“It’s like almost an aura or something takes over… a flow you have of working and you don’t even know how you did it.” — Bonnie Parkinson
London native Bonnie Parkinson’s journey in search of that special flow and way of seeing the world began with early drawing and then training at London’s renowned Bealart program at H.B Beal Secondary School. College not being a realistic option for Bonnie, she parlayed a part-time job within the London Free Press’ illustration department into a full-time position illustrating fashion advertisements. In 1973 she became the Creative Director at the Total Marketing Advertising Agency, and then an instructor in illustration and drawing at Fanshawe College. Increasingly drawn to painting, a vocation she pursued in her spare time, she shifted to being a painting instructor in 1980. In 1982 at age 40, she finally committed to her dream of a full-time career in painting.*
Parkinson first encountered the transformative influence of Claude Monet while on a youthful backpacking trip through Europe, both in the form of his wondrous art works displayed at various museums, and his famous estate at Giverny, just outside Paris, restored and open to the public. She has since visited Giverny multiple times in all seasons except winter. Seeing it myself for the first time in June of 2023 I found the house itself quite interesting, especially Monet’s extensive collection of Japanese prints, among his most significant influences. His water lily studio (now converted into a gift shop) is huge, unsurprising in view of the work undertaken there. But the gardens are the focus of the many visitors. I was struck by their profusion of different colours, settings and fragrances. The celebrated water lily pond is smaller than one might expect, but nonetheless glorious, revived Japanese-style bridge and all.
For Parkinson, Giverny visits were precious opportunities to see first hand the original inspiration for some of Monet’s most celebrated work, and the location where his choice of subjects narrowed, even as his vision through surface reality broadened out. This development can be traced through the many Monet canvases on display at various Paris museums, including the Musée D’Orsay, Musée Marmottan, and perhaps most famously at the Musée de l’Orangerie. This last institution is the site of the amazing Nymphéas installation, eight enormous paintings (all two metres high, and ranging in length from six to seventeen metres) in two connected, oval-shaped rooms (thus forming an infinity symbol), all focused solely on his water lily pond at Giverny. Entering this Sistine Chapel of Impressionism** most certainly, as Parkinson says, “You can feel the peace.” This is especially true first thing in the morning, before the arrival of the crowds not attuned to the sanctity of the space. One of the most striking aspects is that these works, in many ways, are the apogee of Monet’s shift away from perspective and representation, while introducing significant motion into his brush work; but upon contemplation at an appropriate distance from the wall, all the elements (including water, reflection of sky, floating flowers) miraculously coalesce. As Parkinson says, it is “mind-boggling to think of, to do it and make it look right.”
Crucial also for Parkinson was the experience of being exposed to Monet’s almost mystical way of seeing colour and light, which led to her discovering a kindred spirit. Both of them, she feels, do not so much perceive the actual object (flowers, say) as they do its attendant patterns of colour, light, and shadow. And, she indicates, the more you are able to do that, the more easily you can enter into the flow referenced in the epigraph above. Monet’s inspiration was critical to her development as an artist.
Direct inspiration from Monet led Parkinson to produce two series of paintings, one depicting many subjects in Monet’s own oeuvre as Parkinson saw them (the solo exhibition Giverny Revisited in 1991); and the second featuring similar scenes but done in and around London, Ontario, including a Monet-like series featuring Parkinson’s own water lily pond (the exhibition I see London, I see France in 1992); both exhibitions were at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London.
Yet Parkinson’s vision is different in important ways. For one, she retains perspective and representation. For another, where Monet’s brushwork in his later period is looser, “frilly-like” in Parkinson’s words, hers is more “exacting,” the details more precisely rendered (akin to Manet, in her estimation) leading to pieces that are more clearly snapshots of a moment. At the same time, there is often a softness, a gentle veiling, of the whole in Parkinson’s work. This aspect is reminiscent of some of Monet’s own work from about the 1880s, or from Pissarro’s pointillist period.
Parkinson is now in her early 80s, and her vision has continued to evolve. In more recent years her interest has shifted to centre on people and café scenes, and she has been producing pieces reminiscent of Edward Hopper. Always, however, her work features the approach to light and colour she had pioneered under the influence of the French master.
* Bonnie Parkinson: Reflections of Light, by Linnea Bloemendal, centred.ca October 10, 2021.
** “Monet le fondateur”, Verve, Vol VLI, by André Masson; quoted on p. 61, Musée de l’Orangerie: The Nymphéas of Claude Monet, by Michel Hoog, translated by Jean-Marie Clarke.
Jennifer Wenn is a trans-identified writer from London, Ontario, Canada. Her first poetry chapbook, A Song of Milestones, was published by Harmonia Press. Her first full-size collection, Hear Through the Silence was published by Cyberwit in December 2022. She has also published poetry and reviews in numerous journals and anthologies. Visit her website: https://jenniferwennpoet.wixsite.com/home