“You’re lucky, we actually had a chance to clean,” Jill Higgins says humbly as she leads me through an obviously immaculate home and into her office studio. For the moment, it’s a private oasis dedicated to Jill’s work as an architect and an artist; draft table in one corner, and a monstrous easel in the other, two juxtaposed pillars of work and play. But there is a child-sized easel tucked away in there, and noises of active family life in the nearby kitchen hint at the fragility of that solitude. “You can join them if you like,” Jill jokes at my apparent jealousy as her kids head out to Beavers for the evening, “I’m sure you can borrow someone’s buggy and race it.”
If you’ve been fortunate, you may have spotted some of Jill’s work at the Rothesay Netherwood School’s annual Spring Art Show, but it’s otherwise rare to find her work out in the wild. Her audience has been largely limited to friends and family, “I’ve never really looked into galleries. I don’t even know how to go about it to be honest. It’s never been about money.” With few outlets, the result has become a surplus of artwork, stacks of paintings building up to fill just about every available space of her studio and hang on the walls throughout her house. The amount of effort that goes into it is impressive; Jill is by necessity a juggler, working from home as an architect, and mother to some very active kids, finding the time to paint with a busy schedule is nothing short of a labour of passion, “With the kid’s schedules and work, trying to find the time between their sports and activities to paint and work, a lot of times the kids will go to bed at 7:30 or 8:00 and that’s when I start for the day.”
Jill began her artistic career like many Gen-Y’s: by nicking her mother’s tole paints, “I’ve always liked crafts, as a kid, you know, drawing and colouring, that sort of stuff. My mom took tole painting when I was really little. I found her tole painting kit: her paints and paintbrushes, completely took them over and started painting anything that I could possibly find; from old pieces of furniture. If my brother built something, I painted it. It went from there into water colors and acrylics, and actually doing painting as opposed to tole painting.” There may have been a brief, and not all together surprising, flagging of her enthusiasm during high school, but which of us hasn’t struggled with our passions as they’re put through the meat-grinder codification of academia?
“I took art in high school; I quite sucked at it. I wasn’t very good. It was okay. I’m sure I’ve had some very great teachers, but nothing really spoke to me about the progression of art.”
Jill regained her focus only after she began studying architecture at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It was a career choice that reflected her interests, but as Jill explains it, for her architecture represented the safer, more career dependable side of art. “To get into architecture you have to have a portfolio; I did some photography, and sketching, and painting on the side, but it was just fooling around with it. Then I took an introduction to oil painting at NSCAD with Heather Sayeau. She is a fantastic teacher that spoke to me, as far as progression and how to start. I guess I was never really taught how to start a painting properly until I started painting with Heather. It made me move from acrylics to oils, which are, in a way, a little bit daunting because they’re so messy. But when I took that class it made me want to get into oils, and I’ve worked from that studying other artists.”
Jill has worked hard since then to establish her own style, but draws much of her inspiration from the likes of Van Gogh and The Group of Seven; their styles blend and are reimagined on an Atlantic coastline as Nouveau Maritime Canadiana. It makes for some very vivid and playful artwork: bright colours, thick outlines, and invariably pleasant. “I’m drawn to our Maritime aesthetic. I love landscapes. I find it very inspirational; it’s so beautiful, but beauty that you can never capture it. You strive to be as beautiful as the landscape that’s there, but it’s almost impossible.”
The work has paid off, as Jill has proven by recently wining our Faces of Fusion 2015 Art Battle, competing against eleven different artists, over two twenty minute rounds, in front of a crowd of a couple hundred people. It was not only Jill’s first Art Battle as a competing artist, it was her first experience even attending an Art Battle, not to mention a return to her long neglected acrylics, “It was inspirational to be in front of people other than your family to give you good criticism. Because they’re you’re family and they have to like your stuff. It was exciting to have good feedback in a different environment. It was scary. I was shaking the whole time and trying to do a straight line. It’s a different colour pallet than I usually use, so I went and got all the colours they have on the list, and then I just practice trying to figure out first what’s a good subject matter that will work for simplifying it to a twenty minute painting. So literally I would get a canvas out and I got my big brush, set my timer, and I would just go at it. I would be like ‘Oh my god! Twenty-five minutes!!’”
“If I hadn’t practiced I would have been there just drooling on my paintings. So this took me twenty minutes, and the amazing thing is that when you’re in front of a crowd like that, you’re scared shitless and you’re nervous, you end up going faster. That’s what happened. I was like, ‘Ughhh, I think I’m done, what should I do?’ and people were saying ‘Just keep painting!’ but then you just muddle it. The worst thing you can do is just keep going over top of it. It’s better to just stop while you’re ahead.”
If Jill was any more flourished than a freshly crisped cucumber, it didn’t show. She’ll be going on to compete in the upcoming regional Art Battle. In the meantime you can find more of her work on her Facebook, and at the Rothesay Netherwood School Spring Art Sale being held May 9th, 10th, and 11th.