Jeremy Down‘s abstract three-dimensional paintings are created outdoors in the wilderness of British Columbia’s Slocan Valley, where he lives, skis, canoes, and plays in a band.
When you started out as an artist twenty years ago, you were living in Toronto and painting on traditionally flat canvasses in a studio. Now you’re living in a small town in British Columbia, you stretch your canvasses over these organic 3D shapes and you work only outdoors. How did this series of shifts come about – did you make a big radical move to change everything about your life at once, or did one change flow from another, naturally carrying you to where you are now?
For years I was painting out things that were not related to me and getting closer to a style that is very personal and able to express everything I experience. For many years it seemed this was an impossible task. I wanted to get away from the canvas being a context for something to happen within, I wanted the canvas to be the subject itself, and I thought that shaped canvasses would open that door.
As much as I explored different possibilities, nothing really worked until I had a major shift of consciousness. My canoe flipped in Slocan Lake in mid-February, and while swimming to shore, my heart stopped and I had a near-death experience. Three days later in the studio, I watched as a flat square canvas morphed into an abstract 3-dimensional shape. I walked over to my wood tools and built the first shape – which I still have. It was definitely a gift!
There are a couple of beautiful short documentaries about your work. Jeremy’s Shapes shows you painting up in the mountains in the snow and talking about your 3D shapes and the experience of painting outdoors. Then you snowboard down the mountain with one of your canvasses strapped to your back. My main question after watching that is: how many artworks lost their lives in snowboarding accidents?
Not too many actually! I used to use an easel on skis – “the skisel”. I pulled it into an amazing grove of 300 plus year-old cedar trees – an incredible ancient place – but I couldn’t get the skisel out again – too steep!
So I thought a ghostride might be in order, and the skisel took a high-speed run straight down the mountain for about 1000 ft. Amazingly it slowed to a stop undamaged! I tried my luck one more time but this run smashed the skisel into a massive tree and splintered into pieces. The painting survived. It’s called Ghostride.
Quite a few pieces have been scarred by the experience, but for me the challenge is acceptance of these alterations. If I am going to paint in the wilderness, I have to let nature make its mark. This process of acceptance usually gives the work a maturity that can translate to the viewer. Resistance is futile, and acceptance is peaceful.
The other film, Crossing Over, is about your near-drowning experience while setting out to paint in your canoe one stormy February day. It is an amazing story and beautifully presented in the film, but could you talk a little bit more about the influence that this experience had on your life and art? Did it make you more careful about setting out in your canoe on a stormy day? Or did it make you want to take even more risks so as to live your life to the fullest?
Risk management is a common point of conversation among the people I spend time with in the mountains. The event in the lake did inspire me to make wiser and more informed decisions about risk taking … but I love the relationship with challenging situations – so I will never stop!
As I get older, I don’t feel the same pull to the most dangerous experiences. I can reach that wonderful place of sensing my own mortality without being in dire straits. But I still climb mountains and paddle in winter – just a lot closer to shore!
You’re part of an art collective DRAWNONWARD, which is an Ontario-based group of artists who travel and exhibit together, and you’ve travelled all over Canada and to the Arctic with them. What was your most memorable, awesome or terrifying experience while travelling with this group?
DRAWNONWARD have travelled across the entire country pretty much raising havoc the whole time, so there is no end to the stories. Nothing was particularly terrifying, but one event that raised some concern was paddling across a large lake in Southern Ontario and watching a massive thunderhead slowly gaining on us. As the winds and waves increased we had to do more balance management until we weren’t making much headway, but persistence won the game that day. Never had dry land felt so wonderful.
There are many memorable moments, but one that comes to mind is when I was driving the 16-foot zodiac boat full of passengers from the MV Explorer, in the Central Arctic, searching for bowhead whales.
We tracked them to a bay where they relax and rub their bellies on the smooth beach pebbles. The boat was about 600 feet away when I noticed two large adults dive in our direction. The motor was off, we were just bobbing in the swell, when two massive gray bodies eerily surface about thirty feet away. There was a collective gasp, and a flurry of camera shutters, and the bowheads slowly slipped down into the depths. It was a stunning moment.
You also play in a band, Shades of Loud, – did you name it, or are there other artists in the band? – and there’s a really great article about you in a skiing magazine that mentions you’ve got synesthesia. What is the relationship between music and painting in your life? Does seeing music in colours influence your art, does hearing colours influence your music?
I think the drummer named the band, he plays the loudest! I sing and play guitar and write songs. In my mind, they are all just colours and shapes. Sometimes when I am writing a song, I use little drawings to help me remember the character of the song – they work just as well as words.
Painting and music are the same to me, but just come out in different formats. I definitely use both sound and image for opposite functions, something about that seems more truthful to me.
What is the one most important thing that you hope you can teach your daughters while they are growing up?
Both my daughters spend a lot of time outside experiencing the beauty and enormity of nature. I definitely think that connection to nature, and connection to soul are of utmost importance, especially in a world whose collective values are mainly based around objects and ownership. These things are necessary, but are empty of universal value and really don’t prepare us for anything but the rat race – be very careful!
You can see more of Jeremy’s work on his website and on the website of the DRAWNONWARD collective. His upcoming shows include a solo exhibition in October 2013 at the Hotel Ocho in Toronto, and a collective DRAWNONWARD show next winter.
All images in this interview © Jeremy Down.