— Photo by Lillian Simmons/Special to The Telegram
Keli-Ann Pye-Beshara is handing out prizes on Facebook. “There’s a contest up and everybody can submit one photo of what “Home Means to Me,” she explains.
At the end of three weeks, entrants will vote for the Top 5 photos and Pye-Beshara will paint them live-stream from her studio in Holyrood. Winners will get a large stretch canvas print of the painting.
“I’m also doing five small prints and there’ll be random draws for everybody who enters, ‘cause I think everybody should win prizes. I frickin’ love prizes. I always did,” the public artist says.
Back in 1994 after finishing up a four-year fine arts degree at Grenfell College, art was the last thing Pye-Beshara wanted as a profession.
Although she was the child who, when other kids were drawing stick men, drew figures in fine detail — with little eyelashes, freckles, hair, patterns and designer clothes, she didn’t see it as a talent.
“I’ve never made any conclusions like I could do this for a living.”
But she chose to do fine arts anyway, and hated it, fighting it all the way.
“When I got there they had no time for realism and that’s all I ever did was just draw things like they looked.”
“That’s too tight,” they told her, “loosen it up, bend it, rip it, do something.” But as a young adult she wasn’t keen on being told what to do. “What an experience,” she recalls. “I learned a lot, but I didn’t realize it. I loved all my profs and I knew what they were doing — at the end of it. But it wasn’t till later that I appreciated everything they had done for me.”
“Starving artist” wasn’t a phrase she was fond of either. “So I ran far, far away from fine arts.”
First she took a job with a photography company in Corner Brook, travelling all around Newfoundland taking glamour shots, “where the women got all done up in feathers and gloves.”
“It was crazy popular. We’d go to the tiniest little towns and photograph 300 women — where did they all come from?”
Then she did an interior design course, taking a job with a fabric company in Toronto, and later working with the same company in Vancouver. From there, she moved to Halifax to start an interior design business, (Inside Out Designs), with a friend.
That’s where she met her husband, Brent Beshara, a military man. When he got posted to Borden, Ont., the couple settled in Stayner and Pye-Beshara found a job at a publishing company in nearby Collingwood. It was there she found her art.
Her husband (“Besh”) hounded her about her talents whenever he had the chance, introducing her at parties as an artist.
“I’m not an artist,” she’d protest.
“I think he could see I could do it on my own, but I wasn’t confident enough.”
When the Collingwood company went under, she felt it was an opportunity to do something she really wanted to do. But what?
View from the Café
One day the couple stopped into a French restaurant in Collingwood. They took a seat on a leather couch in the front window, sipping coffee, the smell of croissants prepared by the French chef drifting around under the 20-foot ceilings, lingering between the chartreuse walls.
“And I went: Wow. I could paint here,” Pye-Beshara says. “And Besh went: that’s it then.”
After putting up a weak fight, she prepared a proposal and submitted it to the restaurant. She would set up and paint in front of the window, while chatting to patrons and answering their questions.
She and her husband discussed prices for her work.
“I knew if I built the price up year by year, I’d sink before I could swim, so I knew I had to fake it till I made it.”
Her not-quite-blossoming confidence said, “You can possibly, maybe charge $400 for a 24 by 36.”
“Besh said, ‘You know you can’t.’ And I said to him, ‘Besh, I’ve never charged $1,500 for a painting. I’m not even an artist.’”
The restaurant loved the idea. Could she start right away?
“I had to buy paint, easels; I had to buy art-looking things so it looked like I knew what I was doing.”
Four days later she set up in front of 30 patrons.
“I get up on my stool and I was like, Oh my God, I’ve lost my mind!
“Just start painting, just stick your brush in the paint,” she guided herself, faking calmness.
“They were asking, ‘Are you going to paint?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I think I am.’”
She began to paint exactly what she saw through the window. She hadn’t even finished View from the Café when a woman wanted to buy it.
“Then another woman came up and said: No, I want it. And I thought, OK, someone will buy one of my paintings for $1,500. And that’s when I thought, perhaps I can do this.”
With a little more confidence and a love of architecture and buildings, she knew if she could get commissions for structures she’d have a good, steady income. She just needed one person to ask for a commission.
When a friend was looking for a wedding gift but couldn’t afford her commission price of $600, Pye-Beshara dropped the price to $150 and, with a promise not to tell anyone, her friend accepted it.
It was the commission she needed.
“There are gorgeous houses in Georgian Bay, so I started getting lots of commissions.”
She continued with the commission work from 2006-08.
“I was actually making a living at art. With each painting that sells you get more confidence. I just never could have imagined that could be me. I’m still in disbelief really.”
Sitting in the café, Pye-Beshara found herself painting and talking all the while, sometimes to 300 people a day.
“I didn’t know I had those skills. People talk to you about serious things. It’s like therapy really. I was like a bartender, because I was there, I was pretty stationary and people could just come and chat. I knew all about people’s divorces. I knew everything, but didn’t say anything.”
She chatted with hundreds of people and then felt terrible if she didn’t recognize them when they said “Hi” at the supermarket.
One day a woman whose brother had just died walked up to her.
“Apparently we used to talk. He’d come every two or three months, specifically to sit and we’d chat.”
Before he passed away he asked his sister to tell the artist that the conversations they’d had changed his life and affected him so greatly he wanted to say thanks.
“I didn’t remember him, and I felt awful. That was my turning point. I felt so, so bad and Besh said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to listen to the positive of that story. Just know that your interaction was great because you were sincere. It doesn’t mean you have to remember it.’ And that’s when I thought, it’s OK. As long as you’re doing it for real and at the time you’re there for the person and sincere.”
A couple of years went by and Pye-Beshara found herself getting anxious about the work. She moved across the street to a public art studio. Some of the artists there weren’t working on commissions but painting for themselves, something she longed to do.
“It wasn’t actually until we moved back to Newfoundland (in 2009) that I finally made the big decision to stop doing commissions.
“Something opened up when I moved back here, something unlocked for me. I was just super inspired. To be back where my favourite artists are was another thing that made me step up my game. Because I’d think, imagine if Gerry Squires ever sees my paintings. They gotta be good.”