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By Vanessa Tam

Connecting with people through art is what local artist Charlotte Spafford does. Whether it’s through her own abstract mixed-media practice or her work as an art therapist, Spafford uses her creativity to reveal who we are and what we value as people.

Her latest collection of work titled Precious Things – Collected and Kept, explores the relationship between people and their belongings. Putting a call out for submissions, Spafford received prized belongings from people across Vancouver with a short letter describing why the object is precious to them. Spafford then re-created each piece into an “art object” in her own style using watercolours, ink, thread, pens, pencils, pastel and different weights of paper.

Below we got a chance to chat with Spafford about everything from the inspiration behind her new show to her own experience with art therapy.

Charlotte Spafford

What inspired you to create a series of paintings under the Precious Things theme?

I’ve been working with the Precious Things theme for a little while in a different context – whenever I go on a hike or into nature, I collect natural things I see as precious (interesting rocks, sticks, and leaves for example) and then re-create them in my own style. Working with natural things is great, but I wanted challenge myself to re-create and abstract objects that have rich meaning in people’s lives – things I might not normally select.

In January, I received a grant from the Vancouver Foundation DTES Small Arts Grants and decided to use it as a jumping off point for this project. I’ve always been interested in what we value and how we create meaning in our lives. I work part-time in long term care, so I see the impermanence of life on a daily basis. When someone passes away, their precious things are often the only physical record we have of who they were and what they loved. Our precious objects are the types of things that may be shown in museums one day, to tell future generations about who we were. I find it fascinating to think about what those things might be.

Tell us more about your process behind “capturing the spirit” of the objects that you’ve collected for this Precious Things show

The first thing I do when someone sends me an object is read the person’s description of why it is precious to them. It gives me a deeper understanding of the object, and although it doesn’t necessarily change how I see the object, it’s an important part of my process.

Then I look at the photograph of the object. I study it carefully and sketch it out from a few different angles in my sketchbook examining its form, colour, lines, interesting features, etcetera. This helps me decide which medium or media would best represent it – ink, pencil, paint, glitter, string, pastel, or something else entirely – and also, how abstract I want to make it. Sometimes I immediately know how I want to re-create it, and sometimes it takes a little more experimentation to figure out. It is part observation, part intuition.

Charlotte Spafford

Out of all the objects that you’ve created for Precious Things, do you have a favourite?

There were so many objects with beautiful stories, but I definitely have a favourite. The objects were from a woman in her nineties, and I had the chance to visit her, see them in person and hear her stories. One of the objects was an old painting she’s had since her son was a child and the other was an armoire that belonged to her mother. I heard stories that were so close to her heart that she doesn’t normally have the chance to share. There is something special about being in a room with someone and experiencing that kind of connection.

Tell us about your work as an art therapist

I work with seniors at a couple of long term care homes, both as an art therapist and a program coordinator. The residents I work with have a variety of physical and mental health challenges, so every day is different but I absolutely love it. I get to witness the creative processes of a wide group of people who have lived fascinating lives, and get to know them as individuals and creative beings. It is a great complement to my art practice – I always come away with new ideas and new ways of thinking about things.

Charlotte Spafford

Has art therapy ever helped you personally?

Yes, it has. I went through some mental health issues as a teenager in addition to generally feeling uninspired by what felt possible for my life and my future (as many teens feel I think). A counsellor I was seeing at the time had some art therapy training and encouraged me to work through some of my thoughts and fears using art. I remember having a breakthrough moment – realizing that I could use art as a way of creating new realities for myself. I still use art as a means of inquiry and self-reflection, I always feel like I learn more about myself every time I create.