Self and slightly-larger-than-life portraits of some Great Canadian Artists

Last week, I worked with two sets of students to paint the portraits of eight Canadian Women Artists. The artists I chose for this project were relatively current artists, and most are living still. If they weren’t living and contemporary, I had good reason to select them (strong influence on other artists, international artistic influence, and influence in the realm of policy change.) 

As Women artists, these trailblazers have pushed their way forward to make pertinent, strong art. They are all women of their time, whose actions and freedoms reflect the reality of being a woman artist. They are all Canadian.

Lisa Steele, Janet Cardiff, Jin-me Yoon, and Anne Savage on the right side of the mural.

For most of these artists, the medium carries the message. The medium alone isn’t the message anymore. One could say that the work tends towards the more narrative/story-telling genres (eg video, film) that are content-laden by nature. However, even the most well-known of these artists in the field of film (arguably Joyce Wieland) worked masterfully in other media too. She worked in textile art, in public art, in installation, and more. The media had to suit her expression, she took control of the content and the implicit meanings of the formats.

As for this specific project, I chose portraiture to pay homage to these women. It’s a reflection on them, a reflection on the mind behind the visage we see. It’s a reflection of ourselves as we look at these faces and relate to them.

There were a total of 14 students who worked on this; none of them Art students. I was very impressed with them all.

The students used a technique called grisaille, in which one paints in shades of grey. Traditionally, a painter would then glaze translucent colours on top of this greyness, in order to achieve naturalistic colouring. We also talked a little about how this is related to chiaroscuro, the Rennaissance-invented method of modelling shapes through the use of dark and light. In a best-case scenario, a painter would use both aspects to create a likeness.

Before finding a permanent home, Joyce Wieland, Rebecca Belmore, Gathie Falk, and Betty Goodwin were celebrated in a hallway display-case.

I am proud of what the students and I did this last week. I am glad that the paintings have a home in Vanier College, in the Women’s Studies department. It was interesting to me that there were no Art students amongst the bunch of students who came to the workshops; perhaps they felt that they painted and drew a lot already, and wanted a break. It is sad that they missed this opportunity to not only connect with a live, professional artist from outside of their school system but inside their community (me), but they missed learning about these contemporary artists who, if the students continue to work in the arts, they will eventually hear about. In any event, it was an invigorating experience to not only guide the students in painting, but to introduce them to these artists and their ideas. 

Natasha Henderson, Montreal