Written by: Michaela Hoppe, SCC Artist
My name is Michaela Hoppe, and I am a prairie oil painter based out of Biggar, Saskatchewan.
Last winter I found myself sitting around the house, thinking about art, about my art, and my art career specifically. Thinking that I needed to stretch my wings and try something new, expand my horizons, and other cliches that are cliches for a reason. I needed to grow.
The answer wasn’t immediately apparent, but I thought it might lie in a residency. Other artists that I admired were doing it. I wondered how to be a part of them. There was no way I could be qualified for something so cool and prestigious, right? But I could probably work toward it.
So I went online and looked into a few of them, and it turned out that like so many things in life, the primary things you needed to get a residency were desire and work ethic. The willingness to put yourself out there and try.
Damn, I thought. I can do that.
So I did.
Of all the residencies I looked at, KIRA (Kingsbrae International Residence for the Arts) immediately stood out. It was in my own country, but a part of Canada that was far outside my stomping grounds. Its terms were incredibly generous. It seemed like a wonderful pool to dip my toes into. And it was. But I will get to that.
So I crossed my fingers, sent off an application, and promptly forgot about it, caught up with life and children, and the pervasive feeling that I wasn’t really good enough to have a shot at it anyways, but I’d least I’d given it a try.
Then in early February I received an email congratulating me on my acceptance to the KIRA residency. My heart leapt. And dropped. And performed some fabulous contortions. This was exhilarating. And terrifying. They liked me! Crap. Now what? Now I had to go through with it.
I was abruptly faced with a dream coming true. I had to deal with the logistics of a month long residency. What was I going to do about child care for a month? My husband is great, but he works on call for the railroad. I needed someone to be there at 2 in the morning, ready to wake up with the kids. I needed to get paints and canvas to New Brunswick. How were my paints going to behave in a climate that is known for its humidity?
It didn’t turn out to be that hard. My mother-in-law would live at my house and help out, and my mother would take the kids for a week or so. I could order my art supplies online and have them delivered directly to Kingsbrae. I would change from water-soluble oil paints to traditional oil paints and alkyd mediums.
Soon enough, it was just a matter of buying a plane ticket, and waiting with ‘bated breath.
I loved New Brunswick, not just the beauty of the landscape, though it’s the kind of beautiful that people paint for the rest of their lives, but for the people that added life and soul to the surroundings.
I was met at the airport in Saint John by Mary Jones, who made me feel welcome and would be a constant source of support and assistance with the day to day minutia. The next morning at KIRA house I met Stephen Newman-Nowicki, who would prove to be our Right Hand Man, and provide an environment of humour and family to all of the KIRA residents.
I wasted no time getting settled in. I went into my residency with a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish and how I was going to start. When I am making these plans, I always build in flexibility to try new things and follow inspiration where ever it leads. My goals were simple:
- Dedicate my focus and time to creating art. The idea is that if I were to live and breathe art everyday without distractions, I should see real growth.
- Try something new. Whether learning techniques from fellow artists, making attempts to paint the ocean, or trying all new subject matter outside my normal comfort zone.
- Make friends!
- Share everything I have, everything I know, with anyone who wanted it, and be open to learning everything they would share in turn.
My fellow artists were diverse and incredibly talented. Sallie Thompson is a ceramic artist out of New York that was inspired by the Gardens to create these almost extra terrestrial flowers out of clay.
Miroslaw Baca is originally from Poland but spends a great deal of his time teaching sculpting in Japan. He came with a clear plan to build a wood and stone set of 3 sculptures that would interact with the environment and were inspired by musical instruments.
Fan-Kai Lin is originally from Taiwan but is studying landscape architecture in Iowa. He is an amazing watercolor and soft pastel artist that was inspired by New Brunswick landscape like I was. He communicated his inspiration by painting very free and light watercolors that seemed mysterious.
Rachelle Goldreich was my bestie. Rachelle paints with oil paint in a very traditional way. Where I paint mostly from photos, she paints mostly plein air. Where I am mostly self taught, she has studied extensively. We were a perfect balance for each other and I learnt so much from her about form and simplifying my subject matter when plein air painting. A large part of the growth I made during the month of August at KIRA was thanks to this brilliant and generous woman.
These people were my art family. We would sit every evening together to have supper and discuss our projects in the evening. Everyone came to KIRA with the same goal of learning and sharing, making this an opportunity to brainstorm freely and feel comfortable venting any frustrations we were feeling with our process to people who understood and could offer valuable insight. We were given an environment where we had no boundaries, had complete support everywhere we looked, so we felt bold and confident to venture into uncharted territory artistically.
Geoff Slater is the Artist in Residence at Kingsbrae Gardens. Geoff does everything from teaching children the art of printmaking, to building mind bending beautiful paintings, to covering entire buildings in St. Andrews and Saint John with his stunning murals. To us, he was mentor, friend, and tour guide. He convinced me that I was worthy, that I had enough talent, and I had so much more to give than I ever thought possible. He doesn’t know how to think small, the world is full of limitless potential and he has a dream for all of it (I don’t think he sleeps).
A couple days after we arrived at KIRA we met our generous patroness, Mrs. Lucinda Flemer. Mrs. Flemer is not only the reason for the KIRA residency, she also built the Kingsbrae Gardens, reinvigorated the town of St. Andrews by the Sea, and is one of the largest collectors of art in the country. The people around her speak of her with love. She inspires everyone to give all that they can for the betterment of someone else, that you can create large changes in your world if you work hard enough and want it bad enough. I think she may be a superhero. She pushed me to “loosen up” and plein air paint. She set the tone for my entire residency.
Our days were filled with biking, sight seeing, art and most importantly, the Kingsbrae Gardens. The gardens were a bottomless source of beauty and inspiration. It would change constantly as the light changed and because of this was an ever evolving source of inspiration and visual drama.
Each day, after my bike ride downtown to people watch, or my stroll through the gardens (to visit the bunnies and goats), I would retreat to my studio and work. It was hard being away from home, but it was greatly freeing to just be able to work without having to worry about the mundane realities of everyday life. I could ensconce myself in my studio space and just let things flow. There was no need to leave my painting to cook a meal, pick up the kids from school, or wash the floor. I could devote myself to art in a way that I had never before had the freedom from responsibility to consider, and I took full advantage of it.
In all, I completed 17 new pieces in 28 days, a personal record for me. Many of them encompassed experimental attempts, marked departures from my “signature” style and feel. I did loosen up, playing with a technique that uses squared off brushes and explores the general shape of things, the feeling of the subject rather than the details within it. I did paint plein air (which was something I found very intimidating before), landscape without a human element, and geometric flowers. I expanded my knowledge of color and indirect painting. I learnt what my weaknesses were as well as my strengths and created a plan to give proper attention to both. As Geoff would say, I acquired a few new tools to use, or discard, as I choose.
Each Saturday we would open our studios to the public and another wonderful experience occurred, as I was able to meet people from all over the east coast of Canada and the United States, to show them what I had to offer and to share my technique and style with them.
It was intimidating and flattering, and very rewarding on a personal level, to be able to showcase myself to an international audience, and to begin to accept that I deserved to be there. I met a great deal of people. Some of them were civilians, people who just enjoyed art and were a pleasure to meet. Others were connoisseurs, people who collect beautiful works of art from around the world, and were sitting in my studio, looking at my work. Still others were artists themselves, and these were the visits I cherished the most, as they almost always had words of wisdom that I could apply to my work.
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By the end, I was ready to come home (a month is a long time!), but the things I saw, the lessons I learned, and most importantly of all, the relationships I formed will be with me forever. I will never stop being grateful.
I look forward to stretching myself even further in future residencies, but KIRA will always hold a special place in my heart.