Irene Clarke has never been one to turn down a challenge. For her whole life, she has been seeking out ways to express her creativity in several different, unique avenues. Through many different classes, teachers and experiences, Clarke has gained a resume that most artists could only hope to rival.
The yellow walls of her quaint Quyon home are decorated from top to bottom in art. Other than a large taxidermied deer head — gifted to her by her son — almost everything is made by her. Several small wooden songbirds and ducks seem frozen in time, all hand-carved by Clarke.
In her workshop in the backyard, where she does her wood carvings, is an old green barber’s chair, which she used when she was a hairdresser. All around her backyard workshop are impressive stone structures from a waterfall to a bridge to a grotto. A little blue wooden house with a spinning water wheel sits on the edge of a pond, surrounded by brush. All of it was built by Clarke over four decades.
In addition, she has done brief stints in cake decorating, photography, web design and crochet.
But the one artistic element that has remained a constant in Clarke’s life is oil painting.
“I’ve been painting all my life, but a lot of in-between,” said Clarke. She was encouraged to pursue painting and the arts first by her elementary school art teacher. She recalled the first painting she created in school.
“We did a tombstone. Everyone in the class did a tombstone; I could still see the tombstone that we did. And every tombstone looked the same. She was very accurate on that.”
From there, she took several classes to learn as much about art she could. This included a two-year course with the International Correspondence School of Art and two terms at the Ottawa Technical School studying painting and sketching. She briefly studied under Peter Germotte, an Ottawa artist, and took folk art and woodworking classes in the city as well.
“I bought books. I learned a lot from videos that I watched on TV. Any art course that was to be given, I was taking it when I was younger,” she said.
But her paintings were put on hold in her 20s, when she had her first child.
“[My son] would start to cry when he saw me with a paintbrush,” she. “So, I left painting for the next maybe 15, 20 years. I didn’t paint up to that.”
She decided to take a course after her hiatus, and then picked up the paintbrush again for around five years, but again took another decade-long hiatus after that. She became a hairdresser for much of the time in between.
“That’s the way I’ve been going. And I haven’t been painting steady.”
Still, it was something she always returned to. Canvases upon canvases are stacked in her basement, and many are up on the walls. Her studio is filled with dozens of brushes and she has a cart teeming with every colour of oil paint.
A large painting titled Dad’s Stories featuring a nighttime forest landscape and a man by a fire hangs in her living room as a tribute to her father and his trapping stories. She has even painted over 30 homesteads and illustrated a book called The Polish Hills, by Venetia Crawford.
Now, she’s making a name for herself through her YouTube channel Painting with Irene.
It started with Clarke’s daughter who recognized her mother’s talent and urged her to teach painting.
“I was very hesitant about the idea because she wanted me to teach painting. And I just couldn’t see myself teaching painting,” Clarke said.
She does not follow reference photos; she puts her brush onto the canvas and illustrates whatever comes to her in the moment, a “feeling from within.” She expressed that it would be difficult to teach this way.
But her daughter was persistent and encouraged her to start producing videos. She set up studio lights, a backdrop and a camera for Clarke and showed her how to record herself. Of course, this was another challenge for her to face. But again, Clarke is not the kind of person to turn it down.
Despite her impressive track record, Clarke had to learn all the elements of video production herself.
“I tried the videos, and I would forget to turn the camera on. And I was painting for an hour and the camera wasn’t going and things like that. Some of them I was at the end of my painting when the cameras shut off because the battery went dead. But I got through it.
“I always like to challenge myself and this is another one.”
Now, Painting with Irene has 60 subscribers and counting, and currently has more than 40 timelapse videos to be watched. Clarke said from January to March of this year alone, she painted 40 new works and has many of the videos scheduled to go up in the near future.
“I really don’t worry about it,” she said about getting views and subscribers. “Whatever will be will be, whatever will come will come. But it is growing; I’m close to 3,000 views.”
What’s next in Clarke’s journey? Learning the guitar. Clarke is also a singer and has now been playing the instrument for two years. She would like to get back in that green barber’s chair and reignite her passion for woodworking and carving. She is looking forward to the wintertime to be able to get out on the snowshoe trails again, and to keep up a snowshoeing YouTube channel. She would like to travel when the global pandemic is finally over as well.
After it all, painting and sharing her process with the world will be the main beast she tackles.
“My big takeaway, that it’s a challenge,” she said. “I’m just enjoying this thing; It’s just another challenge in my life.”
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