Art is a lot like religion. It’s an expression of our perception of the world around us. Some is very deliberate, with a strong sense of tradition, finding comfort in long-established rules. Some is created in opposition to those rules, and some, like wild shamans, are happy to find a basis in their own unique experiences. What becomes apparent when you spend time talking with artists, is that, whichever the case, that perception, and the expression of it, is vivid, sacred, and compulsory. So when asking Deanna Musgrave about her artistic process, it wasn’t surprising when she began working out my astrological profile.
“I’m really obsessed with water. Always have been. We’re all born in an element. Some people are more fire. When were you born? I bet you’re earth. You seem very grounded. You could also be water. Water people are sensitive,” says Musgrave.
In particular, she is referencing the process of ‘watermarking’ that immediately identifies her work: placing objects on the canvas, and allowing paint and water to cover them, and evaporate. It leaves an impression, but for Deanna it’s more than just physical. It’s spiritual; a memory that carries an energy.
“A lot of the objects I use are personal items: I have Isaac’s skate wheels. I have a jewelry box from the girl that was supposed to be my first step daughter. I never got to say good bye to her when I broke up with my last partner. I’m still sad about that, eight or nine years later. That energy with her is still on the box. These objects have personal meaning, and lately I’ve been feeling grounded enough to take on other people’s energy and asking them to put something in the painting.”
Having studied at Mount Allison University, a school known for both it’s fine arts and music programs, Deanna’s work has always focused on connecting the two, and creating visible representations of the imperceptible.
“So far it’s these fluid forms that have these references; they could be thoughts, subconscious desires, and all kinds of different things. Looking at images, x-rays, infrared, and ways that computers have allowed us to see things that aren’t perceptible to us, I think something invisible would look a lot like chi energy; very fluid, fog-like, which works with the cloud-like forms, and that’s why my process with the watermarking involves water and evaporation.”
“Like 19th century landscapes; I paint in a way that’s presented abstractly, and I think that’s what people like in the work. It’s somehow familiar because they recognise these sequences of colour from romantic paintings, but it’s this new and odd form.”
The abstract and expressive nature of Deanna’s work gives her room to draw inspiration from numerous sources simultaneously. They weave their stories around each other; some visible nods to her surroundings make appearances, romanticising the gulls and harbour fog of Saint John, and the less visible secrets each item worked throughout the watermark.
“I actually find the form of the clouds rising up from the pulp mill very beautiful. It’s all about clouds and fog, and gulls, and… pollution. Not really. Just that cloud form. It’s like a tower, and it’s constantly shifting. Some windy days it’s going this way, and on rare days it goes straight up, and it changes colour with the different moods of the sky. I realise that is sort of represents something maybe not… it’s hardly environmentally friendly, but I always stare at it and kind of get hypnotised by it.”
But what has come to mark Deanna in her ethos as an artist, has been the tragic losses of her sister Debbie in 2007, and her step-son Isaac. Isaac passed away in his sleep in 2014, and naturally it has affected Deanna deeply.
Recently she organised a fundraiser for a Fredericton skatepark in his memory, but both her sister Debbie, and step-son Isaac have regularly found ways into Deanna’s artwork.
“My painting of Isaac I did for the Beaverbook, to me, that’s a very much a visual representation of what I see that afterlife looking like. It’s an energetic flow like water, clouds, nebulas, moving in and out with things that make sense and things that are just aesthetic. Having lost two people in my life tragically, you kind of have to face that question about angels, and that other side, that other life. Each times I’ve lost someone, that veil between here and there becomes thinner. So I would say that I do have a variety of extreme experiences that lead me to believe yes, there’s life after death.”
“Painters have a voice, and you have to find that voice. I think mine has to do with light and movement, and space, vastness. I think those deaths have helped to make that clear.”
The concept of death is perhaps further reflected in the inherent impermanence of her process. The intangibility of emotions, the perspective we gain on them over time, and just seeing what sticks, all play important roles in Deanna’s work.
Her most recent, and most ambitious piece, titled ‘Cloud’, was created for the University of New Brunswick’s Hans W. Klohn Commons at their Saint John campus. It is a jewel set high atop an already stunning building. The impressively monolithic 10 x 56 series of panels immediately draw your eyes upward. Great swaths of cloud of inhabited by all manner of things; from floppy disks, to monitors, to books, and old hard drives. It’s an ode to the conveyance of information, both archaic and modern, and mixed in for good measure are also plenty of seagulls.
“The Akashic Records, the idea that there’s knowledge of everything all around us all the time, and that certain people that get to a high frequency can access it. Carl Jung talks about the collective unconscious, like maybe we’re all part of a giant brain that’s just invisible, I find it interesting how the internet almost mimics that.”
“All these things are like a graffiti wall: some things get evaporated off, and other things stay and are more prominent. That’s from Isaac. And Debbie, my sister, she was a bird watcher. We suggested that people bring binoculars to look at the mural, because there are birds there. I actually signed their names on the mural, ‘Debbie Musgrave was here’, ‘Isaac Miller was here’ as you would on a graffiti wall. That’s how their deaths have affected my work in a very visceral way.”