The stories behind the abstract art

Photo by Caroline Ho
Photo by Caroline Ho

Gallery exhibit features paintings by Claire Sarfeld

By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor

The Amelia Douglas Gallery’s newest exhibit, Vuja De, opened on January 12 to showcase the work of Fraser Valley-based artist Claire Sarfeld. Vuja De features 21 paintings and a limitless number of experiences for every viewer.

At the exhibit’s opening reception on Thursday evening, Sarfeld said that she doesn’t have an exact name for her distinctive style of abstract painting, which is composed of layers upon layers of sweeping lines and expressive shapes. However, she said she would probably describe the movements as “push and pull,” because of her technique of scraping and pulling away at the many layers of paint. Viewing any of her pieces from a different angle, under a different lighting, brings the viewer a new perspective on the rich textures and shapes that move across canvas and paper.

“Each piece has a new conversation when they’re in different spaces,” Sarfeld said, describing how they work alongside the paintings hung beside them and how they fit in the space of the gallery. The pieces aren’t hung in the order that they were made, but it’s an arrangement that flows naturally as the viewer’s eyes travel across each painting. “The show kind of puts itself together, I just bring it in,” she explained. “It sets itself up.”

Sarfeld is happy to talk about the process behind creating each painting. For “Trace II,” with its expressive greys and whites emphasized with streaks of vivid orange, she began by mixing her colours in a water bottle and using a painter’s trowel to apply them to the paper. She then tilted the paper to create some of the more fluid marks, and added chalk pastel once that was nearly dry. Slow-drying acrylic was used to give the orange colour its vibrancy. Finally, she added white gesso, because she thought the painting needed one more layer.

"Trace II" by Claire Sarfeld
“Trace II” by Claire Sarfeld

With so many layers, Sarfeld said it’s not always easy to know when a piece is finished. Sometimes she takes pieces home from the studio and hangs them on the wall for a while before deciding if they’re finished or if they need a bit more work, and sometimes she’ll know immediately. “It’s more of a gut feeling,” she explained. The most recent piece, “Breath”featuring a refreshing sweep of blue and green, with large areas of stark white and touches of amber—was finished about two days before Vuja De went up.

"Breathe" by Claire Sarfeld
“Breathe” by Claire Sarfeld

Each of the paintings has a story behind it. “Lockdown”, for example, was created the morning before another show, when Sarfeld was locked out of the room where her paintings were stored. She tried every possible method of contacting people to get into the room, to no avail. “And then two hours before the show, I went to the woodshop, built a new frame, stretched a new canvas, and made a brand new painting, because that’s what I had to do.” The result is one of Vuja De’s most eye-catching works, a 48” by 36” piece on canvas with striking swathes of black.

"Lockdown" by Claire Sarfeld
“Lockdown” by Claire Sarfeld

“People like the stories behind the pieces,” she said.

For “London”, with its pensive blacks and greys, people usually tell her they think the title comes from the colours. It’s actually named after the tool she used to create the painting: the London trowel.

"London" by Claire Sarfeld
“London” by Claire Sarfeld

Of course, Sarfeld’s stories aren’t the only way to view her paintings, and she absolutely loves hearing what other people see—whether it’s certain lines or forms they like, shapes or figures they see, or any other unique perspectives. “I find that’s almost a push to make more work,” she said, “so I can hear more about what people see in my work.”

Vuja De will be on display in the Amelia Douglas Gallery, which is located on the fourth floor of the Douglas College New Westminster Campus, until February 25. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. every weekday, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.