News : 2012

"Big spaces of a redesigned hardware store are just right for artists' home and studios"
Janice Ryan, Edmonton Journal

Inspired by Mulhurst Bay

Big spaces of a redesigned hardware store are just right for artists' home and studios

Janice Ryan, Edmonton Journal

photo credit: Rick Macwilliam

In 1997, Isla Burns and Phil Darrah traded the city for Mulhurst Bay, a quaint, lakeside hamlet southwest of Edmonton. At the time, both artists were teaching at the University of Alberta's department of art and design, renting two studios in Nisku and maintaining their west end home. The cost of keeping three spaces was high and the regular 45-minute studio commute was a time zapper.


On a whim, they walked into a real estate office one Saturday to explore their options.


The agent started by visiting their studios; Burns is a metal sculptor and Darrah, a painter.


"She knew about our studio requirements before she saw our house," Darrah says with a grin.


"I said, we definitely don't want a basement and I want to be able to drive my fork lift into the living room, and she didn't blink an eye," says Burns.


A fork-lift-friendly habitat would allow Burns to view her hefty sculptures in a domestic setting, a privilege previously off-limits.


They saw 14 properties but it was the first one, a 4,000-square-foot vacant hardware store, that caught their eye. The six-year-old building boasted 14-foot-high ceilings, concrete floors with underfloor heating and an industrial overhead door so Burns could drive her truck right into the studio.


Except for a utility room and small office, the building was wide open; they were free to design without the hassle of tearing down walls.


This was a dream in the making and well worth the houranda-quarter drive to the university. Finally, their abode and studios would thrive under one, very large roof.


Moving to the country was seamless for Darrah, raised in rural Royal Airforce camps throughout the United Kingdom. Burns was born in Calcutta and lived in several Indian cities before arriving in Canada, however, and thus was thoroughly citified.


She jokes that her preferred way to view landscape was through a pane of glass in the car. Surprisingly, the wilderness and proximity to Pigeon Lake deeply affected her and as a result her practice. Her sculptures shifted from geometric, modernist creations to soulful, organic forms.


"The stands of trees that Isla sees in various seasons have nourished a number of her major works," says Darrah.


Their three-acre property is dotted with groves of trees and a pond. I peer up at the purple marten house to see a few stragglers preparing to fly south. Sightings of moose, deer, cougar, wolves, bear, golden eagles, western tanager, owls and nesting tree swallows are reminders that suburbia is afar.


An architect divided the space into thirds. The living area consists of an open-concept kitchen, living room, office, two bedrooms and a loft. An eclectic mix of artwork and antiquities offers an ambience that is both contemporary and elegant.


A sliding wooden barn door separates the living area from Darrah's studio, a cornucopia of canvases, brushes, stacks of rainbow-coloured pots of paint, carpentry tools, long work tables for drawing, a computer and library. Two tall, double-sided vertical screens can secure up to four canvases.


A partially completed, 20-foot sail boat and a rug for Sally, the 15yearold border collie-cross, completes the scene. Everything including the boat is on wheels, allowing the studio to be easily reconfigured.


Older works are archived in a ceiling-height corridor extending the length of the 100-foot building while newer, rolled paintings waiting to be stretched are at stored ground level. French doors and large windows bathe the studio in light.


"As Isla has said often, you make what you look at fondly," says Darrah. "For me right now, it is water, sky and trees."


"The seasons with its colour and light changes affect what's happening in the studio," says the abstract painter. "The paintings done in the spring are different to the ones done mid-summer or winter."


Darrah pulls some winter paintings. The palette and mood are somber compared to the shocks of fuchsia, lime and cobalt in the summer canvases. His loose, gestural mark-making adds fluidity and a painterly touch to his abstractions.


"I am more interested in percept - things that are perceived, visually absorbed and digested - as opposed to concept or ideas," he says. "I work intuitively but within gradually shifting landmarks."


At the moment, the spiralling tendrils of the climbing grape vine off the deck are of interest.


Exhibiting for more than 50 years, Darrah's work is held in collections from The Winspear Centre, where Calix (1996) hangs 25 feet tall in the lobby, to Hong Kong and Dubai. He taught at the U of A from 1968 to 2003.


Two sets of steel, fire-retardant doors and an insulated fire wall separate his studio from Burns. A shrine of fresh flowers and the elephant-god Ganesh greet you at the door, a nod to the deity revered for overcoming obstacles.


A tangle of industrial scrap metal sits on the floor. Burns works primarily in steel as well as, bronze, brass, silver and gold. Nearby lay welders, an air hammer, anvils, experience and a good deal of sweat. There is a blend of organic forms manipulated from lighter steel, shapes carved from solid, threeinch bar and found objects.


"The thing I am most grateful about is that I am healthy and am able, at 60 years of age, to still drag this stuff around," she says, adding that her productivity has tripled since retiring in 2010.


Burns has exhibited for more than three decades and is collected at home - Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Canada Council Art Bank - and abroad: City of Barcelona and Abu Dhabi.


How do you amicably live and work together under the same roof around the clock?


"We have a commonality of purpose," Darrah says with a smile.


For images of the artists' work go to probertsongallery. com. Both are featured in the 7 Years in the City: Art from the AGA Collection until Sept 30. Additional studio photos at vices, cutting and heating torches, grinders, a chop saw and oxygen acetylene tanks, all tools of persuasion for Burns to bend, twist, carve and forge the metal.


Lifting devices include a 180degree jib crane capable of lifting over one tonne, a fork lift and a wall of chains and slings.


Burns' steel sculpture Caravel (1991), outside City Hall, weighs three tonnes. Incongruent for a petite, ivory-skinned redhead perhaps, but Burns is most comfortable clad in protective eye-wear, steelcapped boots and a leather jacket and apron with a heavy-duty tool in hand.


Sparks fly as she grinds a piece of steel.


"I'm born to grind," she quips, "the coffee in the morning and everything in between."


Among raw scraps are 20 finished sculptures, free-standing and wall mounted, for her upcoming show, "Samskara," opening Sept. 13 at the Peter Robertson Gallery.


The new sculptures fuse themes from her past work - still life, vessels, pillars, altars and landscapes - a culmination of 35 years of experience.