The most distinctive aspect of Jo C. Willems’ art work is her trails. They snake and weave through trees, alpine meadows and snow, rich in texture and detail, sometimes fading into the distance, and other times getting lost in the background.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise — the trail is where Willems found her calling as an artist in the 70s, and where she resumed her work several years ago.
“The trail for me is like Monet’s water lilies in the sense it’s something I know intimately well,” she said, referring to the French master’s series of oil paintings. “I spent a decade walking on trails and now I travel them very, very often, either on snowshoe or on bike. To me they’re that intimate subject matter that I know really well. I just hang the rest of the painting around it.”
Willems said she always knew she would be an artist, but it took her until university to follow her passion. As a kid, she never had any art supplies and would paint with food colouring. She studied microbiology at the University of British Columbia, but while there, she took an art class as an elective.
“I never actually gave myself permission to be an artist until I took that class,” she said. “It totally shifted my whole sense of the world.”
Her instructor Toby MacLennan provided the inspiration. “What she taught was my voice, how to communicate,” Willems said. She discovered things in art that she loved in science. “What happened was all of the awesome things I found about science, I could do in art without having to prove anything.”
After graduating, she spent a year taking art classes at the University of Victoria before enrolling in a masters program at the University of California in Irvine. While there, she became fascinated by body movements. For her thesis, she biked from Irvine to Victoria, tracking the changes in her body as she went along. “The changes were unexpected and profound — a whole sense of confidence in myself physically,” she said.
The trip inspired her. In the summer of 1979, she and her sister Mugs walked the Pacific Crest Trail north through California. The next year, they hiked south through Washington and Oregon.
In 1983, they hiked the Great Divide Trail together, back when the trail was more a concept than a physical thing. Using maps and compasses, they spent eight months hiking the 5,000 kilometre route, raising money for the Kinsmen Rehabilitation Foundation. “My sister and I have the distinction of being the two shortest people to take the longest time to hike the Great Divide,” she said.
The sisters couldn’t afford a lot of film, so instead Willems brought a paint pad and small tablet with her, capturing scenes along the way. When the trip ended, she kept painting, trying to capture as much detail as possible. She wanted it so if you focused on only part of a painting, you would still experience a whole work.
“To me that’s what nature is. The artist is someone who captures their experience of what its is,” she said. “To me that experience is this enormous story that happens all the time, that’s way bigger than me.”
Willems stopped painting when PhotoShop came out. The fact you could turn a photo into a watercolour with the click of the button scared her. Then, one day a few years ago, someone gave her a collection of postcards featuring Claude Monet’s water lily paintings. She wondered why Monet painted so many water lilies.
“It occurred to me he was painting his passion,” she said. “By simplifying his subject matter, he could focus on what was really important, which for him was light. He could repeat the same subject matter, but focus on painting.”
This re-ignited Willems passion for art. She began taking a sketchpad with her on her bike rides, focusing on trails much like Monet focused on water lilies. She began with sketches until one day, while raking leaves from a trail on CPR Hill, a passerby saw her working and urged her to begin painting again.
She started by doing black and white graphite paintings before moving back into water colours. Then she started painting with gouache — a heavier and more opaque paint. “It has this marvellous translucent quality in the way it hits the light and yet it has a denseness to it, so it’s kind of like oil painting in a lot of ways,” she said.
About two years ago, Willems started displaying her work again. Last fall, her work was featured in one of the side galleries at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre as an exhibit called Journey.
“It’s not just the journey of the trail, it’s also the journey of using all the elements in an image as the medium, so the medium is not just the paint, but it’s also the trees, because they’re so familiar,” she said. “I use each of those parts of the painting to create a visual journey.
“I try to use each painting to sculpt a story.”
Willems’ work can be seen and purchased at the downtown ArtFirst gallery. It is also on display at the library and at the Juniper Gallery on Bowen Island, B.C. She teaches two classes at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre. To see more of her work, visit her website at jocwillems.com.