Jeanette Sirois’ large-scale works are done with patience and precision in pencil crayon.
Visual artist Jeanette Sirois lives at the north end of Salt Spring Island. When I visit her studio in early January 2019, signs of damage from a recent windstorm are everywhere. Heading north on the narrow winding road, roots and stumps of trees litter the ditches, remnants of trees blown down by the devastating storm. The toppled trees took down hydro and cable lines, isolating islanders in their cold, dark homes.
Today, on North End Road, repair vehicles are abundant and flaggers slow the traffic. Cars creep past workers elevated in buckets, trimming tangled branches with chain saws. Giant wooden spools wrapped in black wire dot the ditches. Cascades of hydro wires drape from newly installed poles. An ominous “Road Flooded Ahead” sign leads to a low-lying area, now passable, thanks to a freshly dug trench. Staring into the trench is a tired-looking labourer, checking the water level as if pondering what to do next.
When I finally arrive at Studio 22 FortyNine, both Sirois and I are relieved and happy. “It was a disaster zone,” Sirois explains. “Many of the roads were impassable, and trees and branches littered every pathway.” Her main memory of the power outage was “it was very boring.” Boring because of the difficulty of working in a cold, dark studio. This industrious artist thrives on 10-hour days, six days a week.
“My heart is art,” she says. Creating bountiful botanicals takes her to a place of calmness, like taking a deep breath.
Self-portrait of Jeanette Sirois: “Bad hair day” 20 x 30 inches, mixed media
Standing one foot away from her drawings, she interprets all the fine markings the pencil crayons produce, creating more or less texture with her drawing tools.
Visitors to West End Gallery this spring and summer can share in the visual wonder of her artworks. Sirois has completed a series of large-scale botanicals to delight the eye and inspire the imagination. We all marvel at the soft beauty of blossoms. But rarely do we get a chance to investigate their subtle flowing planes and frilly textures at close range. Works like “Bearded Alcazar Iris,” at 47 by 35 inches, are monumental in size. The gradations of luscious colour and meticulous detail make the blossoms appear freshly alive and three-dimensional. Each petal is clearly defined by a myriad of tiny lines. Colour tones evolve slowly from deep purple tinged with cerulean blue to a golden mauve. Each fold and wrinkle on the blossoms are clearly articulated with repetitive strokes of coloured pencil. Coloured pencil? Yes!
“Bearded Alcazar Iris #1” by Jeanette Sirois, 47 x 35 inches, colour pencil on paper on cradled board
Sirois received her BFA from Concordia University in Montreal. She has art teacher certification and a Masters of Education from the University of British Columbia. At university, the artist experimented with many media including painting, print-making, and ceramics. Nowhere along her education journey did Sirois complete assignments in coloured pencil. “Coloured pencil is not a traditional medium used in fine art production,” she admits. The artist now belongs to a small group of artists worldwide who are changing that tradition. She appreciates the precision and control offered by the fine-tipped pencils.
The coloured pencils and paper she uses are very high quality. Her Swiss-made pencils, called Luminance, are guaranteed light-fast for 100 years. One pencil costs six dollars. Another brand called Polychromos has a range of 120 vibrant colours, and promises break-resistant tips and non-smudge dependability. The pencils have an oil-and-wax base which assists with the blending of colours. “I go over each section about 10 times,” explains the artist. A paint brush with solvents is sometimes used to push the pigments into the tooth of the paper. The 100 percent cotton, acid-free paper absorbs the pigment, giving a smooth finish.
“Working in such large formats is not for the faint hearted,” Sirois cautions. Each floral drawing takes 250-300 hours to complete.
“Hyacinth” by Jeanette Sirois, 47 by 35 inches, coloured pencil on paper on cradled board
Sometimes one aspect of the drawing just isn’t working, and nothing can be done. In a moment of exasperation, she’ll grab her purple pen and scribble wildly across the artwork. At times like these, the frustration of losing so much time and costly materials can be overwhelming. “But I don’t stay upset for long,” says the determined artist. “The next day I’m back at the easel, ready to move on.”
In fact, the work helps keep her calm in this crazy world. Sirois believes we are all affected by global warming and the pace of life. She uses her art practice to focus and address these concerns. Being mindful offers her awareness, insights and balance. These days, finding balance in her life means expanding her clientele. She is happy to be represented in Victoria by West End Gallery.
“Tulips” (detail) by Jeanette Sirois, 26 x 57 inches, coloured pencil on paper on cradled board
As well as fantastic florals, Sirois draws portraits of people, often focusing on faces. Several of these award-winning portraits reside in the collection of the Surrey Art Gallery.
In 2014, the artist received two public art awards: one from Vancouver and one from Seattle. Vancouver’s public installation featured four oversize (4x6 feet) posters mounted on the exteriors of 20 bus shelters. The four mixed-race faces have tattoo-like writing focusing on issues of reconciliation. In Seattle, the artist used the same faces re-designed with bright colour blocks and multi-directional arrows. Mounted on the inside of a bus shelter, “Going Places” will be visible for ten years.
“Ranunculus Against Black” by Jeanette Sirois, 34 x 47 inches, coloured pencil on paper on cradled board
Sirois finds similarities between her botanical drawings and people portraits. Both are ambitious in scale and offer a richly complex landscape. However, there is one difference: “Not everyone wants to look at a well-lived human face,” she says, “but we all love flowers, colour and texture.”
Before beginning a floral portrait, the artist completes many hours of research. She takes hundreds of photos of the subject, then selects according to clarity and composition. Sometimes she alters or intensifies colours with a computer program. Two images can be amalgamated, or parts removed and enhanced. Sirois uses a digital camera device secured at eye level to ensure accurate reproduction of details.
To connect with community, Sirois teaches botanical drawing at the Salt Spring Island Parks and Recreation Centre in Ganges. She knows that rendering a bird or animal in three dimensions requires careful observation. “Many people are born with drawing skills,” she says, “but education and practice make them shine.” The artist won her first award at age five and hasn’t stopped since.
An Interior Architecture degree honed her technical and design skills. Sirois and her partner spent most of 2015 designing and building their house and studio space on Salt Spring Island. After a tour of their lovely home and spacious studio, I wonder if there’s anything this talented woman can’t do. Probably nothing—as long as the power stays on.
Jeanette Sirois’ works can be viewed at the West End Gallery, 1203 Broad Street, 250-388-0009, www.westendgalleryltd.com.
Kate Cino’s writing about the arts can also be found at artopenings.ca.