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U of O student a finalist in RBC Painting Competition

 Photo by Tina Wallace

In a packed room at the National Gallery of Canada on Oct. 2, the RBC Canadian Painting Competition finalists waited to hear who would win the grand prize of $25,000.

The annual competition gives finalists exposure and finances early in their careers. This year’s finalists include University of Ottawa master’s student Jessica Bell and alumnus Colin Muir Dorward.

In addition to the grand prize, two runner-ups each receive $15,000 and their pieces will also be exhibited at the National Gallery until Oct. 13, then at Art Toronto from Oct. 25–28. The pieces also become part of RBC’s corporate art collection.

Bell cheered as the winners were announced: Muir Dorward and Toronto artist Neil Harrison were the runner-ups and the grand prize went to Vancouver artist Colleen Heslin.

Although Bell didn’t win the grand prize, the remaining finalists each received $5,000. The money and exposure from the competition has the potential to leverage her art career as she completes her master of fine arts at the U of O.

She started her academic career at the University of Calgary where she studied art history. She also took studio classes, experimenting with different media, although she didn’t find her love of painting right away.

“Actually, I didn’t take a single painting class when I was in my undergrad,” she says.

As she worked to create art pieces after her degree, she started integrating painting into her work, never limiting herself to one medium.

“I’ve never really thought of myself as purely a painter,” she says. “I’ve thought of myself as someone who works in constructing things.”

She lived in Vancouver for the past seven years, building a portfolio and finding ways of putting her work out publicly, often using the Internet to help build an audience for her art.

“That’s the best advice I can give: work like crazy and invite people to see it,” she says.

The role of landscape—both national and personal—is a running theme in her work. Landscape painting, her piece in the competition, is part of a triptych based on her experiences living in Vancouver.

“When I think about places I’ve been, it’s not just tactile objects and things as they are,” says Bell. She also tries to create visual representation of more intangible memories connected with places, like scent and movement.

This year, Bell moved across the country again to start her master’s at the U of O. She visited the campus before making her decision, speaking with members of the art department to get a feel for the program.

“Most specifically, it was my gut,” she says of choosing the U of O. “The program here is very modest but in a very great way.”

Moving forward, she plans to use the finalist money for practical things like studio supplies and rent, but she also intends to use the advice she gained from participating in a symposium made up of competition jurors and past winners. They talked about practical ways for the finalists to sustain themselves as artists over the course of their careers and build on the exposure the competition has provided.

“Always be working, because that’s really the important thing,” says Bell. “Be working even when you don’t have something to be working for.”

Already back in her studio on campus, Bell is painting and working with faculty members and her fellow graduate students. Being a part of the artistic community on campus is central to her artistic development and moving forward in her career.


  • Spring 2022: Desiree Nikfardjam Fall 2021: Zofka Svec 2020-2021: Aisling Murphy 2019-2020: Ryan Pepper 2018-2019: Iain Sellers 2017-2018: Ryan Pepper