Lynn Wigginton (Devon Rogers/The East)

Lynn Wigginton: Saint John & The Drama Of The Door Knob

Lynn Wigginton is known for her painting series on the doors and windows of Saint John, and her vivid New Brunswick landscapes have made her one of Saint John’s most prominent painters, but she had originally intended to have a very different career path.

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When Wigginton began studying Fine Arts at Mount Alison University, it was with a focus on print making, “I didn’t paint at all; I dropped it as soon as I could because I wanted to be a print maker. I soon realised after I graduated, that print making facilities were just not around every street corner. Out of sheer desperation I started drawing, and drawing led to painting.”

That transition from printmaking to painting wasn’t an easy one, and Lynn compares her first experiences to being right back at school, “I did them like a print maker works. I would do a very detailed drawing, and then layers of paint, and I could do that with acrylic paint; build up the layers.”

Wigginton says that her processes and technique developed a little at a time, and then by leaps and bounds after moving into a studio. The studio allowed her to explore more options with space and materials, progressing from working on paper, to board and canvases.

“There were all these new materials that I could use, and I still worked mainly in acrylics. Somebody suggested, ‘Why don’t you try some oil paint?’ and that introduced a whole other elements for me,” recalls Wigginton.

“At each stage I’ve worked at there has been another development, another progression. I would find it very difficult to go back, because with oil paint you get that luminosity and depth, more than you can with the acrylic. I’ve always been interested by colour, but I have more opportunity to explore that sense of colour. I’ve benefited a great deal from when my son went to NSCAD. He’d come home with these gems of wisdom that his teachers had passed on to him and one of them was ‘paint like a millionaire’, which means just however much paint it takes, just use it. So that’s really exciting, like ‘Let’s go nuts here!’”

“It’s how I keep myself sane; I just needed to do some art. It’s one of those things that you need to do every day. That’s how my life has progressed: doing art.”

Living in an old city like Saint John, it’s no wonder that many of Wigginton’s  subjects are often historically significant. She’s recently made a full study, inside and out, of the Mount Pleasant Park’s Residence, and she’s well versed in the buildings history, but that seems typical of her approach, “I’ve always been interested in history so I think a lot of my subject matter reflects that; my fascination with old houses, street scenes, that sort of thing, I like to know the story behind that.”

Back in 1995, she partnered with Dr. Gregg Finley, director of Kings Landing, champions of all things historical, to publish a book on the church architecture of New Brunswick, “He had done his doctoral thesis on Bishop Medley, the first Anglican bishop of New Brunswick, who had a vision of gothic revival churches being built throughout New Brunswick. He came to New Brunswick, this god forsaken place, from England with the idea that he was going to build all kinds of stone chapels and churches throughout the province.”

“When he got here, he realised that was ridiculous. You couldn’t possibly build with stone in New Brunswick. You build with wood. So he modified the gothic revival style into wood, and as a result there are probably more little country churches per square inch in New Brunswick than any place else in the world.”

The project meant traveling throughout the province with her mother and children in tow, and while illustrating these churches, and building on that knowledge, she came to a common realisation, “There was no place that we would go in the province that there wasn’t some connection; somebody knew my dad, or somebody my mother knew. It’s just amazing.”

'Clifton - Expressions in Stone' (Courtesy of Lynn Wigginton)
‘Clifton – Expressions in Stone’ (Courtesy of Lynn Wigginton)

Wigginton is perhaps best known for her series on ‘The Doors of Saint John’. It’s a poster that seems to turn up everywhere, from used book stores, to church bazaars, or tucked away in the corner of an art gallery. Unsurprisingly, the poster has sold out, and the copies have been widely distributed like so much pollen, but she is happy to offer up door stories, and the happenstance that confirmed her project.

“We have very special doors, and when you start looking at doors in other places you realise what a unique treasure trove we have here. On a particular morning I was going out to check the details on this particular door on Sydney Street. I thought, ‘There’s not much time from now until the exhibition, there’s no way I can put these paintings together to make a poster, I’ll do it sometime, but I’m not going to have time to do it right now.’ Anyway, I arrived at the door, and started sketching, and this man wanted to go in the door. I stood back and he said, ‘No, no, carry on!’ So I finished what I was doing and he said, ‘I hope you’re going to turn that into a poster. There’s a poster for Halifax, and Lunenburg, and I don’t understand why there hasn’t been one in Saint John, because the best doors in Atlantic Canada are here!’ So with that I went home and phoned up a graphic designer and said, ‘I want to do a door poster!’ and that’s how it happened. I had no idea who that man was, and I’ve never met him again.”

'Doorknob and Lace' (Courtesy of Lynn Wigginton)
‘Doorknob and Lace’ (Courtesy of Lynn Wigginton)

“Doors are at street level, we all see them, we go in and out of them, and I think we all kind of fantasize what goes on behind those doors. All those doors are very special, they’re very unique, and your door says something about your home.”

Having already worked through her illustrations of the churches of New Brunswick, and then a series of paintings on the doors of Saint John, Wigginton chose to work down a similar architectural vein: the windows of Saint John, “People don’t seem to relate to windows the same way. A number of people said they felt kind of voyeuristic looking through them. Doors seem to have a real appeal to people. Doors seem to be more accessible; people seem to be able to relate to them more.”

Windows aside, Wigginton refocused her efforts on a proven product, “One day, I was out for a walk around the south end, and then I started noticing doorknobs, and I don’t know many other places that they still have these unique Victorian door knobs. In a way these aren’t really secure locks anymore. I don’t think it’s apathy; people really do care about these door knobs. There’s something special, and something unique. There is a door knob association of North America. The fellow who is the head of this… Door Knob Association of North American said, ‘These are the jewels of a house, the fine details’. It’s also a challenge, door knobs are in a very short space, so to create that sense of space in a door knob so that it is interesting, so it’s not just a flat pattern, how do you create that sense of depth? The drama of the door knob!”

“The best paintings are the ones I get lost in when I’m working on them. I’m in my own world, so when somebody comes to the door I usually jump about ten feet.”

Wigginton’s landscapes speak for themselves, vivid and beautiful; they capture iconic New Brunswick on the best hair day (arbor day?) of its existence. Painted large, they have the curious effect of being best viewed at a distance. She paints to shake viewers from their habitual standpoints of some very familiar scenery, highlighting its beauty from unfamiliar angles.

“There needs to be a reason for people to stop, and you can call it the ‘oh wow’ factor, or whatever you want to call it. I think it introduces something that perhaps is familiar and people see it in a new way. You also want a sense of drama when you do these paintings. It’s like you’re looking at a performance, a stage, and you want people to feel that they are a part of whatever it is they’re looking at. They want to be drawn in, and so to do that you need to create a sense of depth, a sense of space. Every artist has a different reason for picking what they do, and attempt to do with that they see.”

Low Tide At Wolf Point (Courtest of Lynn Wigginton)
Low Tide At Wolf Point (Courtesy of Lynn Wigginton)

Having long established herself as successful painter, Lynn is now toying with the idea of returning to her roots, “Now that the art centre has a print making facility I’ve actually started dreaming of going back and doing some print making. It’s come full circle.”

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