A horned grebe helped Shawna Lampi-Legaree find her voice as a painter.
It was the spring of 2017 and she was out taking photos when she spotted a waterfowl she'd never seen before. At the time, she'd been painting with watercolours for several years, and had dabbled in acrylics, but hadn't really found her subject.
The next night, having learned the name of the bird from a friend, she headed out again and "it was right there. I got these amazing photos of it."
"When I got home and downloaded those photos, I was hooked."
Lampi-Legaree was mesmerized by the colours and patterns — "the red eyes with a little bit of yellow and the black pupils" — that you don't always notice when a bird is right in front of you.
"When you're a high realist [painter] like I am, the thing that makes you really happy is all the detail."
Lampi-Legaree has been painting birds — among other things — for the past three years.
This week, her passion brought her a new distinction when she became the first artist from the N.W.T. to be granted "senior signature status" with the Federation of Canadian Artists, an arts charity that counts members of the Group of Seven among its founders.
The designation denotes "a high level of excellence" achieved by the artist, says the federation's website.
That distinction was granted after she had seven pieces accepted into juried art shows in just two and a half years (normally it takes four). She also had to submit 10 pieces, three of which would be shipped directly to Vancouver for examination.
Lampi-Legaree chose a series of yellow warblers building a nest for the in-person pieces, and finished them an hour and a half before the deadline.
Her acceptance as a signature artist doesn't surprise Yellowknife curator and art critic Sarah Swan.
"The FCA is a conservative organization, known for their admiration and promotion of technical skill in painting," Swan said. "It makes perfect sense that they selected Shawna for this award. She paints so well, has great compositional instincts, and is particularly adept at capturing iridescence.
"Who doesn't love her bird paintings? They're wonderful."
From fabric to canvas
Lampi-Legaree only started painting at age 49.
Before that, her main creative interest was making art quilts.
She started making intensely detailed fabric projects in the 1990s, and entered her first juried show in 2001.
But even then, quilting wasn't her only interest.
"By the time I started doing art quilts, I was buying Painting magazine. I wasn't buying Quilting magazine, I was buying Painting magazine, because I always wanted to learn how to paint."
In 2005, she started the Yellowknife Watercolour Society (still going strong) and started watching videos on how to paint.
Six years later, she held her first major show — a four-month exhibit at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
When an oil spill prompted renovations in her house, she changed tack for good.
"I sold all my fabric and my big sewing machine and I haven't looked back since."
Lampi-Legaree says she tends to be goal-oriented.
She works toward one big art show every year, originally in her house — with the furniture moved aside — and for the past several years, at the Visual Effects gallery and framing shop.
She also likes to do visioning exercises, one of which, she says, led her to envision herself as a signature status artist.
She's also a signature artist with Artists for Conservation, which will display one of her ptarmigan paintings in a traveling show this year.
But, she notes, "I was rejected more than I was accepted."
Lampi-Legaree says it's part of the learning curve, and the challenge keeps her going.
Just learning learning to paint, she recalls, was once exhausting.
"I would actually turned my timer on for an hour and would force myself to stay there," she said. "And then I would go lay down on the couch, close my eyes, let my brain rest for 20 minutes, and then I would go back and do another hour. And then I was done for the day."
Now, she says, she can do eight or nine hours of painting a day.
"Depending on how close to deadline I am."