On cleaning out Kris’s studio

My mother-in-law, Kris, was a prolific and talented painter. For her, the passion started as a way to survive a small northern town, to keep busy after her early retirement, and as a sort of competitive sport with her sisters. Through the years, however,  “Painter”  became a large part of her identity.

Kris passed away just after this past New Year. We are now back at her house, living here until we find our own place and I have been charged with sorting out her studio. This is a poignant job because in Kris’s studio I can trace the last decades of her life, her fierce love for her family, her progress as an artist, what fueled her and gave her joy.

The years are marked in Kris’ studio. There was the beginning: awkward, sentimental scenes copies from other awkward, sentimental scenes or from those step-by-step Tole painting books that are sold at craft stores. Her love for her husband, Dennis, is written in their collaborative efforts. She gave him a practical purpose for the woodworking he enjoyed. For her he created boxes, letter holders, plaques, stools, etc. out of pine in his garage workshop. She painting them to lovingly to give as gifts to family and friends and eventually, to sell locally.

Next through the layers, and affixed on the walls of the house, we see Kris growing in skill, confidence and vision. It’s no longer all about copying. There are mounds of photos of scenes scoured from around the Okanagan. A barn here, a stream there. Animals clipped from magazines. All these pieced together to create her own compositions which spoke heavily of domestic contentment, the joy of the seasons, an appreciation  of simple, homely beauty and all with increasing competence in form, depth, harmonious colour and texture.

Then comes the dust. A period of stasis, grief. Here Kris no longer paints. Her beloved husband, her partner in crime, has passed away. I imagine this was the time that the studio became more storage dumping ground than painting refuge. When I asked her why she is not painting, suggesting that it might lift her spirits a bit, she replied simply “I just don’t feel like it.”

Kris never really did reclaim the passion and productivity she had while Dennis was alive. Sure, she haltingly started painting again, and with a maturity and skill that humbles me. In particular her painting of animals were very fine. I just know that had she the time and desire to push her paintings forward and out, they would have been as appreciated outside the family and commercially as they were among friends and relatives.

I have taken a few samples of her wildlife painting (bird studies) as remembrances for the girls. I might take one just for me – one of her night-time winter farm scenes. It will remind me of a sweet, funny lady and mentor, but also that there are seasons in a painter’s life and that one grows or pauses according to these seasons. It seems a powerful thing to me that a life can be read and made beautiful by the paintings one has created. It is as critical a lesson on the worth of art as ever one could receive. Thank you Kris.

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