Inside The Studio: Gettin' Freaky With The Broadbent Sisters

Posted by Jen McNeely, March 31, 2016
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If you've recently joined us for dinner or drinks in the North Lounge, you may have basked in the glow of one of the vividly painted light-boxes that decorate the walls. Luminous, with a hint of sin, is how I'd describe the striking work by artist Joy Broadbent, the elder sibling of Toronto's 'it' art duo: The Broadbent Sisters. Chosen to host AGO's upcoming Massive gala, the sisters are currently generating a lot of buzz. The art world, however, has been watching them carefully for years.

Mia Nielsen, Drake's head of Cultural Programming, was immediately drawn to Joy's work because of its bright colour palette. "When I first saw them, I imagined how they'd warm up the room," she says. "I liked how her pieces were representational and loose at the same time. I knew they'd look great from across the room, but also when you’re sitting at a table, inches away."

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For Joy, the pieces represent a difficult period in her life, "It was a very dark time for me," says the artist. "I was creating work to bring me joy." It was her way of entering a new brighter chapter; an art practice that both Joy and Rose describe as "clearing space".

"As artists, we like to enter spaces, play with it, challenge it... throw different ideas into it," says Joy. In this case, she cleared a space in her mind, painting her way out of miserable place, entering into a much brighter one.

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On a dreary mid-March day, I had an opportunity to visit the Broadbent Sisters at their Bloor West studio, situated between Ossington and Christie. On the semi-rundown strip, the exterior wall of their studio beams hope. Layered on a colourful graffiti mural are giant white letters that read "MAKE GOOD". Since speaking with them, I now understand that the statement is as much a moral one as it is a call to creativity.

Joy greeted me at the door; Rose was quick to follow. I had refrained from doing a Google search prior to our interview, so had no idea what they looked like. I was struck by their relaxed, seemingly effortless beauty. They both have long thick hair; Joy's is a wavy soft auburn, while Rose's black roots contrasted sharply with her peroxide blonde. Each sister welcomed me with a warm smile, inviting me to sit on the bandstand seating at the back of the room.

Perched on the wooden steps, I took it all in. To my left was a stack of old Teen Bop and Tiger Beat magazines, the only face I recognized was Jonathan Taylor Thomas. To my right, was a half-painted glittery moon rock the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Behind the rock, I spotted an accent wall covered in their brightly coloured "meditative" wallpaper. (Coming soon to the Drake General Store!) On the floor, a giant tarp hid work in progress; empty wine glasses decorated desks. It was as a busy artist studio should be: messy.

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Like the sisters, their work is playful yet substantial. What fascinates me most, however, is how they collaborate. I imagine for most sisters, there would be rivalry, a friction of some sort, but on quick observation it was obvious that their relationship was a nurturing one. Which made even more sense once I discovered that they are nine years apart.

"I used to call her Mom!" chirps Rose. They both snicker.

After attending art schools in different cities (Joy went to Western; Rose went to Ryerson), the two began their careers independently. Their collaboration wasn't planned, but something that happened organically after they got the studio space on Bloor, where they discovered their mutual love for pen. "We wanted to start fresh, in a naive place...doodling is very nostalgic," says Rose, pointing to a brilliantly intricate piece behind my head done entirely with pen. "We loved the idea of being able to do it anywhere. It's in your purse. It's so lowly. And then bring it to life! The first show was all fireworks."

I studied the penned pieces as they explained the process: "We sit across from each other on the floor, developing the stroke of the pen simultaneously." I imagined kids sprawled on a living room carpet, head to the ground, hard at work.

Joy describes the process as "obsessive" while Rose thinks of it as "meditative and calming". It was through drawing with pen that their relationship began to evolve to a new level, or maybe it's just when they noticed it was changing.

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"We had this 'aha' moment, wherein Rose had always been my little sister, and now that she's an adult, we were coming together as equals, and there was this weird synchronicity in our art that we didn't expect," says Joy. "With nine years between us, we had a beautiful bond [growing up], but it was a far apart bond. As adults, every year is shrinking...which is very special."

Since discovering a collective consciousness through their art, they've been pushing that idea further...playing with the spiritual realm. The results have been kinda freaky.

They begin to tell me about the telepathic art book they're launching this summer. "We were in two different cities and we decided to send and receive images," says Rose. As if excited schoolgirls the two sisters light up, taking turns to tell me me about the rules they set out before embarking on their artistic experiment: 1) You must have time for meditation; 2) You must have time to send an image (not actually send, but send through their mind); 3) You must take time to receive an image (again, mentally); 4) You must go on a walk.

They were forbidden to communicate via email or phone for three weeks. The only form of 'communication' was through mental waves, released into the universe, with strong intention of reaching the other.

Once reunited in Toronto, they revealed their work. "I SCREAMED A LOT!" shrieks Rose.

The sisters were shocked to discover that in many cases, their work was not only identical but mirrored images of each other. On the same day that Rose took a photo of a pylon on its side, so did Joy. (Got goosebumps?) "There was almost an unsettling feeling, like did we go too far?" says Joy nervously.

I ask if their findings have provoked a deeper dive into the spiritual world. "Our background is super religious," Rose describes their Christian fundamentalist upbringing. "We come to the world with that lens already. Of course, we've stepped away from that childhood place into a more holistic understanding, but the lens is still there. Every work we do has a spiritual side."

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Back at The Drake, I take a closer look at Joy's paintings. They definitely have a holy quality to them. The sisters share with me that they still attend the odd church service at an "amazing, gay-friendly" Anglican church close to their studio. They find the aesthetic and performance of religion to be inspiring.

Certainly, their bond as sisters and artists is one that is truly sacred and divine.

Posted in: Art

Tags: broadbent sisters  drake art  installation  jen mcneely  joy broadbent  light art  our people  rose broadbent  the drake hotel