As Ottawa slowly emerges from one of the longer winters in recent memory, a little bit of colour is a welcome thing. In the work of Ottawa artist Valorie Preston, colour abounds. Preston is the newest member of Guild 240, which is itself a new addition to the Ottawa art scene. Her work is vivid and experimental, and her technique is very active; she stands as she works and allows the paint to interact with the surface and with itself, bringing out elements she likes and scraping away at the surface to expose hidden depths.
Tucked away on a quiet street close to the Byward Market, Guild 240 is part gallery and part collective. The members, who are invited by owner Brenda Warner, range from painters and photographers to chefs and Reiki masters, each bringing a particular area of expertise and creative perspective to the group. “[Warner] has brought this thing together to create a tremendous synergy,” says Preston, who has an upcoming show at Galerie 240 called Time Passes. The pieces represent different stages of her life and work.
Preston has been a practising artist since 1987. Up until that point she worked in politics, at one time serving as chief of staff to former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney. She began her painting career using watercolours, taking a few classes and working in the spare bedroom of her home. After managing Audrey McLaughlin’s NDP leadership campaign in 1989 she launched herself more seriously into her painting. As her technique progressed, she branched into acrylics.
A formative moment in Preston’s painting career was her discovery of the work of German painter Gerhard Richter. “I love his abstracts. Absolutely beautiful stuff,” she says. Richter’s work inspired her to start using a scraper in her paintings, both to remove paint and to apply it. “I am fascinated about how paint works,” she says. “For the most part, I don’t have a philosophy until the painting’s done . . . As I’m creating a title for it I try to realize what the impact is in terms of emotion or cognitive awareness or philosophical existentialism. I don’t know most of those things until I’m finished because when I start it can end up going in many, many different directions.”
Another key point in Preston’s career came when she attended an aboriginal healing circle, which had a profound effect on her work. The circle tied in to the themes of femininity and spirituality that she expresses through the multiple layers she uses to create each painting. “You can see that there’s multiple lives, if you wish, or multiple approaches within the painting itself, and so for me what I want to see is the depth of that because I believe that we as human beings, we as nature, we live in layers. You look at the stars, but you’re not just seeing the stars; you’re seeing the whole cosmos up there. You look at a person and you’re looking at a face, maybe looking in the eyes, but you feel that there’s more layers there that you can pursue and find out more about.”
Poet TS Eliot is a major influence; a number of Preston’s paintings are based on trying to visualize his work. Her experiences in politics as a gay Canadian also inform her work. “For the most part, my work is not overtly political, but almost all of it in some way says something political,” she says. She says that there is no right way to interpret her work; individual viewers bring their own experiences when they look at her paintings, and each one will see something different. “It’s all equally valid,” she says. Whatever the interpretation, one thing remains clear: “I really love figuring out how paint works.”