived in was part of her cathedral.” 

For Isobel and Don’s four kids—Lee, Jill, Sue and Mark—that cathedral transformed into a playground in their childhood years. They would while away the hours playing pirates on the lake and catching fresh trout, only returning home at the wail of a broken trumpet Isobel or Don would sound when dinner was ready.

“Whistler of the day, it was kind of this Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn-style place,” Mark said. 

Even into her final years, Isobel was an avid traveller with a fierce independent streak, a philosophy on life that extended to her children. She liked to remind them that, by the age of six, they were old enough to carry their own backpacks, and it wasn’t unusual to spot the MacLaurin children alongside their parents on long, mountain treks or on globe-trotting adventures. 

“We’re all quite independent. We all do quite a bit of travelling. I grow ferns for a living down in Tasmania,” said daughter Sue. (“I’m the youngest—and I know nothing!” Mark chimed in.) “The nature and the art. I love taking photographs. I don’t do people. It’s the art of nature, and that’s a mix of dad the forester and mom the artist. It flows through all of us very strongly, and not just in our loud voices.” 

A dynamic duo 

It’s impossible to discuss Isobel without mentioning her relationship with Don, “her partner in life, travel and all kinds of misadventures,” as Arts Whistler described him. A Whistler luminary in his own right, Don helped develop the Whistler Interpretive Forest, and worked to preserve several ecologically important areas in the community, from the Ancient Cedars to Lost Lake Park.

They were, to put it mildly, a pair of go-getters whose passion for the community was only paralleled by their love for each other.

“They were more of a dynamic duo that just did and were complementary to each other. They enjoyed each other’s differences,” Jill said. 

First meeting at a dance in New Brunswick in 1958, it was a chance encounter on Mount Seymour years later that eventually sealed the MacLaurins’ fate together. Not one to compromise her own pursuits for a man, Isobel took some convincing to take Don’s hand in marriage after they ran into each other skiing the North Vancouver mountain. 

“They split up a couple times and ended up reuniting on Mount Seymour, and it all got rekindled,” Douglas said. “That was quite rebellious for that time. In the ’50s, women were getting married pretty young, and she waited until it was something she felt she wanted to do. She wanted to explore other things before.”

Although they weren’t often a showy couple with their affection, the kids would spot them on the lake in the wintertime after it had frozen over. 

“When it froze over, and it was clear, not snowy ice, mum and dad would go out and they would dance on the lake, because they could dance. And they could skate because they were from the East,” Jill recalled. “They didn’t always do ‘I love yous,’ but when dad died, she had a dream where they were dancing and the ‘I love yous’ were flowing. They always knew.” 

An artful existence 

Considered Whistler’s first professional working artist, Isobel’s outsized impact on the arts community came in many forms. Today, her murals can be found on both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, along the Valley Trail, in several Whistler and Burnaby parks, at the BC Institute of Technology, and, internationally, at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and the Cook Islands. She also painted many of the old trail signs that used to dot the valley. 

“I think her legacy in the arts here is unforgettable,” said Douglas, Arts Whistler’s director. “It’s hard to summarize, because Isobel’s energy and passion and can-do approach to everything is now embedded into the DNA of certain organizations, like Arts Whistler, and certainly in people like Stephen Vogler, [longtime family friend and artistic director] at The Point Artist-Run Centre. She would support any idea, she would be there if you wanted her to be there, and she would bring the joy and energy to lift up something you’d already done and make it better.” 

Isobel didn’t just lead by example, either. She was a dedicated instructor throughout her life, and volunteered her time to teach kids how to make art from the very first edition of the Whistler Children’s Festival, in 1983. 

A supporter of the arts in its many forms, Isobel loved nothing more than to boost other artists’ profiles in her own quiet ways. A mentor to another tireless local painter, the award-winning Andrea Mueller, the two enjoyed a full-circle moment in December when Isobel was there for the opening night of Mueller’s first-ever solo exhibit at the Maury Young Arts Centre, the last show the nonogenerian ever attended, five years after Mueller curated Isobel’s own career retrospective for Arts Whistler

“It’s giving me goosebumps thinking about it,” recalled Mueller, who said it was Isobel and the late, great painter, Chili Thom, who showed her it was possible to be a successful working artist in Whistler. 

“Isobel and Chili were really both influential to me in similar ways ’cause they weren’t apologetic for being artists, which can often happen here,” she explained. “Often, it’s a side gig for us, and seeing those two people making a go of it and, to be honest, flaunting the fact they were artists was very inspiring. She was just so unabashedly herself.” 

That career retrospective still ranks as one of the proudest moments of Douglas’ tenure at Arts Whistler. Known for her vivid nature and landscape paintings, it wasn’t until Arts Whistler started going through Isobel’s extensive portfolio that the true scope of her work became clear. 

“It was a whole other dimension of Isobel’s work,” she said. “There were landscapes there, portraits there, sketches. The diversity of the work was so phenomenal that people discovered Isobel as an artist in a whole new way ... She was just so happy to have her work be that alive again. It almost has its own energy in front of all these people, and her opening of the show was one of those legendary nights in the community that none of us will ever forget.” 

Good life, good death 

Isobel’s legacy in the community extends far beyond the art she produced. Anyone who has lived in this town long enough likely has an Isobel story of their own to share. She owned absolutely every room she walked into based off the sheer force of personality alone. She made sure to show gratitude for the people who make this town run, from the baristas and grocery store clerks on up to elected officials and municipal staffers. A voracious reader and newshound, Isobel would frequently show up unannounced to the Pique newsroom, a fresh batch of her famous peanut-butter cookies under one arm, a stack of old New Yorkers in the other. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of a pandemic or the middle of a busy production day, when Isobel showed up, you stopped what you were doing, if only to bask in her glow for a few minutes. 

"I think a lot of the goodwill she built up with people was because of those damn peanut-butter cookies,” Mark laughed. “She was a spark and a light in this community, for sure.” 

Even in death, Isobel did it her way. In her final weeks, as her body began to fail her, she would summon fortunate friends and loved ones from the community to her bedside, to share a laugh or a piece of art she had saved for them. 

“She debunked death. She loved being on the edge,” said Jill. 

Isobel will of course be buried in the $500 wooden casket she hand-painted years ago for her and Don’s “living wake,” and she has left explicit instructions for the celebration of her life to be held at the Maury Young Arts Centre. 

“I told her straight up, it’s not going to be big enough,” Douglas recalled. “To which Isobel replied, ‘Well, that will be your problem by then, dear.’”

Isobel MacLaurin’s Celebration of Life will be held Saturday, Feb. 24, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the

Maury Young Arts Centre. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

A livestream will be available at for those who cannot attend.

“It was Isobel’s wish to have her Celebration of Life at the Maury Young Arts Centre. Due to its limited capacity, she provided a list of family and friends who have priority seating at the Arts Centre, with limited additional seating for others,” Arts Whistler said.

“The Whistler Public Library will host an overflow live stream viewing, commencing at 6 p.m. People are welcome to join the Arts Centre reception following the speaker presentations, as space allows.”