Elaine Despins, studio visit & open studio sale

Elaine Despins was my third Montreal figurative artist studio visit on my recent trip there. Travelling by public transit with my very helpful iPhone app Google Maps, I was able to find my way there easily by Metro and then a short walk. A super app for travellers!

Elaine had just been cleaning up and organizing her studio for her upcoming Open Studio May 17-19 here in Montreal. The walls and floor have fresh coats of paint and everything is coming together for a nice show with sizes and prices for every budget.

Elaine has a background in animation and enjoyed that dream job where she actually got paid to do what she loved, to draw. She always pursued her own painting on the side and switched tracks for full time painting in 2000. She completed her Masters in Fine Arts/New Media in 2008-2010 in Berlin.

The walls are currently hung with many life studies for her Open Studio. They are full of life and subtlety. Her portrait studies were done in 4 hour sessions which she arranges here in her studio and invites a small group to share the model with her.

This nude study was done in a 3 hour session at UQAM which offers some great life study sessions.

Elaine works with a very intuitive approach, not a conceptual one. In fact she doesn’t always quite know what the series is about until it has ended. She just knows she has a deep connection to the work and once she can express in words what she is putting into her paintings, the series is over. It is complete.

She starts with playing around with the actual paint on canvas or watercolour on paper, manipulating the paint and rubbing away the surface like playing with clay in her hands when out of the darkness, out of the blobs emerging before her, a feeling, an connections starts to take shape like seeing meaning in a Rorschach test.

The first series was Presence/Emergence. The rich black background is velvety like a mezzotint surface. Above, we see well rendered backs of people of different types, young, old lying on their sides. Are they at rest? Are they sick? Are they in the womb? Elaine finds this view of backs interesting because we never see our own backs, and this unfamiliar perspective acts as a metaphor for the hidden and vulnerable parts of ourselves.Below we find smaller people emerging out of the darkness. When she finished the first one, she stood back and the emotional force of her work and her deep personal connection with it brought her to tears, always a good sign for an artist but not always experienced.

Henry Lehman, a Montreal critique more known for his negative reviews gave her show a very positive review in The Gazette, calling it The Top Solo Show in 2004. We chatted about the current show on at UQAM The Painting Project, A Snapshot of Painting in Canada. Like many contemporary art exhibitions, there are many works which an uneducated public would find lacking content and many would question. If that is the slice of top current painters in Canada, where do the excellent figurative artists already featured on our site fit in? They are not found here.

Her second series was The Square Series which carried on from the first one. In these smaller 30 x 30 pieces, the face emerges from the darkness with the soft paint being rubbed and lifted off with a cloth instead of being applied on top.

The third series, The Virgin Mary Series came about when faced with an initially uninteresting model, she asked her to stand up on a chair so she could photograph her from below. As the model dropped her head and arms to relax and wait to be given instructions, the classic Virgin Mary pose took shape in Elaine’s eyes. Having been brought up a Catholic but having moved away from this religious dogma, she wasn’t looking for this but her next body of work took shape as if on its own path and could not be denied. Is she ascending like Christ? Is she falling backwards into a pool? The figure appears in a blue void and all the religious images from her childhood fall together in this series of very ordinary women treated to an attitude of reverence.

The fourth series The Sea Inside features people lying with their faces on the side, bathed in a cool blueish light and shimmering with reflections on the smooth white surface under their cheeks. The subjects range in ages from young to old and like much of her work, emanate a sense of calm and serenity.

Elaine recently sold this lovely one of a young boy to a buyer from Chicago who found her through the FigurativeArtist.org site. His search for “figurative art” brought him to my site, he wandered through and clicked on Elaine’s image and made the connection with her directly to buy the piece which will ship out to his new Chicago home next week. It’s very rewarding and exciting to me to here that artists are actually selling because of my site. Bravo!

Elaine is mainly self taught in painting, has taken several great workshops over the years but did not follow any university fine arts program as she felt they did not deliver what she was looking for. Indeed after one year with a life model painting course at Concordia, she and a fellow student were comparing notes one day and both felt frustrated that “they had not learned a god damned thing in that course”. They had not been given instruction in how to use mediums, how to mix skin tones, never discussed lighting or how to work with cool or warm shadows. Sad to hear about a respected venue. She found her own teachers in other venues and made her own way after that.

She has won two Canada Council grants and the very prestigious Elizabeth Greenshields grant for figurative artwork.

Elaine’s next series is percolating in her mind now and will be about Nocturnes. Her summer project with be plein air painting in the evening light. With inspiration from others who have shown us this wondrous greenish evening light like Frederick Remington and Whistler, she is looking forward to this next adventure. We’ll be watching and waiting…
Elaine Despins


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