So I flew to Toronto and painted my little heart out.
Filming starts excruciatingly early, which means I had to get myself to some remote meeting point/probable murder site by 5 am. This is the part of my trip that I was most proud of: I‘ve never driven in Toronto, and I drove the six-lane QE and 403 speedway in pitch-dark rush hour with my mother-in-law’s car ALL BY MYSELF. For a cyclist, it was as challenging as you’d expect in terms of speed, stress, and manic tesselation. I was 20 minutes late to meet the crew but I swear I made it there on time. I just couldn’t find the Dixie GO station in the dark and Siri doesn’t tell me what it actually looks like, only that I kept missing the turnoff.
After that achievement, I was more than willing to get into a van with strangers without knowing where we were going. Why not? It was more relaxing than everything else I’d already done that morning. We had no prior notice of the location and we were going to be transported to a “Surprise! Paint this!” situation. The other contestant/prisoner asked me if I had any en plein air experience. No, none whatsoever, I admitted. She seemed surprised that I’d even apply. She was an expert, herself, and we talked a lot about her experiences in various competitions around the world. A lot.
After an hour or two of driving and having genial conversations where the subtext was how little I was qualified to be in this competition, the paint-this situation turned out to be a farm in the middle of farm country. Pastoral. There were horses and rolling hills and a tree line and a barn but not much else, unless you count the daunting festival-style portapotties. The sight of those immediately quelled my stress peeing urges.
It was also uncomfortably humid for September and upwards of 30something Celsius. That’s another thing my coddled Vancouver constitution isn’t used to: we have gentle rain and ocean breezes, not humid hell-hot farm Smell-O-Vision.
Speaking of heat, they call each episode of artists a “heat”. There are six of us per episode, and the other five artists in my heat were all from Ontario and, it seems, all used to Ontario heat. They were appropriately diverse and easily representative of the art world in that there were three times more women than men. You can see all the contestants from all the episodes here: https://tv.bemakeful.com/landscape-artist-of-the-year-canada/#contestants
They instructed us to “be ourselves” but also suggested that we be our most dramatic and interestingly temperamental selves, if possible. We were encouraged to break into spontaneous monologues. Our assigned story editor kept asking us how we were feeling and we had to pretend they weren’t there while responding with full context answers, e.g. “How are you feeling, Laura?” “I’m feeling like I’m never gonna get this done on time and I hate it.” I gave them as much temper tantrum drama as the heat and humidity inspired. I can do monologues; I tend to Hamlet my way through a painting, albeit with zero poetry and occasional frustrated outbursts of profanity. They assured me this was okay.
Filming rules are weird. They need a lot of repetitions so we have to say the same thing over and over in case someone accidentally walks into the background or we look into the camera or address the person asking us questions directly or are chewing gum or drinking water or sweating profusely. It was always “Okay, let’s try that again with MORE ENERGY”. I was the unfortunate cause of the many repetitions because I didn’t know we weren’t allowed to chew gum or drink water or look directly into the camera. It seems my role in this particular production was to help demonstrate what all the filming rules were.
They also use odd lingo like “hero shot”, “ITM” and “OTF” which are, respectively: a shot of artist with painting, an “In The Moment” monologue and an “On The Fly” interview. Our easels had time-lapse cameras on them to record our painting progress. We were all mic’d with little soundboxes and cleavage microphones. Every time we wandered off to the edge of the set to, say, consider using one of the sweatbox portapotties or evaluate the best direction in which to flee, one of the wired-up set people would chase us, muttering into their headset: “Artist traveling!” We always had to have an escort when we left our pods, kinda like an outer space alien hostage situation.
The host was Sook Yin Lee, a well-known Canadian broadcaster, former MuchMusic Veejay, and punk band frontwoman. She was really good at repetitions and doing something over and over with the requisite MORE ENERGY, which the pronunciation of my surname required. The judges were esteemed art professor, Joanne Tod, and former curator of the Canadian National Gallery, Marc Mayer. I remember enjoying some ironic banter with Joanne Tod but I knew I was doomed when she passed by me and told me that my painting was “sweet”.
Sweet is death in the art world.
Anyway, here’s my sweet painting:
I had practiced doing several four-hour paintings the week before and realized that intrinsic pressure is helpful when you need to focus HARD on something. I learned that I probably don’t need as much time as I take to complete a painting but the very act of creation is pleasurable so why not take one’s time? In most artistic creations, the final product is rarely the result of speed and first-pass genius. Writers edit. Actors rehearse. Musicians practice. I like to contemplate a subject and come up with emotional associations which is essentially the meditative experience of landscape painting.
And, if I were to be absolutely truthful: I don’t always know what I’m doing. The problem with being self-taught is that everything you do — your “process” — is trial and error. One of the more uplifting quotes I heard about painting is “If you’re doing it right, you’re always a beginner,” but the reality of that is tough to cope with when you’re in a spotlight. I’m also acutely conscious that reality TV is mostly for the sport of schadenfreude-watching and scrutiny so you must develop emotional blinders. Like the fish in Pixar’s Finding Dory, what you need to do in this and most life situations is just keep swimming.
So I just kept painting until they told us to stop. My barn painting is okay but if I’d had the time, I could have figured out more symbolism. I would have gone darker and channeled more Grant Woodish fraught idealism. Everyone does Group of Seven. Grant Wood (“American Gothic”) was one of the big Midwest American regionalists during the Great Depression. He painted stylized and detailed pastorals to represent a disappearing existence that he WISHED still existed. That idealized nostalgia is a recurrent theme these days: ask any hipster with an Adidas bag full of vinyl.
The judging was tortuously drawn out. We had to stare at them and they had to stare at us for a looong SUPER UNCOMFORTABLE time while the cameras panned across our faces to get enough video footage to imply some kind of wild west outlaws-vs-townspeople showdown.
Then, one by one, they announced four semi-finalists who would go forward. Not me, not me, not me, and not me.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the final but it was still a wilting hot disappointment to be the first of two not “called forward”. I didn’t know how to react. Luckily, the other contestant grabbed me and hugged me and we treated it like a beauty pageant: SO GLAD TO BE HERE Y’ALL! with giant cheesecake smiles.
We walked away while they whittled the four down to two. They condensed this part in the final cut of our episode and just showed the final two which looks kinder than it felt. I did a few more ITMs and OTFs and repetitions with more ENERGY than I possessed and then I could finally go home. I was honestly pretty relieved because I don’t think I had it in me to do that all over again; I just wanted to sink into the soothing speed of the 403.
Oh, the owners of the subject barn each came up to me to tell me that, out of all the paintings, mine was their favorite. As much as I berate myself for producing frivolously sweet paintings, that frivolous sweetness goes down easy in a bittersweet world. So I guess I’ll just keep swimming.
My episode (1/4) of Season 1 of “Landscape Artist of the Year Canada” aired February 16, 2020, on Makeful.