Self preservation

By Aaren Madden, December 2015

Joanne Thomson’s new paintings, inspired by her grandparents’ life, transform the pain of family secrets.

A recent watercolour on paper painting by Joanne Thomson depicts two stems of Indian Paintbrush resting in a few inches of water in a humble mason jar. Inspired by it, she wrote a poem with the same deceptively simple clarity, which is printed on the back of an art card of the image: “Spilling out the edges/ form and colour/ refuse to comply/ with the expected.” 

The poem is as much a reflection on the unpredictable ways of the watercolour medium as it is on Thomson’s own nature. “I am not a great conformist,” she states, “so I really need to be doing what I am doing.” Thomson was born in Prince George in 1956 to a mother, father and paternal grandfather who all painted in oils. True to her nature, she took up watercolour. “With watercolour, nobody taught me how to do that. It was my own; I was able to just paint and mess up and learn as I went.” 

Thomson says, however, “my parents grew up in the depression.” Though artists themselves, “art was not a viable career in their opinion,” so she took up a career in nursing. Granted, it was ideal for Thomson, a single mother needing to support a young son and daughter in Terrace, BC and, since 1998, Victoria.

All the while, though, painting was “a lifesaver,” providing an outlet from daily rigours. But finally, after 30 years in a variety of nursing roles, Thomson realized it was time to focus on art. Teaching adult art classes has become her “bread and butter,” she says, privately and through several organizations, including Continuing Education at UVic and workshops from BC to Manitoba. Her approach is to help students find their own voice—or, as she eloquently puts it, “I get to help them accept their own gifts.”

Out of a desire to share her own, Thomson enjoys community collaborations. She has done several community based mural projects and helped initiate the CRD artist-in-residency program at Francis King Regional Park. Last winter, she painted in the forester’s cabin in the park and offered nature and art programs and open houses. She is hopeful the program will continue for other artists.

In open houses and on her blog, she shared watercolour sketches she had done on site. Later, in her home studio, she worked sketches up into larger scale paintings in watercolour on canvas, an unusual medium, but one that allows the luminous effects of watercolour on a grand scale. 

“Spring Light at Francis King Park” is a finished work from this residency. She describes it as “an intimate look at the moss in February—so wet, so green.” Moss of such verdure, saturated by the late winter rain and illuminated by the raking sun, is delightfully familiar to anyone who walks in the woods at that time of year. Yet here, though the mind’s eye imagines every dripping, miniscule frond, it is communicated with a startling minimum of pigment or line. 

Thomson achieves intimacy through economy by focusing only on the “conversation” she has with the subject in initial sketches. “I don’t work from photographs in my landscape work, just from drawings,” she explains. “That allows me to eliminate a lot of things that are not necessary, that I don’t see.”

The approach allows Thomson to communicate landscapes both external and internal. In a previous series called “Bottled,” she painted bold, abstracted works of deep personal meaning, bringing image to notions of self-actualization. While very different stylistically, her most recent series is also reflective of a very personal process.

“I was about 50 when I learned of my [maternal] grandfather’s suicide,” she shares. “There was this intense sadness; this intense pain.” Seeking understanding, she returned to the Saskatchewan homestead where he and Thomson’s grandmother eked out a living on a piece of land he loved but eventually had to give up. What has emerged is titled “The Mason Jar Series.” 

It started when Thomson was transcribing recorded stories of her grandmother recalling her life. “My Grandmother spoke of having 300 mason jars on the go at all times with food preserved for the winter, everything from beef to huckleberries, apple sauce to pickles…In the recordings my grandmother spoke of putting eggs under glass. I didn’t know how this was done and had no idea of how it would look so I put an egg in a mason jar and did a small painting of it. Then I put a pear in a jar and painted that too. Before I knew it the series was begun,” says Thomson, who as a child, enjoyed canning with her mother and still does it today.

Since March 2014 Thomson has created over 140 watercolour on paper paintings of single mason jars holding items ranging from flora to artifact. One holds wheat and another, a ball of yarn. Others hold a bone, a small book. “I thought, oh, she also knit socks, and they spun wool. And they slaughtered cows. And she brought prayer books over from England.” Every item has significance to their story. A charred piece of wood in a jar is from a tree under which her grandparents’ only son was buried when he died five days after his birth. A few years later, the tree was struck by lightning. 

There was so much—and Thomson realized there was no way to truly understand all that they went through. It started to feel arrogant, she admits, until it occurred to her that she was really exploring her own identity and place in the story. Jars started to hold a variety of Thomson’s own personal objects from poignant to wry: a silk flower from her first marriage; a stuffed dog “barking the family secrets.” 

And Indian Paintbrush that “spills out the edges.” She refers to a quote by Franciscan author Richard Rohr, who says, “The pain which is not transformed is re-transmitted.” “My goal with this series,” Thomson relates, “is to transform the pain of family secrets—secret shames—so that the pain is released and joy is reclaimed. Joy at the life that was lived, the wealth of attributes and knowing that have been hidden along with the secret.” Further, by consciously omitting superfluous detail (you will not find distracting reflections on the glass), she exposes a utilitarian vessel to the infinity of metaphor and meaning it can contain—and release. 

This has resonated with viewers. Some have been moved to offer her their own jars, preserves, as well as their stories relating to family pain, including suicide. “What has been fascinating for me is that I thought this is an unusual story, and it’s not,” Thomson observes. Via a simple yet ubiquitous jar, the personal blends with the universal. Viewers need only fill in the detail.


“300 Mason Jars: an installation of small watercolour paintings, preserves, and artifacts on the theme of legacy and heritage” by Joanne Thomson will be at Gage Gallery from December 29-January 16, 2016. Opening reception and Artist’s Talk New Year’s Eve, Dec 31, 5-9pm. Artist in attendance Jan 2, 9, 16, 10am-5pm, with a workshop Jan 9, 2-5pm. 2031 Oak Bay Ave, 250-592-2760, During December, works from the “Bottled Series” paintings will be on display at Discovery Coffee, 1964 Oak Bay Ave. Discover more about the artist at

One of Aaren Madden’s earliest memories is of standing in her grandmother’s basement, watching the sun’s rays burst through the dusty window and illuminate rows of peach preserves, elevating them into treasure.