When did you graduate ACAD (And what was it called then? What was your major? Do you continue to work in this area or did you change areas of interest?
I graduated in 2001 from the Alberta College of Art + Design with a BFA in Sculpture, and I was the valedictorian for my graduating class. When I first came to ACAD, I wanted to be a painter, but many of the painting instructors I had didn’t really like my surrealist approach, and so I opted for a sculpture major because of the studio size and freedom that it offered. Once I declared my major, I started making video art and continued to paint – so in many ways I don’t really think your major matters all that much since everything is so self-directed. If you are making what you want to be making, and working to get what you want and need from the program you’re in, your major doesn’t have to define what you do.
Self Portrait in Architecture, drawing done in blues while on summer residency at Beles Artes in Lisbon, Portugal.
A lot of graduates use the ACAD degree as a creative stepping stone. So, what do you do? How has what you do evolved since graduation? How did your education at ACAD direct your career?
In a lot of ways, I consider myself self-taught. My time at ACAD may not have taught me all the technical skills that I use in my painting practice, but something I did learn during my time in art school is that you’re never going to please everyone with your art, and that’s okay – in fact, it’s important to push yourself outside of what people want or expect from you I think. As an example, there was a painting I had done at one point during my degree which my instructor refused to mark, and that same painting ended up winning a Board of Governor’s Award.
I also received some really positive mentorship during my time at ACAD. Specifically, I approached Charles Lewton-Brain from the jewelry department to mentor me (which did seem to upset some of the sculpture faculty at the time), but I felt it was really beneficial to seek out a variety of perspectives about my work. Through this connection, I learned to make an inventory list of all my paintings, which has helped me immensely in managing the business side of my art practice.
After graduating, I noticed a lot of my peers who I graduated with opting to work oil jobs and continuing their art practice more as hobbyists. Somewhat inadvertently, I ended up working at an artist run-center after art school, and I continued to push myself to volunteer and stay involved in a variety of arts and culture festivals around the city. I co-founded the Underground Film Festival in 2003, and I now instruct figure drawing part-time at my studio, Atelier Artista, alongside my continued artistic practice as a painter.
Melissa Portrait in Oil, created in 3 days for the peoples portrait prize. Inspired by a
Portrait of King Alfonso XIII in a Hussar’s Uniform, 1907 by Joaquin Sorolla
What would you like to be recognized for?
I’d like to be recognized more for actually being an artist, since I’m often known more as a mentor or teacher than for my art practice. I think a lot of my peers follow a misguided notion that to be a true artist you need to be famous and that “being a famous artist” has to be your primary objective – there is a lot more to it than that. The phrase, “those who can’t do, teach,” is a common jab at art mentors and instructors, but I think the people who toss that phrase around are often the artists who are bitter and perpetuating the starving artist trope. These artists try so hard not to “sell out” but then they just continue to struggle financially. I often felt as though ACAD pumped the fuel of fame, but it’s so important to also ground yourself in reality – there are bills to pay, and money doesn’t grow on trees. I’d personally like to be recognized for the skill and technique I’ve developed as a very traditional artisan, and for people to recognize that these traditional skills are necessary to develop before introducing conceptualism.
Ganesh, oil on canvas, 2012.
Given your experience, what advice would you give a student when it comes to establishing a creative business?
One of the most important things to try to do after graduating is to maintain connections in the local arts scene. Try to land an arts job in some form or another, volunteer, and apply for grants! There are lots of ways to put yourself in “lucky” positions, and to network with lots of different people. In terms of volunteering, you can do a lot for free without ever giving away free art – you can give away experiences instead. For example, you might offer to do a live painting at an event to engage people, instead of offering to give away a finished painting.
It also helps to sometimes do things that you may consider artistically beneath you, like face painting kids, where you can meet tons of new people who might ask you about your professional art practice and possibly become future clients – you never know!
I would also recommend building your business skills by taking some business training, and working to align your job with your lifestyle and business needs. You could work at an art supply store to get discounts on the materials you use in your arts practice, or you could work somewhere that provides other kinds of benefits/discounts that best serve the kind of lifestyle you are aiming for. It’s important to feed yourself and be mindful of your needs as a human and as an artist.
When it comes to branding, aim to become a master of a medium. Don’t worry about being “clever” too much – as that’s a common cause of burnout, but strive to consistently improve your craft – whatever that may be. Finally, don’t be a copy-cat, be an inventor, and remember that selling and “selling out” are very different, just don’t go against your personal ethics.
Shiva, oil on canvas, 2013.
What insights did your four (or one, two, three, five, six) years at ACAD give you when looking at things?
It is so important to take the technical and foundational years seriously. Art needs to be a craft as well as a concept, and to have strong concept your craft needs to be strong too. I personally believe it is essential to understand correct proportions and to learn realistic representational form before venturing into abstractions and conceptual forms.
I learned how to show up and do the work in a personal and professional studio practice, and became an “idea grinder” where I continually practice cranking my ideas out into visual forms.
After graduation, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
After graduation, I think everyone faces a lot of challenges – I remember it was hard to keep making work when I also felt like I needed a bit of a break after graduation. I think you just need to make sure you don’t take too long of a break to keep your foot in the door. Aiming to do a residency once a year can be a good strategy because they are set up for you to dedicate uninterrupted time for yourself and your work, and to add to your CV and your professional development as an artist.
A lot of it comes down to perseverance and persistence, since the world isn’t really set up to want you or cater to you. It’s a job, and it’s a bully. Society highly undervalues artists, and on the flip side – artists often overvalue their work so neither one seems to understand the other. But if you can push through all of the challenges, just keep making. Get into a studio collective, pursue critical feedback, and find a mentor. The challenges might keep coming, but if you keep on keeping on, it will be your ideas and what you make from them that really matter.
Rainbow Deity, oil on canvas, 2009.
How could you imagine ACAD supporting our alumni?
It would be nice to see more alumni shows, and more support for alumni career development – like helping alumni find jobs after graduation.
What do you feel is the role of ACAD and our alumni in shaping our cultural and economic prosperity?
I think ACAD’s role is to create an avenue for our alumni to be in contact with high ranking officials/MLAs, and for ACAD to keep pushing and encouraging alumni to be leaders in their communities.
Where does art fit into your future?
Art is my future. I’ve known since I was seven years old that I was going to be an artist, I always come back to that. I also can never retire – there is no retirement plan, only death.