Time for another Hooked on Fridays blog party hosted by Julia at Hooked on Houses!! This week, I’m hooked on Ottawa artist Jill Alexander. Not only is Jill a fabulous artist, but she’s also a great inspiration for people like me who are trying to follow our passion and dreams…
A few weeks ago, I went to Dow’s Lake in Ottawa with a couple of friends to check out the Canadian Tulip Festival. As we wandered along the pathway, we came across an artist working on a painting of red tulips. I took a picture of her canvas—a tulip with just the orange undercoat—then we continued along the path.
On our way back, the artist had almost finished painting one red tulip. I took another picture of her canvas, and we started to talk.
As we chatted, I realized that not only is she an amazingly talented artist (she even painted a special tulip for Barack Obama!!), but that she has a wonderful philosophy and approach to work and life in general. I thought our blog readers would really enjoy seeing her paintings and learning about her, so I asked her if she would do an interview with me for our blog.
(In response to a comment below by Things That Inspire about Jill starting with painting the tulip before the background, Jill said this: "Normally that would be how the painting would come together, often I would paint a background before arriving at the Tulip Festival and carry on from there. But for the purposes of creating something quickly for tourists too see I just jumped in and let it flow knowing that whether I began with step 1 or step 10, it would all come together."
Please say hello to Ottawa artist Jill Alexander…
When I met you, you were at Dow’s Lake painting tulips. Do you paint outdoors often?
I paint outdoors over the course of the Canadian Tulip Festival. I've done so every May for the past 4 years. Tourists watch with fascination as tulip masterpieces take shape, most often they like to ask questions. It's fun to chat with tourists from all over the world.
You said you used a different technique on the tulips you were painting, showing the light coming through the petals. Do you try different things each time you paint, or do you usually stick with what works?
I like to change it up. I enjoy experimenting with techniques and mediums. I find diversity is certainly more interesting and challenging.
Are you self-taught or did you study art at school?
Overall, I consider myself self taught, although I did spend one fantastic year studying art my final year of high school. After high school, my artistic path changed and evolved. It would be 20 plus years until I began painting on canvases again.
How do you start a painting?
Personalized family paintings have a predetermined plan based on the conversation with the client. I paint the entire background and then lay in the design elements using a white pencil and filling in shapes with white paint. This enables the final colours to have more vibrancy.
For non-commissions, I go with intuition and with whatever feels right to me at the time.
You paint a variety of subjects – floral, landscape, spiritual, abstract… do you like them all equally, or is there one style you like best?
I can't say there is one style I like best. My subject choice depends on the mood I'm in at the time. The season also plays a big factor.
Do you have any of your paintings hanging in your home?
My home is an explosion of colour. My family (3 males whose preferences range from hockey to hockey and more hockey) have resigned themselves to "Flowers with Attitude", 4 foot tall "Felines with Attitude", joyful spiritual abstracts, and more!
Nothing says Canada like hockey!! Speaking of which… how did you get named the official artist of the Ottawa 67’s hockey team?
When I did begin painting on canvases again, I was painting flowers on oversized canvases. But my 3 men and a close friend finally had enough of flowers, so my friend suggested I paint some hockey scenes based on fond family memories. So I did, and then I added the 67's logo to the jerseys. From that, I made a couple sample greeting cards in 2005, which I mailed to Jeff Hunt (the Ottawa 67's owner) to see if he had any interest. And the rest is history.
I paint for 2 reasons — mostly to satisfy my need to create, but making a living on my art is also a requirement. So I look for opportunities to raise my exposure so I can make a living and continue doing what I am passionate about.
You’ve painted a lot of hockey-related pieces. Do you enjoy hockey?
I was a reluctant hockey mom but I married a hockey fanatic. He would invite me to his games and I thought it was a perfect chance to catch up on my reading. Sadly, I still did this when my little men started playing. But as they got a bit older, I went from watching only when they stepped on the ice to hooting and hollering all through the game, and especially louder when they stepped on the ice.
Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year?
For my sanity, it had better be the Red Wings. My basement is a shrine to the Red Wings, 2 of the biggest RW fans live here so I have to put up with all things RW in the bottom floor and they have to live with an explosion of colour on the upper 2 floors. I guess that is only fair. At least it's RED Wings, my favourite colour of wings! (Looks like Jill’s sanity will remain intact — the Red Wings are in the finals!!)
One of your collections is called Spiritual. What’s the inspiration behind this collection?
Quitting my full time job in 2001 to pursue art on a full time basis came as a result of lengthy illness and major surgery. I believe that we all have a gift and if you have moved away from it or have forgotten what it is you are here to do, forgotten to listen to your heart and soul, then your body will take over to get your attention in whatever manner to shake you up and remind you of your intention. What seemed like a time of pain was actually a gift when I realized why it was happening, a gift I am most grateful for. This began the most transformational period of my life and my spiritual quest began.
Are you a spiritual person?
I am a firm believer in Angels and have had signs that they are at work pushing, pulling, and directing me on my path. I've had an inner belief in Angels before my life transformation, but it grew enormously stronger afterwards. Undeniably, the Universe has a divine plan for each and every on of us, and we have to pay attention to the nudgings and act on the signs.
I’d love to paint my own canvases, but I always chicken out. What advice would you give to someone who has the desire to paint, but may not know how or where to start?
Put your favourite music on, grab the canvas, the brush and paint and get going! If a glass wine beside you is appealing, do that also. Just don't clean your brush in your beverage, it has been known to happen! It's fun to paint with a friend who also has the desire to see their inner artist emerge.
Just start, make a motion on the canvas. It doesn't matter what it is, experiment. Keep going, listen to your feelings and intuition. Don't get all bogged down with a specific topic/subject, it doesn't need to look like a house, or horse, or a hat right away, that will come if you want it to come later on! Abstracts and free flow designs may be where you want to stay.
You've got to unleash your creativity, so concentrate on colours and shapes to start. I expect you'll see something take shape and then play more with that, embellish it and bring it to life.
There are no mistakes, it is only paint, nothing is written in stone.
Have you visited other countries to see the art specifically? For example, Italy to see the Sistine Chapel?
Now that my boys are all grown and raised, it is my time to do just that. I hadn't flown anywhere in the last 30 years!
That changed recently when we went to Las Vegas, definitely not a place I ever thought I needed to visit in this lifetime. But I went along anyway. It renewed my love of travel, I'd forgotten how much fun it was. It turned out that I was fascinated with Las Vegas, I came home with a desire to paint showgirls with their plumes, glittery foliage, and jewels. I have yet to get going with this series, but I will.
I'm sure you didn't expect that answer, but Las Vegas certainly flicked a switch in me resulting in creating my travel vision board. So, next I have my sights set on Paris to see the Louvre.
I’m not an artist and I’m not familiar with art terms and techniques. But I do see elements that are present in all your paintings. How would you describe your painting style and the techniques that you use?
Surprisingly, this is the most challenging question to answer. Maybe it is because I create from an emotional standpoint versus technical. Since I am self-taught, I'm doing what feels right for me. Vibrancy of colour is consistent throughout. I am constantly told that viewers can recognize my work regardless of the subject matter and even when the technique changes. I seem to be too involved and immersed in the process to be conscious of specific techniques.
There is one design element that seems to show up from time to time. When I think of my life transformation, I think of the swirl design, it represents giving up my full time job to pursue art on a full time basis. It involved risk, which was not in my vocabulary up till that point, and a leap of faith. It was roller-coaster-hang-on-tight scary, but if I stop the ride, all my opportunities and progress will also stop, which means growth stops also.
When did you realize that you had a passion and talent for painting?
As a young child, I spent all my time drawing and painting. I believe when we are young, we have the knowledge of what we are here to accomplish. But as we get older, we often either step away from it or external forces change our direction. Regardless, our true intention will at some point remind us and bring us back in line with our goal.
I stopped painting after high school and did not pursue formal art education as I had originally planned. Instead, I worked full time as a cake decorator for almost 20 years. My direction became that of more a craftsperson, especially with the final 6 years working at Michael's Art and Crafts superstore as the class coordinator, display coordinator, and demonstrator. My job was to play and experiment with the products, and because of that, I expanded my knowledge.
However, because of this detour, I recall questioning myself over and over, how does someone call themselves an artist. Is it only if you have a fine art degree in which someone has taught you their interpretation of art? Which wasn't my case.
But back to my life transformation, it was then that I realized that having been given a God given gift was more than enough. If you have a desire and passion to create in your heart and soul, you are an artist!
My happy place, my cottage at Castleford on the Ottawa River. I intend to build my dream home and the ultimate art studio there and let the inspiration flow.
Nature & flowers, not just the subject as a whole necessarily, but the inner workings and parts of a flower.
My intuition, inner urgings to all of a sudden do this or that.
My belief in the signs that show up in my life to guide me. Teachers and lessons that show up on cue to show me the way.
I am receptive, listen, and act upon suggestions by other creative souls. I have a few artist friends in particular who have made suggestions and comments that I have acted upon. This is not a one way street, there is give and take in this process, and I have done the same for others.
What do you think when you look back at your earlier work?
I am fascinated by my progression, but this includes all creative work I have done. At the time, it has made no real sense as to why I was drawn to each. But upon looking back, I see how it all connects and builds upon one another.
I have enjoyed many creative activities… stain glass, pottery wheel throwing, wearable art, jewellery making, photography, scrapbooking, flower arranging, book illustration...
I was a cake decorator and instructor for 18 years. All of these creative activities added to my repertoire, providing me with my own unique self-education. Everything I have done in a creative sense plays a part some way in what I am doing now. It all interconnects.
What’s your favourite colour and why?
Although I love all jewel tones, if you are going to pin me down to one colour, I'll have to say red. It is a passionate colour. Before my life transformation, I leaned toward pastel colours. But after emergency surgery and life-saving procedures, I instantly became attracted to vibrant colours.
BLT (before life transformation) I was not fond of yellow and orange. But after BLT, I enjoy incorporating these colours — especially yellow, as it brings a painting to life.
You recently created a very special 5-foot tall tulip in honour of Barack Obama’s first state visit to Canada. That must have been a huge thrill for you!! How were you selected to create this special tulip?
I have painted as a Canadian Tulip Festival artist since 2002. This was when the 5 foot tall 3-D fibreglass composite tulip sculptures were created for Ottawa area artists to paint on. I had painted three tulips, and each one received major media attention (information and photos of each tulip at Jill Alexander Studios – Tulip Festival). Once the concept of a President Obama “Yes We Can” Tulip was conceived, I immediately received a phone call. Then the challenge was on!
How did you come up with the design?
The initial direction I was given was brief due to the extreme time constraints. All we knew for sure was that it was to include the President's image with the words "Yes We Can, Hope and Change". Since I only had a week to complete the design, I requested a brainstorming meeting half way through the week.
As soon as we began talking, the ideas flowed quickly and effortlessly. It was as if it was divinely directed!
I love that part as well, and I am very pleased with the effect. We discussed all the various painting surfaces from the top down. The upper portion (the tulip head) was to focus entirely on the new President and inspirational quotes from his Inauguration Speech. The bottom portion — namely the leaves and pot base — were designated for quotes by Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. That left the stem, and the obvious choice to me was to portray the two countries intertwined in the bond of friendship.
You normally spend 4-6 weeks painting these large tulips, but you only had one week to paint the Obama tulip. How did you work under the pressure of not only the tight deadline, but the knowledge that you were creating a very special piece of artwork?
I was on a mission to make it happen. I have discovered that whenever I'm faced with a challenge, whatever I am working on inevitably comes together. I became fixated on the goal, visualized the end result, and virtually did nothing else but paint, paint, paint. I was to deliver the finished product to the Rideau Centre a couple days prior to the President's arrival, and in time for the press release and media event. I put the brush down and declared the work complete 30 minutes prior to the delivery time.
I was honoured to be chosen to work on this special work of art. President Obama's words "The World has changed and we must change with it" says it all. This tulip represents an awakening of a global spiritual transformation. Thankfully, my life is on an exciting new spiritual path, and because of that I felt a strong emotional connection to President Obama's words of "Hope, Change and Yes We Can".
I look back at this event in my life and I am thrilled with the result. I have to admit, I wasn't sure what the end result was going to look like, just positive that I was meant to do it and it would all unfold as intended.
Do you approach painting a 3-dimensional piece differently than painting on canvas?
Prior to my return of painting on flat canvas surfaces in 2003, I was only painting 3-D surfaces. Ironically, it was actually a challenge for me to then paint a flat surface, but once I re-committed, I never looked back.
Regardless of surface, I just jump in with a inner feeling and let it unfold.
The Obama tulip has been on display at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa during the Tulip Festival. When the festival is over, will the tulip be sent to the White House?
The Canadian Tulip Festival commissioned this tulip with the plan on giving it as a gift to the American Embassy. With the Festival now over, the Tulip will be presented to the new Ambassador in residence.
Where do you think the Obamas should display the tulip?
Once the tulip is presented, it will then be the decision of the American Embassy as to where the "Yes We Can" tulip will stand proudly. If the decision is the White House, then the front lawn would be awesome!
You donated paintings to the Ottawa Humane Society for its FurBall 2009 Gala to raise money for the shelter. Are you an animal lover? Do you have any pets?
I love cats and have always had cats. I had developed a fear of dogs as a child, which always remained. But recently I became a reluctant Grandma of Buster, a Bichon/Poodle mix. And now I totally love dogs (although I'm cautious of big dogs with long legs, the ones when they stand on their back legs are taller than I am!)
I saw some paintings in your online gallery that I really like, but they’ve been sold. Do you ever replicate your paintings, or is each one a unique piece that you won’t ever paint again?
I won't replicate a painting for two reasons:
- Art collectors are purchasing unique paintings.
- My enthusiasm and passion of painting would tire quickly if I was to repeat a painting.
However, I will create a new piece just for you. I would ask what is it that attracts you to that particular painting. From there, I would alter the composition and make enough changes to create a new original as if it came from a series on that particular subject.
Are your customers mostly local, or do you ship your paintings around the world?
My work is part of local and international collections. Paintings can and have been shipped all over.
When you do commission work, how do you and your client work together to create the perfect piece?
For personalized family paintings, I encourage photos to work from, as many or few as they want to provide. Also from a conversation with the client to determine the other details required to make the painting a family treasure.
For decor pieces, I can work with fabric and paint samples. Also taken into consideration are personal preferences in terms of furniture style or specific art periods, such as Art Nouveau.
And finally, one last question… it’ll probably be hard to beat the thrill of painting the Obama tulip, but do you have any other exciting projects lined up?
I actually have two upcoming projects:
1. I am working with Custom Home Interiors to provide customized artwork for clients — one-of-a-kind artwork created for and based on the client’s needs, desires, and preferences. The artwork will:
- Tie all design aspects in a room together.
- Tell a heartfelt story of a unique family — a cherished memories keepsake.
2. I am in the process of creating large and vibrant tulip paintings that will be on display in prominent areas of the Lord Elgin Hotel. The Lord Elgin is an elegant downtown hotel in the heart of Ottawa. The entire decor theme of the Lord Elgin focuses exclusively on the celebrated tulip. The lobby features elegant Malak Karsh tulip photographs, and will soon feature a series called "Tulip Celebration" by artist Jill Alexander!
Thank you, Jill!!
I hope you enjoyed meeting Jill. If you like her paintings and want to see more of her work, visit her online gallery at Jill Alexander Studios. Then head back to Julia’s to check out what everyone else is hooked on this week :-)
Be sure to visit DesignTies next Friday for a very special Hooked on Fridays post with a fabulous giveaway!!