Artist captures essence of still life

Joan Sullivan
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Works by dentist Jonathan O'Dea on exhibit at Leyton Gallery of Fine Art

Still life paintings of fruit go back to ancient times, and they have always been a popular genre. They were once thought to be a way to kind of supernaturally e-mail foodstuffs to loved ones in the afterlife - bury them with some depictions of bread and wine and they would have something to nosh on while lingering beyond the pale.

While that belief fell away, the subject matter did not. Artists such as Paul Cezanne became closely associated with them, but any visual artist found such still lifes an intriguing way to explore shape, colour and light while keeping some command over composition and design.

Band of Brothers chalk pastel on paper. Submitted photos

Still life paintings of fruit go back to ancient times, and they have always been a popular genre. They were once thought to be a way to kind of supernaturally e-mail foodstuffs to loved ones in the afterlife - bury them with some depictions of bread and wine and they would have something to nosh on while lingering beyond the pale.

While that belief fell away, the subject matter did not. Artists such as Paul Cezanne became closely associated with them, but any visual artist found such still lifes an intriguing way to explore shape, colour and light while keeping some command over composition and design.

"Dust" is the first solo exhibition from Jonathan O'Dea.

O'Dea, 37, is largely self-taught (his day job is as a dentist) beyond some courses in high school or MUN Continuing Education, although he credits studies with Jim Maunder at the Anna Templeton Centre, as well as feedback he gained through submissions to the provincial Arts and Letters Competitions, with providing direction and insight.

He tried watercolour, but it was too slow, and then oil pastels, but their colours kept "getting muddy." About six years ago he picked up his first chalk pastel. He has evolved from "tinkering" with the tools to feeling fairly confident overall with the medium, an assurance most strongly manifested in knowing when to stop.

"My main fear is still that I'll ruin it," O'Dea said, standing in the Leyton gallery, where examples of his work were spread out for perusal. "There's always something you want to go back in and fix."

O'Dea's work is mostly fruit - he likes the forms, and the way the light plays on them - but he also had chocolates, a jar of honey and slices of gumdrop cake.

He keeps his eyes open for likely model objects, returning from the grocery store with a set of sweetly curving pairs, or flying back from Toronto with a trio of chocolates (one was, sadly, crushed en route, while a second went bad while he waited for the light he wanted, but the third worked out and can be seen here).

He usually photographs the subject himself, although one drawing, an almost translucent slice of kiwi, he lifted from the vacation snaps of a family member.

"I liked the mood, I liked the light, and I liked the sense of something glowing though something."

Light is an essential artistic device. O'Dea quoted from a talk Mary Pratt gave at The Rooms, when she spoke of rushing through her house, at certain, specific times of day, taking pictures.

"Not midday, that's not the light you want," O'Dea said. "But the beginning or the end of the day, those moments when the light is horizontal."

He works on pieces one at a time. They are fairly big, as this is the dimension that helps him get the details right. He works top to bottom, and inside out, sometimes keeping the chromatic scale tightly attuned, and sometimes opening it to complements and contrast. He works as fast as the pastels allow him to, which is pretty quickly. Watercolours and oil paints would be too sluggish, while acrylics, though quick-drying, can fade "and you may not get the colours back."

"Dust" - the title seems a nod in two directions: to the motes and particles that make up all things; and the eventual disintegration of the subjects here - contains images of green apples in glass bowls, a quartet or bananas slotted with light and shadow, a single pear lying on crumpled white paper. "Some are relatively simple shapes. And you don't have to stay completely true to form, unlike a face or a landscape." O'Dea also carefully considers the background, positioning a crystal receptacle where it will pick up background notes from a chair's upholstery, for example.

"I am a colourist, not a drawer like some others." O'Dea works from "an array of colours," that he is always adding to. Just as he is always looking at other artists' work, "I go around everywhere, I stalk galleries," but within the Newfoundland scene he is especially drawn to Mary Pratt, Bill Rose and Grant Boland.

Still, "I don't see doing portraiture or figurative work. Grant once said to me, 'There's no difference between painting a pear and painting a human face'. I said, 'I think you might be underestimating your abilities to be able to capture things.' But I have enjoyed playing with these shapes."

"Dust" continues at the Leyton Gallery of Fine art until May 23.

Organizations: Anna Templeton Centre, The Rooms

Geographic location: Toronto, Newfoundland

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