Kari Lehr/Submitted Bear painting by Kari Lehr, an Alberta artist who has a show at the North End Gallery, beginning Sept. 7.

Portraits of Yukon wildlife

“A lot of my bears take on my own mood when I’m painting them”

Her subjects don’t sit for her, but Kari Lehr thinks of her wildlife paintings as portraits: the wolves leaning down to drink water, the lynx looking over its shoulder, and the wide-eyed bears that have always fascinated her.

“From my earliest memory, they’ve captured my imagination,” said Lehr, an Alberta artist who is showing original works at the North End Gallery beginning Sept. 7.

She spoke to the News on a quick lunch break from her home in Crowsnest Pass, Alta. She ate as she spoke, multitasking in order to finish the last of the eight large-scale acrylic paintings that will make up her show.

She’s fascinated by bears because they fill her, simultaneously, with wonder and dread, but she also appreciates the freedom they give her as a painter.

Lehr graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1987, and worked as an illustrator for 20 years. In 2004, after moving to Crowsnest Pass, she met a community of painters who encouraged her to put down the chalk pastels she used for illustration, and pick up a paintbrush.

Her job as an illustrator however, meant she was always working with clients and art directors to realize someone else’s vision.

“I had my own imagery kind of knocking around in my head,” she said.

When she started painting bears, they presented an opportunity she hadn’t realized, either with chalk pastels, or with the figure paintings she does.

“Figure work is very detail-oriented, with my nose to the canvas,” she said. “With the bears, I give myself permission to use colour in a way I normally wouldn’t. It became instinctual and spontaneous. I didn’t have to answer to anybody. They didn’t have to be realistic.”

She may not have had to answer to anybody, but people responded to her. She keeps painting them, she said, in part because people keep buying them.

Simon Gilpin, fine art manager for North End, said the gallery started carrying her prints after its owner met Lehr at a handmade market in Toronto one year.

He said the gallery only carries maybe three non-Yukon artists, and Lehr is one of them.

Yukoners love her work, he said. She uses the same bright palette as a lot of Yukon artists, but she fills a gap in the gallery, which has plenty of brightly coloured landscapes, but very few wildlife painters.

“It’s amazing how well she’s done with the locals up here,” he said. “I think it’s the fact that everybody, especially here, we encounter wildlife a lot.”

“Her portraits focus on the eyes. They are real and the rest is quite sketchy, with lots of bright colours and textures, so you get this impressionistic idea with really piercing lifelike eyes in the middle and there’s something about that that really speaks to people. They see something of the outside world, but they also see something of themselves.”

Lehr said the show at North End will be kind of a new thing for her. She doesn’t tend to work with commercial galleries because she doesn’t like the pressure of having to fill orders. With most galleries, you have to keep them in supply. So if they run out of bear portraits, an artist may have to paint more on demand.

“That really takes the joy out of it for me and takes the inspiration out of it,” she said.

She prefers selling face-to-face, at markets and shows she can attend. Lehr loves the interaction with the public. She likes to see their reactions, which are usually positive — they don’t typically come into your booth at a market if they don’t like what they see.

She said it’s interesting to see the way people react to her work. Most of the time, she said, they look delighted. She sees in their reactions a sense of wonder that’s heartening when there’s so much cynicism in the world. Sometimes they get emotional.

“A lot of my bears take on my own mood when I’m painting them and I really do try to honour them and all, and I paint with a sense of respect and dignity so I think there’s something in that that people respond to,” she said.

She’s excited to see how Yukoners react during her opening reception, which takes place Sept. 7, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the North End Gallery. Lehr’s work can be found online at karilehrart.com.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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