BY ELIZABETH NOLAN
Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne once wrote, “Painting from nature is not copying the object, it’s realizing one’s sensations.”
Cézanne meant for the painter, the value in interpreting that which exists in the world is more than its reproduction, it is the deeper understanding of the nature of seeing, feeling and interacting with the world around us.
The Cézanne quote very aptly appears in the new book called Islands – Lake of the Woods, featuring artwork by Randolph Parker. The Mayberry Fine Art publication — an oversize, lavishly printed full-colour hardcover in 230 pages — showcases a wonderful series of paintings from an iconic region. The book also places the nationally recognized, Salt Spring-based landscape painter squarely in the lineage of great Canadian artists who came before him.
Speaking ahead of an exhibition and events taking place by special arrangement at Gallery 8 starting this Friday, Parker said landscape has always compelled and inspired his art.
“I’ve been connecting to the land ever since I was a kid. And it always fascinated me how complex it was. You can look at it from a distance, and it looks simplified, and then look at it up close — the complexity is staggering,” he said.
Islands – Lake of the Woods is both a collection of 220 paintings and the companion coffee-table book. It evolved from a five-year adventure that saw Parker and his long-time friend Bill Mayberry, owner of Winnipeg’s Mayberry Fine Art, travel 2,800 kilometres among the thousands of islands in one of Canada’s most magnificent lakes.
“It’s such a pleasure to be able to exhibit Islands in B.C. in collaboration with Gallery 8 and its owner, Razali May,” Mayberry said. “We’ve now come full circle with this magnificent artwork to be shown within walking distance of Randolph’s studio where he put years of work into making Islands a reality.”
Those who have never visited Lake of the Woods may nonetheless find its scenery familiar; Group of Seven cofounder Frank H. Johnston painted there in the 1920s while he was living in Winnipeg. But painter and printmaker Walter J. Phillips is perhaps most associated with the area. His most famous painting and woodblock print is Sunset, Lake of the Woods (1925). In fact, it’s this work that led to Parker and Mayberry’s most epic collaboration.
Mayberry represented Phillips for decades, and he has his own cabin on Lake of the Woods, but he never knew where precisely the islet portrayed in the famous artwork was located. He spent many years searching and only found it by chance one day during a painting trip for the artist Robert Genn. Mayberry had been fooled by the way Phillips added the sunset, which suggested the view was to the west of the scene when in reality the orientation is looking south. Reflecting on this story during a later visit to the scene with Parker, the two friends decided modern collectors would appreciate knowing exactly where their paintings’ locales could be found. This led to an innovation of the Islands series in that every painting includes latitude and longitude references on the back.
Along with the terrific artwork, one great feature is the maps showing the paintings’ original locations. The painting index is another, with GPS coordinates included along with the other specifications. The book also details five prospective boat routes around the lake, which would be essential for anyone hoping to replicate Parker and Mayberry’s journeys. Lake of the Woods has nearly 15,000 islands and a complicated coastline that twists and turns for nearly 105,000 kilometres.
Parker clearly had ample prospects for subject material there, with endless combinations of light reacting with water, rock and trees. Historian and curator Greg Humeniuk observes Parker uniquely expresses those views because he paints his island subjects like portraits.
“Like all great portraitists, Randolph draws essences of his subjects that the casual viewer might not see at a glance,” Humeniuk explains in the book. “Randolph learned from Rembrandt how great portraiture works by slyly extending highlights along near prominences and diminishing details into the distant margins in the same way our binocular vision emphasizes what is front and centre.”
Parker indeed has an involved process to get to his large paintings on canvas. He starts with a quick sketch on location in pen and ink and then fills in colour references afterwards from his notes. His intermediate step is to create a study painting on panel, where he works out how he wants to layer colour into the composition and possibly blend different observations and views. These studies have a faster, looser brush style on the smooth wood surface than the final complex works on canvas. His masterful treatment of colour is due to his art school training, topped with more than 30 years experience.
“It’s not an exact duplicate of the location, because then you get to think about it, you get to play with it, to think about how to make a work of art that works,” Parker said.
The Gallery 8 exhibition will showcase 40 acrylic paintings — 10 large-scale works on canvas and 30 smaller pieces on birchwood panel — from Parker’s Lake of the Woods series, plus his latest Salt Spring Island landscapes on panel and canvas.
Parker and Mayberry will talk about their nautical and artistic odyssey and sign copies of the Islands book at 7 p.m. during the 5 to 8 p.m. reception this Friday, March 31 and again at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 8. The exhibition runs to April 17.