June 18 2007


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Feeling At Home

by Alex Brown

They can evoke a beaming smile, or floods of tears; happy reflection or the bittersweet pangs of nostalgia for that which is irrevocably gone.

Crystal Deshaies’ art hits – literally – close to home. Her commissioned acrylic paintings of homes and gardens speak not just of bricks and mortar and vegetation, but of the love we bring to them.

In their inclusion of well-loved homes, favourite shrubs, cherished pets and symbols of loved ones, Deshaies paintings reveal the innermost workings of what we call the human heart – everything her subjects and clients hold dear.

Thanks to the generosity of some of these clients, a selection of these paintings will be on display at Surrey Public Library’s Ocean Park branch from June 30 to late August. Weather permitting, Deshaies will also be on hand at the branch during the Ocean Park Days celebration, June 23, for a preview of her work.

Given the accuracy of her drawing, and sureness of perspective, it’s not surprising that Deshaies – who studied music, art and architecture at UBC – found an early career as an architectural illustrator and design consultant.

“In the mid ’80s I was working for an architect who suggested I do a portrait of his family’s home, including their cat and some tulips,” she recalled.

“The home and garden portraits all seemed to grow out of that.”

Almost alone in the field of home portraiture, Deshaies follows a meticulous process in creating her paintings, which can take between three to six weeks to finish. It’s not just a matter of setting an easel down in front of a house – Deshaies interviews her clients extensively to get a sense of who they are and what they care about .

She takes photographs, studies objects, borrows family portraits, all of which will provide compositional elements for a preliminary drawing, followed by the finished painting.

The raw material may be a collage; but the finished article is not. Deshaies prides herself on her command of composition and perspective to create a seamless portrait – even if part of the backyard finds its way into the front yard, or some of the living room finds its way into the garden.

“I call it cubist realism, although the perspective looks realistic, it can show several views at the same time.”

The paintings in the upcoming exhibition all represent residences on the Peninsula – a frequent source of commissions over the past decade. They provide a revealing portrait of the community in very human terms.

“I feel I know the area,” the Vancouver-based Deshaies said. “I’m out here so frequently, it kind of feels like a second home.

“The people here do tend to be, very often, artistic. I’m really struck by that – they have a real appreciation for art and understand what the artist brings in terms of labour intensity, composition, design, colour and why something is beautiful.”

Her Peninsula paintings typify Deshaies’ techniques and her love of cheerful colours (“I’m like Matisse,” she said. “I believe there’s enough darkness and sadness in life.”)

A painting of a South Surrey hobby farm – since redeveloped – memorializes a favourite red maple tree, a Shetland pony, budgies and some prized chickens.

Another, of a very modern looking, yet gabled home in the Morgan Creek area, conveys the enthusiasms of the owners by transplanting some of the living room – including a guitar, books and furniture, into the front yard – along with a pet sheep, cats, hawks, falcon, deer and other wildlife.

Invariably, Deshaies said, the unveiling of the finished painting is an emotional experience – even if the tears are ultimately happy ones. And the artist finds herself touched by the glimpses into others’ lives she is allowed.

“It is very moving,” she said. “The house is really a symbol of you. Even if the house is not a big one, or designed in the latest Architectural Digest style, if you put your love into the house it is still beautiful – it has a beautiful integrity.

“Sometimes people put their children into the painting, but often in a symbolic, poetic way – through a hockey stick or a basketball, for instance.”

Pets are often more directly depicted, she said.

“We love our pets. They signify home and keep us grounded – and I love painting animals” (one of her sidelines, her Winsome Portraits series, focuses on individual animals as well as people).

More than a simple commission, Deshaies considers each painting a compact with a client – and a collaboration.

“This is where people have lived and where they have raised their children. When they request a home portrait by me, they want more than a sketch. They want to include cherished objects that have a significance to them.

“But, more than a memento, it’s a work of art – and it has to be a work of art first.”