COMMUNITY ENGAGED ART PRACTICE

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In March I attended a talk by Justin Langlois, and it was extremely timely and just what I needed.

The talk was fairly short, but I came away inspired and with some clarity about my own art practice.

With his art work, Justin uses text “as a way to engage people in an idea before the realize it is art”. LOVE this concept, a bridge and entry point for people to connect with art before they put up their filters about ‘art’. Using text and reading as the medium of engagement. YES.

More fascinating to me is that the majority of his art practice is about community engagement in public spaces. My interest in this is deep, in fact it could be said that this is the basis of my art practice and what inspires me the most about making artwork.

Justin’s main practice involves getting into a small community and creating ways for the public to engage and invested through making and generosity. Through this form of art making, he “wants them to feel like something is different in their lives because they got involved”.

HOLY SHIT (said me upon hearing this).

The artwork that I have always been most drawn to has been public and experiential artwork that causes people to understand things differently. Subway drawings (and pretty much everything) by Keith Haring, Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann, Speaking to Their Mother by Rebecca Belmore, Liquid Shard by Patrick Shearn, The Blue Trees by Konstantin Dimopoulos just to name a few…there are SO MANY.

I think back to my childhood and how I spent much of my summer trying to create experiences for others to partake in: whether it be building an awesome space for frogs to live in, weird walk through spaces for my friends to walk through behind the shed, or in high school when I often drew up experiential art projects. For example, had I the skills, equipment and endless funds, a viewer would walk into and experience the sensation of being INSIDE of a huge school of circling fish. I think back to all the times I created activities or set up outdoor ‘experiences’ for my younger sister and her friends; I was trying to give them an experience they would remember.

I think back to art school, where I (unintentionally) explored the concept of experiential art: I drew but it was dark subject matter, things that were disturbing. I didn’t want my profs to say ‘that’s nice’ or ‘skillful’, I wanted there to be a discussion about why the piece was impacting them. I created an installation at the Alternator Gallery and the room was small and I used it to create a sort of cave where one would enter and feel immersed and either at peace or total anxiety. I think back to the photography I did back then, largely disturbing images but the basis of it was to create a dialogue or at least to have the viewer feel something uneasy in themselves. I think back to a video installation I created where the viewer would stand in front of a sheet and a projection from the other side was simply a shadow of a person running towards the sheet, causing the viewer to get out of the way for fear of being run into. I think to an (unsuccessful!) installation project I did with a thousand matches lighting up a ladder to cause a rope to burn and a pumpkin to drop into a pool of water at a Halloween party. Why didn’t I keep going with this work? Also, why didn’t I recognize that this is what I was doing (and why didn’t any of my profs see this light?) After art school I got too caught up with trying to pay debt, be responsible, and conform to adulting I guess.

Next I think back to the days in my mid twenties when I was not in love with the way my art practice was going. I was making art that was pretty. After spending years trying to pay off student loans, taking on more responsibility than a person should for her age, and ultimately falling into customer service mode in all areas of my life, I lost my way and found myself selling photos of pretty things, making art about things that were easily sold and I totally hated it despite decent financial success. Somehow I felt out of guilt that I had to do all this in order to gain the approval of those around me - those who had no concept of the power of art, they have never studied the artists that used their power to change things. I let others’ limited views of what art should be guide me, surely out of lack of confidence in myself.

I remember sitting down one day and figuring out that the reason I felt indifferent about that work was because it had no substance, it had no purpose other than being pretty and fulfilling some notion that I wasn’t worthy enough to make work that could be something more important.

So I gave myself the tiniest freedom to examine art in the bigger scope of my life and asked myself what is truly important to me? If all those around me were gone, and I got the chance to start fresh with art making, what would I do? If I hated just making things for people’s approval, then I couldn’t keep making art. If I was going to move forward it HAD to be valuable to me or there is simply no point and I should just sit in a day job until retirement.

When I thought deeply about the most important things in my life, it became so clear: animals and art are the only two things that have mattered in every segment of my life. This realization changed my art outlook immediately, and put me back on track. It gave me some of my power back.

It wasn’t going to be about pets though, (again, pretty…customer service based), it had to be about something important that related to animals… and with that it was even clearer, wild animals surviving in suburban environments is very important and it is a regular part of my daily life. Side note: I didn’t fully realize it at the time but I identify with wild animals because their lives are significantly impacted by the decisions of other species; they are constantly having their power taken away. Through my art I am endeavouring to give them (and me) their power back.

I think of the opportunities I had to create public art projects when I worked at the City of Port Moody. These projects weren’t just little colouring projects (although I could have just done that if I wanted), these projects were designed so that community members could experience contributing to a larger piece of art, adding to a structure, enjoying the process and experience of making something together. Sure these were only 5 or 6 hours long and usually had zero supply budget, but it was the engagement that mattered. While working there I often proposed generating a series of artist talks and discussions for artists at the City so to expose more people to the realm of social arts…of course, no budget. It’s still in the back of my mind though for future projects.

I think back to my solo show at Seymour Art Gallery, all those works were about prompting questions about how we treat wild animals - essentially, how we treat those that we do not know, self reflection, social reflection, possible ownership of the matter instead of sideline observations.

Now, with my upcoming Artist in Residence at the Roundhouse in Vancouver I am again thinking a lot about how to generate experiences for/with people. This time I have a material budget and longer term opportunity to stay in the project and I am really excited to dive into this realm of a more socially engaged art practice. The amazing thing about this residency is that isn’t about the end product - it is about the engagement and community building. It’s just perfect for where I am at this year and such a fantastic opportunity to focus on developing this part of my practice, especially now that I am cognizant of it.

In fact, as I am heading into this exciting next phase of my life, I am realizing that there are actually just a few key areas that I need to sort out and juggle as an artist: sales (outlets & markets); growth & exploration (exhibitions & new artwork); and inspiration (community engagement)).

All of these are part of the recipe of my art career.

Published March 18, 2019

Loss, change, transition & good books

Last month one of my favourite humans passed away.

Just a little more than 4 months after my canine-son / soul mate Bruno left us, my uncle Brian made that journey after a lifetime of struggling with diabetes.

At his celebration of life the church was overflowing. He had made a significant lifelong commitment to his community, his friends, and his family. His celebration service showed me that the person I knew to be Brian is the same person that we all knew: a hilarious, caring, outspoken, yet humble person. He was a carpenter and fixer and mechanic, he often gave up his own plans in order to help others, never ever complained about his sickness and never bragged about the expert craftsman that he was. He just gave all the time and that was it. He loved the outdoors, his dogs, and his fishing trips. Salt of the earth.

At the service we heard from his childhood friends, his brothers and sisters, and his eldest son. His son’s beautiful speech is one that I will always remember, not just because of his bravery to go up and speak about his father only 6 days after his passing, but also because he ended the speech with a shout out to my dad, who 15 years ago donated one of his kidney’s so that Brian could continue to live.

My dad is a humble person and he never made a big deal about the kidney transplant, but at the memorial service it made me realize that without his kind act everyone in that room wouldn’t have had the past 15 years with Brian. His sons were grateful for the chance to get to know their dad better over that time.

I know this is an art blog, and you aren't necessarily here to read about my family history, but this is all relevant to my art practice. Loss and change is scary, but we all experience it, whether we plan for it or not.

Self Portrait, 2019

Self Portrait, 2019

I have been reading a lot about mindfulness and spirituality lately, and have just re-read a great book by Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth. This kind of reading isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this time around I found it held different significance from my first read 12 years ago.

One of the beautiful descriptions he gives is about how the universe is expanding outwards, but that at some point the momentum will change and after a brief pause it will begin to contract again (and after that, will start all over again).

Like breathing, every thing has a period of expansion and then contraction; growth and then return to its beginning state. This includes human and animal life, and every living thing on the planet.

I believe that this perspective can be applied towards all things. I find myself incorporating it into my art practice and daily life. Am I on the outward flow right now? Is a certain project expanding or wrapping up? I have found that considering every day things in these terms brings a sense of calm…that things are not arbitrarily chaotic in the world, everything is on its own course, including your life and everything in it.

I have also recently read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. In the story he refers to following one’s Personal Legend, reading the signs, omens and unspoken language of the world around you. I found it very timely and affirming. Near the end of the story there is a part where the main character needs to communicate with the wind, the sun, and the desert and ask them for help. It is revealed that none can help him because they are each pursuing their own Personal Legends, and that “anyone who interferes with the Personal Legend of another thing never will discover his own.” I immediately thought of wild animals trying to survive around humans.

Lastly, I have just begun reading another book from my stack of ‘to be read later’: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. In the introduction she includes a quote from her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that I think needs to be posted in every home: “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.'“ Chaos requires us to change and that means self-reflect and grow. (Marie Kondo might have something to say about that, but I think she would agree in the goal!)

I do believe that concepts and ideas come into your purview as you need them, so I share all of these gems with you, dear reader, for when you experience your own times of loss, change, and transition.

I am incorporating some of these ideas into the artist in residence project that I will be doing later this year at the Roundhouse in Vancouver, and of course as I continue exploring my own art life expansion, including the development of my works on paper & spirit animal series - both of which have their own underlying messages about the state of the universe and humans’ place in it all.

Published March 3, 2019

Saying YES to my ART

When you want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you get it.

~Paulo Coelho

2019 is my year of living authentically. I have finally taken the step to pursue my art career and have given notice at my day job for March 1st.

I really like my day job as a theatre coordinator, it has become part of my identity and daily routine over the past 12 years, but I have always had an alternate vision for my life, one that’s been with me since I was young.

This alternate vision is why I have been working two jobs (day job + art business & insane hours) over the past several years, building and building my art practice so that I could one day make this shift. In the theme of living authentically, this isn’t 100% full time artist; I am switching over to working super part time (1-2 days a week!) while I continue to build my art business. Who knows, if I find a part time position that I love maybe it will all work symbiotic and I’ll keep at it for a long time.

Although it comes after his passing, I attribute this change to my sweet canine-son Bruno, for always wanting me to be in the studio.

Thank you Bruno for encouraging me to run on my own path. If there is another realm I know you are running and happy and healthy and always beaming love in my direction. Love you and miss you buddy.

Thank you Bruno for encouraging me to run on my own path. If there is another realm I know you are running and happy and healthy and always beaming love in my direction. Love you and miss you buddy.

Published Jan 7 2019

Passing Through

The mixed media painting of a humpback whale that started my Spirit Animal series.

Passing Through - Sarah Ronald.jpg

Although I have been making art and caring about the welfare of animals all of my life, it wasn’t until 2010 that I decided to put these two passions together and to dedicate my art practice towards depicting animals.

It would have been easy to leap into doing pet portraits or realistic animal portraits from a photo (and indeed many artists that I admire and respect are known for doing exactly this), however for me personally that route wasn’t about honouring wild animals and relaying my concerns. For me, it felt like the antithesis of my passions.

With that distinction, I needed to determine what types of animals I wanted to focus on in my practice, and it was clear that wild animals of British Columbia, in particular those that are living in urban and suburban areas, are of most concern to me.

As someone who lives in ‘the burbs’, I frequently encounter raccoons, bears, coyotes and now and then hear about cougars nearby. These animals are also often the subject of news coverage- whether it be the animal impacting humans in some way or a human deliberately impacting one of them.

Exploring the nature of wild animals and how we impact them remains the underlying theme in all of my art, regardless of medium and style.

This piece, Passing Through, was created in 2017. I made it after a lot of thought around how animals evolve and change because of human behavior.

I often think about what animals must think of us and our technology, and although I understand that they live in the moment and in a reactionary and non-judgmental way, I wanted to depict the moment of change, the moment when an animal encounters something foreign and then changes course as a result.

I sometimes like to equate this to how humans might react to an alien spaceship in the sky: this would be a defining moment in one’s life: the before the UFO and the after the UFO …(small series about this below).

I wanted to figure out a way to depict the before and after effects of an experience, like a doorway or portal where one side represented the pre-impact and the other side represented the post-impact.

However I didn’t want to depict something so literal as an actual door or portal.

At the time I was working on a lot of whale based pieces, and I realized that I could perhaps visually achieve the concept by using a bubble field and incorporating interference paint.

So I set out to create the piece. It took about a week to make, including the whale drawing, the painted background, and the layers of resin finish. I was pleased with the final result and the piece became a pivot point for the direction of my future artwork.

How could I accomplish the same concept without the use of some sort of visual doorway?

Finally it dawned on me that it was the COLOUR that represented the change, not the physical object that animal passed through. And so I started drawing a lot of animals with single colour changes in their bodies to depict these ‘Degrees of Enlightenment’ that they had experienced.

spirit animals - trials2.jpg

It wasn’t long after my first 30 or so small studies like this that I started to expand on the ‘degrees’ part of the enlightenment: animals don’t just go through one instance of human impact, they are constantly going through them, and so it makes total sense to use multiple colours on a single animal to reflect the multiple changes and adaptations that animal has gone through.

With researching into colours I naturally came across a lot of information on Chakra’s, and although I don’t necessarily intend for this series to be tied to this area of study, I do greatly appreciate the message that there is more to life than what can be seen by the human eye.

Like wild animals in suburban settings, you have to tune in and be receptive to something beyond your own life situation and your own limited perception of the world (and even before that, you have to realize that your own perception of the world is actually the cause of much suffering…but I refer you to the Dalai Lama or Pema Chodron to dip into that field further).

Around this time I had a consult with Pennylane Shen (aka Dazed and Confucius), who got me thinking even more about how these colours were being applied when she referred to them as being ‘dipped’ in colour. While she ran with that idea during our meeting it got me thinking that I needed to further change how I used these colours…I didn’t want them to simply be dipped, it missed the mark of what I was intending.

After taking Pennylane’s advice to give the animals a physical location (and following my own instinct to run away from the animals being dipped), I started to play around with incorporating the animals into abstract paintings that I had started and things began to come together.

Rather than having the animals isolated, incorporating them into an expressive environment was like acknowledging their connection to the land (albeit somewhat foreign environments), while simultaneously acknowledging that we are making them change in order for them to continue to live.

This is one of my favourite bodies of work because it embodies all of the elements that I set out to do in my art practice and it is also very accessible to viewers. I invite you to visit my ANIMALS / Spirit Animals gallery to see how the work continues to evolve.

Published Dec 29 2018