In this edition of Art Talks, we explore the themes behind the practice of one of our newest artists, Judy Willemsma. Read our interview with the artist below! Let us know what you think!
I grew up in many places across Canada, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal (twice), Ottawa, and Kitchener. As a kid, I did not form a firm attachment to any one place to call home, but rather, I moved with my family and had the privilege of knowing many “hometowns”. The deep meaning of “home” has become the inspiration for my artwork presently.
I studied fine art at the Ontario College of Art (now called OCAD University). I spent a year studying painting and drawing in Florence, Italy. It was a wonderful experience. I learned about the discipline needed to be a self-directed artist and what it means to stick with it every day. This discipline remains with me today.
Today, I call Brampton, Ontario, my home. I have lived in Brampton for many years, raised my three kids here, and had a successful career as a self-employed mural painter. I traveled from one school to another, mostly within the Peel District School Board, and painted on walls, often with kids. I had the enormous privilege of working with kids in small groups and facilitating their creativity. I worked with teachers sharing my expertise with them as they shared their “teacher wisdom” with me. Win. Win. Win. The joyful experience of discovery has become the inspiration for my artwork presently.
I love to be out in nature. When we were teenagers, my sister and I had a red canoe. We would hoist it over our heads, lug it across a farmer’s field outside of Ottawa, and spend countless joyful hours exploring the Rideau River. My summer days were filled with tumbling turtles, perfect white lilies, majestic herons, and wise old jackpines. What wonderful times. I still love the natural world. Today, my husband and I have a couple of small kayaks we take to beautiful Ontario lakes whenever we get the chance. We often visit the Kawartha Highlands, Algonquin Park, or Luther Marsh. The natural world is another large inspiration for my artwork.
I have retired from creating murals, and I have more time to spend painting. My passion is to explore the careful balance between abstracted and representational artwork in each of my paintings. I explore rich textures and expressive colours through abstraction. Moreover, representational silhouette shapes offer context and meaning to my works of art. Today, my artwork is a culmination of all of the sources of inspiration mentioned above and much more.
interview with the artist
CH: Where and when did you start your creative journey? How did you step into the business of mural painting?
JW: When I was a little girl, I remember sitting on my grandfather’s knee while he drew pictures of funny cows, silly puppies, and many other delightful creatures. He had a drawing tablet that, to me, seemed magical. With his pen, he would draw pictures, and together we would giggle and laugh until our sides hurt. When we had filled the tablet, and our creatures began spilling over the edges, my grandfather would lift the crinkly acetate layer, and they would magically disappear. ’Zip!’ he would exclaim, and we would start to draw again. I remember the joy of imagination and creativity. I remember the magnetic lure of inspiration and motivation. I remember how he shared these valuable, powerful things with me through his love for drawing. I remember the magic of his drawing tablet.
I shared this love for creativity with my own three children as they were growing up. Soon, I found myself sharing my passion for creativity with their elementary school. Visits to many other schools seemed to follow naturally. As a children’s artist, I presented mural projects for children and visual arts workshops for teachers. I shared the joy of imagination and creativity. I shared the magnetic lure of inspiration and motivation. I shared these valuable, powerful things with others through my love for drawing and painting.
Now, many years later, I am a painter. Sometimes as I work, I catch myself whispering ‘zip!’ and I realize that my Grandfather’s passion is still hard at work. He has long since left this world, but his passion for creativity lives on strongly. I still remember the magic of his drawing tablet.
CH: What would you say motivates your practice? Why do you create?
JW: I cannot imagine a life where I did not create something every day. What would that be like? Creating stuff is just part of my DNA. Athletes need to move; thinkers need to gather knowledge; artists need to create. I am motivated to create in the same way that I am motivated to breathe.
CH: Has anyone influenced you significantly in your artistic journey? If so, who and how did this change your practice? Are there any other artists/artworks that you are inspired/influenced by?
JW: My husband, Albert, has influenced me over the years with his generous support. He is also an artist so we speak the same language. My adult kids encourage me with their positive comments and strong creative ideas. There is understanding, patience and growth. My family has provided the support that has shaped me into who I am today. I am very fortunate.
I love to look at any artwork created by others. There is always something new to see. Recently Albert and I went for a drive northward. I searched Google maps for “art galleries near me” and spent the rest of the day in joyful discovery.
CH: What do you do in your leisure time when you aren’t painting?
JW: When I am not painting, I love to be out in nature. My husband and I have a couple of small kayaks we like to take out on weekends. We visit beautiful Ontario lakes with lily pads, turtles, and reeds. We find ourselves close to nature in our kayaks in ways that no other experience can offer. Kayaking season for us starts as soon as the ice is gone off the lakes, and it is safe for us to be out. The season finishes in the fall with a blaze of coloured trees. We like to hike in the off-season. I dream all winter long about the experiences that we had and the new adventures to come. My leisure time is also often spent with my three small grandchildren. I feel very fortunate to have this time with them.
CH: Can you explain your process for creating a piece? Does this have some relation to the imagery you paint?
JW: I take photos and fill my reference collection during our kayaking and hiking excursions. I am inspired by the rolling farmland we pass along the way, the rhythm of nature in a patch of prickly thistles, or graceful beech tree branches. I am also inspired by my suburban neighborhood and by the familiar places we call home and the juxtaposition and balance between the natural world and our place within it. This inspiration informs my paintings.
I use my collection of reference photos (and my computer) to compose and plan paintings. Once the planning is done, I head to my studio. I start my paintings with abstract colours and textures, then add silhouetted shapes and continue layering back and forth between abstract textures and representational shapes until the work feels finished.
CH: What makes you gravitate towards your particular art process; why do you create in the way that you do?
JW: I gravitate towards landscapes with rolling farmland, graceful silhouetted trees, and tangled wildness. I am intrigued and inspired by the quality of light that embraces these elements. Time of day, weather, and season combine for dramatic effects. For me, a landscape is not just a collection of elements but rather a setting for a powerful performance of light and expression.
In search of these things, my husband, Albert, and I love to go on hunting expeditions when we search for subject matter for my next painting. Albert drives, and I click photos. We often make our way along rural roadways. (Click). We pass rustic barns and processions of trees. (More clicks). Our journey is lined with thick brambles and dense wildflowers that change with the season. (Frantic clicks). “Stop! Stop!” I exclaim from time to time. “Look at those thistles!” (Or that tree, barn, field, sky, etc.) My photo reference collection grows exponentially on these excursions. Later, I sort through my reference photos and create compositions for paintings.
I create a balance in my artwork between abstract and representation. The abstract part gives an opportunity for freedom of expression. Moods can be created especially through choices of colour and texture. The contrast between light and dark values or saturated hues beside neutral greys can deliver a powerful emotional message. Soft colours with low contrast whisper of gentle feelings. Loud, saturated colours or combinations with high contrast demand attention. Rough textures bring to mind the jumble of wildness and our busy lives. The representational shapes give meaning and purpose. These things work together and are balanced. I gravitate towards this art process because it speaks up for me when words fail.
CH: Can you describe a day in the studio life?
JW: I feel very fortunate to have a space in my home where I can paint. My “commute” is a staircase with a quick stop at my coffee maker. I play music when I work (and dance around when no one is looking – but don’t tell anyone). Usually, I work in short spurts, allowing the paint to dry between layers of colours. I return to my painting often during the day (and evening). I have an office upstairs where I organize my photo references for paintings, answer emails, and more. One day melts into the next. I start my days with the excitement that goes along with creating something new and close my eyes at night with the feeling of being very fortunate.
CH: What does the term “art” mean to you? How does it identify with your practice?
JW: I believe that we all have creative brain cells. Some of us dance or sing or create beautiful things. Others simply appreciate these beautiful things. Others, again, might exercise their creativity in the innovative way they solve a math problem or organize people to work together. It’s there; the creativity.
For me, the term “art” goes one step further. For me, “art” happens when we use our creativity to interpret our environment or experiences, our humanity. For example, if I were to paint a flower over and over again like a robot, each one the same as the last, this would be a mechanical process. On the other hand, if I painted the flower to include its uniqueness and fragile nature, carefully designing a composition and carefully choosing colours and textures that express a feeling, this would involve interpretation. Perhaps the flower could be metaphoric to our humanity. For me, this is art.
My paintings involve a balance between rough abstract textures and representational silhouettes. We can think of other balances, such as the balance between our wild natural places versus our man-made environments. We also balance our time between work, family, and leisure time. We balance and juggle. My paintings balance contemporary abstraction with traditional representation and, for me, bring to mind the many balances we experience together. The balance in my paintings is a creative interpretation.
CH: What five nouns best describe the conceptual nature behind your paintings?
JW: Home. I live in the suburbs with farmland and wilderness not far away. Home is not just a place, but importantly, home is about family and a sense of belonging that stirs up powerful feelings.
Balance. My paintings have a balance between abstract textures and colours with representational silhouette shapes. Our busy lives are also balanced as we juggle our time with work, leisure, family, and more.
Silhouettes. I am drawn to beautiful silhouette shapes. They can be delicate and graceful or firm and powerful. They can suggest subject matter and leave out unnecessary clutter. They are vessels for colour, texture, and expression.
Abstraction. My paintings always start with layers of abstract colours and textures. This process is freeing and perhaps even therapeutic.
Expression. My paintings feel finished when I have achieved an expression that gives a powerful voice to a familiar subject matter. Zip.
CH: If you were suddenly given the opportunity to plan a lesson and teach a group, what would you teach them, and what activities would you include in your lesson?
JW: As a mural painter working in schools, I had many opportunities to present art activities to students and teachers. For many, art seemed to be defined by representational imagery alone as they challenged themselves to draw a horse, a car, a dog, etc. Teachers would often exclaim, “I cannot teach art. I cannot even draw a straight line!” Therefore, one of my favourite art lessons was one where participants explored expression in visual art through non-representational imagery.
We began by sorting elements of design (colours, textures, lines, shapes, and more) into two simple groups, positive and negative. Which colours and textures could be used to illustrate a scary or angry image? Which colours and textures could be used to illustrate a joyful scene? Which elements of design were used by other artists to achieve moods in their works of art, and how can this inspire us? Participants had different ideas. There were no wrong answers, but all well-thought-out ideas were good. Next, we worked together using carefully sorted groups of colours, shapes, lines, and textures to create non-representational group projects that expressed positive and negative feelings.
If I suddenly had the opportunity, I would repeat this rewarding art activity. I loved to witness the empowerment of expression through visual arts often experienced by the participants for the first time.
CH: What has been the most enjoyable part of your art career so far?
JW: There is immense satisfaction and joy every time I finish a painting. Over the last few years, I have created a large collection with creative growth along the way. Recently, I have connected with Crescent Hill Gallery, offering further encouragement and purpose. Thank you.
CH: What are your goals for your art practice in 2022 and beyond?
JW: I would like to continue on my present course of painting with creative growth. I would like to explore new creative ways to interpret the world around me.
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