Tucked out of sight from prying eyes, except for perhaps a few ghosts, James Postill dips his brush in ground-up pigment to paint on the earth-caked wall.
The historic mansion that once housed an Italian aristocratic family and their sheltered, artistically talented daughter looms above as he reapplies a dab of verdant green to the leaf motif on the side of the structure.
It’s a romantic notion, Postill says, working in the same way humans did thousands of years ago when they painted petroglyphs on rock and hardened earth.
“Right now, it’s looking like a Chinese landscape,” said Postill admiring his work.
“It’s a fresh feeling of new discovery. I have this beautiful natural building, and I’ve been getting the same ideas our ancestors must have had painting with natural pigments on the caves. It’s a closer connection to the earth.”
As the first artist-in-residence at the Caetani Cultural Centre, Postill has just started a fresco on the centre’s latest studio, a sustainable structure made from baled straw and other renewable materials.
Built in 2008, and completed last year, the Straw Bale Studio was constructed by volunteers with funding from Laing Roofing and Greenway Roofing.
Its thick walls will provide far more insulation than standard walls filled with fibre glass, cellulose, rock wool, and other fibre. Straw bale structures are also known for keeping cool in summer, said Postill.
“This is the perfect studio space for me. It’ll give me time to research and reflect on frescoing,” he said. “I’ll be using natural pigments and binders, and have a year to work with these new materials and the new structure, which is sustainable and was built by the community.”
Even the studio’s roof has a green element, and will soon be covered with local vegetation.
In keeping with the building’s environmental theme, Postill has been using milk-based paints, which are made from a milk protein called casein, for his fresco.
Colour is added to the paint through the use of earth pigments, which Postill has been busy grinding in the studio.
“To see a fresco here in Vernon is rare. Fresco uses plaster and ground-up pigment, whereas, a mural is usually made of latex paint. They are two different forms and there are different applications and methods of approaching them.”
Born and raised in Vernon, Postill received his degree in fine arts from Okanagan University College (the program that is now offered at UBC Okanagan) in 1993.
After living and working as a picture framer in Kelowna, he moved to Lumby, where he started dabbling in watercolours. (“I changed to watercolours when my kids came along as it was easier to clean up,” he said.) While in the village, Postill painted two commissioned murals, which led to his interest in fresco painting.
Postill moved to Vernon while recovering from an illness in the fall of 2009.
“It was then that I started painting full time from four-to-five paintings a year to four a week,” he said. “It actually gave me an excellent opportunity to explore art and build a body of work.”
Besides teaching courses at the Vernon Community Arts Centre, Postill has been busy exhibiting his landscape work, and his more recent water-based series entitled Rain, which was actually painted in oils.
A member of the Vernon chapter of the Canadian Federation of Artists, he will soon join fellow artists from all three Okanagan chapters in the juried group exhibition, Triptych, to be held in Penticton.
Excited to be concentrating once again on his art, Postill says he is specifically interested in reaching out to the community while working as the Caetani centre’s artist-in-residence.
The centre just received a Telus community grant for Postill to go work with students in the Vernon school district, and he will also conduct kids camps this summer at the Caetani centre, offering instruction in fresco painting, mask building, paper maché, mosaic tiles, and T-shirt painting.
“I will modify it so it’s easy to digest,” he said. “It will be process-driven and I will make it in a way that it is fun for them.”
For adults, Postill plans to conduct workshops on painting en plein air and he has the perfect subject in the Caetani house and property, which is home to numerous artist studios and events.
“Caetani is a place that supports artists, which in Vernon is important,” he said, referring specifically to the late artist and teacher Sveva Caetani who willed her family’s house and its property to the city after she died. “You can feel the history here; you get a sense of what went on before.”
Now run by a non-profit board, the Caetani Cultural Centre is seeking sponsorship for its artist-in-residence program, which the centre’s executive director Judy Katalinic wants to continue on an ongoing basis.
“We hope to have another residential studio, and are looking for business sponsors for that,” she said. “We want them to know that it will not be a one-off thing, and to have our name established.”
Those interested in learning more about the centre and its programs can contact Katalinic at 250-275-1525 or visit www.caetaniculturalcentre.org.