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Art evokes enchanted childhood

Meghan Hildebrand, forever your friend, Dab Gallery, (532 1/2 Fisgard St., Suite 6, Dragon Alley, 250-590-2788, www.dbgallery.com), until May 30. Dab Gallery is in Dragon Alley, just off Fisgard Street, deep in Chinatown.

Meghan Hildebrand, forever your friend, Dab Gallery, (532 1/2 Fisgard St., Suite 6, Dragon Alley, 250-590-2788, www.dbgallery.com), until May 30.

Dab Gallery is in Dragon Alley, just off Fisgard Street, deep in Chinatown. The live/work condos there are a recent development of an ancient tenement. The charming gallery is the ground floor of one, and is smaller than most living rooms. There I saw Meghan Hildebrand's mixed-media paintings, and spoke with the artist about her childhood.

"It was magic!" she remembered. Meghan Hildebrand grew up in Whitehorse in the Yukon. Her mother, Dereen Hildebrand, was a "jack-of-all-trades" artist who, as a teenager took "any way out" of Victoria.

She got an enriched education in the 1970s at the Kootenay School of Art in Nelson and travelled to the Yukon. The first five years of Meghan's life were spent with her mom in a little trailer.

"It was beautiful. I have had an easel as long as I can remember. We painted murals on the doors. How my mom managed a sign-painting business out of the trailer I can't imagine," Hildebrand mused.

Hildebrand recalls the Yukon as "totally gorgeous." She grew up in a circle that included artists Ted Harrison, Jim Robb and many others. As soon as she graduated from high school, Meghan lit out for Vancouver with all the money she had -- enough to last about two weeks.

When the money ran out she returned home and made a more enduring plan: to attend the Kootenay School of Art. During four years there she developed rapidly; in her "mixed media" course there were just six students and three instructors. Graduating in 2001, she launched herself into the world, ready to become a full-time artist.

Her first stop was the Fran Willis Gallery in Victoria. Early one Monday morning she set out with her portfolio, only to discover that art galleries typically aren't open on Mondays. Nevertheless, she was taken up by the gallery.

Even then her style was identifiable. She starts with a wooden panel and builds up a foundation of acrylic paint and collage, using paper elements like brushstrokes. These she cuts into shapes, distinct (buildings, animals, petals, birds) or freely indistinct. Oil glazes tie together this bouillabaisse of imagery with nicely judged tone and colour.

Hildebrand and her fiancé discovered Powell River five years ago and took to it right away. She likes being a "big fish" in a small community, "staying home and doing the stuff we want to do." To make that way of life work she takes every exhibiting opportunity -- grocery stores, artists' co-op and her own gallery in the basement of their home. "We are trying to create the scene we want to be in," she noted. "Living in Powell River is kind of like a vacation."

I asked her for some insight into the charming and complex images on the walls around us. She described them as imaginary places, "our footprints -- the shapes we leave in the world." Each ebullient collage seems to erupt at the intersection of the natural world and industrial reality. She builds fantasy cities like castles in the air; she calls them "almost dreamscapes."

For me they evoke St. Petersburg, the leaning tower of Pisa, Manhattan and Vancouver's West End. Hildebrand said she prefers to keep things ambivalent, "to fit into anyone's memory." She starts with nothing and builds up a lot of free-floating imagery, defining what turns up as she goes along.

Using her scissors, she snips out all manner of animals and birds to paste into the environments she creates. "Birds tell such great stories," she laughed. I asked her about the many galloping horses -- or were they coyotes or deer or rabbits? She said they were "animal shapes," purposely left open for people to define them as they wish.

Hildebrand's paintings are attractive from a distance and become more and more interesting as one approaches. She calls them "doorways to places." What sort of places?

"A couch on a porch," she replied. "That cosy place where my mom and I were," so many years ago. It's a pleasure to go there with her.