For This NASA Engineer, How Things Work Is Their Essence

Gillian McCulloch has a knack for seeing right through people. Which comes in handy when she’s painting them.

“Gillian is a really magical person,” says Stacey Doiron who sat for a portrait in Gillian’s home studio nearly four years ago.

“I felt like I could be myself in all the aspects of me. The shattered parts of me and the hopeful parts of me.”

Doiron’s portrait hangs in the Antigonish Town Library for the month of November alongside 27 others in McCulloch’s latest art exhibit entitled, Essence.

The likeness of the models in the paintings is uncanny, but that is hardly surprising given McCulloch’s long career as a professional artist.

What is surprising, or maybe the most striking on a first glance, is the way in which this artist’s choice of background and frame size can say just as much about her subjects, as the shape of their cheekbones or the colour of their eyes can.

“I think a lot of us go through our days not really being seen for a lot of the things that are in us,” says Doiron during an interview inside the library. “We might even start to hide those things from ourselves.”

“I think that Gillian has a gift for that. For seeing into people.”

That’s the essence McCulloch’s latest exhibit evokes.

“There’s an energy or a spirit with the person that you’ll hopefully express,” says McCulloch about her latest work. “That becomes the goal.”

McCulloch’s home is very close to a wide river in Antigonish County. You can see where the river flows at the very end of her front lawn and in between the apple trees planted there. Inside, the walls are bright and a small wooden shelf next to the door holds a collection of CDs, and even some cassette tapes with names like Leonard Coen and Edith Piaf written on them in black marker.

A little further along is McCulloch’s studio where she sits in a chair by the window.

“I was always drawing and colouring as a kid,” she says holding a cold glass of lemonade. “Or painting and playing with water colours. I always thought I was an artist, and when I was a young teenager I’d say that out loud ‘I want to go to art school’.”

She attended Sheridan College and cobbled together an early career with graphic design gigs, courtroom sketching, and doing newspaper illustrations for Sobeys.

“That was great, because afterwards I could keep the food,” says McCulloch.

She would save enough money for the first six months of the year to spend the other half on her family’s property in Cape Breton.

“That was an eye opener for a city girl, to live in the country in a cold place with a wood stove,” says McCulloch. “It wore the tinsel off of me.”

It also afforded her the time to work exclusively on her craft, and to dig deeper into her passion for still-life and portrait.

“When you’re young, you worry about skin tones,” she says. “Or getting the proportions right and learning the bones and the muscles. But over the years you realize that a person is so much more than that.”

Gillian McCulloch in front of her painting called Convalescence in this file photo. - Eric Wynne
Gillian McCulloch in front of her painting called Convalescence in this file photo. - Eric Wynne

Using the tools of her trade, McCulloch’s has spent the last 40 years trying to capture that energy on the canvas.

“You have your eyes, your hands, your paints. What are you going to do with them to express that person? You choose the pose, you choose what they’re going to wear. Is the lighting dramatic, bright sort, moody, or dark? It the mark making delicate, soft, or polished?”

The outcomes vary depending on the person sitting in her studio. For some, the frames are tall to show off individuals standing proudly against vibrant backdrops or posed lounging with the kind of confidence that a person might wear inside their own homes. Whether her subject is an outspoken pugilist or a quiet people-watcher like herself, these choices let McCulloch express what she sees in the people who sit for her.

“Some people are very big, powerful, and strong. Others have had very terrible things happen to them and they’ve become fragile, and some are just naturally gentle in the world,” says McCulloch who believes she would have been a psychologist or a councillor if she hadn’t been an artist.

“I find it really fascinating, and I listen as much as I can to try and understand the person,” she says.

Each session in McCulloch’s studio lasts between two and three hours, and there may be several sessions before the portrait is completed. Doiron sat with McCulloch a total of six times.

Her portrait, which is called The Spark, stands out from the others in all the ways that individuals can stand out from one another. But Doiron’s is also different in another way: it was painted entirely by candlelight.

“She had candles lit when we were sitting,” recalls Doiron. “There were no lamps, it was just all done by candlelight.”

The background that Stacey’s likeness appears against is darker than a lot of the portraits. The only source of light comes up from below her face and catches in her eyes.

The painting is called The Spark.

“Gillian knows that I’m a writer, and she also knows that it’s something that I’ve struggled with the last few years in getting back into it,” says Doiron who works for an engineering consultancy company and drafts electrical layouts for buildings.

“That’s how I want to live my life, wanting to live and work from a place of inspiration. I haven’t figured out how yet but the fact that Gillian sees in me that potential that is in there inside of me makes it feel like it’s still possible.”

Source : https://www.thechronicleherald.ca/living/the-novascotian/artist-gillian-mcculloch-know-for-capturing-peoples-essence-260086/

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