Living Around the Canvas
Profile by Sean McQuaid
Prince Edward Island painter Daphne Irving laughingly admits that she is "from away, or from across." She was born in New Jersey, but her parents came from Nova Scotia, where the family spent many summers. She and her husband Ron Irving, the recently retired artistic director of TheatrePEI, came to the Island in 1963 after getting married-and for most of the years since then, they've been unable to resist the Island's charms.
"It's not logic," she says. "It's a very emotional tug. You'll do a lot of things to be here." This seductive sense of place echoes the appeal of Daphne's art, a compulsion that took hold in her childhood and never let go. "I've been painting since I was ten," she recalls. "It's a natural inclination. I always like the look of things [around me], and liked the look of what you could do on a piece of paper."
Natural inclination or not, though, Daphne was never shy of instruction. She started her art training in grade seven and kept going for decades to come. "You can't skip," she says. "You have to know the rules before you can break them and find a style of your own." After high school, she studied at the Boston Museum School but felt out of place there. "I wasn't a city kid," she recalls. "It just wasn't my cup of tea."
She found much greater satisfaction at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, where she could "walk three blocks and be out in the country. It had a flavour that you didn't find in large cities." Daphne also liked the educational atmosphere at the university, where she felt free to ignore instruction where appropriate and do her own thing. "I just had a great time at Mount A," she recalls, that being where she first met her husband Ron as well. The couple eventually moved to PEI, where they both found work in education while Daphne continued to paint.
Daphne does a great deal of her painting in watercolour, a medium that serves her self-professed spontaneity well but leaves little margin for error. "What you put down is what you get," she says. "You can't fudge." She also does a lot of work in oil, though she generally eschews acrylics as being convenient but insufficiently versatile.
In terms of subject matter, Daphne has been concentrating intermittently on religious imagery for years now. It's a pattern she fell into over a decade ago when she began to meditate on how she might visualize the Revelation of Saint John, and she has since produced approximately thirty works rooted in Biblical themes. "I just paint what I feel very strongly about," she says.
Though Daphne considers herself a casual, non-commercial artist, she has an impressive body of work to her credit-hundreds of paintings, some of which have been collected by institutions such as the Confederation Centre of the Arts, not to mention newer works recently displayed in venues such as the Arts Sales & Rental Gallery and the Ellen's Creek Gallery. "I don't push them," she says of her paintings. "They're things I [produce] a few months at a time, [and] I don't worry about whether people will buy them."
For a while, Daphne managed a gallery venue of her own: The Master's Hand, a Great George Street location dedicated to showcasing artwork of a religious bent such as hers. That only lasted a few months, though, since working in a managerial role made her tense and unhappy, distracting her from her own painting. It was a valuable learning experience, she says, but she's glad to be concentrating on her own material again. "I was an artist through all this stuff," she asserts, "and I will always continue to be."