Three Peace River Artists: Seeing Feeling

Art as a window on the world and the soul�
By Susan Thompson

Interviews with three members of the Peace River Art Club

The town of Peace River seems blessed with a disproportionate amount of natural beauty. Every road in or out leads to a sweeping view of the valley’s high, tree-lined hills, which explode into colour in the fall. Meandering creeks cut through forest and farmland and provide gathering places for a variety of wildlife. The wide, glittering river itself flows directly through the heart of the town, which lies nestled along opposite banks and is held together by the graceful arches of a large bridge. In winter, the sky often shines with the dancing colours of the northern lights.

It seems only natural that living in such a landscape would inspire art, and Peace River is indeed at the heart of a small but talented community of local artists.

Valerie PalmerValerie Palmer is known locally as the “mushroom lady” because of her complex, earth-toned abstracts made from mushroom spore prints. Born and educated in England, Palmer emigrated to Canada in 1958. After living in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and B.C., Palmer settled on an acreage a few kilometers outside of Peace River in the mid 70s with her husband Don. Although Palmer says she has been interested in art since she as a little girl, the abundant nature of the Peace Valley led her to develop her interest in art to its full potential. “I’ve always loved nature and the country, so I find this particular place with the valley and the river and the nature that goes with it very attractive.”

Palmer says she was surprised at the numbers and varieties of mushrooms on her property when she first moved to the area and began to use them to make prints by laying the mushrooms on paper and leaving them to drop their spores. Over time she learned which mushrooms had spores of certain colours, and began to incorporate negative spaces into the prints by using natural materials such as grasses and leaves as a sort of stencil.

“I think to do any kind of artwork you have to have good powers of observation,” says Palmer. “With the computers and all these types of gadgets…kids are probably not in tune enough with the natural things that are going on around them and that bothers me. They need to learn to observe, to see, to hear.”

Palmer also does charcoal drawings, etchings, and photography. Her work has been shown and sold at exhibitions around the province, including a joint show with Geri France at the Oppertshauser Gallery in Stony Plain and a solo show at the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton. Most recently Palmer’s spore prints were displayed at a juried group show in Peace River during the Alberta Winter Games.

Judy WoodsFor Judy Woods art is more a kind of therapy, both for herself and the children she teaches. Although she has gained significant local recognition for her sensitive and detailed charcoal drawings focusing mainly on wildlife, she says it was struggling with the emotional effects of a difficult life that set her on the artist’s path.

“I started out as a little kid,” Woods remembers. “We lived in Rocky Mountain house where all the wildlife was and that’s what kind of inspired me.”

Woods says that living in the Peace lets her stay close to the nature that she loves, and she enjoys going camping and taking walks outdoors on her acreage near Dixonville. But external observation isn’t the only thing that drives her to create.

“It’s very calming. And I think that’s what really drove me to it, the harsher life that we had when we were growing up. It was a way of calming myself instead of being angry.”

Woods has shown her work at a number of local exhibitions including the recent shows at the Alberta Winter Games, and has also contributed a number of pieces to silent auctions.

“I’ve also sold a few pieces. Quite a few pieces actually in this area,” Woods says.

Woods currently instructs art classes for students in grade one to nine at Dixonville school. Through the classes, she is also able to help students with behavioral problems or difficult home situations express themselves, just as she has learned to do.

“The students that don’t achieve well in the regular curriculum will achieve well in this area, because it’s a way of letting their feelings be expressed,” she explains.
Ruth DoyonWhile both Valerie Palmer and Judy Woods take landscape and living things as their main inspiration, Ruth Doyon’s work is more purely introspective. A native of Quebec, Doyon originally studied with printmaker, author and Grande Prairie College instructor Keith Howard in the early 90s and later worked with him as a master printer using non-toxic printmaking techniques. She is currently only a course away from finishing her fine arts diploma.

Doyon says it has been a personal choice to maintain a full-time job while doing her art, since she feels it gives her the ability to experiment.

“Although I’d like to make a living at art, I don’t want to have the pressure to make commercial pieces that will sell. I know that in the next few years I’m going to go probably in directions that I haven’t been before and that’s great.

“Her work has been shown as part of a number of exhibitions and several travelling shows, including “Traces et Territoires” which toured Moncton, Winnipeg, and Regina; “Vision albertaine,” and the Alberta Society of Artists’ travelling exhibition on “9/11.” Her work has appeared annually at the Centre d’arts visuels de l’Alberta in Edmonton since 1998, and she also exhibited in Peace River during the Winter Games.

Doyon says that her cultural heritage is only part of what informs her work. “I don’t have the feeling that what I do is specifically French. Of course it’s part of who I am but . . . I’m certainly not too much in the traditional way. If you go to Quebec and look at the art there, traditionally you will see lots of old houses. Here in western Canada you will see lots of animals.” Her work represents personal pursuits. “More recently, it has become the expression of my inner world, a window for my soul.”

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