George & Marjorie Henn

A Couple of Artists

written by Deb Guerette; photography by Candace Popik

George & Marjorie at Home

George Henn has never promoted himself as an artist, despite having created many fine tapestries proving that he is one.

Weaving has been a major creative outlet for him for some thirty years, and many of George’s tapestries hang in the home he shares with wife Marjorie just outside Beaverlodge. While weaving always demands concise process, when designing a tapestry he enjoys applying a natural, simplistic Grandma Moses style, George says.

George’s earliest exposure to weaving was in the American southwest where he saw Navajo people weaving. After a course he took in 1979 in Beaverlodge, he knew weaving was his line, and his interest in learning and mastering varied techniques in what he calls a demanding discipline only grew.

While his studio work space was under construction for most of 2011 with a move to a new house, the last thing George has been working on is a life motif, broken into scenes of seven to 10 year periods in his life.

Early on, most of his weaving was flat weaving, creating patterned tableware, towels, runners, and blankets. While weaving always demands concise process, designing a tapestry is where he enjoys applying a natural, simplistic Grandma Moses style, George said.

One of few tapestries he ever entered in a juried show, a transparency he created after taking a workshop on the technique, is a work he likes for the subtle interaction within it.

The tapestry, called A Prairie Moment, is an impression of a buffalo and coyote on a prairie plain.

“They were looking at each other with dubious intent. That is just the way it is on the prairies; that quite often, all you have is some rather not very defined statements,” said George.

Where Hope Meets Help by George Henn

A tapestry George titled Where Hope Meets Help was a major piece, taking some 200 hours to complete, and the only work he has done for commission.

Done for the County of Grande Prairie, Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) centennial, it incorporates scenes of family and community life, woven through a Peace Country landscape.

“The emphasis I was putting on was the strong ties and support, in the early days between neighbours, friends, and families,” said George.

A strong connection to Alberta’s landscape has been the focus of most of his creative work, and a major influence in his art education was Euphemia McNaught.

“I might have been her blackish sheep, because I never did anything (with drawing),” says George. “But, she taught you how to see. One of her most significant contributions to my education was to learn how to look at things and see.”

The fine perception he developed is well applied in a work called Rock Lake completed around 2003 using various techniques of shading to recreate the light as the sun goes down.

The piece hangs in their home, but has been on display and garnered some recognition at an exhibit at the Beaverlodge Cultural Centre.

George Henn at his loom

“They said someone stopped dead and said ‘who did that,’” George said. “That’s when you know you have something.”
George’s reluctance to promote his work hasn’t stopped him from needing and enjoying the creative outlet it has provided for him over the years.

“When I am weaving, and get totally immersed in what I am doing; and you lose yourself in technique and the job at hand; that is criteria you apply more to artistry,” said George. Marjorie, who has drawn since childhood, knows exactly what George means.

From joyful summers at her family’s Halcourt area farm doing pen and ink, through a successful career as a commercial and fine artist, and later a teacher, Marjorie’s need to do art has always been there.

“Art to me, if everything else fell away in my life, as long as I had a table to work on and something to draw with, I could survive. That’s kind of the bottom line,” Marjorie said.

Early drawings earned top awards in County Fair contests, and Marjorie knew in her teen years she wanted to make a living doing art. After high school she attended the Alberta School of Art in Calgary, completing a General Art Diploma in 1962 and a Commercial Art Major in 1963.

Staying at the top of her class for three years to maintain a scholarship, Marjorie became involved in the student union as social committee chair, and started down another path that has both diverted and supported her career since.

Saskatoon Mountain by Marjorie Henn

Her contribution as the social committee chair won her an award in her last year of college, and early in her marriage, while raising a child and freelance illustrating in Parksville, B.C., she spearheaded a wildly successful series of Theatre by the Sea performances that kept her very busy.

“I do see a common thread when I look back in life,” Marjorie admits.

“I remember one girl friend in Vancouver saying to me ‘every time you really get going in your artwork, you get involved in something you have to organize and then you lose time away from your art,’ and that is absolutely true.”

The business and organizational skills she developed, along with her tenacity to initiate and guide a project to success did help her make a living with her art though. When given advice to just ‘go knock on doors until someone gives you a chance,’ that’s exactly what she did. From the first 30 calls she made, she got 17 jobs.

The work through those years gave her a strong background in perspective drawing and draftsmanship.

“There wasn’t a thing that I didn’t figure out how to illustrate in just pen and ink,” Marjorie said.

Marjorie Henn at work

It was also during those years that pushed by a friend, she entered her first juried show, the 1982 Juried Regional Show, in Port Alberni. B.C.. Marjorie wasn’t expecting much, and hadn’t even gone to the opening, but got an excited call from her friend when her entry, a brown ink drawing of a house she shared with roommates in Vancouver, was selected as a Most Popular Work.

A commissioned piece, a pen and ink drawing of a historical marine building in Vancouver, was an opportunity that helped her branch further into fine art. The piece was published on the cover of Heritage West Magazine, in Victoria, B.C., and has been recognized in juried shows, exhibited and sold in limited edition prints.

“It was a real branch out. I could put my own stamp on it. I did it as I see it. It was one of the first non-commercial pieces that wasn’t a design and it lead to more work in that area.”

“It is probably one of the best pieces I did in pen and ink.  That was 1983 – 30 years ago, and I haven’t tackled as major a piece as that one since.”

Returning to Beaverlodge in 1993, Marjorie turned a residence into a studio/gallery, delved heavily into watercolour work, and began teaching at the Centre for Creative Arts and Grande Prairie Regional College.

Teaching was new, but she quickly discovered she loved it, and like her other passions, immersed herself in study and practice to offer the best courses she could.

“It just enlarged my scope,” said Marjorie who taught all levels of drawing and watercolour from 1994 to 2005.

Her return to the Peace Country also drew her back to landscapes and horizons that hold a special power for her.

“Landscape is the thing that draws me the most. We’d be out on a camping trip and I’d say – oh George you have to stop here. I would see something and it would just light a fire and I would have to stop and sketch it,” Marjorie said.

While she never painted a tree, bay or island while living on the coast, driving through the mountains in Alberta before she moved back, she couldn’t wait to paint that landscape.
“Who could ignore the blues; who could ignore the shifts of pink,” Marjorie said.

Applying coloured pencil lines and glazing in her watercolour work are techniques Marjorie has explored in many works.  The line work is a technique she developed while teaching. “I learned to paint almost dry, and I do it over top of paint. It is different if you do it first.”

“It has a wonderful effect, a daintiness, a fineness,” Marjorie said.

Glazing took a long time to master, Marjorie said, but she has enjoyed the results.

“I do washes and washes, it builds up in layers. I think I perfected it here,” Marjorie says, showing a piece called Saskatoon Mountain, a watercolour she did in 2003, and one of three signatures piece she submitted to become a member of the Federation of Canadian Artists.

Pressed for something unique to offer for a cultural centre fundraiser, a sudden idea to draw saskatoons took her watercolour work to a new level too.

“It was a piece that broke from my expected level of watercolour then. There has to be a highlight on every berry, a round reflective light – it makes them come alive,” she said.
“I did them in all kinds of sizes and formats and sold every saskatoon I ever did.”  Encouraged by George, she expanded further into a set of cards of Saskatoon’s, crab apples, crocuses and blue bells, and still sees more to explore.

“I did realistic drawings with the berries, but I saw them as an abstract design too. I nearly started off on that path…, but I didn’t have time to do the experiment,” Marjorie said.

People have often encouraged her to hold more art shows, Marjorie says, but as always, finding the time to complete a body of work for a solo show has been daunting.
The first time she held a show at Picture Perfect in Grande Prairie, she finished a painting for it just hours before the show opened.

After taking a sabbatical from teaching in 2005, art was to be her primary focus again, but community ties pulled her into a busy role establishing a historic society to restore the McNaught Homestead.

Marjorie has turned those responsibilities over to new volunteers, and with a new house she and George started building in 2010 finished, she is looking forward to more focus on her painting again, hopefully without any deadlines for a year or two.

“My dream is still to get in that studio, lose myself for hours on end and spend more time painting what I have been curious about but haven’t taken time to go into more detail: to take one subject or composition and just explore it further,” Marjorie said.

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