South Surrey painter Ilona Scott-Barzen – who signs her work simply I. Scott – says there’s an old adage that comes from her native South Africa.
“They say you can take the African out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of the African,” she said.
That’s very true of her current series of vibrantly-hued acrylic works that render African figures more symbolically than representionally – gestural icons that eschew individual detail.
Using very simplified forms, Scott-Barzen successfully evokes the cooking pot-carrying families of rural areas; the grace of strong, composed, self-assured women in traditional garb; the jaunty attitudes of gossiping young urban girls; even the powerful dignity of spear-carrying Serengeti warriors dedicated to defending homes and families from predators.
“(The art) is a testament to who they are and what they represent,” she said. “They’re not depicted as individuals but rather as a collective – which is very much an African idea.”
Scott-Barzen, who in daily life is a lawyer, came to Canada in 2010 to work with a company providing legal expense insurance.
But her painting sideline has been connecting well with Canadian viewers, she said, leading to steady sales of originals and smaller reproductions, and some commissions – including a recent one in White Rock. But she does miss the opportunity of being able to present her art in physical gallery settings during the current pandemic.
“I have thought about doing an online show, but it’s not the same thing – you don’t get the full experience of the colours,” she said.
“People have said my paintings are very warm – I think because the colours are very vibrant, people get a smile when they see them. With COVID, life is like a desert, so this is a little warmth coming into the house.”
Because art is not something she does full time, she feels each piece she paints is a genuine expression for her.
“People have said they have seen a little bit of my soul in the paintings,” she said.
“I don’t think art could ever be a full-time job for me, which means every painting is very heartfelt. Inspiration has to hit.”
Her subjects are inspired by the places and people she grew up with, she said, augmented by some refresher photo research.
“I was born in Johannesburg – I’m a fourth generation African – and I lived there all my life until I came to Canada. I remember running around barefoot as a kid – everyone does that – and the ground is red, a red clay. I think reds are a very big part of my paintings because of that.”
Scott-Barzen said she first took up art while she was still in South Africa, joining a group involved in painting on fabric with acrylics.
“I thought that would be a good medium to try, and I learned all of my techniques from that,” she said, noting that her early work is far different from her current style.
“When I first started painting it was more flowers and landscapes. And then I decided I was going to move into monochrome – mostly black and white. I’d seen a lot of people sketching and it intrigued me that people could create with just dark lines on paper. I wondered if one could emulate that with acrylics.”
The current style only emerged in 2012, after she came to Canada, and Scott-Barzen acknowledges that a certain nostalgia may have played a role in forming it.
“Being apart from Africa does highlight your memories of it – they become bigger and brighter in you, painting your African world,” she said.
While there are numerous natural beauties to Africa’s varied topography and animal species, Scott-Barzen said, “there’s nothing more beautiful about a place than its people”
“I want to show people that,” she said. “There are so many people who haven’t had the chance to visit Africa. I think that’s why it’s nice to paint the soul of Africa and share that with other people.”
While moving to the rainy west coast of Canada was a shock at first, Scott-Barzen said, she has come to embrace the beauty of her adopted home.
“I love the scenery here,” she said. “One of the things I appreciate about Canada is having four distinct seasons. In Africa, it’s winter and summer and that’s about it.
“I feel very blessed to have lived in two very beautiful places,” she said.
For more information on her work, email [email protected]