Billie Rae Busby with two pieces. Photo by Jian Von Esmane, styling by Cach Cruz, make-up by Glam & Beyond.

CALGARY – A Calgary artist who grew up in Yorkton and attended the University of Saskatchewan has recently completed a commission from pipeline giant TC Energy to provide art for the entire 10th floor of their Calgary headquarters.

That floor was under renovation, and they were looking for colourful art to liven it up. And that’s where Billie Rae Busby, formerly Billie Rae Sparrow, was brought in.

In an email on Feb. 3, TC Energy told Pipeline Online, “This week, TC Energy opened neXus 10 – a floor for innovation, collaboration and idea generation. neXus 10 features new art by Billie Rae Busby, a local artist whose vibrant and colourful interpretation of the Alberta Landscape has been featured at the Toronto and Miami art fairs and was picked up by a Montreal Gallery. Billie Rae Busby demonstrates our focus on collaboration, open-mindedness and mental health advocacy. We are excited to have her work permanently featured on the new, inclusive, innovative floor.

“With the help of Billie Rae Busby, we are able to bring this engaging, creative, open concept space to life with her incredible collection.”

You can see the collection at this link on her site billieraebusby.com. Below is the video TC Energy posted about the collection on LinkedIn.

 

The project was in part about the return to working in offices, after working from home during the pandemic. Busby said the renovation of the 10th floor of TC Energy’s downtown Calgary offices was meant to create a more collaborative space. “There’s bistro spaces, there’s meeting rooms that can be booked, there’s cubicle spots. Different teams can go for certain periods of times and book it. So, really, the intention was to appeal to staff that are back downtown, and kind of give them something exiting to do collaboratively, instead of work from home. A bit of incentive, a bit of innovation, maybe some creativity, and really make it enticing for TC Energy employees who want to work together in different ways.”

Asked how she was chosen, Busby said, “There wasn’t a submission process. The person who is in charge of the art collection was looking at different artists to work with, and they contacted me. And the reason they contacted me was a few things. They thought my art would be accessible as an abstract style, so that the employees would enjoy it. They wanted somebody local, in Calgary. They wanted a living artist. They wanted something a little bit more contemporary, not traditional representative art.

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“And they wanted something colorful. And that is something that was new to that space, too, is lots of color, not just gray and brown that is usually in an office. The whole facility space on the 10th floor has a lot of color in it. So, when we were looking at those things that really connect a variety of artists and I fit it.

“And the last key piece is I’m a mental health advocate. And that whole space was about trying to create synchronicity with the staff and supporting each other and creating a safe space, and that was a good connection with my values, too.”

Colourful is an apt description. Busby calls her distinctive abstract style “hard edge,” where she creates landscapes of the Canadian Prairies. To some, it might look like it was a photo taken from an airplane at 20,000 feet. For others, it may look like its from a ground perspective. The sharp shapes will invoke shadows, depth, and living skies.

Billie Rae Busby painting in her studio in 2013. The painting on the floor ended up being maide into a carpet for Canada House, our nation’s High Commission (embassy) in London. Submitted

 

Busby described like this: “I create abstract landscape paintings. I developed a style from learning about different painting techniques. And I found that I enjoy using stripes and shapes and lines to depict what we see around us. So it’s a very unique way of looking at our landscape to depict movement and what we see around us.”

The work is acrylic on canvas. She uses brushes and palette knives, and a lot of painters tape. “Regular contractors’ tape. Nothing fancy,” Busby said.

She actually hasn’t gotten into a plane to take photos of landscapes. “I think it’s only some of the pieces are inspired by that kind of view. And what I liked about the way that I tried to create them abstracted is I want the viewer to see however they want to see it. So, if you see an aerial view versus my father always sees a highway in every painting I do. Other people might see a mountain or ocean or whatever. And I think it says a lot about that viewer and what kind of memory brings. So my intention might be slightly different. But overall, I try to have where it’s vague enough that it could inspire you to something that you’ve seen from a plane, or from a car driving down the highway or standing in the middle of the field.”

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She does at times take photos for inspirations, trying to capture composition, colour or light. She might combine elements of several photos, combined with her own inspiration, to drive a certain piece. Additionally, friends, collectors and colleagues now send her photos, too, for ideas. It could be a beautiful sunrise or sunset. “They send it my way and hope it inspires me. I always ask for permission, if I can use it for inspiration. My friends are quite generous, giving me ideas.”

“Aim High,” by Billie Rae Busby, TC Energy Corporate Art Collection. (c) Billie Rae Busby 2022

 

An overnight sensation after 30 years of hard work

It took a long time to get to this point, working as an artist. At 47, she struck out doing her art full-time just two years ago.

Busby grew up in Yorkton. (Editor’s note: I went to Yorkton Regional High School with Billie Rae, who was a spectacular artist 30 years ago. We worked together on the school newspaper.) In her high school years, she was already producing highly realistic drawings, including a sketch of hockey star Eric Lindros that found its way to the number 1 draft pick during his rookie season.

She did well in art in high school, and won an art award. Busby said people thought she was going to go to art school. “I sidetracked a bit. I was always interested in sports. I was a sports editor with the school newspaper in my high school in Yorkton. And I decided to go into kinesiology so that I could go into sport management at University of Saskatchewan. And while I was there, I also took art classes and stayed for an extra year and a half and got dual degrees. So I have a Bachelor of Arts in studio arts as well as a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology.

“And I was lucky, after graduation of university. I ended up moving out to Calgary and started working in the sports industry. A couple of years after I moved out to Calgary I had a decently long career, about  15-18 years in sport. So I was lucky. I got to do exactly what I went to school for. I painted and I also was doing art and I got to work in sports.”

She was at SAIT for over 13 years. During that time, she was painting on the side, and developed her hard-edge technique. SAIT was supportive, and used her art for large scale banners on some buildings, for example. Busby said, “I had a lot of people along the way who respected that I had this other passion. Even though I was only doing art on the weekends and holidays, it was still a professional career for me.

It was during this time Busby was chosen to help decorate Canada House, the Canadian High Commission (a.k.a. embassy) in London. That was around 2014-2015.

Similar to the TC Energy project, Busby was contacted and asked to submit designs that would be made into carpets. “One was a northern lights painting that I had, and another was a Chinook prairie theme. Both were created into hand-tufted carpets by a company in Toronto and installed in two major meeting rooms in Canada House, London. Very, very awesome. I had no idea how amazing the project was going to be until I got a chance to actually go to London and see the pieces in person.”

Billie Rae Busby, in London. Submitted

Indeed, there are photos of Queen Elizabeth II standing on one of those carpets, when she visited the High Commission.

Queen Elizabeth II striding across a carpet made from a work commissioned from Billie Rae Busby. Global News screenshot

 

Her job in athletics of 12 years disappeared due to the pandemic as well as provincial budget cuts. She was fortunate enough to get another job in a different department, but it wasn’t a right fit, and actually led to her going on stress leave.

“The thing that helped me get through the burnout that I was having was painting. And when I decided to leave SAIT, really I just wanted to take some time to paint just to feel better again, and feel like myself, and was hoping that I could give it a shot to maybe paint for a little while.

Busby said, “So when I shifted into doing it full time, I’ve been establishing the brand and these clients and my art style for the last 15 years.” She wanted to give being a full-time artist a shot, which was something of a risk, because by this time, she was a single mother with two daughters (10 and 14) who also had her elderly father living with her.

She made it a goal to see if she could make it work financially. Busby said, “Now I am here, two years later, with more projects than I can even handle. So I’m so happy that I have the chance and also healthier mentally than I have been in ages.”

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Banff Centre residency

Right around the time she struck out on her own, Busby had a two-week art residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, right when they first opened up from pandemic restrictions. “I think there were 10 of us on campus. It was very secluded and hugely inspiring to be in the woods for two weeks, almost by myself,” she said.

In a way, it helped Busby kickstart her new venture. “I think the biggest thing for me is I felt like a real artist, even though I was proud of my work all along. I felt like this is what being able to live and breathe art on a daily basis, being able to go to the Banff Centre, where my only job was to paint and write my thoughts and ideas. They even feed you there, so I didn’t have to worry about dishes or groceries or anything like that. So, it was the first time that I felt like I could really do this. And then they could make all of these things happen.”

Busby’s art can now be found at a gallery just outside of Calgary, and another in Montreal. She also shows at a third gallery that’s not-for-profit. She said, “I have interest from other major commissions coming my way, and also another potential gallery that I just met with this morning. So, there’s more than enough work for me right now. It’s just juggling the opportunities and making sure that I also enjoy what I’m doing.”

“I am looking at, in the future, working on some prints, just to be able to offer some opportunities for people who only have a couple hundred dollars to spend.”

The TC Energy project has generated a lot of interest, leading to commissions, and interest in that additional gallery. Over the next year, she’ll see how much feedback she gets. “So far the comments from staff, TC energy staff that I’ve met has warmed my heart, because they’re thrilled to be able to use that space on a regular basis,” Busby concluded.

 

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