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Empress hotel adds artist-in-residence to luxury accommodations

The Fairmont Empress in Victoria, B.C., has all the features you’d expect to find in a fancy hotel: luxurious accommodations, fine dining and a spa.

But the city's landmark hotel also has its very own "artist-in-residence." She's painter Judy McLaren, who typically paints commissioned portraits, scenes of the sea as well as landscapes.

That is, until she got this unique gig.

"As soon as I walked into the Empress, I thought, 'I’ve got to document it!' I love this place. I love the light. I love the richness of all the architecture and the decorations, the décor."

But after taking photos everywhere, she soon realized what she really wanted to capture on canvas was the world behind-the-scenes.

  • A porter in his dark suit with his head bowed over a computer
  • A group of chefs, in their chef whites, huddled in the kitchen

"These are not professions that are high and mighty, but they are very valuable and these people are wonderful and they need appreciation."
Continuing the tradition

She is the hotel's third artist-in-residence, an opportunity that gives her temporary gallery space as well as constant public exposure.

"I actually enjoy my role here. I enjoy talking to people, hearing their experiences. Where they're from. I enjoy answering questions about my painting. I give odd little lessons, little tricks about drawing. 'Did you know eyes are halfway down your head and not at the top?' "

Martin Leclerc is the hotel's general manager. He started the artist-in-residence program inspired by a tradition that's found in Europe.

He's not surprised by how popular McLaren's work has become.

"You know a hotel is a fascinating place, and I think there’s a genuine curiosity in understanding what takes place behind-the-scenes," he says.

Drop cloth and Bubbles

McLaren paints in a hallway just above the hotel's main entrance.

"This little drop cloth defines who I am," she says.

She wears running shoes and blue latex gloves and her dog Bubbles, a black goldendoodle, is often at her side.

In a hotel that's a must-see destination for out-of-towners, her art studio has become the go-to-place for hotel staff.

"You walk by every day seeing if you’re in one of the paintings," says Nathan Pearce, director of food and beverage. "It's quite the honor to be in one of the paintings."

Painter has full access

Pastry chef David Schoenborn has stopped by the gallery to admire McLaren’s work. He’s transfixed by a portrait of his co-worker at a shelf stacked with baking equipment.

"The way all the measuring cups are sitting there and the bowls are sitting there. It looks beautiful! It just looks so nice. Whereas I see it every day but I don’t see it. But when you see it in a painting all of a sudden, it’s real."

McLaren has full access to go wherever she wants, which means sometimes she's come across things the staff would rather she not see.

And they become a painting.

"An unmade bed! I’ll have to say, much of the staff are horrified. I've been telling little children, 'You know, when your mum wants you to make the bed just tell her, It's a work of art.' "

McLaren's residency continues at the Empress through mid-February.

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition. 

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.