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An ode to trees

Pemberton artist's first solo exhibit for month-long MY Place exhibit

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What: West Coast Trees Artist Reception

When: Friday, June 2, 6-9 p.m.

Where: MY Millennium Place

Admission: Free

From painting sets of feature film blockbusters such as X-Men to running her own specialty painting business, Pemberton artist Helen Utsal was able to see the forest through the trees, culminating in her first solo exhibit West Coast Trees for the month of June at MY Millennium Place.

"I painted the backdrop for this Geena Davis movie," Utsal explains from her home studio in Pemberton of one of her film adventures.

"We painted a whole sound stage. It was huge. It looked like Whistler with big fir trees and coniferous trees. It was really freeing. You are not painting with brushes anymore. Instead you are using rollers and sprayers and you have to stand at least 100 feet away to see if it looks good. Close up it looks like a crazy mess."

Spending 12 years on movie, commercial, music video and television sets, Utsal was forced to look at the bigger picture of her art rather than get caught up in the finicky details so often plaguing her artworks during her studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

"Naturally I am a realist," the Montreal native says. "I used to get too caught up in the details. Working on these big, huge pieces with large stuff really taught me to break the picture down into elements – using essential composition rather than all finicky details. It loosened me up a lot."

The fumes of working with industry materials forced the IATSE member and art alchemist to pursue a workplace with more breathing room, resulting in a move from Toronto to Whistler in 2001.

With dozens of feature films to her credit, Utsal’s expert hand was reduced to slogging out a paint brush on home interiors at $15 an hour when she first came to Whistler.

Two years later, she rolled out her own business, Helena Nutshell, specializing in wood graining, specialty painting and mural work as well as plaster, paint and wood finishes. Her savvy of transforming cheap wooden film sets into sumptuous realistic-looking materials, such as giving the X-Men Statue of Liberty a faux copper finish, was the perfect fit for her entrepreneurial adventure. Her brushstrokes grace numerous private residences, restaurants and hotels, including the five-star Atlantis Casino & Resort in the Bahamas.

From Toronto skyscrapers to B.C.’s wooded giants, Utsal couldn’t help getting swept up in B.C.’s ancient forests and majestic mountains, resulting in an ode to trees for her first Whistler exhibition. She seeks to capture the essence of the West Coast landscape with aromatic cedar groves and verdant forests.

"Some trees look like they are reaching up, others look so sad: I like them for their variety, on a simplistic level. It’s definitely B.C.," she says. "I am inspired by its casual exuberance and abundance. Light and shadows play across leaves and landscape. I look to simplify the patterns and shapes found there."

Sixteen new oil paintings will be exposed to public viewing for the first time, a venture spurred by the anticipated birth of Utsal’s now two-year-old son.

"When I got pregnant, I started to produce paintings because I thought ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will,’" she says. "He was a real impetus to get my art career rolling. Now I am busier than ever, but I seem to be doing more than ever somehow."

Mother, business owner, outdoors reveler, Utsal now focuses on her role as artist, launching a new career at her MY Place exhibit. Join the artist at a public reception Friday, June 2 from 6 to 9 p.m. to learn more about her work.

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