CHRISTOPHER CAMPBELL GARDINER, DIPLOMA (WITH DISTINCTION), 1995, SCULPTURE/MULTIMEDIA
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY JOANNE FISHER, SEPTEMBER 2015
From top left to bottom right: 'Schopenhauer in 90 minutes' (The 1064 Project) 2000
'The Metaphysical Coat' (2008)
'The Opening' (Model)
Installation View 2 from 'DiaBollein and Sym Bollein Abracadabra' Or Gallery 2008
'BillSgrazutti Anxiety Object' (2004)
CHRISTOPHER CAMPBELL GARDINER: Art school is not only a unique place, it’s a special place. Everyone’s wondering what it’s all going to mean when they graduate because there’s no real road map for it. Being an artist is a very individualized thing and so I know that when I was a student, having this opportunity (to interview) would have been fabulous for me. To get a snapshot of what it was like for someone else who got out of ACAD, and then went on to start a career – was the career straight forward and related to what they were working on at school?
JOANNE FISHER: Yes, I’ve taken a few detours, followed a few curve balls.
GARDINER: Of course, parenting tends to sidetrack things, doesn’t it? And you gladly do it. And then it changes things forever. It certainly did for my wife and I. That’s why I sent you a link to my family Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/ForTheLoveOfMatthew.
FISHER: Yes, I looked all the way through it.
GARDINER: Awesome. It’s definitely a real passion of mine because Matthew has disabilities, quite profound ones, and guys like him, you normally don’t get to see too much of their lives. A lot of times, especially with the non-verbal person, they’re in the system and the system has very strict confidentiality rules. A lot of them end up in community-based organizations and they aren’t able to publish anything about them so we set out to change that. It’s some new ground that we’ve been involved in. It’s interesting – is it related to my career as an artist? In many ways, yes, and in many ways, no. Where do you draw the line between the two? I’ve never been terribly good at saying this is my artwork and this is my life, they somehow blur together.
FISHER: Well, I think they both involve craft, right?
GARDINER: Yes, for sure, and details. Matthew is very much into the RCMP and I was watching a documentary, just before you called, about the training aspect of the RCMP. They were talking about high attention to detail in training – like making your bed in the morning, making sure your uniform is pressed and folded properly, and it’s inspected every day. The reason for that is to instill that attention to detail. Cops pulling up at a crime scene need to be detail oriented and with that basic training in the beginning, you’ve got the ability to see things that maybe others don’t. I always thought that that’s what art school did too. It prepares you. Nothing else requires such an intense level of scrutinizing and perspective. If I’ve got one thing to say about what you’re going to walk away with from this education, you’re going to come out looking at things much differently, much more comprehensively.
I met my wife in my first year of school, that’s 20 years ago now. We lived together and every day, we were talking about each other’s work. Then we finished art school and went on to do Master's Degrees. We were the only two Master's students in Fine Arts at the time at the University of Regina. It was a new program. It was just me and her, you don’t hear of too many couples spending that much time talking about each other. It’s certainly very unique – we have some very good communication skills because of our foundation of constant talking and thinking. Are you from Calgary?
FISHER: Yes. Where are you from originally?
GARDINER: I’m from Saskatchewan. The only period of time that I’ve been away from here is when I went to art school and then later for a brief stay in Korea. Coming out of a Master's with student loans debt, we had to go and do something different. We spent a year in Korea doing some teaching.
FISHER: Did you teach Art or English?
GARDINER: English. Even though I hold a Master's, I didn’t pursue teaching art. I always thought teaching is kind of a thing that you earn with life points. So as a 26-year-old, graduated with Master's, I wasn’t there. There would have been students older than me and it would have felt weird.
FISHER: You would have had people like me!
GARDINER: I have to say this – some of the most talented and advanced students that I went to ACAD with, were the students that had another life before art school. They came back and there’s none of the learning curve – it was just getting down to practice. I’m sure you’re finding that with all your life experience, the things you’ve seen and the things you’ve done.
GARDINER: I’ve technically only been working on one artwork for the last 20 years, even though it looks like I’ve made quite a few things. The major show that I have coming up, my first show in Regina, I’m closing my project into one final gesture. I didn’t realize when I started making my work, but I’ve never been motivated by selling it. I’ve been more motivated by the philosophical dimensions of a real life project. In a lot of ways, it’s stubborn. What I’m planning to do is a really interesting resolve for what the project was in the beginning. I don’t know how much you read, but while I was in art school, I was unhappy with what I was making. That set in motion the impetus for what the next 20 years would bring. I started making my artwork disappear. So everything that I made my entire life ended up in my final piece. All of my art that I made in art school I covered up.
FISHER: And you talked about containing anxiety.
GARDINER: I considered everything that I’d made as a big anxiety to me. So I started making packages that I put things into and it never stopped. To this day, I’m still concealing things. Now it’s broader – it’s anxiety in general and it’s not just my own artwork. A grant rejection, other people’s anxieties as well, messy divorces, heartache, anything that someone has designated as a stressor or anxiety. As a result, I’m probably into my 120th anxiety containment range. Some of my works have taken as long as a year to make.
FISHER: It looked very labour intensive.
GARDINER: That’s also where the commercial frustration comes into play. It’s a very difficult thing to sell something, or even for a viewer to take on something, that’s made by someone who’s maybe only producing one thing every year or two. And the price tag that you would think would need to correspond to that. I’ve never been particularly motivated by mass production. It must be like you with what you’re doing at art school. You’re getting an experience and you’re open to where it takes you.
FISHER: I’m just looking to make bad stuff for a while.
GARDINER: That’s a really smart idea. It’s certainly not a bad thing to mess things up for a bit.
I’m a very messy person, and it’s deeply psychological too.
FISHER: Do you think it is compartmentalizing things?
GARDINER: That’s exactly it. The first time I made a painting go away, it felt so liberating to me. It’s almost like a Christmas present – like how it’s a more beautiful thing as a mystery.
FISHER: Like expectation versus the reality.
GARDINER: When you open it, maybe for a short period of time, it’s exciting but that certainly wanes. The symbolism of the thing sitting there and you not knowing what it is, is almost better than the surprise. I felt that way when I made the first painting go away. It was much more beautiful to me because I was the last to see it. I have a memory of it, even though, before I concealed it, all I saw were the flaws. Now that it was ritualistically contained, it seemed much more beautiful to me and I just started doing that. Today, I can take the worst of things and, using this process, I can transform them into something quite beautiful again. That’s what’s making it disappear.
FISHER: So it sounds very therapeutic then.
GARDINER: It is, very much. I’m almost ready for the therapy to be done and that’s why I’m calling my upcoming exhibition “Show”. Setting up an irony in a way because I’m making one large containment. I’m building a "treasure house" that I’m putting all my work into. The show’s up for 3 months but I’m only opening the house up for the last day of the show, and building a staircase up to it. On only one day of the show will people be able to look at my work. The only other thing on display in the gallery will be a book sitting on a desk in front of the treasure house, it’s titled “Me”. Now, what’s in the book is the most interesting thing. I’m having psychological assessments done on me so you’re going to be able to read this very vulnerable naked stuff about me. So, my own work will only be accessible for one day but the book will be accessible throughout the duration of the exhibit as well as available for takeout at the library. The gallery is located in Regina's Central Library.
FISHER: It’s like time-based.
GARDINER: I’m setting up the paradox that finally I’m prepared to get kind of naked in the gallery, but my work, it remains a containment.
It’s interesting when you’re talking about getting messy in the studio, I’m planning on doing that again. So the cycle has kind of started again. It would probably be a good time for me to go back to school.
FISHER: Do you still keep in touch with your graduating year?
GARDINER: Yes, I do. We had a very tight year. It was a unique group; almost everyone in Sculpture wasn’t doing sculpture. Everyone was doing photography, conceptual work, performance, almost everything but three-dimensional sculpture. I think mine and a handful of other practices were actually object based, and my work is very conceptual too. It is a very competitive game. Everyone wants to think, “I’m going to be that person who gets to sell their work, be famous, and be on the cover of an art magazine.” Most of the people that I graduated with didn’t go on to become well known, they’re still making work, but they’re certainly not motivated by being the most well-known artist in Canada. I’ve been fortunate enough in my own friendships, I'm friends with some people who are massively successful as artists, have made very nice livings, are very comfortable, have been given pretty much whatever they want, and they’re quite happy – so I’ve seen it done. You can do it. You can make a really good living as an artist, keep whatever hours you want, and take as much time off as you need to. Most artists that I know never take time off – they’re always working – it’s not a normal job. I have a hard time explaining to my insurance broker, he’s asking me about this and that, and the use of the house, and how does work tie into this? Always working… But it was my mom who said it best – I built a house for her right next door to where we live, so she gets to see how I live – she’s often saying how I work very hard to avoid working. The job of an artist – to see how much longer you can get away with it. That’s what you hope to gain from it though. I see so many people working so hard, and what are they working for? Working for retirement, and then when you retire, what do you do? They haven’t gotten to know themselves that well, they don’t really have any hobbies, so I’ve been spending my whole life getting to know myself.
FISHER: I’ve had this discussion with one of the other artists that I interviewed and she was adamant that we need to have these artist stories out – we do it for sports figures, you always want to know how they made it to the Olympics and art is as interesting as the Olympics…
GARDINER: Well that’s just it. When a lot of kids were learning about Michael Jordan and sports figures, I was learning about Picasso and it’s fascinating that I didn’t learn about it at school. There’s so much access to everything else, but not enough to the artist.
But it’s so incredibly inspiring.
FISHER: Yes, I know, I guess I don’t understand where the schism is.
GARDINER: It’s a conservative mindset that we’re artsy-fartsys, hippy dippys, the not-committed type and we’ve got all kinds of opinions on things, but we never do any real action on anything. There’s a misconception. I always find that when people meet me and actually get to know me, they say, “I totally thought you were someone different.”
FISHER: So what are you planning, now that you’re bringing this (the containment) project to a close? What are you looking to do for yourself after that?
GARDINER: The very first thing is that I’m writing a book. I haven’t really decided what that’s about, other than being loosely based on our life with Matthew. Matthew is our foster child. He came into our lives at age 6. My wife and I were just a year out of our Master's Degrees when he walked into our lives. It’s been a fascinating life since and there’s not really one like it. I really want to tell that story about what brought us together and what keeps us together.
FISHER: Was it a concerted decision to foster?
GARDINER: He’s been our only foster child. When we finished up school, we were thinking about having kids. The way that she and I are is that we don’t do anything the easy way, so we decided that we’d see what foster parenting was all about. We didn’t want to foster regular children – we wanted to foster disabled children. We went to a couple of preliminary meetings/seminars and we decided we weren’t interested after that. During one of those seminars, we talked to one of the executive managers of social services. A few months went by and we got a call from that guy. He told us that there was a young boy that needed an emergency placement. Even though we didn’t have a license, he asked if we would be able to take him for a weekend. Anyways, it’s been the longest weekend ever – he ended up staying and never left. He’s been with us for 19 years now.
I could talk to you for hours and hours about how enriching it’s been and also how tough it’s been because this is a young guy who is about 2-years-old cognitively – so my toddler, he never grew up. I still have a toddler, but now he’s a 220lb toddler. Anyway, you need children to be the light, and that’s why I started the Facebook page for him because I wanted everyone to see his smile and how happy he can be. You might have noticed how many people follow it.
FISHER: I think I saw 7000 people following.
GARDINER: Yes, there are over 11000 now. He gets presents from all over Canada. He’s got a visit coming up here in the next week with the Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP who is coming from Ottawa. The RCMP made him an honorary cadet. He’s treated like royalty when he’s there. And he has become kind of famous around these parts. We get stopped all the time and people are saying they’re following the Facebook page. There are a lot of conversations about guys like him, who you’ll probably never meet because they live in group homes. There’s a prison-like culture that goes with that life for some of our most vulnerable people.
FISHER: So, do you think that your artistic nature and training has helped basically transform an ugly situation? It kind of parallels your work.
GARDINER: We’re asked all the time about that. We’ve never received a day of training for his needs and actually it’s supposed to work that way. Foster parents are supposed to get a license and training. For sure the training that we have as artists has allowed us to get down and look through his eyes. Like we talked about art school earlier, when else do you have an opportunity in life to get 100 different perspectives? And we were pros at it by then. We were able to advocate for him and we were able to think outside the box. When he first came to us, the social worker said that he slept in a closet. Well, knowing he was coming, we had set up a bedroom for him. He has always slept in his bedroom – he never slept in the closet. There’s just no roadmap for it. There’s no manual, just like I said to you about what I find appealing about art and things applied to it. There’s absolutely no book that came with Matty and, as a result, we were quite flexible. We designed a life around him and fit him into what we do. He has seizures, so he’s always within 10 feet of where I’m working. Because of him being like that, it’s interesting how my work has evolved, style-wise, because of his needs. I used to work quite a bit bigger and now I work smaller so I can move things faster – think rolling tables and stuff like that. If he moves into a different room, everything just gets thrown on the table. It’s amazing how we’ve learned to adapt to who he is.
GARDINER: There are many dimensions to my life and my, what you call a career. It’s amazing I can say career even – somehow, I do still keep it going and I still get grants. It’s rare to be able to say that but for 20 years now I’ve been steadily getting grants and so I keep my projects alive like that. And several years ago, there was a major retrospective of some of my work alongside the work of my hero Eric Cameron. I pinch myself constantly. That’s the catalogue I want to send to you. In fact I would love for it to be in ACAD's library so everyone can see it.
FISHER: I’d love to see it. I find your process quite fascinating and it’s always fabulous to talk to people, see what they’re doing, and what they’ve done.
GARDINER: Right, for me, it’s the most inspiring thing in the world.