Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'Ambassador of art' makes painting a spectator sport

Judy McLaren has been artist in residence at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria since August. A glimpse in the kitchen led to this oil painting, titled "Pastry Chefs."

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 19, 2011


Judy McLaren stepped back from the canvas, then tilted her head before reaching forward to make broad strokes with a brush.

She wore paint-splattered gloves on both hands. A drop sheet protected the carpet.

Painting can be a reclusive activity, typically practiced alone in a studio or garret.

Not so for Ms. McLaren, who is creating art as a form of spectator sport.

A stream of passersby flowed past. From time to time, people stopped to watch, commenting on the work.

The artist has been on public display in the upper lobby of the Fairmont Empress Hotel since summertime. She is the current artist in residence at the stately hotel. For several days of the week, she can be found daubing and dabbing outside a temporary gallery housing her latest works.

Her role is to be “an ambassador of art,” she told one recent visitor.

If so, her attaché is Bubbles, an amiable seven-year-old goldendoodle with black fur who is her constant companion. Bubs, as she is also known, caused a minor diplomatic flap the other day when she helped herself to a chocolate treat attached to a gingerbread house on display in the lobby.

The artist and her dog have been daily features of hotel life for six months now. Ms. McLaren wanders the halls in search of subjects, as she has made the hotel the focus of a series of 16 paintings completed so far during her residency.

She has portrayed the hotel’s elegant tea room, which is a popular stop for tourists, as well as the Bengal Lounge, where an ancient tiger skin over the fireplace is a reminder of an empire’s former reach.

A thin woman of bright temperament and an ease at making acquaintance of strangers, Ms. McLaren, 60, has taken on a heavy workload with ambitious goals. She knows it is a rare privilege for an outsider to explore the nooks and crannies behind the curtains of a busy hotel.

“An artist doesn’t get chances like this all the time,” she said.

Her current canvas includes the early outlines of a painting featuring the banquet staff having a meeting in an empty dining room. She was attracted by the light of the room, where an afternoon sun turned long-stemmed wine glasses into vertical streaks of silvery white.

Kamal Silva by Judy McLaren
The artist has completed portraits of general manager Martin Leclerc and executive chef Kamal Silva. More remarkable is to see the working staff of the hotel portrayed in oils. Perhaps the most dynamic of her hotel works depicts a quartet of pastry chefs in an intense discussion. The artist has an affinity for the kitchen, where the industrial setting is offset by cooks in brilliant white coats and chefs topped by mushroom-shaped toques blanches.

“Whites,” she pronounced, “are so wonderful.”

The artist was born in 1951 in Guernsey, the British crown dependency whose bailiwick includes several islands in the English Channel. Her birth came just six years after the Germans were expelled from the only British soil occupied during the Second World War. Her father was an Anglican priest whose parish included the isolated and bucolic isle of Sark.

After postings in England, the family decided to immigrate to Ontario, her father taking a teaching position at Upper Canada College in Toronto.

Ms. McLaren graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design. She has been an illustrator for children’s books and does many commissioned oil portraits.

Her husband is Keith McLaren, a senior master with BC Ferries who can be found aboard the Spirit of Vancouver Island as it plies the waters separating Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. He won a prestigious award for a book on the schooner Bluenose, one of three books he has written.

The artist has tailed porters, sous chefs and housekeepers. On Friday, she spotted Amanda Demontigny, a 16-year employee, at work cleaning the upper lobby. The worker scrubbed a staircase, her silhouette outlined by a grand window through which could be seen a spectacular, shimmering background orange leaves.

“She’s going to be starring in one of my paintings,” the artist vowed.

“That’s if you can catch me,” the cleaner replied, mopping feverishly, step by step.

Passersby admire the work of painter Judy McLaren, who paints daily in the upper lobby of the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria. Chad Hipolito photograph for the Globe and Mail.

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