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Renowned local portrait artist heads for the wilds

Thumbnail Sketches …

Cape Breton Highlands Exhibition - Sherry Park - October 7 - November 8, 2020 - Headwaters Arts Gallery

What was a formally trained OCAD artist, one who specializes in figure drawing and portraiture, doing out in the wilds of Cape Breton?  The answer was an interesting one as is her artistic practice and journey.

Sherry Park’s formal training started with her studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.  While at OCAD she studied off-campus in Florence, Italy with Gerald Lazar in 1990.  In the years that followed she continued with her passions, portraiture and drawing.

Prior to the pandemic, she focused on life drawing and portraiture with different groups of artists on a regular basis.  As a regular member of the portraiture group of Visual Arts Brampton members, they met for four hours every Wednesday with models.  She also went regularly into Toronto for regular practice with live models for life drawing.

Painting by Sherry Park that is in her solo exhibition "Cape Breton Highlands" at the Headwaters Arts Gallery at the Alton Mill Arts Center October 7 - November 8
Painting by Sherry Park that is in her solo exhibition “Cape Breton Highlands” at the Headwaters Arts Gallery at the Alton Mill Arts Center October 7 – November 8

The VAB portraiture group switches to plein air in the summer with outings around southern Ontario. So, perhaps that focus on landscapes prompted Sherry to notice, then apply for a residency at Cape Breton Highlands, one of Canada’s National Parks.  She was successful in her application and spent six weeks the fall of 2019 in Ingonish on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.

The scenery in this renowned part of Canada’s east coast is truly spectacular, with about a third of the Cabot Trail going through this park.  Surrounded by the forested parklands, majestic views,  rocks, and trees, while it was inspirational for Sherry, she was alone.

“It was so scary!  Alone in a three-bedroom house… with a basement! I brought a plant from home, a spider plant, then I bought more plants. And I walked, every day I walked, five to ten kilometers.  You know what it is like in the city, all the little stores on the street, all together next to each other. Something different in each one, something to discover.”

Well, Sherry Park discovered something different when she was in those forests, surrounded by trees.  She liked that feeling of being surrounded and in the middle, yet with so much to see everywhere she looked.  That was where she started to really see them, each tree for what it was, how it nestled into the ground, was hit by shafts of light, and yet still was part of that greater whole, the forest. 

Aspy Trail Birch Trees by Sherry Park - Cape Breton Exhibition
Aspy Trail Birch Trees by Sherry Park

So despite the spectacular ocean vistas and sweeping views of the rugged highlands, she was not as comfortable in the open spaces. She was drawn more to the forests because “in the woods, you’ve got company …  the light you see comes through the trees.”   Every day she sketched, took photographs, and often painted, the residency stipulation being to practice her art daily. 

From the ocean views to the highlands and forested tracts, Park’s body of work from her residency at the Cape Breton Highlands quite possibly comprises a new interpretation of what inspired Canada’s Group of Seven.  The play of light amongst the trees against the magnificent backdrops can “take you ‘down east’ in a heartbeat as shown in the piece Aspy Trail.”

But upon her return to Ontario in the late fall of 2019, Sherry needed to refocus on her portraiture as it had literally moved further abroad with her participation in three international competitions. She prepared pieces for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the National Portrait Gallery, BP Portrait Award, both based in England, and the Portrait Society of America. When one of her portraits was accepted in the first round of jurying, she carefully packaged it and flew over to England to personally deliver it for the next round of adjudication. 

As with her discoveries of the individuality of each tree within the larger groves and forests, Sherry explores the figures and faces as she develops a portrait.  Her face lights up with excitement describing her process and how she loves to see the faces of her subjects come alive. 

Aspy Trail by Sherry Park - Cape Breton Exhibition
Aspy Trail by Sherry Park

She lays out the structure and form, and then fills in and develops areas. With her impressionistic style, she is now focusing on ‘doing more with less’ or fewer brush strokes. But when it comes to the point in the process where the face of the model or subject starts to emerge and comes to life, that becomes a defining moment.  “This is it, I’m going to stop,” and she laughs.

And that is what she means about ‘doing more with less’; knowing when you have arrived at the place where the energy and vitality of the subject come through the artistic process and not overworking it.  Likewise, with her landscapes, Sherry comments on how the residency and the work on those pieces have evolved and influenced her to introduce more depth with her plein air work.

Steadily working at her studio in the Alton Mill Arts, Sherry has won recognition and awards for her recent portraiture and figurative work.  She won the 2020 Mary Pratt Award -Society of Canadian Artist 52nd Open International Juried Exhibition for her piece, Maire Kearns, the Paint Ontario-Art Competition’s 2nd prize for A Day in a Life of a Boy, and the Colour and Form Society’s 68th Annual Open Juried Exhibition’s 3rd Prize for Portrait of Ung Yol Park.

A member of several local and provincial arts organizations, including Headwaters Arts which operates out of their HA Gallery at the Alton Mill Arts Centre, Sherry’s solo show there this fall is a wonderful celebration of a dedicated and inspired artist. 

So is it true, that you can’t see the forest for the trees?  You can determine this yourself when Cape Breton Highlands opens October 7 – November 8 at the HA Gallery in the Alton Mill Arts Centre.  Sherry’s new subjects will be revealed and we can share the inspiration and delight she found at Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park during her residency.

Artist Statement

The “Cape Breton Highlands” exhibition is based on my experiences from the artist residency program chosen by the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and Cape Breton Centre for Craft. 

Why did I choose this residency? I saw an opportunity to challenge myself as a figurative artist and go outside my comfort zone to paint landscapes. I also wanted to challenge myself to go out east, Nova Scotia and survive for six weeks alone.

The house I was staying at was in the bottom of the Franey mountain in Cape Breton National Park.

During the six weeks of residency, I was able to witness the changing fall colours in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  It was quite spectacular with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other side all along the famous Cabot Trail.

I set daily hiking routes in the Cape Breton National Park.  The trails took me through beautiful forests and vistas on mountains. I was left speechless and very inspired. I took thousands of photographs, did sketches and did plein air painting. There was so much to see and endless subjects to paint, enough for a lifetime.


Thumbnail Sketches is a column Connie Munson, local photographer, artist, and writer, has developed for various arts organizations to profile their artist-members.  She is a director on the board of Headwaters Arts, which has their gallery in the Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon, a member of several other arts organizations, and may be reached at ellie73m@gmail.com.


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