Message of a wonderful world

Gertrude Pacific's Sandy Hook studio is surrounded by the trees of the Sechelt Heritage Forest, a stand of nature that Pacific, along with other residents, has worked to preserve since she and her husband moved there in 1993.

"When I first got here, I was lying on my back looking up at a cedar tree, sketching, then drawing and painting water colours. I looked anew at all the native trees and realized that we lucky people are living in a stunningly beautiful garden," she said.

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The artist opens a 40-year retrospective of her work, This Wonderful World, at the Doris Crowston Gallery at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt on Wednesday, March 14.

Her art captures the essence of the forest; the filtered light, fresh breezes and wild creatures come alive in her paintings. Pacific displays an extraordinary diversity of styles, depicted through her own unique lens. Her art conveys her message in subtle, yet assertive ways.

"It's not just a pretty picture," she said. "The essence of a painting is the message - or multiple messages."

She points to an example, a painting depicted from a kayaker's point of view that shows a tiny island, scarcely bigger than a rock, somewhere along our Coast. The rock is shaped like a turtle and the artist has altered it slightly to enhance that notion. The turtle becomes a living part of the scenery, and is bathed in light. Details count in her work. You must look closer. At first, you might not notice the vivid jellyfish in the painting as well - but they are part of the ecosystem.

By contrast, another similar large painting is a fantasy: a huge tree with serpentine branches, centuries old, reaches toward the sun along with its companion wild flower, fireweed. A foraging deer enters the frame camouflaged within the foliage. The whole is painted in a softer tone, like a forest seen in a dream or an Avatar landscape. These two are later paintings in her portfolio; they employ a technique that uses a primary painting of black, white and grey, then a second painting in colour. The result is dazzling.

Pacific grew up in Victoria and then attended art school at the University of Washington, studying drawing, painting and art history.

"It was the beginning of my realization that art meant a lot to me," she recalls.

She held that thought during the following years that took her to Los Angeles and an entirely new career curve. She worked for a non-profit to stop the war in Central America, and she learned how to produce shows for community TV.

Her early works to be seen in this show have an African theme depicted in watercolour. She later moved on to acrylics, painting an unusual but riveting series of empty freeways and gas stations. In one depiction of a gas station, the oil containers are made of glass and they stand ready to be filled by a giant barrel. Where the oil has slopped on the asphalt, a sea anemone writhes.

"It won't survive," Pacific said. "Neither will we, if we don't watch out."

One of Pacific's ghostly freeway paintings was later used as the cover illustration of a MAC Farrant book, The Strange Truth About Us.

Though this earlier work is imaginative, Pacific's most recent work should be the highlight of the show. A series of icons in the Russian style depict animals as saints. Ursus, the bear, is surrounded by a golden halo, but if you look closer, the halo is actually a roulette wheel. Will the bear survive? It's a gamble. A mountain goat and her kid become the animal world representation of Madonna and child and a martyred saint lynx is caught in a leg hold trap. There's no sugar coating the politics.

Pacific will also be showing hand-painted jewellery boxes that feature her loved ones, as she refers to them: a cougar, a wolf and an owl.

The show opens at the Arts Centre (Trail and Medusa in Sechelt) on Wednesday, March 14, with a reception at an earlier time than usual from 5 to 8 p.m. All are invited.

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