The Opening — Sarah Fougere



THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!

Sarah Fougere (née Holtom) is astoundingly prolific. Best known for the brilliant energy that she channels into portraits of friends and strangers, she has painted her way into the hearts and homes of Calgarians and Vancouverites alike. Her last stint at Black & Yellow sold out on its opening night — no easy feat, given that people were putting money down on works that were yet to be made. However, the allure of supporting a project that was equal parts performance, old-school portrait sitting, and crowd-sourced thrill kept the city — and the press — buzzing.

It goes without saying that Fougere did not disappoint; indeed, she made the trip back  from her current outpost of Canora, SK, to sell out yet another 50 Portraits show this summer. Though I had originally made plans to meet up with Sarah when she had a bit of downtime, we ended up chatting whilst she was in the thick of completing yet another portrait. Time, of course, was of the essence: as with her previous exhibition, Fougere only had fifteen short days to complete every painting on her roster. She worked with a frenzied, good-natured energy for the entire duration of our interview, detailing the truly awesome trajectory of her life thus far.

To celebrate the completion of this round of 50 Portraits, there will be a closing reception at Black & Yellow on the evening of Saturday, September 7th. RSVP.


Sarah Fougere, Portrait #22: Andrea B., 2013
Sarah Fougere, Portrait #22: Andrea B., 2013

VIA: Last time I talked to you, you were headed north. How about you give me a quick recap of what’s happened since then?

SF: On June 1st, my husband and I left the city to go to Ivvavik National Park and do a residency there. That was an incredible trip — 24 hour sunlight and supernatural beauty.

After leaving and coming back from the Arctic, we got to Canora, Saskatchewan, and moved into my house there that I bought for $5,500! It’s got three bedrooms and a huge garden and a big ol’ apple tree. We stayed there for about a week or two before we went to Ontario to have our wedding. We were married August 5th, then again on August 25th in Jasper, because we like to party! No, because it’s just easier for us to travel than to get people to travel across the country.

Then we went back to Canora, where I’ve been teaching and focusing on the house and getting healthy and working on a few paintings based on my Arctic series. It’s so cheap living there that I only really have to work a couple of days a week, which is nice.

This summer, I knew I wanted to go on a painting trip before the winter set in, because it sucks driving in the winter, so I booked the time off from my job.  I drove on my own out here, facing my fears because I’m not really a long-distance driving expert. And here I am! So far, I’ve been totally amazed. Last year, the show was a sell-out by the time of the opening. This year again, it sold out in a couple of days. It just blows me away because people are essentially buying blank panels! It gives me faith in humankind or something. I’m just so thankful that the project is working, and the fact that it’s successful so far has me hoping that I can keep doing it in the future in different cities as a travelling show.


Sarah Fougere, Portrait #29: The Spences, 2013
Sarah Fougere, Portrait #29: The Spences, 2013


VIA: What first inspired you to do portraiture-from-life?

SF: In my college years I drew like crazy — I drew people and whatever else was around me with pencil crayon in my sketchbooks. In my studio, I had a couch. People would come by and we’d sit and draw for hours and hours. I think that that’s where I got confidence in drawing figures in my own way. In my fourth year, I took an oil painting class. I couldn’t really get the concept that my professor was teaching, in that you’d block in solid colours and then build up the darks and the lights, so I just started using my paints like pencil crayons, basically. I’d just put the colours where I’d see it and blend it out. I feel like they’re oil sketches, almost.

In my fourth year, I had a show in the college gallery, where I painted people on a first-come first-served basis inside the gallery itself. It was a real hit because people would always come back to see who was getting painted. There was a fun buzz in the school around it. I really felt like I was onto something. You just need a diving board to get into a painting, and the rest is line, form, light, spatial, whatever, this, that. For me, this was a great way to really feel like I was learning and creating stuff that was collectible and could possibly be earning money for me.

After 2005, I applied to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for a grant to do a project where I’d do 100 portraits of Calgary artists, all from life in the same format. They denied me, but I kept going to work and doing my thing before I applied again to do a project in New York. Even before I heard back from them, I moved to New York because it’s what I wanted to do. But shortly after I got there, I got a call from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and they said, Sarah, we’ve been trying to reach you — you got your portrait grant! I thought I was going to be painting portraits in New York and sending them off, so I said, great, I just got here, I just got an apartment in Brooklyn! And they said, no, the one in Calgary! We had some leftover funds and we want you to come back to Calgary!

So I dropped everything and went back to Calgary. It was just a wicked summer, painting every day. I did the project on my bike — you can picture me riding my Pee-Wee Herman bike through traffic with a wet painting in my hand, backpack stuffed with my paint box, full sweat on and just looking like a total weirdo. But it worked out — I did the 130 days at their chosen location. It was pretty exciting and there was lots of publicity.

That project is in the permanent archives of the Glenbow Museum now. With the funds from that, I was able to buy my house!

Also, when I lived in Saskatchewan, I started a gallery called the National Gallery of Saskatchewan. We had a different show each month with artists from all over Canada and the States, and we had a little cult classic video section. It was really just funny — there were all kinds of artists that were totally top notch who agreed to do shows with us just to see our ridiculous name on their resumé.

Eventually, I got really bored of sitting in the gallery and working on other people’s stuff. I wanted to make my own paintings again. So I started a television show called “Painting from Life with Sarah Holtom” and kept at that for a few years before I broke up with my old boyfriend and decided to come to Vancouver. The Olympics were happening, and the 100 Portraits were maybe going to show. They didn’t end up showing, but I was out here anyway and ended up meeting Robert, my husband. I fell in love with the city and decided to move here for two years. And that brings us full circle!


Sarah Fougere, #28: Fiona and Jim Newton, 2013
Sarah Fougere, #28: Fiona and Jim Newton, 2013


VIA: I was going to ask you about the TV show — you’ve told me about it before but I have no idea how that worked or how that started.

SF: Access 7, the local television station in Saskatchewan, picks me up once a week and we go out and shoot two episodes. We’ll go sit out in a field or drive around until we see something interesting and set up. [here, Sarah gets into character and mimics her TV spiel]  Hi, welcome to the Painting from Life with Sarah Fougere show! Well, I’ve got my palette, we’ll mix up these colours, we’ll sit over here where there’s this nice little river, and we’re just gonna go for it.


VIA: Would it be instructional?

SF: It’s somewhat instructional, but I don’t necessarily want anyone to try painting along with me. I’m not pulling out half-baked paintings or putting happy trees in! Just like with painting portraits, which ends up being a bit of a performance as someone is sitting there watching you go for it, I thrive on that buzz, that excitement you get. With landscape, we’re racing against the weather and the light changing.

Saskatchewan has a vibrant art culture, but it doesn’t necessarily exist in my town. This was a way of bringing the gallery into people’s homes. It was a different approach to that. It kept me trying to be honest and doing my best as much as possible. I don’t mind getting embarrassed, I guess.


VIA: What’s been your best career experience so far? Have there been any patrons you’ve really connected with?

SF: Um, everybody! Everyone’s so open about sitting here and chatting — oh, you’re from Edmonton, you’re from here, you know so-and-so. There’s always that awkward moment, almost like in an elevator, where you don’t know how to be personable with strangers. But because we’re in this awkward position together and I look like a lunatic when I’m painting and they’re being looked at intensely from top-to-bottom, it becomes a really human experience. It’s really awesome to be able to share that kind of moment with somebody. Often, I don’t even know who’s going to be walking through the door.

Even this morning, I went to get a coffee at the Wilder Snail down the way here. I got my coffee and thought that I’d give them a pamphlet for the show, so I put it down and said, “Hey, I’m having a show down the street!” The guy behind me said, “Oh, is this you? I’ve got an appointment booked for me and my wife, I’m coming over in a few!”

I think it’s a really good icebreaker as far as meeting people goes, but beyond that, I really enjoy being able to paint full-out for a set amount of time. I feel like when I work in this crazy stint of mad production, I take it to new levels and my art muscles get real strong. I get more confidence and more coverage and ideally, my paintings are going to be worth millions of dollars, one day, right? That’s the dream, isn’t it — to be able to paint full time, anyways.


VIA: I was going to say that you’re pretty much already living the dream, having bought a house with your paintings and such.

SF: Yeah, I’m pretty thankful.


Sarah Fougere, Portrait #26: Claudia Fernandez, 2013
Sarah Fougere, Portrait #26: Claudia Fernandez, 2013


VIA: Has doing this project changed how you view or interact with people at all?

SF: If anything, I’ve got more faith in strangers. Lots of times, when I have success with a show, lots of people will come to the openings and I’ll know most of them. This time around, it was mostly people I didn’t know who showed up. They’d say, “Oh yeah, I might book one!” If anything, it builds up my confidence that this is a real gig that maybe I could take to, say, Portland next time, or LA. I could go anywhere, really!

But really, Graeme [Berglund] and Allison [Mander-Wionzek] from Black & Yellow really pulled their weight, especially when they arranged for me to paint picture of Michelle [Sproule] for Scout Magazine — she was awesome, and most people who have come heard about me because they read it in Scout Magazine. People look to the newspapers to see what’s going on in this town.

VIA: When you’re not painting, you teach art to kids at a detention centre. What’s that like?

SF: The kids are so receptive! They’re like, “Sarahhhh, teacher, mine doesn’t look good!” So I’ll go over and draw right on their work, and they’ll be like, “Oh, you’re so goooood!” And I’m like, yeah yeah yeah. I drew all their portraits for them too. Every time we have a new student, we’ll all sit down and I’ll draw a pencil-crayon sketch of them. It’s really crazy — some of them will have tears in their eyes. They’ll say, “Oh my god, I wanna keep this, make sure you sign this, okay?”

But in seriousness, a lot of them ask, what do you need to do to go to school? So I tell them about Klondike, or ACAD, or Emily Carr, or NSCAD. It’s important for me to let them know about options that, when you’re in high school, you wouldn’t really know about. At that age, you don’t know what to do or what your possibilities are. For them, they’re coming from pretty crazy, rough environments where maybe they need a positive influence that makes them proud of themselves, or maybe they just need to keep a sketchbook as a way of venting their interests. It’s cool, I really appreciate it.


VIA: What’s next after this?

SF: I ended up really liking the paintings I did in the Arctic. That’s on my to-do list right now — to make large scale paintings based on those paintings. I’m currently based in a studio, which is a rarity for me. I’m always thinking, well, how do I use a studio? Since I’m always painting from life — I’m an on-the-spot Johnny — it’s good for me to slow down and think about what some of my idols would do in a similar situation. For example, The Group of Seven would make paintings out in the wilderness, but then they would paint their so-called masterpieces once they got back to their studios. They’d use their plein-air paintings as field studies, essentially. With the funding from [the show at Black & Yellow], that’s what I intend to do this winter.

I’m going to break the drive home up a little and stop every eight hours and stay a night with friends along the way. Then I really have to get home because it’s harvest time and I have a kick-ass garden that I’ve put a lot of love into. I’m number one dad out there. I also have to get back to teaching — when I asked for the time off, they were so good about it. They said to me, “You go girl! Follow your dreams!”


Get in touch with Sarah Fougere.

Sarah’s exhibition at Black & Yellow comes to an end with a closing party tomorrow night at the Back Gallery Project (602 E Hastings). RSVP.

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