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Parking lot, Waterloo County
Parking lot, Waterloo County

The Architourist

House painting on a whole other level Add to ...

Jennifer Harrison always wanted to be an architect: "I remember being 7 and getting angry because when they built new houses they didn't make them to look like old houses, or when they did, they didn't do a very good job of it."

First attracted to "old signs and urban decay," Gordon Leverton soon turned his attention toward houses: "As long as they speak to me than I'm more than willing to listen."

Garbage day holds a special place in Karin Rabuka's heart: "I would wait for Tuesdays at 8 a.m. and I would do portraits of people's homes and what they had outside."

Meet the House Painters. No, not the kind wielding sloppy stepladders, but those who comb city laneways, suburban streets, parking lots and parkettes for artistic inspiration of a residential nature, then incubate those images until they're coaxed from paint-spattered hands onto the white canvas.

Ms. Harrison, a resident of Toronto's Junction neighbourhood, prepares her canvas by applying a thick acrylic polymer - with a consistency similar to cake frosting or drywall compound - then quickly carves her subjects into it before it dries. Next, a brown undercoat is applied over the entire image, then, finally, the various oils are applied in stages.

Choosing to focus solely on the architectural features of houses, the 37-year-old omits most human artifacts - drapery, shrubbery and automobiles - and replaces that authenticity by using "the really classic Toronto colours" she finds during scouting missions.

"When I'm walking and I see stuff like a pine green and it's faded into that florescent bluey-green colour ... and then there's that red when [the homeowner]tried to match the brick colour, those are really inspiring, fantastic colours ... so if I can find a really good tone then I'll take a big piece [of chipped paint]and put it in my pocket," Ms. Harrison says.

Back in the studio, she matches these samples using more than 500 tubes of oil. These "tones" are so bright and cheery, folks at the annual Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition in Nathan Phillips Square usually assume her paintings depict the jumbled and colourful homes of Newfoundland rather than those of the Junction.

Although most of his subjects are plucked from his native Hamilton, Mr. Leverton has recently been snapping pictures of the Junction's back alleys with his camera phone. "You can tell more about a person by looking in their backyard than their front yard," the pastel artist chuckles.

Indeed, whether they depict Steeltown or Hogtown, most of his creamy, smooth works present tightly edited views - a section of roof traced by eavestrough, a wonky back porch, a garage door or an angled shadow on a blank wall - that celebrate the forgotten and mundane pieces of domestic life.

While the 42-year-old's use of light and shadow leans toward American realist legend Edward Hopper, Mr. Leverton's unconventional "macro view" forces foreground and background to become indistinguishable, which creates abstraction.

"I love to play with those spatial planes, so if it's a green house that runs into a blue house, I'm more interested in the overall shapes and the lines and how they run into each other," he says.

A few years ago, the self-taught artist created a series called Favelas based on houses in Hamilton's gritty north end because their ramshackle nature reminded him of Brazilian slums.

"These makeshift houses that just sort of go up hills, they're somewhat dubiously legal," he says. "People need places to live and they find these creative ways to make their dwellings."

While Ms. Rabuka has not travelled as far as South America, she has moved around enough in her 34 years to understand that inspiration can be found in both the dignified homes of her former north Toronto neighbourhood, and in the moments just before garbage pickup when she lived in Waterloo, Ont.

"I don't try to edit out what I notice, I just love to paint humanity and if there's a sofa on the side of the road then I'll paint that in," she says.

Even an apparent lack of humanity is fit for Ms. Rabuka's brush. While living in Ajax, Ont. (just before her current move to the Ottawa countryside), she marvelled at the "mystery" of her surroundings.

"People don't tend to reflect who they are in subdivisions as much, they cover over personalities and everything does tend to look so similar," she says.

Bright colours, bold outlines and a childlike two-dimensionality give her homes, whether stately or suburban, an unexpected vibrancy, which in turn emphasizes "the importance of the mundane," she says. Simple circles around light sources or sky stripes to replace gentle gradations of colour may look naive, but they subversively "bring a new awareness to the viewer of what is around them."

Squares of canvas, sheets of paper: In the hands of the House Painters, they become windows onto the wonders of our residential world.

To enjoy more work by these artists, visit http://www.karinrabuka.com, http://www.gordonleverton.com and http://www.jenniferharrison.org.

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