Art As Therapy

This post marks the first in a series of interviews that I will be doing about artists who came to art later in life. I was inspired to do this by my own life as well as many questions I've been asked in my studio and after artist talks. I believe that many people are looking for encouragement in pursuing an encore career in art. Hopefully these stories will encourage people to explore their own creativity.

Sande Waters

Choosing a career in art was simple for Sande Waters. Art is something that she must have in her daily life. In her lovely water-view home in North Vancouver, she has not one but two studios. The upstairs studio is a wide desk crammed with art supplies located beside her kitchen in the place where most would install a breakfast nook. Sande has trouble passing this spot without adding something to the many paper works she has on the go. On the day that I visited, she had two ink abstractions drying there.

Her other studio is in a converted garage (shown above). She  shares this workspace with two of her sons; her three sons are artistic as well. Sande confesses that this studio can get cold in the winter, but it gives her a place to work on larger art. She has a big canvas laid out with a beautiful splotch of ink absorbed into the surface in a way that reminds me of colour field artist Helen Frankenthaler. This studio is also full of: artwork, art books, art supplies, and canvases. If the studio illustrates the brain, Sande is an artist overflowing with ideas.

Sande’s current work is abstract and energetic. Ink is her current obsession, and she uses it on Yupo paper, canvas, and even on the small paper boxes she constructs. Her favourite subject is overviews, the kind of images that you get from airplanes. The loose flow of the spread of acrylic ink can be converted into imaginary topographic maps.

And Sande’s artwork isn’t confined to the studio. She serves on the board of directors of the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver, and is in charge of awarding prizes to cutting edge artists. Sande and I meet most often at Seymour Art Gallery openings where she serves on the board there as well.

The Turning Point

Despite all this creative activity, Sande wasn’t always an artist. Her life followed a more traditional path: office work, marriage, and bookkeeping for the family business. Then at 42 years of age, there was a turning point in her life: her marriage ended.

At that point, with three young children, she had decisions to make. On one hand, she could take courses in accounting and continue her career in bookkeeping. But the other path—her love of art—was the one that appealed to her. She took a job with the school board as a special needs aide that would allow her summers with her kids. And she began part-time art studies at Emily Carr.

Although Sande has no complaints about the turn her life took, she fully realizes that art became therapy for her. She loved all her classes at Emily Carr. For Sande, art was an escape: a place where she could be creative and maintain a sense of self. Every mother knows how draining children can be, regardless of how much we love our kids, we become so-and-so’s mother instead of ourselves. Art is a way of declaring our creative identity. 

Sande’s determination shows in her art education. She graduated with her BFA from Emily Carr, a feat that took fourteen years! And then she went on to get her MFA at a low residency art program at the San Francisco Art Institute. The low residency component meant she could remain in Vancouver with her family and attend only summer classes in San Francisco.

What artists can learn from Sande

I was impressed by Sande’s inner calm and confidence. Perhaps because of her art degrees, she has never had any trouble identifying as an artist and continuing her art practice throughout her work, parenting, and studies. She would like to make more money in art sales, but draws a distinction between “décor art” and “core art” that may be less commercial.

Regarding art as personal therapy, Sande said she can both “lose herself in art, and find herself in art.” Art cannot be understated as a way of expressing ourselves and working out our emotions. I have written before about the times when I’ve used art to escape my personal problems, and Sande’s experience underlines this idea for me. She sees art as a form of self-expression and has identified therapy as a consistent theme in her work.

Finally, I asked Sande if she has any advice for aspiring artists. In particular, what should mature artists do to make current, cutting edge works? Her suggestions:

  •  Be true to yourself. Don’t worry about what people buy or like.
  •  Use play and experimentation to extend your art practice. Sometimes finding your expertise is a process of elimination.
  •  Educate yourself about art. Take an art degree or quality art courses.

To learn more about Sande Waters’s art, please check out her website.

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.

Walking and Seeing

When I see people walking around with big canvases, I always wonder what they’re up to and what projects they’re planning. Walking home in the hot sun with a 40” x 40” canvas yesterday, I now have some insight into what they’re thinking: “Crap, this canvas is heavy.”

I love to walk.

When I’m home, I hike around the foot of Mount Seymour with a friend (a friend is a necessity given that there are black bears around!) But here in Montreal, my walks are urban ones, and I love them! I like seeing the interesting old architecture, the beautiful gardens, the charming shops. I like seeing the chic Montrealers walking and biking to work. And of course, I love seeing cats.

If he lost his glasses, he probably can't find his way home.

There’s no better way to get to know a new place than by wondering around. It’s something we do on every vacation, and getting lost is even better. Walking alone, I’m observing more than usual. I’m quite inspired by places where art animates businesses. Graffiti art has definitely crossed over to the professional side, and young business people have adopted it. Today I saw a new café being built where black and white graffiti art is on feature walls and the menu frame, with minimalist décor it’s all very chic and cheap. I also saw this adorable patisserie:
Yum, if it's good enough for the bear, I'm in!
(Correction, I went to Sophie Sucre on the weekend, and I'm told that the "bear" is actually a cat! Better and better, and the cinnamon rolls are yummy there.)

Of course, having no car means that I have to carry everything I buy home. I really wanted two large canvases, but I decided that one at a time was enough. Having to work in the small space I’m in, that’s probably better anyway.  I’m used to being surrounded by all my equipment, and here I have to make do constantly. The focus is on the painting, rather than my normal process of layering.

Perhaps it’s like this in many big cities, but Montrealers have a habit of leaving their unwanted stuff on the sidewalk. On this morning’s walk, I could have had a choice of three different couches: brown leather(ette), burgundy velour, and a beige of unknown fibres. There were TVs, hangers, a footstool, and even dryer balls, although it’s tough to imagine anyone desperate enough to take used dryer balls.

Miraculously, exactly the things I need have been turning up. Yesterday, I found a like-new set of three wire drawers from Ikea, just what my son’s closet needed. Last night, I noticed my back was sore from bending over at my makeshift art table, and today voilà: a nice modern chair appears on my block, which saves me from having to lug it far. What will tomorrow bring? I think I’ll wish for a 40 x 40 canvas to magically appear on my doorstep.

Good Deeds

Doing something nice for someone else should be its own reward, right? Well sure...but there can be other benefits. My friend, Denise Relke, has been a huge supporter of my art for ages. Not only does she admire my work wholeheartedly and buy paintings from me, but she helps out too. Every year, she comes and minds my studio for an hour during the Culture Crawl, so that I can grab lunch and do a mini-tour of my own.

Denise runs her own jewellery business, Sporty Jewels.  She is very self-sufficient, and seldom asks me to help her in return, even though she has booths at various sporting events all year round. So I was very happy to have a chance to repay her kindness when she needed a promotional dartboard for her jewellery booth. She had an idea of what she wanted, and we brainstormed on how to achieve it. We got a round piece of plexiglass cut, and then I drew a dartboard pattern on it and painted it with bright acrylic colours. She got personalized darts to complete the game. The whole project was a big success, with her customers loving the playful aspect of the promotion.

It looks like a tropical location, but it's actually Victoria,

Of course, Denise was overly grateful and brought me a gorgeous orchid for the studio. So my good deed was already rewarded, right? Well, actually the biggest reward has been that I had to buy a compass to draw the dartboard. And having a compass has caused me to paint dartboard patterns everywhere. In the past months, here are some of the layers I’ve painted.


So you see, creative ideas can come from all kinds of places, even good deeds. Does this inspire you to do something nice for someone today?

Destroying work

I just destroyed a large resin painting. First it was sawed in half and then I attacked it with a sledgehammer.  This act was not a cultural protest or a temper tantrum.

Recently I’ve participated in some on-line critiques, and what I’ve noticed is the tendency of mediocre artists to get too attached to their work and fret about small changes. Half the time, I want to suggest that they do 99 drawings and then post the hundredth one, instead of agonizing over the first one. After my latest exasperating experience, I thought about myself. Was I discarding 99 works, or was I clinging to my own work?

Throughout my art career, I have periodically destroyed my artwork. When I work on paper, I cull the weak drawings, roll them up and burn them in the fireplace.  There is something satisfying about the flames, as if getting rid of old work would make better paintings rise like a phoenix from their ashes. Paintings on canvas were even easier, once I decided that I was no longer satisfied with a painting, I would simply gesso over it, completely obliterating the original and creating a new, slightly textured canvas to work on.

However the resin works on panel have been more difficult to destroy. I can paint or resin on top, but not all the works lend themselves well to this. Obviously I’ve already invested a lot of time and money in them as well. Usually I don’t resin a work until I’m completely happy with it, but occasionally show deadlines force me to rush work and I’ve ended up with a few paintings I’m not quite sure about. Luckily, sometimes someone comes in and falls in love with one and takes it home, but the other paintings stay in the studio like sad wallflowers at the dance. So I selected one painting I've never been happy with and sentenced it to death.

Everyone I’ve told about this destruction asks which painting it was, or suggests I should have just given it to them. I won’t even say which one, for fear they will say “I always liked that one,” which would make me feel awful. If it was a painting I really liked, I might consider donating it to a charity, but those paintings I’m not sure about…I think it’s better to destroy them. I don’t want to be an artist who clings to her work, just because she spent time and money on it.

As someone who has done a lot of reading about clutter while avoiding doing anything about it, I am very familiar with the idea that clutter clogs the energy in your room and prevents action. Paintings that hang around too long depress me, and make me question my own abilities. Getting rid of this painting made me feel both sadness and relief, but when I go into the studio the empty space is energizing. I was able to finish three paintings in a project I’ve been ruminating about for four months!

Last night I went for drinks at our neighbour’s place and she said to me, very gently, “Is everything okay? I saw you between our houses, doing something…with a sledgehammer?”

I laughed and told her I had been destroying a painting.

“Ah well,” she said, “It looked like you were getting something out of your system.”

That’s the truth. Getting rid of work can be cathartic for your studio and your mind. Try it and see.

Four new paintings you won't find on my website

Having a strong individual voice is as important in art as in anything that gets marketed. It's confusing to the viewer if you're constantly in flux, and clients or galleries prefer a distinctive look. 
Lots of people who are just beginning in art paint a vast array of subjects: still lifes, landscapes, people or animals, and they experiment with many different media as well. Recently a few people have asked about learning abstraction from me, but I don’t think it is something I can teach. My theory is that you need to go through a long period of experimenting, of trying new things until you find something that really fits you and is unique to you.

One friend, Kayla, told me that she had a friend over to her house who immediately recognized my painting: “Oh you have a Mary Anne! I love her paintings!” This was a huge compliment for me, both to be recognized for my style and to be recognized, period, by someone who isn’t in my immediate family.

However, once you find your “style” you need to be able to evolve it enough so that you can keep growing. We’ve all seen painters who get trapped by their success, churning out copies of their one original style because it sells. I wonder if this turns the wonderfully creative act of painting into manufacturing.

I have spent a lot of 2012 playing in the studio, experimenting with work that is quite different for me. First off, I’ve been doing some representational pencil drawings, which I can use as layers on my process paintings. Secondly, I usually paint on panels, but I had some canvas panels gathering dust and I wanted to do something new. The results are these paintings which I have tried to layer using paint and medium, with mixed results. But I like these paintings very much, I’m not sure where they will lead, but sometimes you just have to follow the creative muse. In the ten+ years I’ve been painting, I find that whatever you do in the studio is never wasted, it shows up somewhere. No matter where you are in your painting life, you need to try new things.

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.

A dose of cute

Every once in a while I need a dose of cute. Whether it is watching Maru videos on YouTube or cruising a toy store , I crave a dip into the pool of all that is sweet and colourful.  This past weekend in Seattle, I was able to satisfy my cuteness cravings at Kinokuniya Books. This Japanese bookstore sells Paumes books, which are books made in Japan but featuring bright and creative homes, studios and stores around the world.

So far I have two of the books, but when I browse the website I long for more and more. The rooms are energetic and inspiring, filled with colour, art supplies, beautiful vignettes and adorable cats and dogs. Each feature is like visiting the home of some wonderful, creative friend whose energy and ingenuity make you feel energized.  The text is in Japanese, but since the images are so inspiring, I don’t think it matters. And the website has a mini gallery section as well.

I don’t think anyone can read these without feeling like creating something, whether it is a beautiful meal, a tabletop display or…art.