Elee Kraljii Gardiner speaks with author and artist Danila Botha about her portrait series.
The practices that develop in these
restricted times are fascinating: sometimes logical, sometimes therapeutic,
sometimes functioning as a steam valve for the compressed creativity we experience
when our preferred channels are blocked. For months I have been grinding our
pepper with a mortar and pestle, which is less a project and more a daily
metaphor, I suppose. Why I insist on “small batching” pepper when I have no
fewer than four working pepper mills nearby is equal parts ritual and the
pleasure of the tactile—it’s an antidote to all the digital work my days
consist of now. Several provinces away, author and artist Danila Botha has
been churning out a remarkable pace of wildly exuberant portraits that use the
same vernacular of electric colour and thick lines in each one to different
effect. Sometimes the likeness is remarkably evident and other times a deeper
gesture is at play. Her pace has been spectacular, feverish, and as effervescent
as the chat I had with her in Google docs.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner: Danila, for the last few months I have seen your Twitter feed fill with portraits in your Canadian Author series, viewable here on your site.
Can you tell us about the series?
Danila Botha: Thank you so much for following it so closely, Elee. It means a lot to me. I started a few months ago. I’ve always painted, and I’ve always had sketchbooks full of drawings—I studied visual arts along with creative writing as an undergrad, and I did after school art programs in South Africa—but I haven’t done a concentrated project like this in a long time.
I’ve missed the writing community. I appreciate online events but it’s not the same. It is so much fun to spend time looking at people’s faces, and I always use vibrant, bright colours but they feel especially right as a contrast to Covid. I’m so happy and grateful with how people are responding. I’ve missed being in touch with everyone. Last December I had another baby, a daughter named Zohar, and so I’ve been up at odd hours, which seemed like the perfect time to draw or paint.
EKG: What happy news about Zohar! Midnight art sessions sound beyond my ken, so hats off to you. What was the impetus for the series, which I read you consider to be a “Covid project”. I had my own outburst during lockdown, “BECAUSE I AM STAYING IN”, a series of cloth-and-object reproductions of paintings, which was an intense period of making things I don’t usually make. Is your series filling a need that the pandemic created?
DB: I love your Covid project, it’s brilliant and so innovative. I love it. To your question, I think so. It’s weird to suddenly have more free, creative time. It’s such a gift but it’s strange, too. I often do sketches of my characters as I write, to help me to visualize and remember to embody them. My first drafts are often just thoughts and feelings, with very little description. To tell you the truth, I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and it attacks my hand and wrist joints the most. I’m really stiff and in pain in the mornings (even with great medication and treatment) and drawing and painting is a good way to stretch the muscles and use the joints, and it always makes me feel better. I was having a flare and I thought, I should paint some of my literary heroes. Once I started, I kept thinking of more people and I couldn’t stop. There is so much talent in Canada, it’s unbelievable. I tried to incorporate all my admiration, excitement about people’s work, their personalities if I know them, etc. I hope you can feel the enthusiasm.
EKG: Tell me about the materials and method you use in the portraits. They are each euphoric and electric and seem dominated by The Line, which for a writer seems very nascent!
DB: That’s so kind. I really appreciate it. I love The Line. I also love Matisse, and all the colours of Fauvism and I love Lucian Freud. His portraits are so fantastic, what he did with texture and colour is insane. I feel like these are standard answers, but I love Picasso and Degas and Van Gogh and a lot of classic stuff. I love Cecily Brown’s amazing, huge work, too. I’m all about colour and texture, I guess. I also love graffiti. When I taught art, we used to visit graffiti alley off Queen W, along with the AGO and Mocca, and all the cool galleries.
I use acrylic paint, and lots of fine brushes, the smaller the better for all the precise little lines, and big flat brushes for washes and backgrounds. I like to mix the fancy stuff with the everyday paints; it’s fun to mix expensive, high-pigment paint with standard series sometimes, just for the contrast of colour and texture.
EKG: How do you pick the subject of your portraits?
DB: I started with my three big literary influences, which would probably be no surprise to anyone: Zoe Whittall, Heather O’Neill, and Lynn Crosbie. People talk about being afraid of meeting their heroes, but I can’t tell you how fortunate I’ve been and how deeply I appreciate it— it would be enough if people were just that talented and living in the world, you know? Then, I started painting people whose work had changed my life. So I painted Catherine Hernandez, Carrianne Leung, Rebecca Rosenblum, Dionne Brand, Jen Sook Fong Lee, Alicia Elliott, Ivan Coyote, Mona Awad, Dina Del Bucchia, Cherie Dimaline, Ayelet Tsabari… it’s a long list. We are so fortunate in this country to be surrounded by so much talent. I think as a writer it’s so important to read and it’s important to support our community, and each other. We learn so much when we do. These portraits are a small gift to thank people for all that their work has given me.
EKG: Do you have a sense of how long it might run?
DB: Not really. I keep thinking I’m done, but then I think of more amazing people to paint.
EKG: I’ve pulled a few
of the portraits from your site. Will you share your thoughts about them?
DB: This is a portrait of Alicia Elliott. She’s smart and incisive and her voice is strong and powerful, so honest and vulnerable and beautiful. When they talk about “the voice of a generation” one day, they’ll talk about Alicia. I wanted her strength to come through, and her ability to write about so many subjects. I tried to represent that through a mix of colours and still unify them. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is brilliant and I can’t wait for her novel.
I was an undergrad at York when I discovered her writing and it changed my life. Her work is so fearless and so beautiful, each line is thoughtful and resonant. She finds beauty in everything. She’s been like a literary fairy godmother to me, sprinkling my life with her magic so I hope this looks as magical and generous and beautiful as she is.
is a portrait of Catherine Hernandez. Scarborough is one of my favourite
books ever, the way she captures all the voices, with so much compassion and
attention to specifics…I cried so many times. This was inspired by the dream
sequence at the end, which is so beautiful and a little surreal. Catherine is
an amazing reader, maybe the best I’ve ever seen, so I wanted to capture a
is a portrait of Dionne Brand. What We All Long For changed my life, but
I adore her poetry, too. I was lucky enough to be able to take two classes with
her when I did my MFA at Guelph. (It is, I imagine, what it’s like to be taught
by God.) She’s so brilliant and smart and incisive, all the time. And she’s
funny. I wanted to capture how self-possessed and kind and generous she is. Her
work means so much to me that I wanted somehow for the viewer to feel it
This is Ayelet Tsabari. She’s powerful and talented and badass, and I think this captures her in her literary superhero glory. I loved The Best Place on Earth SO much— she’s so talented at capturing the many shades of people, the complicated feelings, the many layers. I love her non-fiction too. I hope that comes across here.
EKG: Is the blast of color or the practice of these portraits infiltrating your writing? Are you noticing any cross-contact between the two practices? What, or how, are you writing these days? What’s up next for you?
DB: I am writing. I’m actually pretty deep into my short story collection right now and I’m not sure how or why, but the two practices seem to feed each other. The short fiction started out as funnier but I have some newer stories that are darker, so maybe it’s less of a departure that I originally expected. I’m having a great time.
EKG: Danila, thanks for sharing your thoughts about these portraits, and for drawing me!
Elee Kraljii Gardiner is the author of two poetry books, Trauma Head and serpentine loop, and editor of the anthologies Against Death: 35 Essays on Living and V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She is a director of Vancouver Manuscript Intensive. Eleekg.com
Author portrait courtesy Danila Botha
Danila Botha is the author of two short story collections, Got No Secrets and For All the Men (and Some of the Women I've Known) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards and The ReLit Award. She is also the author of the novel Too Much on the Inside, which won a Book Excellence Award and was shortlisted for a ReLit Award. Danila teaches Creative Writing at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and mentors writers at Humber School for Writers. She’s currently working on a new collection of short stories, and finishing her new novel.
Selfportrait by Danila Botha