Joanna McFarland invited us into her studio and gallery in the Prince Edward County, and told us how she started creating art, the tools she uses to create her large, energetic paintings, and some exciting things 2017 has brought for her!
So did you attend any schooling for visual art?
J: No, my background is in dental hygiene. But I had the opportunity to live in Belgium for five years from 83-89 and was able to visit lots of galleries and museums. When I came back, then that’s when I really started painting. I always dabbled in crafts and things with my hands, but it really helped me develop an appreciation for what I was seeing. My treat to myself was going to the Louvre, which was only a 2 hour drive away. I would plop myself down and watch people paint the masters. I would just watch what they were doing and ask some questions. That’s when I thought, well I should try! I didn’t have the facility to be able to try when I was there, so when we came back to Canada I decided I was going to do it. And then I got tired of doing dental hygiene and got a part time job in a framing store. I really enjoyed the designing process and I got to meet other artists and they used to say well you should go to such and such a place to get materials! I used to be known around here for my birch trees and used to do a lot of them. I wanted to go abstract, but I would try and hide it. It just wasn’t coming together for me, but I noticed my trees were getting more graphic as time when on and then I decided to just go for it! This is it! I taken a couple of courses through Loyalist College and some workshops. I started in oils, then moved to acrylics and then encaustics. I loved encaustics, the freedom that comes with them and how quick you have to work. Then I went back to acrylics and discovered Lila Lewis Irving, a non-objective painter. I took two of her courses in Ottawa. All of a sudden I made that switch. I never used to play music when I would paint, but now I just crank up the music and for certain pieces I seem to respond to certain instruments and I hear colour and shapes come into my mind.
E: That’s wonderful! Its great to find a new inspiration for yourself!
J: Yes, I seem to respond to guitar, trumpet and saxophone. Vocals disrupt me, so mainly it's instrumental that I listen to.
Would you say that music is your main inspiration?
J: Yes, for sure.
N: Are there any musicians you listen to frequently?
J: No because my kids got me an iPod and I have apple music and I have everything at my fingertips and so I just play different things constantly. My son plays the guitar so he will play and then I start painting. I listen to Gipsy Kings, Anny Lenox, but it’s a real mix. I really enjoy guitar more than anything, it seems to be a trigger for me. I'm surprised by myself because I'm not musically inclined.
Could you speak to us a little bit about your colour choices? We see a lot of black in all your work.
J: I feel with non-objective it's more about shape, design, and drama. I always feel black is grounding for me and I find it very difficult to paint with light colours. I love jewel tones and I love drama. I use fluid acrylics and regular acrylics and I find if I use Golden, I can water down the fluid acrylics and it still keeps it's integrity. I paint on canvas as well as stone paper, Terra Skin, which is crushed marble which is then turned into paper, and it's archival and impervious to moisture. A part of my process when using Terra Skin is to lay out my colours, wait around 20 minutes, and then go wash it off in my sink. With the water pressure you can manipulate shapes and then let it dry and add other layers. It’s a lot of fun to work with. I also always have Masonite to practice on. I always frame the work on the paper. I'm experimenting with using a heavy 300lb watercolour paper and mounting that on Masonite boards and then varnishing it and you get the texture of the paper come through.
Can you tell is about the tools you use?
J: I use my fingers some times, I have different trowels which give you different patterns and a squeegee that I can drag and do different things with it.
E: So you work with your entire body.
J: Yes and I'm finding since I'm working with bigger pieces, being an old lady that stretching out really kinks my neck (laughs). I guess my muscles are not used to it. But I'm loving working larger and I think non-objective work looks best at a larger scale then the small paintings. I don’t paint thinking about whether or not it will sell, I paint because I have to paint and if they sell it’s a bonus. Some people say that no body has the space for these size of paintings, so why would you waste your time and money on something like that? Well it's what I want to be doing!
N: It's important to stay true to what you think is right and they will sell if they sell.
J: Yeah and I enjoy doing them and they have a life of their own. I always live with a piece. I'll bring it up to my living room, and it's like when you get a new hair cut and you catch yourself in the mirror and think oh wow, I look good, well the same thing happens with the paintings. I always see new things coming through. So I feel like colours choose me and that’s how I work in the moment. I feel if a work speaks to you and you have the emotional journey that I have while making it, well that’s great. I think they take on your personality and what you perceive. For most people its about decor rather than being much more than that. This year I'm doing the Artist Project in Toronto and it's super intimidating, but what I want to do is bring my work out of the county. I love working and living here and I get so much inspiration from being here but my work needs to be seen elsewhere as well. I'll see whether or not there is interest in my work, whether it be from a gallery, fellow artist, mentor, who knows. It's about connection and like I said it’s a bonus if anything sells!
N: So you will have a booth set up?
J: My booth is a 10 by 10 foot square and the walls are 11 feet tall! It’s a juried show and there are 250 artists from all around the world! I'm so excited. There are a lot of encouraging and nurturing people here and I'm pleased with where I have landed here but I'm excited to find ways to get my work out there.
N: It's important to have big goals and dreams to work towards!
J: I think you have to have deadlines to work towards and I find it's made the winter go quickly. I may never do it again but my family has been really supportive to help me out here and there. My sister lives in England and she is a writer so she's helped me with all the written components and she is coming to help as well! A big family effort!
Can you tell us about how you title your work?
J: They all have titles and when I'm listening to the music I research the artist and think about how I'm feeling, like for instance, the song title for one of my pieces is "A Brighter Day" and I felt good about the painting so I called it "Promising."
How long do you typically work on a piece? You do a lot of layering but is there a general time frame?
J: Yes, well it's funny, the larger works go quicker than the smaller ones. I know when its going well when my tools are going about with out me thinking about anything, and I always walk around the table when I work so there is no right side up. I sometime finish paintings on an easel but because I use such fluid paint, I have to paint on a flat surface. I do anywhere from 6 to 8 layers, some areas have even more. And you can always paint over it if you’ve taken it too far! You can always try again. It's easy to become too close to your work. The next thing I would really like to get into doing is putting canvas on the floor and use my feet! It could be fun to see what happens.
What is it about the County that makes it so appealing as an artist?
J: I find that, for me, I love being near the water, it's invigorating and calming. The county itself definitely has a community spirt and most people who have chosen to be here are full of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. I know that there's a bit of a growing pain happening now but I have found the community spirit and thoughtfulness of people here to be really lovely. I moved from Oakville to here and I had never experienced this type of community before.
We only have a few more questions for you! If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be and why? You mentioned Lila Lewis Irving, would she be someone you would like to work with?
J: Definitely, she is in her 80s with so much energy and is very involved in the art scene in Mississauga. She is so inspiring as far as how she stretches herself and tries new things. Often people think of Pollock when they think of abstract art, or non-objective art, which seems to be a newer word. I think there's a sort of formula to non-objective art, balance, form, and colour, and she is a great colourist. I don’t feel like I'm quite there yet but I guess the thing is to not be afraid. I don’t know if it's all artists, but I think we are all looking for an audience. I feel my success, since I have the gallery is to have a piece up on the wall and have anyone come in and say that they don’t get it. And that’s ok.
How many hours do you generally paint in a day? Do you follow a routine?
J: I like to paint early morning and sometimes when I cant sleep I get up and paint or even just re-arrange something. I'm always thinking about what I see and looking for colour. I would say early morning and then come noon I have had enough for a day. The average painting takes around 3 or 4 days.
Do you have any books or films you have read or seen lately that you would recommend?
J: Well I go through a lot of books. I just finished a book on Picasso. I also look at videos on YouTube a lot. I'm interested in how people set up their spaces or what materials they use and how they use certain tools like spatulas. Like Gerhard used these large tools that he would drag across a canvas, and it makes me wonder, would I be able to handle that?
Thank you for speaking with us Joanna! You can see more of her work on her website www.joannamcfarland.ca