Jean-Claude Roy’s home studio in St. Philip’s is much like the artist himself — bright, vibrant and covered in oil paint. An easel holds an unfinished work, next to a table holding colour-splattered twisted metal tubes, seemingly discarded in a pile amidst the fervor of creating art. Sunshine pours in his windows, while books line the sills. His walls are covered in canvases; some hanging, some leaning against them, stacked a dozen deep.
There are too many finished paintings to count, but Roy knows and remembers each one intimately, having executed the majority of them in the moment, outside, on site.
“The first five minutes and the last five minutes of the painting are the most important — the rest is only technique,” Roy explains. “The first five minutes you get to pick your composition and you get to pick your spot, as a landscape painter. The last five minutes, you have to know where to stop. This is hard, but when you’re used to it, you say, my God, I can’t put another brushstroke.”
Roy, a native of France who’s lived in Newfoundland for the past 40 years, and his local-born wife, Christina, often work together, and aren’t in the habit of taking on small projects. Their last major collaborative piece was a 222-foot-long tapestry, unveiled in Conche two summers ago, detailing the history of Newfoundland and Labrador’s French shore. Tonight, Roy will officially launch “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur,” an incredible hardcover volume from Breakwater Books containing photos of 808 of Roy’s paintings — one from every community in Newfoundland. Christina doesn’t want to take any credit for her role in producing the book, but Roy points out the she took the photos, edited the text and helped with the design.
It took five years to complete the project, Roy explains, although some of the paintings were done before this.
“I was at a friend’s place one time, and she said, ‘I have visited every community in Newfoundland.’ So I got jealous,” Roy says, laughing. “I said, I’m going to do better. I’m going to paint them.”
Roy, sometimes accompanied by Christina, sometimes not, travelled around the island in his car with a map, upon which he made notes about the weather, and crossed off each community once it was done. If he felt he needed to go back to complete a piece, he’d highlight the town on the map. The map, stained and scribbled on, makes up the book’s inside covers.
A plein-air painter (though he prefers simply to say he paints outdoors), Roy completed his pieces in all seasons, sleeping in his car some nights if it got too late to find a place to stay.
“It’s got to move,” he says of his choice to paint on location. “Nothing is straight in my paintings. I like air to be an element, and you can see it in the paintings sometimes. If it’s nice weather, the painting is going to have more detail; if it’s not nice, it’s going to go faster.”
Roy remembers completing each of the 800-odd pieces. In Trinity, he had to wear a snowsuit and tie himself to a telephone pole because of the wind. In Benton, inspiration didn’t come easily, and his finished piece shows an old firetruck in the woods. In Woodstock, he was invited to go dancing at a local wedding.
In Point Lance, which has a population of less than 200 people, he gave residents a scare.
“When I arrive in a village, sometimes I go around and around in my car to get my spot. After 15 minutes, I set up next to the church on the top of the hill. Sure enough, five minutes after, somebody came to talk to me, a man. He said, ‘We saw you coming. We thought you were a fisheries officer.’ I said, ‘I got you now — now they send artists to come spy on you,’” Roy says, laughing.
Noticeable in the book is Roy’s unique perspective of each community. He has never taken an obvious view of a town, forsaking the best vistas for a scene with a personality that would come through on his canvas. That might mean painting trees covered in frozen rain or a cemetery or a particularly long and winding clothesline.
“Sometimes when I paint, people say, ‘Oh, you should got on the top of the hill,’ but I’m not interested in that,” he says. “Generally, they end up to nothing. Everywhere I go, I try to find that spot and try to create the feeling in that moment. This is my interpretation.”
Along with the regular copies of “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” (a latin saying meaning bent but not broken; floating but not sinking — Roy saw it written on a house in St-Pierre and feels it’s a good description for his view of Newfoundland) are 160 special edition copies, each one with a goatskin and linen cover by bookbinder Brian Roberts. Meticulously inlaid in the cover is a unique 7” by 9” oil painting of a particular community, which is different one from the one inside of the book. It’s the first time the technique has been done in this province, Roy says, and Roberts did each cover by hand.
The regular editions are available in bookstores at a price of $59.95. The special editions with the original artwork will sell for $1,000. Both editions are bilingual, with text and titles in English and French.
The official launch of “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” will take place at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John’s at 7 p.m. tonight. Roy will be doing a signing at Five Island Art Gallery in Tors Cove Oct. 14, from 2-4 p.m.
Next week, Roy is off to get a start on the second part of his project before he heads to France in November: he plans to paint every community in Labrador. It may be more difficult than the island portion of the province, since many communities are relatively isolated, but Roy is looking forward to the challenge, and has already had people contact him, offering to take him where he needs to go.
“I always come back to landscapes,” Roy says. “When I go out on the Trans-Canada (Highway), out of St. John’s, this is where I start to live. I love small places.”
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