Friday 26 October 2012

Gone to the Dogs

I have once again taken my art on the road and this time my mobile gallery is on site at the largest dog show in Canada! The "Travel the World" dog show takes place at the Abbotsford Tradex every October thanks to the efforts of the Lower Mainland Dog Fanciers. For four days the Tradex becomes a hub of canine activity, with daily competitions, demonstrations and a trade show of products and services for the discerning dog owner. Pet dogs are not allowed to attend, but there are competing and performing dogs in abundance: enormous, tiny and in-between sized, long haired, short haired, silky, coarse and curly coated, runners, diggers, hunters, herders, guarders, athletes, lap sitters and sofa snugglers, all under one roof. I'm displaying a range of my artwork, from lifelike coloured-pencil portraits, to lively silk paintings, plus a selection of silk scarves like the one pictured above that playfully celebrates the diversity of the dog world.  

My silk painting of a frolicking boxer, "Having a Ball at the Beach"

It goes without saying that an event like this provides dog watching opportunities second to none. I have seen sleek Salukis slinking past my booth, and toy like Coton de Tulears (a breed with which I was previously unfamiliar) with their snow-white powder-puff coats, not to mention a Newfoundland dog the size of a pony who strode past in a stately fashion. On one trip to the coffee stand I caught sight of a graceful Afghan hound shimmering like a mirage with its coat of long, gossamer hair, and later I glimpsed what I think was a puli, a stocky little herding dog whose mop-like coat resembles Rastafarian dreadlocks. And of course there are my personal favourites: the collies. I almost walked into a post gawking at a stunning blue merle male headed for the show ring, and had the infinite pleasure of meeting a young female smooth collie (the same breed as my own Riley only with a short coat) who is in training to be a service dog.

My booth couldn't be better situated for entertainment, with a great view of an arena where dogs are performing for show visitors. I have seen dancing dogs, obedient dogs, dogs who could jump really high and others who spin, or roll over repeatedly, or slink along on their bellies on command. Some have pulled carts, some have found their way through wooden "tunnels" in search of mechanical rats, others have clambered over obstacles, and still others have simply romped around and demonstrated their good natured, playful personalities. In the "Meet the Breed" area which surrounds this ring there are plucky representatives of Scotland's terrier clans, lumbering mastiffs whose wagging tails can pack a mighty wallop, a Portugese water dog who is inseparable from the stuffed toy he totes around, and even whippets wearing fleece pyjamas, all acting as ambassadors of their respective breeds and welcoming visitors to learn more about them. Their owners aren't shy about talking about them, and their eyes light up as they describe their dogs quirks, strengths and sometimes less-desirable qualities so that anyone interested in obtaining such a dog will know what both the pleasures and pitfalls of the breed can be.

The one thing every dog has in common is the obvious joy they bring to their humans. I have heard many stories of love, loyalty and faithful companionship, from tales of ageing dachshunds to proud boastings about newly-arrived Bichon Frise puppies. The stories are told with a smile that is sometimes wistful when a departed friend is the topic, but a smile nonetheless. These canines are family. And in the way of modern families, many owners whose dogs are waiting for them at home carry their precious pups' photos on their smartphones, so I've been able to not only hear their stories but see their pictures too!

I've used my time here, when I'm not chatting with visitors, to complete this coloured-pencil portrait of my Riley (aka the Collie Princess). It's been a fine way to not only show off my own wonderful dog but she's also provided a lovely subject with which to demonstrate my skills.

In a couple of more days it will all be over. The champions will have been awarded their ribbons and all will head home with their humans to await the next competition. And I'll be packing up my pencils and paintings, and heading back to the studio with visions of dogs of all shapes and sizes dancing in my head.

Monday 15 October 2012

A History of Horses

A silk scarf in process on my work table.
Things are busy in the studio these days as I gear up to display and promote my art at a favourite annual show: The Mane Event. It's a kind of a trade show for the equestrian crowd and it draws folks from all over the region to see horse trainers in action, view horsey products, learn about horsey services, and basically immerse themselves full-on in a three day equine extravaganza. It's an event I always enjoy, despite long hours and a lengthy drive to and fro, because it connects me with a great crowd of outdoorsey people who are passionate about the critters - the horses, dogs, donkeys, sheep, llamas, cats, cattle, and whatever-else-have-you - that share their lives.

I don't have a horse in my own life right now but they're in my blood and therefore they surface regularly in my art. Looking back on my own history with horses, I recall there were always ponies or horses around our small farm during my childhood in Langley, BC. Many passed through our gates (my dad bought and sold livestock) but there were only four that I considered to be "mine".

The first, when I was four or five, was a cute-as-a-button Shetland pony named Tony who had the nasty habit of stopping suddenly and lowering his head in an effort to unseat me. If all went according to his plan, I'd tumble off and land in front of him so he could step on me (I can clearly recall having a Shetland-sized hoof print on my arm). It wasn't a love story between us but I was undeterred and Tony was followed by Dixie, a plump Welsh-x pony on whom I really learned to ride - or at least to stay in the saddle and steer effectively. There were no formal lessons, only a second-hand saddle and mis-matched bridle, a will to learn, and a good-natured pony who was gracious enough, most of the time, to put up with me. After a time and only a few mishaps that left me in the dust, the spunky little mare lost favour in our family by bolting out the front gate and leading us a merry chase down a nearby highway, my dad and I in hot pursuit in our Volkswagen Beetle. Thankfully she came to a stop unharmed on the lawn of a home that housed a very large family, and all the children of various ages and sizes were ushered out to form a human corral and capture her.

As I had nearly outgrown Dixie anyway, she was soon sold and Apple arrived. Apple was, as the name suggests, an Appaloosa; a beautiful mare not much bigger than a pony. She came to us in horribly emaciated condition, and we were shocked to discover that she was in foal, producing a beautiful filly in fairly short order and blossoming into a nurturing mother. However poor Apple had a history of abuse and was so skittish my parents feared for my life when I rode her. She would spook at nothing and run hell-bent-for-leather away from whatever imaginary threat had frightened her, with me possibly in the saddle or quite likely in a heap on the ground. She never lost this alarming habit and it was not the best situation for my health or my parents' who were riddled with anxiety at the prospect that I'd eventually come to serious grief.

Then came Duke - my first full-sized horse and, as my friends, family and followers know, the equine love of my life. He was a young gelding who had landed in the hands of a local horse-trader. A gangley, butter-coloured palomino Saddlebred-Quarterhorse with a gentle, unflappable disposition, he was less than three years of age. He had been "green broke", meaning he'd had a rider on his back and some basic training, and he turned out to be the perfect match for a shy teenager with minimal riding skills but a fierce passion for horses. We learned together with the help of an older, experienced riding buddy, various books, and endless hours in the saddle. We were inseparable - if I could find time to ride for 15 minutes after school and before my babysitting job, I would. I brushed Duke, bathed him, braided his mane and tail, and rode and rode and rode. He wasn't a champion or a purebred, but he was a good boy - faithful, steady and true, good-natured and patient. We entered a few local horse shows and won a handful of ribbons but my passion really was just spending time with him and riding - miles and miles and miles of riding. No indoor arena for us, just the lure of the open road!

Duke and I covered a lot of territory together. During the 1970s you could have seen us heading out in various directions in the Aldergrove area: north to the vast acreage owned by the Department of National Defence and which in those days was open to riders, south to the trails of Aldergrove Lake Park (the man-made lake has since been drained and filled in, so it's now called Aldergrove Park), or making the long trek west to the equestrian heaven of Campbell Valley Park with its fine facilities and trails tailored to horseback riders. When I left home and the family farm was sold, Duke lived at other farms and stables in various parts of the Lower Mainland as I gypsied from place to place. In the 1980s, you might have seen us galloping around Mud Bay near Crescent Beach, or ambling around the Queensborough area that's now totally developed into housing and highways (in those days a horse and rider was an anomaly in an increasingly urbanized area, and we attracted lots of gawkers) or racing down the horse trail between Highway 1 and Burnaby Lake. In the 90s we both ended up back in Langley, and it was there Duke eventually ended his days at a small family-run stable just a stone's throw from our favourite place, Campbell Valley Park, which was where you'd have been most likely to have seen us during those last years. I remember our first ride in the park after moving back to Langley - Duke's joy was tangible (as was mine) as we returned to the stomping ground we'd left behind so many years earlier. There's now a plaque in the park's Spirit of the Horse Garden celebrating his memory.

So while I'm horseless these days, much of my past was spent in the saddle and I have the bad knees to prove it! Not to mention a couple of old saddles and a trunk full of tack gathering dust. Life has taken me in different directions and my art has followed suit, but the hours spent grooming, riding and observing horses are indelibly imprinted on me and I'm certain that even blindfolded I could make a fair stab at accurately drawing a horse. Pretty well the first thing I ever drew was a horse, and it may well be my last. My deep seated love for horses and for making art are forever intertwined.

"Friendly Faces" - my most recent equine artwork.

I don't know when a new horse will come along and become "mine" but I know one day, when circumstances are right, it will happen. For now I content myself with hanging out at places like the Mane Event and enjoying every moment of it.

Monday 8 October 2012

Immersed in Colour

I have always believed that life-long learning is important to personal and professional development. To that end, each year I try to take at least one course or workshop on a topic that interests me and has practical applications to my life as an artist. This year I was pleased to enrol in the Maiwa Colour Institute, a five-day immersion in the world of colour that's part of the Maiwa Textile Symposium. Maiwa is a company based on Granville Island in Vancouver and is a hub for all things textile, from supplies to garments and much more. Each fall they organize a symposium of workshops, lectures and other related events. The annual Colour Institute led by Michelle Whipplinger is always a sell-out, filling quickly once registration commences, and I had the good fortune to be quick to enrol (in past years I had missed out). I was delighted to share the experience with an enthusiastic group of participants from Canada, the US and as far away as England.

I'm no stranger to colour, given my work as both a visual artist and graphic designer. However my formal training is further in my past than I care to admit and I felt I could benefit from a week of immersion in the topic of colour. And thus for five days straight my life was devoted to better understanding that very thing that is fundamental to my work as an artist. After a couple of days, words like hue, value, chroma, shade, tone, intensity and saturation were swimming in my head, along with visions of colour charts, colour wheels and colour swatches. When I closed my eyes I saw a kaleidoscope of every hue of the proverbial rainbow. When I walked down the street, the bright autumn leaves took on new meaning, speaking the language of colour in a way I hadn't interpreted before.

Every evening after the workshop (and after my arduous commute home from the city) I worked to apply the things I learned to my own work. On my art table was a drawing I had commenced a week or so earlier - a nuthatch that I had observed and photographed outside my studio window last winter. These lively blue-grey and buff coloured birds present a delightful subject in terms of both form, habits and colouring. I continued working on the drawing, filling in the background with colours I would not previously have considered, working with hues of greens, blues, red-violet and burnt orange.

The nuthatch bathed in a lively compliment of colours.

The drawing then served as my inspiration for the final project of the week. In combination with colourful found objects such as autumn leaves and a magazine cover, I devised a pattern based on the shape and energy of the little bird, and then experimented with colour combinations to better understand their relationship and effect on one another.

My collection of items that served as inspiration for my final project.
My final project.

With the workshop a few days behind me, I now find myself analyzing nature's colour schemes in terms of how each colour relates to another, and the effect they have (or don't have) upon one another in their various combinations. It's as though way I perceive the world has been altered in a fundamental way. The fall timing of the workshop could not have been better as the brilliant fall colours we're experiencing at the moment offer exciting fodder for thoughts about colour.

I look forward to seeing where my invigorated perceptions of colour will lead me as I move ever-forward on my artistic journey.