The light in a Robyn Badger painting is what will hook you first: A melted-butter warmth illuminating everything from wide country roads to pensive portraits. But it’s in the artist’s still life works where the life-affirming glow is at its most captivating: Van Gogh-inspired snippets of her living space that evoke the great expressionist artists. These paintings are at once reverent of their subject matter and quietly lived-in, rendered in otherworldly brights, but otherwise so true-to-life they’re deeply intimate. “I like to tell stories and now, with paintings, that’s what I try to do: Give you a glimpse into my life and where I’ve been,” Badger—a longtime creative and painter—says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “It is my expression: Of things that I see and things that I like—and especially the colours that I like."
In the everyday rhythms of capturing a simple breakfast of soft-boiled egg and toast soldiers or the curves and contours of her electric toothbrush and the sink it sits upon, Badger delivers the overlooked details of an unvarnished life: A celebration and appreciation of the small moments that act as an unwitting stage for our personal stories. In her painting ”Good Bedside Manner”, a bedside table and the detritus on it are presented to the viewer, elevating them from merely existing to worthy of being considered. “In the bedroom [painting], I put my medication by the bed. You really get to know who I am. You get to see behind the curtain of what I was living and how I was living,” she says.
But, Badger’s endless font of inspiration—the site of her best works and where she works best, her answer to Monet’s lily pond—is about to dry up: After nine years living at the same address (a 450-square-foot unit in central Dartmouth), new building ownership means Badger is challenging a notice of eviction. (Her hearing is slated for mid-August.) The unit was not officially a low-income one, but her previous landlord treated it as such. Now, Badger figures her rent is about to skyrocket between 200 and 300 percent. “I knew right away that was going to cause a lot of problems, because there's next to nothing available. And there's definitely no consideration of low income people out there,” Badger says. “My whole world just kind of fell apart.”
Before she changes address though, Badger is selling her paintings of her apartment—as well as a collection of other works—to help finance her next place and insulate her against looming financial precarity. (“The new higher rent is not just one month. It's for the rest of my life,” she says.) Would-be buyers can participate in an online art auction of Badger’s works, hosted through the auction site 32auctions, until 7pm Atlantic time on August 4—Badger’s birthday.
But it’s not just that she has been left feeling helpless and voiceless as she prepares to relocate from the home where she nursed her aging mother, and the space where she began her painting practice. As popular throw pillows put it, home is where our stories begin—but for Badger, it’s also been square one of her healing as a trauma survivor: “I'm a person with lived experience of mental illness. And part of my recovery was to always have a safe space to be living in and that became part of my treatment for what I was going through, ” Badger explains. “I do have a letter from my doctor saying that a move like this will not be helpful for my recovery. So, it's kind of scary for me, in a lot of different ways: Just to have sort of the carpet pulled out beneath me,” she says. “The front room is my safe space. It has big, huge windows and looks over Sullivan’s Pond. It has great light at the end of the day,” she pauses. “Obviously, I could find another safe space but I don't think it's going to be easy.”
Her landlords, past and present, have never been told directly about Badger’s health and the role her home plays in it. While not all renters might share Badger’s diagnosis, home and health are intertwined in a myriad of ways recognized by psychologists and physicians. So, when a landlord raises rent and displaces a tenant, what are the effects on the tenant’s health? And what ought a landlord’s responsibility be?
For Badger, the question is even simpler: “How are low income people in this situation finding places, finding a reasonable place in Halifax?” she asks.
While strides have been made during the pandemic—like the two percent cap on rent increase, which expires in December 2023—the red-hot market and rising inflation means Halifax’s non-property-owning class is at literal risk of being left out in the cold. For Badger, the added work of attempting to negotiate with her current landlord while scouting out a new apartment—all while managing her illness and day job—has meant increased stress and missed time from work. “I felt sick every single day,” she says.
Selling the paintings of her apartment as she’s being forced to leave it is the sort of bitter poeticness not lost on Badger: “I think as soon as I decided I was going to do this [auction]—and actually, this was quite emotional for me,” she begins, her voice creasing with tears. “But I did think: Wow. Isn't it incredible that I painted these paintings? Like, this was the first series that I really felt like I had something going on. I really channeled into something that was quite special to me. And I think the fact that now I'm faced with eviction from my place: I think it's like a way of immortalizing what I had, and it will always be there,” she says. “I don't know where these paintings are going to end up, but I will have a picture of them. And I just think that that's a perfect situation. It's emotional. It's ironic. I think I channeled something.”