WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Meghan Burnside's The Sacred Heart of Jesus won first prize at Grant MacEwan University.
Meghan Burnside has been painting proficiently for seven years – about as long as she has been able to speak more than a few words.
The 27-year-old Edmonton artist is autistic and for the first 18 years of her life, barely uttered a word.
Now one of her paintings – The Sacred Heart of Jesus – is on display at City Hall after she won first prize in an open competition sponsored by Grant MacEwan University.
The eight-by-four-foot artwork was voted first by viewers at the contest in January.
It arrived at City Hall in early February and will be there until the end of the month, before moving into an art gallery. "I'm very pleased about it," Meghan said in an interview, her eyes fixed on the painting.
The painting features a large heart with a crown of thorns around it bleeding into a chalice. Behind the heart is a large, white host.
It took Meghan over two years to complete the piece, finishing it in 2009. It was displayed inside St. Thomas More Church in Edmonton's southwest for several months.
"I had to do a great deal of research for this painting," she said. "I had to get everything right. I looked on the Internet and I looked at all kinds of different hearts – from cow hearts to human hearts to heart surgery."
The young artist even cut up a chicken breast to determine how muscle fibres feel. As a result, "the process of painting was very intimate because in my mind I could feel the texture of the heart."
After she painted the cut on the side of the heart, "it almost became alive. In my mind I could see it beat in front of me and could feel the cut of the heart in my hand.
"I could stick my fingers inside the wound. It was a very intimate experience painting it."
The flames coming out of the heart are symbolic of Jesus' love, "which encompasses everything, every aspect of our lives."
A graduate of the arts program at Grant MacEwan, Meghan was one of many alumni invited to participate in the contest. She almost missed it.
The email invitation had gone into her junk folder and she found it only two days before the contest deadline. Regardless, she submitted three of her best pieces, including The Heart, as she calls it. She was nervous about entering the competition because when she studied at Grant MacEwan "religious art wasn't accepted very well. It wasn't considered fine art."
But viewers liked it. Her mother Jane Burnside said people would come into the hall, look at all the art, and then would stand in front of Meghan's painting, admiring it and discussing its striking features.
Some people would go to a dance taking place next door and then they would come back to look at the painting again.
Meghan said she was inspired to paint the Sacred Heart of Jesus because she has a personal relationship with Jesus and his mother Mary. Besides, some people suggested she tackle that kind of theme.
The Burnsides attend St. Thomas More Church and also attend Mass for the deaf at Providence Centre.
As a toddler, Meghan rarely spoke, although her mother, Jane, and father, Kevin, constantly talked to her. She always had a pencil and paper to play with and she loved to draw. The Burnsides prayed their little girl would be better.
As Meghan grew, her sketches became more defined. In high school, she began painting as a means to communicate. Her art teacher encouraged her.
"I took it from there. I found that I could teach myself art."
Meghan graduated from high school in 2003. "But we didn't know what she would do after high school because she didn't ever say anything to us," her mother recalled.
That changed at age 19 when Meghan, clearly upset, spoke up and said she liked art and wanted to be an artist. She first did a fine painting of Mary and then she painted her favourite coat, which she later sold.
After two years of academic upgrading, Meghan was able to enroll at Grant MacEwan. It took her three years to complete the two-year art program in 2008.
Now that she has a name in the Edmonton art scene, Meghan plans to become an art instructor for the disabled.