Monday, June 1, 2015

Unique Creative Process

On May 31st, I gave an artist talk at the Seymour Art Gallery on finding your unique creative process. Everyone there was extremely supportive and interested, and nobody fell asleep as my cats did when I was practising. I promised to post an outline of the talk and more importantly,links to the fantastic artists I mentioned. Anyone who attended the talk may notice a few differences, as I have added information I had written down but didn’t get a chance to mention.

When I was offered the chance to do this talk, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to explore the topic of unique processes and how artists come upon them. I am very much a process-based artist and my theory was that your medium and your practice can stem naturally from your personality, background, and work habits.

For this talk, I interviewed four artists who are doing interesting and unique work. I had a theory that there would be a strong link between an artist’s personality or background and the art. And I hunched that each artist would have had an "aha moment "or there was a common element to them finding themselves in their work.

But I was completely wrong.

Every artist turned out to be as individual as their work.

So, what I’ve done is split up the artists into different sections and created a nifty acronym: C.R.A.F.T.
I will talk about my art and inspiration as an introduction to each letter and each artist.

C is for Continuous

Okay, I lied. There was one thing that every artist I spoke to had in common: they all work extremely hard. They manage multiple art practices, other jobs, travel, and long hours to create their art. They have been working for years on their art.

When I was at art school, I was intrigued by the different work habits of students. Some had great ideas, but no follow through. Some worked very hard, but lacked talent. But in the many years I went to Emily Carr (part-time studies towards my BFA) I only met a couple of people who were very talented and worked really hard.

You have to set up a routine of hard work. For advice on this I would recommend the book, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Early in my art career, I was lucky enough to share a studio with painter, Cheryl Fortier. By her example, I got to see how an artist has to treat painting as a real business. She came to the studio from 9-5 each weekday. She maintained career goals, a teaching practice, good colleague & client relationships, and she prioritized her art. Art was not based on flaky genius but on hard work. And she helped me to establish good studio habits, which I have maintained ever since.

So achieving good art takes continuous hard work. Not always producing good work, but producing something and trying new things. In addition, continuing education is important: visiting galleries and museums, artist studio visits, attending art talks, and even taking courses. I had a recent studio visit with Jill Pilon. Not only did I get inspired by her work, but she explained how she uses screen-printing in her work—something I’ve been wanting to try and will now incorporate.

Your practice needs to be continually evolving and refining, and the only way that can happen is from hard work.

R is for research

For my Secret series paintings at the gallery, I did a lot of research into the idea of keeping secrets, codes, spies. I used motifs like the enigma machine, lemon juice writing, codes, as well as layering in some of my own personal secrets and fears. My process of layering and revealing is perfect for the idea of secrets kept and revealed.

The idea of research was inspired by the interview I did with Katherine Soucie. She is an artist who is creative, dynamic, and socially-conscious. You can see her art practice here and her fashion line here. The founding principle of Katherine’s practice is Zero Waste. When she was attending the textile program at Cap College, she was wandering the dollar store looking for materials to work with for her grad project. Nylons caught her eye: they were cheap and could be dyed. Taking the idea one step further, she contacted nylon manufacturers in Montreal and arranged to purchase the rejected nylons that they would normally throw out. They all begin white and she dyes and screen-prints them. They become the raw materials for her art and her clothing. One new offshoot is that textile artist Michelle Sirois Silver is now buying the colourful scraps too small for Katherine to use, and creating new art with them. So the cycle of recycling continues.

When I spoke to Katherine in the fall, she told me she was spending a lot of time in the Vancouver public library. Her inspiration was gypsies and she developed this year’s Gypsy Aristocrat line. Research is a necessity for fashion designers who must produce several new collections each year. And doing research can benefit any artist who is looking for inspiration for their work.

A is for Authentic

If you are a person like me, who has a tendency towards perfectionism and self-criticism, you may worry about whether you personally can succeed as an artist. I began painting when I was 40, so I wonder if my art would be more successful if I had started earlier. The art world is relentless in its focus on aesthetics and youth, and the hype of finding the next big thing. Or maybe it’s a personality issue, people capable of spending many hours alone in the studio may find it hard to be gregarious enough to promote their work. Any artist believes they have some flaw which prevents them from

But we can only be what we are. I am Japanese, middle-aged, and shy in groups of strangers. I am the opposite of a cool emerging artist. But being who I am got me the opportunity to do an amazing show at the
Japanese Canadian National Museum. And being my age means that I had friends who could afford to buy my art when I first started out. I am trying hard to be authentic to who I am, and let my art reflect that without apology.

One artist I found to be completely authentic to who he is and what he thinks is Brendan Tang. He is an artist who is intellectual and political, but with a sense of humour and great self-awareness.

Brendan’s own background is a cultural mix like many Canadians. He was born in Ireland, but has Trinidadian, Chinese, and Canadian cultural influences. Despite a non-artistic background, he excelled at art when he was young, and you can see his drawing skills in his work. In his Manga Ormulu series, we see a complete cultural mix: Chinese pottery, European pottery, Japanese manga, speculative fiction, geek worlds. To me, the work is very accessible, but talking to Brendan he emphasized the deeper meaning behind the work. It is a re-appropriation of Chinese pottery stolen by European craftsmen. But to me, the accessibility is key, you have work that people can appreciate at many levels of meaning from basic enjoyment to political consciousness.

F is for Forté

If authenticity is about knowing yourself, forté is knowing what you can do—your strengths and weaknesses. My strength is colour. I love using bright colour and pure tints, and I think I’m good at balancing them.

The artist who represents forté for me is Reece Terris. As an artist I found him to be determined and modest with an incredible spatial awareness. As a child, he enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together. His father was around to help if there was a piece missing afterwards. He began working in construction at 16, and ended up travelling the world, supporting himself with construction work in places like Australia. After 15 years of working, he began attending art school at the Simon Fraser University downtown campus. The freedom and support of school meant that he could integrate his construction skills seamlessly into his art practice.

His graduation project was entitled American Standard. He completely renovated the men’s washroom at SFU to create a wall of fountains, made from urinals. It was a riff on Duchamp, but also a spectacularly beautiful feat of engineering. Not shown is all the work he had to do to put the bathroom back into functioning order.

Reece is perhaps best known in Vancouver for his Ought Apartment, a tower of rooms from different decades. His work is not sculptural as much as an intervention on a specific site. He sees the potential for adding art to places because that is almost in his DNA.

T is for Tragedy

In 2008, I was preparing for my first solo show at a commercial gallery when my mother suffered a severe stroke. As an only child, I was thrust into hospital visits, medical consultations, and looking after her affairs. I was operating at only half-awareness that week, and I called the gallery owner to tell her what had happened. I assumed that she would understand that I couldn’t produce the work. But after she offered her sympathies, she said, “Mary Anne, you’re not going to let me down, are you?” “Um, no,” I agreed. I was in a complete daze.

So my routine for the following weeks was to go to the studio early and paint. Break to go to the hospital and later to the rehab facility. Back to the studio. All I did was paint and cry. My heroic husband took over a lot of the household duties. And I did finish a whole range of bright and surprisingly cheery paintings in time for the opening. But I think that painting was the best thing I could have done when I wasn’t with my mother. It was an escape for me and it had become enough of a routine that I could do without conscious thought.

Peter Combe is the only artist I didn’t interview directly for this speech. I went to hear him speak and I chatted with him briefly at his opening in Vancouver. However, I went to hear his artist talk which was a history of his career. As a boy growing up in B.C., he was interested in mathematics which later translated into his work. He travelled and began his art career in Europe. He was doing surreal collages when he had an accident that injured his wrist so badly that he was no longer able to use scissors for his collages.

While casting around for some new artistic expression, he was inspired by the fish scale pattern on the inside of an envelope to begin painting with paint chips cut into circles. He began with abstractions, but is known now for his portraits. While the works look almost computerized and pixelated, they are done by hand. Peter has found a lot of success with his new works and is represented by galleries internationally.

Returning to Reece Terris, for the Ought Apartment project, he collected materials from job sites for years and stored them in an old barn in the Fraser Valley. Then snow on the roof of the barn caused it to collapse with all his materials aside. It was a defining moment, as to abandon everything would have bankrupted him. But Reece got a group of friends together and they managed to salvage and store everything in a new location. The project eventually came together beautifully in the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Anyone faces tragedies and setbacks in life. But it’s all too easy for artists to turn away and think that perhaps things were not to be. The perseverance to continue in art is harder, but for most artists they have no other option. They want to make art, regardless of any difficulties.

I would like to thank the Seymour Art Gallery, specifically Sarah Cavanaugh and Vanessa Black, for the opportunity to put together this talk and for their help in preparing it. I want to thank Peter Combe for agreeing to share his images. Most of all, I want to thank Katherine Soucie, Brendan Tang, and Reece Terris, for being so generous with their time and experiences. They inspired me to share more of myself than I normally would. 

Good luck to everyone in pursuing their unique creative processes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How To Be Great

Work in progress is progressing

Recently I went to see a movie about a piano virtuoso: Seymour: An Introduction. It’s a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, an 85 year-old pianist who gave up performing and now concentrates on teaching high-level students. Bernstein is truly fascinating and even after an entire film, I wanted to know more about him

Two qualities of his personality really stood out for me. First, as a teacher, he was able to make subtle tweaks in his students’ piano technique that made the music infinitely better and more moving. It’s a level of knowledge and sensitivity that even someone like me, who knows nothing about classical music, could appreciate.

Second, he has this huge love for classical piano music—an obsession so enormous that it blinds him to normal perceptions. For example, when he was drafted into the army, it was a complete mismatch for a sensitive boy who had never left home. But he found himself able to march for hours while others fell away, and he attributed that to the mental concentration he had learned from music. And when he found that there was a classical strings player in his troop in Europe, he suggested to his commanding officer that they could do performances. The C.O. scoffed that nobody would listen to classical music. But when Bernstein prevailed, the troops loved the concert. “They wouldn’t let us go,” he remembered happily.

When I saw the movie, about a month ago, I was going through a slump in my work. I had been painting, but I seemed to be stuck. The work for my big exhibition in May was well underway, but nowhere near completion. Therefore, one thing that Bernstein said made an especially big impact on me. He said that on the days when the music went well he was happy. Conversely, he was frustrated on those days when the music didn’t go well. His solution was to practise more, from two hours to three, right up to eight hours of practising.

This solution seems so logical, yet it’s contrary to the laziness inherent in many of us. If the painting isn’t going well, it’s easy to take a break and do something else—check Instagram, have a snack, go for a walk, cook dinner. Perhaps these distractions are even good or useful, but they move us away from the main purpose of our lives. If you want to excel at an art, it will never be easy. An artist will have to put long hours of work into their craft. Sometimes there will be setbacks and screw-ups, but you will keep moving forward. And as Bernstein said, on those good days, you will be happy. The best kind of happy, when you are satisfied with your important life's work.

Thanks, Seymour! The next day, I went into the studio and began working harder. I locked my smarthphone in the car, stopped puttering, and just got down to painting. And you know what? I was able to push my paintings into completed stages immediately. And now I’m happy.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

New Work

I can’t remember the last time I had nine new paintings in the studio! Generally, it takes me months to complete a painting, but I had a few deadlines to meet this time. I have a show in Harrison Hot Springs during September, and I have an ongoing project which needs 12 new pieces, and of course, the Culture Crawl is coming up in November.

But right now, to the delight of visitors to the studio and to the horror of my insurance agent, I have a lot of art on hand. In addition, I’ve started making prints, and some of these paintings are available as prints as well.

blueberry pie, 48" x 48" 

rhubarb pie, 48" x 48" 

bumbleberry pie, 48" x 48" 

raspberry pie, 48" x 48"

All the pie paintings are also available as prints. 

born again, 48" x 48"

x-ray, 48" x 36"

lace memories,  48" x 36" 

And finally, one painting so fresh it hasn't been properly photographed yet!

stripes six, 24" x 72" 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Anatomy of a Painting

Recently I created a painting that was my largest single artwork ever. It was a commission work, so only a few people got to see it in person, but I thought I’d like to write about the process and share the painting with you.

Valerie and I met in 2009 when I exhibited at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. Since then, I have not returned to the TOAE, but Valerie and I have been in touch by email and I have done some commission work for her before. She has also visited my studio while in B.C., but mainly we work together virtually.

It’s always a joy to work with Valerie as she brings a lot of enthusiasm and very few restrictions. She determines the size and then we discuss which existing paintings she likes, and a very general colour scheme. Not surprisingly, we both love the same colours: brights especially pinks and purply blues.

When I work on a commission, it’s a bit stressful, because I’m constantly worried about whether the client will like the final artwork. It’s impossible to put yourself in someone else’s head, and my process is very unpredictable. Since this panel was 40” x 80”, it was even more daunting. So for the first time, I did an actual maquette on a tiny scale.

Directionally, Valerie told me she really liked my new jellyfish paintings, but she was looking for a more abstracted drawing. I had a vision in my head of a painting that used all the resin colours I have. I did this trial piece on two 6” x 6” panels, at a time when we were still deciding whether to do one large piece or diptych. It was a good starting point, as Valerie decided she preferred a single panel and she didn’t like all the red.

Next step was prepping the panel. I apply gesso, let it dry, and then sand. Repeat ten times (at least) until I get a beautifully smooth surface. It feels so nice to apply ink to a satiny surface.

Here’s the ink drawing. I loved the idea of a more abstracted jellyfish, and I think I will move into this direction. It’s an idea of movement rather than replicating the actual jellyfish. This is one way that doing something new, like a commission or a painting for a themed show, can change your painting direction. I also loved the scale here, it inspires me to do even bigger panels.

I showed Valerie the ink drawing, and once I saw it on the computer screen, we agreed it needed more black. I added that and then the fear set in. Once I added resin, it would be final. I would have to start all over with a new panel if I screwed up. For three days, I had the panel up on the wall, eying it as I did other work until I got up the courage to complete it!

And things did go wrong. Mixing large quantities of coloured resin is actually impossible, since they start to cure right in the containers as I’m working! I ended up moving a smoking container of green resin off the table at the beginning of the process. My overactive imagination had me setting the studio on fire, and becoming the building pariah. In the end, I managed to mix up proper quantities of non-flaming resin and achieve the effects I had in my head.

Since resin has toxic fumes, I have to leave the studio before I can see the final result. I returned the next morning to check on the painting and prep it for final curing. When I hung it on the wall, I felt breathless. The painting was so beautiful! I wanted to share it with someone, so I went out in the hall, but at 7:30 am, there aren't a lot of artists even awake. Luckily, Morley, our wonderful building manager, was in and he agreed to come to my studio for a peek. ("Usually people only want me to come in if a pipe is leaking or something," he said happily.) And he was sweetly appreciative. I also took photos so I could show my family. We were leaving that day for Ontario, so I couldn't bring anyone else in. 

One unique thing about Valerie is that she likes a surprise. So I while I keep her informed during the process—especially the parts I can change—once I do the resin that’s it. I have the painting packed and shipped and she doesn’t see it until she uncrates it in Toronto. I don’t know how she feels during the waiting time, but I’m always nervous until I hear back from her!

The happy ending: she loved it. Here it is in her home—with the giant bear friend of her two sons. I think they were in camp when the painting arrived, but I hope they like it too. I miss the painting! But the good thing about creating amazing new work is that it inspires us to new heights.