Why does someone become an artist?

It’s a big question that can yield seemingly inconsequential answers. Sometimes, it all comes down to a childhood chance encounter — stumbling across a comic strip, attending an art exhibition for the first time or an emergency trip to the hospital. I asked Rubeena Ratcliffe to tell me about the early art memories that inspired her desire to create and set her on her career path.

Rubeena Ratcliffe in the studio. Photo: Gillian Stevens

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

I come from a family of four girls whom I’m close with to this day. We fight, we love and we are so very different from each other. I’m also a twin sister, so I’ve had the privilege of never being bored and always having a friend who has my back.

My parents immigrated from India to Canada in the 1960’s-70’s. So being first generation Indian, I’ve come to appreciate all the cultural familial aspects while living in Vancouver. I have three young children and a husband who is an architect. We met while both studying architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I decided to be a stay at home Mother once we had our first daughter, It was a tough pill to swallow. I felt like I failed in some way. But it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Our oldest is now 11 and those early years of her being young literally vanished. I used to grumble with annoyance when older people would tell me, this time will fly by. Being sleep deprived and being a parent or even working in an office while your child is in daycare is such a difficult time. Art became an avenue to take out my internal frustration and eventually became my vocation.

When did art first enter your life? How did it start?  

It started when I was three years old. I distinctly remember using paints at a hospital recovering from an asthma attack and loved how it made me feel. No one can make something that you just made. Its 100% original. Even if its an ugly bathtub (that’s what I painted).

Rubeena Ratcliffe, layered abstract painting, 72x48 inches

Here comes the Cat, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 48″

What materials do you like to use and why? 

I like to use Acrylic because of the limited time I have. Oils are beautiful and I love the way you can mold it into different palettes, acrylic is a little more hardcore.

Can you tell me about the process of making your work? 

Oooh. That’s a difficult one. We as humans can make time for anything we really like to do. And, because I am a mother of 3 and am sort of a social human, my process for creating probably starts happening during these chaotic sometimes mundane times. I’d like to think that having children and being at home/studio is a beautiful and ugly habitat for my creativity to flower. Once I am in my studio, I really have to almost prepare myself for a work out. I get some music going, or podcasts, I tidy my studio and start going at it as quickly as possible. Creating colours and getting messy even minutes after I’ve tidied. Most paintings take a few months. I usually bring my paintings into our living spaces, so while we are eating or watching TV, I look at my progress and decide from there what I need to do next.

Rubeena Ratcliffe, layered and textured abstract painting, 48 x 36 inches

But Nobody Knows, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 36″

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies? 

Yes, I think it does. Subconsciously speaking. I find myself becoming more private as a person, art being my voice. The work reflects my interest in the spiritual, something higher than ourselves. Though my life is mostly devoted to my three children, I’ve found that I can communicate to others through my art. The four new paintings on exhibit all follow the same approach: a refined use of colour and spiritual aspects, both philosophical and pictorial. The titles are taken from children’s books and the collection is titled ‘Blub Bluuub Bluuuuuuub’.

What is your favourite museum or gallery that you’ve visited? 

I’d say the galleries in Amsterdam are pretty spectacular. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam was one of my favourites, a popular one, but one that I would visit by myself almost every week. I studied 16th century art and loved the stories behind the paintings. I also really loved this other gallery in Amsterdam called Droog (meaning dry in Dutch). It was fresh and small. I loved the quirky shows, the shops and the food.

If you could live with just one work of art, what would it be? 

It would be anything Helen Frankenthaler. She was a brilliant and interesting person. I loved her eye and how she composed her canvas with stains.

What has been the highlight of your career so far? 

Most recently Nordstrom purchased two works for their collection which was super exciting. I have had a few pieces in the last couple of years travel around the world – knowing that these paintings have made a home somewhere I have yet to even visit is wild.

Rubeena Ratcliffe, layered abstract painting, 72x48 inches

All for One House, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 48″

During our studio visit you described the painting “All for One House” being personal and inspired by memory. Can you tell me more about this? 

This work, like many others are symbols of what moves me, whether it be an imaginary still life or autobiographical. The catalyst for this painting is an introspective one, I am one of many women in my family and the relationships we have are complicated, with domesticity being the foreground. This Painting titled ‘All for One House’ delicately portrays my feelings of anxiety. With insecurity and self doubt being represented by the sharp small pieces, housed by figures of love and support. It’s my way of illuminating the ugly while creating a balanced piece of work.

In reflecting on your career what is the most useful advice you have received? 

The most useful piece of advice came from my father and that was to be honest. Even if you are going to lose something always be honest.

Rubeena Ratcliffe, Go Tomorrow, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 36"

Do you use technology in your work? 

Using adobe photoshop has been an efficient tool in the way I create my work. I import photos of my unfinished work and start testing out different colour fields and overall compositions. Only a handful of paintings I’ve done are without any use of my computer.

What music or other audio do you listen to while you’re working? 

I usually listen to crime podcasts – most always a BBC podcast. Music is all over the place. Bollywood songs, Justin Bieber, The weekend, Backstreet boys, Joan Baez, William Tyler and the Great Dolly Parton.

What advice would you give to a young person following in your footsteps? 

Take risks and have fun. Do it if it genuinely makes you happy. I took life too seriously – and am realizing that everything flies by so quickly. Try and enjoy your small successes and surround yourself with people who are positive and supportive.

What do you hope people will experience when they look at one of your works? 

That it brings them to some place of solace. We are a visual society and there is so much good stuff and bad stuff around us. I want people to look at my work and feel connected in an unexplained manner and hopefully in a beautiful way.