Artist in a Van

by Claire Gaulin-Brown

It took me a really long time to find my very own artist’s voice. It’s possible you get a voice the first time you make art, when you’re 5 years old and exploring the world of colours and mediums for the first time, and then it gets refined from there. If that’s the case, it took me about 19 years of making art to figure out what my voice is saying, like learning how to speak all over again. My big brother used to say of my art, “yeah its nice, but what does it mean?” I was never quite sure.

Almost exactly a year ago, I finally felt like I had something to say in the form of a cohesive body of work, resulting in the style of art that I now almost exclusively make. Around that same time my partner and I made an exciting life choice to move into a camperized van and dwell in that little home on wheels full time. We were living in Squamish at the time and living the dirtbag rock climber life anyway, so it seemed like an extremely natural step. Thus started several months of blissful van living, and immense creativity.

Sometimes I was startled by how much I enjoyed living in the van. I read more books for pleasure in the first six months than I did my entire four years at university. We didn’t hook into internet except on rare occasions and we even had the luxury of picking our own little chunk of roadside down the forest service road to lay our heads each night, with the towering local monolith of granite right in our backyard. When the adventure began, I was worried that I would never make a large painting ever again due to space issues. But these worries were quickly put to rest as I began spending my days off in the Chief parking lot, doors open and watercolours out, or taking my paper, which I stored under the bed, out into parks to work in my very own plein-air studio. I ran into my fair share of artistic roadblocks along the way, but I always found my way around them, and managed to get back to my distraction-free open air studio with ample time to dedicate to finding my artistic voice.

Our off-white Ford Econoline fuelled many artistic trips, such as the time we drove to Calgary and back for an artist symposium over a long weekend, solidifying even further the need, and even a responsibility to keep making. Our van even took us all the way from Vancouver Island down the coast into the US and Mexico. We came prepared with art supplies, cameras, and surfboards and quickly learned that not everywhere has the same tolerance for van-dwellers. But we worked hard to keep our spirits up in order to keep up with our creativity. We even saw an old friend in San Diego, and my heart lifted when I saw one of my paintings on his wall. How art can travel! Now when I look at photos and little paintings from our time spent on the road, I look with so much fondness. Any negativity just falls away.

Being a travelling artist was nothing short of a dream come true, albeit a brief one. Full disclosure: we don’t own the van anymore, and it breaks my heart a little bit because it facilitated so much freedom, from sleeping on the side of the road in order to surf for seven days straight, to painting in a rainstorm somewhere in Oregon on our way to promised sunnier weather. But always moving and always working odd dead-end jobs can be tiring. After all that travelling, we eventually realized we wanted jobs that would require bathing more than once a week—maybe even jobs that we could be really proud of. As for my art practice, in this new stationary lifestyle I work on a big desk with soft light filtering in from big bay windows. It is a huge relief to finally work on a big piece of paper and know it won’t get wrinkled. We can finally stay in one area, build relationships with people and place, and I can push my art forward in a different way.

I’m happy with where we are, but I so needed that time of grubby living and art making to think about the world and decide what I am here to say about it, to commit myself to living up to the task of being a maker. It’s a time that I can measure all other periods of creativity against, a time when I made art in a vehicle and made it work. I like to say that I was short on space, but not on inspiration. And that mindset has stayed with me as I use my new found voice and continue to create a portfolio that I can be proud of.