By Aaren Madden, May 2015
Anne Hansen paints joyful natural images as antidote to social injustices.
Anne Hansen was at the beach off Dallas Road in November 2007 when she first spotted an oystercatcher. “It was late afternoon,” she relates. “The sun was behind them, going right through their orangey-red bills.” She watched as they obliviously foraged and bobbed their heads, splashing water illuminated in an effusion of low-lying sunlight. “It was a magical instant.”
It was a gift during a sorrowful and changing time for Hansen, who is now 56 years old.
For 25 years, she had worked as an administrative assistant in the Drama Program at the University of Toronto. It was her dream job: “I had total freedom of expression,” says the passionate activist. “I could put up pro-choice posters in my office.” An avid lover of the outdoors since her rural childhood near Brampton, Ontario, she went on a canoe trip organized by a good friend in 1991. This friend’s brother, esteemed horticulturalist and activist Henry Kock, had also been invited. Both he and Hansen showed up wearing mismatched sneakers. Naturally, they started a relationship and eventually married, she continuing to live in Toronto and he in Guelph. But in 2004, Kock was diagnosed with brain cancer. Hansen moved to Guelph and cared for him until he died on Christmas Day 2005. Seeking a fresh start, she uprooted to Victoria in July 2007.
“It was a big move. It was difficult, but it was really good,” Hansen says, adding with laughter, “I had no intention of this!” With a broad wave of her arm that takes in the room, she refers to dozens of brightly colored acrylic paintings of outdoor scenes, all places she has been: friends’ gardens, shorelines teeming with flora and fauna, Rocky Mountains with glacial blue waters, and above all, birds—oystercatchers not the least among them.
Sometimes it’s remarkable how one fleeting moment of beauty can affect the path of a life. A couple of weeks after that afternoon on the beach, she pondered returning to painting, something she had done on and off since 1985. The result is a small, charming watercolour showing clear blue sky, rocky beach and two purposeful oystercatchers. “One thing led to another,” says Hansen, “and I was staying up late every night painting these oystercatchers. They just started coming out of me, and I couldn’t stop. And 350 oystercatchers later, now I’m doing magpies and Stellar’s jays and other things—but I don’t think I’m finished with oystercatchers,” she assures.
Though her avian familiarity reaches back to a childhood spent with binoculars hung around her neck following her birder parents through the Ontario woods, this was a departure from Hansen’s previous subject matter. She was originally encouraged to paint by artist, musician, songwriter, and activist Mendelson Joe, who remains “a very good and supportive friend.” Her first exhibition was in 1987 and included local scenes and personal pursuits: The Toronto Island ferry, streetcars, woodland ice skating scenes.
She has always followed her instincts, and has had no formal art training. “I’m not good at doing things on command, like sitting in a room and drawing a figure,” she shrugs. “I just can’t do what I’m told.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that, among the solid, joyfully bright colours, simple shapes and bold outlines that have long defined Hansen’s style, she often injects larger social messages onto her canvases. “I always did political art,” she says, showing a painting on canvas of cartoon-like smiling faces bordering a blue sky. White spirals symbolize the joy felt at the scene depicted, at which Hansen was present: It was 1988, just after Canada’s abortion law had been struck down. People gathered to celebrate just outside the Morgentaler clinic on Harbord Street. “It was a jubilant situation,” Hansen says.
Fast forward to this year, and one of her most recent paintings still stirred controversy on the subject. A Community Arts Council show calling for political art at first balked at her submission, “Oystercatchers #364.” The acrylic painting shows coat hangers and a woman’s lower body wearing a bloodied skirt, more blood dripping on and staining the floor. Out the window, ubiquitous oystercatchers fly among gulls, a beautiful coastal mountain range rising from the water. “Part of it was a bit of a self-parody—‘she can’t do anything without throwing oystercatchers in it’—but part of it was I wanted to depict a woman in a remote West Coast community who didn’t have access to an abortion.” At the last minute, the painting was accepted—and, doubtless, more people saw it than would have because of the fuss.
The title is typically understated in terms of content in her paintings. “Oystercatchers #312” (see page 26), for instance, shows the eponymous birds flying and poking around near a lighthouse. California poppies flutter in the foreground; bright blue sky swirls behind. An equally bright blue bicycle rests against the door of the lighthouse residence. It’s a subtle shout out to Hansen’s passion for cycling, about which she has a thing or two to say. Contrary to the official line, “[Victoria is] not a cycling city. I cycle because I’ve always cycled; I couldn’t live without it. But I think it would be very hard to encourage new people to cycle until we have a decent cycling system. Dallas Road, for example. To me, it’s got to be one of Canada’s most beautiful promenades. You’d think there could be a bike lane, but its dangerous. There are parked cars; you are constantly on guard.”
In addition to taking part in art walks and studio tours and exhibiting work in local libraries and businesses, Hansen can often be seen with a painting at a protest or rally. She took “Oystercatchers #346 (Red Sky in the Morning, Sailors Take Warning)” to the protest at the Legislature during the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline hearings in January 2013. Sea lions, salmon, hooded mergansers, Stellar’s jays, bull kelp, sea stars and, of course, oystercatchers were all blacked out when Hansen painted over this scene as a caution against the devastation an oil spill would bring to this richly biodiverse, yet fragile, coastline. It was a powerful statement in general terms of art as activism, but also personally, in the obliteration of what is beautiful to Hansen.
For her, art practice has two sides. “I think I see [my] art as a bit of an antidote to the way the world is,” she reflects, “because if all you did was activism, it would be kind of depressing. Some people do, and I so admire them, but I need to have beauty in my life and not always be fighting injustices.” That means plenty of time outdoors, often with her partner Paul Rasmussen. A recent backpacking trip in Strathcona Provincial Park inspired a painting of Canada jays. Perched on a backpack, these birds are as indifferent as oystercatchers to what they represent: both a respite from injustices, and a visual tool to fight against them.
Anne Hansen’s “Loons # 4,” a protest against Bill C-51, is on display at Green Party MP Elizabeth May’s Victoria office at 843 Fort St. Her work is online at www.oystercatchergirl.blogspot.com.
As a “recovering Albertan,” Aaren Madden did not realize how much she missed daily sightings of the magnificent magpie until she saw one painted on a canvas in Anne Hansen’s studio.