Whether or not you are a fan of Emily Carr’s work, check out her portrait, painted by Sooke artist and playwright Sheila Thomas, at About Face, running at the end of March at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney.
First, note that it’s in colour, painted using a single 3.8-centimetre house painter’s brush and only four colours, which is the technique of art teacher Nicholas Pearce.
Second, trust your instincts: It is Emily Carr, but it isn’t.
And third, open your mind to the possibilities – that Emily Carr is Sheila Thomas.
Thomas took her first portrait class with Pearce wanting to paint Carr, but knowing that no colour reference photo existed. She knew, however, that he insists on students painting what they see in their reference material.
So Thomas did what she does best: came up with a creative alternative. She would rent a costume, pose as Emily Carr, have a friend take photos, and paint from that. She succeeded: You’ll see the results in the show, consisting of more than 150 portraits, from March 29 to 31.
Thomas is one of 41 students joining Pearce to fill the Bodine Hall, the space at the Mary Winspear Centre occupied by the Sidney Fine Art Show every fall. All have taken Pearce’s latest weekend workshop: the Portrait Intensive. They come mostly from Vancouver Island, but also from the Lower Mainland and Ontario.
Some students have found painting these portraits helped them deal with the loss of a loved one. Others have become their family’s chroniclers. Most works are paintings; some are pencil portraits. The latter are done with Pearce’s scribble technique, which involves one pencil, no eraser, and a gradual layering of texture to create the right shapes in the right places in the right greyscale.
Thomas incorporated her portrait of Emily Carr into a dream of changing the direction of her own life. She has always loved Emily Carr because Carr chose an authentic life for herself despite the ridicule she faced.
“She refused the pre-fab design for women,” Thomas said. “Instead, she painted a canvas for her life, which meant a solitary journey into the woods with her paints.”
Thomas, like Carr, is painting a canvas for her life. She is looking for a smallish school bus to convert into a home in the west coast style of Emily Carr. She plans to hit the road with her easel, brushes, paint, and her 75-pound poodle, Stroodle. Meanwhile, she’s also working on a play about Emily Carr.
Pearce was inspired to organize About Face after seeing students overcome their fear of painting portraits and produce successful works in his Portrait Intensive workshop.
“I’m really proud of all the work and effort my students have put into their paintings,” Pearce said. “I want to show them off, and to show that portraits are indeed achievable.”
Pearce believes a portrait is like any other painting – a collection of colours and shapes. He does admit, however, that tackling a portrait carries risks that a landscape does not. “A tree won’t complain that its mouth isn’t right,” he says.
Pearce, whose technique was inspired by the Impressionists, teaches his students to avoid trying to create perfection through photorealism. “Indicate, don’t illustrate,” he said. “Absolute definition of anything can take the magic out of a painting. Give just enough detail to imply rather than to state.”
His goal is to help students capture their subject’s spark, not just a likeness. He said a portrait works when it morphs from an image of a person’s features to a sense of the person’s being.
“You don’t see an eye; you see a soul shining out through an eye,” Pearce said.
Each portrait, or group of portraits, will come with a story so the viewer can learn who the subject is and why the work was created. Visitors will be able to watch demonstrations, sign up for classes, or commission portraits done by Pearce or his students.
Pearce believes artists want to paint portraits because of the challenge involved, and the need for connection through art. But most important, he said, it’s the feeling for the person they’re painting.
“When we paint a portrait of someone we care about, it’s an act of love.”
IF YOU GO
About Face art exhibition with Nicholas Pearce and his students
Mary Winspear Centre
2243 Beacon Ave. West, Sidney, B.C.
Friday, March 29, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday, March 30, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday, March 31, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Reception: Saturday, 7 to 9 p.m., refreshments and no-host bar