By Rita Button

Outside, the rain falls in cold drops, but inside, the paintings of desert images make it seem as if the sun’s warm rays are unstoppable. Cacti and warm, orange colours communicate a desert experience showing a vibrant place with built-in defenses that give life a chance.

Photo provided by Kirsten Brand

I am in Kirsten Brand’s art studio, a room that was built in the old barn-raising tradition in James Bay. Her two architect brothers and their families came over and, by the time they left, the studio was complete. It’s a comfortable place that invites relaxed contemplation of the paintings infused with life and light.

“I have fallen in love with the desert,” Kirsten says as she jumps up to pull one more canvas from its hiding spot—some are bright flowers, making me think of my mother’s garden on the prairies; others are dramatically bright with an overlay of thorns, almost like barbed wire, and yet others are calm and quiet reminding me of the serenity the sun’s positive power gives. All have their origin in the desert’s bright sun.

For three months over a period of twelve years, Kirsten and her husband Ross have driven to the desert to the south of us. Ross drove and Kirsten took pictures, taking so many pictures on one of these trips that she had to cover her shutter finger with a band aid. As she recounted the experiences on these trips, she remembered Utah’s “Wow Highway” where every corner they turned showed them something new, something amazing, something Kirsten had to have as a reference for when she returned to her painting in the grey Victoria winter.

Kirsten uses the millions of photographs as a basis for the paintings she creates—they are her memory, the image of what that cactus or those tree trunks really looked like. From the pictures, Kirsten creates her view of the desert—its vibrant, exotic landscape, its diversity, and its evolution. The silver cholla cactus is contrasted with a green prickly one in a painting I particularly appreciated. And there’s lots of colour, but the thorns of the cacti are prominent as well—sometimes in the foreground, at times as a friendlier integrated part of the cactus. But it’s all very real and warm. 

I enjoyed, also, the paintings of rocks that seemed hunched over in the manner of an older person shouldering a heavy load with head bowed and eyes, I imagined, focused on the path preventing a misstep. These are the paintings that made me think of Georgia O’Keefe’s desert mountains and dried bones. Among many influences are Paul Klee and Gustav Klimt.

Judging from the painting of the family home in North Vancouver that Kirsten painted when she was six, I think it’s obvious that she was always a painter. She was also a nurse, a profession she enjoyed, not only because of the rewarding work but also because it gave her chunks of time to paint and money to buy supplies. Now that she’s retired, she appreciates the freedom of having time to continue developing her artistic vision. Knowing that conversation as well as worthy criticism creates growth, she joined the Gage Gallery located at 2031 Oak Bay Avenue. To become a part of the twenty artists who comprise this gallery, she had to present a portfolio and be interviewed for the opportunity. The Gage is run by the artists who are a part of the co-operative. There’s a one person show at the Gage every three weeks, and Kirsten’s show begins March 14 and lasts until April 1. Kirsten is excited about her up-coming show she’s called Desert Spring. Kirsten’s vision of the desert appeals, partly, by inviting the viewer into the landscape to experience the hot sun, the diversity of life and the magnificent colours.

Joshua Tree National Park is one of her favourite places to find the landscapes. She loves the trees raising their branches in supplication to a seeming heat-filled god. The Living Desert in Palm Springs is another one Kirsten talked about with a smile in her voice. Hummingbird Gardens, a haven for, you guessed it—hummingbirds—has given her another view she integrates into her work.

She begins her art by drawing with pastels. “I love to draw,” she said, “so I start with a pastel pencil, but I finish with acrylic paint.” That’s how she likes to make art, but she is quick to suggest that it’s only one way and that painting is an individual and unique response to the world.

Although she credits artists for influencing her, I think her main influence was her mother who played the violin and the viola, and who, along with her father, who played the French horn, was instrumental in forming the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. Collecting, drying and pressing plants, her mother also created cards using these gathered artifacts. This appreciation for botany is one gift that Kirsten identified specifically as a precious inheritance from her mother. Her father also started Kirsten’s gallery by framing some of the early work such as the North Vancouver family home.

There’s a lot more to tell about Kirsten, but during the conversation, I was reminded of William Wordsworth, a Romantic poet at the beginning of the nineteenth century who saw nature as having the ability to make us “see into the life of things.”  (“A Few Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey”, 1798), and who made meaning of his experiences after he thought about them in still, quiet times after the experience, just as Kirsten does. On the website, Ross, her webmaster and husband, comments that when he looks at Kirsten’s paintings, he “gets a chance to see what he missed” on his first time through.

What will you remember when you get a chance to take a look?

You can view Kirsten’s art on the web at