CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: Garden Sanctuary art show invites viewers to really look

By Fiona Campbell/Quinte Arts Council

While local artist Rachel Harbour was having a socially-distanced chat last August with Wendy Rayson-Kerr, acting curator of the John M. Parrott Gallery, she learned there was a time slot open for a show in January. There was something, a whisper, perhaps a poke from the universe, saying, “take this leap” to which Harbour replied: “A solo show in five months? I could probably pull that off.”

Harbour has been a fixture at the Belleville Public Library for several years, known for her popular Tuesday art workshops (as well as classes out of her home studio in Wooler, Ont.), where she teaches everything from creating with acrylic, watercolour, and tile with alcohol ink, to wire and beads, painted rocks and acrylic pouring. You can tell how much she loves teaching as she invites students to play with different tools, techniques and mediums. But it all ended with COVID: “We were talking about this ‘Thing,’ maybe we should take a week or two off from workshops… and here we are 10 months later,” she says,

Her Garden Sanctuary show (in Gallery 2 and online until March 25) features an astonishing collection of 20 paintings in watercolour and acrylic; a curious and careful observation of leaves, flowers and landscapes across the seasons. She writes, “Though using plants and flowers as a subject for painting is not new to me, I have found in this time of isolation a renewal of my interest in them, and in the close observation of their components: the turn of a leaf as it dries; the transition in colour across a petal; the intricate folds in a cedar cone.”

She says it would normally take her 12 to 18 months to produce this quantity and quality of work due to her busy workshop schedule, but because she wasn’t teaching, that meant she could be painting.

Since last April, Harbour has kept her students connected and creative with art projects that she shares by email, and she’s deeply aware of how many people are struggling with the loss of normalcy and community due to the pandemic: “This horrible thing is happening to the whole entire world, and for me, it’s presented a blessing… How do I reconcile the terrible stuff I see on the news and this gift [of a show] that I have? It’s not fair. I haven’t really processed that, and I don’t know if it’s something that can be processed; processing implies there could be steps to reconcile that inequality.”

I ask whether how people experience her art, how these close (and impeccable) studies of nature that suspend time and create space for the viewer, could be a part of her ‘reckoning’: “The thing that I would love for people to take, especially of this show, is what I’m always going on about: being good at drawing is being good at looking… and that’s what all these pieces are all about: really slowing down and looking.”

She adds: “If me painting the details that I’ve slowed down to see can cause a viewer to slow down and see back, well, that would be cool.”

Harbour has a free artist’s talk on Zoom today (March 19) from 2:00 to 3:00 pm. Registration required. Visit for more information.

This article is part of a larger profile of Rachel Harbour in the Spring 2021 issue of Umbrella arts magazine, available soon.