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ArtsNet Yukon

A painter and a writer take on 50 of the Yukon's colourful personalities

II By Elaine Corden II

Summer 2011~V5I2

             
From left, Hodgson's portraits of Goody Sparling, Clara Dionne, and Karen Lang.

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

very grateful that these women were generous enough to trust me. Most of the women hadn’t sat for portraits before and were very patient with me, as I was sort of learning as I went. They would leave the studio, and I wouldn’t be done, and they just had to have faith.”

   That said, Hodgson was heartened that, despite being put in a very vulnerable position, many women enjoyed the experience.

   “Some of the women said it was just nice to be looked at,” she says, adding that women over 50 can sometimes feel invisible in a culture that often regards youth and beauty as synonymous.

   Hodgson is very quick to stress that the paintings are not intended to be perfect, photorealistic representations of her subjects. Though she was tempted to go back in and fix mistakes she saw in some portraits, she restrained herself as much as possible. Knowing that oil painting is a forgiving medium that lends itself well to making adjustments, Hodgson vowed to stop once she had captured something about her subject that she felt was honest or relayed one small but significant truth she had seen in their faces.

   Given that Hodgson was not provided the life stories of many of the women who sat for her, it’s all the more exciting that writer Claire Festel became involved to reveal the women’s personal histories. As the story goes, Festel and Hodgson were having dinner at a mutual friend’s home, when someone pointed out the pair were working in similar creative territory. Festel, who had been writing a series on Yukon old-timers for Yukon, North of Ordinary, had become increasingly interested in writing profiles of people who’d chosen to live and stay in the Yukon. As fate would have it, when Hodgson and Festel began to talk they discovered that Festel had just finished an interview with Goody Sparling and Hodgson had only recently finished Sparling’s portrait.

   Working together seemed inevitable, so Festel began tracking down the women who had already sat for Hodgson, drawing out their life stories much the way Hodgson had drawn their images--taking just a few hours to get a thumbnail sketch of what made each woman unique; how their lives had been enriched by the Yukon; and how they in turn had enriched the Yukon with their presence.

   Surprisingly, Festel’s interviews didn’t unearth any common thread or distinct trait that could be ascribed to all the women, beyond a shared geography and a willingness to tell their stories. Certainly they were connected to each other through community, as Hodgson’s method of recruiting subjects proved, but by and large they were a diverse group, each with a unique and riveting history.

   Festel’s major takeaway was not some simple archetype of a typical Yukon woman, but, rather, she found the richness of the women’s lives inspired her to take a more active role in creating her own story--to follow her dream of writing. To that end, when it was suggested that Festel take her profiles and Hodgson’s paintings and turn them into a book, she jumped at the chance. Remarkable Yukon Women, published by the Lost Moose imprint of Harbour Publishing, will be released June 2, in tandem with Hodgson’s art show.

   “I’m so excited to start this phase of my life,” says Festel. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. To really be a writer. And this is just the beginning.”

   As for Hodgson, she is understandably done for the moment with portraits. When asked about the fate of the portraits after the show, she says some are, understandably, in demand by the subjects or their families. While she’d originally intended to unveil the paintings to the women at the opening of her show at the Yukon Arts Centre, she made a last minute decision to send each subject a photograph of their finished portrait in mid-April.

   Clara Dionne, speaking just a few hours after her photographed portrait arrived in the mail, was overwhelmed by the results.

   “I can’t believe how much it looks like me,” she said over the phone. “Just the eyes and the expression. Even my husband said, ‘Wow, she really got you,’” says Dionne, her voice filled with emotion.

   “I had never in my life sat for a painting before, and the day I went into Val’s studio was the first time I’d ever met her,” she recalls. “I was curious and uncomfortable at the same time. I was sitting there, and she would just stare right into my eyes, and I guess I was trying to smile, like you would when someone takes your photo. But I’m not a smiley person, that’s not who I am.... And Val said to me, ‘No. There’s something that’s not working. Just be yourself.’ So I decided that’s what I would do. I’m not going to pretend to be a smiley person. I’m just going to be me.... And now, I’m just so happy that she’s really captured who I am. There was a special connection that I can’t even describe. All the emotion and pain and experiences I’ve had in in my life are right there in my eyes. I have tons of photographs of myself, but today I opened up the envelope and there I was.”

   With reactions like Dionne’s, Hodgson’s portraits are sure to be sought after as individual works, but the artist expresses a slightly different desire for the fate of her “ladies.”

   “Their real power is as a group,” says Hodgson. “When you see them all together, you just know that that’s how they should be.” Y

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