A battle of brushes

A live painting competition makes visual art accessible

Schuyler Smith uses his palette knife at an Art Battle competition in Halifax.
Schuyler Smith uses his palette knife at an Art Battle competition in Halifax.

“I thought it might have been spam.”

Kingston-based artist Sherri Nelson was hesitant to reply to the out-of-the-blue Facebook message inviting her to compete in next week’s Art Battle.

But she’s glad she did.

Nelson will be one of 12 local artists painting against the clock on Tuesday.

“I’m really intimidated by the 20 minutes,” she said. “20 minutes is so short.”

Similar events will take place across the country as part of the larger Art Battle Canada. Each participant gets 20 minutes to paint in front of a live audience.

The winner is selected by a crowd vote and eventually gets the chance to compete in July’s national championships at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

It’s essentially art by democracy.

“The guys that run Art Battle just want to inspire regular people to realize that art is not too high-brow or elitist,” Nelson said. “A lot people don’t think going to an art opening would be for them because it’s probably full of snobs or they don’t know the language.”

Although well in its fifth season, the event is relatively new to the Kingston scene. Here, local painters will have their shot at competing for the national title for the first time this year.

The winner receives $1,500 and, of course, gloating rights. As a beginner battler, Nelson is sticking to what she knows.

And for her, the familiar involves skeletons. She’s held a fixation with Latin America’s Day of the Dead for several years now.

“Skeletons bring out a lot of emotion, whether people think it’s really disgusting and they hate it or they see the fun spirit in it,” Nelson said. “It’s always an attention grabber.”

After a quick scroll through the artist’s website, it’s easy to see what she’s getting at.

Nelson has been a professional artist for around four years. She got her interest in skeletons from learning about Frieda Kahlo soon after. This paved the way for explorations of Latin American folk art.

As her artistic endeavoursprogressed, Nelson began seeing another side to the Day of the Dead.

“I realized why I was attracted to it in the first place,” she said. “It matches up this idea of cultural decay with all the joy we all still have to find in our lives despite it.”

Nelson said she finds the celebration reveals a lot about the society we live in.

“The economy is pretty bad, the threat of war seems non-stop,” she said. “So having a skeleton person almost represents the negative side, while the subject of the painting is positive — it’s a juxtaposition of what’s happening in culture.”

If attendees want to take Nelson’s cultural metaphor home, they can. There will be a silent auction for all, the 20-minute masterpieces.

Art Battle Kingston will take place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 14 at The Renaissance. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door.

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