Everything about Jessa Gilbert’s paintings suggests movement. The sweeping, fluid lines of her mountains; the way her use of colour makes it look like sun and shade are playing over her landscapes in real time; their staggering scale.
It makes sense, considering the Squamish, B.C.-based artist gathers inspiration while she herself is moving through the backcountry. For Gilbert, the experience of outdoor adventure is tied to the experience of artistic expression.
That wasn’t always the case. Growing up in Vermont, the biggest mountains she knew were the 1,000-metre Catskills. If you stepped off any road, someone owned the land under your feet. It was also drilled into her at art school.
“If you wanted to be in galleries, it was abstract, it was contemporary, it was political, it was black and white, it was people,” she says of her education at the University of Vermont. “And I was totally in that. I was like ‘well, landscapes are hokey then. The only thing that’s going to be worth painting is people.’”
It wasn’t until 2013 that she started working on the landscapes she’s now known for—the landscapes that have led to mural projects across North America, and collaborations with companies including Roxy and Burton.
Gilbert, a competitive snowboarder and athlete, had just moved to Vancouver and was recovering from a recent knee surgery. In a new city, in a new country, looking at a potentially new life (she didn’t know if she’d be able to snowboard again), the last thing she wanted to do was paint people in motion. Gilbert started sketching the world around her.
As she regained mobility and was able to explore more, she was blown away by the beauty and scale of the mountains, as well as the outdoor access in British Columbia. She sketched while she moved, on whatever surfaces were available—her pack, her skis, sketchbooks—as a way of holding on to the immediacy and the emotion that reference photos couldn’t provide.
“I wanted to capture how it feels to be in the moments of adventure and joy, and so those quick little sketches that I do, maybe they take five minutes, but they’re really the meat and potatoes of the painting.” Gilbert says it forces her to pause and be present. To take in what’s significant about the moment.
The process of single line art also requires her full attention and presence.
“Using the technique has helped me to loosen up in the studio and lighten up,” she says. “Conceptually, it connects all parts of the piece, which I think is important to consider when approaching environments and our impact. The sky, the land, the paths, the people—life is a sum of its parts.
When she’s commissioned to do a mural in Colorado, or Utah, or Whistler, B.C., she doesn’t roll into town and start painting. She researches the place. She spends time there. She tries to figure out what the people who live there want her work to say. “I think about the personality of landscape and the personality of that place and how do you showcase it?”
Ultimately though, whether she’s painting on buildings, a canvas, or a snowboard, her goal is about platforming the outdoors. About recognizing the privilege she has to get out into some immaculate spaces, and about bringing that back to people in a way she hopes will inspire them to celebrate it in their own way.
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Photography by Jessa Gilbert
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