Artistic Endeavours

Art and sport collide to create the best of both worlds for local artist Esther Sample

“This is who I am, <a href=

apoplectic " says artist and kickboxer Esther Sample. “I paint in the morning and train at night.” ” src=”×903.jpg” width=”602″ height=”903″ /> “This is who I am, side effects ” says artist and kickboxer Esther Sample. “I paint in the morning and train at night.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

People say that opposites attract. Sometimes they do more than that. Imagine this pair of opposites: one is an artist, nurse a sensitive painter whose uses her impressive technical mastery to reflect the natural beauty of the BC West Coast—and also to protect it, through involvement in projects such as Artists for an Oil-Free Coast and Artists for Conservation. The other is a martial arts master, a Muay Thai kickboxing Red Belt, known as a fierce opponent in the ring and as a tough and inspiring teacher.

These apparent opposites meet in one person. Comox Valley artist Esther Sample seamlessly encompasses both personas, excelling in both fields while also finding time for parenting three small children and steadily pursuing new challenges—last year as a competitor in the demanding Cumberland Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (30 kilometres of mountain biking, trail-running, kayaking, and orienteering) and recently as an applicant for the Canadian version of the reality TV show, The Amazing Race.

“This is who I am. I paint in the morning and train at night,” says Sample, with an amused smile that suggests she rather enjoys confounding expectations. With her long blond wavy hair, big blue eyes and slender frame, Sample hardly fits the stereotype of the warrior woman, but the direct gaze of those eyes, the physical strength subtly on display in her posture and movements, and the confidence she exudes as she answers questions promptly and eloquently make it surprisingly easy to imagine her kicking an opponent’s butt in the ring (as I am told she is well able to do).

It is also easy to imagine her absorbed in a canvas somewhere on the BC coast. This her favorite place to be, and where she finds the subject of most of her artwork. Close-ups of tide pools teem with colors and shapes, seemingly alive with the gentle pulsations of intertidal life; a pile of seaweed strewn on rocks celebrates the vivid abundance of ocean flora, and looks so slick that if I touched it my hand would come away wet; a heron takes off against an early evening sky, its reflection in the water below creating a perfect mirror image.

Humans too are part of her coastal landscape, but mostly portrayed by their tools: many of her paintings show boats, usually old and weathered, and fishing gear. Occasionally, a human figure appears—a boy on a fishing boat, a geoduck diver underwater.

“I’m slowly moving towards painting people,” says Sample. “I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself into one genre or one subject. If I stick to one thing I won’t grow. But there’s so much subject matter connected to the ocean!” And above all, the coast is where she feels most comfortable.

She has felt this way her whole life, and after spending eight years as a commercial fisher, which took her all over BC’s coast, her passion for the ocean deepened. “The beach is my sanctuary; it’s where I feel the most calm. I want to share that. I want to invite people into my world.”

It seems people are happy to accept that invitation. Sample has participated in a number of group shows in the Comox Valley and further afield, and in late 2011 she was brought into the spotlight when her painting of a Chinook salmon won the annual Salmon Stamp Art Contest, run by the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation. The Recreational Fisheries Conservation Stamp, known as the “Salmon Stamp,” is a postage-sized decal that must be purchased annually by anglers wishing to keep Pacific salmon caught off Canada’s west coast.

Sample was the first female winner of this contest. This honor garnered her plenty of media attention, including the cover of BC Outdoors Sport Fishing Magazine last April.
“In my painting I tried to capture the sense of action and urgency of a Chinook salmon as it rises up from the deep and chases after feed. It was a real challenge but it is a portrayal of power and speed that anyone who has fished for salmon in BC will appreciate,” says Sample.

Not only was winning the contest a boost to her career, and of course also an honor, it also meant that Sample’s painting has been supporting the conservation efforts of the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Since 1991, $6.1 million of stamp revenue has been directed to community conservation projects.

“They used this stamp to sustain rivers, streams and wetlands. What better way for me to contribute to having a sustainable fishing industry?” asks Sample rhetorically. She is adamant that she is an artist, not a politician, but she is happy that her art can have an impact on her world, helping protect the natural environment she loves.

“I think it’s okay to be opinionated,” she explains. “I’m an artist. So art is the venue I use to say what I believe. It’s a tool I can use to help me be responsible for my surroundings.”

Sample’s passionate embrace of this responsibility brought her the opportunity to be part of a project called Artists for an Oil-Free Coast. Sample says this experience was one of the highlights of her artistic career thus far.

Fifty artists, some of Canada’s most celebrated, and many who are First Nations, were chosen by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation to travel to select areas of the BC coast and make art based on their experiences. The result was gathered into both a travelling exhibit and a gorgeous coffee-table book.  Sample was sent with a group of other artists to Klemtu, a remote village on Swindle Island, north of Bella Bella.

“We travelled up into the estuaries. The artists were completely blown away by how pristine it was, how beautiful, how untouched, and how much wildlife there was. We saw orcas, grizzlies, eagles, wolves… It felt as if we had left civilization behind and entered Eden.

“You can see in the art that emerged how struck the artists were with the place and the potential for it to get ruined,” says Sample. “I really think the artwork reflects the deep feelings we had while we were out there—it’s stellar work. I went to all the openings of the tour. Each venue was unique but every show was so, so powerful. This really stands out as one of the best shows I’ve even been in—in fact, ever been to.”

Sample’s journey as an artist started in her late teens. Although her parents were highly creative, she showed no interest in art until the early 1990s when one day she picked up a paintbrush and craft paints. She was immediately hooked. She spent the next 15 years painting the natural world, using watercolor as her medium. In 1996 she began a successful career as a commercial fisher, travelling all over the BC coast and developing a passion for the natural coastline and the people who live on it.

Esther Sample

“It takes confidence to have an art show. You have to be out there, and be open,” says Sample. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Eight years later, the advent of motherhood brought her back to shore to settle down for a while. At that point she took up pencil drawing, focusing on boats, and developing skills in creating highly realistic renderings. In 2008, when her oldest child started school, Sample decided to try out acrylics. She immediately fell in love with their brilliant colors.

Although Sample has taken plenty of workshops and courses, she has never had a formal art education. She feels this gives her a certain freedom—she doesn’t even know what the rules are, so breaking them is no problem.

A typical day for Sample begins early. She gets up early, well before her three kids, to paint in her immaculately tidy studio, then turns into ‘Mom’ and gets the children off to school before returning to the studio for, ideally, a few more hours. She also needs to fit in time for the business elements of being an artist—jobs such as book-keeping and marketing. In the afternoons she is usually ‘Mom’ again, and then in the evenings she often becomes Esther Sample, Red Belt, training and teaching classes at Knockout Martial Arts and Fitness.

“I started Muay Thai four and a half years ago, when my kids were still very young and I needed to do something for myself. I had no idea at the time how it would affect me, but it has definitely changed my life and my sense of who I am,” says Sample. “The values and morals I get from it relate to every part of my life, including my art.

“At first I didn’t see any relationship between Muay Thai and art, but it is there. Part of it is the process. People see Muay Thai as a violent combat sport—which it is…” she says with a laugh. “But it’s not an angry sport. You need to be in control, and you need to be very focused. You are making a plan and trying to execute it. It’s similar to creating a painting. In one, the plan is about how to deal with an opponent; in the other it might be something like how am I going to make that sand look real?”

Kickboxing, she says, helped her overcome shyness and gave her confidence. This has been invaluable as she negotiates the commercial art world. “It takes confidence to have an art show. You have to be out there, and be open. People want to talk to you. Being a martial artist, especially a teacher, makes this much easier.

“And it put me in the best shape I’ve ever been in!” she adds emphatically. It also gave her an ongoing interest in challenging herself physically. Last year she and a friend decided to enter the Cumberland Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (MOMAR), even though they weren’t experienced in all the sports involved.

“I’d never mountain biked before!” says Sample. “We figured our goal was to complete the race. So we trained hard, both Muay Thai style [her friend is also a Muay Thai instructor] and also for the individual sports. To our surprise we won in our division! It was incredibly exciting and a testament to how hard we worked.

“I came out of that experience feeling like the world is my oyster. There are so many great challenges out there and you can do anything if you set your mind to it.”  She and the same friend recently applied to be contestants on The Amazing Race, a hit reality TV series that gives teams of two people extreme travel challenges. The first-ever Canadian edition is set to film this spring. Sample and her friend figured, why not give it a try?

The application process involved making a three-minute video. “Even if it doesn’t lead to anything, making the video was an incredibly fun experience,” she says. ““Once it was posted on YouTube it got 1,500 views in three days! I don’t even think I know 1,500 people, but I live somewhat publically through my art and through Muay Thai. I realized that people are watching what we do, that we can be examples for other people—especially women. I suppose we are showing that it’s not just possible but actually rewarding to get out of your comfort zone. You can start by creating a goal that’s outrageous, that may seem impossible. You get to that goal by creating a series of smaller goals, and you just keep going.

“It’s the same thing in a way with making a painting. You start with a blank canvas. You want to convey what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling,” she says. The goal with painting may not be as measurable as completing or winning a race, or winning a martial arts bout, but nonetheless there is a rich reward at the end. “It’s when people get what you’re trying to convey,” she says. “That’s the reward.”

In Sample, seeming opposites turn out not to be in opposition at all. Painting in the morning, sparring at night, fitting everything else in who-knows-when—there’s plenty of intensity but all the elements somehow end up in balance, much like the marine environment Sample portrays in her work.