COLUMN: Perfecting my psychedelic poppies, Zaslove-style

Reporter Will Johnson participated in Rotary’s Corks and Canvas fundraiser this week.

This painting was created by Star reporter Will Johnson during Rotary's Corks and Canvas fundraiser at Finley's last week.

”The problem is it never looks the same on the canvas as it does in my mind.”

That was the exasperated comment my easel neighbour Leona made early into our poppy-painting at Corks and Canvas on Monday evening. She leaned back to examine her petal-splotches, took a sip of white wine, and shook her head.

“I tend to always follow the rules, and I have a hard time deviating from them,” she told me. “So that’s what the wine’s for, to help loosen me up.”

I thought Leona was doing a pretty good job, her strokes delicate and assured, but I was less convinced about my own work, which was already starting to look muddled and clumsy.

There were about 30 of us in Finley’s that evening while professional artist Kiera Zaslove led us through the process of conjuring a poppy on-canvas step by step. This was my first time at the Rotary club event, which runs the last Monday of each month, and I was determined to come up with something wall-worthy.

We started with pencils, lightly sketching floral outlines, then picked up our brushes to fill in the rest. Each participant had pre-arranged globs of paint on a palette, a water glass for brush-cleaning and, perhaps most importantly, volunteers and staff nearby ready to deliver paint or alcohol on demand.

Chatting amiably, we all got to work.

“Make sure, if you’re feeling frustrated, to take a step back and look at your painting,” Zaslove told us partway through. I watched as she sauntered from easel to easel, leaning in to give technique tips and to praise successful flourishes. “Sometimes you need that different perspective to get the ideas flowing.”

At that point I was green-streaking the stalks while trying to figure out if I needed a sixth poppy to complete the composition. My original five were looking a little uniform, standing obediently in a row, so I decided to fill the bottom right corner with a looming sixth in the foreground.

That’s when things started to get a little psychedelic.

“Oh, I love what you’re doing with the background,” Leona told me, comparing it to her own minimalist backdrop. While she’d opted for a light grey to emphasize the delicate greens of her stalks, mine was erupting with yellow.

“Very psychedelic, it’s almost got a Picasso feel.”

That was all the encouragement I needed: out came the pink streams, the crimson splashes, the fiery orange. I gave up on literal representation and embraced the chaos of my imagination—smearing, dabbing, poking. I was picturing Zaslove’s abstract work (one of her pieces hangs in our newsroom) and trying to channel some of her raw, chaotic energy.

By the time I finished over an hour later, my poppies looked nothing like I’d originally intended, and radically different than Leona and my other neighbours’, but they were fabulously and undeniably mine. A bonafide piece of art created by yours truly and nobody else. And that sense of ownership, of autonomy, that’s the whole point of this event.

“Painting strengthens our self-esteem and our intuition,” Zaslove told me, once we’d all gathered to take a group photo and admire each others’ work. “And we can take that into our everyday life, that uniqueness.”

The biggest thing she wants to share: “We’re all creative.”

So even if you’re not planning on pursuing a career in art, and even if you don’t think you’re especially talented, she thinks you should be committing to creativity daily. And Rotary’s Corks and Canvas event which has been led by artists Carol Reynolds, Jennifer Hagel, Sally Johnston and Luba Hall is a perfect opportunity to do that.

So far the group has painted birch trees, fruit baskets, tulips and epic images of the night sky. They’re currently contemplating their next host and theme for Sept. 26, after taking a break for August.

This event, which is a Rotary fundraiser, is part of an ongoing effort so shake up their events and come up with innovative new activities. And it’s definitely caught on, selling out every time thus far, with local veterinarian Chris Chart attending almost every one and calling it his “therapy.”

According to Zaslove, it will help the participants begin to develop an artistic practice.

“It’s good to have a bit of structure, and exercises to follow. You can try painting with your non-dominant hand. I think it’s great to paint with others, or to keep a visual journal you doodle in even if it’s just one doodle a day, it’s worth it.”

And whether you love what you produce or hate it, you shouldn’t judge it against anything but your standards.

“There’s a lot of pressure to compare ourselves to others, but I think we should all be celebrating our own creativity.”

So even though the 30 different paintings are radically different, they’re all a success in her eyes. And even though, technically, Leona’s composition was superior, we were both able to go home feeling creatively sated.

“I think they’re all gorgeous, the shapes and the colour and the expression. But the most beautiful thing is they’re all different,” said Zaslove.


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