ETHEREAL FIGURES FILLED WITH MOVEMENT AND WHIMSY DRAW YOU INTO THE CANVAS
by SHERRY SMITHER
AT A RECENT SHOW, VANESSA MCKERNAN LEARNED something powerful about her painting and herself. When McKernan finished With Child and Roses, she hung it sideways to dry on her studio wall, without even looking at it. Even though the large three-feet by five-feet, oil and graphite painting was something she worked on throughout the course of two weeks, she really hadn’t thought about it.
“I have a two-year-old and it’s the first time in my life being a mother and parenting, so I was always trying to make a piece of art about the experience, but it never worked out. Every time I went to do it, it just never fit,” McKernan says.
With the Artist Project, an annual contemporary art show approaching, she framed the painting, and then hung it on display. On the fourth day of the exhibit, a woman came by to inquire about With Child and Roses.
“We started talking about the piece. It was sort of unusual because she had the same last name as me, although we’re not related. I’m related to most of the McKernans in Toronto and I was surprised by that,” she explains.
“The woman asked why I made this reflection on being a mother, and I was telling her a little bit about it and how I love painting big messy crowds in the background. In an off-handed comment, she said she saw something different; she thought my painting is about the woman carrying her inner child. She was right,” reveals McKernan. “I almost burst into tears because she really saw something that I could not, and I didn’t see: the truth in the piece, the under layer you’re not always aware of as an artist.”
McKernan explores different parts of the self and mind in her work. She examines social interactions of people and observes behaviour on an unconscious level, as seen in her paintings Waking Up, Two Riders, Through Tall Grass, and Burial for a Cat.
“I believe painters and creative people are connecting to something larger outside of themselves,” she explains. “This doesn’t always happen in the process of being in your studio and working and painting, but occasionally truths are revealed about yourself and about the world that you maybe wouldn’t get to any other way but through the piece.”
“REFERENCES TO DANCE APPEAR MORE THAN I THINK. MY EARLY WORK CAME FROM WATCHING MYSELF AND OTHER DANCERS. IT’S A VISUAL SOURCE OF MATERIAL IN MY MEMORY, SO WHEN I STARTED DRAWING BODIES, THE DANCER WAS ALWAYS IN THERE.”
Vanessa grew up in a family of eight children with music at the forefront of their lives. Her father was a musician and wrote musicals. He loved to play songs from musical theatre and from iconic singers like Elton John and Billy Joel. When her father played, they sang. Most Sundays ended with a McKernan family singalong around his grand piano.
Wanting to explore this dynamic in her childhood, McKernan created Piano Children, depicting one child playing her father’s grand piano, while the others are lying down inside of it, facing different directions. “I painted that piece as an explanation of my relationship with my father and my family life, living with seven siblings in a big family with a very artistic, creative, complicated father,” she says.
From an early age, the McKernan children were encouraged to study music, theatre and dance. Initially, Vanessa’s area of interest was ballet and modern dance. After graduating from high school, her focus became visual arts at Montreal’s Concordia University, although dance continues to influence her work.
“References to dance appear more than I think. My early work came from watching myself and other dancers. It’s a visual source of material in my memory, so when I started drawing bodies, the dancer was always in there,” she explains.
Many of the figures in McKernan’s pieces are ethereal, evoking a sense of movement and drama like Deep in the Woods. “There is definitely a theatrical element to those figures, as there’s a reference to them being on a stage and taking a bow,” she says. “There are roses being thrown and the foliage on the sides frame the stage.” Originally, Deep in the Woods was larger with eight loosely drawn figures on Mylar, a material that allows Vanessa to cut her work to size and alternate between using a brush and pencil. When she decided to rework the piece, she cut out some of the figures and then everything came together.
One common element in McKernan’s contemporary artwork is flowers. “This is an issue I have in my own life, as I have the tendency to make things beautiful and cover-up whatever is there with something beautiful,” she says. “In a sense, flowers kind of sweeten the deal. If I consider having a menacing crowd and there are roses, it’s partially that. I do love flowers and plants and drawing those forms. I love their organic quality and I like how when you draw them and get really loose and get messy, it still looks great, so I’m definitely a lover of that imagery.” Similar to the way she uses colour, the flowers contrast some of her darker somber images with beautiful elements, juxtaposing them to bring attention to her work.
McKernan is hosting an Open Studio event at her Distillery District studio on Saturday, June 22, from 11am to 4pm. She is also preparing for a figurative group exhibition featuring five of her new pieces at Ottawa’s Wall Space Gallery in October. Her paintings can be seen on Partial Gallery’s website, offering art lovers opportunities to rent or purchase local artists’ work.
When one of McKernan’s art collectors asked her to do a charity event supporting marginalized youth, she was all in. Her solo exhibition and fundraiser, Between Land and Water, raised thousands of dollars for SKETCH, a community-based group engaging Canadian youth 16 to 29 years old to build skills to move away from poverty.
“Anytime people invest in arts programs for kids, is definitely one of the greatest things they can do!”