The one thing you should see this week: an intimate film about a powerful painter

The one thing you should see this week: an intimate film about a powerful painter

Wanda Koop’s paintings are composed of as many as 20 fine washes of paint (Image: Katherine Knight) 

This week’s pick: Koop at the Reel Artists Film Festival

Wanda Koop’s mother always told her that she didn’t need to be like anyone else. She took the advice to heart and built a 35-year painting career on the strength of her arresting large-scale canvases. A new documentary by Katherine Knight, simply titled Koop, follows the artist as she prepares for retrospectives at the National Gallery of Canada and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

The film splits its time between Koop’s Winnipeg studio—a huge, bright space that houses decades’ worth of work, including filing cabinets full of dashed-off notes and sketches that serve as artistic Post-its—and a Canada Steamship Lines freighter travelling up the St. Lawrence River. On a hunt for inspiration (Koop considers the world a continuum of the studio), she seeks passage on the Birchglen, which just happens to be captained by a trained painter. Along the way, Koop takes 2,600 photographs, makes 300 small drawings, sees the island on which Quebec painter Jean-Paul Riopelle spent the last 25 years of his life and hears a heartbreaking story about the death of filmmaker Claude Jutra (suffering from Alzheimer’s, he pinned a note to his shirt that read, “I am Claude Jutra,” and walked into the St. Lawrence). Koop sees art everywhere: in the water, in the early morning light, in the ship’s radar system.

Looking at Koop’s paintings is often like looking at objects through a mist. Solitary figures and spidering land masses are created using as many as 20 fine washes of paint, giving the works an incredible depth and softness. Equally deep and soft is Knight’s portrayal of the artist. Koop is a gentle, intimate portrait of a woman deep in contemplation: about her past, of course, but also about her future. Having dealt with troubled eyesight since her teens, Koop is now facing the possibility of losing her vision. At some point, she could well be painting blind. But she clings to a belief that has propelled so many artists throughout the centuries: “If you can think creatively, you can pretty much survive anything.”

The details: Feb. 23 (7 p.m. at Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W.) and Feb. 25 (1 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W.). $12. 416-599-8433,

(N.B. The Reel Artists Film Festival, which runs from Feb. 23 to 27, features four days’ worth of terrific documentaries about contemporary art stars, from Sol LeWitt to William Kentridge.)