Weekly Photo Feature #3

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The artistic debut of Danielle Loranger

In the winter of 1991, while working at The Sunday Express, I received a call from Emma Butler, informing me that her gallery was about to debut the works of Danielle Loranger, a new and unknown artist from Quebec who was now living and painting in Newfoundland.

I looked at some of her works, was astounded by the vigorous colours, bold compositions and sensitive treatment of people, and decided to write a full length feature about her. It was the first article written about Ms. Loranger, who went on to build a fabulous career as an artist and printmaker.

The story was written about a year after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. Danielle and husband Dr. Wade Kean had named their newborn son Meech, partly to symbolize their hope for the future of their country, and also to celebrate the stronger Quebec-Newfoundland accord that was manifest in their own relationship.

As for the photo itself, this was something of a challenge. I arrived at Loranger's home in Hillview at about 10:00 am, while the morning sun was high over the southwest arm of Trinity Bay, creating a dazzling display as it reflected off the water and the snow.

If you look at Danielle's watch, you will see that it took almost two hours to set up and finally get this shot (on my Nikon FM-2). My goal originally was to capture the background too; the view that Danielle saw every day whilst painting. This would have cast her in silhouette so, to add some front lighting, I borrowed one of her white canvasses and placed it in a sunbeam, angled so that the light was reflecting off her face. It worked, except, try as I might, I could not remove that line of shadow down the right side of her cheek.

After all this work, I realized that the photo had nothing to do with the background anyway. It was all about Danielle, and those high cheekbones, expressive eyes and natural beauty. I zoomed in and got this shot, the best of several in the set.

For a while during the 1980s, I studied the techniques of photography expert Fred Picker, who pioneered the zone system. I didn't learn much to be honest it was pretty technical stuff but I did learn how to expose for the subject area. In this shot, you can see that her hand is over-exposed or burned out'. I could have exposed for her hand, but her face would have been too dark. In this case, I moved the camera in close and exposed for her face only the most important part of the composition then pulled back and shot with that exposure.

Afterward, we went outside on Danielle's deck, where it was too bright (caused squinting) and much too cold (intense shivering). The interior shot became the keeper and I'm still happy with it, 16 years later.

Click here for some examples of Danielle Loranger's work.

Danielle Loranger:

An artist is born

The accord may be dead, but Meech is only sleeping.

His mother cradles him in her arms now, shading the infant from the sun's rays that spill in the window of the log cabin. The snow outside the door and ocean beyond reflect the light in glittering, sequined veils.

Danielle Loranger gave birth to the boy less than two weeks ago, while simultaneously being born into a new creative existence.

The 33-year-old native of Quebec is taking the first tentative steps in a new career as an artist, in preparation for the first public showing of her work Feb. 15 to March 2 at the Emma Butler Gallery.

These are clearly turbulent times for Ms. Loranger, who is leaving the relative security of the teaching profession to embark on this adventure.

Ms. Loranger married a Newfoundlander last summer, at the same time that Quebec was threatening to divorce Canada over the failed Meech Lake accord - a document that owed much of its fate to Newfoundland's dissenting voice.

To commemorate the occasion, Ms. Loranger and her husband, Dr. Wade Kean, named their child 'Meech' - against the advice of friends and relatives.

"He's got a real story behind his name," Ms. Loranger said in an interview at her cabin in Hillview. "Looking at what was happening in Quebec from here doesn't change your opinion, but it gives you another perspective. I understood some point of view from here. I agreed with what people were thinking from here, but it's always a question of you're not there where it's happening... (Wade and I) had many interesting conversations during that time, I can tell you."

Despite whatever cultural animosity may be simmering between Newfoundland and Quebec over last year's constitutional disaster, Ms. Loranger said she has encountered no ill will from the residents of Hillview.

"I think if there are just two provinces in Canada that have so much alike, it would be Newfoundland and Quebec. They are both isolated in their way: Quebec is isolated by the language, and here, by the geography. And they both hang onto their (cultures)... That comes from the heart."

Although not yet totally fluent in English, Ms. Loranger had little trouble adjusting to the thick Newfoundland accents: "You know what? It was not that much difficult... I felt at home here, and so soon. The people were so good, friendly, natural... They talk so fast, with lots of expressions. But now I even use some of these expressions when I talk!"

Ms. Loranger was born and raised in the predominantly French-speaking town of Cap de la Madeliene (she began learning to speak English only five years ago), and studied education at the Universite de Quebec in nearby Trois Rivieres. On graduation, she taught for four years in Fermont, a Quebec town near Labrador City, before moving to Montreal.

Ms. Loranger met her husband, a general practitioner in Clarenville, in July of 1988 in what she admits are almost fairytale circumstances. During a brief visit to Montreal for a friend's wedding, Dr. Kean ventured out to see the nightlife, and met Ms. Loranger purely by chance in the city's bustling downtown.

She admits that the attraction was both mutual and immediate: she made her first trip to Newfoundland that same summer, to see him again. After much jetting back and forth, the couple were wed last July on the patio of their spacious and comfortable log cabin, which they built together at the crest of a secluded knoll overlooking the inland reaches of Southwest Arm in Trinity Bay.

"He knew how much I like the outdoors and he was telling me the piece of land was really beautiful, so we came in the truck and I closed my eyes and he just bring me in front of the bay and said, 'Now look' and, oh God, I was surprised."

Ms. Loranger said she has been drawing and painting for most of her life and that some friends had even asked to buy her work, but she didn't seriously entertain it as a career goal until last year when she shyly presented some of her hand-colored ink drawings to Emma Butler for an appraisal.

"I almost lost her," Ms. Butler said, "because she showed me these sketches, kind of touristy things, so I referred her to a craft shop. I asked her if she had ever painted and she said, 'Yes, but I don't think it's very good.' ... So she brought these canvasses in and I thought, 'My heart is going to pop right out of my chest - I can't let her see how excited I am.' But I couldn't help it."

For her part, Ms. Loranger has mixed emotions about the show: one moment her enthusiasm knows no bounds, the next she grows nervous and wonders whether or not she can live up to expectations.

"I must say, each time I brought a painting to Emma, I felt like she really believed (in my abilities) and she gave me that assurance. The fact that Emma gave me the exhibit gave me such energy... This means an awful lot and you can see it in the work."

Few people in Newfoundland have seen her paintings, but Ms. Butler said those who have - including the photofinisher who printed a reproduction and the contractors who are framing the works - remarked on Ms. Loranger's distinctive style.

"It's what we call 'naive' but it's not folk art or old-fashioned naive," Ms. Butler said. "It's primitive in that it's untrained, but it has a sophistication about it that doesn't quite fit into primitive either. I don't know if there's any such thing as 'contemporary primitive'... There's no slot for it."

Ms. Butler said a comparison with the artist's early works to those completed within the last year show a gradual evolution in style and technique, to the point that Ms. Loranger is now in "full bloom."

"She's completely untrained, so this work is unlike anybody else's. She wanted to take (art) classes, and I said, 'No Danielle - not yet. Take your time.' I just want to see how people respond to the work, because the colors are so unusual."

In the year or so since they met, Ms. Loranger has made a point of driving into town - despite her pregnancy - to scrutinize every show at the Emma Butler Gallery.

"She is just is in complete awe of every artist's talent," Ms. Butler said. "She perceives artists as magicians and has to trust my enthusiasm for her work, because she kind of can't believe that she's an artist."

Ms. Loranger's thematic focus is on people, and the great range of emotions conveyed through simple gestures, fleeting glances or furrowed brows ("It's like an image on an emotion," Ms. Loranger says). She renders her subjects in a realist style, though her use of color and background flirts with the abstract.

Since moving to Hillview, Ms. Loranger has used several local people and settings as subjects in her paintings. For 'Ancestral Rights', she asked a young Clarenville girl with appropriately-high cheekbones to pose as a native girl contemplating the wisdom of her elders. The painting was inspired by the Oka crisis in Quebec, and how violence and confrontation had become tools of change.

"It's not just fighting... If you want to keep your culture, you have to do something (more) to keep it alive."

Ms. Loranger was so touched by the tenderness elderly neighbors Jim and Dorothy Critch displayed toward each other that she was moved to paint them together, in a work titled 'Lasting Love.'

Another work features an abandoned house and elderly neighbor Anthony Dalton in a reflective painting that mourns the troubled state of the fishery.

"He had a big coat he had bought in Labrador... and he was looking so great, so proud, so I asked him to wear that coat."

One large painting still in progress depicts a group of mummers wearing brightly colored clothing with faces hidden save for the eyes, which are startlingly cunning and alive.

Many of her earlier works were dominated by greyish tones, and depicted people boxed in by a kind of claustrophobic sadness, or blindfolded and clinging precariously to tightropes. Cheerful these paintings weren't. Ms. Loranger acknowledged that they spoke of an inner self in search of something and that the new, brighter themes and colors indicate she's found it.

"When I moved to Newfoundland something happened with the color. I like using bright, strong color now. I don't know (why). You look outside in the summer and the water is such a deep blue...

"Now I feel a real deep contentment inside," she added. "Everything is happening now to confirm that since I met Wade, since I moved here, is really what I wanted. It is a nice turn, a beautiful turn, and I would like to stay on this highway forever."

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