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Nature leads the way in new abstract art at Sunshine Coast Arts Centre

Of Line and Landscape and Through the Gardens continue at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt until March 9.
Artists Laurence Belzile and John Down respond to questions at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre.

Two faces of nature — unruly terrain and cultivated plantings — are juxtaposed in complementary exhibitions that opened at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre on Feb. 9.  

Abstractionist John Down, who moved to Halfmoon Bay 10 years ago, attracted an enthusiastic throng of Sunshine Coast supporters for the unveiling of his new series of works, Of Line and Landscape. 

Meanwhile, Laurence Belzile, born in Gaspésie, Quebec during the same decade that Down was cementing an international reputation from his former base of New York City, unveiled bright-hued abstracts in acrylic and pencil crayon titled Through the Gardens. 

“My work has been pretty much nature- or landscape-based for a long time,” said Down, who is originally from Vancouver and has exhibited his paintings and pastel drawings on three continents. “I use the physical landscape as a way to get into my interior landscape. By drawing and painting, it’s like [asking], well, here’s the natural, but what’s in me? What’s my aesthetic? How can I pull this out of the landscape and myself?” 

Down uses bold strokes in acrylic, charcoal, calcium and pastel to depict scenes that embody nature’s vigour. Even the solitary conifer in Last Tree Standing presents a brawny counterpoint to a broad-brushed mass of encroaching clouds. The vivid acrylics in his triptych Blue Rock Yellow Moss are applied effusively, effecting whorls of texture within the two-dimensional canvas. 

Although many of Down’s scenes evoke the woodland surroundings of his studio, which is perched on a forest-bounded granite ridge, his line drawings took shape after spending time in the desert of New Mexico. He used the shape of its rocks to guide his compositions, then filled the contours with vivid colour. 

The pastels used by Down have an exclusive heritage. To qualify for use of their materials, he provided samples of his work to Sennelier, a 130-year-old purveyor of pigments. “They’re hard to get,” Down said, “but it’s like painting with butter.” He received 70 giant pastel sticks from the French company. 

Despite Down’s absorption with colour’s visceral qualities (“Cadmium crumbles,” he said, “but the blues are dense and you can be pretty aggressive with them”), he can also portray emotional potency without them. In Snow Looking for a Glacier, he uses white acrylic and gels to create a scene of arctic yearning visible only through the sheen of reflected light. 

“I’m very much an environmentalist,” added Down. “I have been since I was young. I try to try to extrapolate the beauty that’s still there. But when I work in the studio, while these are all my concerns, I have to just let them all go. I have to find joy in what I’m doing to be guided from within.” 

For Belzile, profuse varieties of gardens are a perfect match with her abstract style. “I like to mix really bright colours and really dark colours to create a sense of space within the artwork,” she said. “So it becomes an image that you can navigate in, so there’s pulling and pushing. So I’m always trying to play with that tension when I create a piece.” 

Belzile uses acrylics with pencil crayon (“There’s something really intimate about working with it,” she said) in works like Détendre l’impression, in which magentas and sapphires blend, drawing the viewer into the churning heart of a blossom. In A l’aube, a slight arc of white portends the break of dawn over a landscape of dusky crimson. 

Her colours and designs suffuse feminine elements into the abstract medium, which she explained has traditionally been dominated by male figures. “I’m always trying to think about what it means to use organic forms and the use of pink or red or colours we normally associate with women.” 

Of Line and Landscape and Through the Gardens continue at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt until March 9.