Rachel Vanderzwet
Rachel Vanderzwet. Photos by Dean Palmer

On the second floor of the Boarding House at 6 Dublin St. S. in Guelph, artist and U of G fine arts grad Rachel Vanderzwet fills the canvas she is working on with bright swirls of colour.

She paints in a bright, well-ventilated room shared with U of G art professor Martin Pearce. Several other artists share a larger room next door, but Vanderzwet, who uses oil-based paint, needs ventilation for her work.

Around the room, leaning against the walls or hung at eye level are pieces in various stages of completion. “I usually begin with collage-style drawings. I use a lot of magazines and photographs for inspiration, looking for intriguing shapes, patterns and colours. These images are my starting point for the drawings, which I then bring into the studio,” she says.

“I pick and choose the elements that interest me and layer them first in the drawings and later the canvas surface. Much of the painting process is intuitive, but every line and colour is well-considered and built. I keep tweaking the final work until I am satisfied, altering planned elements and adding in new ones as needed. In the end, one of the things I enjoy about my work is its ability to straddle the line between representational and abstract. Nothing is quite defined, so you can keep coming back and seeing different things. There’s a sense of energy and a kind of quirky awkwardness.”

Being in this studio space has been very helpful. “Previously I was working in the basement of a production studio, which had its own artistic merits as I was around a lot of creative types in the film, photography, sound and design industries,” she says.

At the Boarding House, artists can meet and chat with each other as they draw, paint or sculpt. Vanderzwet is part of the Boarding House Art Incubator Residency program, which has a panel of mentors and includes six other artists.

“We do seminars, get outside artists and curators in for studio visits, and visit galleries and collections we might not otherwise have access to,” she says.

There is a small gallery on the main floor called capacity 3 gallery and a space where artists in the program can display current work near the front entrance.

Rachel Vanderzwet shows off her artwork.
Rachel Vanderzwet shows off her artwork.

The route to artistic success, Vanderzwet acknowledges, is not an easy one. Her high school, located in a small town near Niagara Falls, Ont., offered just one art class per year.

However, her parents supported her artistic goals: her mother (also a U of G grad, as is her father) made jewelry and had a craft store in their farmhouse home.

After high school, Vanderzwet earned a two-year diploma in graphic design and art fundamentals at Niagara College. “It really prepared me for coming to the University of Guelph,” she says. As well, many of her courses were transferable to her U of G program, giving her more time to focus on her work for other classes.

“In my last year, I did specialized studio and I thought it was excellent preparation for my life now. It gave me the opportunity to have a studio to use and to work on whatever I wanted,” she says.

After graduation, Vanderzwet opted to stay in Guelph and continue to paint. As with most artists, paying the bills means taking on other jobs; she’s a bartender at Ox in downtown Guelph and helps with installations at Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art, where some of her work has been displayed.

She has shown her paintings at Toronto-area art fairs such as the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition and the Artists’ Project, which led to invitations to a couple of shows at galleries in the city. An exhibit last year at the Robert Lynds Gallery in Vancouver led to a five-year contract with them.

On her website, rachelvanderzwet.com, visitors can see how Vanderzwet’s art has changed over the past few years. “I started out tighter and more representational,” she says. “My practise today is more experimental and fluid. I work closely with colour relationships, patterning and shifting compositions. Recently I have even included some metallic and sparkly elements reflective of an interest in a kind of quirky seductiveness.”

Now that she feels her style and voice as an artist are fairly solid, Vanderzwet has decided to delve back into the theory of art, and will start her master’s of fine arts at the University of Victoria in September. “I think it will be reinvigorating, and I’ll have more resources to experiment and continue to develop as an artist.”

She gives credit to her U of G professors, her mentors and the Boarding House for helping her make that decision. “The mentorship panel and past professors at the University talked to me about the places I was considering applying to, what the programs were like, how I would fit in and how each might help me develop in different ways. They gave me the positives of each place – nobody really had anything negative to say – and that was incredibly helpful in deciding where to go.”

But moving across Canada won’t break Vanderzwet’s connection to her U of G mentors, she insists. “I know they will always be there to support me, people I can come back to when I have a question or need some encouragement.”