Lost and found

By Aaren Madden, October 2014

In a new series of paintings, Meghan Hildebrand offers visual delight.

A great way to experience a new city is to tuck away the map, forget about the must-see landmarks and museums, and just let the sidewalk take you. Let your eye get caught by an enticing window, some intriguing architecture, even a compelling stranger, and follow. The opportunities for delight and discovery can be multiple. The place becomes your own, in a way, and you share some of its secrets. You develop your own private narrative.

That notion of getting “lost” and the gifts it can bring is at work in a new series by Meghan Hildebrand, 36, a painter (and punk rocker) living in Powell River. The collection of oil and acrylic on canvas is called “Carry Me,” and its meaning is twofold, applying to both the creative process and the viewing experience. For the latter, it’s the temporary suspension of the quotidian; “the ability of the artwork to take you somewhere else, somewhere new,” Hildebrand explains. “In regards to my painting process,” she continues, “it’s the way that—if I let it—the work can carry me to its completion. It’s a good exercise in getting out of all the chaos inside my head, to create a clear space to just receive instructions and actually not even feel in charge of the paintings. Just follow the cues from colour and move ahead. What comes out is always a surprise.”

Followers of Hildebrand’s work have come to expect surprises as well. She is constantly exploring new ideas, subject matter, and media, shifting from the more abstract to the more representational as the pendulum of her own curiosity swings. Working in a series helps Hildebrand to process ideas and bring them to a conclusion or develop them for a future context. Explains Michael Warren, owner and director of Madrona Gallery, “She evolves a set of ideas through 20 or 30 paintings and each year we see quite a difference in the motifs she is working with.” 

Hildebrand ventures into abstract expressionism with loose, gestural mark making and saturated, giddy colour values as she did in “Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan and Derelict,” a series from 2012. But that was after a series called “Sparklehaus,” which celebrated pattern, history, and storytelling. Those canvasses are tightly packed with intricate imagery rendered in muted tones. Patterns and figures play off each other and reference her fascination with quilts and their connections to “the role women have played in activism, art and society.” The idea germinated with the series “Rivers and Logs,” wherein she also highlighted concerns about the privatization of water and waterways in Canada.

Wherever Hildebrand takes her practice, and whether she addresses larger issues or personal experience, there are constants. “You can really identify it’s her voice through the mark making,” Warren observes. These are often simplistic, even archetypal forms for house, face, or animal. It allows for multiple readings: “She just sets the stage for the viewer. She gives you all the elements, like a recipe, and you can go in and weave whatever narrative, whatever influences affect your life, into viewing the painting,” he says, noting that a ubiquitous arc form is a typical “Hildebrand” hill. 

Sometimes, though, that arc can be read as a portal. Find the black arc shape just lower-right from centre in one as-yet-untitled painting in “Carry Me” and surely a doorway offers itself up to the curious—and the bold. It urges the viewer to be pulled into the work. The trees are so inviting, the patterns so reassuring, but is that a clear-cut on a receding hillside? What about the eyes that appear in some trees, invoking the all-seeing Eye of Providence; what about the faces? “No specific reference was meant,” she assures. “They bring a playful and magical atmosphere to the work.” They do stir up the idea of the viewer and the viewed with whimsy, but also a little bit of menace, depending on your frame of mind. 

But it’s a good thing. That fleeting panic of disorientation raises consciousness and magnifies the interaction. “I am realizing how little I know,” Hildebrand admits. And she’s comfortable with that. “Instead of trying to share some kind of knowledge I was grasping for, now I’d actually rather present questions than any sort of message. You look at a piece and ask ‘what is this; why is that?’ and relate it to your own experience,” she says. “I’m much more interested in that than any kind of commentary. It’s okay to just get lost in a piece of work that is visually exciting.”

Hildebrand enjoyed that sensation on a recent trip to Mexico. In Oaxaca, works at the textile museum captivated her. “Some of the wall hangings were just patterns, but so incredibly intense and joyful in their colour and so contemplative in the pattern. Your eyes get lost and your mind clears. You get lost in it,” she says.

As far back as she can remember, she has been happiest when immersed in that way. Born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon, Hildebrand had her artist mother’s studio at her disposal. “She never said no to anything I wanted to do in terms of making a mess in her studio or getting into her supplies,” Hildebrand remembers fondly. Like her mother, she attended Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, BC.  She then went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and has lived in Powell River since 2004. Her work is now in commercial galleries across Canada and has toured public galleries as well. Hildebrand is now on the radar screens of an intrigued group of collectors.

They will find her new work inspired by her local landscape, but influences from her early exposure in the north still figure into her work. Inuit art always struck a chord with her and emerges in her simplified marks, animal shapes, narrative and textures. She remembers Ted Harrison and his “shameless” use of colour, among others. She continues to learn from other artists, most recently in a workshop with Landon Mackenzie. This winter she will draw from that exchange by exploring the use of spray paint and a return to oils. 

Some of Hildebrand’s other interests have been feeding her work as well. Besides painting and doing graphic design, she sings in a punk rock choir and is a member of the band The Abbie Hoffman Society, who recently toured with punk legends NoMeansNo. “I think being in the band and choir have given me a bigger voice and made me feel braver to take risks and put it out there,” she reflects. It’s true of a collaboration, but “the same thing is true with painting. When you just let the paintings arise—they are the best pieces.” Her approach to form and content allows the same discovery and delight to become the viewer’s as well.  


“Carry Me” opens at Madrona Gallery on October 11 with a reception 1-4 pm, and runs until October 25. 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com.

Aaren Madden fondly remembers getting “lost” in Paris, France, both by putting away her map for a delightful afternoon and by standing immersed in front of any number of artworks.