Breaking The Surface With Artist Marilyn McAvoy

Breaking The Surface With Artist Marilyn McAvoy

By Anna Horsnell


In exclusive conversations with the artists from The Prow Gallery, Breaking the Surface delves deeper into the personalities and passion behind the artistry. Our sincere thanks go out to each artist for graciously sharing from the heart. 

Marilyn McAvoy

Describe the conditions you need for a perfect painting day in your studio.

I need an uninterrupted day to paint. I can't paint if I know I have something I need to do in two hours. I need to be focused, and all the day's demands are out of the way. I can't make plans to meet friends if it's a painting day because I never know how much time I will need. I never get to the studio before noon and often paint until 8pm. Sometimes four or five hours is enough.

What draws you to the subject of still life?

Initially it was a response to finally having the chance to cultivate my own garden. I think that my experience growing and watching plants at all their stages in life helps inform how I tackle bringing them back to life in my paintings. Throughout the summer and at the moment, I have been doing a lot of photoshoots due to our growing season coming to an end. My paintings are in response to photos I take during these shoots and I much prefer to paint flowers I have grown. I always enjoy the theatrical aspect of staging and how light is an entity of its own, producing such drama and beauty. Staging and lighting have evolved over time into something personally symbolic in my figure work.

How do you come up with the idea for a new painting?

My work comes mainly from lived experiences, an event or experience which has a deep impact on me.  It doesn't conjure up images immediately, but over time potential for imagery becomes clearer in my mind's eye, a way to emotionally deal with it. This is especially true for my figure work which came out of a devastating separation from my partner of 24 years. Longing for the people we shared life with whom I no longer saw and memories of our life together in the music scene were the catalyst for working with some of these friends years later, and projecting scenes from backstages and bars onto them in a stage set up I created in my studio.

Would you share why you feel particularly proud of a certain painting you have created?

I am very proud of Immerse. (At the Prow Gallery now). This was one of many that came from my breakup, using projections onto models. It’s of my friend Jen Huntley who shared those music scene years with my partner and myself and so many other individuals. I had collected photos from the behind the scenes of the bars my ex had played at over the years. The music scene and backstages were our playground for 20 plus years. I had set up a stage in my studio with a white backdrop to work with projections onto individuals I knew from those days. Jen agreed to model. She posed and I projected digital photos from various clubs onto her on my stage. When I was painting it, the idea of Jen being immersed in water came to me. It seemed to be a symbolic metaphor for all of the emotions that consumed me initially, but also by that time, years later having survived the ordeal, I didn't drown. Water has always been an element I relate to due to the sense of peace, space and calm I feel from it. I live in a house overlooking the Halifax Harbour, so the vast expanse of water is a constant landscape for me daily. So, this painting became much more autobiographical for me. 

How do you know when the work is good?

That's a hard one… I think if it visually meets how I imagined it, that helps. Often work evolves differently, sometimes it’s a trusting of instincts that leads me to make choices that come up as the painting is developing, that often brings on a more satisfying final result. There are moments through the process of painting that become very exciting. I have completed work that at the time I thought was good, but over time, having the chance to spend longer with the work, realized for various reasons a little more work would make it better. For whatever reason, there are always works that seem to be "really good" or just "good" and it's hard to pin one thing on that.

What's your biggest challenge or frustration as an artist?

Biggest frustration is finding the time to paint. Teaching has always provided financial security. Normally I teach three classes per term. This leaves only three days of the week to paint. This doesn't include social time or other passions I enjoy. It's always a struggle. Summers I am off from teaching, but for many years I have run an Airbnb in my home to get by financially, which also kept me away from my studio. Some recent life changes have resulted in a much better balance between teaching and studio time.

What do you do in your spare time to rejuvenate your creativity?

I like to do a lot of physical exercise. I was a competitive skater for many years when I was young so skating is still a big passion. I also enjoy cycling, snowboarding and yoga. I love cooking and gardening. Love meeting up with friends for drinks and food on outdoor patios in the summer. Watching movies and series. Travelling as well, but I haven’t been doing much of it since COVID. I hope for more in the near future.

What's something about yourself that would surprise most people?

I worked on movies for five years in the scenic paint department and ended up working on "Titanic". I painted the Impressionist paintings seen in the movie. Continued on as the "stand-by painter" for the rest of the shoot working daily with the shooting crew. I have a little cameo in the movie as the lab technician who washes the drawing from the portfolio. I also took up snowboarding 12 years ago when I was 51!!! 

What does success look like to you?

I'm living success right now.  Finally, a better balance between work and studio time. I have a beautiful studio not far from my home. I know I can take care of myself financially. Working toward exhibitions and being able to make art is all I have ever wanted. I joke to friends that I "will have arrived" when I can afford to pay a cleaner to clean my house every couple of weeks. Haven't quite got there yet. Ha-ha.

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