I love improv. Seeing people spontaneously come up with fresh ideas lets me not only feel like there’s a bit of genius in all of us, but that it’s quite normal to have ideas that flop. For example, acting like an epileptic penguin on stage is only funny for so long. It’s all about trial and error. When it comes to the finer arts however, where there’s less comedy, more critics and a lot of sensitive souls, inviting an audience in to watch ideas get tossed around isn’t always welcome. We often only get to take part in the final product; we buy the painting, watch the show, listen to music, wear the design. Visiting an artist in the studio however, in the messy unpolished process of trial and wonder, allows me not just to be a buyer, but to bear witness. I get to become an indelible part of the process. And so, I am off, on a cool summer afternoon, to visit some open door studios in the South Okanagan. It’s a free ticket to watch the improv of art, along one of the nicest drives in BC.
The places I’m visiting are part of the newly formed Lake-to-Lake Artist Studio Tour, a self-guided adventure to see an eclectic group of established artists in their workspace. For those who also love their whites and reds by the bottle, it conveniently runs along the wine route that weaves through Vaseux and Skaha lakes. The guide, available at many tourist destinations, features mini-bios, art samples and maps.
I head to Tangled Vines Winery. Their tasting room is also a gallery, with work from all the stops on the tour. The blend of art on the walls lends the place a heady charm, with undertones of playfulness and a sweet, colourful palette. One of the owners, Craig, goes canvas to canvas with me, talking about the importance of local art being supported by local business. He pairs his insights with a lovely bottle of their Three Blancs and I head on my way.
Barb Hofer, a renowned painter and head coordinator of the tour, happily invites me into her studio, also part of her home. Every painting Barb does comes with a little story of its own. Moments first captured on film, then translated to canvas, become painted snapshots of life among Okanagan flora and fauna. I fall in love with a finished piece of an owl in a plum tree and watch while she works on a new one of birch trees unfurling spring leaves on an orange sky. “I like to see how different colours sit together,” she says, as if, like me, she is getting to know this picture for the first time. She talks like a friend sharing thoughts and inviting questions, all without looking for approval or applause, making it easy to converse and be inspired by the work. I consider suggesting she add an angelic woman riding a pony through the trees—a blond, journalist perhaps? In the end I trust her instinct to keep my portrait out of it. I look better among cedars anyway.
Just around the mountain is Carol Munro’s magical world of beeswax painting. Also called encaustic, this type of art has a growing following in the Okanagan. Warm pots of vivid hues line a giant heat plate in her studio. Carol coaxes wax into puddles, running melted reds and yellows across paper with sponges and spatulas. She radiates a kind of youthful splendour that leaves me one step away from sticking my hands in the wax and patty caking them wildly in the air. The glint in her eye tells me she could handle it.
Despite my enthusiasm, I wonder how often moments of distraction and vulnerability occur for her and the other artists on the tour while strangers watch over shoulders. Does it hinder the spontaneity or create the unexpected? Is it fuel for artistic improv? Her unwavering faith in what unfolds suggests that interruptions can offer insight and let process trump outcome. And that is how the best of art is made. —Gillianne Richards