Exhibit offers glimpse into farm life

Cliff Mann knows from experience that chickens aren't always the charmingly oblivious strutters of the barnyard.

The one he painted as the lead image for his new art exhibition is the kind of chicken he knew back in childhood, the one that looks you in the eye with a "you want a piece of me?" attitude - the Alpha Chicken. You can find Grade A chicken at the butcher shop, but you'll find this Type-A chicken at his upcoming event.

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"This bird means business. Look at it, it's staring into your soul," said a chuckling Lisa Redpath, the curator of the Community Arts Council's feature gallery at Studio 2880. Redpath has booked Mann for previous art shows, he was once the CAC's artist-in-residence, and he is also a past Art Battle champion. He is one of the city's preeminent painters.

"I knew he was up for a challenge," Redpath said. "We have been able to develop a unique and close working relationship with Cliff over the years, and if anyone could take on a challenge like this, it was him."

That's some bold barnyard talk. The chicken led to discussions about a series and that theme comes unveiled on March 14. Animal Farm may have been a bestselling satire novel in the hands of George Orwell, but it's a colourful depiction of local rural life under the brush of Cliff Mann. And it all got hatched because of that engrossing gallina.

"Some family members sent me a photo of a chicken and I loved it, it grabbed my attention right away, and I thought 'one day I'm going to have to paint this'," said Mann. "Half an hour later, it became someday. Once you're rolling, you start thinking about it, turning ideas over in your mind, one thing leads to another, and before I knew it I had nine paintings and I have more in the works."

Mann is a watercolour specialist, but transitioned there several years ago from oil and other painting genres. He has done street-scapes and nudes using his new style. He has done speed-painting events like Art Battle and deliberately careful activities like book illustrations. He makes watercolour do things wide outside the usual scenes of that style (see: florals, long-distance landscapes, semiabstract conceptual images).

"I don't like the pale, pasty, old-English styles of watercolour we grew up with," he said. "I want to play with the colour palette, with achieving detail, and treat watercolour more like an oil painter would approach the craft."

The evidence of this blurring of boundaries, said Redpath, is in the way the filaments of a feather or the strands of hair are represented by Mann. She said his animals "appear like ones you'd recognize if you walked onto their farm and saw them standing there. There's nothing cartoonish about any of them."

You actually can walk onto the farm of many of these animals in the Cliff Mann Animal Farm. There's a portrait of Penny, a real horse rescued from abuse near Fraser Lake. There's a horse saddled and ready for a ride into the backcountry near Houston. There's a rabbit at Huble Farm. Some of these critters he knows personally, and some are friends of friends who sent him photos.

Some photos he even got from a call-out he posted on Facebook. Only one of those responses he refuses to paint.

"I was sent an alpaca photo, and I am just not there yet. Too difficult," he said. "It's an amazing picture, I was blown away, but the hair of an alpaca is unique and I'm going to have to work up to it. If I can pull off an alpaca, I'll have done my job."

Mann grew up on a farm about two hours west of Prince George, where cows were milked and eggs were gathered and predators would do the murder of the circle of life. Farms are pastoral and idyllic settings, but they are also places where pain and loss and difficulty grow as naturally as the hay and vegetables.

These conditions are subliminally imbedded into these animal scenes, as Mann contends with realism in the dabs and slashes of paint.

Animal Farm opens its gates on March 14 at Studio 2880 (located in the gift shop at 2880 15th Ave.) with a free public reception starting at 5 p.m.

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