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Engrained in the richness of Saranac Lake:?Ursula Trudeau

August 6, 2009
By STEFANIE?CHIPPERFIELD, Special to the Enterprise

A person is rarely defined by the quality of his or her mailbox, but along the bend of Trudeau Road, that of Ursula Wyatt Trudeau is decorated with birds, fleur-de-lis, flowers and a rabbit. Follow the rabbit and you'll find a big house with a nice garden out front and an enviable view of Lover's Lane out back.

Along the walls within is frame after frame of colorful paintings, from nuns to landscapes to animals; windows large and small into Trudeau's world, and its long, rich history.

Trudeau keeps the company of two animals; the first, a fiercely loyal little border collie-papillon hybrid named Monsieur Max, who greeted me at the door. She adopted him home from the Tri-Lakes Humane Society roughly a year-and-a-half ago, after a friend at a party noticed her fondness for another like him and informed her about Max. Ursula jokes that she "made the mistake of going" and became quite attached to him. Max actually garnered some fame of his own when during a walk a few years ago he alerted Trudeau to an injured motorcyclist. The incident was picked up by quite a few media outlets, including the Enterprise.

Article Photos

Ursula Trudeau and her dog Monsieur Max.
(Photo — Stefanie Chipperfield)

Trudeau's second pet is McKenzie, a cat of unknown breed, so named because she was found there by the humane society.

As for "Lover's Lane," which we gazed out on as we talked, it began back in the "old Trudeau days" - when the Trudeau tuberculosis sanatorium in Saranac Lake, previously known as the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium, was still open. Recovering couples would take sleigh rides or wagon rides out in the open air to spend time admiring the view together.

Ursula noted that she was amazed at how positive the patients were, and how "they always had hope." She went on to tell me about the "cure porches" that some of the houses in Saranac Lake have, and the "cure chairs" - one of which she was sitting on at that moment. Those with the disease would spend time out on those porches, lying slightly elevated in those chairs, resting and meditating, "curing" in the soothing Adirondack air. "It was known that with rest, good food, and isolation, they could get better," she said.

When Dr. Trudeau, Ursula's husband's grandfather, was training in medicine in New York, unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis while looking after his brother, who sadly, "didn't make it."

Thinking he would be next, Dr. Trudeau came up to Saranac Lake and put his idea of the "cure cottages" in motion, after being inspired by medical journals from Switzerland.

The cottages were a success, and Dr. Trudeau outlived his illness, dying of natural causes in 1915. "Little Red," the very first of the cottages he built, still stands near the Trudeau Institute - which Ursula described as "the phoenix out of the ashes" of the Trudeau Sanatorium, boosted by donations that Dr. Trudeau had received for his project.

"Lake Placid had people coming up for the holidays, but this place was all medical - that's its history," Trudeau said.

Ursula's husband, Francis, after getting his degree in medicine, had intended to set up shop and go to work, though he hadn't planned to work in Saranac Lake because his family lived there. However, because his father was ill, he decided to use the money he had and take on the task of creating and maintaining the current Institute. He received several grants, including a financial grant from the Kennedy Administration and a land grant from Edmond Guggenheim.

The younger Dr. Trudeau is immortalized in a statue at the Institute, of him looking wistful while reclining in a cure chair.

It was at the end of this wonderful weave of the town's history that I asked Ursula where she fit into the story. She backtracked a bit, telling me that she was originally Canadian, born in Montreal into a medical family. Trudeau recalled that "I swore I'd never have anything to do with doctors - and then I married one."

Ursula's path first crossed with Francis's in the 1960s when she returned to Montreal from living abroad in Europe. A friend of hers called, saying that she needed to compile a list of dates for Dr. Trudeau, who had recently divorced his first wife. "So we sat down one afternoon, drank a lot of wine, and made a list," she said. Ursula had not been on the list originally, but one of her top choices couldn't make it at the last minute, so she ultimately filled in.

Prior to that, Ursula had been deciding whether to return to Europe or pursue a recently opened job in Stratford, Ontario doing set design that she would have had to put quite a lot of money toward. "Being an artist, I was always living hand-to-mouth."

Her repertoire included mostly fashion design, but also window display and early television gigs. She mentioned that she loved doing fashion illustration a lot, and felt she was very good at it. The J. Walter Thompson Company introduced her to advertising, and first took her to Paris and London, and back to Montreal, where she painted billboards. During that time, she also began to explore the world of book illustration, which she professed to like.

Then "I was suddenly swept away by the persuasive young man," she said, "and I ended up getting married, much to the amazement of everybody - including myself," she said.

People were amazed that she came to live in the country, but unbeknownst to them, since she was young, she had always gone to the country every summer: a wilderness where there was no plumbing, way down the lower St. Lawrence River, below Quebec City. So she was used to that kind of thing.

"So I came to roost here and I was an instant stepmother," she said.

She has three stepchildren, only one of whom lives with her; the others are away in school.

Trudeau said that one of the things she misses from living in cities is the lack of architecture, such as museums, concert halls, and historical monuments. However, she went on to say that because of Saranac Lake's history as a T.B. recovery center, with people coming from everywhere to cure, the town has a very varied population and is "a very interesting cross-section. Not your average small town; quite sophisticated."

Trudeau is fond of the Tri-Lakes area and has done many things during her time here. In addition to working weekends at her husband's office filing, answering the phone, and making appointments, she was very involved with the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, and is still a member of the Saranac Lake Artists' Guild.

She said that she does not have her own Web site; while she thinks that the computer is a wonderful tool, she finds it boring to sit at, and likes to keep moving. "You have to keep moving," she told me, "remember that when you've got a few more eras on you."

Once being "very sporty," spending her time skiing and sailing, though never competitive-minded, nowadays, she puts her energy into her gardening. She says she loves it, and that "It's very nurturing, and positive, because you're growing things." She first took it up upon becoming a widow, and she said she found it fun, and learned a lot from it as well.

Her planting today is limited to flowers, but she used to tend to a couple of vegetable gardens, one just outside the back porch where the sun poured in. The other was by the barn not far from the porch, where she had pheasants, chickens, and two horses.

She has a house down in the Virgin Islands, and drew many of the scenes in her paintings from her time there, including smaller-sized paintings that she did while sailing. She said that she paints ahead for the season, shows her work to her agent, who selects and prices, and then she takes her pieces to a framer, and from there, it goes to the gallery down south. Up here, she shares gallery space with another female artist at the 7444 Gallery on Depot Street.

When the Ladies' Auxiliary of the General Hospital was still located in the town hall, Ursula did artwork for them, billboards, signs, and sets, as well as pumped new blood into the antique show they had going. The Auxiliary raised money for the hospital, and Trudeau said it was a fun thing to recruit people for. She would scour the area for equipment and people to help her with her painting.

Set design was another aspect that she said she enjoyed immensely. "It really is creating something out of nothing, creating a land of make-believe out of temporary things." For the record, she hasn't worked at the Pendragon Theater, but if she ever did, she would be doing set and costume design.

One of the most rewarding things about painting is showing off your art. "It's very satisfying, at any age." Since the beginning of her career, Trudeau has had shows in Montreal, London, Paris, and Saranac Lake. She said that once she has enough pieces done, she plans on having another big solo art show.

Trudeau mused that "The friendships that you make when you're involved in a creative venture are very challenging, because you do need people who are just that much better at certain things than you are." This helps boost one's aspirations, and ultimately, one's craft.

She remembers being surrounded by "an inordinate amount of talent" at Montreal's Ecole de Beaux Arts, though it was tough to make those needed friendships, because she was an English-Canadian who "happened to speak French," and her classmates were 98 percent native French-speakers who didn't exactly welcome her into their fold with open arms.

Despite this, Ursula persevered. She took her "minority" status in stride, and took pride in the condescension. At this, eventually, her colleagues did open up to her a little more. Attitudes aside, they were "extraordinarily talented," and she says that is what she remembers and will always remember the most. "When you're faced with people of outstanding talent, it's a leveler." She admired her fellow students, and considered it an honor to know them.

"The best thing is when you're really in a pickle, and you don't know what to do, you're going to find a way. It's like going out for your first job, it's not the easiest thing in the world, but you just hang on, and you learn. As long as you're curious, you can do anything."

Trudeau has picked up quite a few mantras over the years: "Just get up and try again," "Be curious and stay engaged" and "Appreciate what you've got while you've got it." However, the simplest of these sayings is also the most profound: "Believe in yourself."



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