DREAMS AND MEM­O­RIES

Jeff Dil­lon’s paint­ings mix re­al­ity with magic.

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Bar­bara Ag­ger­holm

AS A TEEN, artist Jeff Dil­lon would spray a mist of wa­ter around his room and quickly close the door.

His bed­room was filled with at least 100 plants, so much green­ery that it was like a trop­i­cal rain­for­est.

“I grew corn in my bed­room,” says Dil­lon, a soft-spo­ken, en­er­getic man. “I had vines I sta­pled to the ceil­ing.”

He used his desk, not for homework, but to pot plants. Aquar­i­ums were filled with fish and newts. His sis­ter’s budgie liked to fly around the room. >>

>> Wa­ter­ing the jun­gle was a ma­jor task, and spray­ing helped.

To­day, Dil­lon has 40 plants in his Kitch­ener con­do­minium, lo­cated on a road edged by farm­ers’ fields and woods.

A freshly cleaned aquar­ium with koi fish sparkles in the living room. Dozens of pressed tree leaves in frames – a project from his col­lege hor­ti­cul­ture pro­gram – cover the wall lead­ing up­stairs to a bed­room with large win­dows. Spice racks hold­ing Golden fluid acrylic paints, his favourite be­cause of their in­ten­sity, are on the wall be­side his easel.

This is where Dil­lon, 39, paints his love of the out­doors, of lush green­ery, of vivid colour, travel and adventure. Some see Emily Carr or the Group of Seven in his land­scapes where “na­ture is tak­ing over.” Ad­mir­ers like the en­ergy of his skies, the

light that em­anates from the win­dows of his ci­tyscapes and through the trees of his land­scapes.

They es­pe­cially like that they can place them­selves in a paint­ing, whether it’s on the porch of a cabin dur­ing a light­ning storm or on the street of a Euro­pean city with red, green and yel­low build­ing fronts.

“It’s like look­ing through a win­dow,” says Catherine Malvern, li­brary manager/ ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Water­loo Re­gion Law As­so­ci­a­tion. Dil­lon’s art has been ex­hib­ited in the li­braries of the for­mer We­ber Street court­house and new Water­loo Re­gion court­house in Kitch­ener.

Vis­i­tors to her of­fice com­ment on the glow­ing cityscape paint­ing that Malvern bought from the artist. “Peo­ple al­ways say: ‘that looks like Switzer­land’ . . . or ‘I think I was there in Am­s­ter­dam,’” she says.

“His work is so unique and an­i­mated. . . .It takes you to the place.”

Dil­lon’s art is metic­u­lously painted, punc­tu­ated with bold swirls of colour. The paint brush he uses most of­ten is small, about the size of a pen. It’s for build­ing, shad­ing. A larger brush is re­served for the sweep­ing skies. He starts with a black out­line.

More than the in­flu­ence of other artists, Dil­lon says he’s af­fected by his ex­pe­ri­ence as a child in a fam­ily that moved fre­quently. It fu­elled his love of travel and lan­guages (he’s learn­ing Ital­ian fol­low­ing a re­cent trip >>

>> to Italy with his girl­friend). He es­pe­cially likes Europe where he was “blown away” by the colour.

About four years ago, he trav­elled through­out Eng­land, Wales, Scot­land and Ire­land, where his fa­ther’s fam­ily orig­i­nated.

“I am heav­ily in­flu­enced by Europe and their use of bold colour and style in their ar­chi­tec­ture,” Dil­lon says in his artist’s notes.

“I take in­spi­ra­tion from both the city and coun­try­side and ap­ply my own style, in­ten­si­fy­ing colour with il­lus­tra­tive flair.”

He’s in­flu­enced by his ad­ven­tures as an en­er­getic boy who mas­ter­minded the dig­ging of an un­der­ground fort al­most two me­tres deep, com­plete with a stud­ded roof that held the weight of some­one stand­ing on it. His affin­ity for those trop­i­cal plants that grew over his head in his bed­room later trans­lated into a col­lege hor­ti­cul­tural tech­ni­cian di­ploma.

Dil­lon, who owns a re­tail and com­mer­cial out­let for land­scape ma­te­rial and stone ve­neer with his mother, Pamela Dil­lon, is in a fer­tile pe­riod of his art-mak­ing. He has com­mit­ted him­self to fin­ish­ing 100 paint­ings in the space of five years.

It’s partly in re­sponse to a re­quest from his much-loved fa­ther, Jim Dil­lon, be­fore he died of brain can­cer in 2010. “I saw him ev­ery­day and took him on out­ings ev­ery week,” he says. “He said I should paint.

“I had dab­bled, but to turn it from a lit­tle hobby to some­thing of sub­stance; that to me was the pass­ing of my fa­ther. That cre­ated a hole that needed to be filled.”

But it’s also a tar­get that keeps him push­ing him­self and look­ing for­ward.

“I’m goal ori­ented. It keeps me on track. Oth­er­wise life takes over and it gives you rea­sons not to do it,” he says, gaz­ing at the paint­ing un­der­way on the easel in his bed­room.

It’s No. 71, a rooftop view of a Paris cityscape. “I like this one, so far,” he says. “The next phase is depth and shadow and tex­ture.

“It’s the last thing I see be­fore I go to bed and the first thing I do when I get up.

“Now,” he says, “I try to bal­ance fam­ily and work and re­la­tion­ships while try­ing to work on that. I’m paint­ing be­cause I love it.”

Dil­lon’s fam­ily moved 13 times be­fore he was 13 years old.

His fa­ther, who was in re­tail and dis­tri­bu­tion, worked for dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies that moved him, his wife and three chil­dren to Win­nipeg, Ed­mon­ton and other Canadian cen­tres.

“I grew up play­ing in the grain el­e­va­tors and fields” at the edge of Win­nipeg, and watch­ing the hour-long trains go past, says Dil­lon, who was born in Kitch­ener.

Pulling up stakes so of­ten made him adapt­able.

“I think it gives you a great open­ness and abil­ity to speak to any­body,” he says. You also learn to live with less be­cause you don’t ac­cu­mu­late much.

As a re­sult, “I am neat and or­ga­nized.”

They’re qual­i­ties that show in his art and his home, even in his stu­dio.

Grow­ing up, he was a dare­devil and “ex­tremely ac­ci­dent-prone,” he says with a laugh.

He’d walk across a man-made frozen lake in the spring just to hear the ice crack. He rode his dirt bike like a de­mon. Five chil­dren could fit into the un­der­ground fort that he built with friends (be­fore it was dis­man­tled). Spot­ted by his mother who held her breath, he once walked on the peak of a house un­der con­struc­tion.

“I got in trou­ble when I got down,” he says.

“I was never in­side if I could help it ... I have a very vivid mem­ory of walk­ing through the grain fields with my hands out and feel­ing the tex­ture. I was very tac­tile. I re­mem­ber look­ing at the skies and watch­ing the clouds for hours.”

“We used to call him ‘weather boy,’” says his mother, Pamela, a writer. He was also known as “adventure boy.”

“Even if there was a tor­nado, he’d be out on the porch and we’d have to call him in,” she says.

He wasn’t es­pe­cially good at re­call­ing facts in school and it didn’t help that he changed schools so of­ten. On the other hand, his spa­tial skills were ex­cel­lent.

“I can walk through build­ings and re­mem­ber the place­ment of things and cloth­ing that peo­ple wear. I can es­ti­mate room struc­ture in a build­ing from the out­side.”

He be­gan drawing when he was about 11, ex­per­i­ment­ing first with il­lus­tra­tions for the book, “Trea­sure Is­land.” He doo­dled a lot in class.

Dil­lon’s par­ents reg­is­tered him in an art course when he was a teen in which he con­cen­trated on still life. He be­gan paint­ing, de­vel­op­ing fea­tures that would iden­tify his land­scapes as an adult - black lines that out­line images and ac­cen­tu­ate move­ment, and colours that are lay­ered on af­ter­ward.

“I liked drawing from re­al­ity. I just didn’t want it to look like re­al­ity,” he says. “I tend to make it more ab­stract.”

He tried am­bu­lance work as a high school co-op stu­dent and stud­ied law and se­cu­rity at Con­estoga Col­lege for a year, but de­cided the jobs were not for him.

In 1994, he en­tered Niagara Col­lege to study hor­ti­cul­ture and land­scape de­sign.

Though the tech­ni­cal side of his stud­ies “took a bit of the magic out of na­ture” for him, he found that the ed­u­ca­tion helped his art.

“Just as a class in anatomy is ben­e­fi­cial to an artist who prefers to draw the hu­man form, study­ing hor­ti­cul­ture helped me to un­der­stand plant bi­ol­ogy, growth trends and the con­di­tions un­der which plants not only sur­vive, but thrive,” he writes on his web­site.

His back­ground came in handy when his fa­ther and mother sold their Water­loobased of­fice prod­ucts, com­puter sup­plies and fur­ni­ture busi­ness and bought a >>

>> land­scap­ing com­pany, which be­came Stone Land­scapes Inc. in Water­loo.

Dil­lon had worked with his fa­ther since he was 13. As an adult, he’d moved up the lad­der of the of­fice prod­ucts busi­ness to be­come direc­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing.

“There was fa­ther-son re­spect and we were friends,” he says. Not long af­ter they took over the Stone Land­scapes busi­ness, his fa­ther be­came ill. Around the same time, Dil­lon was go­ing through a di­vorce. He and his ex-wife have two chil­dren.

Dil­lon be­gan paint­ing in earnest af­ter his fa­ther’s death and his trip to Europe. “I was alone. I kept paint­ing three or four hours,” he says. “In a week’s time, I painted 40 hours on top of my work. I’d paint into the night” and on week­ends.

“Life is busy, but once you’re there you can lose your­self. Time doesn’t ever mat­ter.”

That feel­ing is in­ten­si­fied as he paints and lis­tens to the sweep­ing, stylis­tic mu­sic of Nor­we­gian com­poser, Thomas Berg­ersen and his mu­sic per­formed by “Two Steps from Hell.”

“It’s like cre­ative day­dream­ing,” Dil­lon says. “By the end of the paint­ing, you re­visit the dream over and over again. I’d re­mem­ber what I was think­ing about.

“A few times, it seems like the paint­ing comes alive. You’re so in­side the paint­ing.”

Vivid paint­ings on the walls of a base­ment room show line work and colour rep­re­sent­ing heat and shadow. When view­ers step close to the paint­ings, they can see re­mark­able de­tail.

Af­ter his fa­ther died, Dil­lon was paint­ing “to es­cape ev­ery­thing. I didn’t care if peo­ple liked it or not.”

A fel­low artist en­cour­aged him to begin sell­ing them, and he de­cided he could take pho­to­graphs of the art and let them go. “The im­age is a re­minder of what I was think­ing.”

He has hung paint­ings in the court­house and places of busi­ness. He has sold about 47 pieces and has started of­fer­ing prints. He’d like to com­plete enough paint­ings to have an­other show.

With the busy sea­son ap­proach­ing, Dil­lon’s busi­ness, which em­ploys 30 peo­ple in sum­mer, takes a lot of his time and thought. But he’s en­er­gized when peo­ple tell him about their con­nec­tions to his work.

“Ev­ery­one tells me a story.”

Gord McSevney can imag­ine him­self in the mid­dle of a storm of Dil­lon’s cre­ation.

The Cam­bridge lawyer, who also paints, de­cided on the spot to buy a paint­ing af­ter he saw Dil­lon’s work at the law li­brary.

“The one I have, it’s a storm and I could just pic­ture my­self sit­ting on the porch of this lit­tle cabin out in the mid­dle of the storm and be­ing amazed by Mother Na­ture,” McSevney says.

“We used to do it as kids; sit out on the porch and wait for the light­ning to strike. That feel­ing that I had from those storms. . . I got from his paint­ing.”

Cam­bridge lawyer Todd Chris­tensen was struck by a beach scene that re­minded him of the years that he lived with his wife and chil­dren on Ohope Beach in New Zealand.

“We lived in the mid­dle of a 12-kilo­me­tre­long white sand beach with a smok­ing marine vol­cano on the hori­zon,” he says.

The Cam­bridge lawyer com­mis­sioned Dil­lon to paint a sim­i­lar scene, but with land­marks that were rem­i­nis­cent of the view from their for­mer beach home. He gave it to his wife who placed it on the wall where the sun falls on it.

He also bought the paint­ing that he first ad­mired and do­nated it to a fundraiser.

“I would de­scribe his style as ab­stract re­al­ism,” Chris­tensen says. His paint­ing looks ab­stract when stud­ied up close, but “when you step back and look at it from a lit­tle bit of a dis­tance, it looks very re­al­is­tic but with a layer of colour.”

There was no nat­u­ral light in the base­ment of the li­brary in the old court­house. But when Dil­lon’s paint­ings were on the wall, the room was trans­formed, Malvern says.

“It was like hav­ing win­dows down there.”

Bistro Nook

Sweet Dreams

The Fam­ily Tree

Mother Na­ture’s Splen­dour

River of Gold

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