Sunday, March 27, 2011

Exalting the Humble: "A Magnificent Weed"

A Magnificent Weed - acrylic - 2010 - 40" x 30"

This is another example of a painting of nothing much. In fact its subject was so humble that until I started to paint it and explain to my studio mates what I was doing, I don't believe anyone had noticed it at all. And yet my magnificent weed was not small: it was between four and five feet tall, and almost as wide! It had branches as thick as my fingers, leaves turning rich shades of red and yellow, a sprinkling of bright yellow flowers, and an abundant crop of ripening seeds in long thin pods. I practically tripped on the thing as I was unloading my car one day outside the building that houses our studio. I gazed in wonder at this powerhouse of nature growing out of the crack between the tarmac of our parking area and the base of the wall. I was lost in admiration for its prolific growth out of nothing at all. In the dry, hot August weather, how could it be finding any water, let alone nutrients? I knew right away that I wanted to paint its portrait.

Through the Crack - acrylic - 14" x 11"

It was not the first time I'd turned my attention to weeds, and asked myself the question "What is a weed, anyway?" In 2008 I'd had the idea of painting the uninvited guests in my little garden, and had started with the bluebells that threaten to take over each spring. I admired their persistence and sheer determination, especially one that pushed up between paving stones. 

Vancouver Bluebells - acrylic - 12" x 12"
Bluebells are an introduced species and were probably once prized for their fragrance and  colour; but they did too well in Vancouver and became pests. That's one kind of weed. Another kind are the wild plants, such as buttercups, that have moved to where the living is easy--nice tilled soil with water and manure laid on. They're weeds because they're in the wrong place. It's in the eye of the beholder, but it's a matter of context, not of beauty. Surely even the fussiest gardener couldn't deny the beauty of a dandelion flower or seed head. But these weeds are far from invisible: to a gardener they are conspicuous intruders that require instant annihilation. Quite different was the situation of my weed, which wasn't bothering anybody but was just an opportunistic squatter, managing to keep under the radar in the urban desert.

A bit of research identified my weed as a Tall Hedge Mustard. I got to know it better as I examined it each day upon arriving at the studio. I also took close-up photos. The painting began to take shape. Then I decided that since no one had even noticed the weed, no one would care if I cut it down and brought it into the studio to model for me. But I kept forgetting to bring a suitable knife. Perhaps I didn't really want to kill it. Then one night a gale blew and dashed it to the ground. The next day I found it crushed under a parked car. An ignominious end . . . but probably by then enough of its seeds had lodged in cracks in the masonry to ensure another generation's survival.

And of course, there's my painting to celebrate its life. I painted it close to actual size and let its spreading branches straggle right off the picture plane to emphasize its luxuriance. Its little flowers shine out like lights on a Christmas tree. My tribute to its magnificence extends to all organisms, whether animal, vegetable or human, that manage to thrive and prosper in the most adverse conditions, and with the most unpromising of beginnings.

Next time (around April 3): After this TENTH post to Easel Talk I'll pause to respond to some of the questions and comments I've received. I love getting feedback, so please keep it coming! Just click on "Comments" below. You can do it anonymously!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unplugged but Much Travelled: "The Bathtub Voyeur"

Photo of disc
Even at my busiest times as a working mother I somehow always found half an hour or so to relax in a tub of hot water. Now I'm retired I rarely fit this luxury into my life, and make do with quick showers, but at the time I moved to my present house I was still a sit-down bather. Since there wasn't much to look at I would find myself studying the plumbing hardware, in particular the chrome disc to which the plug chain was attached. It always reminded me of a little face, with the two screws for eyes--and one of the eyes was winking at me. I filed this notion away for a possible future painting.

In early 2010, at a meeting of the Arts Connection in West Vancouver, I heard about a venture called the International MiniArt Exchange, which was calling for submissions of paintings featuring faces. Here was an incentive to paint my perky little bathroom friend.

The Miniart Exchange is the brainchild of a Brazilian artist called Clara Pechansky. Clara's idea was to assemble a collection of small paintings that would travel the world and give people an opportunity to see a wide variety of international art. The first Exchange took place in Brazil in 2003, and has since spread to galleries and institutions on four continents. The paintings are not put up for sale, but circulate in batches among the venues. You can read more about the project and see lots of examples at

The Bathtub Voyeur - acrylic on board
The twelfth international exchange was to take place in 2010-2011. First the paintings would be exhibited in Porto Alegre in Brazil, in the summer of 2010, and the following year they would be brought to the Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver.The show was open to anybody--there was no jury-- but the rules were strict and the process felt like a bit of an obstacle race. All the works had to be exactly 18 x 15 cm, and painted on canvas board. There were several deadlines--one for receiving the painting in Porto Alegre, one for payment of an entry fee by Pay Pal (which I'd never done before) and one for emailing a digital image to Clara for inclusion in the catalogue. I produced my little painting and sent it off feeling as though I were firing it into outer space. It did get there, however, and was even included among the works featured on the brochure for the exhibition.There was a hitch resulting in a delay in Brazil, but the show did eventually take place, and the return match in West Vancouver is scheduled for July of this year.

As I wriggled around in the bath doing my research on the winking face, I realized that the reflective chrome was also acting as a distorting mirror, and that my own face and part of my torso were visible in the disc. I decided to include these in the painting. I don't think anyone would recognize me from this nudie self-portrait, but it made my submission doubly qualified to be in a show of faces. There is even a third, very tiny face, which doubles as the nose of the Voyeur, but this one is pure fantasy: there is a little circle there, part of the manufacturer's trade mark, but in reality it doesn't resemble a face at all.

Long after I'd sent the painting to Brazil it dawned on me that if I had really painted it while reclining in a tub of soapy water as in earlier days, the little chain that drapes decoratively around the "head" and disappears off the picture plane at the top would have been heading straight south to the plughole. I'm not sure if that would have made for a better composition, but I think I'm happy with the jewellery-like effect of the chain. It also makes the context clearer. In any event, unplugged as it is, my little voyeur is seeing the world, and might even be retitled "The Bathtub Voyageur." 

A Magnificent Weed - acrylic - 40" x 30" - 2010
Next time (around March 27): Exalting the Humble: "A Magnificent Weed"

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Painting in a Wet Climate: "The Rhythm of the Falling Rain " and "Hanging in the Rain"

In "Dancing Garbage" (Feb. 27, 2011) I described my discovery that subjects for paintings could be found in the most unpromising material. Two more recent  examples of this approach are "The Rhythm of the Falling Rain" and "Hanging in the Rain," both painted in 2009. They form 
part of an ongoing series of paintings on the theme "In Praise of November."
The Rhythm of the Falling Rain - acrylic - 20" x 20"

The former depicts raindrops pelting into a leaf-choked gutter. The rain was so heavy that the impact caused bubbles to bounce up, sail briefly down the street, and make patterns of ripples when they burst.

The subject of the second painting was just as improbable: a cement bucket, viewed through the filthy window of my former studio, making its lonely way through the downpour to an unfinished apartment tower.

Hanging in the Rain - acrylic - 18" x 24"

"In Praise of November" now numbers fifteen works, and each year I collect a few more images. The whole project stems from the "something from nothing much" idea. November is perhaps the least attractive month in Vancouver, when for days or even weeks on end we slosh around, shoulders hunched, intent only on getting home and dry. The sky sits like a massive grey lid just above our heads, and the storm drains fight a losing battle. It's easy to become depressed in these late-autumn weeks, so four years ago I decided to create an antidote for myself by seeking out striking images--anything that stood out against the gloomy backdrop. Initially I planned to take at least one photo per day with a view to using them as the basis for paintings. I lasted about ten days, but that gave me enough material to make a start on the series.From the outset I visualized a whole roomful of November paintings, and found this to be a refreshing way to work, less stressful than agonizing over each individual piece.

Starting with the November stereotype in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of weather and colour effects that the month had to offer once I really looked. My collection of images soon included snow-laden trees, a spectacular rainbow, remains of autumn leaves and berries. This past November, when we again had an early snowfall, I added images of vivid pink light, reflected off roofs and hillsides at sunrise or sunset. Nevertheless, the most characteristic feature of the season is the relentless rain, and I had to include it. 

The photos I took of the gutter looked dreary in the extreme, but as I worked on the painting the bubbles and ripples took on a jaunty aspect, and the murky grey colour gave way to shades of blue-green. I became aware of a lively movement and rhythm that suggested the title I chose. I have received many compliments on the painting, a gratifying surprise considering its bottom-of the-barrel starting point.

The suspended cement bucket and skeletal building were if anything an even more dismal subject, but in this case too the painting acquired colour as it progressed. The bucket became a metaphor for the isolation of human beings in a rainy climate. We scurry along with heads down, and scarcely interact with anyone in the street until the sun comes out and we suddenly remember how to smile. It's the reverse of the street scene we associate particularly with the Mediterranean countries, where the serious socializing takes place outdoors. 

When I had finished "Hanging in the Rain," I was reasonably satisfied that I had expressed what I saw and felt that dark afternoon when I took the photo, but I thought the subject might be too depressing for anyone to want to look at it. I was therefore particularly pleased when it was selected for the "Window Views" exhibition at CitySpace in North Vancouver in 2010, and sold a few weeks later at the Eastside Culture Crawl. Several people commented that the painting captures the essence of Vancouver in November, but I'm still a bit startled that the couple who bought it were so enthusiastic that they just had to have it in their apartment! One thing I have learned, though, is that I can never predict what will appeal to people, either collectively or individually. At exhibitions and sales, a dozen people may walk past a work with scarcely a glance, but then the thirteenth stops abruptly and moves in for a closer look. And just occasionally, for that person the painting is a must-have. "The Rhythm of the Falling Rain" is still waiting for that thirteenth person!

The Bathtub Voyeur - acrylic - 18 cm x 15 cm
Next time (around March 20): 
Unplugged but Much Travelled: "The Bathtub Voyeur"

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Travelling Hopefully: "On the Ferry"

On the Ferry - 32" x 24" - acrylic on canvas
Of all my paintings so far, "On the Ferry" has received the most exposure and acknowledgment. It has been included in two juried group shows, and featured on the poster and brochures for the 2010 Burnaby Artists' Studio Tour. I am curious about the painting's appeal to a variety of viewers. I think it has something to do with the forward movement implied by the composition, and the eager anticipation expressed in the body language of the three men at the front of the boat. Perhaps people make metaphorical associations with pursuit of a goal, seeking a better future, or progressing through life. Certainly there is a feeling of energy and enthusiasm suggested by the way the men are leaning out and scanning the horizon, where their destination is faintly visible. At the time, though, what appealed to me was simply something about the arrangement of the four heads in front of me. I photographed them surreptitiously, holding my breath in case they turned around and wondered why the grey-haired foreigner was taking their picture. Fortunately the wind and engine noise drowned out the beeps of the camera.

It had been an odd sort of day. My travelling companion and I were returning from Isla Mujeres to Cancun, where we were spending a week. We had decided to alternate our time between lazing around the beachside gardens sipping margaritas, and making day trips to places of interest further afield. We included Isla Mujeres because a former colleague owned a house there, and although we knew it was rented and we would not be able to go inside, we hoped to see its exterior and location. We set off early on the public bus into town, with only a hazy idea of how to get to the ferry terminal. Before we reached our bus stop, however, the weather, which had so far been Caribbean-perfect, suddenly changed, and a torrential downpour turned the streets into watercourses. Not wishing to start our offshore excursion soaked to the skin, we scooted across the road and piled onto a bus going the other way, back to our hotel--another 40-minute trip. By the time we got there, of course, the sun was shining and everything was dry. Nevertheless we picked up rain gear and set off again. This time we made it on to the ferry and to our destination, where we found our friend's house, had lunch nearby, and wandered around a bit. There was no more rain, but the day remained moody and unsettled. Because of our false start in the morning, it was soon time to head back to the ferry. For me the sea trip itself was the best part of the day.

That I was in the area at all was something of a miracle that still seems improbable. I'd been in Mexico several times before, but never on the Caribbean side. Then, in 2006, I received a phone call telling me I had won airfare and a week's hotel accommodation in Cancun. I was convinced at first that it was one of those telephone scams one hears about, but the prize turned out to be genuine--and I hadn't even been aware of entering the contest! Apparently I'd bought some sponsoring product at Canada Safeway that had put me in a draw. The woman who called expressed surprise that I didn't know about it, because, she said, the winner was announced on television. But since I never watch Canadian football, I had missed hearing my name!

While waiting to receive the package with details about my prize, I said not a word to anyone, and agonized over how to invite one friend to go with me without hurting and offending all the others. Finally I asked the one I'd chosen, and she squealed and leapt in the air most gratifyingly. Meanwhile I did some research on Cancun, about which I knew nothing, and was appalled to read that it was just the sort of place I'd always avoided. It's an artificial town, created some 35 years ago specifically to accommodate tourists. All the visitor amenities are housed on a long skinny barrier island, the zona hotelera, while the "real" people live in the nondescript town across the lagoon and the shanty towns some distance away.

Cancun Conversation - 24" x 24" - acrylic on board
Still, you don't look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, and my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed our week in the tropics in mid-February, the best time of year to escape Vancouver. Our hotel was very civilized and located well away from the garish bars and souvenir outlets. The weather, apart from the Isla Mujeres day, was glorious. We swam and relaxed and sampled local dishes, and there were bonuses such as the large lizards which shared the hotel grounds with the guests. Later I painted two of them (a waiter assured us they were father and son, though how on earth would he know?) and my travelling companion now has "Cancun Conversation" hanging in her home. It's a reminder of our holiday and of the battered old warrior that liked to sit under her chair when he wasn't chasing off his reptilian rivals.

Perhaps it's not always better to travel hopefully than to arrive. In the case of Cancun I travelled somewhat dubiously, and being there was much better than anticipated. If "On the Ferry" has metaphorical significance for me it lies in the renewal of hope and energy each time I tackle a
new painting. It's always a challenge and learning experience, and the possibility that this will be my best work ever. Maybe it'll even bring me fame and fortune . . . though I'll settle for just proving to myself that I can meet the challenge and make it work.  There's always a horizon beckoning.

Next time (around March 13):
Painting in a Wet Climate: 
"The Rhythm of the Falling Rain" and "Hanging in the Rain."

Please see also: