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The Topsy-Turvy Streetscapes of Michele Braniff

Michele Braniff’s world, at least as portrayed in her artwork, is a whimsical, colourful and chaotic one. As the artist behind this newsletter’s current header image, Braniff paints scenes that illustrate the wonderful messiness, diversity and spontaneity of cities: a visual depiction of city life that Jane Jacobs once described as an “intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole”.¹

The playfulness and optimism of Braniff’s paintings comes in part from her use of unusual perspectives and her loose and fluid style. She mainly sketches on site and occasionally draws with her non-dominant hand or paints with both hands.  Street scenes are captured from odd angles and different scales that accentuate size, detail and beauty of historic buildings. In some cases, Braniff uses colour, or the absence of colour, to highlight certain buildings and downplay others. Wide, sometimes multi-paged sketches provide the viewer with a sense of fluidity and expansiveness, as if the observer is looking through a wide angle lens.


“Around the Block” by Michele Braniff depicting one of Waterloo’s older city blocks near the corner of King Street South and Erb Street in Uptown Waterloo


“View from the Market” by Michele Braniff showing Cambridge City Hall, old and new, with Wesley United Church


“Party not Parking” by Michele Braniff. A fictionalized painting of the back of Main Street in Cambridge (hanging at Cambridge Memorial Hospital)

Judging from her numerous works, Braniff seems to be particularly inspired by historic buildings and streetscapes. When asked how her work reflects her relationship with and interest in cities, Braniff says:

For me, art is a way to engage with a place:  I try to use lines and colour to evoke the feelings, the smells, the sounds and the expression of the “city- scapes” which I draw.  I draw scenes and people with pen, ink and colour.  Sometimes I paint a canvas or water colour “en plein d’aire; on other occasions, I will take a sketch from my sketchbook and re-create on canvas in my studio with layers of Japanese tissue papers, street maps, and acrylic paints.  I love architectural detail and contrast, especially historic buildings where there is lots of colour and people moving around.  I enjoy sketching near home, in Galt and the nearby cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Guelph and have also taken sketching holidays in Montreal, Quebec City, Vancouver, Vancouver Island,  and overseas, in Estonia, France, Finland and Latvia.  I would love to do a series of Canadian historic city scenes and cityscapes as a celebration of 2017.


“Hotel de Ville Pantin” by Michele Braniff, showing the city hall of Pantin, a borough of Paris, France

Braniff’s art can be found in many private collections, at the Student Life Building at the University of Waterloo, and in the halls of Cambridge Memorial Hospital (where several of her paintings were selected as “art that will make people happy”).  She was awarded the Cambridge YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Arts and Culture and was Cambridge Centre for the Arts’ Artist-in-Residence in 2014 and Artist-in-Residence for the City of Waterloo June to October, 2016.

While capturing the disorderliness of cities, Braniff somehow manages to turn the city’s chaos into a vibrant, colourful and optimistic depiction of the places we live and work. Hers is a world in which I’d like to live!

For more information about Michele Braniff’s artwork, contact her at mbraniff [at] rogers [dot] com.

Note: The first image in this article shows detail of 57 Erb Street West from the Braniff’s work titled “Waterloo during Construction”.

¹ Jane Jacobs (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities