Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dancing Garbage: "Tango" and "Dance for Matisse"

I had the good fortune of being an art school student for fifteen years. The institution I attended,  Emily Carr College of Art and Design when I started, evolved into a degree-granting Institute. It's now a University. Each time a reorganization occurred or the rules were rewritten, the changes were always in my favour. At first, as a part-time student, I could only take evening and weekend courses, and would not have been able to continue past second year; but after a few years I was allowed to enrol in any course for which I was qualified, and to advance, one course at a time, through the four-year program. With no thought initially of pursuing a diploma or degree, I eventually reached a point where I had accumulated so many credits that I just had to keep going. I had to fit my art courses around my teaching schedule at Langara College, which narrowed my options; but strangely, there was always a space in some suitable course at an appropriate time. So it was that I continued until 2005, the year that I retired from Langara and obtained my BFA degree at Emily Carr.

I found the college to be a wonderfully stimulating and creative place, and I especially appreciated the projects that were assigned. Invariably they nudged me into some new direction that I might never have thought of on my own. They were always open to broad interpretation, and seeing what other students in the class came up with was an education in itself.

One of the most far-reaching assignments for me was to produce a series of paintings on subject matter that would normally be rejected, despised or overlooked.  I'm not sure why this was such a significant project for me, since I had accepted from an early age that art didn't have to be pretty or picturesque, and could be made from the most ordinary and unpromising material. More than a hundred years had elapsed since the Impressionists had shocked the exhibition-goers of their time with their depictions of ordinary people and scenes, and turned their backs on the traditional themes derived from history, religion and mythology. Perhaps it was simply a matter of emphasis: I was being asked to take the idea a step further, and consciously and deliberately choose subjects viewed as unworthy.

Branching Out 29"x 22" acrylic on paper
No More Monkeys... 22"x 29" acrylic on paper

At the time, in 2002, I was anxious to work on my painting skills and was also interested in still life. So for this project, instead of the traditional fruits and vegetables, I decided to paint parts that would normally be thrown away. I began to study banana skins and the twigs that come with on-the-vine tomatoes. As soon as l started drawing, to my amazement, the bits of rubbish took on a life of their own. This "life" wasn't still at all, but expressive of a whole range of movement and emotion. They reached out and crawled ("Branching Out"), flung themselves down in despair, and bounced up and down ("No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed").

Tango 29"x 22" -  acrylic on paper
And they danced!  The fresh yellow banana skins reared themselves up in the proud stance of the tango, and I could hear the jerky rhythm of the music as they stepped out together. 

Dance for Matisse 22" x 29" - acrylic on paper
The dried up tomato leaves joined hands and whirled into a circle dance, so reminiscent of Matisse's "Dance"--please see --that I imitated his colour scheme, though with the red and green reversed.


From this project I learned that the most unlikely subject matter can tell stories, act out dramas, and put on performances. I was already familiar with the idea that a still life painting can be theatre in miniature, since as soon as two or more items are present there is an interaction between them; but the degree of expressive movement that can be implied was a new discovery and complete surprise. Paying attention to the most humble objects is an approach to art which underlies much of my painting, and appeals to me in other artists' work too.

For more information about paintings please see 

On the Ferry 32"x 24" - acrylic on canvas

 Next time (around March 6): 
Travelling hopefully: "On the Ferry"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Me and Vermeer! "The Open Door"

In 2009-10 the Vancouver Sketch Club produced paintings on the theme "Looking In/Looking Out", and eventually exhibited them at Hycroft, the home of the University Women's Club of Vancouver. The idea was to show a door, window or other opening and the view through it. Since the theme was my suggestion, I worked hard on the project. Among the numerous paintings I produced was "The Open Door," 30" x 19".

This is an enigmatic and surprising painting, even to me. Intuition played a greater part in its formation than in most of my work. The narrative implied in the painting is something of a mystery, and has been interpreted by viewers in very different ways.

The setting is Clare's Cottage, a sister cabin to Mervyn's Manor (see my blog of Feb. 3, 2011.) It's my favourite cabin, the one we stayed in on the first of many family holidays at the resort, when my son was four, and my daughter only eleven months. In August 2003 I spent another happy week there with my daughter, by this time grown up and married, and about to become pregnant with my first grandchild. I took a photo from the master bedroom, across the bed and through to the deck on the west side. I liked the picture, and kept it for several years in my "Future Paintings" folder, but it seemed depopulated, in need of human presence. I don't remember if it was the child or the feet that occurred to me first. My daughter modelled for the feet, and I used a photo of her as a toddler to help with the pose for the child, so the painting has associations with her, and yet she is not intended to be the owner of the feet, and the little girl is a complete stranger who bears no resemblance to anyone I know.

The "Open Door" of the title is the main player in this little drama. The door, with its big letter Z, its frame, and its opening, occupies practically all the picture plane. A door is a potent symbol of transition: closed, it keeps in, or keeps out; it provides protection from intruders or the weather; but it may also be a barrier, implying separation or confinement. An open door, on the other hand, allows free movement and access, but also invasion or escape. So what is the role of the open door here? Does it allow the toddler out to explore the big wide world in a safe context, with an adult supervising from just inside the cabin? Or is the adult sleeping, negligently unaware of the child getting out alone, possibly to wander off into the forest? One or two viewers have even speculated that the owner of the feet is dead . . . and that the brilliant light entering from the left is the end-of the-tunnel experience reported by near-death survivors.

I have no answers to these questions, though, as with "Foreign Hotel," (see my blog Feb. 14) I'm more on the "queasy" than the "cosy" side. This is not a simple summer idyll. But then, I have some background associations that may colour my feelings. The first time we arrived at Clare's Cottage, my daughter was a crawling baby, and the first thing her father did was to reinforce the rudimentary handrails with bits of rope, so she wouldn't drop off the edge of the world. Looking at the infant in my painting, I would like to be reassured that she is similarly protected from harm.

I said the painting was "surprising" as well as enigmatic. The surprise was the discovery that in dealing with a compositional problem I had something in common with the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer! The location in "The Open Door" is closely based on my photograph, but the human elements are introduced from imagination, which presented me with some challenges. The scale, proportions and perspective needed to look convincing. I had several goes at getting the child the right size, and finally thought the painting was finished. At that point I like to take the work home to live with it and see if any anomalous details pop out and need
fixing. I sat complacently admiring my handiwork until a sudden realization had me leaping to my feet in horror. If the recumbent owner of the feet had done the same, he or she would have smashed into the roof of the cabin, like Alice after eating the Wonderland cake. The feet were MUCH too big! Back to the studio we went, and I scaled them down.

Shortly after this incident, I happened to watch a television documentary on Vermeer. In the film the art historian discussed "The Art of Painting," which you can see at , and pointed out that the figure of the artist, who is seated in the foreground, is huge in relation to the rest of the painting, and would have the same problem as the owner of my Feet! It's not known whether Vermeer did this deliberately, or whether it was a mistake, or whether he just didn't care. But maybe I should have left my oversized feet alone, and then in a couple of hundred years I'd be as famous as Vermeer . . .

Next time (around Feb. 27): Dancing Garbage: "Tango" and "Dance for Matisse"     

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cosy or Queasy? "Foreign Hotel"

Once a painting is finished and displayed to the public, the artist relinquishes control over how it will be viewed and interpreted. I have discovered that what people see can diverge to a startling extent from what I thought I was depicting. This raises some questions: What did I intend at the outset? Did I stick to my intention and achieve my goal? Do I see why some people interpret my work quite differently? And finally, does it really matter?

"Foreign Hotel" has turned out to be an ambiguous painting which has taught me that if I feel it's important to convey a particular mood or message, perhaps I need to exaggerate aspects of the work. On the other hand, subtlety and understatement might be considered assets: leaving room for personal responses and associations could make for an enriched experience for my viewers.

Sometimes the title of the work indicates what the artist had in mind. "Foreign Hotel" refers literally to the subject, a hotel room in a foreign city, in this case Brasov in Romania. But I also chose the title because it suggested a sense of malaise, the dislocation of a new arrival in alien surroundings.

When I choose to paint a scene that I've been part of, I obviously have much greater knowledge of it than a viewer of the finished product is likely to have. In this case my own associations include my memory of arriving in Eastern Europe for the first time; of being confronted in Bucharest with attitudes from "hospitality" workers that ranged from offhand and unhelpful to downright hostile; and of checking into a Brasov hotel that promised to be even more frosty. But my dismay at this unwelcoming reception was nothing compared to the shock of entering the hotel room. It was quite small, with an immensely high ceiling, and crammed with furniture. And looming out of the bay window was a gigantic rubber plant that swayed menacingly over one of the beds (I hastily staked a claim on the other, citing my need to be near the bathroom!)

I took a picture of the room , mainly to document the monster plant, and it was the photo that inspired the painting and determined the composition. I tried to express the unease and strangeness of the space, and in particular the malevolent power of the plant, but although I reworked the leaves several times, thickening the paint each time, I never quite captured the plant's shock value to my satisfaction. If I had, this would be a different painting, much less ambiguous.

Certainly some viewers, perhaps the majority, have shared the emotions I thought I'd put into the work, but others have admired the tranquillity of the setting, the richness of the drapery, the warmth of the colours . . . and one woman even said she loved it because it was "so cosy," a comment that floored me, since in my mind it was the exact opposite.

So is this a success or a failure? As a direct communication it fell short, and yet, four years after I painted it I'm not dissatisfied with it. I can appreciate the warmth, richness and tranquillity, and feel pleased that an odd composition, with a void of negative space right at the centre, seems to work. "Cosy" is going too far, but if some people look at it and are fondly reminded of their grandma's living-room, why should I object?

Next time (around Feb. 21):
Me and Vermeer! "The Open Door"

To see more paintings please go to  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Getting Going: "Saanich Morning" (re-post of Post 1)

Please note:  This is a rerun of my first instalment dated Jan. 31, 2011. Being new to all this I deleted it by mistake. There's no convenient "undelete" button, but the system had saved a draft. Since this one was intended as the introduction to my blog, and since you may not have had a chance to see it before it disappeared, here it is again. I'm learning!

Every picture tells a story, they say. There's also a story behind every picture. The story of my triptych :Saanich Morning" begins, in a sense, with its end, since I sold it, and then lost touch with the buyer. All I have left are the byte-deprived images shown here. I don't even remember the exact size of the paintings--something like 14 inches square each.

That ending, though, was a beginning for me. This was the first artistic work I ever sold, in the spring of 2005. In that same year I retired from the job I'd been doing for over thirty years, graduated from art college, and rented a studio space with other artists. These momentous events, along with the birth of my first grandchild the year before, set in motion my life as a senior citizen: I was officially an artist and a grandmother.

You never know who may turn out to be an art purchaser. On that day in 2005, the contractor who had been renovating my kitchen was packing up ready to leave. Gazing around my living-room, he asked if the paintings were for sale. In a state of shock I managed to stammer out a very modest price for "Saanich Morning," and even had the presence of mind to clarify that I would charge him for three paintings, not just one, even though they were bolted together.

The paintings' story had begun a year or two before, one glorious late-summer morning on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island. Drawing back the bedroom curtains, I was enchanted to see a deer just over the fence, also just getting up. I grabbed my camera and snapped the deer three times, as it rose from its bed and moved away through the arbutus trees.

The hasty shots of a moving target were not very good photographs, but I have found that that can be an advantage when painting. It's all too easy to be enslaved by detailed information. Trying to make an exact copy never works--a painter has to invent what the camera doesn't reveal. And anyway, there's no point in transferring to paint something which is perfect as a photograph. The experience of using my snapshots as the basis for paintings taught me a lot about working in a more impressionistic manner, with thick paint and lots of texture.

My paintings often start from a visual experience that carries a powerful emotional charge. This is what I hope to convey to a viewer, though I have learned that the message received may be quite different from the one I thought I'd transmitted. Looking at the images of "Saanich Morning" I can still feel the warmth of that summer day, my excitement, and my gratitude for the good fortune of looking out the window just at the right moment. I know that paintings of deer are a bit of a joke in some circles, because the subject has been overdone; but for me the sequence of events I painted is a meaphor for my own movement into a new phase of life. I hope the man who bought the paintings still shares my special moment when he looks at them.

Next time: Theatre of the Absurd: "Sleepless at Mervyn's"

To see more paintings please go to:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monsters are out there: "The Tree that Almost Brained Me"

There's no need to invent monsters. They're out there. Little kids know they live under the bed, and while that variety are notoriously elusive, others present themselves brazenly, out in the open, prepared to be sketched or photographed. I know, because I've seen them. And one nearly fell on my head.

It was June 2006, and I was at Emma Lake, Northern Saskatchewan, the historic location of a summer art school dating back to the 1930s and particularly famous for the abstract painters who convened there in the sixties. Happy to be accepted for a week's stay in this prestigious place, I had looked forward to working with artists more experienced than myself. Things did not turn out quite as expected.

I arrived late in the day after two flights and a bus ride. When the Director of what is now Kenderdine Campus of the University of Saskatchewan picked me up, he said it had been raining for days, but that the weather was about to improve. Meanwhile the mosquitoes were enjoying a population explosion. His other news was more startling: low enrolment and last-minute cancellations meant that I was the ONLY student expected for that week. Moreover, he had to leave that night for an early morning meeting in Saskatoon, the artist-in-residence, a poet, was yet to arrive, and the cook and other staff had gone home. In other words, after a quick tour of the joint and a makeshift supper, I was to be left all alone for the night!

Strangely, after some initial consternation, I felt perfectly safe and comfortable in my solitary splendour, and after that night there were always people around. Being the "only child" I was thoroughly indulged. I had the best cabin, right on the lakeshore and relatively free of the insatiable  mosquitoes in the forest. I worked on my art project all day on the deck, shielded from the hot sun, which did materialize as promised, by a big green umbrella. I stopped only to eat and to enjoy the company and conversation of the Director and the poet. It was an idyllic week, punctuated only by the abrupt appearance of the Monster.

It happened one perfectly calm evening towards the end of my stay. The two men had gone fishing, the cook had once again gone home, and I was relaxing happily on my deck, enjoying the peace and the setting sun. There was a sudden rustling up above, and then a huge chunk of tree came crashing down, missing my cabin and the next one over and ME by a few feet.

By the time I'd recovered from the shock it was getting dark, so I waited until the next day to have a close look at my near-nemesis. It was a dead birch, completely rotted through and richly encrusted with lichens. It was also, as you can see from my photo, a prehistoric beast chewing up its prey. 

I didn't paint my tree until 2010. It seemed important to me to portray it quite large and with thick texture, to acknowledge its massiveness and lethal power. My main concern was to do justice to both sides of its character; it did look like a monster, but it was really just a dead tree. I felt I had been successful in balancing the two sides when at the Eastside Culture Crawl in November some visitors saw one aspect first, and some the other.

The painting is looking for a good home. It makes a strong statement and is 24" x 42". I can visualize it in a cedar-and-glass house with generous indoor/outdoor spaces, and real trees outside the windows to keep it company.

Next time:  Cosy or Queasy? "Foreign Hotel"

For more information on paintings please see

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Theatre of the Absurd: "Sleepless at Mervyn's"

Though grandly named, Mervyn's Manor is a rustic cabin, built of salvaged lumber from a chicken barn, at a seaside resort in the Gulf Islands. ( My family and I have spent many vacations there, and over the years have coincided with various avian residents. One year there was a family of young ducks who did the rounds every day begging for snacks, and were so tame that the children cuddled them on their laps. Another time the owner of the resort had three goslings and had to teach them how to fly. Each day we watched his proteges trotting after him, flapping their "arms" in imitation, until the memorable day when they built up enough momentum to take off and soar on their wobbly wings. And then there was the stray peahen, a wonderfully exotic sight up in the trees, but decidedly less lovable at 5 am, when she greeted each day with ear-piercing shrieks.

So there were plenty of precedents for the appearance of the rooster that chose the old iron bed on Mervyn's back porch as his sleeping place. I was not there that year, but as soon as I saw the snapshot of him I scrounged a copy to use for a painting. I was charmed by the incongruity of the elements in the picture: a battered rooster, lacking a few tail feathers, a rusty bedstead, and a mid-20th century fridge.

I tried various croppings and formats for the composition, and started painting on a tall skinny canvas, 60 x 24 inches. This turned out to have far too much negative space, so I  trimmed it down and restretched it to 48 x 24, which worked better, though the perspective lines of the cabin were still a nightmare. 

The photo was taken with a flash, late in the evening. This would not normally be a good source of information for a painting, since the flash exaggerates contrasts and creates black areas, but in this case the flash was an asset, since it explained the dopey but startled look on the bird's face.

I showed the painting at a studio tour, and a woman wanted to buy it, which presented me with a dilemma. The painting was already committed to a juried show a few weeks later, and I didn't know how to manage this "double booking." My hesitation cost me the sale, a painful lesson in my fledgling art career. I learned that if someone has cheque book in hand I should close the sale then and there, or the cheque may never get written. I also learned not to offer anything for sale until I was quite sure I was ready to part with it.

The painting did sell later, at a fund-raising auction. I never discovered who bought it, and that's a little sad. As with puppies and kittens, I want to know that my creations have gone to good homes. I wonder about the buyer of "Sleepless at Mervyn's." Who are you, and what appealed to you about this absurd little scene? If you happen to read this I'd love to hear from you. I hope my painting has a good spot in your home, and that it still raises a smile when you walk by.

Next time:  Monsters are out there: "The Tree that Almost Brained Me":

                      To see more paintings please go to