There's rural living and then there is living rural.
Clare Singleton is an artist who does the latter and paints the experience. Her life is built proudly around the realities of the local region, not infused with the trappings of big city or warm climate themes. She lives the art and seeks out others who do the same. They often end up imprinted on her canvases.
In the new exhibition Real Northern Living she depicts the ways people in this region live close to the land, drawing the water and hewing the wood that allow them to live under the canopy of nature.
Most of Canada has turned their back on this way of life, if they ever knew of it in the first place. Singleton shows how it is viable and vibrant even through it is unseen by the majority of the population.
"I paint on-location. I'd say I'm an expressionist painter. My heroes are Vincent van Gogh and Emily Carr, where they would go out and be in place and create their art from their real worlds," said Singleton. "What I've done with this exhibition ties in with the ideas of (19th century French painter) Gustave Courbet in Europe who couldn't get his works shown in the main salons because they weren't fashionable, he was too independent with his subject matter, so he made his own gallery to show his artwork of the working people of his time. I've always followed that philosophy, of artwork that looks at logging, farming, working on the land, and holding onto the connections to the land at all costs."
Singleton grew up on Vancouver Island but studied art in Nelson at a University of Victoria satellite program there. One of her classmates of the graduation cohort of 1984 was Betty Kovacic, now one of Prince George's best known visual artists. It was Kovacic, said Singleton, who inspired her to come north for the first time. She fell in love with the rugged, rustic way of life you could easily lead in this area and she has been a northerner ever since. She currently lives on a 10-acre property just off the highway in Endako, on the outskirts of Fraser Lake about two hours west of Prince George.
"People think there's nothing around, in Endako. They think that about a lot of northern B.C. and rural Canada, but there is actually a lot going on and a lot of people, people who are living encyclopedias," said Singleton. "I just love looking at that and celebrating it."
Meghan Hunter-Gauthier, assistant curator at the Two Rivers Gallery, said the Real Northern Living show was a selection of paintings, drawings and photographs.
"For over seven years, she has been focused on documenting the life of her friend, Josef Liska, whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe a number of years ago," said Hunter-Gauthier. "As Russian Jews, they left to seek a better life, which ultimately led them to settle west of Vanderhoof to take up ranching. The Liskas farmed for many years until they lost the ability to finance their ranch due to the mad cow epidemic of 2003. With few options left to the family, Josef Liska turned to logging their land as a means of livelihood. Real Northern Living offers a glimpse at his story."
She captures Liska's mundane life, but to city dwellers even chopping wood is an exotic act, and she paints and photographs these daily chores with the interest of a scientist.
"In picturing all of these real moments, Singleton honours Josef Liska and his family, paying homage to their history and the labor that is involved in living a rural northern life," Hunter-Gauthier said. "People choose to live a rural life for different reasons, be it for relaxation, solitude, employment, or a reduced cost of living. Others simply do not have the luxury of choice. Singleton's work considers the latter circumstance and pictures how one's life is shaped by the place they live. As portrayed by Singleton's paintings and photographs, Liska is often busy working. The tasks he undertakes: splitting wood, disking fields and felling trees, are contingent on place. If Liska were to live in an urban context, his daily life would be much different."
Real Northern Living is up in the Rustad Galleria at the Two Rivers Gallery until Jan. 17.