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Transcendent paintings of birds

Trevelyan revisits series started a decade ago

By: Scott Hayes

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 06, 2013 06:00 am

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  • CREATIVE NATURALIST – Artist James Trevelyan continues his series of abstract works with the presentation of Passeriforms II opening Thursday at the Art Gallery of St. Albert.
    CREATIVE NATURALIST – Artist James Trevelyan continues his series of abstract works with the presentation of Passeriforms II opening Thursday at the Art Gallery of St. Albert.
    BRYAN YOUNG/St. Albert Gazette
  • Jay de Composition I by artist James Trevelyan
    Jay de Composition I by artist James Trevelyan

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Passeriforms II

Paintings by James Trevelyan

Opening reception tomorrow from 7 to 9 p.m. Artist will be in attendance.
Exhibit runs until Saturday, March 16
Art Gallery of St. Albert
19 Perron Street
Call 780-460-4310 or visit for more information.
Please note: this exhibit also runs concurrently with Migrating Colony by Fort McMurray artist Erin Schwab.

It’s no secret that James Trevelyan is a fine artist and a nature lover too. He’s been known for his highly expressive and energetic paintings for years, and he’s spent his entire life looking at the world around us.

He calls himself a creative naturalist, a term he picked up from his father, himself a photographer and avowed nature lover. It’s an invented description, but it stuck.

“That came as a result of examining those influences and interests that I have,” he began. “We had a cottage at Lake Wabamun growing up. I had spent a lot of time crawling around in the woods and on the lakeshore, kayaking and stuff like that.”

“I use the term loosely. I think probably that legitimate scientific naturalists would raise their eyebrows at that term.”

The 60-year-old Red Deer College painting and art history professor has been preparing for his upcoming show, Passeriforms II, at the Art Gallery of St. Albert. Those who follow his work, however, might think that it has been a decade in the making, or at least several years overdue.

He first introduced Passeriforms back in 2002. It’s a series of expressionistic images of birds. The title, he explained, is based on Passeriformes, the Latin name for the order that contains songbirds, more than half of all bird species. In the eyes and hands of this artist, a robin becomes either a triumphant display of proud red belly or a sombre downcast image wrapped in black wings.

Those two pieces, Punk Robin and Guilty Robin, can be viewed on the artist’s website at They are strong representatives of his oeuvre that also has a not too subtle touch of a meditation on the nature of each species.

“Like any practice, there’s a possible creative outlet or adaptation of it. I dabble to some degree with a scientific interest but more of an aesthetic interest in nature.”

This comes Trevelyan’s long interest in Chinese calligraphy, especially after meeting internationally renowned calligrapher, Edmonton’s Dr. Steven Aung. He once asked Aung to draw him the character for ‘bird’ and Aung explained that there are two ways to draw it.

“He said that in Chinese writing, there’s a technical form and an expressive form. In the expressive form, you can be very loose and playful with it. I used that character as an underdrawing for a bunch of my birds.”

This tactic struck a chord with audiences, especially in Hokkaido, Japan when he was invited to participate in a seminar on northern cultures in 2005. He took his paintings along to show to his hosts and the other participants.

“Everybody from Korea, China, Japan … could see that character in that image. They all understood the origin of that word ‘bird.’ They called it a form of creative Shodo-shim which means expressive writing.”

The selection of avian life that will be in the show includes traditional native central Albertan songbirds plus magpies and crows. He describes his approach as fusion between drawing and painting, what he calls “painting on paper.” The paintings are all acrylic on either 300-pound paper or watercolour paper. The medium is important but the surface does much to enhance the transcendent abstractions of these creatures.

Trevelyan ended by relating the story of the punk robin that he saw in the backyard of his Edmonton Highlands home.

“We’ve got 75-year-old trees … like St. Albert in a lot of ways. One spring we saw this mother and this young chick she was training how to walk and hunt and hide and various things. As it grew up, it started to take on a very distinct appearance. It had a funny top notch on its head that looked like a punk hairdo.”

It’s a sign of a qualified and bona fide artist to take concepts and make them reality. It’s something else to take what would otherwise have been a goofy picture of a bird with punk hair and make it something beautiful and mesmerizing.

It’s only through Trevelyan transcending his art practice from the rough to the sublime that he can achieve these transcendent, wonderful works.


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