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.