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Sketch club artist follows an inspired journey

Victoria Sketch Club's 108th annual show at Glenlyon Norfolk Junior School in Oak Bay runs through Saturday
From the moment she started drawing as a young child

Nirmala Greenwell recalls drawing a shoe as a child – she was just four or five at the time – when a passing relative commented ‘you are an artist!’

That relative was right.

Later, a young Greenwell would be captivated by the perspective and receding planes of a chair drawn by her father, and she wanted to draw that too. Y-outhful inspiration also came from a compendium of Shakespeare’s works, whose frontispiece was the painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais depicting Ophelia floating down a river surrounded by flowers and foliage.

“I didn’t know the story, but there was so much mystery and beauty in that painting that I went back to look at it time and again, wondering not only why is she drowning, but how did the artist paint that? That finally came full circle when my husband and I visited the Tate gallery in London two years ago and we saw the real thing, an amazing painting.”

As a teen, she saw a painting by Rembrandt and knew then that she wanted to paint.

“I went out, bought oil paints and painted on hardboard. I still have a painting I made back then of the young soldier Pallas Athene by Rembrandt.”

Greenwell is among the many members of the historic Victoria Sketch Club participating in its 108th annual show at Glenlyon Norfolk Junior School through Sunday.

The Victoria Sketch Club is the oldest Canadian art group west of Ontario. It was formed in 1908 as The Island Arts Club, comprised of 56 charter members, including such famous names as Samuel Maclure and Emily Carr.

Renamed the Island Arts and Crafts Society, it dominated the local art scene throughout the inter-war period and by 1935 was the largest group of its kind in the country. In addition to Emily Carr, leading artists included Max Maynard, Jack Shadbolt and Ina Uhtoff. Other notable members included Ted Harrison.

Born and educated in Trinidad, West Indies, Greenwell earned the award of excellence for art upon high school graduation. An influential teacher encouraged her to major in fine arts and English literature at the University of British Columbia, says Greenwell, who taught art in Trinidad and other subjects in Canada.

“In a course with Toni Onley, students learned about the techniques of the masters and we were required to copy a major painter. I chose Rembrandt’s Bather and still have that painting. I saw this paintings two years ago in London and felt once more that things had come full circle.”

Surrounded by the arts in various forms from an eary age, “my mother had an aesthetic sensibility which she applied to her homemaking, creating beautiful floral arrangements from foliage around the house and intricate concentric embroideries on bedspreads that she had sewn,” recalls Greenwell, who paints in a traditional representational style, but carries an appreciation for all genres and styles.

Early sales of pen-and-ink sketches prompted her to broaden her approach. Working in a variety of media, from pen, pencil and charcoal to watercolours and oil, she moved into acrylics about 10 years ago.

While “subject matter is unlimited – anything and everything that has a shape is grist for my artistic mill, and can be drawn or made into a painting” – landscapes and portraits are common subjects.

Capturing a scene, on canvas or in memory, before the light changes can be challenging, but rewarding.

“I enjoy the challenges of ‘plein air’ painting. My quest is to try and capture fleeting moments and light with a dash of mystery perhaps,” says Greenwell, who also undertakes commissioned work.

One of her first paintings won the Best Painting on Canvas award at the Sidney Fine art show.

“It was very validating to get that award, and spurred me on further to paint more. People seem to like what I do and are willing to own it, which is further motivating. As a result some of my paintings are around the world,” Greenwell says.

Still, as an artist, she knows perfection is elusive.

“I always feel I can do better. There’s always something to learn,” she says.

“I love to paint, and am still waiting to paint that elusive masterpiece.”