Surrey painter young at art

Newton Cultural Centre’s upcoming exhibition features the work of Olivia Severson and her grandmother Connie.



Like most artists, Olivia Severson knows what she wants to paint and what colours she prefers.

Red, for example, is a favourite. She also likes crab and other animals.

And she’s partial to watercolours, applying them to paper with large brushes, layering the tones and tilting her canvases to allow the colour to flow freely.

“This is drippy, because it’s watercolour,” she explains as she works.

When done, she covers her paintings in cellophane – which manoeuvres the paint, producing a random and unique, sometimes plant-like texture – and lets them dry before removing the plastic.

Acrylics, applied by brush, palette knife or even with her bare hands, also comprise a portion of her extensive body of work – which now numbers more than 60 paintings.

The figure is substantial, partly due to the fact Olivia has only been painting for a year, but also because the artist is just three years old.

Many of the paintings are framed and hung throughout the Surrey townhouse of her grandma, Connie Severson. An established artist and teacher for many years, it was Severson who first introduced Olivia to painting.

A mom of six, Severson often did artwork with each of her own children when they were young. But she immediately recognized something unique in her granddaughter. Her attention span, for example, is impressive for a young child, as is her agility with the brush.

“She’s very purposeful in what she wants – the brushes she wants, the paint she wants,” Severson said. “I wouldn’t really show her what to do… I would just introduce the instrument and she would experiment on her own.”

But make no mistake – Olivia isn’t a fan of all of her own work, pointing to one painting where she’s mixed deep blues and purples.

“This is not my favourite,” she affirms. “Because it’s kind of black.”

During a visit of an hour or so, she deftly completes six or eight small paintings. A couple are “belly button bushes,” she explains, and one, which she has experimented with without her usual tools, is evolving into a “tree hand.”

“She’s created quite a body of work – for a little person,” Connie smiles, noting she’s even adapted some of Olivia’s techniques for her own art.

Connie and Olivia’s work will be shown together at the Newton Cultural Centre in Surrey Aug. 3-30. (An opening reception will be held Aug. 3, 1-3 p.m. at the gallery, 13530 72 Ave.)

Leah McCullough, gallery manager and curator at the cultural centre, was involved in selecting Olivia’s work for the exhibition.

“When I initially saw it, I thought, ‘wow, this is pretty amazing for a young child’,” she said.

Then she watched Olivia’s painting process and saw how relaxed and focussed she appeared.

“You can see that she’s a little artist inside,” said McCullough.

“Like any artist, some pieces are exceptional, some are okay, and some pieces are not. The ones that are exceptional have a real luminosity to them. When you look at them, they evoke an emotion.

“Olivia’s a really talented girl. She does show a lot of promise.”

Alongside a selection of Olivia’s paintings at the August show will be a dozen done by Connie.

Her series is of red-listed endangered animal and plant species of Saltspring Island, such as Western Painted Turtle and Phantom Orchid. Eventually, she said, she hopes to paint all the red-listed species of the Gulf Island.

While she has made art her life’s work, she acknowledges that it remains to be seen where little Olivia’s passion for painting will go.

“I think she’ll continue with it, whether she makes it her profession or not … I think it’ll always be part of her life to some degree,” Connie speculates. “She very much claims herself as an artist.”

In fact, when asked if she’s going to be an artist like her grandma when she grows up, the sometimes-shy Olivia swiftly corrects a visitor.

“I am an artist.”

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