BONE WIND FIRE is an intimate and evocative journey into the hearts, minds and eyes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo—three of the 20th century’s most remarkable artists. Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted in the sun-baked clarity of the American Southwest; Emily Carr in the lush jungled green of the BC rainforests; and Frida Kahlo in the hot and dusty clamour of Mexico City. Each woman had her own response to her environment; to the people that surrounded her and to the artistic or practical challenges she faced in wringing beauty and truth from her particular time and place. BONE WIND FIRE uses the women’s own words, taken from their letters and diaries, to reveal three individual creative processes in all their subtle and fascinating variety. Playful visual effects pull paintings into the artists’ landscapes creating an evocative tapestry of a painter’s imagination.


Bone Wind Fire grew like the elements of its title. Almost by chance, director Jill Sharpe, who had spent three years developing her skills as a painter in Oaxaca, Mexico, came across a book by Sharyn Udall called Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, which managed to yoke the three early 20th century artists together in a way that struck the filmmaker as both unforced and irresistible. She’d been waiting for a project that could synthesize her filmmaking avocation with her love of painting; and by further chance one of the artists involved was associated with the country she’d just come from and the style she’d been immersed in.

The project found a home at the NFB’s Vancouver Studio under producer Yves Ma. It was filmed in three different countries over nine days, using cutting-edge digital technology and extensive post-production visual effects. Much of it was shot, in fact, in the actual locations in which the women had lived.

The visual design of the film was crucial, and was carefully conceived by Sharpe, cinematographer Sylvaine Dufaux and production designer Tony Devenyi. Says Sharpe, “From the very beginning, what Sylvaine and I were talking about, and what I was talking with my production designer about, was this idea of colour palettes for each of the women. And those colour palettes were inspired by the world in which they painted, and from their paintings and their character.

“The primary colours that symbolize each artist are white, red and green,” explains the director. “White is inspired by Georgia’s desert, the light that she loved, the bones and shells that she painted. Emily lived in and was inspired by the deep green rain forest of British Columbia and Alaska, and way up the coast. Her colour palette was this deep green. And Frida, her landscape was mostly her inner landscape. But she was very influenced by Mexico and the rich, saturated colours of that country. Her scenes are punctuated by red, for the pain and the passion she so delicately held in balance.”

Bone Wind Fire is not a traditional documentary; it is, rather, a “creative non-fiction” film, using image, sound and tone to create a portrait of its three subjects. The idea is to engage the viewer on an emotional and aesthetic level rather than merely an intellectual one. Director Sharpe calls it a “hybrid” and a “cinematic cocktail”—it’s fact filmed as fiction, in a highly stylized way. In choosing to concentrate on the bodies and hands of the actors playing the three artists, or else to shoot them from behind, the director denied herself one of a filmmaker’s primary dramatic tools, the human face. “You never connect with the actor by their eyes,” says Sharpe, “you never see their face, just hear these disembodied voices, so we tried to imbue each shot with the personalities of the women.” Sharpe also had intimate writings from each woman’s own hand, a painstakingly prepared visual plan, and a group of ready and able collaborators. With all that, Jill Sharpe has created a lovely and hypnotic portrait of three alike yet vastly different 20th century masters.

It was their differences which most interested the director, in fact. “I was always looking to make distinctions between them,” Sharpe says. “I never wanted to say that these artists were similar. I wanted to uncover, on many levels, their uniqueness.”


Was your initial conception of this film much different than the final result?

I always thought the script would change once we shot it and once it got into the editing room, but actually, other than a few lines changing, every scene held, and the dialogue almost in its entirety held. All we did was switch up the structure a tiny bit.

It must have been quite a process, going through the diaries and letters to assemble your narration.

Yeah, that was a lot of fun, and it was also a lot of work, because I went through 6,000 journal pages and letters. As I went through it I knew that what I was most interested in was their creative process. How their eyes and hearts were seeing; what stirred them. I knew I was really interested in looking at an artist’s emotional relationship with the creative process, or, you could say, muse. I was really curious about that because what I found amazing about these three women was that they [each] had a lifelong relationship with their artistic process. From their early stages of life right up until their deaths, how they were seeing the world, and how they thought about it, they filtered through their art process. So I was trying to extract all these different quotes whenever they would talk in the journals and letters towards that.

What was your primary inspiration for doing this film?

The real, important inspiration for this film idea came through Sharyn Udall, who was the curator of a travelling exhibit that went across the United States and Canada, and who wrote a book called Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own. I’d missed the travelling exhibit because I had been living at the time in Oaxaca, painting in a shared collective for three years. At that time I was very immersed in Frida Kahlo and going to Mexico City and seeing her museum and home; and of course Oaxaca is known as the place in Mexico that still has the feel of Mexico City in Frida Kahlo’s time. It was just a fantastic place to be.

So when I came back from that trip I came across Sharyn Udall’s book, and I was really moved by it. I had grown up with Emily Carr. I didn’t know Georgia O’Keeffe that well. But it’s an incredible, very dense curatorial book that looks at the artistic styles and influences of these three women, and where they crossed over. It’s a beautifully written book.

I was really inspired by it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I just knew I wanted to do something around it, around art and painting, and I wanted to do something poetic. At that point I approached Sharyn and got her good wishes, because I just thought I would never do a film about three icons, because how would you ever get the rights and so on – I mean, it’s a huge, daunting task to go through all that work and then face all the things that could go wrong in terms of your access and rights. So with Sharyn’s blessings and good will, knowing that the film would be very different from her book, I felt more confident that, with her connections and her endorsement, I would get the support from the estates. Because she had achieved that.

So Sharyn became a story consultant on the film, and was very influential to me. I started going off on my own journey. As I got into the project I realized that I really didn’t want to talk about their art styles, or art movements. Film is such a different medium, and I wanted to do something much more personal, from their voice. So then it started becoming its own thing.

But Sharyn was an amazing inspiration about putting those three women together, and her book is fantastic. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in these women’s lives.

Did you consider doing straight documentary adaptation of the book at any point?

No, because at that point I was really moving away from documentary. I had loved documentary filmmaking for 15 years, but after spending some time painting, I had really wanted to do something different. I was really interested in using film almost as a canvas. And I wanted to experiment; that’s what’s so terrific about the NFB, because they let me do that.

So this film has been entirely scripted, it’s been entirely storyboarded, all its special effects have been designed to be layered in, so it became a really large playground for me to experiment with form. At that point I was so clear that I wanted a project to experiment with form. I came back from Mexico and made, I think, three more documentaries. But this one was always designed as a hybrid, creative, non-fiction piece.

How did you plan the visual design of the film? Tell me about your collaboration with your director of photography.

Working with Sylvaine Dufaux was such a pleasure, so fantastic. She works as a camera operator on some pretty big films—Darren Aronofsky films, The Red Violin, stuff like that—and she also works as a D.O.P. [director of photography], and once a year she chooses a smaller project to work on. And I was very lucky in that, this year, mine was her smaller project.

We really seemed in sync from the beginning, and she was curious about what I wanted to do, and always a big supporter. She followed me right through development. We shot the film in nine days, which is incredible since we were in four different places and three different countries. But we had a lot of prep time, just thinking through the script and talking about it, so when we went to shoot, our shot list and storyboards were there. And they needed to be there, because we were also working with an animator who was doing the special-effects transitions for us, and we had to have those sorted out prior to the shoot.

But Sylvaine was just a really great champion for the project, and I’d work together again with her in a heartbeat. She was a true collaborator.

As was my production designer [Tony Devenyi]. I had a lot of key collaborators on the film. It was really fun to work with such a big team. And what I really enjoyed as a departure from documentary film was having so much time in the set-up. In documentaries, you’re looking for real-life moments that unfold in front of the camera. A whole different technique. And with dramatic techniques you are constantly creating and controlling those. Nothing has that spark of chance, and yet you’re trying to get some flavour of authenticity.

It was interesting for me how I taught myself dramatic filmmaking. As an associate producer I was involved in drama productions, a long time ago, before I got into documentaries. So I had a bit of experience on drama sets and with drama crews. But it’s actually painting that helped me the most with the visual design of the film, because I spent a year, full time, painting. Before this film got funded. I was working with a mentor, Sheri Bakes, who was really helping my visual eye, pushing and pulling my own canvases and looking at light, and so by the time I was working with Sylvaine, I had a slightly different language. I had a far greater skill, to my surprise, to communicate and have a dialogue with a D.O.P., because of what I had learned from painting. And yet, when I went into painting, I wasn’t thinking about film at all. I just went into it from a personal love; and yet it completely supported me in making the film.
BONE WIND FIRE from Jill Sharpe on Vimeo
What were your cinematic inspirations in making this film?

There were some really core inspirations for me. When I made Weird Sex and Snowshoes, I got a chance to interview 21 directors across Canada, and one of them was Robert Lepage. Watching all of his films, I loved what he did, which are these incredible visual transitions that are like magic. He uses theatre techniques to create those effects; it’s not all done digitally.

So Robert Lepage’s work was an inspiration, and so was Julie Taymor’s, especially her film Frida, and also Across the Universe, which both had these wonderful seamless transitions. And she has a theatre background too. So they were kind of working the same way. It’s a low-budget way to do visual effects.

But on the other hand, for a painter’s world, we were always going for this feeling of it being handcrafted. Elemental; things that you could touch and feel, just like a painter’s world is made from water and stone: the basis of paint and all its inspirations. We were always reaching to achieve our effects with real photographic shifts in lighting on set, as opposed to doing things in post-production. We do have a lot of effects in the film, but our first choice was always to shoot things in camera.

Narratively, the film that made me think I could pull off something on three lives in 30 minutes, and that you could say more in the short form perhaps than in the long form, was 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which I think is one of the most stunning biographical pictures of all time. They give you one little glimmer of all these sides of one man, and in the end the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

What sort of audience do you have in mind for the movie?

I hope it will appeal to a large audience. Generally it’s going to be people who are interested in art and have some curiosity about art making. It’s already had some comments from professional painters and people in the art world who are quite thrilled with the film. But I hope it will just speak to people who are interested in creativity. My hope with the film is that someone will watch it, and in watching these women’s key experiences with their creative lives, will be inspired in their own creative life.


A rich impressionistic essay on nothing less than the artist’s place in the universe

- Katherine Monk, Vancouver Sun