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Tanya Cunnington, In Conversation With Quest

In anticipation of her upcoming exhibition, "Looking North," Quest had the opportunity to connect with artist Tanya Cunnington to learn about her background in the arts, her creative process, the inspiration behind the show, and more!

"Looking North" will open at Quest in the Main Gallery on Friday, March 8th and will be on display until Saturday, April 6th, 2024. Join us for the opening reception on Friday, March 8th, at 7:00 PM!

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the arts.

I was born in Kirkland Lake, which is up in Northern Ontario, and now live and work on the Rama First Nation with my partner and fellow artist Bewabon Shilling and our son, Cal.   I received my Associates Degree from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2001, with a Major in Drawing and Painting.  I exhibited with Loop Gallery in Toronto from 2007 – 2018 and have also shown regionally in group shows in Barrie, Orillia, Innisfil and Midland.  In 2019, Bewabon and I were both awarded Research and Creation Grants from the Canada Council for the Arts to do a one-month artist residency in Sointula BC. Looking North is my second two-person exhibition, the first being Two Legacies with Jill Price at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, 2018.  I am also a curator, and currently hold the position of Arts Programming Coordinator at the Orillia Museum of Art & History, Orillia. 


What was the inspiration behind your current exhibition and the themes that you explored in your artwork?

I create artwork in response to my current surroundings, but the underlying theme is always the passage of time, memory, identity and family.  This exhibition, titled Looking North, consists of paintings inspired by the land in both Northern Ontario and Ireland.  My great-Grandmother, although proudly Scottish, was born in Northern Ireland where her father was stationed as a police sergeant. My family tells me that she took a boat to Canada, boarded a train to Northern Ontario, stepped off the train wearing leather slippers into several feet of snow and cried. Not long afterwards, her husband was killed in a work-related accident, and yet she stayed in Northern Ontario to raise her family.  I wondered why she stayed but was also very aware that I would not be here if she had left.  I recently set out on a trip to Ireland to see the land that she left behind. Born in Northern Ontario, I have always been drawn to the landscape of the Canadian Shield with its rocks and sparsely treed terrain.  I am fascinated by my family history of settling in and around Port Cunnington, Matheson and Kirkland Lake Ontario and how my ancestors mined and manipulated that land to survive.  Painting this land is my way of communicating with them and forming a bond with those who came before me so I could be here today. 


How do you approach the creative process when developing a body of work for an exhibition?

For about ten years now, I have been working with the theme of abstracted landscapes, so I am always looking for new land to be inspired by.  I travel and explore, taking pictures or creating sketches of land that interests me to use later.  Once back in my studio, I manipulate these images and play with colour to find something that I want to paint.  Then, of course, I play with colour and manipulate the image even further while I paint it to abstract the image.  Often, I am inspired by a single place when creating a body of work.  For Looking North, I was inspired by two places, Northern Ontario and Northern Ireland.  In terms of creating the body of work, I always start with a rough number of paintings that I intend to produce for the show and then try to get as close to that as possible, knowing that I won’t be happy with every single piece that I create. 


Are there any specific techniques or mediums you employed in this exhibition, and how do they contribute to the overall artistic expression?

I adore oil paint, and I think that it shows in my work.  I really enjoy working in a thick, painterly way.  My mom is an oil painter, and I have fond memories of it when I was a kid, which is why I think I use it to this day.  I carve out rocks and ground with my brush by applying thick paint and leaving visible brushstrokes. I stretch my own canvases and start with an underpainting of acrylic paint, which sets the tone of the piece, whether warm or cool.  I like it when the underpainting shows through a bit.  I treated myself and bought linen to stretch on the smaller canvases because I love the raw look of it.  


Are there any recurring motifs or symbols in your artwork that hold personal significance to you, and if so, how do they manifest in this exhibition?

Because I am painting landscapes, rocks and trees, seem to be a recurring theme, specifically the Canadian Shield.  My son will often joke with me while I’m on my way to the studio that I am “off to paint my rocks and trees again.”  Of course, everything I paint has a personal attachment to me, whether it be the memory of the place I am painting or the memory of being in my studio while painting it, but I am aware that it is hard to translate that to the viewer without words.  Ultimately, these paintings are about the passage of time, memory, identity and family, represented by the land that we have been lucky enough to spend time on.


How did you navigate the balance between artistic freedom and conveying a specific message or narrative in your work for this exhibition?

Because my work is abstracted, I often write a little story to accompany each piece, which I might still do for this show.  It frees me to create abstract pieces while still expressing my message to people. People will see what they want to see in abstract imagery, so I respect that we all bring our own pasts, memories and experiences into viewing visual art.


Were there any challenges you faced during the creation of this exhibition, and how did you overcome them?

I have been creating work using roughly the same green/red complimentary colour palette for about five years now, exploring different variations of those colours.  For this exhibition, I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and explore new colour combinations.  Visiting Ireland, I forced myself to work with colours that I had never used before.  I wanted there to be something slightly uncomfortable about my colour combinations for these paintings.  I am not certain if I am completely happy with the results, but I am proud that I pushed myself to try, especially with an exhibition approaching.  Ireland also has more sprawling wide-open land than that of Northern Ontario, so I struggled a bit with composition and not being able to rely on stacking rocks and adding facets of colour within them.


In what ways do you hope your audience will engage with and interpret your artwork within the context of this exhibition?

As I mentioned, ultimately, I respect that people will find their own meaning or imagery within my work, and I actually encourage that. We all have such personal experiences, I hope that these works might trigger memories or emotions from the viewer even if they are different than those that I felt while I was visiting the space that inspired each piece, or creating it.


Can you share any memorable moments or experiences from the process of bringing this exhibition to life?

About half the work from this exhibition is inspired by a trip that I took to Ireland with my family, including my mom, whom I rarely get to travel with.  It was special to experience such beauty with her.  We all brought our sketchbooks along, even my son.  Many of these paintings were inspired by standing at the tops of the Cliffs of Moher, where we all had lunch and sketched the scenery. 


Are there particular artists, movements, or historical influences that have informed your creative approach for this exhibition?

When I was still finding my voice, I was really inspired by the Abstract Expressionists, especially Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko.  Up until about ten years ago, I was still relying very heavily on collage within my work and oil stains on raw canvas.  I have moved away from collage, but I still really enjoy the way oil can stain raw canvas or linen, and I intentionally leave parts of my canvas raw for this reason. I love the work of Joan Mitchell for her free use of brushstrokes and try to remind myself of her when I find myself tightening up or getting too caught up in the details.  On a personal note, I am surrounded by artists who inspire me every day to keep creating art.


What does Quest Art School + Gallery mean to you?

I think the first time that I came to Quest was to see an exhibition by my partner Bewabon, his brother Travis and their father, Arthur Shilling, curated by Jill Price.  I was really impressed with the space and the calibre of art that it was exhibiting.  I started modelling at Quest for their life drawing classes not long after, so I feel very at home at Quest.  My son had his first art show there when he was quite young too, so Quest has been very supportive of my family and I.  I love taking place in their annual art slam because it is both intimidating and exhilarating.  I was so pleased to find out that Quest had accepted my exhibition proposal and am really enjoying creating a body of work for this show. I cannot wait to see it within the space!

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