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Robert Amos: Capturing Victoria’s vibrant harbour

The public areas of the Coast Victoria Harbourside Hotel (126 Kingston St., 250-360-1211) are richly hung with canvases by Janet Etter, who is for the month of June the artist in residence.

The public areas of the Coast Victoria Harbourside Hotel (126 Kingston St., 250-360-1211) are richly hung with canvases by Janet Etter, who is for the month of June the artist in residence. Her paintings of tugboats in Victoria harbour, in a lively “folk art” fashion, are the perfect complement to the view outside the windows of the Blue Crab restaurant.

Etter spent a month there last year, and sold almost all the paintings she brought. She is clearly delighted with the reception she receives from the hotel staff and guests.

Etter is one of about 30 artists working in the lobbies of seven of Victoria’s finest hotels as artists in residence, arranged by a group known as Artishow. Organized by Barb Adams and Kerry Liggins, Artishow is in its fourth successful year, and can be found at the website

Etter is at work on site six days a week, working in an ad hoc studio set up in the corner of the lobby. Squeezing tubes of acrylic paint onto her palette in public, she uses her sketchbooks as sources for the paintings, enlarging on-the-spot drawings she has made throughout the year of tugboats in our harbour. She works with a sense of urgency, believing that the working harbour and the people who make it work are coming to the end of their term in Victoria. But there is nothing sad about her work.

She loves the colour, the bustle and the bold shapes of boats in action. With the Olympic mountains for a background, she has the buildings of the city of Victoria in the middle distance. The bascule of the iconic Blue Bridge, both up and down, gives a setting for her imagery that will always be attractive. She didn’t plan it that way. “It chose me,” she said.

Etter grew up in Saanich, on Beaver Lake Road, but at age 12 she went to the Yukon to help an uncle run his lodge there. From that time, the north called her and never let her go. She got married, ran trap lines, had her children in a cabin in the bush, lived off the land and eventually ran a “dog-mushing operation” with a kennel of 50 huskies.

This led to her business manufacturing harnesses and all the other paraphernalia for dog-sled racing, employing local women in the cottage industry and managing sales around the world. She eventually went to the Shetland Island College of Art off the coast of Scotland, to study machine-knitting design. Later, she enrolled as a mature student at the University of Saskatchewan, first studying comparative religion and gradually switching to art.

As she told me her story, I had the feeling that this mother of three was only touching the tips of many extraordinary tales.

With her girls grown, seven years ago she came to Victoria to look after her elderly mother and found a new life. One day, when she saw a red and yellow tug towing a green gravel barge under the Point Ellice Bridge, destiny tapped her on the shoulder.

Years before, her father had been a millworker at Smith Cedar Mills near that location and his way of life, his mates and his confident, useful work represented for her an era that was now drawing to a close.

“I’m not going to see these things any more, the meat and potatoes of Victoria harbour,” she told me. “These guys are moving on. I’ve got to record this, but I don’t know how.” So she took out a sketchbook and some student-quality watercolours and did her best to note it down.

Since then, she has filled many notebooks with words and images, and made the acquaintance of the captains and deckhands. She enjoys an active relationship with “the boys” and haunts the shipyards, taking note of boats of all sizes up on the ways. Among the works hanging in the Coast Harbourside Hotel are scenes of a tug and scow barging under the Point Ellice Bridge, a tug decorated for Christmas making its way past the foot of Johnson Street, and one of the little boats menaced by aircraft coming in for a landing.

Etter was at first inspired by artist Joe Norris, whose untrained manner proved to be no handicap to his recording of Nova Scotia waterfront scenes. She, too, has pursued her work without training and without any gallery representation — she has been too busy to study or even to develop her skill level. Anyone can see she is struggling to get her vision down in a coherent fashion.

She’s in the situation of being too aware to be a naive folk artist like Norris, but not skilful enough to compete with the professionals. Nevertheless, the buying public recognizes her sincerity and eagerly shares her interest in the subject.

Though now a grandmother of seven, Etter seems youthful. She is joyful, and so busy with her work that she hasn’t a moment to spare. Her lack of education hasn’t held her back at all. Young artists often ask what it takes to succeed. Janet Etter is a good example. Her philosophy is simple — choose a subject that compels you, and go for it.

Discover her work at and read her thoughts at She will be at the Coast Victoria Harbourside until June 30.

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