Monday, 29 June 2015

Randy Thomas: Expanding with Tradition

Young First Nations artists have opportunities unlike most others in that they have both a historic and popular base, easily identifiable and culturally significant. This is a foundation with which First Nation artists can repeat, spring forward with, or completely ignore if they so wish. Much of our Western modern art world is concerned with personal self-expression and simultaneously dedicated to modernist/contemporary ideology that many Western artists become confused trying to differentiate the two. The result is often weak art that pretends to be new and does little to express anything.
     First Nations artists however feel less of that confusion, it seems. They can incorporate North American popular culture, international fine art, or be inspired by any art form from any part of the world. This is because they have that identifiable base on which to operate.
     Randy Thomas, a self-taught artist is doing his best to avoid limiting influences, yet hanging on to a tradition that he inherited from his father, the renowned artist Roy Thomas. His mother, Louise Thomas, is also a great influence and major supporter of his work. Part of this wonderful legacy can be seen in Louise Thomas’s gallery, the Anishinabe Art Gallery, now located at 18 Court St. in the North Core in what could be called Gallery Square.
     Gallery Square is the Anishinabe Gallery, Chenier Fine Arts Gallery, Sweet North Bakery, The Picture Store, Espresso JOYA, the Definitely Superior Art Gallery, and other sundry shops and restaurants that showcase art and craft work.
    Randy has his studio in the Anishinabe Gallery’s basement where he’s got his art supplies, half completed paintings, his music, art books, history books, and his many sketchbooks. The sketchbooks contain a plethora of stylistic influences and spinoff experiments, which appear in his completed paintings and mixed media works. Within these you can see the influence of music, philosophy, science, war history, art history and even politics.
     When asked about influences Randy starts, “Oh man…” and shakes his head. “I like Miles Davis, classical music, classic rock. A lot of my insight comes through reading. I love war history,” he says indicating that his choice of colour for his palette is becoming earthier reflecting the visual influences of trenches and battlefields. 
     “I like Picasso, Carl Beam, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Lucien Freud. His paintings (Lucien’s) are what people want to see, someone they’re loyal to. He paints people as raw animals as if nobody’s around, propped up, chin to the side, lounging around with their gut hanging out.” Randy laughs. He’s also a fan of Chuck Connelly. “I really identify with him.”
      Speaking of his art in relation to the influence of Stephen Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time,’ Randy says, “I want to make it more academic, if that’s the right word. I want it to have a point to it, to have an edge to it. I’m definitely into the geometric stuff, like how the universe is created as seen through mathematics. I want to see that in my art; lines and circles and numbers. I just want to see what it would look like, like it’s my own grand design, like I’m interpreting the universe.”
     And the influences keep coming from all directions. Currently he’s playing with aesthetics, less concerned about the subject, originally believing that it would take him four years to find his own style. “I’m trying to find my own definite look, but I don’t think I’m going to get there. I’m beginning to think I’ll never find it. I want to find something that feels new to me, but still true to my roots. I want my work to be contemporary – something influenced by my times. We’re in 2015 and things are lot different.”
     Regarding young First Nations artists he states, “It’s up to my generation to evolutionize the art. It’s always changing and we’re not shy to say things.”
     When prodded about current issues and what it might mean for the art of the future, or any potential personal statements in his work Randy briefly mentions that his father was forced into a residential school.
     “I know there’s a time a time and a place for that, but I’m not there yet. I will eventually get there, because I do know that there’s always room for more voices out there with the oppression from the government and their sweeping things under the rug. I’m getting tired of it too. I’ve definitely given it a lot of thought. I’ll definitely use that anger to create something rather than just sitting there and being angry.”
     In the meantime he’s having a great deal of fun, but laments, “It’s a lot more stressful than I thought it was going to be. It’s definitely a lot of work. My boss is my own creativity,” which is energized by a great deal of self-confidence.
     And his ancestry stokes that confidence. “Most of my root digging is done through my own teaching, smudging myself, talking to my ancestors on my own. I don’t need to go anywhere to find my own spirituality. I don’t feel like I have to talk to any outsiders.”
     Yet he does, and in a bold way that helps him to spring forward with new ideas, but which is simultaneously bound to a rich historical palette. 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Christian Chapman: Humour, Satire and the Mix of Tradition with Contemporary Aesthetics and Popular Art

    This Tuesday past, Christian Chapman stretched canvases to add a few new works to the currently running Waterfront Art Exhibition at the Baggage Building in Prince Arthur’s Landing. The show ends on June 28. Other artists include Linda Dell, Jan Luit, Mark Nisenholt, Stephanie Siemieniuk and Oliver Reimer. They’ll all be there in person on June 20th. Christian’s paintings will feature Kakabeka, Pie Island, Mount McKay, and other regional scenery.
     If you think he’s short on time to complete these new works, don’t worry; confidence is something Christian doesn’t lack. And he’s more eager to paint than ever. He sliced his painting hand last year, his right hand, so his last set of very large post-modernist Morrisseau styled canvases featuring Elvis Presley; he did with his left hand.
     “It took forever!” he laughs. And now that his painting hand has healed, “I really want to get into the studio as much as I can.”
     Christian is leading a successful life as a full time artist, but he downplays that success suggesting that most of what keeps him painting full time are the grants he receives from the Ontario Arts Council. He’s very thankful for their support, happy to extol the virtues of the Northern Arts Program.
     What he may not be aware of is that a few professionals in our local art scene have referred to him as the next great First Nations artist to come out of our region since Norval Morrisseau. That is the kind of compliment out of whack with reality because all sorts of history with Morrisseau complicate any kind of comparison. What they are suggesting is that Christian could be, if he wanted to be, a very successful commercial artist in the larger southern gallery scene.
     At that suggestion he merely shrugs and explains that he hasn’t bothered to approach commercial galleries. He’s not even all that interested in coming into town, quite happy to paint in his studio on the Fort William Reserve where he experiments free from any kind of external pressure.
     He’s circumspect about his popularity. “When I sell work,” which is usually to people he already knows, “it’s like it’s finding a home.” He describes how his life as an artist was feast or famine but adds, “Well, it’s not that bad. It’s pretty steady now. I always have something coming up or going on.”
      Evident in his work is that he loves to play, experiment, and go with whatever excites him from one project to the next. He’s following his bliss, and this has resulted in a major element in his work that has generated fans; the element of surprise.
     “I always like trying new stuff, but I always go back to old stuff too. I find that, right now, I want to lighten up, go more loosy goosy,” he says when describing how he would like to approach his next batch of paintings. “I always want to go forward with my work, just experiment, and try new things.”
     Having returned recently from Banff, his fourth trip there, he took advantage of the studio retreat for self-directed residencies. Christian created works for his aboriginal based thematic project where the idea was to bridge the gap between aboriginal artwork and western galleries. He created a series of prints, some of which are at the Baggage Building exhibition.
     He laments the size of the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. “Man, I ate more food in the morning than I normally eat all day.” Food is provided so the artists can focus on working in their studios, which are quite big, with a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains. “It’s a great place to get a lot of work done,” he says.
     Christian describes another element of his creative process. “I like putting humour in my work, making myself laugh. I don’t take the work too seriously.” But when asked to explain how he might be making political or social statements because he so often juxtaposes Western and First Nations imagery he is again circumspect.
     “Sure. Yeah. I’m influenced by all that stuff…” residential schools, missing and murdered aboriginal women, Idle No More… “I’d have to be a robot for this stuff to not come out in some form,” he says.
     Throughout his different styles Christian contrasts First Nation culture to Western colonial art and popular culture. This mixing is very much a feature of his work, and it is done to generate a reaction, much of which involves humour, but also allows for deeper interpretation if one so desires. This is not to suggest that he isn’t willing to go deep, but like the new trend for info-comedy that is the Daily Show, Christian is working with a different level of humour, more clever than it first appears.
    Christian also points out that a lot of his work is narrative based. With sequential imagery, featuring a character or two who are repeated in each work, where the settings take on more importance. Ideas for narratives come from all over. Chapmen tells of his father’s inspiration.
     “My dad told me about the Northern lights. We were sitting together, watching them move. He said the lights were the spirits of our ancestors…” The story was told not too long ago, while Christian was still in his thirties. “So the painting came from a story that was fresh in my head.”
     Christian has two to three shows a year plus group shows. He currently has work at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto in an event called Planet IndigenuUS 4. And just recently he and about twenty other artists and craftspeople, including Elliot-Doxtater Wynn, Randy Thomas and his partner Jean Marshal, had work at Chapman’s Gas Bar on the Fort William Reserve. Christian, his sister, and their mother, operate the Gas Bar.
     Coming up on July 9, 7:30pm at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Christian and the curator, Lisa Myers are part of an opening reception and artist talk. Christian described how he’s experimenting with film, including super 8 film, allowing for narratives to develop with the film he’s shot with the influence of four other artists for four different films where they add context with editing and audio.
     Despite all his activity and productivity Christian is thinking of returning to study at Lakehead University, just to take a class or two. Speaking of a class environment, he says, “It can be really stimulating.” And he gets access to a printmaking press to try out new techniques. He’s studied at Lakehead  University before, along with the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, having lived in Halifax for two years where he got inspired to do film work. 
     His eagerness to play, experiment and continue his education for the sake of inspiration reveal how fully engrossed he is with opportunities that come from being open and in love with art and all it has to offer.