At 17 years old, Billie Rae Busby stood on the precipice of art as she knew it, marvelling at Barnett Newman’s colossal Voice of Fire (1967) at the National Gallery of Canada. She had won a poster competition and was able to travel to the nation’s capital to visit the gallery. Experiencing this painting dramatically expanded what Busby believed art could be and what it could accomplish, which would go on to influence her work in explosive ways.
Growing up in Yorkton, a small city in Saskatchewan, Busby’s experience with art was restricted to what was around her. She recalls watching her mother crochet and knit and that her appreciation of the landscape developed as a child in long prairie winters and languorous lake-side summers. As a child she knew she wanted to be an artist and her family was endlessly supportive. At school, her work was strictly representational and figurative, drastically different from her work today.
Before she became a professional artist, Busby had a keen interest in kinesiology, sport and how the body moved. She pursued her Bachelor’s in Kinesiology and worked in the field for over 20 years prior to completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts and dedicating her time to her studio practice. Busby has always enjoyed storytelling in sports and the unpredictability of its outcomes. She translates this intuitively into her work, emphasising colour, line and form to communicate the contradictions of the Canadian landscape. Busby’s work seeks to make sense of the varied territory that has stood since time immemorial but is constantly changing.
In preparing to paint, Billie Rae Busby grounds her practice in reverence for hard-edge techniques and colour theory, ways of working she honed in art school. Studying under Christopher Willard at the Alberta College of Art and Design, Busby began to move away from the safer style of painting she had practised in her youth. It was around this time that her mother became ill and she frequently drove back and forth from Calgary to Yorkton to visit. Hours travelling in the car allowed for deep contemplation of the prairie landscape, in which the expansive vistas began to reveal linear compositions to the artist. The merging horizons, telephone poles and golden fields of upright wheat culminated in an apotheosis of understanding from which Busby’s current style emerged.
Many Canadian artists are cited by Busby as inspirations in her work: Agnes Martin, Rita Letendre, William Perehudoff, Jack Bush and Guido Molinari to name a few. Above the giants of art history stands her love for the land that continually inspires her. She enjoys introducing colours that may not be found in nature to expand on nature’s possibilities and go beyond the limits of understanding. Using acrylic paint with palette knives and brushes allows for a precise style of working that requires patience as sections dry. Thus, acrylic paint has proved to be a more efficient way of cultivating her abstract landscape paintings.
Throughout Busby’s varied career, many opportunities have presented themselves to the artist. The highlight of which Busby believes was to create art carpets in 2016 for Canada House in London, England. It was surreal yet incredibly exciting to see the Queen and other royals view her work, the artist explained. Busby has also begun to create public works of art in Calgary. She was ecstatic to take on these projects as a way to beautify spaces and create works for everyone to enjoy. Her bold colours and hard edges bring joy to her viewers in Calgary and provide respite from the monotony of urban life. A commitment to a joyful and collective experience of art shines through in Busby’s compositions as she strives to communicate the interconnectedness of life in the prairies: we share one sky, one sun and one moon but experience everything uniquely. Together, we can revel in the landscape’s beauty and unexpected moments, sharing our ideas about art and life before Billie Rae Busby’s canvases.