- Words by David Wylie Photography by Darren Hull
Artists are often inspired by emotional reactions. Kelowna painter Anita McComas’ success as an acrylic artist, however, was shaped by an allergic one.
Early in her painting life, the Kelowna artist developed an affinity for the colour and texture of oil paints. She gravitated toward the old-world Rembrandt palette.
“My work back then was really different than it is now. It was a lot more realistic,” Anita said.
Over time, the chemicals in the oil paints started to irritate her eyes, and Anita would shed tears uncontrollably as she painted. The allergy forced her to switch to acrylics.
“If you’re used to oils, switching to acrylics is a struggle. One of the problems with acrylics is the colour you paint is not the colour you see the next day — it changes,” she said.
“The feel of the paint is different. The way the paint goes on is different … all of that makes you start to experiment with more and different colour, and eventually you narrow it down to those colours that work for you.”
Anita now paints with predominantly Golden brand acrylics, using the jewel tones to create an iridescent effect in selected portions of her work.
“If you thin them down, you start to see the shimmering in them,” she said. “I’ve moved from those darker, more realistic earthy kind of tones to bright ones.”
Painting on the bright side wasn’t to everyone’s taste, and she has had to overcome criticism for her colourful, impressionistic style.
In 2014, Anita had a booth at the Calgary Stampede’s Artist Showcase. Getting into the show was an honour in itself, she said. She had time to get to know the other artists over the 11-day event, including a BC artist she highly respected for his work.
“We started chatting, and he’s standing in front of my booth. He’s looking at it, shaking his head. He says, ‘I’ve figured it out; you just need to dip your paintings in black,’” recollected Anita.
The blunt statement shocked her into silence.
“What do you say to that? I couldn’t even talk about it because it was just so devastating.”
However, she used the stinging criticism to further hone her craft and continued to own her unique style.
“I think it made me challenge myself more. I re-examined my work and it became better because of it. I was able to blend the less realistic aspect with a little more realism,” she said, adding that she started to use more mid-tones to bring out facial details.
Along with changing up her paint from oil to acrylic, Anita has also changed the focus of her art. For years, she never wanted to paint anything that didn’t have people in it.
However, moving to British Columbia was an awakening. A visit to stunning Lake Louise, Alberta, first inspired her to start painting landscapes. In BC, there was no shortage of inspiration for her artistic eye.
“All of my first works were landscapes when I came to BC,” she said. “I threw in, every once in a while, the animals.”
One of her pivotal paintings featured a bear, with the city encroaching on his habitat. Since then she’s focused her unique style on capturing the majestic side of animals with subtle undertones of shifting spaces, bold strokes that hint at emerging spaces or plains, or a sense of overlapping time frames.
Moose were another favourite subject in her animal series.
“I love the magic in the antlers, so I exaggerate them. That’s how I do most of my animals. There’s something exaggerated to keep them from being real.”
In a way, it’s a return to her first love. Nature was part of Anita’s life from an early age. She grew up on a 40-acre family farm in the state of Maryland.
“My whole childhood was spent weeding a three-acre garden. We grew tons of our own food,” she said.
Anita spent her youthful days around the animals on the farm, and was particularly taken with her aunt’s many horses, which were often the subject of her work.
Leaving the farm behind, she got her fine arts degree and took a job as an import buyer for Craftworld, which was the biggest craft distributor in the United States at the time. Her job took her to Taiwan and Hong Kong, where she met her husband-to-be Lorne Nadler. She eventually emigrated to Canada and they built a life together.
With a full-time job as vice-president for a Canadian importer of work and safety equipment, as well as a young family to raise, Anita sought refuge in her art. She started attending a nighttime painting studio, three hours once a week. It was her first foray into painting, as she’d been mainly drawing up to that point.
The business side of her personality never really gave up its grip on her artistic life.
“There are some artists who just feel everything and they just go with that. I’m the artist who could have also been an accountant,” she said. “I have that analytical side. It’s a really weird crossover because you’re fighting your left brain to let the right brain take over.”
Anita suffered a tragedy last year when Lorne, who was her husband for 29 years, passed away. She said that painting has been instrumental in the healing process.
“My husband was for years a very public part of my art. He really helped foster a community connection to my art through his personality and his love of people. If you knew my art you probably had met Lorne,” she said. “In a way, for the past year my work has been a very primary part of healing or dealing with a new reality, creating an intensity and further developing the theme of non-permanence and change that underlies much of my work, particularly as I paint those often shifting plains that are very obvious in my animal series.”
Now Anita is looking for ways to engage in the community in a way that’s meaningful to her, and has taken an interest in the new Creative Hub proposed by the City of Kelowna.
With her personal focus on life-long learning, she’s currently in her second year of an Arts Leadership and Cultural Management master’s-level degree at Colorado State University.
“I have an interest in community art development, which in many ways balances the solitude of working as a professional artist in the studio-based path that I have chosen,” she said.
“I see a huge gap in the sense of community for artists in Kelowna. Compared to other communities, such as Penticton and Peachland, there is no centre that visual artists have. We need a community gallery, not hallways, to hang shows. We need a place to meet, hold classes, share thoughts and band together to support each other.”
To see more of Anita’s work, go to her site anitamccomas.com