"Like watching paint dry"
June 7, 2012

 Artist Tom Forrestall in his studio -- a still from Fire in the Valley.

Since January, Courtney Kelsey (BFA 2010) and Zac Barkhouse (BFA 2008) have been visiting artist Tom Forrestall in his studio at least once a week and filming the progression of one painting.

The film “is like watching paint dry,” says Zac, as he adds quickly, “in a good way.”

Called Fire in the Valley after one of the artist’s paintings from the 1970s, the film is finished for the most part—a version was been showing last month at Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto alongside a Tom Forrestall exhibition—but the two friends and artistic collaborators have kept up their weekly visits, cameras in tow.

“We don’t interrupt. He just does exactly what he would do if we weren’t there,” says Zac.

“He just talks as he paints, laying out his critiques and ideology, always questioning,” adds Courtney. “He’s so engaged in the artistic process.”

So far, they’ve captured the entire process behind the painting called Beach at Night, from early sketches and explorations, to under-drawing on the canvas, and then layer upon layer of applying marks. There have been occasional forays outside the studio—but only as far as the kitchen when another cup of coffee is called for.

The 76-year-old Forrestall has dedicated himself to art for six decades. Born in Middleton in the Annapolis Valley, he took art classes as a child at what was then called the Nova Scotia College of Art (now NSCAD University) and later attended Mount Allison University on a scholarship. Shortly after graduation in 1958, he received his first major commission—a painting to be presented to Princess Margaret on the occasion of her wedding as a gift of the Province of New Brunswick. Soon after, he was able to devote himself to painting full-time. Considered to be from the “magic realist” school, he is particularly known for including eyes in his paintings and for the unusual shapes of his canvases. His principal media are egg tempera and watercolor.

The younger artists are in awe of his discipline and rigorous critical approach. Their own work, shot using hand-held cameras, is looser, rawer.  Even so, their film “is as quiet and focused as he is,” says Zac. “We just happen to be there as he engages in their conversation with his painting … you really get in tight and get a close-up view of what is usually a very private process.”

The two—Zac is originally from Eastern Passage, Courtney from Brockville, Ont. — have been collaborating on projects since they met at NSCAD University in their Foundation year. Other collaborations include photo projects focused on the Kentucky Derby and cruise ship tourists in Miami and the Bahamas and several short films. As well as the Forrestall film, they’re also working on a film called Devil’s Island, a site-specific piece about isolation and the “loneliness of being out at sea.”