Move over Group of Seven!

Painting team Dave & Jenn on collaboration and their love affair with the Alberta landscape

When artists Dave & Jenn are asked what their biggest ecological concerns are they reply in unison “Everything!” The two emerging painters have been collaborators since art school where they began to translate their mutual interests in science ecology and conservation of our natural environment into densely detailed landscape paintings.

The pair was selected as semifinalists in the Royal Bank Canadian Painting Competition just months out of art school and has garnered interest from the National Gallery in their team painting approach. Still the “ridiculously shy” duo is more at home working and chatting together in the studio (where painting is a full-time job) or out in nature. Jenn puts this poetically when she says “I can do a social event with trees but a social event with people scares the living daylights out of me.” All social anxiety aside Dave & Jenn will be introduced to broader audiences with a big bang this fall: they are showing in exhibitions at the Glenbow Truck Contemporary Art in Calgary and in a debut solo exhibition Skew Gallery. In their new painting for Truck “Artist-Run culture becomes an organism in and of itself” not unlike a social ecosystem she says.

“We consider ourselves landscape painters” says Jenn though the pair initially resisted the idea because of its stodgy associations. “Being a painter in Canada what do you think about? The Group of Seven because their paintings are some of the most recognized artistic images yet most Canadians have never been to those places.” It’s important for the pair to visit the places that they paint even if the result is a combination of a physical landscape and a social or political idea.

“Artists also deal with the mythology of landscape” Jenn says. After all “landscape painting is what places become through the translation of human ideals.” Some of their recent concerns are about the trees on their Kensington block that are being eaten by pests and environmentally friendly alternatives to having a lawn. Waiting to Leave is a painting of their house and yard that can be viewed from both sides like a great open-plan dollhouse and is based on a sense of home in their Calgary neighbourhood. They’re big advocates of xeriscaping where plants that are native to the area are used in landscaping and wish that more Calgary homeowners would adopt the practice. “The idea is to plant things that are supposed to be there. You don’t need to water them a lot or use any pesticides” says Dave. “In Calgary that would mean less big trees and lots of beautiful prairie grasses.”

Both are particularly fond of Lake Edith just outside of Jasper where Dave’s grandfather built a cabin in the 1940s where his parents met and where many a family summer was spent. These stories are the subject of And Jennings saw Diana a thick slab of resin embedded with blue and green hues of a thriving lake full of fish and the more abstract creatures they imagine might be lurking in the deepest parts of the lake. They’ve seen big changes in the small community though even in their lifetimes. “Now it is different because the land is being sold off to people who just want a piece of expensive real estate” Jenn says. Any modesty about their keen interest here is betrayed by a well-thumbed guidebook by famed Jasper naturalist and activist Ben Gadd on their table.

“People are complacent with the relationship that we have developed to our surrounding environment but it is difficult to stop a train that is barrelling down the tracks” Jenn laments. Dave adds that it’s probably too late to reverse our impact on the Earth. Just as they work side-by-side on the same canvas they also tend to finish each other’s sentences.

They say that painting is a “meeting point for the information overload” picked up from their conversations television travelling and especially the radio that’s almost constantly on in their studio. In their thirst for inspiration from the natural world they’re particularly fond of CBC radio’s Quirks and Quarks which spurred them to think about how “quantum theory parallel universes dark matter and black holes” that are discussed on the show can be depicted visually. Add that to their interest in Japanese cartoons as inspiration because “they examine how the natural world and the technological world can be at odds with each other” as they pause to contemplate what the end of the world might look like. This gives an approximate idea of what the painting they call the Old Cartographer’s Swan Song looks like.

“And finally this painting is bait” Jenn announces while showing off a relatively tiny piece called Dave & Jenn are Hungry . With a crate suspended above the painting using a pulley system the work will be humorously rigged up to “trap an art collector or something to eat.” When they get up close to look at the work the pair laughs.

This is third in a series of interviews with Calgary artists designers and politicians about their work and ideas for arts and culture in our city.