Gillian Willans’ paintings of domestic interiors set the stage for fascinating commentary on societal expectations of women to create a perfectly ordered family life. Her work has been recognized with the 2018 Eldon & Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize.
According to an ancient proverb, “Man may work from sun to sun / But woman’s work is never done.” As artist Gillian Willans discovered, what held true over generations reached a crisis point during the pandemic. A mother of three school-aged children, as well as a prolific painter and instructor at MacEwan University and the University of Alberta, she watched her home begin to unravel. But Willans, whose paintings address gender roles in domestic settings, turned adversity into grist for her creative mill.
Her paintings began to look like crime scenes. “In this last year a lot of the work became messier, the rooms are more dishevelled, more lived-in, less staged,” she says. “That’s purposeful because that’s how I feel, I have less and less control over things.” For example, The Garden of Earthly Delights (the Odalisque) – from her show In Absentia held at the Vernon Public Art Gallery in 2021 – depicts a turn-of-the-century room decorated with floral wallpaper. But the elegant ambience is obscured by a table submerged under mounds of dirty laundry. “I jokingly call it the odalisque,” says Willans. “It’s almost like a body lying there on a table, but it’s the opposite of a nude woman, it’s clothes.”
While partly biographical, Willans’ paintings rarely depict her own home. Her objectives are more voyeuristic, like an evening stroll when neighbours peek behind each other’s curtains. Her art exposes real homes, not the sanitized versions featured in the Homes & Gardens magazine – advertised as world’s home design Bible. Fittingly, Willans finds inspiration by stealth: from thousands of images of crime scenes, Kijiji ads or bad multiple listing services sites. “The agenda is to record things as they are, not to display an illusion of the way they should be,” she says.
Influenced by her early career as a film-studies student, stage-manager and director, Willans’ paintings are like silent moments between performances when all the actors have left the stage. Empty rooms fill with suspense, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch movies, where objects divulge clues to mysteries. The comforts of home turn eerie and evoke female repression, impending collapse, or scarcely controlled entropy. “I want to ride a razor’s edge so at first you might see something calming,” she says. “But the more time you spend with [the paintings], the more they linger suspiciously.”
Like the 17th Century genre painting and 19th Century Realism Willans references in her art, middle-class ideals may have changed yet remain broadly the same. These historic allusions imbue her paintings with a timeless quality: both current, right down to the pandemic moment, yet staunchly traditional. The result is that her oil on canvas works do not fit squarely into the intermedia slant of most public art galleries.
On a personal level, Willans’ work schedule and family life make active participation in the Edmonton arts community challenging. “I have always felt like an impostor somehow, I am not really into the scene, I don’t go to openings any more, I don’t make big giant things,” she says.
Her art, too, is low-key: the unspoken detritus of daily family life is hardly monumental. But that is what made winning the 2018 Eldon & Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize all the more gratifying for Willans – and a credit to the creative scope of Edmonton’s art community. “It was really validating,” Willans says humbly. “Somebody noticed how hard I work.”
For the past 10 years the Eldon + Anne Foote Edmonton Visual Arts Prize has recognized outstanding artists from the Capital region. To celebrate, the Art Gallery of St. Albert is hosting the first ever exhibition in association with this award. In Good Company features award winners Preston Pavlis, Lauren Crazybull, aAron Munson and Gillian Willans, alongside the artists from the 2021 short list, including Emmanuel Osahor, Sharon Rose Kootenay and Jason Symington. Work by these seven incredible artists hang side by side, connected by their shared experience with the award, while offering a glimpse into their individual practices.
In Good Company runs November 9, 2021, to February 5, 2022. Plan your visit here.