May 5, 2020
Exploring notions of place and human relationships to nature, McClelland’s tondos intrigue, inspire and alarm.
NEIL McCLELLAND IS A MAN OF MANY TALENTS. He can play saxophone, guitar and piano, in a variety of genres. He’s an experienced school teacher—who favours grade four. For many years he taught high school band, taking teenagers on school trips to sharpen their skills. Now he teaches other artists at the Vancouver Island School of Art (VISA) and is a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria (UVic). McClelland is also a gifted writer, both creative and academic, penning catalogues and proposals with ease.
This versatile artist also knows how to cook. On a hot plate, in the cavernous space of his Chinatown studio, he prepares traditional gesso for his wooden panels. This mixture is as old as the history of oil painting. “Jan Van Ekye [1390-1441] probably used this method 600 years ago,” says the artist. Into the double boiler go water, chalk dust, powdered white pigment and pre-soaked pellets of rabbit-skin glue. Cook carefully, stir often, don’t boil the mixture. When as thick as single cream, strain through a nylon stocking. Apply several coats to a wooden panel or stretched canvas while still warm.
Why bother, I ask, when commercial gesso is readily available?
Traditional gesso absorbs the oil paint and quickens the drying time, he explains. The ground provides a workable surface and gives fluidity to his brushwork. The artist became familiar with this material in 2014 while completing his MFA at UVic. He used encaustics for the paintings in his MFA thesis. The preferred ground for encaustics (a hot wax and pigment medium) is traditional gesso. “Now I favour it,” he says, “it works better and costs less.”
McClelland’s many talents are evident on the white walls of his studio. His series of eight circular paintings (called tondos) are titled “Our Glass Paradise Revisited.” They show at the Chapel Gallery at St Matthias Anglican Church, March 13-April 5. Serene and meditative, the panels are each 30 inches in diameter. They are usually arranged as pairs, side by side. One of the tondos features a mounded oval shape made from broken wine bottles, glued together with polymer resin.
Neil McClelland with “If the World is Like the World,” oil on birch panel
The tondos offer glimpses of natural scenes, with and without human activity, across a body of water. The watery scenes are deftly articulated with a blue/green palette. The low-light settings imply dawn or dusk adding a touch of mystery to the just-out-of-reach scenarios.
These are “no places,” explains the artist, “that reflect both a yearning for perfect happiness and the fragility of the paradises we seek.” The tensions and contradictions in his tondos signal both utopian and dystopian environs. His process of layering and amalgamating images becomes a distillation of place and time, seen through the foggy lens of memory and imagination.
The Chapel Gallery is a perfect venue for this thoughtful body of work. “Neil’s tondos are absolutely gorgeous,” says Nicky Rendell, coordinator. “They will illuminate the tranquil space of the gallery.” The Chapel Gallery presents original artwork from both established and emerging artists. The not-for-profit gallery is designed to be a place for community engagement, presenting a wide range of topics and themes.
McClelland first picked up a paint brush in the mid-1990s. He began taking classes at the Saidye Bronfman School of Fine Arts in Montreal. “That was my aha! moment,” he says, “when I realized this is what I should have been doing all along.” With excellent instructors, his skill level soared and he became commercially successful. Shows in Quebec, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton followed. After ten years, he moved into working with artist-run centres and public galleries as an art educator, juror, and journal editor.
“I like having shows at public art galleries,” he says. The City of Victoria featured his artwork “Waterline 1” as part of its 2019 bus shelter art exhibition called “Commute.” The artist is represented by Winchester Galleries in Victoria, the Wallack Galleries in Ottawa, and the Collectors’ Gallery in Calgary.
McClelland’s career includes several awards, artist residencies and scholarships. In 2016, he received a generous grant from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. In January 2020, the delighted artist received a second grant. The Greenshields Foundation supports emerging artists from around the world, who are dedicated to a long-term career in the visual arts. Fellow artist and UVic colleague Todd Lambeth agrees that McClelland is someone totally committed to his painting practice. “Neil has a long-term relationship with his media and methods,” he says. “I admire his work ethic, curiosity and ability to experiment.”
McClelland’s supports for his paintings include metal plates, stretched canvas, rectangular wood panels, and now circular tondos. Lambeth sees the tondos, placed side by side, as representing binocular vision. “This invites an interesting discussion about human visual perception,” he says.
Circular paintings originated in Ancient Greece, to augment drinking vessels called kylikes. The circle in many cultures represents completion, wholeness, and mystery. In the Renaissance, artists like Botticelli and Raphael used the circle motif for religious and mythological images. Creating perspective using figures in a circular composition proved challenging. Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo” is one of the most successful examples of this unique format, and greatly admired by McClelland. The artist describes the mood of his tondos series as quiet, slow and contemplative. “We are viewing landscapes,” he says, “but from a distance we are trying to overcome.”
“A Moment and Everything” oil on birch panel, each painting 30 inches in diameter
“Separate Entity, A World” oil on birch panel, each painting 30 inches in diameter
McClelland was raised on a small farm in the heart of Gatineau Hills parkland. “As a child, I walked out the door and across fields into forest,” he says; “there was a lake nearby.” Thoughts of his idyllic childhood conjure up mixed emotions. Soon the farm will be absorbed back into the parkland as his parents age.
McClelland notes that Canadians have a strong bond to themes of wilderness and survival. Canadian icon Margaret Atwood elaborates on these themes in works like Surfacing, Survival and Wilderness Tips. He’s read them all. “My work explores notions of place,” he says, “the search for paradise on Earth, and human relationships to nature.” The artist creates a fictional environment with narrative content that intrigues, inspires and alarms. In this world, there are glimmers, a chance to discover something personal or profound about our relationships to time and place.
Winchester Galleries also carries Neil McClelland’s work. neilmcclelland.com.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
A TINY VIRUS WE CAN'T SEE has stopped the world in its tracks. We are now afraid to go out and mingle and worried about our future. Enter the Gage Gallery Arts Collective with an innovative project to keep us busy during stressful times. The Gage Gallery in Oak Bay delights in engaging community. The 18-member ever-evolving collective promotes art and culture through a variety of innovative programming. As well as regular exhibitions, the spacious gallery hosts art talks, poetry readings, musical events and demonstrations
The Gage Gallery COVID-19 Community Project aims to “Challenge Crisis with Creativity.” While the world deals with self-isolation and social distancing, this project aims to connect us through artistic expression. Community members, including those who don’t consider themselves “artists,” are invited to join in. All ages and abilities are invited to draw, paint, sculpt, write or photograph their personal experiences of the global pandemic. Each week “Challenge Crisis with Creativity” offers a new theme.
The themes offer focus, and photos of the artworks are placed on the Gage website. Themes so far include: Social Distancing; Can’t Stop the Spring; and Thankful for…
Untitled, by Margret Fincke
"I feel like I'm just waiting" by Beverly Jean Hancock
"Musical Paintings" by Calla Cowan
"Bacon Family Heart" by Sarah, Michael, Eli, Nate and Josh Bacon
"I am thankful for my neighbour's four-legged friends who are keeping me company" by Elizabeth Carefoot
"Connecting while Physically Distanced" by Diane MacDonald
The genesis of this great idea came from three artists: Deborah Leigh, Tanya Bub and Gabriela Hirt. Their group show called Inside Out, originally scheduled for April 2020, was to encourage community members to share their inner workings on paper.
The concept morphed into the COVID-19 Community Project when Inside Out was postponed due to the pandemic. Response has been strong, and Gage Gallery hopes to publish a book and have a post-COVID exhibition of selected submissions.
The book and exhibition are curated by Ashley Riddett, who receives and posts the weekly submissions. Riddett is a graduate student in the Art History and Visual Studies program at the University of Victoria. “We’ve received many interesting and heartfelt artworks,” she says. After the initial shock wore off, Riddett saw people reflecting and responding with great clarity. As a researcher, the grad student appreciates the archival merit of the project. “These submissions are an important record of unprecedented times,” she says.
Artist Gabriela Hirt, who has a background in journalism, also sees a wealth of information in these visual stories. “Once the gallery reopens,” she says, “we can share our experiences during the initial weeks.”
Meanwhile, the collective is financially able to pay the rent while staying busy at home. Plans for the future percolate within this energetic group of idea-people. The gallery is doing rotating “window shows” and recently launched an on-line store on their website. Being active on social media helps spread the news and keep people interested. “We know this is a tough time for people,” Hirt says, “but we have each other and keep on track by sharing ideas and staying positive.”
Visit the online gallery to see what people have submitted so far.
Kate Cino has run www.artopenings.ca for over 10 years, and has written about the arts in Victoria for even longer.
CHRIS PAUL GREETS ME AT HIS STUDIO DOOR with a canister of Sani-wipes. I am visiting the Coast Salish artist on the Tsartlip reserve in Brentwood Bay. It is Monday March 16, 2020, and folks are being encouraged to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But here I am, not quite believing the facts as they are unfolding.
The Legacy Gallery commissioned Paul to make a circular artwork for their now delayed show, To Fish as Formerly: A Story of Straits Salish Resurgence. The exhibit, curated by XEMŦOLTW Nicholas Claxton and the Legacy’s Community Engagement Coordinator Katie Hughes, will tell the story of SX̱OLE (the Reef-Net Fishery), inviting the non-indigenous community to learn about future possibilities from former knowledge and practices.
The project came about when Hughes, who is completing her masters degree in the University of Victoria’s department of history, was connected through her graduate supervisor John Lutz with Claxton to collaborate on her academic research project. As part of her final graduate work over the past year and a half, she has been researching, managing and curating the exhibition, connecting with all the artists, other academics and community members. This was all above and beyond her role at Legacy.
Other artists in the show include: Charles Elliott, son Chazz Elliott, Dylan Thomas, Sarah Jim and Colton Hash. Historical artifacts will also be on display.
At 51, Paul’s successful career includes a variety of media: limited-edition prints, wood carvings, glass sculptures and installations, plus silver jewelry. In the summer, his studio becomes a satellite classroom for UVic’s Indigenous Education Department. He teaches drum-making and carving, taking students on cultural excursions.
Chris Paul is not overly fearful of COVID-19; he’s philosophical. “Indigenous people still live under the shadow of genocide,” he says. “But we are survivors, so feel more resilient.”
European contact brought epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, influenza and measles, decimating BC’s Indigenous peoples. Paul acknowledges that his community is at-risk regarding health issues. Indigenous people have a higher risk of illness and early death. Chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes are prevalent. Tuberculosis among the Inuit is far higher than the national average.
“Before contact, we were in two canoes,” Paul says, “now the world paddles in one canoe.”
NICHOLAS CLAXTON, co-curator of To Fish as Formerly: A Story of Straits Salish Resurgence, will be back in his canoe once COVID-19 recedes. When we spoke in March, the UVic assistant professor was preoccupied with getting his students on-line. UVic had just cancelled face-to-face instruction.
As Chief of the TSAWOUT First Nation, he’s also busy checking that all members of his community are safe and comfortable.
Claxton has a vision for the future—one that relies on the past. He wants to revive the practice of reef net fishing in his community. In 1916, the Canadian government banned reef net fishing. In 2014 Claxton defended his PhD thesis on reef net fishing, explaining the complex technical skills and ceremonial aspects of this age-old practice.
As part of this thesis, a modern reef net, measuring 40 feet by 35 feet was assembled on the soccer field behind the Tribal School on Tsartlip.
They received technical assistance from Lummi First Nation from Washington State. In July 2014, members of TSAWOUT First Nation fished off Pender Island in the 40-foot traditional cedar canoes used during Tribal Journeys. “The fishing venture was a positive experience,” says Claxton, “in spite of no fish entering the net.”
Claxton’s mission is to revitalize the practices and knowledge systems connected to place. These practices and systems encompass many areas: treaty and land claims, natural resources, sustainable fishing, and governance of land and water. The Legacy exhibit is important, he feels, because it presents an opportunity for people, including non-Indigenous, to learn more about our cultural history. “I especially want our youth to experience reef-net fishing so they can carry on the traditions.”
MY NEXT STOP ON TSARTLIP is the old school house to talk with respected elders John Elliott Sr and Charles Elliott.
Charles Elliott has over 40 years of experience in creating wood carvings, artworks and totem poles, using both traditional elements and contemporary designs. Charles shares his knowledge freely, and mentors emerging and established artists. A print by Charles called “Salish Renewal,” from the Legacy collection, will show at the exhibition.
“Salish Renewal” (1994) by Charles Elliot
John Elliott Sr has worked for four decades on research and revival of the Saanich language (SENĆOŦEN). In 1994 he co-wrote Reef Net Technology of the Saltwater People with Earl Claxton Senior. The authors describe the gifts of creation as clean water, pristine lakes, beaches full of shell fish, dense first-growth forests, fish-filled rivers, and huge herds of deer and elk. The freedom to roam over land and sea created a bountiful, honourable and sustainable way of life in Saanich for many generations.
During our visit, John Elliott tells me the origin story of the SX̱OLE (the Reef Net Fishery) explaining the ceremony and rituals. The salmon are honoured as relatives of the Saanich people. Each family belonged to a fishing location passed down along with family names. The elder who carried the family name was the captain of the location, having special rights and responsibilities. John’s carving of a Reef Net Captain is included in the exhibition.
“This was the way our families worked together,” John says, “to ensure a sustainable harvest.” A reef net had a small hole in one end that allowed some fish to escape and rebuild stocks.
“Now factory ships and seine trawlers take all the fish,” says John, “and sell the catch off-shore for large profits.”
I learn there is no word for “greed” in the Salish language.
In their father’s memoir Saltwater People, Dave Elliott Senior, born in 1910 at Tsartlip, recalls travelling to his family’s traditional reef net fishing location, Henry Island, at age 10: “I remember when we arrived in the dark, and there were so many salmon jumping that it made a continuous splashing sound like a turbulent river,” he wrote. Henry Island is located in Haro Strait just across the Washington State border.
Charles Elliott (left) and John Elliott Senior on the Tsartlip reserve in March 2020, holding Saltwater People (1983) an historical memoir told by their father, Dave Elliott Senior
In 1926, US authorities ordered Elliott’s family to leave Henry Island. When the US-Canada border was created in 1846, bisecting Haro Strait, it left much of Salish territory in the State of Washington. The 1852 Douglas Treaties had assured the Saanich people they would be allowed “to fish as formerly,” but this promise was never honoured. In fact, in 1916, the Canadian government banned reef net fishing.
Diseases resulting from contact and the residential school system further damaged the cultural fabric of the Coast Salish peoples.
Reviving the past in the middle of a global pandemic brings up some ghostly memories for BC’s Indigenous people. In Saltwater People, we also learn about the epidemics that decimated indigenous populations. In 1862, over 10,000 people from Tlingit, Haida, Tshimshain, Kwakiutl and Bella Coola nations were camped around Ogden Point. They came to trade and seek help for the devastating effects of smallpox, first encountered during the the late 1770s.
When smallpox broke out in the encampment, authorities set fire to the tents. The sick and dying were forced to flee the area, spreading the disease as they went.
Today, of course, we have our own tent cities that shelter the homeless in Victoria. Unable to self-isolate, there is much concern about the spread of COVID-19. We know our world is distressed, and change is essential, but where are we headed?
Perhaps looking back offers a key to the future.
Dave Elliott states in his memoir: “With land claims, it’s not just a matter of getting land back, but a whole system we can share. We have come through a great disaster and are in a state of shock—our memories have left us. Youth need to be told their history to give them a future.”
To Fish as Formerly: A Story of Straits Salish Resurgence has been delayed from its original April 25 to September 5 run. Please check the Legacy Gallery website for updates.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
Burke’s creative paintings tell the multi-hued story of his difficult childhood.
ROBERT BURKE’S STUDIO is north of Duncan, nestled in rolling farmland. The studio is spacious, with large windows and an oversized garage door. Inside are many boldly-coloured canvases stacked up against the walls. Other canvas paintings are rolled up on a large table, waiting to be transported and then re-mounted on location. Burke is happy to talk about his long and varied career, and his March show at Winchester Galleries.
“I use vivid, eye-catching colours to brighten up sombre memories,” he says. Burke is referring to his mixed-race background and turbulent childhood. The artist was born in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories in 1944. His mother was Metis, of Dene descent. His father was one of nearly 4,000 conscripted black soldiers from the southern United States. These segregated soldiers were part of the Coloured Engineer Regiments enlisted to build the Alaska Highway during World War II. The black recruits worked from the north, in frigid temperatures and difficult terrain, building corduroy roads from fallen timber. The white recruits worked from the south on the 2,400-kilometre route. Eight months later, the two regiments met on October 25, 1942. Their joint success was an achievement for engineering and race relations.
Painter Robert Burke
But Burke never knew his father. Until age four, he was cared for by various community members, as his mother was unable to support him. He was then taken to a residential school in Fort Resolution, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, almost 100 miles away. “In residential school I learned you had to fight to survive,” he says. In all, he was in residential schools for 10 years.
With his black heritage, he became one of the “silent breed” ostracized at school. His paintings tell the multi-hued story of his perplexing childhood: “My silent voice is found among the colours,” he says. In an essay published a few years ago, Burke wrote: “I believe that it is my right to express myself as an Aboriginal, while still recognizing my black ancestry.” As he noted, “my grandmother was Aboriginal, but without entitlement, because her father had accepted government ‘scrip’ in exchange for allowing his Aboriginal status to be revoked, back when governments of the day were trying to extinguish Aboriginal land titles.”
“They Never Came Back” 2012
“They Never Came Back” is a triptych measuring 54 by 90 inches. The painting was part of the “Silent Breed” exhibition held in Fort Smith in 2012. “Silent Breed” received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. In this triptych, the composition flows from panel to panel with a harmonious progression of images. Like prominent puzzle pieces, the motifs repeat and fit together. For example, the neck of a dark blue bird becomes a dark hill in the adjacent panel. There is balance and a sense of cohesion that leads the eye through the varied iconography.
The shapes have symbolic meaning for the artist, and can be read in various ways by the viewer. The blue buffalo head, in ceremonial garb with a human torso, points to buffalo territory, the artist’s ancestral home. Three colourful ravens, prominent, add a jaunty energy to the piece. “I am very fond of ravens,” says the artist. “I admire their intelligence, shiny blackness, and mythological status in West Coast storytelling.”
A figure in a hard hat suggests a soldier at work. Another male in dress uniform and peaked hat says “officer.” “I believe my father was a sergeant in the army,” he says. The insignia of a sergeant is a three-bar chevron worn point down. Top right is the moon and several disappearing male figures. The faces of the figures have complicated patterning, making them difficult to read and decipher. The faces appear startling and impenetrable, a reference to the tenuous nature of emotional connection for this isolated, mixed-race child.
How did the artist learn to make these remarkable paintings? “I have always been an artist,” says Burke, “drawing and painting as a child, I created my own worlds.” Later on, he learned about technique and style from books. Then, after a long and successful career in the logging industry, he enrolled at the Victoria College of Art at age 53. He graduated in 2000 and stayed on an extra year. At this time, his art career was given a boost by the National Aboriginal Foundation. The foundation collected two of his triptychs, part of a larger series called “Aboriginal Immersion: Obscuring the Lines.” This series showed at the Nanaimo Art Gallery in 2008.
Another series, “My Residential School Experience,” received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. Jim Logan is an Aboriginal artist who worked for 16 years as a Program Officer for the Canada Council. He recalls how jury members saw something unique in Burke’s hard-edged interlocking shapes and patterns. “Burke shows great control in his brushwork and imagery,” Logan says. “There’s lots of emotion, but it’s carefully laid out and precisely detailed.” His mural-like diptychs require careful reading, Logan notes, unfolding from left to right like a series of hieroglyphs. Logan finds it fascinating that the artist draws from both sides of his cultural background, without fully identifying with either one.
The artist’s vibrant palette reminds Logan of Fauvist artists like Matisse, who used colour for emotional impact. African tribal influences appear in some of Burke’s facial masks.
Logan admires Burke for dealing with his past in such a creative way. “Robert has his own perspective,” he says, “and positive ways of managing personal experiences.”
Burke is a prolific artist who can paint a canvas in about a week. On an easel in his studio, there is a large sheaf of drawing paper. On the paper he sketches out free-flowing designs with charcoal. Some fish shapes, sketched in charcoal, have re-emerged in “Gathering of Seniors.” This 2020 artwork shows mature salmon returning to spawn. The joyful palette of green, red and blue overrides any gloomy thoughts of final days. These are dancing salmon, resplendent with stripes, polka dots and linear patterning.
“Gathering of Seniors” 2020, 31 x 35 inches, acrylic on canvas
“Moon Gathering” 2019, 38 x 32 inches, acrylic on canvas
Burke, too, is in a peaceful place in his life. He’s been married to Debra for 46 years and their family is close, with three sons and a daughter. And yet. “I know my time is running out,” he says, “and it’s time to simplify things.” Still, I imagine a few more paintings will emerge before this talented painter hangs up his brush.
A solo exhibit of Robert Burke’s work runs at the Winchester Galleries March 25-April 16, with an opening reception on March 28, 2-4pm, 2260 Oak Bay Avenue.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
The artist’s finely-tuned palette and skillful brushwork capture the mood of a place.
ARTIST DEBORAH TILBY is an oil painter of international stature, represented by galleries in England, Victoria and Salt Spring Island. A senior signature member of the Federation of Canadian Artists and signature member of the Oil Painters of America, her CV overflows with awards and competition prizes, and her artwork has been extolled in several international art publications.
Even so, Tilby finds each new painting a challenge. “At one point, I can expect my feelings of exhilaration to evaporate,” she says, “as I realize I’ve lost the plot and it’s not working out.” Then the challenge begins to put the painting back on track.
Sometimes she thinks painting should get easier with experience. But she also realizes it’s the striving to get better that keeps things interesting. Tilby is interested in anything related to the pursuit of exceptional paintings. She used watercolours for many years and now happily paints with oils. With oil paint, she can mix up all the colours she requires for one painting on her palette board. And at the end of the day, they are still workable. She can scrape off and remix with oils, combining soft, subtle tones as she works. “Blending colours as I paint gives me more flexibility,” she says.
We see Tilby’s painterly skills in “Red Roof Reflected,” a rural scene featuring High Oaks Farm in Saanich. This historic acreage is a busy working farm. Tilby makes the white barn with red roof a focal point, showing the open barn door, farm equipment, outbuildings and fenced paddocks. But these are mere suggestions, not clearly articulated, as the paint is applied with a minimum of expert strokes. It’s these deft touches with a brush that bring the painting alive. The watery field in front of the barn holds the mirror image of the red roof and white barn. Washes of blue-gray sky are reflected in the flooded foreground, blending into the wavering red roof. The reflections show the soft green of the fields, and the black squares of barn doors and windows. Light from the clouded sky gleams on the surface showing a mix of blue/grays, pale greens and purple mulberry. The softly-toned water contrasts with the greenish gold on the sunlit fields and barnyard.
“Red Roof Reflected” 21 x 25 inches, oil on panel
“My palette is limited,” says the artist: “I use the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) to make all my neutral gray tones. I also use earth colours like ochre and sienna.” A tone or value is the amount of light and dark in a colour (or hue). Tilby’s carefully modulated tones gives a harmonious coherence to each painting.
Her success comes from years of teaching, practice and self-directed study. Tilby began to paint at age 17, after a few water-colour tips from her father. One year later, she had her first solo show in her hometown of Edmonton. Tilby later spent 14 years in England, returning to Victoria in 1992. In 2011, the artist did a three-month painting trip through Ireland, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex. She was creatively inspired by the textures and ambience of the ancient buildings and walkways.
“Now I am learning to love the sea,” she says. Visitors to the Peninsula Gallery in Sidney can view “Portrait Of A Wave,” in which Tilby captures the energetic movement of crashing surf in a blue-green ocean. “Clouds Over The Sea,” also at the Peninsula Gallery, shows a familiar scene along Dallas Road. The low horizon line is topped by a moody, windblown sky. The expressive sky dominates the canvas. Storm clouds and patches of blue lift our gaze from the rocky shoreline and choppy waves. She also admits to a fondness for rowboats lying on a beach.
“Clouds Over The Sea” 20 x 20 inches, oil on canvas
Tilby’s enthusiasm for painting is evident in her animated explanations about process. She paints on medium-density fibreboard, gessoed and under-painted with a light sienna ground. She likes to press firmly with a palette knife, so prefers the support of fibreboard instead of canvas. Before beginning, she sketches out her composition with diluted paint, making sure shapes are balanced and the horizon line correctly placed.
Then she uses a stiff bristle brush to loosely apply sections of colour on the board. With a palette knife, she applies the paint, then tidies up with a brush. Or vice versa. Tilby uses high-quality brushes from a company called “Rosemary & Co Artists Brushes.” This company sells brushes that sport the names of outstanding artists in various mediums.
Strong paintings, says Tilby, are readable from three distances. From across the room we view graphic design. When standing in front, content emerges, and with closer inspection, the artist’s signature mark-making appears.
Tilby often paints plein air with a group of colleagues. Most times someone will look up from their work and announce: “We are so fortunate!” Plein air sketches record the atmosphere and details of the time and place. But Tilby’s paintings are completed in the studio. “Both places and practices inform the other,” she says.
“Morning On The Lane” 20 x 40 inches, oil on panel
“Out For A Stroll” 10 x 12 inches, oil on panel
In the private lessons she offers to artists, her favourite student is an absolute beginner. “It brings me joy to watch them discover how paint mixes and colour works,” she says. One plein air colleague, who is also a student, is David Good, a retired professor from the University of Victoria. He admires Tilby’s flexibility in the field, her ability to handle all kinds of weather and difficult terrain. “Deborah is a fantastic painter,” says Good, “who encourages students to experiment and find their own voice.” She gives candid critiques and understands the struggles that are part of painting, he adds.
Praise for Deborah Tilby also comes from one her colleagues, Catherine Moffat. A well-respected still-life painter, represented by The Avenue Gallery and Peninsula Gallery, Moffat first met Tilby in 1992. The mutually supportive artists are friends who trade paintings. “Deborah is a self-taught painter,” says Moffat, “with a fine sense of design and sensitivity to value contrasts.” She appreciates Tilby’s knowledge of colour theory, and how she uses complementary colours to build light and shadow. Tilby works easily with challenging colours like green and red. Moffat describes Tilby as a “painter’s painter,” meaning other artists can appreciate her finely-tuned palette and skillful brushwork.
But you don’t need to be a painter to admire Tilby’s special talents. Just drop by the Peninsula Gallery on Beacon Avenue in Sidney by the Sea.
For more artworks by Deborah Tilby, see www.pengal.com or www.deborahtilby.com.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
SIDNEY BY THE SEA is an idyllic place on a warm summer day. Out on the Salish Sea, there are kayakers and sailboats, a glimpse of Mount Baker amid puffy white clouds, and off-shore islands. Along the seaside sculpture walk there are green parks and flower gardens. If we walk to the end of Sidney Pier, perhaps a seal will surface or an octopus slither past.
The long pier brings us to the Fish Market and Pier Bistro, popular places with locals and tourists. Visual artist Eunmi Conacher captured this vista at Sidney Pier. She worked for three hours on her plein air painting, sometimes with a curious passerby peering over her shoulder. Glancing back and forth, the person might have pondered the difference between the real-life scene and the one unfolding on the easel. This is because imagination rules in Conacher’s 16-by-10-inch, acrylic-on-paper artwork.
“Sidney Pier” 16 x 10 inches, acrylic on paper
It’s an expressionistic interpretation of Sidney Pier. The composition dances with abstracted shapes and explosive splashes of colour. Loose liquid brushstrokes combine with dry sketchy areas, applied with skill and confidence. The market and bistro buildings are loosely sketched, defined mainly by stark white angular roofs. Thin white lines hint at rickety railings. Tilted upwards and foreshortened, the pier lies parallel to the picture plane. The tilted pier is represented by vertical bands of colour that plunge down like a cascading waterfall. These riotous bands of aqua-blue and green are interwoven with crimson, orange and blue-gray. Saturated colours of red, blue, purple and orange pile one atop the other in a shape at bottom left. A low horizon line suggests a watery pool with white splashes of water.
I query Eunmi Conacher about the magical transformations in her piece. Why does she do it? “Because I love to paint!” she says. “I’m energized by the vibrant colours and flowing brushwork as I work.” Conacher creates imaginary landscapes that people can interpret and enjoy. It’s important to her that the feeling of the place is communicated, moreso than the physical reality. She strives to make a painting from the heart that resonates with viewers.
Eunmi Conacher with “The Westerlies” 60 x 20 inches, acrylic on panel
How does she do it? “My use of colour, form and texture is intuitive,” says Conacher. The artist works with colour values (the light and dark of tones) to define areas of positive and negative space, and add a sense of depth. Her under-paintings are washes of acrylic with predominantly warm tones. On this ground, she sketches out the major shapes with pencil or charcoal. In Sidney Pier, for example, she made the roofs a focal point, suggesting the dazzle of bright sunlight with white paint.
At first, she paints quickly, with spontaneous pleasure. When the painting is about one-third completed, she takes a more analytical approach, checking shapes and colours, and making changes. Tweaks continue to happen, until she decides a painting is finished. “A successful composition has no sags or lags,” she says. There should be movement, an emotional charge, and room for the viewers’ imagination to roam freely.
Conacher, along with other skilled and accomplished West Coast artists, will be exhibiting works at the Avenue Gallery October 17-27, 2019. The group show is called “Our Coast” and features Gaye Adams, Mary-Jean Butler, Susie Cipolla, Lorna Dockstader, Rob Elphinstone, Maria Josenhans, Brent Lynch and Philip Mix.
Gallery owner Heather Wheeler describes these coastal paintings as having “illuminated skies, fog-bound coves, and sun-dappled forests.” Conacher really appreciates the chance to show with other artists from the area. She was thrilled two years ago when Avenue Gallery invited her to join their talented team of contemporary fine artists. “Now my artwork is seen by many people,” she says, “and selling a painting makes everyone happy.”
Conacher was born in Seoul, Korea, the youngest of four children. At the time, it was unusual for females to attend university and study abroad. Fortunately, her parents supported her artistic inclinations, and she graduated in Seoul with a Batchelor of Fine Arts degree. Moving to Australia, she attended the University of Sydney, earning a post-graduate Diploma in Visual Arts. More studies followed, during a ceramics research program at Tsukuba University in Japan. The adventurous woman has travelled widely, savouring cities around the globe with her atmospheric “Cityscapes” series.
Conacher emigrated to Canada in 1996. She and her partner married in Whistler, and the couple moved to Nanaimo in 2004, then to Sooke in 2016. She became an active member of the Federation of Canadian Artists in 2008, and an associate in 2015. She became an elected member of The Society of Canadian Artists in 2013.
While in Nanaimo, Conacher began taking classes at the Old Schoolhouse Arts Centre in Qualicum Beach. Former executive director of the Arts Centre, Corinne James, took note of her promising student. “Eunmi is a very hard worker,” she says, “and I noticed her skills and determination right away.” During her 21-year career, James helped develop the Arts Centre into a vibrant exhibition and teaching space for artists and musicians, retiring in May 2019. She gave Conacher her first solo show within a year, and several more followed. In 2018, a painting by Conacher took second place in a national juried show at the Arts Centre.
"Whispering Wind," 36 x 36 inches, acrylic on canvas
James praises Conacher’s fresh approach to painting West Coast scenery, using a vibrant palette and impressionistic style. “Her colours evoke a mood,” says James; “she paints a familiar scene from a fresh perspective.” For example, in “Whispering Wind,” the artist captures the awe-inspiring scale of our landscapes, within a three-by-three-foot canvas. There are towering mountains in the distance, a rocky shore line, and tall trees swaying in the breeze. The lively brushwork creates movement in the turbulent sky and wind-blown trees. “The viewer is reminded of a time and place when they felt connected to nature,” says James, who praises the quality and variety of Conacher’s mark-making and brushwork, noting that the artist has worked hard to hone her skills and develop her strengths and now produces paintings of consistent quality. “Many artists hope for happy accidents to produce special pieces,” says James, “but Eunmi has total control, and knows exactly what she is doing.”
Conacher is happy to pass on her skills, and offers sold-out workshops several times a year. Her 2019 weekend workshop at Metchosin summer school (MISSA) was titled “Letting it Go! Abstract Painting.” Helping artists find and express their unique voice and vision is her mission. She hopes to teach at Coast Collective this fall and winter.
Her painting “First Glance” received top honours at the 2019 juried “Love Divine” show, co-sponsored by Coast Collective and the West Shore Arts Council. This loosely-painted figural painting of a dancing couple conveys a moment of powerful emotion. Dramatic shifts of dark to light, a lively swirl of brushwork, and saturated colours bring the passionate scene to life. Life, with all its emotional overtones and myriad experiences, continues to intrigue and inspire the brushwork of Eunmi Conacher.
See paintings by Eunmi Conacher and other West Coast artists in the exhibit “Our Coast” at Avenue Gallery, October 17-27, 2019, 2184 Oak Bay Avenue, 250-598-2184, www.theavenuegallery.com.
Kate Cino holds a History of Art degree from the University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
INDIGENOUS ARTIST DYLAN THOMAS is flying high this summer. Fluttering in the breeze above Victoria’s busy streets are his prize-winning banner series. These four unique images tell traditional stories about the Lekwungen People, including about the salmon cycle and Thomas’ great grandmother, who was one of the last Lekwungen People born in the Old Songhees Village. At Victoria City Hall, his spectacular black-and-white geometric abstraction, “Net Work,” wraps around the circular staircase. And, later this summer, at Alcheringa Gallery and Brentwood Bay Resort, his work will be shown in a group exhibition of 20 Northwest Coast artists. “Surfers Paradise: Northwest Coast Surfboards” will run from August 10 to September 21.
Anyone watching the kitesurfers twirl and dance in the air at Dallas Road can attest to the thrill of riding the waves. “Surfers Paradise” is a dramatic extension of boarding’s daring and competitive culture. Each artist has the same canvas to work on: a surfboard made from Vancouver Island western red cedar. On this canvas, each artist defines their relationship to surfing—or more generally, moving across the water. First Nation territories on Canada’s west coast have intimate connections with the ocean.
Thomas works on a piece for “Surfers Paradise: Northwest Coast Surfboards” (Photo by Kate Cino)
Alcheringa’s new owner and director Mark Loria says: “I believe the artists in this exhibition will bring their own understandings of important cultural, historical, and personal connections with our coastline.” The exhibit will also, he says, likely shed “a light on the colonization of contemporary surfing culture—full of competition, bravado, and corporate branding…[it will] remind us of the cultural, meditative, and practical significance of the indigenous invention of ‘riding and travelling the waves.’”
Dylan Thomas looks forward to the group show at Alcheringa. “It’s a chance to enjoy the camaraderie,” he says, “and interact with my peers.” The concept of the show is interesting, explains Thomas, because it uses a traditional medium in new ways. While respecting his heritage, he can explore a contemporary sport. Red cedar is sacred to Indigenous peoples. Made into vessels, cedar forges a conduit between water and traveller. For example, when making a functional paddle, areas touched by the paddler’s hands are left unpainted. Gripping the raw wood gives a stronger connection. Thomas received this teaching from one of his mentors, Delmore Johnny.
Qwul’thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation of Valdes Island. Born in Victoria in 1986, he learned his traditional culture from many sources. Thomas also studied creative writing at the University of Victoria. An avid researcher, he views historic Salish treasures in museum databases all around the world. His detailed examination of Coast Salish iconography includes the study of pre-history and other cultures. Thomas reveres Coast Salish artists like Stan Greene (b. 1952) and Susan Point (b. 1953) who revived the tradition in many mediums. Peer mentors like lessLIE and Rande Cook have been invaluable to the artist as well.
As an even younger, emerging artist, Thomas believed that each new artwork required a grand creative vision. Rande Cook brought him back to Earth, saying, “Don’t think too big, it’s all in the details.” Cook advised his apprentice to learn and apply the nuances of the Northwest Coast aesthetics. Simple rules, like, when creating a composition, it's important to keep the weight balanced. If a line turns one way, then add another for counterbalance. “Good designs develop in a natural and organic way,” says the artist.
Thomas is grateful to Elaine Monds, the original owner of Alcheringa, who purchased his prints and jewellery in the early days. “You get so much rejection as a young artist,” he says. “Small successes help keep you going.”
The artist’s first big break came in 2013. He was included in “Urban Thunderbirds: Ravens in a Material World” which opened at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria that November. Thomas shared exhibition space with Fran Dick, Rande Cook, and LessLIE.
In 2016, Thomas had a solo exhibition at Alcheringa titled “Sacred Geometry.” These artworks moved beyond the well-known motifs of Coast Salish art: trigons, crescents, ovals and circles. To build the images, Thomas used mathematical principles instead of traditional symbols. He used only straight lines and circles.
“I decided to let my intuitions about geometric beauty guide every creative decision,” he says. Instead of arranging animals in a puzzle-like formation, his new patterns built themselves. He was surprised and delighted to see the remarkable formations taking shape. Within a month of starting his experiments, a range of unique designs emerged. He called his new creative venture “Sacred Geometry.”
Sacred geometry emerged from the artist’s study of Coast Salish practices. However, while researching those, he became interested in other art forms, including the Tibetan mandala and Islamic tessellations. Mandalas represent the cosmos in Buddhist and Hindu cultures, and are tools for meditation. The symmetrical mandala design often includes a circle enclosed by a square, with four “gates.” Tessellations are repeatable patterns consisting of a series of identical shapes. Muslim artists excel at decorating rugs, ceramics and architecture with these intricate arrangements.
That Thomas thinks deeply about art is evident in his artist's statement for the Sacred Geometry exhibit. “As I continue my studies of visual art, it seems as though the more I learn about aesthetics (i.e. the nuanced details create and emphasize beauty), the less I intellectually understand the concept; this is likely because beauty doesn’t operate on the intellect and is, by nature, not rational. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to call beauty irrational either. A far more accurate term, one used by the philosopher Ken Wilber, is trans-rational, because it seems to operate on something much deeper than the intellect, what some might call the heart or soul or spirit.”
A visit to Alcheringa Gallery reveals a number of works by Thomas (besides the surfboard to be on exhibit in August), each demonstrating his unique philosophical approach. “Sun and Stone,” for instance, is sand-blasted yellow cedar painted with acrylic using shapes and patterns from both Tibetan and Coast Salish styles. The palette is warm, using pigments found in nature, traditional red and black, along with pastel blue augmenting the woodgrain background. The basic shape is similar to a mandala, being a circle surrounded by a square, with four “gates” touching the edges. The interconnected spirals suggest a five-petal flower shape, or five-pointed star like a pentagram. The number five is believed to have regenerative and transformative power. Spirals carved in stone are found on some historic spindle whorls. The artist says he liked the juxtaposition of warm sunlight illuminating cold stone.
“Sun and Stone” by Dylan Thomas, 24 x 24 inches, yellow cedar, acrylic paint
“Colours of Spring” introduces a new palette, using pastel tones of blue, purple and pink. Thomas appreciates how the softer shades augment the shapes in his new geometric paintings. The artist wanted a change from using saturated tones of red and black. He experimented with gouache, an opaque medium which is thicker than watercolour. But is was acrylics that delivered the warm complementary tones in “Colours of Spring.” The patterns in this work come from intertwining circles of various sizes and form a tessellation. This came as a revelation to the artist, referencing his favourite Islamic art form. It’s also interesting to see how the trigon shape has reappeared in the new paintings.
"Colours of Spring" by Dylan Thomas, 48 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas
A dramatic acrylic painting called “Serpent Circle” on a 36-inch circular canvas echoes a drum shape. Imagery for “Serpent Circle” comes from rattles and spindle whorls found in museum databases. Thomas made subtle alterations to the iconography, changing, for instance, the central humanoid face to a moon motif. A double-headed serpent connects at the top of the drum. The serpent legend comes from the Cowichan area, and the teaching encourages bravery in the face of great danger.
Serpent Circle (Wolf and Moon), by Dylan Thomas 36-inch diameter x 2.5-inch depth, acrylic on canvas
Finally, the acrylic painting “Whale Spirits” has a carved silver pendant in the centre. Two whales are breaching, but pinned between a boundary, perhaps feeling the stress of life in our changing oceans. The carved silver pendant reminds the artist of his early days designing jewellery with mentor Delmore Johnny. It adds a sense of circular completion to his artistic journey so far. His path continues in new directions as he pursues the wonders of sacred geometry. “I have discovered a new creative world space,” he says, “that I can return to over the years.” And that will, no doubt, be a rich and rewarding road to travel for this talented and inquisitive artist.
“Whale Spirits” by Dylan Thomas, 24 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas
Surfers Paradise: Northwest Coast Surfboards runs from August 10 to September 21, Alcheringa Gallery, 621 Fort Street, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com. Other artists exhibiting include Coast Salish artists Maynard Johnny, Margaret August, Chris Paul, Chazz Elliott, Andrew Dexel, Bear Horne; Kwakwaka’wakw artists Chris Lines, Francis Dick, Jason Hunt, Trevor Hunt; Haida artists Ernest Swanson, Corey Bulpitt, Roger Smith; Heiltsuk artist KC Hall; Wulkinuxv artist Wuuhlu (Bracken Corlett); Nuxalk artist Nusmata (Jarrod Saunders); Gitxsan/Cree artist Trevor Husband; and Tlingit artist Dean Heron.
Kate Cino holds a History of Art degree from the University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
HASHIM HANNOON'S PAINTING “Colourful Seaside” looks a lot like Victoria. But it could be elsewhere. Summer is in full swing in this impressionistic vista of a tourist town. Multicoloured umbrellas dot the causeway; sail boats bob in blue water. Cheerful flags flutter above a palatial hotel wrapped in misty colours of mauve and ochre. A bright red tour bus toots along the roadway. There is joy in the zingy palette of reds and yellows, and peaceful shelter in cool patches of emerald green. This idyllic painting is not unusual, but knowing the history of the artist, to me it appears miraculous.
Hashim Hannoon was born in a Basrah, Iraq, a shipping centre located on a river in southern Iraq, close to the Persian Gulf. In 1979 the artist was 22, a recent graduate from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. That year he received a Golden Sail Award for work shown in the Fourth Kuwait Biennial. The future looked bright. Basrah was a beautiful bustling city with a network of freshwater canals and walkways along the river.
One year later, in 1980, war erupted between Iran and Iraq. Basrah’s strategic position near shipping lanes caused it to come under missile fire and chemical warfare attacks.
Hashim Hanoon with his painting "City Colours" (48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas)
The emotional toll of Basrah’s bombardments on the artist’s psyche are seen in many of his earlier artworks. Explosions, fire and fragments rip across canvases; burlap and distressed surfaces form the grounds. The burlap fabric refers to the sandbags piled near roadsides and buildings to buffer attacks and shield civilians. Between 1980 and 1988 thousands of people on both sides lost their lives and the entire region destabilized. “I witnessed the war during my twenties,” says Hannoon, “therefore the impact of the conflict manifested in my paintings for a long time.”
In spite of the war, Hannoon continued to produce art and attend various exhibitions in Baghdad, Turkey and Yemen. Medals and awards also continued for the talented artist throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1999, he completed a Bachelor of Sculpture at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. His rough-hewn expressive figural pieces are cast in bronze. In 2007, he produced a series of pen-and-ink drawings included in a major exhibition at the O. Gallery in Saudi Arabia.
I ask the artist how it was possible for him to continue to be so productive. “I managed to keep doing art because this is my profession and how I express my feelings,” he says. He declines further comment on the war because it brings back sad memories. In 1999, Hannoon and family moved to Jordan. In December 2008 they moved to Winnipeg, and two years later to Vancouver.
In June, Victoria’s Madrona Gallery will feature Hannoon’s “City Life” exhibit. “Colour is paramount in Hashim Hannoon’s artwork,” says gallery owner Michael Warren. “Shapes and patterns define the imaginative spaces he creates for viewers.” In 2016, Madrona Gallery featured Hannoon in a solo show. People were refreshed by his palette and technique, and sales were brisk. “The artist chooses to look at the good side of humanity,” says Warren, “in spite of past experiences.”
"August" 30 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
Landing in Winnipeg in the middle of winter proved a chilly welcome for the family. Hannoon records his experiences in the painting “Icy Roads.” A subdued palette of grey-brown predominates the canvas. The spidery trunks of leafless trees flank the white icy roadways. A textured background suggests drifts of snow and a windblown sky. Looking closely, there are glimmers of gold leaf in the sky, and silver leaf shines on the icy roadway. Welcome dashes of red, yellow, lime and cinnamon vitalize the canvas. “Adding colours adds depth to the artwork,” says Hannoon. “I often use gold and silver leaf to add light and beauty to my work.”
Over his long career, Hannoon has experimented with many materials and methods. He often uses mixed media to build a rough ground for his paintings. “Every surface and technique provides a different sensation and outcome,” he says.
Works completed for the show at Madrona Gallery include acrylic on canvas, paper, and board. “Wonderful World” is a 24-by-20-inch acrylic painting on paper. The placement of colour fields in a puzzle- like formation makes a lively abstraction. A rainbow of hues, arranged with skill and confidence, move our eyes around the composition. Hannoon deftly uses shape and colour to create emotional impact and narrative content. The artist explains his exceptional abilities with a few simple words: “When I add well-mixed shape and colour masses, this brings a sense of comfort and enjoyment, allowing me to access happy childhood memories. Colourful paintings also portray a hopeful future.”
"Wonderful World" 24.5 x 19.5 inches, acrylic on paper
A noted colourist, he uses tints of the same colour to enrich certain areas. As the tints lighten, the softer colours appear to recede, adding the illusion of depth. For example, the strong royal blue in one area gradually fades to a subtle pastel hue. This multi-tinted blue area was augmented with linework after the painting was completed. As the lines move closer together, a three-dimensional quality emerges.
The exhibition also includes a few 16-by-16-inch acrylic-on-board artworks. In “Blue Horizon” we see three children playing in a snowy landscape. The two larger figures are well defined by bright orange clothing. One figure shapes snow (defined by silver foil) and the middle figure throws a snowball. Humour and warmth give this scene a charming quality. While researching this article, I looked at many colour plates by Hannoon detailing his war experiences. The emotional impact of seeing the explosive chaos of bodies and buildings, blown apart by war, brought me to tears. That’s why I feel relieved and happy to see these intact figures, robust and full of life, enjoying a snowy day in Canada. “Yes,” agrees Hannoon. “Life experiences, whether happy or sad, can be portrayed in artworks. My thoughts and feelings are all within the paintings.” The horizon line in this painting appears to be pulled along by a perky blue bird.
Perhaps it is the mythical Bluebird of Happiness? For Hannoon and his family, that would be a welcome sight.
Hashim Hannoon's exhibit “City Life” runs June 8-28 at Madrona Gallery, 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com. An opening reception with the artist is on Saturday, June 8, 1-4pm.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
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.
NANAIMO-BASED LANDSCAPE PAINTER Ray Ward has a data storage problem. At its root is his interest in capturing the constantly shifting light, the banks of fog and mist, and myriad cloud formations that advance and retreat daily across Vancouver Island. Along with images of land and shore, “I’ve got a sky folder that grew into about ten subfolders for different types of clouds,” he says. “I’ve got cumulus, I’ve got storm clouds, I’ve got backlit cumulus, I’ve got evening cumulus, morning sky, all different times of the day, and different varieties of clouds,” he lists with a lightness in his voice that suggests it’s not such a bad problem to have.
Thank goodness for digital cameras, though. It wasn’t that long ago that Ward would paint in a darkened room, his easel in an umbrella of lamplight, slides projected on the wall for reference. “The quality of the slides was just so much better,” he explains, until about 2009, when digital resolution was fine enough to provide the detail he required.
"Botany Bay Lookout" 24 x 30 inches, oil on canvas
That’s not to say Ward’s landscapes are photo-realist. They are equally concerned with a mood conveyed with atmospheric perspective, the particular quality of light at a particular moment in time, resulting in an experience of landscape that is both visual and visceral. In the oil on board painting “September Reflections, Cowichan Valley,” the mist practically dabs at the viewer’s cheek. The overcast sky comprises the majority of the picture plane, with soft clouds settling in on distant hills. The moist air and diffuse light softens the edges of the trees just so, and the slightly rippling pond is foregrounded in such a way that the viewer is placed firmly at its bank, present and involved in this specific moment. It is a typical early fall day, made special by its singling out in time.
Ward is particularly attracted to cloud formations because of their ephemeral nature: “I like the way [they] can change a landscape so fast—when a storm front moves in and it looks completely different. I like the challenge of getting the subtleties. On an overcast day, it is more challenging than on a bright sunny day: you don’t have the contrast, the obvious value shifts between the lights and the darks. Everything is more in the middle. When you can get it right, it’s pretty rewarding,” he says.
This appreciation may stem from what sounds like an idyllic childhood spent largely outdoors. Ward was born in Comox in 1968 and grew up on his family’s five-acre hobby farm in Courtenay. “We had cows and chickens, pheasants, ducks and geese, all sorts of things,” he says. “It was a good way to grow up.” He also enjoyed drawing as a child, and was encouraged by friends and, at age 11, winning an art contest in a local paper. After hearing that a friend’s uncle had made a living thus, Ward decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. He entered the Illustration and Design program at Capilano College (now University) in North Vancouver when he was 20 years old, and upon graduation found an agent.
This was the early 1990s, when the illustration field was transitioning to digital, which held little appeal for Ward. He freelanced for about a year, continuing to pay the bills with landscaping and stonework, a job he’d had while in school.
“My end goal was always to be a fine artist one day, but I thought it would be a lot later,” Ward admits. Needing to adapt his plan, he began to paint in the evenings. Days spent hefting stones and building walls were followed by nights lifting brush to canvas. He started showing work at a gallery on Granville Island in Vancouver and sold his first painting there, a seascape, in 1995.
“September Reflections, Cowichan Valley” 20 x 20 inches, oil on board
“Still Waters, Cape Scott” 16 x 20 inches, oil
Around this time Ward and his wife Heidi were also travelling extensively. They spent time in Australia, Malaysia and Thailand, saw Komodo dragons on the island of the same name, and travelled in Europe. Another trip took them to Central America, and they made multiple trips to France and Italy. Ward was taken with the light, colour and architecture of Venetian street scenes, and those were what he projected onto his darkened walls in his earlier studio work. The scenes sold well in the galleries who began representing him, and he painted several iterations of them.
However, when he and his wife moved to Nanaimo and he began painting full-time in 2004, Ward found his interests shifting toward his immediate environs. Walking his dog around the many trails near their home and visiting the west coast of the island provided Ward with endless inspiration for his painting—and a sense of urgency to capture landscapes that seem to be constantly usurped by development.
Recently Ward’s family, now including a young son, travelled to Alberta and Haida Gwaii, where he gathered more images from which to paint. Ironically, the sun was high and bright for most of his visit to Haida Gwaii, while the mountains were shrouded in low cloud in Alberta—“You could only see the bottom quarter at Lake Louise,” he laughs, but he still found plenty to further stretch his computer’s capacity.
He will approach these compositions as he typically works. “I still do thumbnail sketches most of the time and work out the composition that way, trying different things, eliminating distracting elements.” he says. Once satisfied, he will do a simple drawing on board or canvas. He prefers the former for its smooth surface, which best supports fine detail, and its flexibility in size and shape.
Next he applies oil paint in thin layers. Each begins with a preliminary wash in an earth tone. “I have never liked working off a white surface; I like to see a little bit of the background throughout when I am painting,” he explains. “I can adjust the values, the temperature off of that.” After blocking in the scene, he continues, “I just start going over layer by layer, usually three to four layers, just finishing it from the background to the foreground.” Because each layer of paint takes at least a day to dry, Ward works on several canvases at once—usually around four or five, but recently up to 15, in the crowded outbuilding near his house.
Despite his productivity, he has another problem: supply and demand. “I was trying to get ready for another gallery and I would get a bunch [of paintings] finished, then one of my other galleries would want more work, so I would have to dig into those,” he laughs. But really, it shows that a wider public shares his fascination with our capricious skies. This, like finding digital capacity for images of infinitely changing cloudscapes, is a good problem to have.
Ray Ward’s paintings can be seen at Peninsula Gallery, 100-2506 Beacon Ave, Sidney, 250-655-1722, www.pengal.com. Find him online at www.rayward.ca.
While she tries to keep up with her growing family, Aaren Madden continues to learn and be inspired both personally and professionally, aware that she has many good problems to have.
ELIZABETH YEEND DUER is following her cousin Katharine Maltwood through the woods. It’s a breezy March morning in 1941. The trail meanders across Katharine’s hilltop property overlooking Cordova Bay. They pass by dappled groves of wildflowers and blossoming trees. Elizabeth is listening intently to her cousin, trying to pick up each word about “their project.” Every few steps, Katharine whirls around and gestures in the air with her walking stick. “With your painting skills we can document every flower and tree in the whole area,” she says. “I’m sure local shops would be happy to sell your cards, and I’ll contact Hallmark about your designs.”
These two mature women on a painting excursion are a study in contrasts. Katharine, 63, overflows with ideas and energy; Elizabeth, 52, moves along like a quiet stream.
Elizabeth Yeend Duer in kimono, circa 1920s
Katharine reminds her cousin about an upcoming exhibition. “My two sculptures are ready for the Island Arts and Crafts show,” she says. “and you could enter some originals.” Katharine resumes their hunt for one of her favourite trees, an ancient madrona that towers over a steep ocean cliff. When found, Katharine runs her hands over the smooth green trunk speckled with curling red bark. “Did you know the madrona tree is sacred to the local Indians?” asks Katharine. “These trees saved them during the great flood.”
Katharine snaps open her camp stool and positions herself so she can see the sparkling ocean and Mount Baker beyond. In her sketch book, she begins a series of sharp, flowing gestures with her pencil. Elizabeth settles down to observe the lower branch of the arbutus showing a spray of white flowers. She closes her eyes and takes a breath. In her mind, Elizabeth sees her beloved teacher, Atomi Gyokusho, kneeling in front of a fuchsia-coloured spray of cherry blossoms. Elizabeth recalls the exact angle of Atomi’s brush, the single delicate strokes building up the fragile blooms, bringing them to life in traditional Nihonga style.
This memory calms her and sweeps away her constant worries.
The rumblings of a world at war recede. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and British father, Elizabeth has always known racism, the feeling of being an outsider. Now she is an outsider in Canada, far from home and family. She managed to exit Japan in 1940, using her British passport, and find refuge with her cousin in Victoria. But her siblings remain in Japan, and she fears for their safety due to their British connections. (Indeed they will soon be imprisoned in Japan.) While in Canada, she is suspect for having Japanese heritage.
When the contradictions of her life overwhelm, Elizabeth finds strength and solace in her art practice. She examines the arbutus closely, and summons up her skills. First she paints the stem, carefully placed on the 8-inch by 10-inch silk board to create a balanced vertical composition. Next she adds the green leaves, taking care to note the mottled texture, small holes and imperfections. Nature as it is. The small white blossoms, shaped like minuscule jugs, take shape at the end of the curving stem.
“Arbutus Menziesii Madrona” by Elizabeth Yeend Duer (March 1941) watercolour, silk on board
On outings like these, circa 1941, Duer created over 100 accurate watercolours of the local plants and trees, each documented as to the exact date it was in bloom and the plant name and species. Believed commissioned by Katharine Maltwood, 50 of these paintings are now in the Maltwood Collection. The series is presented in an important show at the Legacy Gallery called Translations: The Art and Life of Elizabeth Yeend Duer—Gyokusho, January 12 to April 6, 2019. Translations showcases the movement of ideas, aesthetics, politics, and people between England, Japan, and Victoria by looking at the life and work of Duer. Co-curator Carolyn Butler Palmer initiated the project as Legacy Chair, the academic responsible for bringing forward Michael Williams’ vision for contemporary arts of the Pacific Northwest. “This is an unexpected story,” says Butler. “We were surprised to find a person with Japanese heritage painting local wild flowers and exhibiting her work at this time in history.”
Butler is referring to the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. The attack was followed by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong on December 18, resulting in the death or capture of 2,000 Canadian soldiers. In January of 1942, the federal government designated all coastal land in BC within 100 miles of the coast as “protected,” and forced adult males to leave the area. Property and possessions were seized. In March 1942, a second edict forced all people of Japanese origin to leave the protected area. Duer managed to escape internment due to her British citizenship, but at least 21,000 people were confined in cramped, unsafe housing and stripped of their human rights. Various discriminatory policies continued after the war. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally offered an apology and symbolic reimbursements.
“Kamass Camassia quamash; Camas” by Elizabeth Yeend Duer (April 1941), watercolour, silk on board
How do these gentle, meticulously-detailed watercolour paintings coincide in time and place with such chaos and hatred? A symposium on January 19, 2019 will address the issues. The event will welcome members of the Japanese community who experienced internment, as well as academics in the field. Guests will include curator Haema Sivanesen from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and renowned ethnobotanist Dr Nancy Turner. Turner’s research into culturally important plants of the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) people was published in 2012.
Looking closely at Duer’s arbutus painting, Turner tells me, “Her attention to botanical detail is remarkable. The creamy white flowers are perfectly shaped, and a new greenish twig emerges from a broken red stem.” Turner confirms the arbutus tree (Arbutus menziesii) is sacred to the WSÁNEĆ. Arbutus is never used as firewood.
“Camas” is the signature painting of the Translations exhibition. There are two species of edible blue camas in our region. Duer’s details clearly define this plant as the common variety (it’s titled “Kamas Camassia quamash”). Camas was an important source of food and commerce for the WSÁNEĆ people. In the painting, the flowers are slightly asymmetrical and one petal is separate and points down. “Few people would have noticed this defining feature,” says Turner. Also, she notes, the structure of the flowering stems and the purple blue hues are carefully copied.
Duer entered “Skunk Cabbage” in the 1941 Island Arts and Craft Society show. This cheerful painting must have been a crowd pleaser. As our wetlands are drained, skunk cabbage has become less common. Turner notices the vivid yellow colour of the flowers, and smooth waxy texture of the opening leaves in Duer’s artwork. “Even the reddish bracts below the leaves are included,” says the ethnobotanist. Called “swamp lantern” by some, the plant is used by Saanich peoples as a natural waxed paper. Cooked berries can be spread to dry on the leaves.
While the public can see Duer’s paintings during regular hours, Legacy Gallery also invites the public to experience Translations via a March event hosted by Cindy Mochizuki. (March 8, 4-8pm and March 9, 11am-3pm). The Vancouver-based artist reimagines historical events using a combination of fact and fiction, multi-media installation, and community engagement. Several members of her own family experienced internment. Mochizuki honours the traditional medium of Nihonga with an embroidery style called Bunka Shishu. Gallery visitors are invited to try the punch needle technique while listening to tape recordings of Japanese women. As well as bird and flower motifs, expect some visual entanglements to emerge that inform the group’s artwork.
Our shared history holds many entanglements. Translations encourages us to view past events through various viewpoints and cultural lenses. This builds understanding and compassion, key ingredients for envisioning a kinder, more inclusive society.
Translations runs from January 12 to April 6, 2019 at the Legacy Gallery, 630 Yates St, Victoria. It is open 10am-4pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Opening with Curator Talk, February 2, 2pm. 250-721-6562, uvac.uvic.ca
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website, artopenings.ca. She has an Art History degree and Public Relations certificate from the University of Victoria.
MARTINA EDMONDSON’S HOME STUDIO is in full production mode for her upcoming show at the Gage Gallery. Titled Nature Bound, her exhibit will present nearly 30 pieces in a variety of media including collage, sculpture, wall-hangings and assemblage.
Projects, ongoing and completed, cover her studio’s walls, shelves and over-sized tables. As we chat, one wired sculpture goes “ping” and slips out of place, causing balls on strings to bounce up and down in the air. “That one’s not quite finished,” says the artist, calmly pinning the wire armature back into place.
Martina Edmondson (Photo by Kate Cino)
Peering closely at her artworks reveals feathers, driftwood, pebbles, animal bones and fragments of glass and metal. Some objects are wound tightly in wire. Hand-made books are expertly stitched, some bound with clasps of wood or bone. Eco printed scrolls and wall hangings glow with warm, textured hues. Fragments of text, unusual images, a yellowed dictionary page collaged with scraps of fabric, all create order out of chaos.
Edmondson is an avid collector of all kinds of treasures, both natural and manufactured. “Whenever I begin a new project,” she says, “I unpack a box and begin to investigate the contents.” The artworks evolve slowly from working with the materials. By reassembling words and objects, new meanings are shaped. On a creative level, the repetition and fine detail work are both meditative and informative for the artist. For instance, her collages utilizing dictionary pages are done intuitively, without regard to meaning, yet on completion, notes Edmondson, can usually be related to a word found somewhere on the page.
An award-winning artist, Edmondson is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design. While living in Toronto, she participated in many solo, group and juried shows in Canada and abroad. The variety, depth and technical excellence of Edmondson’s mixed media artworks are admired by both colleagues and collectors.
This will be Edmondson’s second solo exhibit at Gage Gallery Artist Collective, which she joined a few years ago after moving to Victoria from Toronto. She has enjoyed ongoing support and inspiration from her fellow artists at the gallery.
The artist, sharply tuned to social issues and the collective human experience, often incorporates her musings on such subjects into her work.
In January 2018, O Canada’s lyrics “All Our Son’s Command” became “All of Us Command” after a 38-year struggle. Before the change, in 2017, Edmondson protested the sexism with a multi-faceted paper sculpture for the Canada 150 show at Gage. It was then titled “All of Us.” To celebrate the gender-neutral language correction, she took apart “All of Us” and reassembled the paper pieces into “All of Us—Rebound.” “As a mother of daughters, I am concerned about equality and inclusion,” she says.
“All of Us—Rebound” now resembles a neck ruff. A ruff is a stiff, starched collar, fashionable with Dutch nobility during the 17th century. The artist transformed this traditional symbol of wealth and power to one that symbolically includes all people. Edmondson emigrated from Holland in 1966, and feels passionate about being Canadian. “We are bound together,” she says, “by a common gratitude for being able to live in this country.”
Another work in the upcoming show, “All of Us—Manipulated,” is a stack of eco-printed papers, crumpled then stiffened with starch. The papers appear to float aimlessly, lacking order or purpose. This refers to the artist’s concerns about individual autonomy in the face of political, corporate and media manipulation. “We are not always told the truth about situations and events,” says Edmondson.
“All of Us—Manipulated” by Martina Edmondson
The artist has a lot of experience with eco printing, and does this work in her studio kitchen area. Eco printing (or botanical printing) uses vegetation and found materials to imbue paper with rich earthy tones. Edmondson gathers windfalls like blossoms and leaves, adding cuttings and flowers from the garden, and employs all kinds of papers—oriental and watercolour, as well as various kinds of cloth. These ground materials are treated with a chemical binding agent called mordant to assist the image transfers. Once her collected treasures are laid on the prepared ground, they are tightly bound and put in a dye bath or steaming tray. The artist makes her own dyes from kitchen scraps (onion and avocado skins, rooibos tea and coffee) or plants harvested from nature. She also purchases natural dyes in wood chip form from a company in Vancouver.
“The Present,” a scroll-like wall hanging, will also be in the fall exhibit. The layers of its eco printed papers include Taiwan oriental paper, Japanese Washi paper, and Masa paper. The word “present” means “here and now”—but it can also mean “a gift.” By using this homonym, the artist adds a second poignant association. The dried spray of roses attached to “The Present” was a meaningful gift. “I went back and forth,” she recalls, “trying to decide whether or not to include the flowers and their special memory. Finally, I decided they needed to be added.”
“The Present” by Martina Edmondson
Two of Edmondson’s recent artworks will not be part of the upcoming show—they are travelling across Canada with the 2018 Art of the Book exhibition. This year, the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild celebrated 35 years. The anniversary coincided with a juried exhibition including members’ work. This international travelling exhibition includes entries from Australia, China, the UK, USA, France, Spain and Singapore. Edmondson was honoured in two ways. First, her scroll book Nature’s Bounty was selected for the frontispiece of the catalogue and featured in the Paper Decoration section. Second, her pamphlet of original poems, Tree Poems, received the Colophon Book Arts Award. Jurors praised Tree Poems as an outstanding example of using decorated paper for inner pages as well as covers. The judges also praised the artist’s practice of eco printing.
“Nature's Bounty” by Martina Edmondson
“Tree Poems” by Martina Edmondson
The poems themselves were composed at an artist residency in 2016. This week-long event on Toronto Island with Monica Bodirsky reawakened the artist’s connection with the natural world. “I found my voice,” she says, “and composed these simple words that celebrate trees.”
Many artists at the Gage Gallery exhibit smaller works in its back room. In her series “Unbound,” Edmondson presents eco printed miniature squares in lovely muted earth tones. These small gems can be displayed in group settings or separately, and will be available throughout the exhibit’s run.
Sometimes, the artist’s experiments end with exasperation. Edmondson shows me a hand-made book with a humorous title: Manipulation and the Artist’s Frustration. Spilling out of the open side of the book are many crumpled pieces of brown paper. “These are eco prints that didn’t work out,” she says. “I do try to keep my sense of humour when I’m working.”
So it’s OK to chuckle at Edmondson’s witty inventions and alchemical wizardry. She won’t mind at all.
Nature Bound runs from November 20 to December 8, 2018 at Gage Gallery, 2031 Oak Bay Avenue. The opening artist reception is November 25 from 1-4 pm.
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website www.artopenings.ca. She has an Art History degree and Public Relations certificate from the University of Victoria.
LOOKING AT “Spirit in the Sky” by Brent Lynch puts the viewer in a magnificent setting. The painting, a diptych, is large, four by eight feet, and the vista shows Long Beach near Tofino. The sun is setting over the Pacific Ocean. A slow swell moves across the calm sea. Golden light from the setting sun reflects in the glassy ocean and catches fire in the clouds. Narrow bands of showers skirt the horizon. Their vertical lines lift our eyes into the swirling blue above.
The big sky is turbulent, alive with stormy colours and twisted cloud shapes. This eerie expanse of blue-green infinity roils with winged creatures, Olympian gods and dragons descending. The mysterious celestial show captures our attention and we wonder: Will the clouds coalesce into thunderheads and spawn great sheets of lightning? Or perhaps sweep our way, pelting us with wind and rain? It’s easy to understand why “Spirit in the Sky” brings to mind the lyrics of Norman Greenbaum’s 1970 hit song: “Going up to the spirit in the sky, that’s where I’m gonna go when I die...”
“Spirit in the Sky” by Brent Lynch, 48 x 96 inches, acrylic on canvas
Lynch found himself humming tunes and recalling poems as he painted his recent series Under the Big Sky, on exhibit in Victoria in October. The memories and emotions kindled by these songs and poetic words worked their way into the paintings. “A good painting is like a metaphor,” he says, “it suggests a link to something else, but leaves the meaning totally open.” At 65, Lynch’s formative years were the late 1960s and early ’70s. Many of the songs that inspired Lynch came from this era. Others came from classical themes and literature, including fantasies and fugues by JS Bach, poetry by William Blake, and writings by Dylan Thomas.
Lynch was born in Vancouver and spent his adolescence in Ladner, a small fishing and farming community on the banks of the Fraser River. His successful career began in the 1970s. He studied printmaking, painting and life drawing at St. Martin’s School of Fine Art in England. During an exchange week at Bath School of Fine Arts, he discovered the applied arts program. “After that I never looked back,” he says. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Using images to tell stories allowed him to make a living as an illustrator. As a busy freelancer in the mid-’70s, Lynch worked for an advertising agency in London, England. Back in Canada, his clients included the Vancouver Sun, where he illustrated short stories with hand-painted sketches. “I quickly learned how to cope with deadline pressures,” he says. His award-winning designs included book illustrations and posters for corporate and cultural events.
Lynch now focuses his impressive skills on fine art painting. A popular instructor at workshops, one of the first things he tells his students is: “What you don’t see in a painting is the most important part.” As a storyteller, he allows colour, texture and form to evoke emotions and memories in the viewer. “A good painting has to stand on its own,” he says, “and burn a pathway into your psyche.”
Large paintings like “Spirit in the Sky” are labour-intensive undertakings. He begins by sketching out the composition with a brush. “In a successful painting, all the design elements are balanced,” he explains. “It’s an essential skill for artists to learn.” Large-scale skyscapes require careful placements of line, shape and form. The initial sketch takes a few hours, whereas completing the painting takes a few months. “I have to live with them a while,” he says, “to fine-tune the tints, tones and colour relationships.”
Lynch employs a variety of brushwork. Dry strokes with hard edges define movement and turbulence in the cloud patterns. Soft-edged horizontal strokes suggest the liquid feel of water. The artist favours oil paint for the organic liveliness of the medium. Oils promote more spontaneity than acrylics, and the longer drying time suits Lynch’s artistic process. “Wet-on-wet offers all kinds of possibilities and effects,” he says.
“Spirit in the Sky” evolved from a smaller diptych, each panel measuring 12 by 12 inches. These en plein air panels are painted outdoors, completed in under one hour. The aim is to capture the fleeting moments of special grace that inspired the artwork. “Mother Nature is always changing and moving along,” he says, “so each minute is precious.”
Lynch loves to be outside and to explore new places. His home in Nanoose Bay looks out on the beautiful Ballenas Island group, and his bench out back is always waiting.
Lynch’s October exhibition at The Avenue Gallery includes 24 framed plein air paintings, each 12 by 12 inches. Larger artworks inspired by these plein air gems complete the exhibition.
For plein air work, the artist uses a lightweight outdoor painting kit. It comes stocked with basic oil colours: cadmium red, cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue, raw umber, black and white. From these primaries, all other colours can be mixed. While painting “Tyger Tyger,” the artist invoked the poetry of William Blake. The poem “Tyger” first appeared in Songs of Innocence and Experience, a 1789 collection of original etchings and text by Blake. The poem’s opening lines are famous: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
“Tyger Tyger” 12 x 12 inches, oil on prepared board
To illustrate the fiery sunset, the artist had to make some quick drawing decisions. His choice of shapes and textures allow him to capture the drama of the setting sun. To make the window of light jump forward, yellow and red predominate. The same hues highlight the gray-blue clouds, painted with loose gestural brushwork. An ethereal green sky emerges from smoothly blended red and yellow.
The artist enjoys the challenges and uncertainty of plein air painting. “Successful ones kind of paint themselves,” he says. “You just get out of the way. Other times you bring home a mess. That’s what makes plein air work so exciting.” The artist is forthcoming about the dynamics of his artistic temperament. “My heritage is Irish,” he says. “I have an acceptance of the dark and the light. That’s just the way it is. Everything is in flux and constantly changing.” His Catholic upbringing instilled a reverence for visual symbolism. On good days he’s thankful the images and visions come easily; on bad days he wonders why and waits for better times.
At age 21, Lynch explored the great museums and galleries of Europe. The photos of paintings he’d seen in books came alive. “Walking into a room with an 18-foot-long Jackson Pollock is a total sensory experience,” he says. “You need to view the original to understand the artist’s intention.” Viewing a Rembrandt up close, he suddenly understood why the “red and gold guy” is one of the world’s best painters. For this artist, great art vibrates with molecular energy and radiates a powerful force field. Painting large under a big sky is one way to capture this experience and stay connected to the natural world.
“Stack in Rainstorm” 48 x 48 inches, oil on canvas
Under The Big Sky, featuring paintings by Brent Lynch, runs at The Avenue Gallery at 2184 Oak Bay Avenue, October 11-21, with an artist’s reception on Saturday, October 13, 1–3pm. 250-598-2184, www.theavenuegallery.com.
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website www.artopenings.ca. She has a History in Art degree and Public Relations certificate from the University of Victoria.
ARTISTS AND PARTNERS Grant Leier and Nixie Barton live in Nanaimo. Their home on a hill resembles a small castle and certainly holds many treasures. Artwork and wondrous paraphernalia, collected over their 30-year relationship and careers as full-time professional artists, enliven each room. In 2015, the couple received an Excellence in Culture Award from the City of Nanaimo, recognizing their community involvement and national reputations as exhibiting artists in North America. In 2005, The Romance Continues, an illustrated hardcover book by Goody Niosi, featured their art and gardens and offered a wealth of details about the couple’s exceptional artistic journey.
During July and August the public can view a number of Grant Leier’s paintings at Victoria’s West End Gallery. His education in graphic and textile design is evident in these large—five-foot square—cheerful multi-coloured artworks. Colour and texture are woven together in an eye-catching assortment of patterns and shapes, and they each provide an astonishing amount of visual information. “I incorporate imagery from many sources, and then reinvent and reposition,” says Leier.
It’s no wonder Leier’s paintings are enduring favourites with collectors. Look closely at “Quilt” and you might see: a Chinese vase sprouting flowers, a burgundy crow, a pink camel, sparrows on the wing, a baby blue warthog and a polka dot horse. By overlapping the shapes and patterns, Leier creates a sense of depth. Textural interest is added by a variety of detailed brushwork. Long sweeping strokes define the flower petals, meticulous hand-drawn circles radiate outward, and spirals swirl.
Completing a large painting like “Quilt” takes hundreds of hours. “It’s a good thing I love my work,” says Leier. He’s in the studio at 5am each morning, and often paints eight hours a day, six days a week—happily. Always working towards the next deadline, the artist stays on track about delivery dates to galleries. Leier believes that discipline and longevity are important for building a career, noting, “it takes stamina and determination to be a professional artist.” When mentoring emerging artists, he urges them not to be precious about their work, and to keep moving along with new ideas and images. Connecting up with commercial galleries in a small country like Canada is very important. “All the dealers know each other,” he says, “so they’ll know about you.”
"Quilt" by Grant Leier, 60 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Display Turquoise" by Grant Leier, 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Tulip Koi" by Grant Leier, 30 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
For Leier, making a painting has many steps, and demands much patience. Each painting begins with a detailed ink drawing on the canvas. A few coats of liquid acrylic seal the drawing. Shapes and patterns are delineated with undercoatings of acrylic in cool colours. Overpainting involves several layers of opaque paint in warmer tones. “The fun begins when I start positioning colours side by side,” says the artist. “Sometimes the shades clash and I have to repaint.” Leier’s skills as an expert colourist become evident when the pigments start to sing and the canvas comes to life. After all his expended energy, this is a gratifying moment.
But Leier has a variety of styles and subject matter in his repertoire. On his studio wall during my visit is an acrylic painting called “Prince.” “Prince” is a glowing ochre horse resplendent against a gritty distressed background. The horse’s noble head and attentive ears are clearly defined, but more gestural brushwork suggests the body and legs. “Prince” sports an electric blue mane. His flank, muzzle and belly are outlined with single strokes of crimson paint. Drips of paint add an atmosphere of casual disarray, or energy unleashed, whereas the shiny resin surface is all about control and containment. “These paintings only take a couple of hours to complete,” Leier says, “and are a wonderful change of pace.” A new series of animal portraits may be coming soon.
“A small home well filled is better that an empty palace.”
This is Leier’s favourite maxim and it’s evident during our house tour. One room holds a series of red-painted shrines with shiny blue doll faces. The artist’s love affair with shrines goes back many years. He’s intrigued by their role as ritual objects and memory keepers. The shrines offer a creative repository for his vast array of found objects: jewellery, knick-knacks and shiny bobbles. “Junk” is in the eye of the beholder for Leier. He enjoys playing with the idea that a tacky plastic toy, when mounted on a painted surface and placed in a gallery, can morph into “fine art.” The artist extols the “beauty of everyday things” and finds pleasure in the natural world of gardens and growth.
Grant and Nixie downsized in 2014 to their current Nanaimo home from a nine-acre property near Yellow Point, where they had lived and worked since 1994. It’s a big change, but all good. Their former destination property featured an on-site gallery and grounds to wander. Visitors delighted in the whimsical creations, architectural follies, and tangled greenery. They and their garden were even featured on the Guerrilla Gardeners TV show. Two hardcover books (Artists in Their Gardens and Artists in their Studios) also showcased their fantasy retreat.
Though not as large or lavish, their newer home’s backyard garden is a lovely green oasis. A fountain burbles, statuary stands guard and pots overflow with cascading abundance. Off in the distance, Departure Bay gleams. “We like to sit out here,” says Leier. Not having to run a gift gallery or manage extensive gardens means more time to focus on the things they love doing. Like painting.
Leier was born in Lloydminster, a prairie town on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, in 1956. His drawing skills were evident and encouraged from a young age. At the Alberta College of Art, he excelled in textile design and illustration. After graduation in 1978 he worked as a commercial artist receiving major commissions for the Calgary Winter Olympics and Expo 86. Leier has an astonishing 36-year connection with the West End Gallery of Victoria and Edmonton. In 1982, the family-run gallery booked shows for him in Edmonton.
In 1984, the artist moved to Victoria. Nixie Barton was an art student at that time and they began to share a studio. This was a formative time for Leier. After 15 years of graphic design (painting smiling women and ducks) he looked over Nixie’s shoulder at her lively brushwork and fell in love. A series of paintings of alley cats and bull terriers evolved, simple shapes to hold the bright colours he arranged on a flat washed background. These paintings became more refined and complex as his skills grew. Thirty years later, it’s a treat to view his more recent dog series on the Barton Leier website. These confident gems of swirling colour and form capture the essence of canine energy with effortless charm. Effortless charm combined with hard work, a winning combination summing up the life and achievements of Grant Leier.
To see more of Grant Leier’s work, go to www.bartonleiergallery.com or visit West End Gallery’s Summer Salon, throughout July and August. 1203 Broad Street, Victoria, www.westendgalleryltd.com, 250-388-0009.
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website, www.artopenings.ca.
SOMETIMES ABSENCE can give us a clearer vision of the truth than what is present. Scientists extrapolate from what is missing as much as from what is there; artists create impressions of life that supersede reality by choosing to omit certain details. Sculptor Guthrie Gloag is both an artist and a scientist, and in 10 full-scale wildlife pieces he’s offering at his second solo show at Madrona Gallery, he uses descriptive and narrative aspects of absence to create his imagery and telegraph his message.
If we encounter an animal in the wild, we don’t need to see every individual hair or claw to fully experience its energy and character; when we see an array of driftwood shapes on a beach, we know that it’s wood without seeing the entire tree it came from.
To create his sculptures, Gloag carefully selects beach-sanded fragments of cedar and fir, which are inventoried and assembled in a months-long, improvisational process. Using decking screws and drills to affix the unaltered wood fragments to each other, his works gradually come to life as solutions to his self-created, organic visions, resembling three-dimensional “puzzles.” There is no set plan or armature, only layers upon layers of evocative shapes that begin to describe an animal’s presence. His sculptures are a dance of abundant detail and lack of information, forcing the viewer’s brain to create the impression of surfaces, details, and aliveness.
"Coastal Wolf" by Guthrie Gloag
“I have learned as I’ve built my process that sometimes the absence of a piece of wood is beneficial; to create negative spaces is just as important,” says Gloag. “The hollow is there, and the shadow creates an animal’s eye for the viewer.” The realistic size of his work is also an integral part of the experience. “I try to stay true to scale; I find that it creates a presence…for the viewer. There may be some exaggerations, like extending legs to enhance a sense of movement, but I try to stick to scale.” The relative size of each animal, as compared to a human viewer, is a visceral experience for Gloag, who depicts only subjects he has observed directly, sometimes during his field work as a biologist.
The allegiance to realistic scale means that when he depicts a subject like a grizzly bear (and yes, he’s been near enough to one in the wild to say it made him “feel small”), there are certain logistical issues, like door widths, transportation vessels, and sheer weight—Gloag is up for all of it. “It’s a challenge I love…the process of conceiving something in my mind and then setting forth to make it in three dimensions, I find immense joy in it.” He learned the hard way with his first Grizzly piece, which couldn’t be removed from his Vancouver apartment without being disassembled. Now on Bowen Island, Gloag and his young family live in a home that includes a 600-square-foot studio he uses for sculpting; he’s enjoying that it has double French doors.
The largest sculpture Gloag created isn’t in a gallery, or part of someone’s private collection; it’s in the woods, “somewhere in BC,” far off the beaten track, where the artist intends for people to come across it incidentally. The 14-foot-tall mastodon is, for Gloag, a message about extinction and preservation, and a labour of love. He completed it “under cover of winter” a year and a half ago, the seasonal rains ensuring he would be largely undetected as he backpacked 100-pound loads of thousands of driftwood pieces to the site, assembling a massive, one-ton sculpture that has gotten coverage on CBC and become a destination site for the adventurous. I ask whether the sculpture has been disturbed by those who manage to find it. “It has been a test of humanity, and so far, humanity has passed,” Gloag reports. “People have been very protective of it. They love the sentiment of it; it’s a message of conservation. People are interacting with it, and leaving it as it is.”
"Black Bear" by Guthrie Gloag
As a child growing up in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove, Gloag says the ethic of conservation got woven deep. “I was always in nature, in the wilderness, identifying birds with my mom, going out in the boat with my dad. The intrinsic importance of nature was instilled in me from a young age.” While he didn’t identify himself as an artist, “Art has always been a necessity; to build, to create.” The young Gloag made fantasy figures out of clay and built forts in the woods. As a UVic student earning his degree in biology and environmental studies, he was “looking for a creative outlet. I tried stone sculpture, but was not very good at it. I tried painting as well.” During a vacation with his wife on Galiano Island in 2011, he assembled a life-sized driftwood sculpture of a deer on the beach, and “it kind of clicked. Sometimes people say, ‘I’m not good at art,’ but you just need to find your medium.”
Gloag started out sculpting with only a passion to please himself, and a self-assigned mission to comment on both the majesty and fragility of wild creatures. He left his sculptures right where he made them, letting others anonymously encounter them on the beaches or hiking trails. He started to notice, though, that his efforts were getting “collected,” and when Madrona Gallery owner Michael Warren ended up at Gloag’s home for a casual dinner party, conversation immediately turned to finding him a wider audience and developing his career as a professional sculptor.
“He wasn’t even at a point where he was considering there would be a market for his work,” Warren says of the fortuitous meeting. “As soon as I saw it, I was blown away, as far as the impact of it and how it’s constructed. For me, it immediately connected all the dots of this place—the material that he’s using is of this land; the subject matter he’s creating are all animals he has experience with in his biology and conservation work; and the aesthetic, his own personal style, connects with the roughness and the feel of this place so well.”
Gloag’s work has indeed found a wider audience, and his pieces are now part of collections all over the globe. Response has been so positive that many are waiting their turn to have “right of first refusal” on his sculptures as he completes them. The ten pieces in the Madrona Gallery show will no doubt be snapped up, but it’s worth taking some time to be in the presence of these “animals,” created by an artist who is reverently conjuring the majesty of a particular animal’s presence—while starkly commenting on the increasing absence of wild things in our region.
“Instinct,” works by sculptor Guthrie Gloag, June 2-16, opening reception 1pm–4pm Saturday, June 2, Madrona Gallery, 606 View St. More info at madronagallery.com or 250-380-4660.
Mollie Kaye is a visual artist who grew up with a biochemist mom and a biophysicist dad. She appreciates the creative and scientific sensibilities that Gloag brings to his work.
CBC Arts' 2017 video about Guthrie Gloag:
DANA STATHAM has packed a lot into the last year, most of it living—not painting. She’s very early into an artistic career that doesn’t, at this point, feel like one to her. The amount of time she’s been able to devote to her creative endeavours isn’t as much as she’d like, but she also fears making art into something she does to pay the bills. Right now, she makes her living doing something entirely unrelated, but has a designated studio space developing in the home she recently purchased and is renovating with her new husband.
Stylistically, if artists E.J. Hughes and Maud Lewis had a “love child,” it could very well be Statham. An auto-didact like Lewis, she imparts both joy and reverence into her acrylic-on-canvas coastal imagery with the detail, sophistication, and draftsmanship of Hughes. Response to her work has been very positive; she sold out her most recent shows on Hornby Island, where she’s spent a lot of time and which she loves to paint. She’s eager to see how Victorians will receive her work.
"Mystic Beach" by Dana Statham, 24 x 36 inches, acrylic on canvas
I congratulate Statham on her past success; she demurs. “There’s something so unique about Hornby; it’s so many people’s ‘happy place’ and haven—they want any piece of it they can get…to take home with them.” Yet when she was painting arctic scenes during her time in Nunavut, “even that, people related to, and were excited about, so I don’t know...capturing the sense of place is what people love and connect with.”
Dawn Casson, owner of The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm, says it’s more than just the subject matter of Statham’s pieces that her clientele is eagerly queuing for. “I’ve already got people asking if [her pieces] are available for sale before the show.” When she says that they have to wait until the pieces are hung, “They say, ‘I’ll be phoning you at 10am on the 26th, then,’” Casson recounts with a chuckle.
“We’re very excited about her pieces,” Casson continues. “I can’t wait to see what they look like hanging on the walls…it’s just going to be stunning.” She discovered Statham’s work the modern way—on Instragram—and tracked the artist down to see if she’d be interested in having a show there. Statham, whose bike commute to her work at Saanich Peninsula Hospital took her past Mattick’s Farm, says, “I would pop into the gallery, and it was like [Casson] had curated all of my favourite artists into one spot,” so she felt she “would be in good company. I was happy to say yes.”
"San Josef Bay" by Dana Statham, 36 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas
While Casson would have loved to create a solo show for Statham, this past year of life, work, moving, renovations and marriage all meant just seven pieces to display. To create a full show, Casson has partnered Statham with painter Wendy Oppelt, a veteran of the gallery whose loose, lively, “macro-impressionist” painting style serves as a foil to Statham’s meticulous, graphic compositions.
Statham says of her seven paintings, “I plotted them all on a map,” and they ended up being a “circumnavigation of Vancouver Island…from the very north end at Cape Scott Park, to the Lochside Trail, Mystic Beach, Tofino…it happened to work out that it was a coastal exploration.” In the past, she would paint from imagination, but now works with photographs “to get the subtleties right.” While she knows people will likely be familiar with the vistas, she does take “a heavy dose of artistic license to tweak a composition…I try not to get too tied to a photo; it takes the fun out of it.”
Paintings by Dana Statham and Wendy Oppelt, The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm, March 26-April 22, Monday-Saturday 10am-5:30pm, Sundays 11am-5pm. Opening reception April 14. 1-4pm. 109-5325 Cordova Bay Rd, 250-658-8333 or thegalleryatmatticksfarm.com.
Mollie Kaye is Focus Magazine's arts editor.
A PERSON COULD BE FORGIVEN for assuming that the sculpture “Mystique,” by Courtenay-based artist Lynn Branson, is carved out of marble. Its pale, inviting sheen emanates a similar luminosity to the stone. It is, in fact, a unique piece of walnut from which Branson has released an elegant, mermaid-like female form. Its curves, planes and voids may call to mind the Modern tendencies of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, with Constantin Brancusi humming along in the background. The marble effect is intentional, but once you approach the work, the true medium becomes more obvious—as does the artist’s affinity and reverence for it. The perfectly smooth top of the piece curves inward and outward in alignment with the grain. The grain dictates the shape.
“Mystique” 26.5 x 15 x 5.5 inches, walnut
“I sanded for weeks on that piece—and I have a cyst on my thumb to prove it!” laughs Branson, who knew instantly what it would become when she first laid eyes on the raw wood. “Right away I saw the female form,” she declares.
Whether it is a human figure, or her more frequent subjects of bird or beast, she views her wood carving practice as an act of releasing the thing within. “Wherever I look,” Branson shares, “whether it’s the raindrops, or the leaves, or the clouds, I never just see a cloud. I’ll see what’s in the cloud.” This outlook and approach reflects her deep regard for the natural world. In her work, she is rewarded by this reverence and awareness—and patience. “I’ll have a piece in my studio and I’ll walk by it for ten years. Then all of a sudden I’ll walk by it and there’s something looking at me,” she says with delight.
Branson was born and raised in Edmonton, a child with an enormous imagination and an affection for making things. She adored spending time on her grandmother’s acreage. Her mother was a painter who came to Canada from England with Branson’s grandmother; both shared her love of nature. Noting that her grandmother emigrated quite late in life, Branson reflects, “I think she is where I got my adventurous spirit.”
Armed with little else, Branson left home for Vancouver at 15, where she found work making beds at St Paul’s Hospital. It was not an easy life, but “I would spend hours at the beach looking at driftwood, and I loved [that],” she recalls. She eventually made her way back to Alberta, married, had a son and a daughter, and spent some years raising them. After some time as a single parent, she remarried and lived on a farm in Innisfail.
“Any time I was in the forest or the bush, I would see wood lying on the ground and I was always drawn to it,” she says. She started picking it up. Today she purchases about 85 percent of her wood from all over North America. “I don’t have any vices; I don’t go shopping very often, but if I see a [special] piece of wood, I’ll do anything to get it,” she laughs. A solid half of her studio space is devoted to various intriguing burls and blocks, some of which she moved with her from Alberta. She jokes that her children fret over what they will do with it all if something should happen to her.
Carving became part of her life while she was on the farm. For a studio, she claimed a former chicken infirmary with straw walls and abundant mice. “I was constantly getting rid of the mice, but it was a great life, farm life. I was very close to nature everywhere I looked,” she recalls. She carved as much as she could, building her skill and making a name for herself at competitions and sales.
Sadly, in 2001 her husband was killed in a tragic accident while horseback riding. This, after they had just survived injuries and damage from the Pine Lake tornado in July 2000. After her husband’s death, Branson moved back to the west coast. “Everybody has their struggles and their stories,” she says. “I am very, very fortunate because I have another chapter in my life, and I am very grateful for every day that I do what I have such a passion and love for.”
That passion has been recognized by her four-time world champion title at the annual Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art Carving Competition held in Ocean City, Maryland. She is the first female winner in its 47 years, and she cherishes the family of carvers she has become part of. The event is an annual highlight for her and her partner Greg Pedersen, an accomplished carver in his own right. She has also been a judge at the Pacific Brant Carving and Art Show since her farm days.
"Emergence" 23 x 24 x 13 inches, red cedar with maple base. Received "Best in World Interpretive" at the Ward World Championship.
Her work is widely collected, and she was the only female to be invited to participate in the Blakely Burl Tree Project, a small group of artists commissioned to create works from the giant burl of an old pecan tree in Georgia. She was invited to do so by friend and mentor Mark Lindquist, the renowned American wood turner.
He’s among a varied list of influences Branson credits. Along with the aforementioned Moore, Brancusi and Hepworth, Georgia O’Keeffee, Robert Bateman, Emily Carr and Courtney Milne have all had an impact on Branson’s practice. But Lindquist gave her perhaps the best advice she’s received: “He told me always to have fun. If it’s no longer fun, then you don’t do it.”
That’s truly necessary, considering each piece takes about three to five months to complete. Not to mention the extreme physicality of the work—some of her pieces begin in the hundreds of pounds. At about five feet three inches, Branson is not a large person, though her work has made her strong. She may begin a piece with a chainsaw to rough out the form or remove the dead wood. Next comes hammer and chisel and/or electric grinders for shaping. With a high speed tool called an NSK (yes, the one used by dentists), she can render a subtle suggestion of feathers or, remarkably (and after hour upon hour), the fine grit of sandstone. “Balance” is a carving where you can see this virtuosity. Bare-handed to ensure the proper feel, she employs sandpapers ranging from 80 grit to 800, the latter being the key to that marble-like finish. Final steps involve polishing cloths and finishing in oil, acrylic or wax.
Occasionally, like in the piece “Cresting the Wave,” she will add a touch of pigment. In this carving of a kingfisher at the helm of a swirling wave, subtle swathes of bluegreen play among the grain as if the oak itself is saying, “You see, I was water all along.”
“Cresting the Wave” 19 x 19 x 15 inches, oak
“That’s just an extraordinary piece of wood,” Branson enthuses. A portion of it was petrified, and Branson interpreted it as a dollop of seafoam. “I carved a lot of [the wood], but the shape was already of a wave.” Setting it free, while a months-long process, begins and ends with the wood itself: “I don’t spend hours planning, I just start. The wood tells me where to go.”
Lynn Branson’s work can be seen at Peninsula Gallery, 100-2506 Beacon Avenue, Sidney, 250-655-1722, www.pengal.com and at www.rawearthcarvings.com.
Aaren Madden’s own affection for nature has found its way into her home in the form of several bouquets of driftwood, pilfered sea shells, pine cones, myriad stones, bits of moss, and twigs. Her husband duly frets.
BI YUAN CHENG IS A SEEKER OF THE TRUTH. Not truth in facts, but in feeling; not in evidence, but in experience. His pursuit as an artist is to convey the world as he sees it and share its impact with the viewer, to impart the sense of wonder it brings to him. “I always think if you do art, it has to come from your heart, from your inside world. That makes it really true,” he says.
He was an artist from day one. Born in 1957 in Jinan, China, as a boy of six, Bi could often be found sitting at the side of the road with pencil and paper, sketching the passing cars or bicycles. “It just came naturally,” he says.
Bi Yuan Cheng
His interest and aptitude did not go unnoticed by his mother, a homemaker, or his father, an architect. By the time he was in grade six, Bi was spending every Sunday with a prominent watercolour artist, a friend of his father’s. “I would do a lot of painting during the week, and on Sunday I would go to his house, bring him the paintings, and he would look at each painting,” Bi recalls fondly. He would give feedback to young Bi, who would return home to apply the advice for the next week’s work. Working in the western style, the man had an immense impact on Bi as a teacher and mentor; he died in 1995. “I still miss him so much,” he says.
“He gave me a strong foundation in colour,” Bi continues. “Even today, I still remember his words: ‘You do everything on paper, which is flat. But on paper, you have to make space. Do not think, ‘This is flat,’ think ‘This is space,’ from close to middle to far; you have to create distance on paper—with colour. If you have three trees beside a road, even if the colours are the same [to look at], if you paint it, you cannot paint the same colour for the three trees,” Bi declares. These are essentially the principles of atmospheric perspective, one of the many ways in which colour became Bi’s tool for expression and description.
The Sunday sessions with his teacher expanded to include oil painting, and continued for at least ten years until Bi went to ZiangXi Art University from 1979 to 1983. With stiff competition to get into the painting program, Bi ended up majoring in sculpture and pottery. “I still did a lot of oil painting,” he says, because art education in China places such emphasis on foundational skills. The first full three years of his university art education focused on fundamentals: drawing, colour theory, some three-dimensional work. Western universities typically offer a single foundation year, so it’s hard to imagine such a rigorous art education.
After graduation, Bi worked for Shandong Architectural Company doing sculpture, murals, and design work for city squares. He quickly made a name for himself, winning awards and ascending in prominence to be named a Chinese Art Master by the Province of Shandong in 1987.
His path took a turn when, in 1990, he and his wife decided to go to the University of Alberta to learn English. In Edmonton, they found warm, friendly people and great educational opportunities for their then-four-year-old daughter. Importantly for Bi, though, he found colour. “In China in 1990, the pollution was not as bad as today, but it was still bad,” he explains. “You did not see blue sky very often. Most of the time, the sky was always a little bit grey; everything looked grey. In Edmonton, I said, ‘This is really colourful! Green is green, red is red, blue is blue, clouds are white.’ I said, ‘I can do colour here. This is beautiful. It is a totally different way of looking.’ For me, it was so exciting.” Needless to say, though it was not easy to do at the time, they remained in Canada.
Bi opened his own studio in 1992, painting portraits and commissions, as well as the fields, hills and mountains of Alberta in acrylics and oils. Over the years, he created dozens of murals in Alberta, including at the Edmonton International Airport—and sketched charcoal portraits of untold thousands at his booth at Edmonton’s Klondike Days and the Calgary Stampede.
Twenty years later, Bi moved to Richmond, and he now lives in White Rock. Moving to the coast inevitably had impacts on his art practice. In the past ten or so years, his compositions have loosened up considerably. Combining this tendency with his thorough understanding of colour, and its potential for expression and description, his landscape paintings have become documents of memory and geography—or rather, the memory of geography.
“A Rocky Beach” and “Fog at Moraine Lake” are both acrylic paintings; both convey the sense of space Bi learned to achieve from such a young age. However, the palette of the beach scene—dun-coloured sand, soft sky, steely waters and green shock of sea lettuce—is such that one can practically taste the salty mist. The lake scene plants the viewer squarely in the high, dry Rocky Mountain elevation, where the sharp blue sky is barely filtered through the thin air. What they have in common is an abundance of colour and an economy of technical information: The seaweed is a series of dashes; the deep glacial blue-green of Moraine Lake is expressed in a few dry-brushed lines.
"A Rocky Beach" 24 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Fog at Moraine Lake" 40 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas
"West Winds" 36 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Cedar Grove" 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
“Every [piece] has to be a feeling,” he urges; “You have to have the ocean’s feeling.” It’s not just about impressionism, though; other art forms that contain worlds within a few marks are sources of admiration for Bi. A visit to Haida Gwaii left him with great admiration for the local Northwest Coast First Nations artworks. Of the totem poles and other work he saw, he says, “They are just really, really true. Nothing more is needed. You need less detail to give you the most thinking. It’s a very simple thing, but you know there are so many stories inside. That’s really high art.” In homage, he paints some landscape scenes containing totem poles (see this month’s cover).
Achieving this dichotomy, with information and mark in inverse proportion, takes time, thought—and sketching. Bi does work from photographs to a point, but “You don’t want to just follow the photograph, or you will lose something of the truth,” he argues. “Sketches give me the [memory] of the time I was outside, what I was really thinking. You look at the photo, then you do a lot of sketches to bring you back to that first feeling. Once you get that, you are getting close,” he says. “Close to the truth.”
“Coastal Reflections,” featuring new works by Bi Yuan Cheng, runs November 16—27 at The Avenue Gallery, with an Artist Reception on Saturday, November 18, 1-3pm. 2184 Oak Bay Ave. 250-598-2184, theavenuegallery.com.
Having lived in Calgary and attended the occasional Stampede, it is possible that it was Bi Yuan Cheng who Aaren Madden watched in fascination as he sketched his charcoal portraits.
MARK ATLEO (Kiikitakashuaa) of the Ahousaht First Nation is a survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School. He was there for nine years, beginning when he was seven years old. Away from his family, he had to be brave not just for himself: “I had a younger brother who I had to watch over when I was there,” recounts Atleo. “He was crying every day that he wanted to go home, wondering why we were there. So I had to console him in the classroom, just being a big brother.” Atleo recalls running away, only to be brought back, during his last year there. He ran away because he was not allowed to attend his grandmother’s funeral.
I had the honour of hearing Atleo’s words in the upstairs curatorial spaces of the University of Victoria’s Legacy Downtown art gallery. He was there with Andrea Walsh, PhD, the curator of There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Indian Day Schools. It was an emotional conversation; the three of us were each weeping at some time during our hour together.
Andrea Walsh and Mark Atleo with a painting Atleo created while attending Alberni Indian Residential School. Photo by Tony Bounsall.
A visual anthropologist at the University of Victoria, Walsh collaborates with First Nations groups across Canada to research and repatriate artwork that was created by residential and day school students. In 2008, a collection of paintings was bequeathed to UVic from the family of Port Alberni artist Robert Aller, who volunteered at the Alberni Indian Residential School (IRS) teaching extracurricular art classes. Shortly afterward, Walsh got involved in the process of repatriating these artworks to the survivors who had created them as children between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Following cultural protocols and collaborating with survivors, these paintings formed an exhibition at Legacy Downtown in 2013 and the Alberni Valley Museum in 2015.
In September 2013, the Commissioners for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission invited the Alberni survivors to share their stories and paintings at the closing ceremonies in Vancouver. Again following cultural protocols, Walsh and her group used the opportunity to reunite Mark Atleo with a painting he had done as a child. In front of 1000 witnesses, “I cried,” Atleo says in his quiet voice.
Before this painting came back to him, Atleo had been through therapies for his experiences, and says, “I thought I was ok—but I wasn’t…It’s like I was looking in a telescope upside down. Everything was locked up.” He had completely forgotten the painting, but now he had a direct, focused sightline back to the child he was. “When you turn the telescope the right way, it opens up the hurt, and see what happens when you get the help you need to see the better life that is out there.”
That child painted a vibrant blue fish—“a sockeye; that’s our favourite fish”—adorned with yellow and green, in a style mimicking what he would have seen at home. It rests in a net above a swirling blue and purple poster-paint sea. Recalling the painting of it, Atleo says, “All it was is that dark, shady background. Mr Aller said, ‘paint what you really like; what’s in your life.’ I just thought about fishing. [What] I wanted when I grew up was to be a fisherman. We were taken away when I was just starting.” His grandfather had taught him all about fishing.
Mark Atleo's painting
After his residential school experience ended, Atleo did go on to be a fisherman for 36 years. Now 65, he is a BC Transit driver. He acknowledges BCT’s support of his journey; the organization posted photos on their website of a later trip to Ottawa he and his Alberni classmates took to record their experiences for the Canada Hall at the Canadian Museum of History. At work, “people talk; they come and ask questions,” he says. “[My work colleagues and I] met years ago, and now we are much closer. And there are still people asking questions.”
“To get this [painting] back was something else,” he shares. The painting “opened me up towards my other classmates, our group. We had been apart for so long; now we see more of each other. It’s great.” Atleo has since shared his story on panel discussions and with university students.
While they remain owners of the work, many survivors of the Alberni school have chosen to keep their paintings at the University of Victoria so that they may be used as teaching tools. “What a generous thing,” Walsh declares with emotion. While most people have countless photos and mementos from childhood, “these [survivors] don’t have pictures. They don’t have little things from their school time… But the way they share so selflessly…saying, ‘Let’s talk about this.’”
Fifty paintings from Alberni Indian Residential School survivors, including Atleo’s, will be displayed as part of There is Truth Here, along with collections from students who attended the McKay Indian Residential School in Manitoba, the Alert Bay Indian Day School, and the Inkameep Indian Day School in the Okanagan, between the early 1950s and early 1970s. Works will include drawings, paintings, exquisite handmade buckskin costumes, and many photographs depicting dramatic children’s performances of Okanagan stories.
All the works on display will be put into context. For instance, the Alberni and Inkameep collections exist due to teachers who would be considered renegades for encouraging the children to express themselves and their culture authentically, without censorship. Other collections show a more practical intention, but still contain marks that connect to and evidence an individual, a unique person, a person of value in an impossible place—one that had been wiped from collective memory. Displaying these works is a step toward correcting that erasure.
Painting by Edith Kruger, age 12, while she was at Inkameep Indian Day School
Walsh reflects, “When we think about the visual legacy of the [residential] schools, they are in the thousands of pictures of children. But they were taken of children, not by children. And they were taken to demonstrate the value of what the government saw as this assimilative policy that was being carried out in the schools. So these pictures are often of [children] in uniforms, and they are anonymous. But they are not, because they were brothers and sisters and cousins and daughters and sons and grandsons and granddaughters. And although we can’t—nor should we—feel like we have access to those relations, what the art does is highlight that all of the children in those pictures were wonderful little children…they had ideas and they had creativity. There is a creativity to these pieces and there is a resilience to them. [The children] were staying strong. The pieces here were evidence of that strength.”
These works are truths, but also pathways to understanding and reconciliation. Says Atleo, “I would hope other people would see there are stories to these artworks. We are always taught, culture-wise, when people carved or made anything—like that costume,” he says, gesturing to the archival storage box containing a tiny buckskin dress, “that’s a story in that box there. My painting has a story to it—to share with other people…What’s here being displayed is an eye-opener. It’s not just to look at…I think it’s a teaching tool for younger people nowadays. It’s a good tool. It’s like we were hidden away from society. Now it’s open.”
There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Indian Day Schools is at the Legacy Downtown Art Gallery from September 23, 2017 to January 6, 2018. Panel discussion with survivors September 30. Contact Legacy Downtown for more information. 630 Yates Street, 250-721-6562, www. uvac.uvic.ca/Locations/legacy.
When Aaren Madden discussed the subject of this article with her family, she listened as her son jumped in to explain to his younger sister what residential schools were. Rightly, finally, he had learned about them in school.
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.
VICTORIA ARTIST LUKE RAMSEY creates pen-and-ink drawings that are whimsical, melancholy, eccentric, orderly, complex, straightforward, humorous, sober, hopeful, dark, friendly, and strange—sometimes all at once. As the eye follows his mark’s labyrinthine journey around the page, one finds unexpected motifs that give pause—guns worked into what looks like a peaceful forest scene, for instance. Other drawings are more loosely composed, but a wriggling, effusive energy remains. Meaning is elusive, but larger, overarching suggestions are implied, and personal interpretations invited. “The message is there for the people who are going to look for it, and find it, and have that ‘aha’ moment,” says Ramsey.
“Organized chaos” or a “tidy mess” is how he has described his work, whether it be ink on paper, or writ large on the side of a building. Alone and in collaboration with others, Ramsey has created public murals across Canada and in Europe, among them “Transition” with Josh Holinaty. Located on the John Howard Society building in Edmonton, the work won an award of excellence from the City and a National Urban Design Medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
Click the image above for a short slideshow of Luke Ramsey's art
“Fuel and Empathy” is a recent local mural located on Cormorant Street between Blanshard and Quadra, a gathering place for addicts. Integrating the pre-existing graffiti into this bright, appealing landscape lends it a particular poignancy, acknowledging its past as it injects hope into this fraught public space. In his statement about it, he notes how the area was considered an eyesore, adding, “I wanted to look beyond the wall’s surface and consider the story behind it, to work with the texture and subtly preserve it.…To find beauty in its ugliness, to re-contextualize the graffiti like a collage into the work. This wall has a connection to people and place, and these are ingredients to beauty and colour.”
He admits he himself “dabbled in tags and stencils” in his youth, but realized it was “better to open doors by not tagging on them.” Still, street-art remains an important influence on all of his work. “A lot of it is influenced by growing up in the punk-rock community in Victoria, being in bands, going to shows.” Ramsey was inspired by the “do-it-yourself attitude” of that scene. “You want to put out a magazine, you just do it yourself. You want to start a band, you talk to your friends and you just do it.” While in high school, he was in the punk band Shrunken Heads, and still “messes around with music.”
Ramsey was born in High Wickham outside London in 1979, the oldest of four children. When he was about eight years old, his family moved to Toronto, then travelled around, finally settling in Victoria. “I know I got a lot of my entrepreneurial sensibilities from being around my dad,” he says, and gives credit to that influence for gaining him illustration and mural clients like Emily Carr University, Mountain Equipment CO-OP, Patagonia, The New York Times, WIRED, and The BC Children’s Hospital, among others.
He might have inherited the travelling bug from his father as well. Right after he graduated from high school in 1997, he hitchhiked across Canada. Sketchbook always at hand, he then travelled with his now-wife through the Mediterranean, Morocco and Turkey. Southeast Asia followed, where he taught English in Taiwan while travelling to nearby countries.
“My art education was going to museums and galleries in Europe and taking all that in, and then living in Taiwan really impacted my art in a huge way,” Ramsey reflects. “There is just an abundance of drawings and cartoons in the signage over there, and in pop culture and everyday life, so it got me thinking differently about art and pursuing a career in art.” His first mural is still on a toy store wall in Taiwan.
For the most part, Ramsey’s drawings begin intuitively. “I just go to the paper and see what happens,” he says. “I have a toolbox of shapes and lines that I pull from, but I don’t really have an idea of where it’s going to end up…and there are these surprises that happen.” With a drawing, Ramsey says, “I am making mistakes constantly, but that’s really good for me, because it forces me to accept that thing that I did, and make it work.” In an essay he wrote some years ago, Ramsey quoted Albert Camus as having said, “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.”
Painting, however, is “totally different, because I am stepping back and planning and taking my time,” he says. The medium is relatively new territory for Ramsey, having taken it up in just the last few years. He spent the spring working on a series for his upcoming exhibition at Madrona Gallery. The palette and imagery are similar to those of the Cormorant Street mural: Orca motifs are plentiful, and sloping islands bask under blue turquoise skies dappled with Calder-esque clouds.
In several paintings, forms (hills, orcas) are dissected to show a teeming energy within, a complexity beneath the simplicity of colour and form. “It’s alluding to this vibration, this core of the Earth; this beating heart that is the centre of the Earth, the centre of living things, the centre of us,” Ramsey explains.
“Us” is an important notion to Ramsey, and he encourages it in the exchange between work and viewer. When he published his illustrated book Intelligent Sentient? in 2015, he deliberately left out the narrative he had written for it. Though it was about his personal ideas, “I didn’t want people to get fixed on those words; I wanted people to create their own interpretation of it,” he says.
It’s this spirit of non-fixed interpretation that also feeds his desire and ability to join forces with other artists. He has engaged in collaborations from Hong Kong to Cape Dorset—over 100 of them so far—and given workshops for youth in Haida Gwaii, Powell River and Victoria.
Ever-shifting perceptions of the world, and everything in it, fuel Ramsey’s creativity. Turning a basic, familiar object on its head suddenly transforms it into something equally recognizeable, and yet totally different. Demonstrating this simple truth in his image-making carries a lot of meaning for him.
“I think that’s really important in life, to not just see things as one stuck way—even the simplest of things,” he offers. “That is the problem with war and hate… Sometimes you have to just step outside yourself and try to see the other person’s perspective in some way. Maybe not agree with it, but just try and see where they are coming from a little bit more.”
Ramsey is a natural fit for his current position as 2017’s Artist in Residence for the City of Victoria, where he will be working with various City departments, running workshops and collaborating with different groups. Ultimately, all this exchange will result in at least one original piece of public art for the City. Given Ramsey’s approach, it will likely engage the viewer in such a way that we also become partners in a collaborative process which urges us to think when we play, and play when we think.
Luke Ramsey’s exhibition of drawings and paintings will be at Madrona Gallery June 8 to 22. 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com. Find out more about the City of Victoria Artist in Residence Program at www.victoria.ca and find Luke Ramsey online at www.lukeramseystudio.com.
Aaren Madden lives near the Trackside Gallery, where Luke Ramsey honed his street-art skills. She laments the deterioration of the programs there and vibrant, youth-created murals that once graced its exterior walls.
SINCE LAST AUGUST, anyone passing the 700 block of Johnson Street will likely have seen “Woven Together,” a public artwork installed on the façade of the Johnson Street Parkade. It is made of powder-coated aluminum forms in colours ranging from golden yellows and oranges to cool blues to muted browns and blacks. The forms fit together to describe circles, either in total or by suggestion using negative space. The effect, should you pause in your daily rush (and shouldn’t we all, now and then?), is of several circles advancing and receding with your eye’s movement, making a private communication to the viewer in this very public realm. Look a little longer and you will see eyes, butterfly wings, or just a collection of intriguing concave and convex shapes fitted together to make a whole. As is typical of contemporary Coast Salish artwork, it is at once engagingly complex and poetically simple.
The artwork is by Susan Point and one of her four children, Thomas Cannell. It is one of many of her public artworks that, like a silent story, punctuate Coast Salish territory (the lower mainland, southern Vancouver Island, and northern coast of Washington State). With these and private works, Susan Point has been credited for bringing the intricate flow of Coast Salish visual style back into practice, leading by example and inspiring many more young artists to spark a renaissance in Coast Salish art (she has the awards and accolades to prove it, including the Order of Canada). Perhaps one of the most bold declarations of Coast Salish style is her giant red cedar spindle whorl and welcome figures installed at the Vancouver International Airport in 1995 and ’96.
The spindle whorl, a round weaving implement, is an important item in Coast Salish culture. Usually made of wood, the discs are traditionally about eight inches in diameter and carved with shapes of humans and animals using distinctive design elements such as crescents, trigons and ovals. As part of their great spinning and weaving tradition, Coast Salish women have been using them for centuries.
Susan Point’s own mother, Edna Grant-Point, is among those women. She and other family members had a great influence on Point’s future career as an artist. Born in Alert Bay while the family was salmon fishing in 1952, Point was raised on the Musqueam Reserve near Vancouver. Point recalls, “We, my brothers and sisters, watched our mother wash, card and spin wool endlessly as we grew up…she was an excellent knitter.”
Her mother’s methods left a great impression on Point: “In creating her designs for knitting, my mother would design her images on graph paper—in an old ragged graph book that she had for years—using dots to create an overall design. To me, this was amazing!”
Along with aunts and an uncle, her mother also instilled a great awareness of her culture in Point, which, combined with her natural environs, she uses as inspiration in her artwork today. Despite having spent five years as a child in residential school, Point, now 64, says, “I will never forget the cultural teachings I was taught as a young child and I will forever cherish the stories and legends I was told.”
While she had the stories, the visual culture of the Northwest Coast First Nations had been only associated with northern groups like the Haida and the Kwakwaka’wakw. “It was not until January of 1981 that I first became aware of our unique art form while taking a jewellery course at Vancouver Community College,” she relates. She was on maternity leave from a legal secretary job at the time. Intrigued, she set out to learn more. Over time she travelled to museums and public archives in Canada, the US and Europe to do research. “The imagery upon the various utilitarian tools and houseposts were definitely one of-a-kind and unique to what we call Coast Salish art today,” she says.
Soon after her jewellery class, Point was making her own jewellery designs. And later that same year, at her kitchen table, Point created her first original print titled “Salmon,” a one-colour image of four salmon swimming toward a central point.
It is clearly suggestive of a spindle whorl, and the implement continues to be of particular inspiration to Point. Several of her prints have an explicit or implied circle at the centre of a spherical design to represent the middle of the spindle whorl. But even those that are rectangular in format evoke a circular flow, with the distinct undulations of her form of Coast Salish design. “The circle is a natural inspiration for me,” she explains. “It represents the circle of life, the Sun, the Moon, the ripples in a pond, salmon eggs, and so on. This triggers my inspiration, as I am sure it did for my ancestors and mankind, kindling invention and harmony, our connection to the land.”
Point has conveyed that continuity and connection in media ranging from cedar to paper to glass, steel to metal and stone, often working in areas that, at least when she plunged in, had traditionally been the preserve of men. But she admits that while she loves the challenge of a new medium, she enjoys the freedom of printmaking “simply because I love to draw and go beyond what I know…to explore and experiment.”
Her newest print, being done as this is written, is titled Robins. It comes during a flurry of activity, as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, February 18-May 28. Aptly titled Spindle Whorl, it will feature over 100 of her works. Curated by Senior Curator-Historical Ian Thom and Audain Curator of British Columbia Art Grant Arnold, a 160-page hardcover book has been published to accompany it.
Though the exhibition will provide her with an opportunity to reflect on a career full of accomplishment, she seems most gratified by the work she has been able to do in collaboration with her children. “Over the past 35 years, since childhood, all of my four children have watched me create art,” she shares, “and each one of them are true artists within themselves.”
Along with the Johnson Street installation, son Thomas Cannell has collaborated multiple times with Point and also done his own public commissions, sometimes in collaboration with siblings. Recently he was one of three Coast Salish artists whose designs adorn one of the new Coastal Class BC Ferries; his is Salish Raven. And Point adds proudly, “My oldest son, Brent Sparrow, has been assisting me with carving on large-scale projects and at the same time working on his own public art commissions. And there’s my daughter, Rhea Guerin, who has produced her own works on paper and has collaborated with me on a limited-edition lino-cut print. Then there’s my youngest daughter, Kelly Cannell, who has also collaborated with me on a few public art commissions as well, and who has also been working very closely with me for the past few years, assisting me with carving and painting. At the same time, Kelly also works on her own public and private commissions producing works on paper, in wood, metal, and in glass. It’s a family affair!”
Nowadays, Susan Point also particularly loves “drawing and learning from my grandchildren.” With thirteen and counting (one’s on the way), Point’s circle continues to get fuller.
Susan Point’s retrospective exhibit “Spindle Whorl” is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 28. In Victoria you can see “Robins” and other serigraph prints by Point and her children, Thomas Cannell and Kelly Cannell, at Alcheringa Gallery, 621 Fort Street, 250-383-8224, www.alcheringa-gallery.com.
As her own children grow, writer Aaren Madden is increasingly aware that she will learn more from them than she will ever be able to teach them.
IN 1953, KAREL DORUYTER'S family emigrated from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, a city of roughly 500,000 people, to China Lake, a tiny hamlet southeast of Quesnel. He was 11 years old. “There was a one-room schoolhouse that went up to grade six, and maybe a population of 30,” the artist laughs. “I remember my sister and I banging with two-by-fours and a big drum, making sure the bears didn’t come too close.” Though they didn’t know the language—and in retrospect, he appreciates how difficult it must have been for his parents—the youngsters “found it all very exciting.” This new way of life was utterly different, and the total shift from urban centre to the isolation of the BC interior left its impression on Doruyter.
Fast-forward to a view of one of his current rainforest landscape compositions, and the wonder of such a place is as fresh as it would have been to his young eyes.
From a room’s distance, Doruyter’s acrylic paintings have the uncanny quality of a photograph, appearing almost hyper-realistic. For one thing, the point of view is eye level, exactly that of a person who would be standing amongst the trees. And then the green mosses and leaves seem lit from within by the rays of a persistent sun reaching over and around to land on that one chosen frond.
As the viewer nears the work, however, Doruyter shows how he has internalized these landscapes over years of experience: What appears from a distance to be a delicate branch swaying in a gentle breeze, its bark surely dappled with lichen and tiny creatures, is no more than a light stroke of ruddy brown applied with a sure hand. Like the forests themselves, these paintings convey volumes in their simplicity.
They need to be seen up close for full effect. They are mainly large works with images ranging from a single canvas to sweeping triptychs.
Over time, Doruyter has developed a technique for building up the surface of the picture plane with his own concoction of plaster and other additives to create a relief that brings more impact to the texture of a tree’s bark, the driftwood on a wooded shore, or the corroding carved arcs of a Haida mortuary pole being reclaimed by weather, as seen in the painting “Closure.”
Of his technique, Doruyter says, “I basically draw out on the canvas where things are going to go, then I apply [the material], sometimes in multiple layers, but I try to make it as exact as I had it in my mind. After it’s set up—I generally leave it overnight—I use a Dremel tool or a file to get the texture of the bark, although I try to build that in as I do it, because it’s far easier doing it then than after.” Once he is satisfied with the texture, he gessoes the works and commences painting.
He can conjure these textures from memory: They are surfaces, objects, places that Doruyter knows well.
While he has painted most of his adult life and studied Fine Art and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, painting has not always been his main source of income.
After graduation, he finessed his way into a job as a surveyor with the Department of Transport and worked on the building of several airports in BC. He eventually became the chief design draughtsman at Vancouver Airport, then became the manpower training and planning officer for the region. A transfer to Ottawa and the prevalence of managerial politics was too much for the iconoclastic Doruyter, however. To the shock of many, he left the position, with all of its security and predictability, and found a path that, while it was admittedly peripatetic, ultimately led him to where he needed to be.
“From that point on, my while life changed,” he says. His first marriage broke up and he moved to Australia, working in mining in Tasmania for a couple of years. Most significantly at this time, he became interested in boat building. He explains, “I was fascinated by the idea of designing something you could live in, you could work in and you could move around in. And how you built the boat was how your life went. If you did a poor job building a boat, you might run into a problem. Your whole life depends on what you build.”
Doruyter eventually moved back to Canada and worked in a mine in Port Hardy, where he met an Englishman with whom he started a boat building company on Quadra Island. They made a go of it for five years, but material costs were prohibitive and they dissolved the company. That led Doruyter down yet another path. “By this time I had built my third boat and started to do charters up and down the coast and to Alaska,” he recalls. He also met a couple who were involved in major arctic and Antarctic expeditions and spent some time in Chile helping them redesign their vessel for said expeditions.
Another work opportunity led Doruyter to live in Haida Gwaii for a number of years. He continued to do charters and spend as much time in the rainforest as he could. “I think living there really shaped me as an artist, being in Haida Gwaii and going up and down the coast,” he reflects. “That’s why I paint the way I paint now; I mainly paint the West Coast rainforest. It’s fascinating. I don’t know how many times I have been up and down the BC coast; probably several hundred. Each trip up and down, no matter how short or how long, it’s different. You could spend several lifetimes just between Victoria and Hyder, Alaska,” he says. The common theme running through all of these ventures was the constant pull of geographical isolation.
While he used to live in Victoria, Doruyter now makes his home in Penticton. From there, he paints his forest scenes and manages Arctic expeditions for the same couple. From time to time, he will escape to some appealingly isolated place, like Tierra del Fuego, where he spent a month hiking a few years back. “It was so beautiful in a minimalistic way,” he enthuses. “Just the glaciers and the mountain; there is such a presence.”
It’s that feeling he seeks to evoke with paint and plaster on canvas: the monumentality of our natural world as it can only be understood in the places of isolation that so appeal to him. “I am basically drawn to the…emptiness,” he says, searching, although dissatisfied with the word. “Let’s put it this way: it’s empty of people,” he settles with a grin. “I am trying to get that feeling of ‘I have been here, on this spot, for 300, 400, 700 years. I was here when you were nothing.’”
Karel Doruyter’s work can be seen in Victoria at a January group show at Madrona Gallery, 606 View St, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com.
As soon as she notices herself sighing and grumbling, Aaren Madden knows she is overdue for some regenerative time in the woods, where she will find the “everything and nothing” that she needs.
BLU SMITH'S HOME is tucked into North Saanich, nestled among towering Douglas firs. It sits on a sweep of green lawn that joyfully displays a clutch of toys belonging to his two young sons. His wife, a chiropractor, seems used to graciously leading arts writers and other visitors through their light-filled home to Smith’s basement studio, dubbed “the cave.”
It is not so oppressive as the moniker suggests: The ceilings are high; the walls are a crisp white and large enough to accommodate several paintings hanging and leaning. However, there is a marked lack of natural light, the windows having been covered to prevent it from wandering into the space.
It’s interesting, considering Smith’s practice revolves largely around seeking light out, in making the intangible manifest in pigment on an opaque surface. “Why is light important in my pieces?” Smith reflects. “It’s the pot of gold. It’s the elusive; what I have always been striving for. It’s the push behind me to always keep going,” he says; it’s “the prize.”
His reach for it happens in a predominantly abstract expressionist style, in which meaning can be elusive. However, through his luminous canvasses he has been able to connect with viewers. “Shedding a little bit of light—and life—that people can grab ahold of and gravitate towards, I think that’s one of the reasons why people enjoy my abstracts,” he notes. Abstract art operates on an intuitive, emotional level in its making and in its viewing, and that is where opportunities for communion between artist and viewer exist. “You get a lot of visceral reactions from people; it moves them. It’s amazing, because I spend all my time down here, and to put it out in the world and get these kinds of responses from people, it’s an honour,” he says.
Imagine, then, going back in time to tell Smith, a young University of Victoria art student, that this was how his career would play out. He would likely react with a derisive scoff. Early on, Smith had no time for abstract art. He laughs now. “I was just a naïve kid, because I could paint and draw realistically, so I thought that was being an artist. These people who did abstract, I thought it was a cop-out; that they didn’t know how to be artists. And I was vocal about it,” he admits.
This, mind you, was once he adjusted to the notion of even having an art career. Born in 1968 in Kamloops and raised in Vernon, Smith was playing junior hockey when, at age 18, a motorcycle accident put an end to that career path. As a kid, when he was not on the ice, he could be found drawing famous goalies (his own position)—or members of the rock band KISS—so he turned to art studies on the advice of a college counsellor.
At 21, he moved to Vancouver Island and worked as a sign painter before finishing his Fine Arts degree at the University of Victoria. Later, he worked in commercial art—“signage, murals, logos, chalk art for pubs and restaurants,” he lists, which demanded tight precision and technical skill. In a departure from an art-based vocation, he then spent some time as an electrician on luxury yachts. But any spare moment was an opportunity to paint.
Initially, his steadfast adherence to representational and figurative work left him frustrated. “It was just really lacking something,” he relates. “I knew that I had something to say as an artist; I just had to find what it was.” So in what would be an intense personal challenge, he immersed himself in what he had previously derided. “I would have 20 pieces of paper taped up to the wall. I would go from each to each, and I would work rapidly,” he explains, intuitively laying down colour and form. Eventually, hundreds accumulated. “I could pick and choose which ones I found interesting and build off that piece, and they would continue to build off one another. So this evolution started happening,” he explains.
That was 20 years ago now, and ever since, he has seen his work as part of a continuum. Now, five years focused full-time on his art practice, Smith works with combinations of acrylic paint, latex house paint, gel mediums, heavy molding paste and, recently, a return to oils. Part of the luminous effect is achieved by applying layer upon layer of colour—“just big stacks of colour” that he will rebalance “until the colours sing together.” He often uses charcoal lines to pull images out of these layers that can remain purely gestural or coalesce into a topographical quality.
His final step is to bring each piece “to life” by rendering the light. “Sometimes you want more of a glow; other times you want it where it’s just burning,” he says. The latter calls for big, bold brushstrokes that result in a luscious impasto. The light in each piece follows a path that leads the viewer through the composition. “Light is like water: It will find the path of least resistance,” Smith observes. “Same with electricity. Any way it can get through, it will find its way.”
He notes that his family’s move to their current property three years ago has affected the way light moves through his work. Previously, “we were up on the side of a hill and we had a gorgeous view of Mount Baker, so I would get the intense morning light from the sunrises every morning,” he says. “That’s what really started the light getting into my abstract work.” Now, nestled among the trees, “there is this fascinating light popping through little places in trees, just trying to get through.”
A desire to express that has brought Smith back to representational work in his latest series. He is aware of coming full circle, but now with his artistic voice ringing loud and clear. “I am able to really retain things I have learned with abstraction and apply them to this,” he says. His signature bold, expressive colourways prevail, as the light pushes its path through fauvist blue-grey-purple groves of trees in works like “The Long Shadow Stretch.” From the rippling surface of a pond in “The Willow” the light and colour leap onto three more purely abstract canvasses. Soon, Smith plans to build a studio in the backyard of his property, replete with windows and light. “I know [my work will] be completely affected being in there, but my work always changes. It moves and it grows,” he says. Following its inevitable path, as does a beam of light.
Smith’s new works will be on display at Avenue Gallery November 3 to 14 in a show aptly titled “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light.” 2184 Oak Bay Avenue, 250-598-2184, www.theavenuegallery.com. Blu Smith can be found online at www.blusmithgallery.com.
Aaren Madden lives in a house with west-facing windows that bathe her kitchen in the golden light of the setting sun.