Dana's Dancing trees
By Aaren Madden, July 2016
Dana Irving’s background as a mural painter and her love of coastal forests have resulted in a grand, sweeping style.
IN DANA IRVING'S OIL ON CANVAS PAINTING “Special”, the Salish Sea laps onto a rocky shore. Not far from the water’s edge, a stand of wind-blown trees rises from mossy rocks. In just about the centre of the image, an island large enough for one lone tree is surrounded by the waves. Clouds sweep overhead. Any number of coastlines in this region could claim such a scene, and anyone who has scrambled over similar rocks knows that these are places teeming with life: growth and decay, wind and weather, salt and sun and rock supporting an intricate ecosystem.
In confoundingly simple forms, Irving’s paintings evoke that multitude. Those clouds culminate in Art Deco spirals that, like the sand and waves, vibrate with sculptural plasticity. Stirred by the unseen wind, trees twirl branches that are represented in green swathes, like fine satin skirts woven thick with the richness of fondant. Information is economical and highly designed, but also highly evocative, speaking to the essence of place.
Irving’s is a style that has been described as “Emily Carr meets Dr Seuss,” but could be taken further: Lawren Harris was certainly the host of that party, and one imagines it was held in the Art Deco splendour of Radio City Music Hall, circa its 1932 opening with Lolita de Lempicka bumping into Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton. Irving counts all as inspirations that are manifested in a visual language she uses to convey her deep appreciation for a place that she feels lucky to call home.
The forests full of swaying trees near her North Vancouver home are not far from her door, and she hikes them at least twice a week. Nature has been an important part of her life since she was born in Prince George in 1959. She grew up roaming the outdoors with her two brothers. “We didn’t have any neighbours, and our playground was the woods,” she recalls.
It grew into a love of the natural BC landscape that keeps her happily rooted. “I’m not too interested in travelling the world, really. I feel like there is so much here for me. These big cedars and Douglas firs, they’re just it for me—they’ve got the big skirts!”
As a girl, however, she longed for broader horizons than Prince George offered. Her mother owned a clothing store and was a seamstress, and her father ran a lumber mill, always making things in his spare time. “My brothers and I just grew up knowing you can make stuff—and that it’s rewarding,” she says.
Equally important was her parents’ recognition of her artistic tendencies. Though many parents would have balked at its seeming impracticality, “I was always encouraged to be an artist,” she appreciates. From the age of four, she was enrolled in “just about everything artsy they could think of,” she remembers, including music, which is still part of her life: She is a singer-songwriter who plays guitar and ukulele, and has released two CDs. She also took ballet with an “eccentric” Norwegian ballet teacher, an anomaly in Prince George, to be sure. “As a kid, I had not seen antique furniture or original paintings.” The woman’s persona and her house full of exotic finery made Irving realize, “I want more of that.”
Growing up brought more small epiphanies. At 16, she came across a book of Lawren Harris paintings that stirred her. “I just thought it was an amazing way to interpret all these things I had grown up seeing: lakes and rivers and weather.” Later on, after becoming dissatisfied with interior design studies at Douglas College, she moved to Jasper, Alberta for a “gap” year. Surrounded by many of the very landscapes Harris painted and a milieu of artistic types, she took watercolour courses and did plein air painting. “I just got the bug from landscape and nature. The seeds got planted at that point,” she says.
It prompted her to study at the Victoria College of Art from 1979-81, where she became immersed in the foundational skills of an artist, along with the knowledge that behind that one finished canvas hides countless hours of reaching toward excellence.
That education served her well. Moving to Vancouver in search of work, Irving found employment with a high-end house painter. At the time, there was an affinity in the interior design world for faux marble finishes, trompe l’oeil effects and murals that mimicked old-world frescoes. The pair founded Famous Painters, a very busy company specializing in such techniques in the grand homes of Vancouver and occasionally beyond. “Because I was an artist and had been trained so well in realism and really classical stuff, murals just became a natural evolution,” Irving says. She created several around Vancouver, including the one on the side of the Stanley Lodge and in a few restaurants, often in a style wittily reminiscent of the monumental murals created in the 1930s by Diego Rivera and the like.
Eventually the mural market waned, but her final project in 2001 helped her transition into a gallery artist. She was commissioned to paint the dining car on the Whistler Northwind, a luxury train which ran, fittingly, from Vancouver to Prince George. “The idea was to depict the journey,” Irving explains, adding, “It seemed fitting to use the Group of Seven style. I thought, ‘Oh, now’s my big chance. I can try that language on, see how it fits.’” It fit so well that, after painting similar scenes on canvas for a gallery owner friend on Saltspring Island, she sold six in two months. She’s represented there still and, here in town, at West End Gallery (with a show in September).
Along with stylistic influences, compositional techniques she developed doing murals have found their way onto her canvases. Often, she says, murals were very wide and needed a cohesive element. She explains, “I’d do little scenes and then wrap some kind of ribbon around them. It seemed to evoke a wind or energy or weather. So that really influenced how I approached my work, no matter the shape.” In her current landscapes, that ribbon often reappears in the gestural forms of those dancing trees.
Another legacy of her mural painting background is her tendency to plan out each composition very carefully. “I’ve talked to other artists who do very organic, in-the-moment abstract things and they never know what it’s going to be in the end,” she observes. “[My work is] much more calculated, but when I am finished it often reflects my feeling for the place, or the mood of the weather. It’s still there, somehow. It all comes through. It often surprises me.”
Therein lies the deception of a simple visual language such as Irving’s. The experiences and influences it is distilled from are bound to convey more than colour and form.
View Dana Irving’s work at West End Gallery (1203 Broad Street, 250-388-0009, www.westendgalleryltd.com). She will have a solo exhibition at West End for two weeks in September. Dates TBA. Find Dana Irving online at www.danairving.com. There you’ll find a link to a short YouTube video Sun Comes Out which showcases the parallels between her painting and music practices.
As the parent of two small children with big dreams, Aaren Madden hopes she can have as positive an impact on their future success as Dana Irving’s supportive parents have had on hers.