Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Holed up and Painting in Maple Creek
One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
Barry Weiss is a relatively quiet presence in the Saskatchewan visual art scene. It may be partly his nature, but it is also due to his ten-year absence from the province while he pursued life and art in Paris and Calgary. But he’s been drawing and painting since childhood, as long as he can remember.
In grade school and high school in Maple Creek Weiss used to drive art teacher Bonnie Deis crazy by bringing her drawings, mostly of horses he’d done at home, rendered on the backs of scrap paper. “She began giving me art supplies so that I wouldn't do that. Her support was a huge encouragement at a critical time. She was really good at her job; I remember still a lot of what she taught.”
Barry Weiss grew up on a cattle ranch. He loved working with livestock - calving, branding and all other aspects of looking after the animals. His great-grandparents homesteaded in the Cypress Hills. Weiss’s first home was on a bench of land south of Piapot above the Hills. When he was four the family moved closer to Maple Creek to be nearer to school for the children. It took two days to trail the livestock to the new ranch north of Maple Creek.
While no special attention was paid to fine arts in Weiss’s childhood home, there was creativity. Weiss took piano lessons; his dad and grandfather were very good at, as Weiss says, “making something out of nothing”, creating objects that might be considered folk art.
After high school Weiss chose not to pursue his visual art (which he now sees as an odd act of rebellion), and in 1985 he enrolled in the Drama Program at the University of Saskatchewan intending to become an actor. He graduated with high honours in 1990. Almost immediately he flew off to France where he met and lived with a Bohemian theatre family.
He enrolled in a Masters program in Theatre Studies at the Sorbonne. He found the program entirely academic and theoretical, and though he completed his courses, and was “up for the challenge of the thesis”, he found he “couldn't quite bear going through the motions as a cerebral exercise rather than making it a visceral one.” But the two years he lived in Paris were formative, both personally and artistically.
Barry returned to Canada, to Calgary, in 1992 “penniless and unhinged.” After a stint unloading trucks, he soon had his own decorative painting business, painting interior murals and trompe d’oeil for businesses and private homes, and was part of the team that restored the ballroom at the Banff Springs Hotel. Gradually he began moving back toward fine art.
Following a trip to Paris, London, Munich and Vienna in 1996, Weiss began painting landscapes in earnest with oils on canvas. His landscapes hover between representation and abstraction; they are intuitive, imagined landscapes, not pre-configured, but that become evident to him through the process of painting them; they are in a sense improvised. The paintings have a distinctive look and tone – a central luminosity bursting forth from darkness held in trees and grasses; the light may be reflected in water, and there is an absence of human presence.
The absence of "human evidence," Weiss says, “is a conscious choice I have made, but it's not an effort to portray a kind of idealism per se – it's true I am often dismayed by what I think is absolute ugliness in man's markings on this earth, but I don't have an axe to grind to that effect when I am finding subject matter.”
He acknowledges however, “a yearning for the earth without blemish. I am depicting landscapes that are ‘untouched’. That might imply a kind of wilderness, but I think I am responding more to an intuitive wilderness than to a physical one. I do not take for granted our being here, and I think that elements of abstraction act as a meaningful hook into contemplating what being here can mean.”
Weiss says, “I am in love with many of the pastoral representations in the paintings from the 19th C., in which a human presence is key.” Painters he returns to include members of the French Barbizon group such as Jean-François Millet and Diaz de la Pena. Weiss says of Millet: “His figures are heart breaking.” He goes on: “And American painter George Inness; there are not enough superlatives to describe the beauty of his landscapes. My attraction to painting is the material. I love the medium. I never tire of visiting the masterworks.”
Barry Weiss, essentially self-taught, has had significant success exhibiting and selling his paintings. His work is in private and corporate collections in Canada and the USA. He has had four solo shows at the Calgary gallery that represents him – Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art. (This gallery has a large stable of Saskatchewan artists – The Perehudoffs: William, Catherine, Carol, and Rebecca; and Marie Lanoo, Jeff Nachtigall, Jonathan Forrest, Darlene Hay, and Lorenzo Dupuis.)
We can now count Barry Weiss in that list, because in 2002 he returned to Saskatchewan, buying a house in Maple Creek and renovating it to contain his home and studio. He says he “lives like a hermit in Maple Creek, very quietly, holed up and painting.” His family still ranches nearby; in fact all his siblings are ranching, including one sister in Oregon. Weiss loves being close to the homestead. He can participate in the ranching, “without being married to it. But it’s a beautiful thing for me to have access to.”
People in Maple Creek are a bit curious about his work, and generally supportive, but respect his privacy and don’t beat a path to his door.
Surrounded by his beloved and familiar landscape Weiss is comfortable in Maple Creek. A home-studio is affordable here, enabling his painting to support him with a “modest living, but a rich life.” As a result, he is able to be “more out in the world.”
For Weiss this means travel – travel for the experience itself, and to see art. Wherever he goes he makes a point of visiting galleries, and will often go to view specific paintings over and over. Hence Paris is a continuing attraction.
Reflecting on his role as an artist in society and comparing our continent to Europe, Weiss says: “Comparatively, there’s not a great deal of support in North America for artists. People do not have an understanding of the impoverishment we would suffer without the contribution of our artists, a contribution that hooks us all into the great mystery. I believe that art-making is a spiritual pursuit.”
Yet Weiss values the support that does exist here for art and artists. His paintings do sell; he has received financial awards from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts; and there is a community – often other artists – of art appreciators.
Weiss says he feels very at home in France, yet is in Saskatchewan by choice. Though he is not yet well-known in the Saskatchewan arts community, he hopes to become more involved. He often comes to Saskatoon and remarks on the vibrancy of the art community here. “To come to an art opening at the Mendel and not be able to find a parking space is wonderful. It’s like coming home.”
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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