Darby Milbrath

NR · World
Published · Online

Feature · Darby Milbrath
Words · Ellie Brown

“I see my art as a collaborative spiritual practise”

The significance of the theater in Darby’s art practice began in childhood and later into a profession as a contemporary dancer. Her commitment was primarily to the technique of the late pioneer, José Limón, which is based on the falling and recovering of a human body. It explores the adaptability of a body in space, indulging and resisting the polarities of high and low, swinging from one extreme to another like a pendulum. The tension and duality of these echoes in the complexities, miseries and beauties of human life as a trope of Melpomene and Thalia, the theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy. In this dance, bodies are instruments in an orchestra, working alone or in solidarity, suspending and releasing, giving and taking, descending and ascending. The cyclical nature of ebb and flow, death and rebirth are ongoing themes explored in Darby’s paintings which express empathy, sexuality, sorcery, womanhood and ceremony. Her paintings are intimate and confessional self-portraits of her life as a young woman. A mystic, Darby believes her work is a collaborative process with the spirits and a parting of the veils between the realms.

When did you start painting and creating?

In childhood I began as a dancer. After training at The Winnipeg School of Contemporary Dancers, I continued dance and choreography professionally. In the last three years drawing and painting have become my primary focus.

How do you find the balance between the vision you have and the mediums you are using?

My work is a practise of letting go of my own ideas and expectations so that I can listen to the guidance of the spirits and my intuition. I see my art as a collaborative spiritual practise. By painting and studying everyday I hope to better understand my mediums so that I can more skillfully and freely denote without doubt.

What inspired your style of work?

As a dancer I understand line, movement, expression of emotion, harmony and music, all which inspire my painting. I was immersed visually with female bodies in motion, on stage, backstage, in costume, in the nude and in a myriad of emotions for most years of my life. These images still permeate into all of my drawings and paintings. My flat backgrounds are inspired by theatre stage set designs. Theatrical elements such as the colours and textures of stage curtains and costumes, masks, props and lighting as well as the mystery, drama, superstition and magic of the theatre often come to play in my paintings.

Where do you get inspiration from? Are there any particular artists, photographers, painters or designers you look up to their works?

I’m currently looking at works by Odilon Redon, Marc Chagall, Edvard Munch,  Raoul Dufy, Emily Carr, Van Gogh and  Édouard Vuillard for inspiration.

How long does it take to create a piece? What is the process being it?

The time fluctuates depending on my emotional state and level of resistance. A painting can take as little as one hour and as long as half a year. I approach a canvas similarly to performance which is very ritualistically and superstitiously. The canvas which I stretch and prepare myself is done and ready on an easel. I will often burn herbs and rub oils onto the backs of the paintings and myself for luck. A candle is usually lit. Always I paint to music. Always I physically warm up my body so that I’m loose and present. I paint from memory and imagination, without a plan, reference or sketches, so I try to be as open and physical as possible to avoid fear or judgment to cloud my sense of intuition and play.

Would you say that there is a main thread connecting all your artworks and if so, which is it?

My work is diaristic. I am the thread connecting the artworks. Femininity, nature, mysticism, and dance are all very strong themes in my life and painting. I am deeply connected to my childhood which was spent on the West Coast gulf islands in Canada where the nature is overwhelmingly wild, fruitful and erotic. Since childhood I have had visions and hauntings of ghosts and spirits. Mysticism and magic are embedded into all my works. I am closely knit with my sisters who I paint metaphorically in nearly every painting. Sisterhood and expressing the lightness/darkness of being a woman is an ongoing theme in my work. All of these elements weave and dance together on the stage of my canvas.


What kind of talks would you like to hear around your artworks? 

I need to stay present in the process of creating rather than in the consequential conversations of the work that is finished. I need to just keep going on in the dark, forward.


  1. Mirror
  2. Women in the Field
  3. The Fortune Teller’s Tent
  4. The Flowering
  5. Fruits Of Paradise
  6. Red Moon In The Orchard
  7. Dancers in the wings

Subscribe to our