A peek inside Maryanne Wettlaufer’s bright, extra colourful painting studio in Masset. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

A painted journey takes shape in Masset

Islands artist Maryanne Wettlaufer prepares for first major solo show

When sun lights her windows, a Juskatla spruce soars in Maryanne Wettlaufer’s living room studio.

Windblown surf breaks over Rose Spit. Cedar eyes look out from SG̱ang Gwaay.

In her 10 years living on Haida Gwaii, Wettlaufer has never had so many large paintings on the go — lately she mixes palettes for four or five at a time.

Thanks to Gwaii Trust and fellow islands artists, this year she is finally holding on to enough of her paintings that she can work towards a major solo exhibit.

“I have days when they’re staring back at me,” she says, smiling.

“I’m like, ‘Okay, stop it!”

Haida Gwaii: A Painted Journey from Rose Spit to Cape St. James will feature 15 to 20 landscapes, plus a map that tells a story about each place and the adventure Wettlaufer took to get there.

A graduate of the Ontario College of Art who spent one year studying art in Florence and another painting in Inuvik, today Wettlaufer doubles as a Masset ambulance attendant who keeps a pager among her brush jars.

Many of her paintings actually started as field exercises for her volunteer work with the Canadian Rangers or Archipelago Search and Rescue. Whenever she has down time, Wettlaufer sketches thumbnail ideas for paintings, or takes notes and photos.

One day in early October, after a helicopter dropped them off in the alpine above Deena Bay, she and other Rangers were starting to trek down when they turned and saw rolling black sky and lightning flashes.

Her painting captures the storm.

“By the time we got back to base camp, we had four inches of hail — hail that stayed on the ground, that by morning was still there,” she said.

Another painting overlooks one of the last trees on a scramble up Mount Moresby, a hike that was “hand over foot, over knees sometimes.”

Others are more serene.

After her mother passed, Wettlaufer used some of the inheritance for a trip she had wanted to take for eight years, one her mother would have been glad to see her enjoy — a boat trip to southern Gwaii Haanas.

They were only supposed to go as far as Rose Harbour. But the guide found the seas unusually calm, and suggested a bee-line for Cape St. James.

Passing an island full of sea lions and another with the old lighthouse, Wettlaufer saw the last bits of land shrink and grow farther apart on the strangely glassy sea.

“You look down and it’s last island, last island, last island, open water.”

Along with a pair of six-foot circular canvasses — the first “rounds” Wettlaufer has ever painted — a stand-out among her work so far is a view of Pillar Rock.

Anyone who knows Wettlaufer’s work will recognize the vibrant colours and lively forms.

But it’s hard to imagine how she got the view.

For a painting, she said, it’s a strange perspective — a view from the open door of a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter. The crew, from CFB Comox, were tasked with long-lining mock patients up from a place near Pillar Rock. Wettlaufer joined as the official photographer.

“I did my job as a photographer, but I also came home saying, ‘That’s amazing!” she said.

So far, Wettlaufer has heard from two off-island galleries who may be interested in hosting her solo show, but she plans to exhibit it here first.

Between The Ground, the Chown River Gallery, and other local shops that sell her originals, Wettlaufer has been especially busy for the last few summers.

Visitors often ask to see her studio, and more are buying paintings in the fall and early winter, inspired by a summer trip.

All of that is very welcome, but it means Wettlaufer rarely has more than a painting or two at home before they are sold.

Encouraged by fellow artist Sheila Karrow, Wettlaufer applied for a Gwaii Trust arts grant that has allowed her to build the collection of paintings now brightening her home studio.

Seen together, each painting informs the other, she said — an experience that is changing the way she paints.

“It’s a big gift all around,” she said. “I’m so thankful.”

For more photos showing some of Wettlaufer’s latest paintings, visit maryannewettlaufer.com.

The Gwaii Trust Society offers arts grants of up to $10,000 for resident Haida Gwaii artists or groups, and up to $3,000 for workshops and mentorships. Applications can take two months to approve, and intakes start the first day of February, May, September, and November.

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