Popular Antigonish artist Anna Syperek brings her oils and watercolours inspired by her daily domestic life and the land of Antigonish and Cape Breton to Halifax for her first time since 2008 to Studio 21, 1273 Hollis St., in The Earthly Paradise, on view to Oct. 12.
People in Antigonish were surprised when Anna Syperek started painting their town.
To them it was too ordinary a subject for fine art; to her it was just right.
“We used to get our car fixed at the MacIntosh brothers and I would be painting their house and barn and they’d rush out and say, ‘Straighten the fence post,’ and, ‘Don’t put the rusted cars in.’ ”
But that’s what interested Syperek, who has been painting the town, the surrounding countryside, Cape Breton and even the window by her breakfast table for the last 40 years.
That window and its sill full of shells, plants and trinkets is a large watercolour in her exhibit, The Earthly Paradise, at Studio 21, 1273 Hollis St., Halifax, to Oct. 12.
“It’s all about different ways of seeing,” says Syperek, quoting the title of John Berger’s book. “I think people don’t really see. Artists show people what they are looking at.”
Syperek names her first exhibit in Halifax since 2008 after an epic poem by 19th century designer William Morris, whose highly patterned work she loves.
To her the phrase means “we see our own lives as significant, and a visual artist conveys that by visual means.”
She paints what strikes her viscerally and visually and it could be something she’s lived with for years. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning. I look around and it’s like I have special glasses on. It’s a vision, it’s something I want to paint. Somehow It’s transformed into this amazing image.”
That happened with her breakfast table window in the painting titled Orchid Garden. It was spring, the trees out the window had a lacy pattern of new leaves; the pink and white orchids on the sill were in full bloom.
She loved painting the jumble of trees. “It’s like trying to make order out of chaos and then it becomes a pattern and then it becomes what it is.”
Syperek moved the objects on the sill a bit but otherwise she didn’t construct the image. She rarely does. In her prints, watercolours and oil paintings, she recreates what gave her the visual charge in the first place in all its detail.
The two dogs in the foreground of a Mabou panoramic landscape conveniently strolled by. “They added a punctuation to the whole thing.”
The large oil painting, Spring, East Mabou Harbour, is of a hill she loves and has often painted with its abandoned farmhouse nestled up against the hill. This is also a painting from spring with the soft pinks of Indian pear and the vivid red of dogwood.
“It’s such a huge view, it’s tricky to paint. If you try and use photos, it’s warped. You have to work from sketches; even then it’s very hard,” she says. “We go up to Mabou a lot. It’s rural and yet it’s by the sea and it has these wonderful hills.”
Syperek moved to Antigonish in 1971 with her husband, Peter Murphy, a photographer and filmmaker. She’d met Murphy, who moved to Antigonish in Grade 7, through one of her brothers in Toronto. “He was always extolling the virtues of Antigonish and Nova Scotia to everybody.”
She was struck by Nova Scotians’ love of place and the beauty of northeastern Nova Scotia but she can find beauty anywhere. Once again, it’s about seeing.
“I grew up in Oshawa. It’s a small drab industrial city but I saw all sorts of beautiful things growing up. I was very attuned to that — the backyards, the back alleys, down by the creek.
“We’d go for Sunday drives and the land spoke to me. I loved looking out and looking at the land.”
Unusually, Syperek’s watercolour Afternoon Nap has a surrealist element with the Morris-patterned floral curtain bleeding into the top of a wooden stool
“That’s something I tend to correct but I liked it better. It’s become undefined.”
Syperek is better known for her etchings and watercolours than her oil paintings, which she started 15 years ago. “You can do things with oils you can’t do with watercolour. Scale for one thing, intensity of colour. With oils you build up a painting more, it’s more of a construction. Watercolour — you’re reacting to the moment.
“Switching back and forth is really invigorating. You see how to work things differently.”
Syperek’s last big project was the exhibit Old New Scotland in 2005-2006 that she took on tour to Scotland. “It was so exciting to see first-hand the places in Cape Breton where people came from. I had some portraits and people said it just looked like their relatives.”
Now she and Murphy are thinking of doing a book based on their archive of photographs and sketches of rural Nova Scotia. “We documented our lives as we were living them. It’d be a slice of life of living in rural Nova Scotia as an artist from the ’70s through the ’90s. We’ve influenced each other over the years for better or for worse!”
Murphy filmed the Professional Living Artists of Nova Scotia (PLANS) documentary film Searching for Realism, which screened last month at the Atlantic Film Festival and is now available for purchase online on the PLANS Facebook Page. He followed curator Tom Smart as he visited the studios of contemporary realist artists, including Syperek, for the exhibition Capture 2014: Nova Scotian Realism.
Also on exhibit at Studio 21, open Tuesday through Saturday, is John Perkins: Landscapes of Perception of abstracted, high-key colour prints.