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.”
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