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  • Naomi Cairns: Seeing from the water's perspective

    Aaren Madden

    Painterly techniques and lived experience imbue her marine landscapes with a sense of place, time and abundance.


    NAOMI CAIRNS’ oil-on-canvas landscapes offer many sensory experiences in one picture plane. A lingering visit with “Teakerne Arm Shoreline,” for instance, evokes the particular magic of the Northern Gulf Islands on an early, still morning. Its turquoise and mauve-grey shadows tell the time, while quick-gestured highlights—lime-green on the trees, ivory on the rocks—bring the touch of a warm sun to your left cheek. As the eye travels to foreground, one can practically smell the cool brine of Lewis Channel.



    "Teakerne Arm Shoreline" by Naomi Cairns, 36 x 84 inches, oil on canvas


    It is a rich, brimming scene that draws the viewer in, theoretically and physically. As you come closer to the painting, individual brushstrokes and fields of colour come forward. The work becomes about process. That turquoise dash temporarily relinquishes its role as shadow to become pigment on a surface, a mark, one component of the sum of parts. But then, step back and everything reassembles to place the viewer squarely back upon the still waters.

    This sensation underscores the realization of Cairns’ impressionist goals. The process requires much backing-and-forthing. “I love that I can be up close doing more gestural, looser painting, then I walk 50 feet away from [it] and I can see what I’m doing again,” she explains. The walking is figurative, she clarifies with a laugh: “I had to put a bunch of mirrors up so I can get far enough away, because my studio just fits my paintings; I can’t get back very far.”



    Naomi Cairns with "Boy in Boat"


    Cairns favours a large canvas—often four feet by eight—that allows for a grand sweep of forest and shoreline or the perfect framing of a rocky island. “The size is very important for me to give me the freedom to play with the different looser techniques of painting but still get the effect that I want from afar,” she explains. “I like how it looks more abstract from up close, and as you get further, the depth takes over and it feels to me like I am in that place.”

    “I am trying to figure out what makes a painting successful for me,” she continues, finding that an economy of information is essential. “It needs to still have quite a bit of detail that is undescribed for me to feel like it’s got life,” she says. “It needs to have details for the viewer to fill in on their own.”

    Rather than beginning the process in her snug studio, Cairns always starts with floating on the water. Often it will be in a skin-on-frame kayak or dinghy of her own making. “They are light enough that, if someone is with me to take care of the kids [she has a one-year-old daughter and four-year-old son], I can just grab my camera and go for a paddle and take photos and do sketches. Then I go back to my studio to do the painting on canvas. My subject matter might change, but for the last three years, [views] have all been from the water.”



    "Gorge Harbour Entrance" 48 x 60 inches, oil on canvas


    Considering her lifelong relationship with said water, this is not surprising. In 1984, Cairns was born in a “cute little cabin” in French Creek, after her mother made the trip from Lasqueti Island about a month before in anticipation of the birth. “All my earliest memories are of time near the water,” she says. Her mother originally came from Montreal, and spent the week alone with Cairns and her sister while her father worked in the forest industry. Home on weekends, he worked his oyster and clam lease while the girls played with crabs on the beach. “I [also] remember going rowing with my mom a lot in this cute little red sailing dinghy,” Cairns recalls.

    Her family moved to Vancouver Island, and she attended schools in the Parksville area until grade 12. As a teen, she preferred painting to hanging out and socializing. She won awards in the local Brant Festival poster competition, then in the Royal Canadian Legion National poster competition two years in a row. That process enabled her to spend time with Robert Bateman, Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, time she found inspiring and affirming.

    Cairns went on to study art at Malaspina University College, then at Emily Carr University, often working as a tree planter to support herself. For a semester, she did an exchange at the L’Ecole National des Beaux Arts de Lyon, France. While appreciating the way Europeans valued artists, Cairns was struck by “how different it is here as far as wilderness goes, things that are untouched.”



    "Mansons Lagoon IV" 48 x 60 inches, oil on canvas


    She met her husband Erik at Emily Carr, and after graduation they engaged in various projects and learned many skills, including the building of the skin-on-frame kayaks and dinghies she now uses to follow her muse. At first she continued to paint and show her work, but the desire to feel more “well-rounded” compelled her to stop her art practice for six years. She worked as a gardener, and she and Erik bought and restored a 40-foot sailboat. They sailed the Gulf Islands, and loved Cortes Island so much, they stayed.

    They lived on that boat for three years. “It was amazing to live on the water. You’d look through the portholes and you’d see a loon, right there, diving down. Our portholes were about a foot from the water, so when we were standing down below in the galley it was like lying on the water. You could see the little islands in the distance and all the ducks on the surface. Sometimes there were river otters that would come up and look right in the portholes.”

    Once her son started walking, it became clear that a move to land was necessary. They built a house on Cortes Island, where they remain. She is pleased that her own children get to experience an untamed life on the water as she did. “We are very much on the edge of wilderness,” enthuses Cairns. They hear the wolves howling, and they keep a watchful eye on their pet Chihuahua, lest he get snatched by an eagle. Her husband, now an oyster farmer, organizes weekly sail-abouts with local families. “We are lucky to be here,” she states simply.



    "Ring Island" 42 x 52.5 inches, oil on canvas


    It has only been three years since Cairns returned to painting, and her rapid success has removed any doubts she had about her path. Paintings can sell before they even make it up onto gallery walls. With Erik’s flexible schedule and her mother and father-in-law close by, she is able to combine her art practice with caring for a young family. Surrounded by magnificent land and seascapes, she never lacks for inspiration or the motivation to distil—and thereby capture—the essence of her surroundings. Clearly, she belongs on the water.

    Naomi Cairns’ paintings can be seen in Victoria at West End Gallery, 1203 Broad Street, 250-388-0009, www.westendgalleryltd.com. Find Naomi Cairns online at www.naomicairns.com.

    For so many reasons, Aaren Madden echoes Naomi Cairns’ sentiments: we are lucky to be here. She hopes that, in so many ways, we all work together to protect what we have.

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