Stepping into Valerie Hodgson’s studio is a little unnerving. Though the setting couldn’t be more inviting, with the sun pouring through the windows of the workspace, just steps from Hodgson’s picturesque log home in Wolf Creek, when people enter the studio they immediately get the sense they’re not alone.
The walls are lined with 11” X 14” canvasses in the last stage of completion. Their edges have been painted white so when they’re finally hung on a gallery wall they will appear to float, drawing the eye into the heart of the painting. Carefully and daintily, Hodgson turns a few of the canvasses around to reveal them to her visitors. All of the sudden, we are being watched, gazed at by some of the Yukon’s most prominent and powerful women. Goody (Gudrun) Sparling, born in Whitehorse in 1926, smiles a wry smile as she sits in repose, her posture relaxed, but her unmistakably maternal spirit shining through. Her longtime friend, Babe (Evelyn Mae) Richards (born in Whitehorse in 1924) is close by, as is the late Fanny (Fran) Weller, born in 1916 in Dezadeash Lake. (Weller passed away in November 2009.) Sarah Lennie, born in 1956 on Banks Island, N.W.T., and now living in Whitehorse, is here, too, bearing a peaceful expression with a hint of sadness around her eyes. Clara Dionne, born in 1959 in Aklavik, N.W.T., looks out from a canvas with a startlingly honest expression, almost defiantly challenging the viewer to look straight into her soul.
There are 50 portraits in Hodgson’s studio, 50 depictions of Yukon women aged 50 and over, representing a broad range of cultures, experiences, social classes, and contributions to the territory. “The ladies,” as Hodgson calls the group of portraits, will be on display at the Yukon Art Centre’s Public Art Gallery from June 2–July 24, as part of an exhibition appropriately titled Yukon Women: 50 over 50. The exhibition will also include an audio component: recorded interviews with the women conducted by Yukon writer Claire Festel.
The collaboration is notable in that it came about quite by accident.
Searching through her canvasses to find a particular portrait, Hodgson laughs at her naiveté when dreaming up the project three years ago.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says, as she finally locates her painting of Whitehorse author Miche Genest. “Actually, I do. It’s good to take a look at your community.”
When Hodgson began the portraiture project, she had been painting seriously for less than a decade. She had previously worked as a physiotherapist and with fibre arts--dyed silks and tapestries--but it wasn’t until 2000 that she began to paint. Her still-life and landscape works were very well received, but, in 2008, she challenged herself to paint people. Her first effort, a portrait of her late father-in-law, Jack Lang, hangs in the living room of the log home she shares with her husband, Yukon Senator Daniel Lang.
“I wanted to do two things,” explains Hodgson. “First, I wanted to have a project that was significant enough to exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre, and, second, I wanted to paint real people--I didn’t want to paint from photographs.”
At the time of the project’s inception, Hodgson had just reached the “women over 50” group herself, and choosing to look at her peer group felt natural.
“Fifty felt like a good number,” she says. “Of course, I had no idea how much work it would be.”
Painting from a live model as opposed to a photograph presents several challenges. Hodgson knew a full portrait can take anywhere from 40–80 hours to complete, so she purposefully set limits for herself. She would give herself 2–3 hours of sit-time with each woman, getting a base likeness in oil paint, and then complete the work from photographs and memory later on. While she had initially planned for the project to be completed much sooner, her husband’s appointment to the senate in Ottawa meant she would only have the summers to meet with her models.
And then, of course, there was the issue of finding models.
Hodgson’s first brave volunteer was her sister-in-law, Karen Lang, through her husband’s brother, Yukon MLA Archie Lang.
Karen recalls the first sitting, where an uncertain but enthusiastic Hodgson took many pictures, not having entirely developed her methodology.
"I remember when she was done and she showed me the picture,” recalls Karen. “And I looked at it, and I just couldn’t help myself, and I just sort of blurted out, ‘Do I really look that sad and depressed?’
“I said, ‘How about you paint me again at the end, and you can compare how your style has changed?’ she continues.
This exchange only furthered Hodgson’s commitment to her original concept--the portraits were to be her own impression of her subject. The women she painted would have to give themselves over completely to the process, with no approval or input into the finished product.
Asking a relative or friend to sit for her was one challenge, but Hodgson felt it crucial that the 50 women were drawn from a wide variety of sources, so she asked each subject to bring another woman into the project. In the end, she met many of the women for the first time when they entered her studio.
“This is not ‘50 of Val’s friends,’” Hodgson says. “I’m