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A softened realism under menacing skies

Artist Ross Penhall's new book covers two decades of painting the region



When artist Ross Penhall retired from firefighting five years ago after 29 years, he found he had an artistic career waiting for him.

It was a second career that had roots in his earliest days.

"I was an artist first, from Grade 6 or something. I joined the fire service to have that adventure. It was a great experience," he says.

"My art was doing well... I was getting busy by the time I left it."

Penhall had already been creating his mysterious, sometimes menacing landscapes for years, building an international reputation on its softened realism.

"(Describing the work as) menacing is great. People look at it as illustrative or decorative, but I love lights and shadow and sculptural forms. The Group of Seven were all illustrators and I come from that background as well," he says.

"It all hit home when I was younger, the stormy skies and the light breaking through."

His influences include A.J. Casson of the Group of Seven and American painters Grant Wood, who made American Gothic, and Georgia O'Keefe.

Penhall prepares for a new painting with multiple drawings and testing what skies or moods will work with the scene he wants to present.

"I don't paint exactly as I see something. It's a fragment or reminiscence of it," he says.

Now he has brought these works together in his first book, Ross Penhall's Vancouver: Surrounding Areas and Places that Inspire.

"The pressure was kind of on from other artists who were surprised that I hadn't done a book yet," he says.

He found the task of creating it to be daunting and was happy to attract the interest of Random House, which published it.

"I was responsible for imagery and text. The rest I just handed off to Toronto and it disappeared. They sent back beautiful proofs. It was such a collaborative effort that was so much fun," Penhall says.

Penhall is speaking about his work and holding a book signing at Nita Lake Lodge on Saturday, April 16, at 4 p.m.

The paintings selected for the book stem from the start of his career, in the mid-1990s, to today. The Horseshoe Bay-based artist has had long ties with Whistler, including as a ski patroller.

There are three paintings from Whistler in the book, two of forest paths and a winter scene of Black Tusk.

"It is so fun to see a consistency of the work. Just to see how all the pieces are and yet how they come together, it's really great," he says.

"I lived in Whistler a year and then I was off to join... the fire department."

Proceeds from book sales will go to Artists for Kids, a program that teaches art and provides scholarships to students from North Vancouver.

Ross Penhall's Vancouver: Surrounding Areas and Places that Inspire will be available at the event and at Armchair Books in Whistler Village.


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