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Painting exhibit inspired by long-toed birds and jazz coming to Nanaimo Museum

Nanaimo artist Shawnda Wilson’s show ‘When Charles Speaks’ opens next week

Nanaimo artist Shawnda Wilson’s latest body of work is inspired by a tropical wading bird and a renowned jazz composer.

From Jan. 11 to Feb. 28 Wilson presents When Charles Speaks at the Nanaimo Museum. The exhibition features a series of pen and watercolour paintings of the jacana, a bird notable for its long toes used to spread its weight to walk on marine vegetation.

The idea for the show came to Wilson as she was writing a poem about listening to the piano music of Charles Mingus.

“I thought, ‘God, he must have had the longest fingers in the world to be able to play the piano like this,’” she said. “And so I was trying to research an animal to compare him with that had really long fingers and I discovered the jacana bird, who have the longest toes of all animals. Their toes can grow sometimes twice the length of their entire body height.”

While looking into jacanas, Wilson said she “fell in love” with them and their appearance. One painting led to 10, which led to When Charles Speaks. It’s her first exhibition at the Nanaimo Musuem, and as she’s primarily a portrait painter, it’s also her first animal series.

Wilson said she’s been gradually “veering” away from portraits. This summer COVID-19 isolation prompted her to create a series of self-portraits that grew so large that she felt like she needed a break.

“I think it came out to be 50 or 53 self-portraits and I was like, ‘OK, I am done with portraits for a while,’” she said.

She describes her jacana paintings as “very contemporary watercolour,” with realistic birds on expressionist backgrounds designed to resemble the landscapes they inhabit around the world. Wilson was listening to Mingus throughout the process and she said the music rubs off on the paintings.

“I think it influenced them very much,” Wilson said. “They’re colourful. There’s a lot of personality to each one. They feel jazzy.”

WHAT’S ON … Shawnda Wilson presents When Charles Speaks at the Nanaimo Museum, 100 Museum Way, from Jan. 11 to Feb. 28.

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Nanaimo artist Shawnda Wilson’s Jacana No. 1 is among the paintings she’ll have on display in her upcoming show at the Nanaimo Musuem. (Photo courtesy Shawnda Wilson)