Interview with Lisa Hebden

Article by Michelle Heslop. Photos provided by Lisa Hebden.

Deeply influenced by her travels, particularly time spent living and painting in New York City, Lisa Hebden captures this unbridled sense of featherlight freedom in her oil paintings. While her artistic themes shift over the years, her fascination with human figures, faces and the stories behind their expressions remains constant. Whether she’s painting weightless figures floating in water, an ethereal field of grass or an eye-to-eye encounter with a pre-adolescent girl, Hebden’s fluid brushstrokes communicate a depth of emotion that has been known to profoundly touch viewers. The buoyant liberation of floating in water or a melancholic longing for simplicity and innocence, Hebden’s narratives delve deeper than the mere appearance of her subjects.

Hebden won the People’s Choice Award at the 2010 and 2013 Sooke Fine Arts Show and received a Painting on the Edge Award from the Federation of Canadian Artists in 2003. She has exhibited in solo and group shows throughout British Columbia, notably at The Gallery at Matticks Farm in Victoria, Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George, Victoria’s Gallery at the Mac, and the University of Victoria. Her work has been featured in International Artist, Applied Arts Magazine, Art Avenue, Ceramics Art & Perception, The Vancouver Sun, The Halifax Herald, the Claremont Review, Victoria News and she has been spotlighted on Chek News. Her paintings can be found in private and corporate collections in Canada, the United States, Germany and Australia.


Did you have any artists in your family encouraging you to draw and paint as a child? I started drawing and painting as early on as I can remember. My parents are both creative and when I was about seven or eight-years-old my mum and I would make paper dolls and clothes for them. She taught me about the proportion of the body and how our eyes actually sit about halfway down our heads. The first time I was shown how to shade a circle to look like a sphere, I lost my mind! How could something so simple convey three-dimensionality? It was like magic; I was hooked.

My desire to attend art school was fully supported by my family and in 1999 I went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. NSCAD was exactly what I needed at that time: a place with huge windows and instructors teaching me how to mix colour to create that same ‘magic’ as the shaded sphere. Now I could paint a sense of transparency, reflection and flesh that looked like the subject had a pulse. I was so into painting that I let go of my coveted spot in the Communication Design program and I don’t regret it one bit.


What did you do post-graduation from NSCAD? After I graduated, I came home to Victoria to get my bearings and see my family. And because it’s Victoria, I stayed. During this time, I was also significantly influenced by my travels abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many countries in the world, enjoy their art galleries and get to know the wonderful people. From the children in East and Southern Africa, busy women commuting on the subway in Japan, ancient slippers lined up for sale in the souks (the colours!), the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery to a girl standing under a hot pink umbrella by the Sydney Harbour Bridge. These amazing experiences influence my painting directly or indirectly. Most of the ‘Swimmers’ series is inspired by Australia, Austin TX, Argentina and Durrance Lake, of course.

In 2005, my husband and I lived one block from Central Park in NYC. It took me 25 minutes to walk through the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spent hours there. When I wasn’t staring at Rembrandt, I was sitting on the floor in one of the American Art rooms sketching from one of the many John Singer Sargent paintings. I looked at a lot of paintings of children and made my first ‘Girls’ painting in our tiny dark apartment in NYC. It was such a gift to be there.


What is the significance of the ‘Girls’ portrait series? In a culture where superficial selfies are the norm, your girls feel refreshingly innocent and confident. Are these girls you know? The Girls series is close to my heart — I’ve been making them for 12 years and there are more brewing. I found my years between ages 11 and 14 to be somewhat tumultuous. You’re moving beyond childhood, yet not quite an adult and I found it hard to figure out where I fit and also deal with all the feelings that accompany adolescence.

Interesting that you mentioned selfies…I’ve been exploring this concept recently. I simply can’t imagine going through adolescence now, with camera phones pointed in every direction and everything so public. The Girls series started with figures in editorial poses, showing how young fashion models really are. Then I realized that I loved painting faces the most and found I could explore a range of emotions in the subtleties of expression.

My girls are facing the viewer head-on as though they are engaged in a conversation or a ‘moment’ with the viewer. They are mostly hybrids of different faces, invented characters. It’s amazing to me how subtle human expressions are — a flick of paint and she’s puzzled, sad or amused. I’ve witnessed a lot of emotional responses from people when I show these pieces; they are powerful.


You paint a diverse range of subjects from tranquil fields and birds to portraits and now swimmers, yet they all share a soft, ethereal quality. Can you tell us about your process and how you come up with your ideas? I used to work on about 20 paintings at a time but recently I’ve reduced that to about three which keeps me focused on actually finishing paintings, instead of just starting them! I paint what I want to paint. When learning to write, they say, ‘write what you know.’ For me, I have to paint what I love and I love faces. I’m fascinated with the human body in general, but I especially love the face. The fields are about that heavenly feeling of running through the long grass as a child (or even as an adult!). I love that time just before the end of summer when the grass is especially long. There’s a great field by the Fine Arts building at the University of Victoria — if you see a cloud of curly brown hair flitting through there in late September, it’s probably me.

The Swimmers were born from a moment of having no idea what to paint next. I rented a large studio in November 2011 and had no clue what to work on next. I experimented with new materials and then one day in January, I thought what is it that I love to do and the answer was ‘swim.’ So I got to work.


How did you connect with The Gallery at Mattick’s Farm? The owner, Dawn Casson, saw three of my paintings from the Girls series at the Sooke Fine Arts Show in 2015 and contacted me. I warmed to her instantly. She is so enthusiastic about my paintings and just lovely to work with. As a child, I would go to Mattick’s Farm for ice cream after school so I like the full-circle aspect of showing my work there.


What are you currently working on? I’m currently working on more Girls pieces, exploring the idea of identity and how we present ourselves in this image-focused world. I still have more swimmers in me too. I’m actually clearing out my studio and just working on two to three large pieces at once. Focus is good.