Inside the Dreamscapes of Painter Laura Harris

Words by Julia Dilworth

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Inspiration isn’t wholly spontaneous—it’s “something you have to make room for,” explains mixed-media acrylic artist Laura Harris. Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Harris has been diligently painting full-time for the last two decades. 

Her workspace is a bright and airy studio on the top floor of a heritage building downtown. The walls are covered in her paintings of all sizes: dreamy, abstract sets of blues, whites, and greens that look more like fuzzy memories or distant impressions of landscapes as opposed to specific locations.

“It really is a practice for me, and inspiration comes to me when I actually make time and space to create,” says Harris. Looking around her studio, one notices that there aren’t notebooks, boxes holding onto scraps of inspiration, or photos pinned up as a guide. “I feel a little caged if I’ve got something realistic to look at,” she continues. “I just come to the canvas and come straight from emotion, rather than any reference.”

Because she is a fourth-generation, born-and-raised Victorian, Vancouver Island features heavily in her work. “The Sooke River, where my family cabin is and has been for 130 years, that is in almost every piece,” Harris says. “Even in my floral paintings, the drips and the darkness, the contrast from dark to light, the deep pools—there’s a body of water that runs through most of my pieces, and it always links back to the cabin.” 

painter Laura Harris

 Music is constantly playing in the background while she tackles her latest canvas (see current playlists on her website), and a diffuser is always misting subtle wafts of essential oils. “Those intense moments are like little seeds that are always just in you, like my time at the cabin; I am deeply rooted in those experiences, and so for me, the smell of cedar and sweet pine takes me right back there.” In an instant she can feel her feet grip the rocks and hear the cool river bubbling past the shore. Ylang Ylang is another scent she loves because it reminds her of her mother growing up—she had a ylang ylang-scented candle that used to sit next to a velvet chair. “Scent is like a thread that connects you to something incredibly valuable; it takes you to an emotional place, which is directly linked to the creative work I do,” says Harris. “That’s the pool it comes from.”

She likes to say that she knows a painting is done when it can breathe on its own. Suddenly the layers of fabric, etchings, pencil marks, crinkle paper, and acrylic are a living thing, a place from her past or a destination she often describes as palpable but can’t name. “Sometimes it’s a place I want, that I ache for,” says Harris. “Often people, mostly women, will look at one of my paintings and say that they just want to crawl in there—and that makes me so happy when people get it.” Her abstract, minimalist canvases of sky blues and whites depict self-nurturing, rest, and a filling-up feeling, she explains. It’s part self-discovery, but also part escape from the responsibilities of everything that people—women in particular—take on every day.

She never expected to be a professional artist. Most of her life she was a working single mom, always painting, that’s just who she was—but it was a hobby, just doing pieces here and there for friends while she ran a graphic design business. When she got to the point where her two working lives were competing for time, she shuttered her five-year-old design business and has been painting full-on ever since.

More recently, though, she branched out into another creative outlet as well: Harris and her business partner Shelley Kuipers thought it was high time to take action on a clothing line they’ve been talking about for the past 15 years. Named after its two founders, Harris Kuipers launched in summer 2019 with an all-black, seven-piece capsule collection of luxe loungewear. “The world doesn’t need another clothing line,” admits Harris. “We knew we wanted to do it differently and be fully circular, which meant no waste.” Working with globally-sourced sustainable fabrics, the duo partnered with modern quilters like rockstar Kathryn Upitis, painters, weavers, and other artists to use every last scrap of the collection’s end products. The idea is to “make art not waste,” and while Harris isn’t turning her artwork into textiles for the collection, she is using the fabric ends directly in her textured paintings.

There’s a boldness to this work, and to all of her artistic endeavours—one seasoned over time. “At this point in my life, I’m about to turn 50, I’ve been painting for 20 years—and my pieces are unapologetic in a way that I’ve never been able to paint before,” says Harris. “I’m at a place where I can say, ‘This isn’t perfect, but it’s perfect.’”