Don't mess with a soprano  

Portrait of a portraitist

Blank surfaces galvanized Rena Warren’s future.

When she was a child, her parents knew that any blank surface would soon have pictures on it, especially the smooth, silky pages of her family’s Encyclopedia Britannica.

She was driven to create, even at a young age.

She grew up in Mackenzie, B.C., a small forestry town where her dad owned a sawmill.

She described her family as tactile. Her mom sketched and drew, her dad and brother loved working with wood.

She loved anywhere she could draw and paint figures, people, and anything to do with Egypt. She was fascinated with the stories about the pyramids and mythology.

She moved south after high school to the Okanagan and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Okanagan University College, which had a partnership with the University of Victoria.

During her studies, she became fascinated with printmaking as well as lithography – a process invented around 1796 in Germany.

Lithography uses limestone, a soft stone, as a surface. A greasy crayon puts an image or text on the stone, ink is then rolled on to make a print.

After graduation, she went to work at Opus Art Supplies on Ellis Street where she really immersed herself in all the arts.

Employees were invited to test new products. She was given some oils to experiment with and she began playing with portraits, an old form of painting going back 5,000 years to Egypt. No wonder they appealed to her.

Before photography, it was the best way to capture the appearance of someone, but they have always had more significance than that. They were used to show virtue, stories, beauty, power, importance, and special qualities of the subject.

Simultaneously, during this time at Opus, she began to teach workshops and weekend courses to Opus clients.

Teaching woke up a desire to learn more about it. She enrolled at the University of Victoria in 2003 and received a postgraduate degree in education.

Art, art education, and her love of gardening are important and have been a constant through the years.

These three elements have become a beautiful vine of inspiration interwoven throughout her life and have never been separated since.

The next seven years were spent teaching K-12 at an art specialty school in Kelowna and raising her talented daughter as a single parent.

Although busy, art and her garden were never far away.

She found it impossible to continue lithography once she left school because the stones used for it are heavy, big, and require special lifting equipment.

Rena turned to block printing, something that was more accessible, and something she could do at home amid all the busyness of life.

Wood block printing, the art of printing text, images, or patterns on textiles and paper, originated in China around 220 AD. It is.

Block printing can be done with wood, linoleum, or rubber today, images cut into these softer surfaces make a printable likeness.

Over the years, you would find her teaching , developing educational programs, or instructing educators at:

  • The Kelowna Art Gallery
  • Canadian Mental Health Association
  • Cool Arts Society
  • Adult programs for 10 years in Peachland
  • Capricornucopia Artworks

At the same time, you would find her working with local artists.

  • Wanda Lock with the installation titled Escape Artists at the Kelowna Art Gallery in 2017
  • Full Circle – a duo show with her daughter, Larkin Dunn Warren, 2017

In 2014, she was awarded the Okanagan Arts Awards for Art Educator from ArtsCo.

She had also continued to use mythology and storytelling as inspiration for her commissioned portraits. She explained that her portraits have a life of their own.

She doesn’t just paint a photograph, it lives and goes where it takes her. She doesn’t use skin tones rather she works with big colour. It is imperative the person who commissions the work must be comfortable with her process.

“I take images from everywhere and create mythical magic,” she explained. Her latest portrait — see above — is of Meher Baba, a 20th century spiritual leader.

She incorporated living roses from her garden and used bright colours to meld her image. The swirls, to me, create a sense of movement and life.

I asked what she was doing during COVID.

“Ah, my pandemic career,” she said with a sigh.

You will find her working at Dogwood Nursery and Landscaping in Westbank these days. She loves gardening and is in a very happy place working there during these stressful times.

If you want to see what classes she is teaching in the future or what she is up to, please visit Capricornucopia Artworks. I can’t wait to sign up for the next block printing class.

Her passions — art, education and nature — will continue to drive her creativity, her need to illuminate the creativity in others and provide stories of learning and art into the future.

Thank you, Rena.

Shandra has chutzpah

Chutzpah: Some have it, some don’t. Shandra Smith, an international surface designer, has it and isn’t afraid to use it.

Her road to art was different than most; she wasn’t even on it for a good chunk of her life.

She found her way through adversity in the form of fibromyalgia. “Art became my therapy.”

She loved sports and played basketball, volleyball, and soccer while growing up in Saskatoon. Her small high school didn’t have an art program, which wasn't any problem for her. She admitted she just wasn’t into school, however, she cherished the art supplies her parents gave her during her youth.

After high school, she worked in Banff and soon met the love of her life, Fergus, who was from Scotland She sustained an injury in 1997 that started the pain that would become chronic. This didn’t stop their long-distance romance that culminated in marriage in 1998.

They moved to Edinburgh for a couple of years, but returned here to start a family.

Her father-in-law gave her a digital camera to take photos of their children and editing software to experiment with. She moved on to Photoshop and taught herself through trial and error, awakening her inner artist.

She discovered surface designing — any artwork that is intended to be applied to a surface to enhance the way it looks. Computers now make it possible to transfer your art onto any surface.

One day, she realized that her fun on the computer could be much more. She began to put her colourful images on canvas and was one of the emerging artists featured at the U8 — art under $800 — show at Sopa Fine Arts in 2009.

She didn’t sell anything, but learned a lot, and realized she was one of the first digital presenters in Kelowna.

Convinced that there was a market for this form of art, she used chutzpah, courage, and took her art door to door in Kelowna and Westbank. She placed her art in a few places until her dedication paid off; she was invited to do a solo show at A Woodside Design Gallery on Ellis Street.

Much of her art was sold, but she found the carrying, lifting, standing was too much for her body. She needed a new plan.

She started working part-time at the Kelowna Art Gallery and realized artists were her type of people. It was the lifestyle she wanted to pursue, but how?

This drove her to look online for some way to continue working without sacrificing her energy. She discovered licensing art — the borrowing, renting, or selling of permission to put her art on their products.

“You need to be full of yourself, otherwise, you won’t make it.”

In 2015, she was a fan of Favourite Room, a long-running feature in the Globe and Mail.

Shandra and Fergus, as general contractors, helped build a log house that was traditional on the outside and oh, so funky on the inside. She used her chutzpah and approached Favourite Room editor Dierdre Kelly, who loved the pictures of the log house and they did a photo shoot.

She filled the pictures with her surface-designed pillows, bags, lamps. When the article came out, her business skyrocketed.

Shandra noticed Hotel Zed was going to expand to Kelowna. Being ballsy, she called Mandy Farmer, president and CEO of Accent Inns, and sent her pictures of her work.

Mandy liked them but when she saw the Globe and Mail article, she ordered three wall murals —see picture above — and art for every room.

Shandra uses bold colours that radiate happiness. It didn’t take long for companies all around the world to line up for what she does.

  • Company from the U.K. ordered wall murals
  • Bucketfeet, an American shoe company – used her designs for blooming shoes
  • Therapy Vineyards had her design wine labels
  • Quartro Publishing bought her designs for four Scratch books, which have a colourful base covered in black. You take a stylus to carve out your designs with Shandra’s art showing through. They have distributed books as far as France and in South America.
  • An architect bought one of her designs for the walls of a movie theatre in Murrieta, Calif.

At home, she has won the 2017 Art and Design Award from Artsco and has done book signings in Chapters, Opus, Mosaic Books, and Michaels.

All this was done, at home, pacing herself in 20-minute intervals and still having a life. Not bad for not having formal art training.

“You can learn and create this for yourself,” she said.

All of this happened before COVID.

Since then, she did lose some contracts, but has been busy doing art for puzzles.

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer posted on Instagram how much she loved her puzzle as did Hollywood writer/producer Emily V. Gordon. Her puzzles will be sold at MOMA-Hong Kong. Very impressive.

I asked her why her art was so popular. “Beautifully bold colours make me and others happy,” she said.

She’s right.

Her art is joyful, playful, vibrant and happy, just like her.

Zip, splat. ooze, buzz. Ah!

Cool Arts is a thriving program for adults with developmental disabilities.

It started with Jordon Lige’s wish to participate in an art show for artists with disabilities in Vancouver.

With help on his application from his mom, Sara MacDonald, he was accepted. It was a great experience for all.

A seed of an idea was planted in Sara's mind to provide this type of opportunity for others in Kelowna.

She wanted to provide a "quality arts experience that was accessible for local adults living with a developmental disability."

Just like a seedling, she started small with the help of artists and friends. The interest and participation grew and grew until they needed a permanent home, and found it at the Rotary Centre of the Arts (RCA) in 2003.

Zip forward 18 years. I spent a delightful morning with Amy Bradshaw, Cool Arts art educator, and student Randi Grant in their RCA home. It is a place full of colour, light, and playfulness; a place built for experiencing all types of art.

Sara's idea is alive and flourishing here.

Before COVID, Cool Arts provided art experiences four days a week plus on most weekends for about 100 students. The classes are smaller now with social distancing in place and less frequent, but still just as vibrant as before.

Splat is why Randi comes to Cool Arts. He loves to splat paint on a surface, especially on the way to painting flowers, and also loves meeting and creating new friendships here.

Randi is full of smiles when he talks about Cool Arts and how exciting it makes his life. He transfers all that joy onto small canvasses filled with brightly coloured flowers. Those splats of paint reminded me of a warm summer's day.

Oozing with expertise and purpose, Amy and Shim Shon, the two art educators, provide diverse art programs organized on a quarterly system - changing subject matter quarterly.

They also liaison with the community to do collaborative works, fundraisers, and exhibitions.

Amy, a full-time artist, finds the time to give back.

“I have found a real fit here. It is not about the end product; it is the process that is crucial."

What does Amy get? She finds inspiration from the students in two ways.

"I learn how the student assimilates information and how to be in the moment."

Collaboratives create a lot of buzz for the students.

Bee Box — In 2011, they were asked to paint bee boxes (where bees live) as part of a project to bring awareness to bee conservation. This ended in an exhibition at the B.C. Orchard Museum.

Lake Country Artwalk — They participate and sell their art. Randi let me know he's a great salesman and that he works for hugs.

Sand Spirals — Eco-artist Lori Mairs taught students to make sand sculptures and to learn about our beaches in 2010. This was their first public art project.

Eco Installation — Annabel Stanley inspired spheres made from grapevines.

Claymation Animation — A stop-animation digital film facilitated by video artist Joanne Gervais.

Lamb to loom — They visited a sheep farm, sheared, carded — taking the debris out of the wool with a brush — dyed the wool and made fibre sculptures.

All this buzz is created by Executive Director Rachael Jones, a hard-working volunteer board of directors, and their two art educators.

They organize these events to keep the membership costs low enough for the student to afford.

One of the most exciting programs the board has implemented is the Become A Patron program. For $30 a month, you will receive along with other gifts:

  • A bio of the student and an original piece of art from them
  • An invitation to the annual Patron's Tea to connect with your paired artist and engage in an art activity with them
  • A charitable tax receipt in the full amount of your donation

I asked Amy what her favourite project has been. She said the most fun was Wearable Art. They took donations of clothing, painted, stencilled, cut and sewed together pieces during one week.

The next week, they built a Cat Walk — like a Paris fashion show — cranked up the music.

Each artist picked their own music, and strutted their stuff. It was an incredible project with a fantastic result.

I heard these words as I sat among hanging plastic protectors and past art projects, completely surrounded by the fun and joy this art brings to all who venture to their studio.

The inclusive atmosphere at Cool Arts is contagious. It was freezing outside, a regular gloomy winter's day yet after meeting Amy and Randi, seeing the art they helped create, their smiles, hearing their laughter, I felt what they must feel every time they come to this special place.





A world-class partnership

It was the fastest sell out in 27 years at Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts (MISSA) for any of their courses.

MISSA provides high calibre specialized workshops with world renowned teachers in the field of choice.

Who was this teacher and how did he get such an international reputation?

Visionary potter Peter Flanagan’s journey was not a solo one nor one that started last year. Peter with Daphne, his artistic partner, and wife, have created beauty and pushed the artistic boundaries of porcelain ceramics to new heights and size.

Daphne, daughter of Peg and Des Loan, grew up in her parent’s gallery, Okanagan Pottery, which they started in 1968. Most Okanagan people knew this blue-grey building on the right going out of Peachland on the way to Penticton. The iconic building was only recently torn down.

She loved her family and the world of clay and wanted to go to school to learn more, so she enrolled at the Kootenay School of Art in Nelson.

Peter grew up in Victoria and always drew and painted as a kid. His mom studied design and his dad was a lover of architecture and a draftsman who also taught Peter carpentry and manual skills.

Peter loved going to art galleries as a kid, decided to pursue art and enrolled at the Courtenay School of Arts.

He knew nothing about pottery, but he had to take an introductory pottery class, and met Daphne.

“Her nose was into a pot when we first met,” he said.

It was early December, 1979, everyone had left the studio, but they stayed to make sure the heat of the wood-fired kiln was kept constant.

It was so cold that the mortar on the brick door froze when they were bricking it up, a far cry from today’s
gas-fired kilns.

The pottery was fired and so was their lifelong teamwork.

“It takes dedication, love, and understanding of the long hours and not always great results with constant fortitude to work together.”

They both attended the University of Victoria, where Peter received a degree in art history.

Soon they moved to the Okanagan and after just five years, they had a 2 1/2 year waiting list for their dinnerware. It didn’t take long for people to realize how good they were.

Peter’s career got a real boost in 1989 when he was one of five winners from around the world in the Second International Cara Ceramics Competition in Mino, Japan.

Each judge was allowed to pick one favourite competitor. The Japanese judge picked his bowl, lightly coloured deep with subtle flora inside and his -to become-signature — triangles on the rim.

Their family grew and for a time, Peter left pottery and entered the corporate world.

This time away from his art created an itch to get back and to stretch to see what limitations he could squash. He knew with Daphne they would be the perfect duo for innovation.

The synergy between Peter and Daphne is palpable; you can feel it when you are in the room with them. Together, one idea grows out of another, their teamwork feeds their creativity. The idea of the huge charger was born.

I met them when they invited me into their home.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by wood, so when I sat at their long wooden table, warmed by a real wood fire, it was like being home with great friends, such is their hospitality.

I drank dandelion tea from a mug they designed and made, which felt like it was made for me. It was pretty, fit well into my hand and kept the tea warm.

It was hard to look directly at them because I was surrounded by their phenomenal works of art. I felt like a kid in the world’s best candy store, so much to see and experience.

The huge porcelain ceramic chargers – huge plates on steroids — facing me were the result of an idea hatched from his hiatus in the corporate world.

The size was difficult to master — some are in excess of 30 inches in diameter. The size, weight, large surface, often not flat, can easily collapse.

“Part of the process is fascinating and elusive – you have to have a huge leap of faith.”

“Bases of material share their common character, but get their uniqueness from the trace elements from the environment,” Peter said.

Ah, clay from the Okanagan will be different from clay from somewhere else. He uses locally sourced materials.

They also began to experiment with wood ash for their glazes. They love ash from pine, fir, and cherry wood. Peter explained that it becomes fluid when fired and pools to create surface texture and colour.

It takes both of them to move these chargers into the kiln — very carefully — and they are fired at
1,300 Centigrade for 24 hours, and then cooled for 48 hours.

These chargers have intricate centres that are three dimensional, some with a crackle type of glaze. They lamented about how tricky these centres are and how many collapsed in the creation process.

Their size, designed for large wall spaces, take up almost all the space in the kiln. Miscalculations can be costly in time and money.

Their innovation of glazes and construction and locally sourced materials when possible make their chargers unique pieces of art.

It is no wonder potters around the world are anxious to learn from him and he is in demand as a teacher for his understanding of the different processes needed.

Words are inadequate to describe the majesty of these creations. You need to see them up close and personal.

You will be able to do this Oct. 9 to Nov. 14, at the Wood, Clay and Canvas exhibition, Peachland Art Gallery and at the Circle Craft Gallery, Granville Island, Vancouver for September.

Alas, my time with them came to an end much too quickly. I felt a sense of loss that happens when you leave a place of peace, creativity, and greatness.


More Don't mess with a soprano articles

About the Author

Sue Skinner is a singer of opera and musical theatre, a choral conductor and a teacher/coach of voice. 

She has travelled the world, learned many languages, seen every little town in Alberta and supported herself with music all her life.

She has sung at weddings, funerals, musicals, operettas, opera, with symphonies, guitars, jazz groups, rock bands and at play schools. 

Skinner has taken two choirs to Carnegie Hall, sung around the world, and teaches for Wentworth Music on Zoom.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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