ARTIST Q & A: Darlene Cole on her latest exhibition KISSING TREES


Artwork details: "Kissing trees (stepped on a feather bed)," Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 inches.


In advance of the artist's upcoming exhibition Kissing Trees, Bau-Xi Gallery sits down with Darlene Cole to learn more about her process. To offer a deeper perspective on Cole's conceptual touchstones, we asked her to comment specifically on one painting from the exhibition which captures the essence of this latest series.

Q: Your recent series “Kissing Trees” is, in your words, an exploration of the “wildly private”—the feeling that nature is a “room” or interior with its own sense of comfort and intimacy, but also an element of play, or danger. The figure in this painting—“Kissing Trees (stepped on a feather bed)”—appears to be inside a semi-abstract world of nature. Where is she? What is she thinking?

Darlene Cole: There are particular trees that I visit often in the historic parts of neighbouring towns. Every Saturday I walk by a pair of magnolias…which I believe may be evergreen magnolias (they had some blooms in September and still have their leaves in November). In full bloom, these trees are all-encompassing; I wanted this painting to have the feeling of a union between the figure and the canopy of the magnolia. There is very much an abstract quality to the blooms, and when I stand back there is such a haunting beauty to them as they converse with one another. I wanted to come closer to the Magnolia as I was painting, as if to preserve and protect it. At the same time, the figure could be viewed as the protector of the tree—a reciprocal relationship that works when both sides are listening. 

Q: Do you have ‘characters’ in the exhibition—I am thinking particularly of the woman in “Kissing Trees (unravel)” who wears a period hat in a three-quarter pose. I know each painting is a ‘relative’ of another, so wonder if this work has any companions.

Darlene Cole: The figures in “Kissing Trees” are wrapped up in textures/fabrics. The hat in “(unravel)” echoes the unraveling of silk or velvet ribbons and flowers. Rather than looking into the past, I wanted to contemplate the future with the simplicity of the blush background. I hope that all of the paintings in my show could be companions with one another in conversation. As I work in the studio, it is part of my comic relief to pair paintings side-by-side — often introducing two very different paintings—only to find to my surprise a great quirky conversation.


"Kissing Trees (wild roses)" in the artist's studio

Q:  Your painting technique is truly your own: your works are vibrant and textured, but somehow your brushstrokes also seem to fade away before our eyes, giving each scene a sense of weightlessness that unique to your practice. How does a painting begin for you? In the case of “(stepped on a feather bed)”, do you begin with your figure, or “character,” and build up the composition from there? Does the order of your painting correspond to how you conceive of each composition?

Darlene Cole: I work very intuitively—sometimes I start with the figure, sometimes the background. It really depends on where the figure is in the picture plane. It is actually more of a subconscious act for me—I feel my way through the work and the layering. I don’t plan out too much for a painting…if I do, I find then I have “done that” and I need to keep the excitement of something continuously unfolding. Working things out directly on the canvas for me is feeling the butterflies of the “first time.”

Cole's first concept sketch for "Kissing Trees"


Q: What is your relationship to palettes? In this piece, light, airy rose is anchored by deeper, mossy tones. The balance of values seems to say something about the narratives which inform your work. Can you speak to this marriage of form and story a little bit?

Darlene Cole: I think that there is a conscious tension—a mystery that I am layering in each painting.

Q: Can you tell me about the title: both “kissing trees”—which is your series title—and “(stepped on a feather bed)”?

Darlene Cole: We were driving on some back roads in a rainstorm. The rain was creating streams of water in the mud and the wind was bending the trees as they canopied over the road. In the fury of the storm I couldn’t help but think that the trees were comforting each other as they “kissed” over the road. There was something cinematic about it all, like an orchestra building to a climax. “(stepped on a feather bed)” is like hitting that moment of calm when you are caught in a moment. The feathers allow you to pause and sink in. I’ve always been intrigued with the interior existing in the landscape. The feather bed is a reference to that.

At a nearby estate, I experienced a smoke tree in full bloom. I went back a couple of days later with my paint smock and walked around the bowing branches in my bare feet. The sensation of the moss under my feet and the “smoke” around my head transported me. It is this union of nature and humanity—landscape and figure—that transcends me and makes me aware of the fragility of nature and how important it is for our bodies to listen and to feel nature. “Kissing trees”—they are whispering to listen, to feel, to protect.

The artist, Darlene Cole, visiting her inspiration


Q: The magnolia motif has appeared before in your paintings; what is your relationship to this imagery?

Darlene Cole: The magnolia fascinates me—hauntingly beautiful, the duality that it represents: fragility and strength. The blooms of the magnolia were pollinated by beetles because the trees appeared before bees did.

Q: Each of your paintings incorporates a marker of innocence—a child, a rabbit—some signal to memory. What is your marker in this latest series?

Darlene Cole: Kissing Trees incorporates a few markers: the rabbit, a clock, palm trees, and a crazy quilt— one that was left unfinished that I purchased from an antique dealer while working on this body of work. I see the quilt as a reference to Canada’s recently celebrated history, and particularly to women’s labour. I can feel the quilt in present tense more so because of its raw state and I see beauty in that. Many of the quilt’s colours are echoed in this show, the velvets particularly.

Darlene Cole's vintage quilt

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