Artist Spotlight: Keeping it Real

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Welcome to the first post in the Artist Spotlight series, where we chat with the artist (or artists) currently exhibiting at SG. On view now is Keeping it Real, which features high realism paintings by Ian Bodnaryk, Neville Clarke, Shaun Downey, Diane Huson, Sue Miller, Catherine Mills, Allan O’Marra and Albert Slark.

First up are Sue Miller and Allan O’Marra. Read on to learn more about what inspires them and what “Keeping it Real” means to them!

SG: Hi Sue and Allan! Please tell us a little bit about yourselves.

SM: I studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design with a focus on communication and design. I’ve been self-employed as a freelance graphic designer for many years; I also accept painting and drawing commissions. Now, fully immersed into painting, I continue to take on commissions while exploring my two passions – painting and travel.

I live in Whitby with my husband, two sons and our dog, Henry. I’m a member of Station Gallery, PineRidge Arts Council and the Oshawa Art Association. I’m also a proud member of the Rotary Club of Whitby Sunrise.

AO: When I was in grade one; I drew a ground squirrel in his underground nest with a network of tree roots spread around him. My teacher was so impressed that she took me to the other classrooms in my little rural school and had me hold my drawing in front of me as she extolled the excellence of my drawing skills.

Although I’m now sixty-eight years old, people see me – and I see myself! – as much younger, having abundant energy, boundless passion, positive engagement with life and a progressive world-view. I grew up by a lake in a spectacular valley near Bancroft, Ontario, in a large family in a one-room schoolhouse (my personal warm weather retreat/studio now), playing without supervision in the fields and hills, a locale that remains my muse to this day.

I graduated from OCAD University in 1971. Besides making, teaching and writing about art and curating and organizing exhibitions, I volunteer as an art instructor at the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby where I was named the inaugural Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

SG: What influences your art? What inspires you?

SM: I’m an avid traveller and I enjoy discovering subjects to paint as equally as I paint to investigate the world. My travels have taken me around the globe to some fantastic places including Peru, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Europe, much of Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Cuba.

Capturing the interaction of colour, illumination and perspective is an overarching motivating force in my work. Directing dabs of colour into combinations that become recognizable, understandable and ultimately relatable to the observer is tremendously rewarding. Painting has helped me to indulge in a deeper mindfulness while visiting new locations around the world. This has allowed me to better absorb and appreciate the full experience of what I have seen, heard and felt – to more fully perceive and understand each unique and inspiring place.

AO: I believe that to be a healthy human being, one must connect, engage and communicate with other human beings. As a visual artist, I first begin with identifying what it is that I wish to explore in my own world view and then decide on a way to articulate that in a visual way – usually with a realistic image, but sometimes using the abstract. I then make it available for viewing by others and hope they make a connection with the image and are intrigued, encouraged, uplifted and challenged by it in a way that resonates and stays with them.

For me, the biggest challenge about being an artist is putting in the time to get to the skill level and threshold of self-understanding that enables one to make art that is truly unique and truly one’s own, without running into so many roadblocks that one just gives up. I have faced and overcome that challenge, but it was a very long and demanding road. The fact that I am still painting after four decades, making art that comes straight from the heart, is a great measure of success for me. In fact, I can proudly say that in 2013, I made 48 paintings, a career high and benchmark that I am terrifically proud of.

SG: Could you tell us a little bit about your studio practice and techniques?

SM: I mainly work in water-based oil on canvas, referencing photographic source material while using the traditional skills of the representational artist. Urban landscapes most often draw my attention; re-creating elements of light, colour and form while hopefully bringing to life the extraordinary character, culture and charm of a location.

An average painting takes about 7 days to complete depending on size and complexity.

AO: As a visual artist, I not only pride myself in the conceptualizing and creating of images that I hope are compelling and engaging, but I really enjoy the craft aspect of the calling as well. I take great pleasure in hand-building my own canvas stretchers, stretching and applying gesso to the canvases and proceeding to the application of paint.

I begin every painting with a very complete and detailed base drawing in graphite pencil, then block in the colours with an underpainting in acrylics before moving on to the final oil paint rendering. Each of my medium-to-large canvases takes between 40 to 50 hours to complete—usually over the course of several weeks. The series of large-format portraits I was invited to share in Keeping it Real took approximately 1,000 hours to paint between January of 2014 and January of 2016. During that time, I also created 16 other paintings that were not part of the series.

SG: Is there anything else you would like to share about this exhibit?

SM: I am absolutely honoured to be part of Keeping it Real. The calibre of the other artists is utterly inspiring and motivating. It’s wonderful to connect with the participating artists and feel the encouragement that is given. Of course, it all begins with the kind staff at the Station Gallery. We are so lucky to enjoy their energy and tremendous support in our community. It is a privilege to be associated with such a wonderful group!

AO: My contribution to Keeping it Real is series of 18 large-format oil on canvas portrait paintings called Lush Gravitas. These works are 44” x 40” (vertical or horizontal format) images of close-cropped faces of young females painted in a hyper-real style, the reference photos mostly found on the online Flickr photography site. In each case but one (my own reference), I contacted the photographer (typically amateur and often a parent of the child) to get their permission before using the image. So, in a way, they became collaborators in the creative process. The “Lush” of Lush Gravitas references the very present and uncomplicated youthful beauty of each of the subject faces in dichotomy with the “Gravitas,” the apparent seriousness and somberness of expression of each face that belies the evident youthfulness of the subject.

To learn more about Sue and to check out her work visit To learn more about Allan and to check out his work visit

Stay tuned for more posts that put the spotlight on the artists in Keeping it Real.

Keeping it Real is on view now until July 10, 2016.

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