Peninsula painter Elizabeth Hollick didn’t get to be a local legend by doing things by halves – or not following her inspiration wherever it led.
Standing before her latest show at Semiahmoo Arts’ Turnbull Gallery at South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre – Body Parts In Unexpected Places – the artist described her approach to her career.
“I know I can’t be in a gallery, painting the same thing for 50 years,” she said. “I feel sorry for artists who do that.
“For me, (the decision) was ‘maybe you can make money with mural painting’ – I’ve actually done very well with that. And when you paint on canvas you can retain the freedom to paint whatever subject matter you like.
“Something has to be so interesting to me that I want to paint it. I have to be challenged, it has to be exciting to paint.”
Body Parts In Unexpected Places is almost exactly what it sounds like – Hollick paints various human body parts, like the brains, the lungs, the heart and the intestines, popping up as integral elements in a series of White Rock-inspired landscapes – all with unrestrained, almost cartoonish dynamism and vivid, but carefully chosen, acrylic palette.
If her approach to this show seems without compromise, that’s not quite the case.
Hollick admits that one painting – in which the body parts happened to be human genitalia – was not OK’d by Semiahmoo Arts for inclusion.
“I understood that and accepted that,” Hollick said. “But we negotiated and a couple more that they found a little disturbing were included, so I’m happy about that.”
The paintings in question are a depiction of a trio of muscular men – in a quite literal sense – carrying a block of White Rock businesses, including Penguin Meats, across Johnston Road (inspired by an impending change of location) and one of the Bosa towers looming over a street festival on Russell Avenue, revisualized, startlingly, as a Caesarian birth being raised skyward by the artist’s own hands.
If the blood and sweat dripping off the building is seen as some sort of criticism, it isn’t so, Hollick said.
“Some see birth as pain, but I see it as a joyous experience,” she said. “I’m a fan of the Bosa towers. I wish they could have built one 40 storeys high, that could be seen from Guildford and out to sea and had something quite extraordinary on top.”
The odd juxtapositions at the heart of Hollick’s current show have an entirely logical inspiration – at the height of her late husband Michael’s fatal illness she wanted to learn more about “what was going on in his body,” and bought a book on anatomy.
A little over a year ago, she said, the patterns of body structure began to fuse in her imagination with the anatomy of the city she discovered while doing frequent sketches of construction work around White Rock and South Surrey, watching buildings evolve from underground excavation to framework and completion of the outer envelope.
“Quite a lot of the show comes from these books,” she said, brandishing volumes full of her detailed sketches.
“When I look for things to put in each painting, I find the appropriate sketch.”
It’s a methodology much favoured by the masters of the Netherlands Renaissance school, such as Breughel and Bosch – and, indeed, Hollick’s highly-populated landscapes are reminiscent of these artists at their most surrealistic.
There’s a large amount of engagingly wry and witty detail in her paintings as scores of workmen and women labour over the structures that enclose and include the human organs, as in “Damaged Heart At The Crossroads” – in which a battered heart lies just under the surface of a project to remove blossoming trees from a city street.
“I wanted this to be all soft and beautiful on the surface, and for there to be open-heart surgery going on underneath,” she said.
Intestines At Halloween, Skin Quilts, Skeleton and Bones – each of the large canvases has its own logic, and repays extended viewings.
In It Takes Brains To Build a Skyscraper, a large envisioning head has an open brain pan – while all the scurrying workers have exposed brains, too.
“I had to find a way to show the brain – and I though everybody who works on a building site has to engage his or her brain, or nasty things happen,” the artist chuckled.
Body Parts In Unexpected Places continues at the gallery to July 20, and the artist will be in attendance Saturday (July 16) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Turnbull Gallery is located at 14601 20 Ave. For more information, call 604-536-8333.