On Painting What I see

Bang On! Self Portrait 1983. Oil on paper.

Whenever I want to introduce people to my personal art history, I always start with the sentence, I’ve been making art my whole life… but then I kind of hesitate on that because it seems like one of those idioms that good writers are supposed to avoid… like saying that you gave 110% effort. It is true however, drawing really is one of my earliest memories, and I was a nerdy kid so I had a lot of time on my hands. Specifically I always liked to draw real things, what I saw. When I was around six years old, I took some art lessons at a little church off Mississauga Road, down the street from the U of T Mississauga – we learned how to draw cylinders and cubes and I think that was the first time I learned about depth and perspective – it was like Hogwarts level magic, someone handing me the secret to make my drawings look “real”.

There are a few moments in my life that I can point to and say, that’s a time my art levelled up. I think that class at the little white church was one of them. The journey from those scribbles of faces and cubes and cylinders to my current work looks more like a series of plateaus with jumps every few years than a steady upwards progression. Another level up was learning to paint from the artist who lived a few doors down from the house where I grew up. From age eleven to maybe fifteen I spent every Wednesday after school painting at her house and soaking up dog cuddles from Shelly and Jessie. Certainly one of my most significant art moments was finding out about the art program at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, and applying and being accepted (and narrowly escaping five years of girls-only high school which I desperately wanted to avoid given my nerdy childhood up to that point). I have taken other art classes since and for me nothing compares to that incredibly immersive, challenging, expert-level program assembled at Cawthra Park. And lastly, a really big art moment was entering into and finding my way back from a twenty-year painting hiatus – not only finding my way back but reconnecting with my favourite high school art teacher in the process. Instead of being a total waste of those years, I think that I was unknowingly processing. It was almost like I needed that long to understand myself (I guess I’m a bit of a mystery!) before I could have any hope of expressing myself through my art.

With perspective and mentor in hand and in touch, and everything aligned to let me paint in peace (for example, a door with a latch to keep the animals out of the studio when needed) I’m finally progressing towards… something? For the past few years, a common thought that I have when approaching every new painting is, What am i trying to say? This question has been years in the making. Teenager me was likely too preoccupied with earning praise for my art to consider larger concepts for my work. Having been in the game longer now, I am starting to appreciate that good is relative – perhaps even a moo point in the words of the venerable Joey Tribbiani.

My painting is a reflection and interpretation of the world that I see. My art is rooted in time and space and specific details that someone a world away might look at and say – I’ve never been there but I get that, that speaks to me. Much like a sugar rush, accolades like, That looks so real wear off quickly, and can even hurt a little. But when someone spots those Easter eggs hidden in the horizon, recognizes the subtle nods to favourite artists before my time, the nuances and the design that could not have worked a different way, or simply wants to know more – that is so satisfying and drives me further towards that something.

In high school I took an English class called, The Writer’ Craft and our teacher encouraged us to use specific details to anchor our writing. For example, I can still picture the game of checkers in Catcher in the Rye when Holden observed that Jane kept her kings in the back row. That resonated with me, maybe because I thought it was romantic that he noticed that. Similarly, my organic chemistry professor at Queen’s told us to imagine electrons like the fog rolling in off San Francisco Bay – to this day, particle theory and the Golden Gate Bridge is a strangely sentimental (and strangely intertwined) image for me. My point here is (and if you are still reading, thank you): It is the details that count. In writing and teaching and relaying information. The details make it real, the details make it understandable.

I paint what I see to to capture that simultaneously warm and sad feeling of an old dog resting in the sun, or the chains-breaking, radio-blaring freedom signified by an open road. I hope that the universality of the human experience means that other people will see what I paint and feel something too.

Thank you for reading.

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