Donna Grandin, Artist
Donna Grandin often paints close-ups of tropical foliage, landscapes, and sometimes incorporates figurative or still-life elements. Donna received an Honours B.A. in Art from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and has had solo shows at Toronto City Hall, Henderson General Hospital in Hamilton, and at the Hamilton Central Library. Group exhibitions include McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts, Burlington Art Centre and St. Lucia City Hall. Donna is currently represented by The Inner Gallery in St. Lucia. Her paintings can be found in private collections in the Caribbean, Canada, the United States, England, and Australia. She received the Newcomer’s Award in the Visual Arts category at the M&C Arts Awards Competition in St. Lucia in 1996, and the Gold Award in 2001. In 2009 she was commissioned by the city of Toronto to paint a mural which was then installed at 400 McCowan, Scarborough, Ontario.
Natalie d’Auvergne: Hi Donna, thanks for doing this interview with me. Do you ever think of the creative process as a spiritual journey?
Donna Grandin: Natalie, thank you for contacting me for this interview. Right now, as I near the end of one series and prepare for another, I’m in the “writing stage” of my creative cycle. I am working through my thoughts on paper, so I welcome the opportunity to discuss it with you. I agree, the creative process is a journey, a path to self-discovery, but I’m not anxious to reach the destination. Reaching the destination represents death for me. As an artist, whether I’m working on a painting, or just appreciating the world, life is my inspiration. Something as simple as sunlight shining though paper-thin petals, creating dramatic yellow green patches on leaves that are otherwise in the shade, inspires me. With all the external stimuli however, remaining on my path becomes the challenge. Making it to the end of one series represents a crossroad and beginning another represents a path chosen.
"The Light Within" from the Hibiscus 'n Bananas Series
d’Auvergne: When did you first recognize your artistic ability? Did you have family members or friends, who were artists and did they encourage you to pursue your dreams?
Grandin: Others around me recognized my artistic ability long before I did. I spent most of my childhood reading, even entertaining the idea of becoming a writer, but there were times when my artistic talent was apparent. I remember being so taken with a black & white illustrations of a young woman in renaissance-style clothing that I copied the drawings. I was surprised when other people liked them because I thought they looked squashed. I took Art as my ninth CXC subject at St. Joseph’s Convent, which entailed two years of drawing class with Sr. Claire along with watercolour painting with Sir Dunstan St. Omer. There was also my maternal grandmother, who dabbled in oils in her youth, but ultimately chose a successful career in finance instead. I saw the still-life paintings in her house and although they were good, I also noted that she displayed no desire to pick up a brush. She played a pivotal role in my artistic development when she gave me a set of acrylic tube paints on my twelfth birthday. Many of her family members in Barbados are artistic, but I only realized that after I had identified myself as an artist. When my parents got to accept the Art Award from St. Joseph’s Convent on my behalf, though they have always been supportive of me, I imagine that the award provided confirmation that I was on the right career path.
Donna Grandin in front of "The would-be twins"
d’Auvergne: Your St. Lucian/ Caribbean heritage is immediately apparent in “the abstract rhythm[s] and patterns of light and colour” you employ in what you refer to as the “controlled chaos” of your style. How do you stay connected with that part of yourself now that you live in Canada?
Grandin: Regrettably, my art is one of the few links I have to my Caribbean roots now that I live in Canada. I’ve been assimilated, and I suppose it’s my own fault. I knew when I chose to pursue my art degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, instead of York University in Toronto, that few people there would share a similar cultural background. At the time I thought I was only committing to four years of my life and wanted to be completely open to experiencing a new culture. The first six years there I made regular trips home for the Christmas and summer holidays. Now, every other year or so, I return to the Caribbean for at least a month to reconnect with family, friends, and the place itself. I usually have some idea as to what I want to photograph once there, but in preparation for those spontaneous shots, I carry a camera with me always. Back in Canada, I sort through the digital files, looking for themes, in terms of subject and how I feel about the images and I paint from my own photos because I have an emotional connection to them
d’Auvergne: Most of your paintings capture nature with “close-ups of tropical foliage” and “landscapes,” but some pieces, a few in your “Caribbean Imagery” series for instance, include human figures and tell a story. Do you consider yourself a storyteller and exactly what was it that inspired paintings like “Soufriere,” “Domino Players,” and “Just Friends?” Were they based on real life experiences?
Grandin: Yes, each painting was painted from my own photographs taken in the summer of 1996 as a part of the Caribbean Imagery series I painted in my last year of University. I was engaged at the time and realized that I would probably be remaining in Canada. With that series I was asking, “What does St. Lucia mean to me? What am I giving up?” I realize now that I got my answer because I painted the land, the people, and the light! The very essence of St. Lucia. On another note, I haven’t really addressed the artist’s role as a storyteller yet, but I do realize that my art has a way of making my life an open book.
d’Auvergne: Art is communication, a sort of dialogue between artist and viewer. In viewing your pieces I felt like I was having a conversation with you, a little piece of your soul, or perhaps your worldview shines through. Do you approach the canvas with something to say, or do you try to remove yourself completely and simply let the pieces speak?
The artist's studio, May 2010
Grandin: Of course I am saying something with each painting. The way I manipulate the paint, the composition and the colour says a thousand words about the themes I’m working on in a series. The finished product communicates how I feel about it, how I feel about the act of painting even, however, the real interesting thing is that during the creative process, the painting has a dialogue with me. It communicates what it needs saying, “this edge is too hard, that green is altogether wrong, needs more lemon yellow.” The current painting for instance, is telling me, “you need to work bigger, need more space to breath, to stretch.” In some ways, the painting is a mirror, reflecting who I am at the time of creation, it is a snapshot. Each new painting comes to represent the person I was when I painted it. Not just in terms of my technical ability, but also in terms of my attitude towards painting, and my interests at the time. A commission might be different, but for my personal work, I open myself up to the viewer, inviting them to get to know me, and years later, when I look back at a painting, I get a whole new messages, by then I am a different person.
d’Auvergne: From a writer’s point of view, I’m curious as to how you choose your titles. I especially enjoy title like “Banana Peel (Striptease),” ‘The Light from Within” and “ The Lullaby,” as they tend to guide a viewer’s thoughts. Halle Berry, when asked what she had decided to name her unborn baby, said that she was waiting to meet him/her before choosing a name. Is the naming process the same for you? Do you have to complete a piece before naming it?
Grandin: Yes, the names usually come after the painting is done. Sometimes the name pops into my head before completion, and at other times a name that I initially liked just doesn’t stick. With the Hibiscus ‘n Bananas series for instance, I sat with a bunch of the finished paintings and just looked at them. The first words that came to my head were the right ones because they expressed what I saw in the paintings and maybe even what I saw of myself in the paintings.
d’Auvergne: Each of your collections express something different about you. Your most recent collection “Hibiscus ‘n Bananas” gets up close and personal with nature. This collection doesn’t seem as abstract as some of your other collections because of the “blown up” or magnified quality of the pieces, and the absolute attention to detail. These pieces are drenched in lively green hues, and big, bright, bold, blooming colors, which force the viewer to get intimate with nature, as some of her most private and delicate parts are on display with a playful sexuality. In the “Caribbean Imagery” collection you use deep dreamy night and water scenes bathed in blue dancing hues, and that dreamy quality makes these pieces a bit more abstract. However, I also noticed that you do something completely different with the “Madras” collection. The color theme and pattern there seems to introduce new rules and guidelines to your creative process. Is every collection a self assigned challenge? If so, what inspires these different “seasons” of creation?
"Flower Forest" from the Jungle Rhythms Series
Grandin: Uh… yes, yes, and yes … you’re good at this! In each series I pose some questions to myself, and go searching for the answers. All my series are related because the common thread is me. Each new series marks the next step in my development as an artist because a breakthrough in one leads to the creation of another, which means that, the imagery in my paintings, for example a red hibiscus, is not really my subject, it’s just a vehicle.
d’Auvergne: While studying the pieces I realized that certain of them,“ My heart light” and “Spiritual Landscape” for instance, were marked as “Artist Collection Pieces.” How do you choose which pieces to keep, and why keep any at all?
Grandin: My own collection sort of just grew, two pieces from the Jungle Rhythms series were damaged when “we” were overzealous with a drill, putting in the hanging hardware. Another 4’x5’ painting flipped off the top of the top of our VW station wagon when the bungee cord snapped as we drove up the Hamilton escarpment in rush hour traffic. I made the decision not to sell damaged paintings so I kept them. Then there are some that are my favourites, and I think worth holding on to. One day these will form part of the legacy that I pass down to my sons. And speaking of family, please let me just acknowledge the support my husband has given me since we met almost fifteen years ago. He makes it possible, on so many levels, for me to pursue my passion, my creative journey.
d’Auvergne: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring artists, especially in St. Lucia where artistic ability isn’t as supported and encouraged as academic excellence is?
Grandin: Young artists are at an advantage because today’s technology allows access to all sorts of information about artistic techniques, tools, career development etc. They can study art history, or look up contemporary artists because the world is at their fingertips. Even for people without Internet access, the libraries surely are much more up to date than they were when I was younger. Having a formal art education like mine is not even necessary. By making art regularly, and continually seeking ways to improve, an aspiring artist can find their voice. The second part of the equation is getting their work seen, the art world in St. Lucia is small, visit the galleries, seek out other artists, build a network, share tips on where to buy supplies, how to present your art etc. If artists treat each other as competition, then divided they will fall, if they see each other as being on the same team, then they will find that the quality and quantity of art produced by St. Lucians will continue to improve.This in turn will lead to a more art-literate St. Lucian public and a wider base of collectors. Also, I am always willing to connect with other artists. I can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and while you’re at it, take a look at my work at www.bluerootsartstudio.com.
All images compliments www.bluerootsartstudio.com.