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 www.artinthepicture.com/paintings/Jan_Vermeer/The-Art-of-Painting , 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 . . .