A. Shay Hahn is a Toronto-based figurative painter whose distinctive style incorporates elements of pop and propaganda art. I interviewed him at The Cameron House, which will feature an exhibition of his new work during the month of November.
Shay sold his first drawing in Grade 1 to a classmate: “If you drew the best dinosaurs, you always had something going.”
Now that he makes his living painting, Shay seeks to demystify the process of buying and selling art:
“A lot of people think buying art is a mystery. They don’t know how to go about it.”
“People want art. They want to buy art. They want art in their homes. The just have no idea how to get it. You have to do so much to get people to see and buy art, it’s ridiculous. Why do they give away booze at art shows? To facilitate the sale of art.”
One of Shay’s strategies for selling his work is to make personal connections with the visitors when exhibiting at local venues like the Cameron.
“A lot of people show artwork in bars but they don’t make themselves a part of the place. If you have the space for a month, take advantage of it. Go and hang out there.
“I make sure to be here if my work is on the wall. If I see someone looking at it, I approach them and I talk to them.
“I think I’ve been lucky. Often, when someone is buying art for the first time, they’re buying one of my pieces. Because they see it, and they get it, and they relate to it. And they say, ‘I’ve never bought art before.’ I hear that from so many people.”
The Cameron also commissioned Shay to paint two murals in the front room this summer. Though the original plan had been to paint over the murals in the fall when it was time to hang art work on the walls again, the overwhelmingly positive response to them led the owners to reconsider. The murals will stay covered by a drape when the wall space is needed for exhibitions.
“The space really looks complete with them. These are big walls. Doing shows here, you really need to fill them up or the place looks empty.”
I comment on how colourful the Cameron murals are compared to his paintings.
“It’s a bar, it gets dark. So the best way to fight it is to put in oranges and reds and to really blow it up.
“But for my work, I think I only use six colours, really. I hate green, but I’m using it this year. Can’t stand green. It was a big move – I started using Windsor blue this year, that took a long time to get around to. I’m a Prussian blue guy.”
The capitulation to green may be due to Shay’s newfound love of gardening, which inspired the Victory Garden series of paintings.
“I don’t know if it was getting married or what, but I want to grow our own food. It’s like this impetus – I want to provide. Once we started pickling stuff and making jam, I thought, ‘Let’s start a vegetable garden.’ But we don’t have the room. Unless we tear out half the garden we already have.”
A. Shay Hahn’s paintings often feature strong women reminiscent of Soviet athlete or worker sculptures. He admits to enjoying propaganda art – “Because I like impact pictures” – but it’s not what informs his female figures:
“I think there’s a body type that I naturally tend to. The average woman is actually very strong-looking woman, not a skinny model type. What I try to do with a lot of work is something universal. Something where you can put yourself into the picture. And that’s why so many of them are turned around – you can put yourself into the body of the person.”
Several years ago, the first in a series of paintings of women with axes helped Shay solidify his artistic style:
“It was just this idea – this strong female standing there with an axe on her shoulder, looking at something in the distance, like ‘If something was coming towards me, I can take it on. I’m not afraid.’
“I’ve probably done thirty of them since then. People are crazy for them.
“That was 2009, and that changed everything I did. That’s when I became the painter that I am now. That’s when I found my style, my solid concept of what I’m doing.”
Women carry all kinds of things in A. Shay Hahn’s paintings – from pitchforks to dogs to giant fish. The feathered flags intrigue me, so I ask him about those.
“I don’t like angels. They’re trite and they’ve been done. But I like the idea of an angel. So the flags of feathers are my concept of angel wings.
“Instead of having the things coming out of their back, I have them on sticks as flags or as banners, and the women carry their weight instead. That was an idea that I was very happy with because it’s active, there’s a physical component involved in it – I like that a lot.”
A prolific painter, Shay works on small canvasses, quickly.
“I consider myself a diarist. I get an idea, and I just want to do it. Like when my friend Nina’s bike was stolen, I thought ‘How do I make it into something fun?’ I can stop what I’m doing, grab a smaller canvas and figure it out, and get it over that day. Hopefully finish it or, if not, finish it the next day. And go, ‘Here, that’s what I wanted to do today.’
“That’s why I like this size. It’s like white pages in a book — pick one up, fill it up with what I’m thinking, put that one away and move on.
“It works for me. And I think that’s what you’re looking for as you develop. This is what I do. This is how I work. It took a few years to figure it out, now I’m done. I’m happy.”
Shay’s interest in art early in life was sparked by comic books, whose heroes served as his first figure drawing exercises. He then went on to take formal art lessons at age 10, and to get a fine arts degree from York university. Though he says York is too academic to be much help with becoming a better painter, it did help him land his first paying job as an artist right after graduation:
“The Ice Gardens were being built – six Olympic-sized hockey arenas – and they needed muralists. So all the guys who could draw people got hired to paint the murals for the Ice Gardens. After that, there was no looking back.”
Since then, he’s been working on developing his own style.
“I think every artist has their own language and that’s sort of what you’re looking for, is you’re looking to develop a language – your style, the things that you use as your tools, visually, that people attach to your name. The progression of a life. You start to build your own alphabet.”
Fun recent additions to A. Shay Hahn’s visual vocabulary include deep-sea divers playing musical instruments, who became a popular subject for commissions.
“It started as an idea for a series called The Multitaskers. I thought about how everyone has two jobs these days, no one is getting by in this economy just doing one thing. So I thought it would be funny if a deep-sea diver was coming out of the ocean but he’s also in a band, so he’s going to a gig.
“Since I paint single figures in a lot of my work, it has to have a certain weight to it. And nothing is more heavy than a guy in a giant brass suit walking across the bottom of the ocean.
“And I love them, they crack me up. They’re hilarious.”
The upcoming November show is going to be a mix of fun and serious paintings, of new subjects and older characters coming back, unified by no other theme than being painted by A. Shay Hahn:
“I’m the guy that does this. You’re buying a painting by A. Shay Hahn.
“I love painting. Painting is what I do, first and foremost. I’m getting better at it. It’s something I’ll always do, and it’s something that never gets boring.”
I ask Shay what the most surprising thing is for him about the life of a professional artist.
“It’s when someone brings me a story about a painting and it’s completely different from what I thought when I painted it. And that’s happened a few times, because you do get to collect stories. A lot of my work sells when I’m not around, but if I do get to meet someone, sit down and have a beer with them, and they tell me why they bought something, it’s sometimes an eye-opener.
“You want to avoid the cliché of ‘It touched someone,’ but it did. You can’t deny it. It’s powerful.”
A. Shay Hahn’s new paintings will be on show at The Cameron House November 1 – 30, 2013.
Opening reception: Saturday, November 2, 6-9 pm, with live music by The Rattlesnake Choir.
All images in this interview are © A. Shay Hahn and are used with his permission.