When I was 15, I decided I was an Artist with a capital A. Art was no longer an elective I was taking to survive the monotony of school or something I filled notebooks with, keeping them stacked and hidden in my closet. It became the focal point of my future. The realization that I was capable of pursuing a career in the arts transformed my life, but I did not come to this realization on my own.
As I moved from middle school to high school, I slowly but surely started to take art seriously. I filled up a wooden box with watercolours and paper and brought it places where inspiration might strike. It became a permanent fixture in the trunk of my parents' car, no matter the destination, and even made it onto their boat. Since the few hours of art a week squeezed into my math and science heavy school curriculum were no longer enough, I started looking elsewhere to fill in the gaps of my education.
I took watercolor classes in the basement of my local library, read every art book I could get my hands on, and, in the summer of 2009, found my painting technique being corrected by none other than Gerald Squires.
I met Gerald Squires at a week-long workshop at the English Harbour Arts Centre, a wonderful organization an hour's drive from my Clarenville hometown. Every morning that week, my family members took turns carting me down the Bonavista highway, turning around, and doing it all again at the end of the day. I still cannot thank them enough.
On the first day of that unforgettable week, I had no idea who I was standing next to. Yes, I was awestruck by his painting ability and charmed by his calm and encouraging instruction method, but if I had realized the role my new teacher played in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador art, I would have doubtlessly been too nervous to pick up a brush in front of him. Luckily, this was not the case, and I spent the week outside with Gerry feeling carefree and inspired, with our easels set up side by side and a hat from the trunk of his van perched on my head, keeping the sun from my eyes.
Lunches at this workshop were spent sitting over a paint-smeared table and holding tea in tired hands. At the time, the English Harbour Arts Centre was selling a copy of Gerry's most recent book, Where Genesis Begins, which I poured over every chance I got throughout the week. I turned the pages, full of images of his work and poems by Tom Dawe, while listening to the author explain painting techniques between bites of his sandwich.
On the third day of painting together, after watching me struggle to apply acrylic paint before the wind dried it into a solid lump, Gerry squeezed a dollop of oil paint in every colour onto my palette. When I protested, he promised they would just go to waste if I didn't give them a try. So that day, while he completed a painting he called a "sketch" and I called a masterpiece, I created my first oil painting. It was of a little yellow house, and this painting, along with the way Gerry invested his knowledge and materials to help me make it happen, convinced me that being an artist was not an untouchable future, I was being it, I was doing it! Suddenly, I was an oil painter, too.
At the end of the week, I packed up my box with paints, little paintings and sketchbooks, now filled. I gave Gerry a tight hug and tried to thank him for the experience, but could not quite find the right words. I gave him back his hat.
Looking back, I wish I could have known that almost eight years later I would complete a degree in studio art on the mainland, graduate as a painter, and move back home. Now, my first solo exhibition opens the same night as the retrospective exhibition honouring Gerald Squires' career, two years after his death. While I know this is a coincidence, it is also a perfect reminder of how I would not be where I am now without the experience of meeting him.
On that hour-long drive home from the workshop's last day, I opened my paint box to show my mother some of the work I'd done. Instead, the lifted lid revealed a copy of his book, smeared with oil paint and tucked in beside my supplies. Inside the front page, "To Emily Pittman, fellow artist and good friend - Gerry" was written in a scrawling hand.
At 15, I was overwhelmed by this thoughtful and generous gift, but now I wish I could tell him his real gift to me was not that book. Gerald Squires gave me the ability to see myself as an artist, just by the simple act of him seeing me as one.
The exhibition Gerald Squires: Spirit Visible opens at The Rooms on May 12, 2017 at 7:30 pm, and the exhibition Emily Pittman: A House of Another Colour opens at Eastern Edge Gallery (rOGUE Gallery) on May 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm.
See Emily's work at www.emilypittman.ca