Inspired by the spirit of the sea: meet artist Becca Fairbairn

The lap of water has been ever-present in Becca Fairbairn’s life. There were windswept days spent on sunfish sailboats as a child, holidays spent by alpine lakes with her own children, and in recent years, summers spent drifting between the islands– often solo– of Desolation Sound. 

Becca’s current Bowen home sits fittingly on the water’s edge; a historic cottage peering out at the churning ocean and vast horizon. Her art desk is perched on the balcony, where she paints (predominantly boats) on wooden exhibition panels and recycled wood.

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Her adventurous spirit stemmed from an upbringing in Coboconk, central Ontario, where her great-grandfather opened a saw mill, general store and hotel. More than 2200 acres were backyard to Becca and her four siblings. “It was a ranch-style house on a peninsula that ran out into a lake, so from the time I was seven I ran a boat. Mostly we had run-about tin boats and canoes, then I graduated to a Hobie Cat.”

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Becca Fairbairn works with paint. - Nicole Barratt

They housed a collection of pets– “my parents never said no to any animal brought home”. There were sibling pheasants Antony and Cleopatra who resided in a dollhouse, and four golden retrievers who dotted sofas and clothes with trails of fur. “I was definitely a country mouse. The thrill of a subway and elevator ride in the city was still fresh when I was 10, but I preferred the country.”

Becca grew up with an appreciation for the arts. Her aunt was a sculptor who had a studio in an old morgue, and her mother painted and drew. “I remember my mom drawing people with charcoal when they came to visit; that’s when I saw the magic of what it means to be an artist. She’d have a blank piece of paper, and I’d just sit and watch this person’s image evolve on it.” 

Art’s validation in her childhood steered her towards her future education in arts. “I grew up in a household that really didn’t give me any message that going into the arts wasn’t a good idea.” Studies in Art History at Western University in Ontario followed her school years.

After earning a Master’s degree at UBC, she took on a role as an art history professor at Kwantlen University. “That fed two ambitions, I could teach, and at the time they were also developing curriculum there for a degree in liberal arts, so I helped with that too.” Becca says the engagement in a classroom setting fed her. “I loved the dynamic. It was my quest to engage the students fully, to try entice them into a love of learning using art history as the medium.”

 Becca’s three sons were in tow by this time. Term breaks were spent in a remote cabin past Whistler, where Becca drew her boys in charcoal like her mother had done. “I brought print making materials up, we did casting of our faces, then we took up potting wheels. The boys started teaching people who visited us there how to throw pots.”

An attraction to painting was spurred by a fall trip back East to care for her mother. “I was driving around Ontario and it was ablaze in colour, and I had this dream of a rainbow of paint cascading down a waterfall. I woke up and thought, ‘I’ve got to paint. I’ve got to do colour.’” So she painted old cigar boxes her mother had kept for her grandchildren to paint. “Then I opened up her cupboard and found a wooden scrubbing brush– I grabbed it and started painting that too. I started painting anything that was wooden and blank.”

Becca’s interest in painting on wood was sparked further with the purchase of her 50ft sailboat, Spring Moon. Returning to life in Vancouver and feeling suffocated in the city, she converted to life on water. “My sons had nearly all graduated, so I bought this sailboat so that all I had to do when I felt confined was untie the lines and go.”

Becca’s partner at the time was also a keen sailor. “I thought if he can do it, so can I.” She took a course in navigation and learned from others she sailed with. Spring Moon’s interior was Burmese Teak wood; “I loved the stain of that, then I was doing the brightwork on my boat and I got interested in the varnishes.”

Becca’s signature style is to use the grain of the wood she paints on as part of the composition of her painting. The grain often suggests current, movement, or the material of the boat itself. Sometimes she sees figures in the grain and uses the lines to form people. “I had a stocked pond of images and techniques from my teaching years, so I was applying that knowledge to my own work. Then I found my niche painting these boats.” Oil paints, stains and Q-tips (to control the stains) became regular purchases.

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The view from Becca Fairbairn's home. - Nicole Barratt

Living on her boat, docking at various ports around Vancouver and exploring the Sound was freeing, Becca says. “I love the marine environment and people who live on their boats. We all help each other in the marine community. It was about 95 percent men, and mostly salty types– very down to earth, cautious about their relationship to the environment, but risk takers too.”

Wildlife in the Sound is spectacular, Becca says, but its the richness of the communities she finds sailing she loves most. She recalls meeting an eccentric pair of brothers on Lasqueti Island one year when her boat’s batteries failed. “We pull up and there’s this massive wing of a plane on the dock, a big metal barge and a couch decorated in Christmas lights. Then there were these massive vats of algae by their house, which they were growing for aquariums around the world.” The day was complete with a BBQ held on the barge, where Lasqueti locals arrived and rafted their boats to climb aboard.

Eventually the need for an art studio led Becca to Bowen. She’d spent time in the forested hills of Fairweather years before with her sons visiting friends. She connected with fellow artist Vikki Fuller, who helped set her up with a studio space. Finding her land-legs again, Spring Moon was docked at Union Steamship Marina. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’m happy here’. It just worked out.” 

 Currently Becca can peer out at the ocean behind her easel, where she continues to conjure sea, sky and sailboats on wood. Her two faithful collies (Meg and Rose) bolt around the cottage’s grounds and happily sniff at salty breezes that drift by. Recently a heron landed on Becca’s desk amidst her paints and brushes. It seems her work is drawing in fans of both the human and feathered variety.

 Find Becca’s work: Arts Pacific Gallery, 587a Artisan Ln, Bowen Island. This story was orignally published at by New Zealand journalist Nicole Barratt. 

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