Home is Where the Light is - Artist Irvine

Article by Bronwyn Boyer / Photography by Kelly Holinshead

To look at Meghan Irvine’s paintings is to get lost in the experience they capture, the characters portrayed and the stories they tell. Irvine’s work delves much deeper than the aesthetic beauty of the natural world around her; ultimately, it’s about the relationships she forms with each tree, rock, animal, leaf, stream she shares with her viewers. The way the light accentuates features of nature only experienced in fleeting moments, if at all, can be found in Irvine’s brush strokes and conscientious use of colour.

Irvine grew up in Waterloo but spent her summers in Muskoka at her family’s cottage. Home is a prevailing theme in her paintings and her connection to the area is what gives them so much meaning.

“Muskoka always felt like home to me,” Irvine explains. “It’s where all my best childhood memories happened.”

Irvine studied fine art at the University of Waterloo and Western University, where she also completed Teacher’s College. Her first area of study was kinesiology, as a career as an artist was not her original plan.

“I’ve always done art,” she shares. “I always had a sketchbook and pencil with me. I was always drawing. When I was a kid, I’d go to my mom and say, ‘I need to make a craft, right now!’ There was an urgency about it that never went away. But I just thought it was something all kids do, so it took a long time to realize it was my passion. I went into kinesiology because I didn’t want to try to be an artist. But I realized during the program that I was the only one there who didn’t really love kinesiology. I knew I wanted to teach, so I decided I wanted to teach art and math.”

After teacher’s college, Irvine and her partner moved to Muskoka and she taught at Tawingo College in Huntsville. But Irvine’s destiny as a painter found a way to shine through her other plans, like the rays of the sun through a forest canopy.

“When I had my first child, I decided to stay home with her and pursue art as a full-time career,” she recalls. “I could only balance so many things and art was really important to me, I didn’t want to lose it. It’s funny how I accidentally spent my whole life trying to be an artist while I was trying to do other things.”

Although Irvine displayed her paintings in Waterloo in her early days, it wasn’t until they were hung at the Silver Bridge Gallery in Bracebridge that she considered herself an artist. “Labelling myself that way has always been a challenge,” she says. “I always considered myself a painter but there was a sense of legitimacy when my work started appearing in galleries. And taking the leap to prioritize my art as a source of income definitely changed my focus.”

Irvine paints from photographs that she takes on forays into the natural world, sometimes at a specific time of day with the intent to capture the light she wants to paint. A prevailing theme of comfort, home and safety flows through Irvine’s canvases like a gently winding river. Showing the connection between every aspect of life in a way that brings hope, peace and comfort is her artistic modus operandi. She gives her paintings titles that emphasize nature being a safe haven.

Her wildlife portraits personify the creatures being show-cased as relatable characters. A fox stretching its front legs is called This Moment, while the one stretching its back legs is called, Another Day. A painting of an empty nest called Everything We Need, is juxtaposed with a nest containing eggs called, The Simplicity of Importance. A study of four dying leaves on a twig called Somewhere Between shines light on the smallest, seemingly insignificant moments in the cycle between life and death.

What most people miss, Irvine sees. Titles like Safe Harbor, Lullabies, and Home for The Night, evoke the feeling of comfort found in the golden hour, when the setting sun transforms the colors just right.

“There’s something beautifully symbolic to me about the setting sun,” Irvine explains. “It’s when everything gets touched by a beautiful golden light for a while. I find a lot of solace in the dependability of that repeating cycle. It’s not only beautiful but it feels like everything is going to be okay.”

Irvine’s work is a celebration of the dichotomy of the vastness of the world and humanity’s place in it. “The way birch trees shed their skin in layers… I know that feeling,” Irvine says with a laugh. “It’s a metaphor for how we transform and evolve. It’s not so much about painting the tree so much as seeing ourselves reflected in it, in ways we can resonate.”

Irvine’s portraits of water are perhaps her strongest body of work. Rather than looking out over a lake, she makes the viewer feel like they’re in it. “I spent so much time in the shallow water, as a kid or with my kids,” she says. “We can only take in so much with our vision, so I loved trying to capture one close-up view of the water. I try to paint how water feels, the experience of being immersed in it. I’ve always been interested in our relationship with it. The more I paint it, the more I realize our physiological connection to it. It’s comforting to me to think that the lake is the same water I swam in as a kid. It feels like home.”

Irvine captures the energy of water in a way that is equally realistic and inventive. She manages to walk the line between realism and abstraction thanks to her fascination with the element.

“I also love finding water in the forest,” she says. “I love to watch the strength and movement of a waterfall or a stream, the way it fluctuates and adapts. How it finds its path and the connection between the water and the rocks. There are lessons in it, I think.”

Through her paintings, Irvine pays homage to the emotional experiences of the places she’s been, and wherever she lives. “There’s something interesting about the familiarity of visiting the trees I’ve painted,” she explains. “A horizon line becomes familiar too, like a friend. It’s an unexpected relationship to the space I’m immersed in that I just can’t get enough of.”

This past spring, Irvine did her first solo show at Coles Art Market in Huntsville called Light Shines Through and it was a landmark moment for her.

“I hadn’t had the experience before of standing in a room surrounded by my own art,” she recalls. “It was a really incredible experience to spend eight months creating a body of work around a theme and then seeing it all together in one place. It was like re-experiencing a part of my life that I’d documented, culminated in twenty-seven original paintings and it felt like I was experiencing those moments all over again. I don’t always get to meet the people who buy my paintings, so it was amazing to see people interacting with it. I rode that high for a long time.”

Though Irvine’s lifepath as an artist has eclipsed her teaching career, she will always love teaching, regardless of the subject matter. “I love observing how brains work – how we learn,” she states. “Being able to expose people to something that I had gotten so much joy out of was a wonderful experience. The most I enjoyed teaching art was at the Grade 7 and 8 level, helping students create a painting and discover their own inspiration and voice, to start them on their own artistic journeys. I also enjoy teaching math, helping people discover that they can do something they always struggled with or understand something they didn’t think they could. I especially enjoy teaching art and math. Art is subjective, but math isn’t. I like striking that balance between the creative and logical sides of my brain.”

Painting is something Irvine does for herself because it’s what makes her creative spark shine the brightest. The tension between art and business is a common struggle for artists that feels like walking a tightrope.

“I try to keep them separate from each other,” Irvine explains. “I don’t think sales are what makes an artist successful. I think if you’re making something you love, that’s success. If no one ever bought a painting, I would still paint. There’s a tremendous amount of external validation when someone buys a painting that feels amazing but ultimately, I paint because I need the creative outlet to feel healthy.”

Irvine’s paintings can be found at Coles Art Market in Huntsville, Britton Gallery in Bracebridge, The Algonquin Art Centre in Algonquin Park, The Ethel Curry Gallery in Halliburton, Paula White Diamond Gallery in Waterloo and Crown and Press Gallery in Hamilton.

Irvine is doing two group shows in October at Crown and Press Gallery and Paula White Diamond Gallery. On November 4th, she’ll be in the “6x6” group show at the Huntsville Festival of Arts studio with Helena Renwick, Stephanie Aykroyd, Roxanne Driedger, Sylvia Kerschl and one more artist, to be determined.