Maple Ridge Art Gallery – Steve Amsden

Above Cerise Lake, Steve Amsden, acrylic on canvas

There is a great municipal art gallery in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. It seems to have a mandate that allows for community participation as well as allowing for some excellent shows from afar.

Recently there has been a superb pottery show coming from the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby where there is a wood fired kiln called an “ombu”. My next door neighbour came home with two trophies from this exhibition  and if you are curious about it,  you can look it up on

Her two pieces are quiet and superbly crafted with that understated quality I so admire. They sat for a while on her coffee table and then they migrated to the mantle piece where they are now comfortably at home.

While I love pottery,  I like it to be practical, and I’m not likely to purchase a piece if it isn’t.  On the other hand, if I like a painting, I have a terrible time resisting, even though the number count of paintings I store in the basement seems to increase day by day as I  a) paint more paintings and b) continue to purchase.

On Saturday, I had some out of town visitors who, in the past, were serious art collectors; but retirement from the workforce inevitably follows these acquisitory habits,   and the downsizing syndrome kicks in. They now live in a single wide, very long trailer as a means of economizing. They’ve passed on the bulk of their paintings to their children and now live with only a few chosen remainders of their once grand collection. But that doesn’t stop one from looking, does it?

After a few chores at Ikea and Lee Valley (where I bought a point driver gun for framing), we had a very short time to react if we wanted to see the Stephen Amsden exhibition at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery on Dewdney Trunk Road at Civic Centre Road.

I drove at breakneck speed along the Mary Hill Bypass to get there within five minutes of closing time.  While I was getting the parking stub for the vehicle, Leo and his wife went upstairs to get into the gallery. It was too late.

But Leo has had a lifetime of business practice and he knows how to persuade people to his purposes. With his charming foreign accent and his enthusiasm, he convinced the gallery attendant that they would be sorely disappointed if they did not get to see this show. First, it had been highly recommended by a friend (me) and second, they were out-of-towners, so they would not be able to come back. With a very dignified kind of wheedle, they got permission to go in, even though he had arrived just at closing time, and by the time I got there, the gallery was closed to me, but I could see them inside.

I knocked on the plate glass window. Luckily it was the new curator staying late and she and I get along just fine. I was able to join them.

I had intention of purchasing one of the paintings, but I have so many. What to do?

Pitt Lake and Golden Ears,Steve Amsden, acrylic 24×30 ( my favorite)

I looked again at the show and found my favourite painting – an acrylic in blues both ultramarine and manganese and the forest green of the hills. In this one, the mountains are dipping into the sea. There is a highly patterned, horizontally-oriented foreground of water, and a mountain of highly textured trees and then a very flat summers-day blue sky with two plumes of cloud emanating from behind it.

It’s not unusual in composition, but it is unusual in texture.

By chance this evening I was looking through the Heffel Gallery upcoming auction catalogue and found several Lawren Harris paintings which are quite similar in style to Amsdens. Amsden’s love of Harris show through in emulation of both the stylized mountains and colour preferences.

Amsden also draws his sources from the Pointillists (Georges Seurat), the Group of Seven, and more recently he has been influenced by the Australian Aborigines, following a vacation in  Australia. He combines these in a very personal mix.

Golden Ears White, Steve Amsden, acrylic on canvas 30×40 inches

An avid hiker and mountain climber, Amsden has travelled to obscure places in British Columbia to find places to hike and camp. He sketches on site, but he refers to his photographs while painting in the studio. This tends to result in a more studied, more premeditated look than that achieved by the overly-vaunted plein air school.

This is a strong exhibition. While he follows about three different styles throughout, it very easy to tell these are Amsden paintings. There is a consistency of colour and a constancy in the imagery.

Jutting landform, Stephen Amsden, acrylic on canvas

I first met Steve Amsden when I was teaching up in New Denver, B.C. , a place with a single school, kindergarten to grade 12 with about 100 pupils per year. I knew no-one in the area, and he and his wife were quick to invite me to dinner to meet other teachers of the staff.  His wife was teaching elementary school and a colleague of hers brought along another painter, Patrick Yesh, who has been quite successful in his career.

As a result of this meeting, Steve and Patrick took me to meet Les Weisbrich, a well established illustrator, commercial artist and fine artist who had immigrated to New Denver with his family from Los Angeles. Consequently, Patrick, I and another teacher began to meet weekly with Les Weisbrich  for lessons in watercolour.  It was a surprise to me, then , when I moved to this area to find Amsden and his wife had moved to Maple Ridge to teach and had been established in the area for a long time.

Manning Park Meadow, Steve Amsden acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30

He loves the high peaks, but is equally comfortable describing beaches and woodland places. His stylization of trees is quite unusual.

Manning Park, Steve Amsden, Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30

Speaking again of the stylized trees,  Amsden has explored a new vein of imagery akin to the Plains Indians.

Lone Hemlock, Steve Amsden, acrylic on canvas, 24×30

It’s quite a departure from the highly charged pointillist technique and the colours are radically different as well. Here, the tree reads more like “tree spirit” than “tree”. While the exploration into new territory and the coloration are remarkable, I am not fond of the paintings in this vein. I find that the acrylic does not adapt itself to flat surfaces well, and this is critical when the imagery requires flat surfaces.

Raft Cove, Stephen Amsden, acrylic on canvas

The achievement of a successful painting depends on getting everything right at the same time – composition, rhythm. texture, surface qualities tonal balance, etc.  In Raft Cove, Amsden has set up compelling,  sweeping rhythms of sand and driftwood that contrast with the incoming white caps following a quite a contrasting rhythm. This is one of those paintings where texture and pattern cross over and intermingle inextricably with each other.

Near Lawn Point, Steve Amsden, acrylic on canvas

Just at the front door of the gallery,  Raft Cove sits with another small painting, Near Lawn Point. I ended up purchasing this one. I found the stone beach delightful in texture with care taken on each rock – with many variations in colour and size of the pebbles on the beach. The incoming tide has the sunny disposition of a summer day and follows through on the textural theme.

Sunlit trees, Stephen Amsden, acrylic on canvas.

We had arrived late, kept the gracious curator at her desk a good half hour before we left.  It was time to go.

In parting, I took one last look back at the whole collection of Amsden’s mountains, sea and forest paintings.  There is a breath of fresh air in the room. One can get lost in the scenery and yet there is personality ringing out of each work.  They have a curious quality. They are easy to read – which is often not a compliment – but in this case there is so much technical and stylistic mix and such good variation in colour and form that each painting deserves a closer look.

If you are in the area, the Maple Ridge Art Gallery is open from Tuesday to Sunday,  and the show is on until May 29th. There are several write-ups of his exhibit, so I recommend Googling his name if you want to know more.

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3 Responses to “Maple Ridge Art Gallery – Steve Amsden”

  1. forestrat Says:

    These are very cool paintings. Glad you were able to get in to see them.

    My favorites are Lone Hemlock and Sunlit Trees. I like the overlapping colors on the right hand side of the sunlit trees and the hemlock is minimal and yet very expressive.

    For some reason Above Cerise Lake reminded me of The Great Wave.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Hi Forestrat,
    I agree with you. They are very cool. I like the rhythm he sets up in “sunlit trees” with almost geometric branches; and he sure did capture the light filtering through.

  3. Sonya Chasey Says:

    Interesting work. I like how they have a slightly print -like feel about them. I too particularly like “Sunlit trees” I find it quite musical in its rhythmic qualities. Also I like “Raft cove” with its swirliness, soft colours & textures. The top one works well with the contrast of horizontal water all calm & with sparkly light against the wilder cloud looming up behind the mountains. Perhaps it’s partly the use of contrasting colours here that create so much luminosity too.

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