Anyone familiar with the local art scene will immediately recognize the work of Ashcroft artist Martha Labadie, whose pen-and-ink/watercolour drawings are unmistakable.
A selection of her works are now on display at the Sidewalk Gallery on Railway Avenue (at the Rolgear building) until the end of the month. Many of the pieces were drawn during the past year, and Labadie says she got a lot done during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I spent April though October drawing all the time. Green Lake, Highway 24, Tunkwa Lake: there are wonderful places all around Ashcroft to paint, and I see wonderful things while I’m travelling along the highway.”
Almost everything Labadie creates is done en plein air; that is, outdoors with the subject in front of her, not in a studio.
“Sometimes I take pictures to double check shadows when I get home, but the foundation of the drawing is created en plein air. Sometimes all you need is what’s there.”
Labadie’s parents introduced her to Ashcroft and the Shuswap many years before she moved here in 1994. “They brought us to Ashcroft and loved it. There’s a bench outside the cemetery for them, Mr. and Mrs. C.J. Henricksen, and I feel warm towards Ashcroft. My heart is there because I like it and because my parents’ bench is there. That’s important to me.”
She says she has probably always been drawing, and when she was in her 20s she went to art school in London. She has a BA in English and Art from UBC, and in 1988 married a man who was a caretaker for a church in New Westminster. Four months later she was a widow, and picked up drawing again as a comfort.
“I started doing house portraits. New Westminster has a heritage tour every year and I did a catalogue for them, then one for Maple Bay, and from those I would get different commissions. I like buildings.”
She found that Ashcroft had a brochure of its heritage homes, and also got Helen Forster’s book about the town, For the Strong Eye Only. “I like to record historical things. New houses don’t thrill me too much. I like the character of older places and the history they speak of. Some places in Ashcroft had a profound influence on the development of the town.”
Many of the works on display at the Sidewalk Gallery are of Ashcroft buildings, while others are from the surrounding area: “Quilchena, Highland Valley, Merritt: I wanted to keep everything in the Thompson-Okanagan region.” One notable non-building work is a drawing of some of the first responder vehicles in a procession to honour Cache Creek fire chief Clayton Cassidy at his memorial service in June 2017.
“My son is a firefighter, so I felt I was part of that story,” she says. “I went there and could not believe the fire vehicles from all across the province. It was an amazing procession, and I felt I had to put this down. To see that degree of support for their fellow firefighter was an important thing that happened in Cache Creek.”
She creates her works with pen and ink, then puts the watercolour on top. “I sit there with a pen and draw it. I have to teach myself how to see, because you can’t erase pen and ink. I usually do watercolour at the same time, and I don’t usually manipulate the drawing too much. How it comes off the page has an essence you don’t want to destroy.”
An exception to her usual en plein air method were the illustrations she did for the book Horses in the Attic, written by her friend Shirley Brayne.
“She had an older house she wanted to renovate, and a granddaughter she just adores who lives in Texas. She couldn’t go there during the pandemic, so she wrote the book for her and I drew all the pictures. It was the first time I’ve ever drawn from a photograph, because I couldn’t get to Texas.”
In addition to her paintings, Labadie produces cards depicting scenes around the region, which Angela Bandelli of the Sidewalk Gallery asked her for. This is not the first show she has done at the gallery, and she passed on the opportunity to do one last year. “I felt it was a sabbatical year. It’s a different process between drawing the pictures and making the frames. I frame all my own work, and it’s another part of my brain.”
In January she had an opportunity to go to Kelowna, and until the end of September she will be commuting between there and Ashcroft. While she’s in Ashcroft she draws every day. “I have books full of little drawings, and I use those to make the cards.
“When I came to Ashcroft in 1994 I looked out the window and thought ‘I’ll draw this.’ It’s beautiful. I love the houses, the flowers, the dust. I thought it was an amazing place, and still do.”