'Part of the rocks'

Joan Sullivan
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Diana Dabinett is becoming one with Newfoundland and Labrador's landscape

Diana Dabinett's latest solo exhibit, "Shorelines," includes 20 oil paintings, on linen or canvas, all of rocky coastlines from around Newfoundland and Labrador, and all painted during the last year.

As an artist, Dabinett is both established and exploring. She has been a major name in the discipline for decades. She was first and still is strongly associated with her hand-painted silk banners of puffins and pools. But she continually expands her spectrum of tools - egg tempera, anyone? - and here dips a paintbrush into oils.

Photo at left, "Admiral's Cove, 36" x 24", oil on canvas. Photo at right, "Gneiss at Hopedale," 24" x 36", oil on linen.

Diana Dabinett's latest solo exhibit, "Shorelines," includes 20 oil paintings, on linen or canvas, all of rocky coastlines from around Newfoundland and Labrador, and all painted during the last year.

As an artist, Dabinett is both established and exploring. She has been a major name in the discipline for decades. She was first and still is strongly associated with her hand-painted silk banners of puffins and pools. But she continually expands her spectrum of tools - egg tempera, anyone? - and here dips a paintbrush into oils.

"I've been trying different media," Dabinett says. "And I learned to paint in oils in art school, so I'm returning to my roots."

She found the media suited both her subject and her working process. "Acrylics can be a bit brash. With oil, the colours are really rich. I like line and colour. And you can work back into oil." Oil paints can take a long time to dry, allowing for manipulation. Dabinett's oils are water based, and used in thin layers, so they dry relatively quickly. "But it still means I can go back and blend, get a smooth effect which is, again, not like acrylics."

The paintings focus on the ebbing, flowing ocean, rocky beaches and geological configurations. "There's not much vegetation. So I restricted my palette. One painting, 'Little Catalina,' used only four colours: white, purple, cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue, and a tiny bit of lemon yellow at the end."

When she could paint directly on the coastline, she set up her easel and worked away, al fresco. But some of the shorelines, like in Hopedale, were too far away, so she painted those landscapes from photographs she had taken.

The resulting works are a good size, most measuring two-by-four feet. "Which is quite big for me. It's not huge for oils, but it's much bigger than I've been painting."

Not that she doesn't think big. One of her earlier exhibits, "Pathways" (1997), which she co-created with Tara Bryan, filled a gallery with streams, trails and star-filled canopies.

She also delves into ideas and inspirations; "I tend to follow a theme for a long period of time." Lately she's been curious about geology, a topic that caught her attention when she was an artist-in-residence at Gros Morne in 2001.

"I've become interested in the longevity of things," she says.

In addition to reading books about geology, four years ago she travelled to Australia. There she found some ancient, scoured landscapes that were similar to Newfoundland, as well as some, like the Bungle Bungles, which were utterly different. These towering beehives are marked with horizontal black and orange stripes, which, Dabinett explained, are actually composed of a type of bacteria which protect the structures from erosion.

Dabinett's next pieces will be part of a small group show at Devon House in St. John's. She'll be working in fabric, designing maps and thinking about the concepts of location and migration. She's approached people she knows who have moved from one place to another, and asked them questions about place and memory. "These will be three-dimensional, a kind of containers, where memories remain."

And she has her own thoughts on that matter, too.

"I've lived here for 34 years. When I first came to Newfoundland my imagery was drawn from the water and underwater. That's what I was known for, and comfortable with. But a place grows on you. Now I've become part of the rocks!"

Diana Dabinett's "Shorelines" opens Friday and continues at the Christina Parker Gallery on Plank Road in St. John's until May 23.

Organizations: Devon House

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Hopedale, St. John's Australia Plank Road

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