MONTREAL – Hoda Ackad’s motto ought to be, “Go big or go home!”
Galerie Luz in the Belgo Building, 372 St. Catherine St. W., could only fit four of her six-foot-tall paintings into its Galerie II space for the show she is sharing with well-known ceramist Leopold Foulem until April 2.
They are from a series of 11 portraits of great Montrealers from the cultural scene that she’s been working on for the past four years. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Ackad came to Montreal when she was 6, and by 8 she was already drawing likenesses of her sister.
After a six-year career in pharmaceuticals, she married businessman Martin Wenger, had twins, then attended the Visual Arts Centre where her teacher, the late Barbara Dickstein, encouraged her talent.
She went on to earn her BFA in 2001 from Concordia University. So when Ackad envisioned painting portraits of prominent Montrealers, first on the list was her former professor, artist David Elliott who had been chair of the department of studio arts.
“I wanted to do really large portraits and there’s a symbol attached to such size – these are big people! In the fields of art, music, dance and architecture there is always someone who inspires, someone with vision,” says Ackad, who appropriately named the series Behind the Scenes.
The artist decided to approach the initial stages of the project with a camera because asking a sitter to pose for the hours it would take to paint on such a scale would have been daunting.
Friend Linda-Marlena Bucholtz Ross, an art photographer in her own right, advised her because “these were busy people and I had only one shot at it.” Pinning down some of her subjects sometimes involved serendipity.
“I’d been trying to get Moshe Safdie to pose since the beginning. He was always away and eventually I put it on ice. Then a new person rented below me in the Canal Complex where I have my studio and because I push a ladder back and forth to paint the higher portions, he came up to complain about the noise,” she related.
“He introduced himself as Gabriel Safdie and I asked him if he knew Moshe Safdie. It was his brother! Immediately afterward I got an email inviting me to his architecture office in Boston.”
Ackad also chased down and convinced other notables to participate in the project: concert producer Rubin Fogel, choreographer Marie Chouinard, tap dance maven and teacher Ethel Bruneau, Just For Laughs co-founder Andy Nulman, Centaur Theatre artistic director Roy Surette, co-founder of the Montreal Jazz Festival André Ménard, fashion designer Marie Saint-Pierre. Her portrait of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens artistic director Gradimir Pankov has had a life of its own, winning a bronze award in the international Art Forward Contests for contemporary painters and photographers.
René Angelil is the only one whose photograph she could not take due to his illness, but she nevertheless wanted to capture his essence for the series and worked with a photo he supplied.
“His portrait came out well but it’s not the same as the others because I hadn’t seen him in person,” she says.
Ackad works from 5×7 black-and-white prints, folding the edges in toward the facial features for an extreme close-up and creating a facial landscape of sorts.
Her uncanny ability is to “see” colour in the grain. She is able to combine oil-stick strokes on a birch-wood panel, of orange, indigo, royal blue, green, purple, yellow and ochre in an orchestration of skin tones.
The results are powerful and surprisingly intimate despite their size. You’ll see the Bruneau, Fogel, Pankov and Safdie portraits in this show. “I plan to continue the series as I meet more people,” says Ackad in whose case bigger really is better.