West Coast Art Comes Home

Thursday August 29th, 2013 @ 3:26pm

As a chiaroscuro sunset flames out over the mudflats, two wolves keep vigil: one on high alert, attuned to distant music, perhaps the flicker of wings; its mate, reclining gracefully, golden eyes riveted to some subtle movement in the long grass, ready to spring. The ephemeral moment caught in this naturalistic tableau is characteristic of artist Mark Hobson’s work and his practiced observation of his wild, west coast environs.

The new Mark Hobson Gallery opening in downtown Tofino this July will provide permanent home for a panorama of west coast scenes from his vast oeuvre of work.

“There is not any place in Canada that inspires me as much. I feel like this is a place to celebrate,” said Hobson, who, through a quarter-century as a professional artist and his conservation advocacy has become an ambassador for the west coast.

“It’s just got so much drama. I'm absolutely thrilled with the way nature is put together,” said Hobson, who has a background in biology. Lifting the curtain to reveal “a split second in their world,” Hobson clarifies that wildlife is a focal point for what he’s really interested in: their habitat. Every carefully placed rock, lichen and twig is part of that story.

Hobson invites vicarious discovery of the three-dimensional ocean “fantasyland” he explores as an avid diver; his unique area as a wildlife painter. Only a fin’s breadth separates us from Tiger Rockfish, swirling sea lions, or pod of whales.

A master of light, he plays with that feeling of being underwater as a “moving stained glass window” illuminates a kelp forest, thick as Cathedral Grove. “On a foggy day, when the light is cranked up on steroids instead of a typical grey, the water is a weird – thalo – green and flashes of sunlight create warm, wonderful golds and browns.”

In Sea Otter: Below the Surface the animal’s direct gaze contrasts with those on land, often depicted as turned away, like the bear ambling across mudflats, comfortable and going about its business. Underwater you need to be able to identify the creature; it might be unrecognizable swimming away, explained Hobson. Here, the sea otter’s white head and large whiskers differentiate it from the river otter. Tucked under its arm, the bright magenta urchin provides colour accent, and hints at accurate biological detail: an unseen pouch of loose skin to carry food and a stone used to crack open hard-shelled delicacies.

Hobson tackles larger canvases when busy summers and the flow of visitors to his floathouse studio ebb. “On grey winter days, after cutting firewood and giving the dog a walk, what’s better to do than to paint?”

Even in February, he can often be found with a canvas propped in plein air waiting for clouds to break. He “thrives” on smaller 16 x 20 canvases easily packed underarm. Standing so still and focused that he becomes an accepted part of the environment. Wolves have come up to him in on the beach while he painted, and once, a pair of baby mink started chewing on his shoelaces until their mother arrived and freaked out.

Because he loves the west coast, Hobson takes small frustrations in stride: wintry chill, a paintbrush dropped between rocks, canvas blown facedown onto the sand, changing tides jostling a tied-up boat to remind him to occasionally break that artistic focus.

Well-traveled, Hobson also paints in situ abroad, captivated by deserts and cities in Croatia and Ireland. Returning home “all those ideas are replaced by what’s in front of me. I’m excited by what I see in the actual day I’m living.”

“Excited” and “thrilled” are staples of Hobson’s vocabulary, especially discussing a list of things he’d love to paint. A signature member of Canadian Federation of Artists, his passion proves the wisdom of his choice. In 1987, at age 30, he quit teaching high school science, and soon after, part-time work as parks interpreter to pursue art full-time.

“Always at the back of my mind, is the journey my grandmother took. It was a different era: painting was frivolous.” Her late, artistic discovery taught Hobson not to wait.

Combining his artist’s vision with love of place Hobson performs alchemy on even iconic local landscapes: Long Beach, Florencia and Cox Bays, infusing them with a dreamy otherworldly quality. “Often when painting those fleeting magical moments, we see early morning light, mist barely off the river, and within a few minutes it goes.”

Whose gaze do we share in Journey’s End’s low, heroic viewpoint? Hobson’s, or Nature’s?

Erin Linn McMullan is a local Tofino writer, editor, photographer who was born with an overdose of wanderlust and sense of adventure.