“I had my own theatre company, but I always harboured this secret desire to be a visual artists,” says Ruth Bieber, visual artist and curator of Just Imagine, the new Kelowna Art Gallery exhibit.
Bieber owned a theatre company called Inside Out Theatre in Calgary where for 17 years she helped people with disabilities become performers, exploring theatre as a healing modality, and trying to dispel the notion that people with disabilities cannot join the creative world.
Then, with her children grown and her elderly mother gone, she found herself “an empty-nested orphan” and decided to move to New York.
“I went to New York because of my writing and my theatre interests, not because of my art aspirations,” she said.
Nevertheless, she became involved with the Art Beyond Sight Institute, meeting artist Busser Howell along the way, who would later become one of the four artists in the exhibit she has curated for KAG.
She went to museums on the tours designed specifically for people with visual impairments and relished the glass of wine or coffee and discussion that would follow with fellow art enthusiasts.
“I really wanted to live in New York, but it’s far more difficult to just move to the United States than one might think,” she said. “I realized, I can’t really live in New York. I can just really go broke, but I’m free to live anywhere else I want to live.”
Anywhere else turned out to be Kelowna. Growing up in Edmonton, she left home at age 17 and moved to Vancouver where she lived for three years before joining some friends from Kelowna in Greece for a year.
The move to Kelowna a lifetime later has allowed them all to be closer.
Once lakeside in the Okanagan, she threw herself into making new connections and joined local artist and communications expert Karen Close working with an arts group she facilitates.
“She uses a spontaneous approach and they often do art projects with eyes closed and non-dominant hand and all that kind of thing. So it was really a good place for me to get started,” said Beiber.
But given the amount of paint she uses—she mounds it on with her hand creating great dimension and depth—Bieber soon found she didn’t have enough time in the group to really let her work dry and evaluate before moving to the next phase.
And so began her relationship with Rena Warren, a local artist who is known for her colourful portraits.
As a teacher extraordinaire, who works with people of varying disabilities as the executive director of the Cool Arts Society, Warren, like Bieber, shares an artistic background, an interest in art and a sense of desire to open the creative world to those with disabilities or different abilities.
On their first session working together they sat across from one another at a table, Bieber working on her creation, Warren sketching Bieber, and they began to co-create an image of what Bieber sees and feels.
The process has been illuminating in a number of ways for both artists and, as Bieber describes it, there’s a bit of a yin-yang quality to their work.
Where colour is critical to Warren’s paintings, one of the more distinctive elements to her portraiture, Bieber never even bothers to mix a colour.
Although she does remember colours, and know what colour she wants to use at times, at other times she doesn’t really bother with knowing what she’s using.
Warren is quite exacting with her work, doing representational images that stick closely to form, where Bieber often paints what she feels doing fire, water, or a woman drowning by how she experiences the subject.
“Communication has been key with us,” said Warren. “I’ve had to learn to think and communicate in a different style and I’ve found I often use a lot of really visual language.”
She’s also discovered how to relinquish control in her work.
“In my own personal work, I have complete control whereas in collaborative, you’ve got to give life or let the other side breath,” she said.
This is a lesson Bieber learned early.
She started losing her sight at six years old, retaining memory of what images look like but seeing very little to back those memories up.
“I have a very, very strange visual experience that’s extremely complicated,” she explained. “For the most part, I see too much light, which eliminates everything. I keep my apartment quite dim because dusk and dawn are kind of my friends.
“During dusk and dawn, before it’s totally dark and when the sun is down, I can see some shapes and shadows,” she said. “It wouldn’t be much to most people but there are certain times when the light is just perfect enough that I might be able to see a face. I don’t see it the way you see it, but I get enough.”
A minute later she jokes that the true beauty of her world is that everyone looks beautiful.
“I have a vivid visual imagination,” she said. “Even though I can’t physically see you, I have an image in my mind of who I am speaking to. That’s the whole beauty of my world is (that) everybody looks fabulous because I can control it.”
Ruth Bieber is the curator of Just Imagine, opening Friday evening in the Kelowna Art Gallery.
An exhibit of her own collaborative painting with Kelowna-based artist Rena Warren is now on in the Rotary Centre for the Arts on the second floor.
Warren has extended the collaborative concept to the work she does with her Cool Arts artists. Another showing of collaborative paintings the group has done is also on display in the RCA building on the main floor.