Kirkaldy Saves the Bears with Brush and Palette

Anyone who knows art is probably aware that Robert Bateman, the preeminent wildlife artist who lives on BC’s West Coast, is an avid conservationist and gives thousands of dollars to support his preferred causes, including wildlife protection. But far fewer people may be aware that Slocan Valley artist Evelyn Kirkaldy is close on his heels, both as an artist and activist. Where they part company is in their technique—Bateman with a meticulous realism and Kirkaldy with a more Impressionistic rendering of wildlife and the wild landscape. Examples shown here include her Rocky Mountain High, its flower-studded alpine meadow bursting with colour in a manner reminiscent of well-known West Kootenay artist John Cooper. (Cooper’s workshops on colour theory have mentored countless Kootenay artists.) Kirkaldy’s Grizzlies practically radiate energy, as if about to walk off the canvas into the room. Her unique, almost Pointillist layering of colours and an unconventional approach to colour helps these magnificent creatures attain iconic stature—appropriate for someone well known locally as the Bear Smart Lady. It’s the visual equivalent to the myths and legends of First Nations peoples, who see kindred spirits in bears, whom they regard as the First People. And it’s another example of how the Kootenays produces an abundance of masterful artists in all genres, even as the price they pay to live in paradise is comparative obscurity. I took time to interview Kirkaldy about her work recently.

What is your background as an artist? i.e When did you first start creating art and when did you start doing it professionally? 

I started creating art as a small child like anyone I guess, but as a kid growing up in Toronto, Ontario, public school art education was not enough for me. I took lots of extra curricular and summer art classes. I was continually experimenting with colour, a variety of techniques and media and later on took various classes in drawing, painting, printing methods and sculpture at Central Technical School and three schools of art in Toronto as well as at the Banff School of Fine Arts. Before attending the Ontario Art of College (OCA), I was occasionally commissioned to create paintings and graphics and exhibited my work at a few community art exhibits around Toronto.

'Rocky Mountain High' 12” x 48” acrylic on panel by Evelyn Kirkaldy.

‘Rocky Mountain High’ 12” x 48” acrylic on panel by Evelyn Kirkaldy.

What is your formal training, if any? Did you start in commercial art and move to fine art, or were you always doing both? 

Upon visiting BC and spending several seasons in Banff, I fell in love with the west, and after acquiring my diploma in Communication and Design from OCA, I moved to Calgary and subsequently Vancouver. For roughly 20 years I worked as a graphic designer, illustrator and art director for several advertising agencies as well as on a freelance basis. Unfortunately a lot of my work then was done for large corporations with questionable ethics.

After I left my last full time job at a prominent Vancouver advertising agency, where my major responsibility entailed generating children’s promotional items for a multinational fast food giant, I became involved in the environmental movement. Ironically, while researching content for their greenwashed kids’ activity books, I learned a lot about environmental issues.

‘Midnight Watch’ 36” x 36” acrylic on canvas by Evelyn Kirkaldy

‘Midnight Watch’ 36” x 36” acrylic on canvas by Evelyn Kirkaldy

I continued doing illustrations and graphic design on a freelance basis, but I began taking on more socially responsible clientele such as the Knowledge Network, publishers like UBC Press and Douglas and McIntyre, and produced kids’ education publications for ICBC, the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and Wild BC. Much later I served as artistic advisor to the Get Bear Smart Society, www.bearsmart.com , based in Whistler. I created much of their promotional material, including a huge series of educational bear cartoons, writing and illustrations for ‘Bear Smart Kids – A book to make you smarter than the average bear’ and the illustrations for the widely distributed book, ‘Bear-ology’ by Sylvia Dolson. I also did a lot of teaching – typography, illustration and graphic design at Vancouver Community College and as well as a multitude of kids’ art and crafts classes.

I guess the transition back to fine art began with the image I created for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee’s (WC2) Stoltmann Wilderness Campaign art exhibit in Vancouver. It sold for a nice sum and they also chose it to appear on all of the campaign’s promotional items. As part of my involvement in wilderness and species preservation campaigns, I began participating in environmentally focused art shows in the lower mainland.

Kirkaldy the 'Bear Smart Lady' doing bear duty at the Hills Garlic Festival, New Denver BC, September 2015. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Kirkaldy the ‘Bear Smart Lady’ doing bear duty at the Hills Garlic Festival, New Denver BC, September 2015. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Bears figure prominently in many of your paintings, and I know you also happen to be the Slocan Valley’s Bear Smart Coordinator. Explain why bears mean so much to you, as both an artist and the Bear Smart Lady. Are there symbolic as well as environmental resonances for you with bear imagery?

My love of bears actually evolved from my fear of them. I had always loved recreating in the wilderness, but my ingrained fear of bears undermined my experiences and the useless bear bells I wore annoyed my friends. Ignorance propagates fear and education puts things into perspective, so I did a lot of reading and got involved with Bear Watch and the Grizzly Project headed by Candace Batycki (now a city of Nelson councilor), and headed up to the Kootenays to learn about grizzlies from Erica Mallam, Valhalla Wilderness Society (VWS).

I got involved with WC2 during the 1996 Initiative to bring about a referendum to end the Trophy Hunting of Bears. After a number of years actively engaged in the in ‘War in the Woods’ with WC2, Greenpeace, Raincoast Conservation Society, Friends of Clayoquot Sound, Sea Sheppard Society etc., I led a highly publicized campaign to end the trophy hunting of bears.

After a banner year of black bear mortality in North Vancouver, I came to the realization that the first step in ending the brutal grizzly hunt might be to create empathy for these creatures and the best way to achieve this might be to begin educating people about the true nature of bears in their own back yards. I was instrumental in forming the North Shore Black Bear Task Force and in 2000, North Vancouver District Council proclaimed May 14-20 as its first Bear Awareness Week.

Poster for Kirkaldy's September showing in Winlaw, BC.

Poster for Kirkaldy’s September showing in Winlaw, BC.

Numerous and varied North American wilderness experiences and my bear activism, inspired me to create a large body of work with images of bears and their natural environment. I attempted to capture the essence of the wilderness, the feeling of living in nature. The wilderness is not just water, mountains and trees; it’s a metropolis teeming with wildlife. People have often asked me, “Why Bears?” In North America, bears, specifically grizzlies, are the largest, most powerful land mammals and icons of the wilderness, yet, we humans, as puny as we are, are systematically wiping them out.

When I moved to the Kootenays in 2001, I continued with my activism, and soon teamed up with Wayne McCrory and the VWS Slocan Valley Bear Smart Program. I also continued with art instruction, and if you recall, for the first few years, the paintings I exhibited were solely of bears—oils, pastels and watercolour.

Did you have a mentor who played an important role for you?

In 2005 I partnered with Barbara Wilson in the Slocan Valley Art and Adventure Program based in Winlaw. She hosted a whole lot of mentors; we held many workshops and travelled to some great locations for en plein air painting. She inspired me to expand my creative horizons and helped open the door to the world of fine art opportunities. It’s during this period that I developed my current style.

Who are some of your influences in art—what individual artists or schools of painting played some role in the development of your style? 

My influences include Jackson Pollack and a number of impressionist and expressionist painters, but my favorites by far are Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt.

You seem to have developed a unique approach to layering the canvas with paint. Somehow you achieve an almost 3D effect on a 2D surface. Can you explain how this works and how you developed the technique? Is it a time-intensive process?

I try to express light, colour and movement all at the same time. In order to access a sense of spontaneity, I work quickly, without the limitations of a brush; the time consuming element lies within the drying process because I add only a few colours at a time, wait for them to dry and then add another layer. This is essential for building up the texture. I use only a stir stick to merge drips, dots and splatters into contemporary landscapes and enjoy surprising my audience through the development of various dimensions in the work. From a distance, many of my pieces appear representational, but upon closer inspection they become replete with sensuous abstract shapes. I have a lot of fun with these paintings and I feel free to be expressive in my work.

What is it that you find most challenging about the process of painting? What do you find most rewarding?

These are tough questions since I’ve been at it for so long. I think the most challenging part for me is to conscientiously take time out from working in order to stay impassioned. It is important for me to engage in inspiring activities like travelling to truly wild places, encountering wildlife, especially bears of course and hanging out or painting with family and friends.

The most rewarding moments for me occur when I succeed in creating a piece that truly evokes the essence of the wilderness that is so integral to its wild inhabitants; a work that incites the viewer to contribute to their preservation.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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