Michelle Sirois-Silver

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.

Art and community galleries

One of the great things about having artist friends is getting the chance to see their exhibitions, both for the art and the chance to explore a new gallery. Seeing work in a studio can’t compare to seeing everything beautifully mounted on pristine walls, with enough space to really appreciate the art. Last week, I went to see the work of my friend, Michelle Sirois-Silver, at the Maple Ridge Art Gallery. The show is called Love, Decay, Repair, and features her textile artwork, both her traditional hooked fabric work and some new explorations she has been making with distressed screenprinting on fabric. I think that the show displays an evolution in Michelle’s work, she is extremely skilled in the fabric hooking and her large scale hostas display that expertise, but I know she is also very excited about doing the new printed and stitched works and I have to admit they are my favourite pieces in the show.

I attended a talk that Michelle gave on her process, and she is extremely generous about sharing all kinds of information on how she does her work and where she gets her materials. She will be giving another talk this Saturday, and I hope to attend that as well. The show runs until October 13, 2012.

I had never been to the Maple Ridge Art Gallery before, and it was interesting to explore it. The gallery is located on a plaza that also connects with a large shopping mall, city hall, the library and a sports centre.  I found this to be a contrast to many community galleries, which are free-standing, destination buildings. I think it’s a good idea, and I hope that many more people drop into the gallery as a result.  Certainly, Michelle’s talk was very well attended.

Recently, Bob Rennie stirred up some controversy in Vancouver when he suggested that instead of one new landmark gallery, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) should open ten small galleries in different sites throughout the city.

The idea is an interesting one to consider. Is there a way to work art galleries more seamlessly into our lives? Would we feel more ownership of galleries within our community? And what about the existing community galleries, because every city in the Greater Vancouver area already has its own gallery? Some community galleries, like The Reach in Abbotsford, already seem to have a relationship with the VAG and display their work. Others have formed their own mandates, like Surrey Art Gallery, which features more video work. Still others have retrospectives of important artists who are not favoured by the VAG; I have seen fantastic shows of Renee Van Helm, Vicki Marshall and Bill Burns at community galleries. While the VAG displays artists who have already been crowned by the art world, Vancouver has few venues for emerging or mid-career artists. The now disappeared Artropolis show was a great way for new local artists to be discovered, but nothing similar has taken its place.

The Maple Ridge Art Gallery set up for Michelle's demo

Shows like Love, Decay, Repair are important for the artist in many ways. As the audience, I enjoy seeing Michelle’s work displayed in the proper setting, and it gives others an introduction to her talents. But for the artist, a solo show like this is validating in many ways: the chance to work with a professional curator, a deadline to complete a large body of work, a milestone for the CV.  In addition, I believe there’s a wonderful personal satisfaction in looking at your work filling a huge gallery space. “I made all that,” you think, and it feels great.

How to Crawl

The Eastside Culture Crawl has been a huge part of my life for the last seven years, with my studio welcoming hundreds of visitors in that time.

My neat studio, a rare occurrence

However there are still a lot of people who are Crawl virgins, or who would like advice on getting more out of their Crawl experience, so here’s some advice. Of course, you may wonder how someone who sits in her studio during the Crawl can even give advice on how to tour…so I have also gotten help from an expert. Liz Malinka has been doing the Crawl for over ten years now, she is both an art lover and an art collector. In fact, she and her husband, Frank, both love the Crawl so much that they became financial supporters of the event.

I would say that there are many ways to do the Crawl, but here are the two ends of the scale:


Liz, who is divinely organized, recommends doing your homework. She goes through the entire Crawl website to check out the artist’s images, then notes the artists whose work looks intriguing to her and writes down the names and exact addresses of the ones she wants to visit. You'd be surprised how many people come in searching for an artist they saw on the website or mentioned in the newspaper, but they don't know exactly who or where that artist is. With over 300 artists, it's difficult to figure out who that might be.You may be interested in one particular area, like furniture makers, and the Crawl website allows you to search that. The Crawl website also lets you search by building or by artists.

You can plan logistically if there are a number of places you want to visit, starting at one end of the Crawl territory and moving to the other. You may want to get your hands on a Crawl brochure, with its handy map, which should be available at any artist's studio you visit. But with 65 different locations, you may want to prioritize the places you want to visit, choosing the area with the biggest cluster. I’m not sure if anyone has ever visited all the artists during a Crawl, but it would definitely take the whole weekend to do more than a studio fly-by. That said, many people do the Crawl over two or three days, because too many studios in too little time can fry your brain.


The other end of the exploration scale is one method I’ve seen many times in my own studio.  Many visitors merely choose a place, like a large building or a little neighbourhood with a few studios and start exploring. They meander through every studio and stop to admire and chat with the artists. They delight in the work or the atmosphere, and have an easy-going attitude.  It’s the Crawl as an experience, and you can explore this way for as much or as little time as you have. I’ve actually had visitors who started on the Crawl about an hour before it ended, but they get an hour of Culture Crawl in anyway. When you explore organically, I think you’re more likely to find things that surprise and possibly educate you in some way.

And unfortunately for the organized Crawlers, many artists are so disorganized that they won't appear on the website or map listing, they simply pop up and wait to be discovered by accident. The Crawl is full of lovely surprises.

General tips for the Crawl

Liz has some specific advice on what to wear to the Crawl: “Dress for the event, no high heels since you'll be climbing a lot of stairs and covering a lot of ground. I find that scarves are a must (since 1000 Parker can be cold) and they are a quick removal item when you do warm up!”  My own observation is that there are a lot of stylish people who do the Crawl, and I enjoy the fashion show through my studio.  People who like art, like aesthetics of all kinds.

Parking can also be an issue at busy times, so getting there early helps. Most areas of the Crawl are either industrial or residential, and neither are loaded with parking. Although I don’t know any secret parking spots, I would caution you to carefully read all the signs. My former studio was across from a huge No Parking sign on a fence which was ignored every year, since people assumed they were closed on weekends. When the trucks arrived at the lot, they had no choice but to call the tow truck. Lots of people do bike to the Crawl, and if you buy something most artists will hold it for you to pick up later. On sunny days the streets around the Crawl are packed with pedestrians, like a stylish country village.

What about those crowds? Here’s the scoop on the different times to Crawl. The Crawl is open from 5 to 10pm on Friday, and Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 6.  Friday nights have a party atmosphere, in my building the artists are more dressed up and serve food, not dinner of course, but nibbles. I think most studios have food on Friday.  Serious art buyers, like Liz, will be out on Friday in order to see the work first and get first dibs. More families come out on Saturday and Sunday, after soccer or music lessons, and the Crawl is a great family experience. Kids love to explore, and artists are usually pleased to talk to budding artistes. For younger kids, I would recommend keeping it short since it can be tiring to trudge through large warehouse spaces or through rain-soaked neighbourhoods. You can always do more the next year. Teenagers who love art can probably out-Crawl their parents.  
If you don’t like crowds, I would recommend checking out some smaller buildings or individual studios. If it rains hard, most people prefer to stay dry by staying inside and exploring bigger buildings like 1000 Parker or The Mergatroid (my building), so they can be crowded. If it snows, I can guarantee there will be no crowd at all!  One more insiders tip, I’ve often found that late Sunday afternoon is the slowest time on the Crawl, so if you go between 3:00 and 6:00pm on Sunday, you may have studios all to yourself.

Michelle Sirois-Silver in her studio

Here's some lovely advice from Liz, “Lastly, have fun, talk to the artists! It will add to the whole experience if you are able to connect with them and get to know a little bit about them. Who knows, perhaps friendships will develop, it's happened to me many times! “

Very true! Enjoy the Crawl and stay tuned for the next blog topic, How to buy art at the Crawl.

Michelle Sirois-Silver's studio

An organized rainbow!
When I was a child, I used to go to the home of a graphic designer who had her studio in the basement. I loved to wander downstairs and look at her papers, her pristine white drawing table and best of all her markers, perfectly lined up in the full rainbow of colours. Seeing ALL the colours in perfect order gives me an enormous thrill to this day. And that is why I love going into the studio of textile artist, Michelle Sirois-Silver.

These fabric stacks are my favourite things in her studio,
 the textile equivalent of a paintbox
I first met Michelle when she moved into the shared studio across the hall from my studio, and then followed her into her studio in the basement of her home, and then I helped her link up with her current studio. I've been wanting to take photographs of Michelle's studio ever since I saw her first studio, and now with the Culture Crawl on the horizon, I can feature this lovely spot and anyone can visit it as well.

So here are some photos of Michelle's studio, as well as her answers to my little studio Q & A.

Michelle, hard at work.

What is your favourite part of the studio?
My favorite part of the studio is where ever I am at the moment I am creating something. 
The old and the new.

Can you tell me about your studio routine?
I'm in the studio everyday 10-6pm.  I like to begin the day by organizing and putting away any new items and materials that I have brought with me that morning.  I set up my computer, cup of coffee in hand and begin work.  Generally, I reserve activities like magazine and grant writing, marketing, and updating my website for home.  I may pick up my rug hooking where I left off the following day, do some fabric dyeing, or create samples for a new work.  I take photographs of my work in different stages and I'll use these images as a record of the process or for promotional purposes.  While I'm working I listen to CBC radio, music or audio books.  I try to schedule studio visits for the afternoon.  The day concludes with about fifteen minutes of clean up which includes a daily vacuum to keep the dust and fabric pieces under control.  

A little sampler which I found quite beautiful.

What is one thing that really inspires your creativity?
There are three things that inspire my creativity:  I love narrative and the art of story telling and I try to bring this sensibility to my practice.   Visually I'm drawn to images that inspire a sense of intimacy.  When I'm looking at something I shut out everything else around it and view that one thing in utter isolation.  When I do this the image alters its form and it becomes a range of colour, a dynamic value contrast, or a pattern.  Its new potential is inspiring. And talking with fellow artists about their work, inspirations, and processes.    

Here is textile piece of Michelle's that I own and love. You can see more of her work at:

And if you would like to visit Michelle's gorgeous studio in person, come and visit her on the Eastside Culture Crawl on November 18, 19 and 20, 2011.

This post is the kick off to a series of posts I will be writing on the Crawl, as we head up to the big event.