Painting the town

John Hartman. Photo courtesy the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Looking at a painting by Ontario expressionistic painter John Hartman, you know cities mean more to him than a simple collection of buildings and roads on a landscape. They live, they breathe, they’re things with history and personality.

His exhibit Cities is coming to The Rooms’ art gallery this month, and Elling Lien caught Hartman en route.

You have a painting in this exhibit of St. John’s so I know you’ve been here before… When did you come here first?
I was invited to be a guest artist at St. Michael’s. That was a month-long stay in the middle of the winter in 1996, which was pretty interesting. I fell in love with the place. The coast of Newfoundland is a lot like where I live, except it’s it’s much bigger in every respect. I live in Georgian Bay, on Lake Huron in Ontario.

The sea is bigger than Georgian Bay, the rock hills are bigger in Newfoundland, but the landscapes are sort of similar. The Wesleyville area is a lot like it. It’s a granite landscape.

Where did the desire to paint cities come from?
Well, it was a gradual evolution. When I would paint Georgian Bay and Newfoundland I was always interested in the communities. I never painted a pure wilderness-type landscape. Then I became increasingly interested in the kinds of infrastructure in the communities—roads, bridges, that kind of thing. I found myself slowly gravitating toward larger and larger spots as I developed a kind of working method for representing all this stuff that we make cities out of. It slowly evolved from about 2003, and by the time I got to 2006 I was doing almost exclusively cities—and much larger cities than when I started.

What is it about cities that appealed to you?
I’ve always been interested in places that are on the water. Really they are sites that I think would have been interesting even if there were no city there. They’re very beautiful landscapes. There’s a really nice quality of light, because light over water is so much richer than it is over land.

Then with all of the buildings, bridges, and roads, I get to add more and more layers of things.

I’ve always been interested in the history of places. When I was doing paintings of Newfoundland I would often put little vignettes in the skies. I think this is just another way to explore the relationship that people have with landscape.

John Hartman, The Southside Hills, St. John’s, 2004, Oil on Linen, Nicolas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Tell me about the St. John’s painting that’s in the Cities exhibit: “The Southside Hills”.
That’s the one from Waterford Creek looking out over the dry docks with the Southside Hills on the right? The hills are a chocolaty brown colour?

That’s the view you see when you come in on the Trans Canada Extension, coming to the bottom of the harbour.

You can’t stop a car to make a sketch or take a photo, and you only see that view for an instant, so I had to construct it from memory.

I recognised the angle immediately, but it’s true, every time I’ve seen it I’ve been hurtling along at 100 kilometers an hour.
I tried to find a place other than the highway that had that particular view. I’ve taken the car, I’ve exited, I’ve gone up to Shea Heights… I tried walking out where Irving has those oil tanks… I couldn’t get the view from any spot other than that one spot on the highway.

So you did it from memory?
Well I did take a few snapshots out my window, but mostly it’s from a memory of what’s there.

It does look like more of a memory.
Yeah, a lot of my work is done that way, where I spend a lot of time sketching, walking around, looking at things, taking photographs, and then I just assume an imaginary viewpoint.

After I’ve done enough reconnaissance of a place, all the different parts fall together and I can say, “okay, this is what it would look like from up there. You’ll see the Basilica, you’ll see The Rooms, you’ll see the Battery… All that.”

How did that painting go? Do you remember?
The paintings are very slow to come. Like I said, to start there’s a lot of collecting information.

I would have done a watercolour study ahead of time to figure out the composition. Then I put the composition on the canvas—draw it on with red paint. Then the execution is very fast, because it’s very juicy, thick paint that brushes very heavily on the canvas. It doesn’t leave you much room for changing things. So you have to commit yourself to what’s there. So it’s a slow process that speeds up and is frenetic and manic at the end.

I read something that when you were younger you’d imagine yourself flying over landscapes and imagining them that way. Is there a connection between flying in your dreams and making these paintings?
I don’t know. It was a wonderful feeling, to be able to fly around. I don’t have those dreams anymore, so maybe I’m just trying to reach out to that feeling by painting.

Some people are lucky and do it all the time. But mine sort of stopped.

To make the paintings is the same process. You’ve got something you’re familiar with and you’re imagining it from a viewpoint above it. I’m sure that’s how the dreams work.

An opening reception for John Hartman’s Cities will be held at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery on Friday, September 25 at 7:30 pm. A gallery tour of the exhibition with Hartman will take place Sunday, September 27 at 2:30 pm.