Queen’s grad takes home provincial art award

Jessica Peterson’s fine arts thesis wins prize money, gallery display

Overindulgence (2017) by Peterson.
Supplied by Jessica Peterson

When Jessica Peterson was first told she had won the BMO 1st Art Competition for Ontario for her artwork Overindulgence, her immediate reaction was panic. “Oh my god,” she remembered, “I left [the painting] in a barn!” 

The competition, hosted by the Bank of Montreal, is an annual showcase of undergrad talent in fine arts. During the selection process, professors across Canada choose deserving students from their graduating classes to submit their artistic pieces. A panel of judges then chooses a regional winner from each province and territory to win a prize of $7500 and have their artwork displayed in a gallery. 

This year, Peterson’s Overindulgence won in Ontario— making her the second Queen’s student to win in the 15-year history of the competition. Peterson’s success follows that of Queen’s grad Lindsey Wilson, who won in 2015 for her sculpture Murmur I. It was Wilson’s victory, which happened when Peterson was in her second year at Queen’s that alerted her to the existence of the competition.

Knowing it would be the last time she would have access to Ontario Hall’s studio space in her final year at Queen’s, Peterson decided, in her words, to “work as big as possible.” 

As a result, she took advantage of the larger studio space in her last year and created the massive 36’ x 8’ abstract oil painting, Overindulgence. Painting over the winter term, she used an evocative range of colour to speak to a wider experience and relationship with the human body.

Although it was her winter thesis project, Overindulgence was almost disposed of when it came to the chaotic rush of her final weeks at Queen’s. 

“I really didn’t think I was going to win,” Peterson said, explaining she was more concerned with moving out of her rental and getting her art out of its space on time. “I wasn’t prepared. We were rushing to move [the painting] and I was shoving it into the elevator piece by piece. I had thought that I’d better hold onto it, just in case, so I put it in my uncle’s barn. Then I got the call and thought, ‘oh no’.”

Now, Overindulgence will be displayed alongside the other winning pieces in Toronto’s Justina M. Barnicke Gallery from November 16 to December 16, the only painting among the 18 artworks. 

While writing her thesis proposal, Peterson knew she “wanted to paint figures, but I didn’t want them to be immediately recognizable as figures.” The finished product is a sprawl of colour with heavy pinks and purples transitioning into a haze of pale blue and yellow. 

The bulky figures bleed into their environment as they travel across the canvas, almost hidden within their changing backdrop. 

“Because bodies are so politicized, there are not a lot of successful contemporary artists who do traditional figure painting,” Peterson said. 

“The body is the first point of contact with the world,” she explained. “I wanted the paintings to be about how your body is a tool to understand the world in a physical way. I wanted to visually represent the feeling of overindulgence and got right to the point by making the bodies abstract.” 

Peterson’s artistic inclinations for the piece were inspired by her work as a swimming coach for children with disabilities and the intense sensory experience of the children she taught who had autism. She explained how the feeling of being in the water for those children was “something that someone who is neurotypical can’t understand at all.” 

“We have this big yellow tube at the pool and for a child without a disability it’s something for them to play with. If you put that over a child with autism, it’s as if their entire world is yellow and they have no words to understand the feeling.” 

Peterson explained her attempts to capture the same intense sensation within her art, disregarding the baggage of “gender, race, age or ability”, Overindulgence acts as an exploration of how “your body and your skin understands your environment before your brain puts words to it.” 

When asked about what she will do with the prize money, Peterson laughed. “I opened a savings account. It was very exciting.” The money will be another step towards attending graduate school in Europe, a cause she plans to fund further in the coming years. Although Peterson’s art has been featured in shows in the past, the BMO competition is the first large-scale exposure she’s received and it has inspired her to push forward with her work. 

Until then, Peterson will continue to paint and apply to shows. Her reason for pursuing art is simple: “when I’m painting,” she explained, “I’m the happiest.” 


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