During my last year of study, and following my graduation from McMaster University’s BFA in 1992, I worked in a downtown Hamilton art store, Rath Art Supplies, owned by the kind-hearted Stan Rath, who now lives in Vancouver.
Me and Stan in 1993 or 94. Photo probably by Andrew Little.
I had a second job, as assistant to Hamilton jewelry designer, Lisa Parker, another generous and kind person, bright and multi-talented. Employment-wise, this was a great combination; Lisa gave me the opportunity to work with my hands for a few days every week, and my work at Stan’s shop allowed me to keep on top of new products as well as enjoy a discount on art supplies. In addition, Lisa held regular soirées in her home where she and I, and a few other artists and craftspeople, would sell our work to guests. These were very fun nights, which Lisa and I prepared for by baking large batches of chocolate-chip cookies – I still use Lisa’s recipe to this day.
Lisa, her cat, and me in 1993 or 94, at one of her soirées. We are both wearing examples of her designs. Photographer unknown – apologies! (We are both wearing black and white so her colourful work would stand out.)
With Lisa and Stan’s support and employment, I was able to make and sell art regularly, in addition to the sales of my work in larger exhibitions. I no longer own any of the works I made for these soirées, but I do have a few photographs. In general the pieces were very small, and sold for prices between $25 and $50. Such sales kept me afloat, as did my jobs, during some lean years. Thank-you Lisa and Stan, as well as the supporters who bought my pieces – I hope you are still enjoying them today.
The following images show a selection of landscapes I painted between 1991-94, some of which I made while still in university, but most were made after I completed my studio courses.
Above, a large diptych (acrylic on wood panel, 2.5 x 4.5′) made during the summer of 1991, the summer before my final year in McMaster’s studio arts programme.
A triptych, acrylic on wood, also painted in the summer of 1991, approximately 4 x 5′. This work was shown in the lobby outside the McMaster Art Gallery, before it moved to its new building. The space was open to the public, but usually deserted. Surprisingly, someone stole one of the panels. This was big news; the McMaster University student paper, the Silhouette, covered the theft and then the happy return of the missing panel.
The works above are very characteristic of the kind I made for and sold at Lisa’s soirées. The top painting is acrylic on wood, and would have measured approximately 3 x 6″.
In terms of technique, I tended to work lean over fat – usually I treated the wooden surface (my favorite surface for most of my life as a painter) first with an application of some kind of high-bond, thick impasto, such as heavy acrylic molding paste, to gain texture. I would apply and mark this paste with a large painting knife (I loved Paul-Émile Borduas’ white on black paintings, made almost entirely with plaster knives). The resulting surface caught subsequent layers of glaze – I used very little paint, in fact. This method, in addition to the occasional use of fabric, helped me to avoid the tendency of acrylic to look dull and flat. The technique also allowed me to work fast, often on as many as six or seven pieces at the same time – a pace and quantity that I found freeing, after art school.
Often I worked in series, exploring a particular palette, or set of formal constraints, such as a vertical landscape composition. The small paintings above (approximately 3 x 14″), like others I made during this time, were a pleasure. They afforded me opportunities to work with colour, texture, and the theme of the horizon – a theme I find visually compelling to this day – as well as develop my abilities and knowledge as a painter.
As time went on, these works became more abstract, less obviously moonlit landscapes and more obviously explorations in the application of paint, and the mixing and layering of colour. Looking at these works now, I feel there was a decided influence of abstract expressionism (albeit on a very intimate scale) on me, which is not surprising as various art instructors of mine had taken us to see the abstract painting collection of the Albright Knox in Buffalo – a powerful introduction to modernist painting.
At right, a landscape from c1993 hanging in my Jackson St. apartment, which was also my last studio space in Hamilton. The work is now in a private collection in Montréal.
It was great fun to make and sell so many paintings as a young artist. I would estimate that I produced about three hundred paintings between 1991-94, and sold a large number of them. As time went by, however, I began to question the validity of producing more objects for sale in a world full of commodities, and to doubt as well the role my work was playing within a consumerist model of art production. I knew there were other modes of art-making, and other ways of using one’s creativity, but I was very uninformed – such practices did not play a significant role in the art history curriculum at McMaster while I was studying there, nor were they part of the studio curriculum. These questions and budding interests came with me to Montréal, where I moved in the fall of 1994 to begin a Master’s of Art History at Concordia University. This move would mark a dramatic change in the way I understood and made art. Ironically, however, twenty years after making these early landscapes, I returned to the theme of landscape in a new series of small paintings. The tactile pleasures of making art with paint and canvas, or paint and wood, is one my body remembers and embraces haptically, from the scent of the paint to the weight of a brush in my hand. These early landscapes are definitely the training ground for all my later painting, even through my preoccupations have changed, decidedly.
Above, another piece that is now in a private collection in Montreal. I built this work during my last year in Hamilton. Called Georgian Summer, it was one of the more technically difficult works I’d built, as it was designed to hang on a corner in such a way that it would wrap the bend in the wall. Shown with a related series at the Hamilton Public Library, this work was in my humble opinion the best I’d created to date. In the comments book, however, one visitor whose name was illegible wrote something that still haunts me. “Beautiful as always, Cynthia, but when will you leave your comfort zone?”
I left for Montreal within the year.