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This article was published 28/8/2017 (299 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘I think — or at least I hope — that we all carry around an image of something happy, something comforting that we can draw on in hard times," artist Shelley Vanderbyl says.
The Winnipeg-based painter gives this notion a poetic but also practical interpretation. She creates evocative miniature landscapes, painstakingly painted on the inside of old vintage pill tins. People can literally put these beautiful little images of nature into their pockets, keep them close and use them for solace and inspiration.
Vanderbyl often gives these works to people "as medicine," expressing her belief that art can be a form of healing, both for the person who makes it and the person who contemplates it.
"The general theme of my work is hope," she explains.
The belief that art can be therapeutic, that making art or looking at art can improve a person’s physical, mental, emotional or spiritual well-being has been around for centuries. Art has long been seen as a route to religious consolation. It has been viewed as a tool for Freudian self-discovery.
Vanderbyl gives this old idea a new twist, believing art, by allowing us to slow down, look and breathe, can help us face the strains and stresses of 21st-century life.
Born in the Northwest Territories and raised in Alberta, Vanderbyl has lived in Winnipeg since 2010 with her husband and children.
Along with what she calls her "pocket paintings," she also works in large-scale abstractions that reference historic fresco techniques.
This mode of artmaking goes back to a period when she made her living as a drywall taper, often working in difficult conditions, beset by an unhappy sense she wasn’t doing what she was meant to.
"Turning to plaster as a medium redeemed all that time back to me," Vanderbyl says.
The fresco pieces celebrate all those things that drywall installers try to avoid. Instead of a smooth, clean look, Vanderbyl’s painted surfaces embrace chips, marks, signs of labour and time, as layers are painstakingly built up and scraped back.
She recognizes that abstraction can be intimidating for some viewers, who are often left wondering what they are "supposed" to be seeing. She emphasizes that her abstractions are open-ended and she hopes people can find in her paintings whatever it is that they want or need.
This approach comes out of Vanderbyl’s own experiences. She didn’t become a practising artist through the usual route of art school, but by working in a gallery, reading and looking and through the mentorship process.
"It’s important to me to be able to explain my art to people who feel like outsiders to the art world," she states. "I want my art to be accessible to everyone."
Certainly many viewers are responding to Vanderbyl’s message of hope and healing. Raised in a church community and having gone on missions as a young woman, she sees her art-making as an extension of that impulse to connect with and care for others.
"How I function as a person is how I should function as an artist," she says. "I want to make images that are therapeutic, and not just for me. I want them to be therapeutic to look at."
Vanderbyl calls art "a material language of hope."
Her paintings, some of which will be on view starting Friday at the Finch Gallery Workspace at 74 Princess St., are a way of sharing that hope with others.
In conversation with Elise Dawson, Shelley Vanderbyl will talk about art, healing and hope at the First Fridays Art Talk at the Free Press News Café on Friday at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 or email email@example.com to reserve tickets, which are $20.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.