up the garden path with artists claire and darby milbrath

Currently showing together for the first time at Montreal's Galerie Pangée, we talk to the sisters about the power of human sexuality and the magic of make believe.

Tish Weinstock

Claire and Darby Milbrath have been making art since they were eight years old. Under the watchful eye of their grandmother, the girls would spend their childhood experimenting with watercolours, and have been putting paintbrush to canvas ever since. Inspired by the games they used to play as children - from pretending to be mermaids basking on the roof top or being orphans running around the junkyard to hiding in the long grass of their luscious garden and the secret corners of their haunted house - Claire and Darby's work focuses on the make believe.

Colourful, naïve and romantic, each sister's work complements the other's, and yet the two remain distinct; where Claire's is humorous in its focus on the life of a fictional childhood character Poor Gray, Darby's feels darker, weighed down by emotion and tend to focus more on the female form.

Currently showing together for the first time, at Montreal's Galerie Pangée, alongside sculptors Étienne Chartrand and Trevor Baird, we talk to the sisters about their childhood, the power of human sexuality and magic of make believe.

Tell me a bit about your background?
Claire: We grew up in Victoria, BC. I moved to Montreal to pursue photography at school but my portfolio was rejected, so I studied History and became determined to make it as an outsider artist. Now I run the Editorial Magazine out of my bedroom which doubles as my painting studio.

Darby: We've always been really close and were encouraged from an early age to be creative. Our mum put us in dance classes when we were two. I went on to study and work professionally as a contemporary dancer in Winnipeg. I had an eating disorder and struggled with it enough that I eventually abandoned my career. It was then that my focus really switched to drawing and painting as a self-taught artist.

Did you always want to be artists?
Claire: Darby and I always did art projects together. Our grandma taught us how to paint watercolour landscapes when we were like eight, so they were pretty abstract. My character Poor Gray started out as an illustration project - mostly little historical comics or what I called "Sexual Encounters."

Darby: Always! It's the only thing I've been sure about. Mum and Dad would hang our art all over the kitchen cupboards and walls and when there wasn't more room they would tape them to the ceiling.

How would you describe your overall aesthetic?
Claire: Naive, for sure. Darby introduced me to the Naive Painters. All of them are untrained, and grapple with depth and the human body, and a lot of them outline their stuff in bold black. The work is actually funny, it's so wrong. I embrace those mistakes now, wonky tiling, messy black outlines. So I'd say my work is naive, and also soft - I like to use cute colours and depict soft-core situations.

Where does your interest in the make believe come from?
Claire: Probably from our childhoods. We played lots of games with our siblings - like mermaids on the garage roof, radio station under the pingpong table, orphans living in a junkyard… Make believe as an escape is really important for me. I can get really anxious about real life stuff, like lose-your-appetite anxiety. Painting and day-dreaming relaxes me and takes me out of that hole.

Can you explain a bit about the show and the work you'll be exhibiting?
Claire: When the women at Galerie Pangée suggested we do a sister show I was pretty elated, we've been wanting to do something together for a long time. I've also never had a real exhibition like this, so it was really fun making ten new pieces with the show in mind. These pieces are a thorough exploration of my character Poor Gray. Gray is wealthy, anxious, and perverted… I wanted to portray his home, his bedroom, bathroom, pool. Besides the Picnic Scene hand job, the sex is very lightly suggested throughout - each scene is either right before or following a sexual encounter. I wanted all the scenes to be very lush, luxurious, lots of wealth and foliage.

Darby: Claire and I have always wanted to show together! The Garden for me was inspired by our childhood. The overgrown gardens surrounding our home, sisterhood, summer grasses, sunsets, love. I feel happy in life right now and it reflects in the work.

How do you think your work compliments or reacts against each other's?
Claire: We really didn't know if what going to fit together at first. I've always felt like Darby's work was more mature and emotional than mine, whereas mine feels more light and humorous. But when I saw it altogether in Pangée I definitely felt a little emotional, I feel like you can tell we are related and come from the same background.

Darby: I love Claire's paintings and have been collecting her work over the years. Although the work is pretty different I think they compliment each other very well. When we were hanging the show I could see how my paintings were made better because they were hung next to Claire's - and vice versa - like alchemy.

What is it you are trying to convey with your work?
Claire: I'm interested in challenging the male gender codes with Poor Gray. He's weak, vulnerable, feminine, romantic… I got pretty tired of the depiction of women in art, laying down, barely clothed, recently fucked. That's when I started photographing penises and drawing sex scenes, which put the woman in the dominating role, or not present at all.

Darby: Movement and emotions. I feel successful if I can convey a complicated emotion or issue in a simple, childlike way.

The Garden is showing at Galerie Pangeé until July 30 2016.


Text Tish Weinstock