Fifty-four portraits adorn the walls of Le Chenail Cultural Centre in Hawkesbury at a past exhibition (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns)

Beyond the painting: a conversation with Barbara Farren

“I’m not the same person at all; I feel very different having done this,” says Barbara Farren of her art exhibit at Le Chenail Cultural Centre called The town’s faces and its community.

A lifelong painter, Farren grew up in southern Ontario and is Le Chenail’s current artist in residence. Her exhibit opened last Friday. 

The process

We sit at a tiny white table near a window and chat about the project’s evolution.

Farren’s inspiration comes from a similar project by an American artist from a few years ago. After meeting Lynda Clouette-MacKay, the centre’s director, Farren thought Hawkesbury would be a great place to recreate the project both because it’s similar to her hometown and Le Chenail’s presence.

Barbara Farren spends about eight hours on each portrait. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns)

She began last April and every week since two or three people have sat for her for two to three hours each.

“It’s hard to sit still,” she says, “some are really good at it, others not so good.”

She explains her process: “I use oil, and I do a monochromatic drawing in paint to start with in order to get the placement of all the important features: eyes, nose, ears, mouth. It would take me about an hour to do the drawing and then I start the colour, but it’s not detailed in anyway.”

She takes a second and says, “I do try to get the eyes. I try to get the colour of the eyes and the reflection of the light before I leave because that’s really important. And then I take a photo of them so that I can finish.”

Every portrait takes about eight hours to complete.

“Now I just hope and pray that they all like their portraits.”

The final step in the process is the reveal. People meander into the gallery on Friday evening and instantly recognize either themselves or a friend among the 54 portraits currently hanging.

All subjects volunteer to have their portraits painted. Nicole Chartrand signed up as soon as she heard about it.

“It’s a little startling having someone stare at you for so long,” says Chartrand. But she says she’s extremely pleased with the outcome. 

Nicole Chartrand calls the experience of posing “a little startling.” (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns)

Farren weaves her way through the small crowd; every once in awhile she’s stopped by a subject and congratulated on the piece. She smiles, thanks them, chats for a second and thanks them again for their time.

I ask if she has a favourite. “I have a few,” she answers before beckoning me closer as she flits from portrait to portrait.

“He’s a great scientist… He sold suits for a long time, probably to my family… She’s another local artist…. Oh, everybody knows him… Would you believe that lady is in her late eighties?”

Those are only the ones currently hanging in the gallery; she has 67 portraits done and though the initial goal was to reach 100, she hopes to get to 80 before the exhibit closes in late March.

I get the sense her favourites are made up less of the accomplished paintings and more about the people’s stories. 

‘Artists aren’t good, really in social situations’

“An artist works alone at home and really doesn’t interact with people very much,” says Farren. “And every day that I was here, I met a different person, a stranger, I had to sit down with them, talk to them, and just that in itself was an amazing process.”

Language was sometimes an obstacle, especially when you don’t speak it fluently: “I think the same part of the brain that paints also does the language part. I could feel it fighting in there and had to stop painting to think of what I had to say.”

Other difficulties lingered long after the initial painting.

“Sometimes people would tell me things and I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I would have to not work on their portrait for a while,” she admits. “That was all I could do, I didn’t know how else to handle it.”

But that meeting—that conversation—was crucial to Farren’s work.

“People have told me when they look at the pictures, they can feel the character of the person and their personality. I think that’s because I’m talking to them and because we’re engaged together at that level. That’s the only way to get those results.”

Once the exhibit’s time at Le Chenail is done, Farren is hoping to bring it to her hometown in southern Ontario.

In April, she’ll be travelling to Fabriano, Italy to display some of her watercolour work. Otherwise, she’s unsure where her art will take her next.

“I have to think of something because once this is over, I’m worried I’ve been so busy with it—it’s all I think about most of the time—and it’s going to be like a big void at the end of it,” she admits.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

(Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns)

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