Yvette Gagnon holds one of her works. (photo from Yvette Gagnon)
Yvette Gagnon, a local French-Canadian multimedia artist, uses a unique technique: she combines acrylic paintings with mosaics. The glass shards she glues to her canvasses create a three-dimensional effect, while supplying a glittery, festive atmosphere for every one of her joyful images. Her flowers wink and grin at you. Her trees hang over your head, their dense foliage providing shade from the sun and homes for the birds. Her works, decorative and bright, infuse many local homes with her enthusiasm and imagination.
In a recent interview with the Jewish Independent, Gagnon reminisced about how her artistic path began.
“My grandmother lived next door to my family when I grew up. She was always creating something, and I loved that she always included me in her little art projects,” shared Gagnon. “One morning, I remember running in our backyard and I was blown away by the wildflowers that had opened over the night. I ran to my grandmother’s house, to her craft room, and, with an idea in mind of what I was going to recreate, I started to work. When I was done, I was so proud of myself for having created something so beautiful on my own.”
Completely self-taught, creativity runs in her family. “My parents were very creative,” she said. “They didn’t call themselves artists. My father was a carver. My mother sewed all the clothes for our family. I believe my artistic gift came from them.”
Gagnon has worked different jobs over the years, some art-related, some not, but her creativity was always present, always illuminating her life. She was a painter before she started using glass.
“When my kids were growing up, I created a lot of folk art. It was popular in the ’70s,” she said. “Then, I gradually progressed to teaching myself trompe l’oeils and started painting murals for my clients.”
The idea of using glass in her paintings came when she was working as a home and office decorator. “It happened about 30 years ago,” she said. “I was picking up glass shelves for a client and I found myself looking at tons of shattered glass on the ground in the shop’s backyard. I thought to myself: what can I do with this stuff? I asked the owner if I could take some, and he said, yeah sure. I took bags of glass home, washed it, put it in my closet, and started dreaming how I could create with it. Later, I used the glass to make large pieces for my clients. I think this technique has endless possibilities.”
Gagnon’s method lends itself beautifully to various art styles and themes. One of the pieces she produced recently was “The Tree of Life” for Jewish community members Irv and Betty Nitkin.
She originally met them not through her art but through Jewish Family Services. “I worked for JFS for three years, and my specialty was cooking. That’s how I met Irv and Betty Nitkin,” she explained. “I’ve been cooking for them once a week since the beginning. They have become like family over the years. They knew I was passionate about my glass art and they commissioned me to make ‘The Tree of Life’ for them.”
Trees and flowers are common features in Gagnon’s art. She loves gardening, and her garden is a constant source of inspiration. She has created a large series of painting dedicated to flowers.
Another inspiration is traveling. For years, she took in foreign students. “I was a ‘host mom,’ and kids from all over the world stayed with me,” she said. “They came from South America, Germany, France, the U.K. Long after they returned home, I might call them and say: I’d like to visit for a week or two. We made great memories during those visits. Not only did I get to see my ‘kids’ again, but I also met their parents. Those trips were fun.”
One of her latest trips – to France – inspired her latest series of paintings, “French Cottages.” A former home-stay invited Gagnon to visit them. “I spent a month in France. We walked around and talked. On the weekends, we drove to garage sales in the old villages. I went nuts taking pictures of the old architecture. Later, I couldn’t believe how many photos I took there. I photographed doors, windows, stairways and flowers. When I looked through those pictures after I returned home, I thought they were gorgeous. They reminded me of what I experienced there. I decided to base my newest series on them.”
Of course, the pandemic put a stop to other travel plans, but Gagnon hopes the situation will change soon. “I’d like to go to Thailand,” she said. “They have amazing art and nature. Maybe I would find my next series there.”
COVID also disrupted her exhibition prospects, as it did for the majority of artists. “Right now, my only exhibit is at Hollyburn Country Club, but, unfortunately, only members are allowed in,” said Gagnon. “The other exhibits were recently taken down. With COVID, it’s really hard. I feel it is artists’ biggest challenge now: finding venues for our art. But I’ve been invited to display my glass art in virtual galleries in New York, London and South America. And, of course, the hallway in the building where I live, off Commercial Drive, has many of my pieces.”
In all her paintings, Gagnon uses exclusively clear glass. “I never wanted to use coloured glass – I paint over the glass or leave it as is, especially on the black background. It all depends on my muse,” she explained. “Glass gives texture and depth to my pieces. They become more realistic with it.”
In the past, she could get all the broken glass she wanted for free, but that is no longer the case. “Now, for whatever reason, they don’t give away broken glass anymore,” she said. “I have to buy sheets of glass from a company in Abbotsford and then I break them up myself. I use every fragment of glass, large and small. I’m frugal this way. My parents and grandparents would be proud of me. I learned my frugality from them. I don’t waste anything.”
More often than not, the sizes and shapes of the glass in her storage bins direct her next painting. Wherever her glass leads, she follows.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].