Local artists are dusting off their canvases and sweeping out their studios in preparation for the 20th annual Spring Beach Studio Tour, May 3 through 5. This is an excellent opportunity to wander through the Beach just as the neighbourhood is greening up, and visit the many studio locations where you can meet, speak with – and purchase works by – local artists, anything from fine art to jewelry, fabric art, pottery or photography. You can find out more information about the tour, including participating artists and their studio locations by visiting beachstudiotour.ca.
Although she has an Honours BA in fine art from the University of Western Ontario, Helen Billett had never considered herself an “artist” until a few years ago. Ironically for this artist who is making her third appearance on the Beach Studio Tour, it was a visit to the tour that launched her current career.
“Oh yes, I painted, sculpted … did everything at university,” the vivacious young mother of two said, but acknowledged she really didn’t feel she was an artist herself. She worked at Wynick/Tuck Gallery and was responsible for cataloguing the works of artists like Doris McCarthy. “Those are real artists!,” she said. “I mean, Doris McCarthy actually went to the Arctic and painted!”
For several years before having children Billett was the senior web designer for Chapters-Indigo. “My job there was making the website ‘pretty.’ I designed newsletters, and did some graphics.”
After her second child was born she “decided to be with the kids for awhile” and began exploring doing digital design at home.
“It was the Beach Studio Tour that got me back into art again,” said Billett.
A visit to the studio of Nathalie Vachon rekindled the artist inside, and she ended up not only buying one of Nathalie’s pieces, but taking several art classes with her. “I thought ‘maybe I’ll give this a shot… try a few paintings.’”
Recently Billett and Vachon did a pop-up shop together, Pop Goes the Easel, along the Danforth, part of the DECA initiative.
Billett’s art is a mix of large-scale brightly-coloured works on canvas, and digital art that she creates using Photoshop and Illustrator, two computer programs that allow for creative processing. As she explained, she will take a section of one of the large canvases, scan it on a special scanner, then use the computer to digitally manipulate the image. She can add other images in a layering technique, alter the colour of both foreground and background images, scale everything up or down, and create finished files which she then sends to a commercial art printer. That printer will create a gicleé print of the final work. Some of those images have also been transferred to fabric from which Billett has created designer pillows.
“You can really achieve some fun things,” she said. Billett is also learning the equally fine art of making a living as an artist. She has recently looked into licensing her art to such outlets as poster companies, and was thrilled when her mother called her to say that on a visit to HomeSense she saw large prints of a series of poppies Helen had created and licensed. “It’s nice,” she said, “to get regular royalties.”
Her online design business, Meringue Inc. (meringueinc.ca), features prints, patterned fabric designs, things for children and other home décor items.
She calls her original painting “organized chaos. I find it’s intuitive … process-driven,” she said, allowing a brief flash of seriousness to take away her bubbly smile. But in a matter of seconds she has brightened up again and says, “But I really love colour – obviously!”
Billett’s ‘studio’ is an area of her basement that is really the play room when the kids are home. We went downstairs to see a large, three-to-four foot square canvas propped up against the couch, resting on drop sheets that are scattered with tubes of paint and brushes. In the middle of the drop sheet was a balloon, obviously left over from some early morning play.
“I’m waiting for it to get nice so I can move this work outside on the deck,” she said. “Eventually I’d like my own studio out there.”
Billett related an interesting story from when she and her husband were renovating their home. They tore off old paneling leading down to the basement and uncovered strange collages covering both walls, presumably created by one of the former owners. She managed to carefully remove some and had them framed. They are now hanging back on the walls from whence they came.
Like so many artists, Billett works feverishly when the muse is upon her. “Sometimes it works great, and I’m up all night working on things,” she said. “Other times it just doesn’t come.”
She is keeping busy preparing for her third Studio Tour.
“I was nervous about the first one,” she said. “But I invited another artist, Lara Bazant, a jeweler, to join me. She’ll be joining me again this time. It’s great to chat with people, explain my work.” Billett’s studio is located at 31 Burgess, not far from Woodbine.
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