Painter Brandy Mars colours outside the lines

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      Two figures, faces indistinguishable, embrace tightly. Motes of light dapple their skin, like reflections dancing on water, or shining from within. Feathery brush strokes evoke the movement of their hair, but also texture. Shapes resembling butterfly wings, or pricked animal ears, mingle with the darkness. Are they being ripped apart, or holding each other together? 

      This is Metamorphosis, one of hundreds of works by Brandy Mars: owner of the self-styled “gayest lil’ gift shop in all the land” where she sells original artwork alongside prints, posters, cards, and other goods. She’s been selling queer art since 2016, and much of her paintings tend towards this aesthetic: showing love, affection, or connection between feminine people. 

      Some are more representative, such as the Young and In Love series that depicts intricate, colourful pairings of queer elders. Others are dreamier, more ethereal. Feelin Fruity is a sequence of abstract, vivid, sensual peaches; while the Romanticizing the Everyday collection is more mundane images, with muted colour palettes depicting bathtubs or laundry rooms. They’re all different, but something in the hazy backgrounds and diffused lighting and sense of comfortable yearning marks them all as Mars’ works. 

      “My artwork always seems like it’s going through phases, and I don’t really realize it until later,” Mars says over the phone. “I feel like I went through a phase where I was doing super detail, and now I’m back to doing more flowy. It’s like growing: you don’t really realize you’re doing it until later.” 

      For a while, her work had a strong pink throughline; now she’s leaning more towards cooler tones, joking that she’s in her own Blue Period, and finally reflecting some of the West Coast landscapes she’s grown up around. Although she currently lives in Vancouver and works out of her beloved East Van studio, Mars grew up in “the middle of nowhere”: a house her parents built themselves near Rock Creek, about 50 kilometres east of Osoyoos. 

      She moved to Vancouver at 12, and then went to fashion school in Los Angeles, with stints in New York and London working in fashion design and film. Her career has no doubt influenced her art, and the way she considers attire within it.

      “Like telling a story with a runway collection, or in film, I think clothing can definitely be a huge part of storytelling, especially for queer people,” muses Mars. “Identity is often really attached to that.” 

      Mars is tabling at the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival (VOAF) this weekend as one of 40 visual artists and 15 performers who’ll be taking over the Roundhouse for the event. VOAF celebrates artists who live and work on the margins, which really means anyone facing social exclusion in order to challenge stereotypes about what counts as art. 

      Mars’ work, with its strong emphasis on queerness, femininity, and expressiveness, is beautiful—but she struggled to find acceptance within the mainstream art sphere.

      “I think it’s really nice for marginalized artists to have a place to show. I like to keep everything super positive, but it is a struggle to make gay art. There have been a lot of barriers, but I also think it’s constantly improving,” she reflects. “It’s really important for events like Outsider Arts to support artists like that, and other artists that maybe don’t fit into a mainstream, super-conservative realm.”

      Mars is a workaholic, constantly painting new pieces that tend to reflect whatever she’s currently into. She initially just painted with acrylics but has been experimenting more with oils, building texture and blending paints to create the dreamy, ethereal look her works are now known for. 

      Overall, though, she wants her works to make viewers feel something: familiarity, recognition, warmth. The thrill of being seen.

      “The most important thing is this sense of connection in my artwork,” she says. “My art has helped me to connect to this huge community of queer people…art is really about connection, in totality, to me.”

      Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival 

      When: October 12 to 16, 12pm to 8pm; October 17, 12pm to 5pm

      Where: Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, 181 Roundhouse Mews, Vancouver

      Admission: Free