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Fresh light shines on bodies of work at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre

Modern myths and life drawing at the Arts Centre
Painter Samantha Harrison invites family members and acquaintances to model for her provocative contemporary renderings of ancient gods.

New exhibitions hosted by the Sunshine Coast Arts Council depict the power of the human figure through diametrically different approaches: addition and subtraction.  

In Samantha Harrison’s Recreations of Myth + Spirit, storied characters and classic artworks receive contemporary makeovers in large-scale oil paintings. Mars, the god of war, is recast as Nigel, a 21st-century entrepreneur in a slim-cut suit brandishing a splintered table leg. Pandora is transfigured into Callum, a bearded hipster wearing a rainbow bracelet, his veiny hands caressing a pink-papered gift box. 

Meanwhile, works by 21 members of the gallery’s Tuesday Life Drawing Group strip away artifice to show the human form reduced to its most essential elements. Pastel-infused sketches of supine bodies by Devon Blean conjoin intimacy and vulnerability. Austere studies in black and white by Crystal Evers document the subtle stories revealed by taut muscles and supple folds of skin. 

Harrison and more than a dozen life drawing artists were present for the shows’ official opening on April 19 at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre.  

“I love having the gestural, quick, life drawing paired with Samantha’s work,” said Keely Halward, who curated the exhibitions. “And seeing some of the life drawing artists also contribute pieces that are at the tail-end of what their gestural work and their sketches led them to, makes a pretty special relationship to see the two in this space.” 

Harrison’s hyperrealistic Recreations series began as a class project at Emily Carr University (she graduated in 2020), when she combined her interested in portraiture with contemporary art practices and politics. The Vancouver-based artist realized there was a way to inject larger-than-life historical figures into the modern world. 

“In each painting, I’m trying to find a way to turn a god or goddess into how they would be as a modern person,” said Harrison. “But they’re not meant to be actual gods. They’re meant to be people play-acting as gods. I don’t think they have to perfectly match the character in order to embody them.” 

In addition to her evocative use of modern apparel, Harrison chooses real-life models that subvert cultural presuppositions. In Fatima and Jeong Min as Mary and Jesus, the pietà is recreated by a mixed-race couple. In Vivian as Hades (God of The Underworld), a figure with Asian features reclines on a plush chaise lounge, preparing to ignite Canadian currency bearing Robert Borden’s grimace. A bundle of desiccated roses lies before her. 

“Nobody’s off-limits,” added Harrison. “It’s just to do with what society looks like now.” The show is her Sunshine Coast debut. 

The gallery’s corp of life drawing artists has been meeting for 39 years, making it one of the longest-lived life drawing groups in Canada. Its members include longtime practitioners and seasoned artists making a return to the discipline. Drawings in pencil, pen, crayon, and iPad mediums are fashioned quickly. The nude models, illuminated from above by the Arts Centre’s skylights, strike poses lasting between one and thirty minutes. 

“Working to the time restraint really teaches you to look,” said Paula O’Brien, a member of the group. “You’re not there to express some idea.  You’re there to render that body in the light to your best ability.” In addition to sketches, the showcase includes bas-relief sculptures cast by Claude Perrault and studio paintings by Cindy Raich inspired by her rapid-fire drawings. 

“To me, life drawing is like ballet class at the barre,” added O’Brien, “and working in the studio is the performance. No matter what style of work you’re working in later, working to speed is a terrific trainer.” 

Recreations of Myth and Spirit and the Life Drawing Exhibition remain at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt until May 11.