Brush-stroking the silver screen: local professor the artist behind Catwoman

And though Grimm-Vance's work can be found in art collections worldwide—including the Vatican—she could not have foreseen her work populating one of this summer's top movies, nor one of her paintings ending up in actress Halle Berry's living room.

In the fall of 2003, Warner Brothers began filming Catwoman in Vancouver. Since Patience Phillips—Catwoman's character, played by Halle Berry—was to be a graphic designer by profession and a painter by nature, the film's French producer, Pitof, began investigating the Lower Mainland artists, in search of authentic art and professional consulting. At Vancouver's 1000 Parker Street—a popular studio location for many Vancouver artists—the film producer found Erica Grimm-Vance, Catwoman's artistic side.

“When Pitof talked to me about the role my art would have in the movie, he was clear about how the art would prefigure what was really going on inside of Patience,” says Grimm-Vance. The professor agreed to rent numerous paintings to the film and to also create three new paintings that would reveal Patience's internal state at specific points in the film.

“In Catwoman's apartment you see my pieces on the walls, in the bedroom, in the hallway and stacks of pieces in her studio,” reveals Grimm-Vance. “When set decoration collected work from my studio, they'd point at the oddest things and say, 'we want this, can we take this.' So they ended up with everything from finished and unfinished work, to many of my tools. They did their research to find out what an artist's studio looks like. So for the movie, they found versions of the kind of easel I work with, the kind of chair I sit on and so on.”

In total, Pitof rented a number of large paintings, 20 drawings, all of Grimm-Vance's brushes, a studio palate, and several small pieces of work. He also commissioned four paintings along with a 50-page sketchbook. But Grimm-Vance's involvement didn't end there. In addition to populating the background and providing consulting on the set, Grimm-Vance coached Berry on how to paint.

Grimm-Vance says she didn't have much trouble teaching the actress, acknowledging that Berry is very bright. Despite Berry's aptitude and an available photo double, it was Grimm-Vance's hand used in the painting close-up. “A brush held in the hand of someone who has never painted actually looks quite different than it does in the hand of an artist,” she says.

Grimm-Vance's initial introduction to Berry took the artist off-guard. “When she first met me she said, 'oh you're the artist! I love your work, it's so fabulous,' and then bowed. And I'm thinking, 'no, don't do that,'” recalls Grimm-Vance, laughing shyly. “ Halle Berry was always exceptionally gracious and friendly.” Berry did take a sincere liking to Grimm-Vance's work, so much so that she now owns a large piece.

And Grimm-Vance confesses that since Catwoman's props department first walked into her studio, her life has not been the same. Grimm-Vance began working on the movie while still performing her academic duties at TWU. “It was so busy I don't think I'd ever do both again,” she says. “It's was a very intense schedule. I would often be on set all day, get a response from the director, go to my studio at 10 pm and then have to have something ready for a shoot at 8am the next morning.” In that time Grimm-Vance still taught her full load of classes at TWU and gave a keynote lecture in Australia.

Thankfully, Grimm-Vance began a sabbatical this summer, allowing her to focus on her own body of work. “I'll be working with the idea of mapping the body, juxtaposing the figure with maps and a variety of materials and signifiers of meaning,” she says. “I'm also beginning a series on tattoos and recently I've been interested in positron emission topography (PET)—a medical technology that maps internal life forces.” In the next few years, she will also complete a $100,000 commission for a school in Boston.

As far as movies go, Grimm-Vance enjoyed the experience, but is quite content with her day job. “I'm not very extroverted,” she explains. “But the collaborative process was great to be a part of, “she adds, “it was exciting to be involved with a messy and unwieldy creative process of this magnitude.”

And Catwoman will be a new avenue in which Grimm-Vance's art will be viewed. “It's scary though,” she says. “I hope I'll be proud of it. I'm a bit nervous because movie-makers have the incredible ability to make something look great or ridiculous. Visual language is very powerful.”

Last Updated: 2015-07-16
Author: Keela Keeping