Canadian Visual Artists: Ele Willoughby (aka minouette)

Ele Willoughby (aka minouette) is a marine geophysicist and printmaker from Toronto, whose linocuts and woodblock prints are inspired by science and the natural world. Clicking on any image in this post will take you to the artwork’s listing in the Minouette Etsy shop, where they can be viewed in greater detail.

Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission linocut from minouette's History of Physics series

Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission linocut from minouette’s History of Physics series

It seems you have achieved an uncanny synergy of science and art in your life – is the relationship fully symbiotic or do you ever find these two forces in conflict?  

For me, the intersection of art and science is a really fertile source of inspiration – I even write a blog about it called magpie&whiskeyjack. I think that most people have been misled that art and science are very different – that science is constrained whereas art is free and creative. In truth, science is a very creative activity. Scientists are always problem-solving and inventing new things: tools, techniques, or stories about how things might work (also called hypothesis making). Art can also be constrained – there are often specific procedures which must be followed when working in certain artistic media that are very much like executing an experiment.

A Tower of Giraffes linocut illustrates the collective noun for a group of giraffes

A Tower of Giraffes linocut illustrates the collective noun for a group of giraffes

I’ve used artistic skills as a scientist, both when it comes to designing tools and to scientific visualizations and communications. Building a prototype geophysical imaging device is not unlike building a sculpture. You spend a lot of time in hardware stores thinking about whether things can be adapted to your purpose, which is the sort of behaviour artists will recognize.

I’ve also used a lot of my scientific skills and knowledge in my art (incorporating electronics or thermochromic inks and using the history of science as subject matter). So, I would say that for me the relationship between art and science is symbiotic.

However, these two interests, or perhaps hemispheres of my brain, do occasionally conflict. When I’ve had a difficult day in the lab, you’ll find sketches in my lab book. I find scientific colleagues don’t think about colour in design the way I do – occasionally I’ve found a battle on my hands when arguing for certain scientific visualizations.

Bacteria surrounding Louis Pasteur in this portrait are printed in thermochromic ink and disappear when heated - just like in pasteurization!

Bacteria surrounding Louis Pasteur in this portrait are printed in thermochromic ink and disappear when heated – just like in pasteurization!

As an artist, I find I can really enjoy the work of other artists who use science as inspiration, but I personally could never use, say, a diagram or some sort of scientific apparatus for strictly aesthetic reasons – they aren’t just decoration. So, in that sense, the education does influence the way I think, and hence the art I create.

As a scientist, you build machines for underwater imagery and you also get to use them in marine expeditions. What was your most memorable, terrifying or awesome experience while at sea and did you have to wait till getting back home to make art inspired by it?

Sailing Ship II - block print with mixed papers by minouette

Sailing Ship II – block print with mixed papers

Goodness, I do have some stories. It would be hard to choose which one to tell! I’ll tell you about one experience which was difficult, then amazing, and which did inspire new art.

Several years ago, I was working offshore Vancouver Island on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel with a team of university researchers. I had been working on a method which allows me to measure the stiffness of seafloor sediments by lowering an instrument to the ocean bottom. We decided that it would be great to get a really long dataset, but that we couldn’t stay put; rather than lowering the instrument to the bottom and holding station for hours, we could let it fall to the bottom and retrieve it later.

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In progress: Sprawl

If I write an “in progress” post about something that’s not actually seen any progress for weeks, will it spur the whole thing back into action? This is a story of how I came to use a picture instead of a pencil sketch as a basis for a mosaic, and how this method is working out for me.

First sketchThe project is the next piece in my “Favorite Books” series, and I will talk more about the cyberpunk novel that inspired it in a future post to be written when the mosaic is complete. The scene I wanted to portray was a futuristic, densely populated, techno-seedy urban landscape. When I first sketched a tiny 2″ thumbnail draft of the design, it looked like this:

Then, when I attempted to enlarge this concept to actual (16″ x 10″) size, the perspective got all wonky. Perspectives being what they are, that didn’t surprise me at all, especially since the last time perspective really counted in something I drew was high school art class. I tried again, but each attempt was wonkier than the last.

So I decided to get a program that’s much better at perspective than I am to do it for me.

SketchUp streetThe first thing I tried was Google SketchUp, which is a 3D modelling program often used to design models of real-life buildings (to add to Google Earth), as well any other things that need to be rendered in 3D, like furniture or gadget prototypes. It’s an easy program to use and I figured I can quickly put a bunch of faceless buildings in a line to get the right perspective of a street. After a while, that street looked like this:

This was clearly going to take more than one street and I was tired of stacking faceless boxes next to each other.

Now this project was looking like the perfect excuse to play SimCity – one of the very few computer games that I ever bothered to play for considerable stretches of time. (That was before I had kids.)

As you play the game, you build a city, and as it sprawls – filled with a variety of buildings rendered in lovely detail – perfect perspective is just a screenshot away. Even better, SimCity Societies – the version of the game which lets you build thematic cities – has a Cyberpunk mode. That would get me not only the right perspective, but the right ambiance too. Bonus.

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Fragments of books: The Rational Optimist

The Rational OptimistI don’t want to give you the impression that I only read books with “optimist” in the title, but this was another great one that I wanted to share.

For me, the appeal of books that take an optimistic stance on humanity’s current conditions and future prospects is in the suggestions of positive directions to take. The benefit of learning about the promising options available – rather than the ways in which we are messing things up – is encapsulated in this statement from The Rational Optimist: “If you teach children that things can only get worse, they will do less to make it untrue.”

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley presents a compelling argument for the role of specialization and trade in enabling the evolution of technology and the remarkable increases in human prosperity. He demonstrates how vast improvements in living standards over the ages and across the globe can only be expected to continue, as long as commerce and innovation remain unrestricted.

Presenting the reader with a historical overview – from the Stone Age to the 21st century – of the state of technology, prosperity, morals, health, and the environment, The Rational Optimist shows how in every age innovation and technological progress resulted in finding solutions to problems that previous generations thought insurmountable, and in improving the quality of life of a great number of people along the way.

Remaining optimistic even about such tough issues as the future economic prosperity of African nations and the potential outcomes of climate change, Matt Ridley argues that slowing economic progress today in order to mitigate probable future harm would be detrimental to humanity’s prospects, and that letting innovation and economic growth take their course is the only means to ensure continuing decreases in human misery, famine and ecological degradation.

The Rational Optimist‘s narrative style is slightly more academic than is typical of many popular science books today, and dry rather than humorous. Matt Ridley presents his arguments persuasively, forcefully, often sternly. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating, stunningly insightful read, vitally relevant to an understanding of the dynamics of technological evolution and human prosperity, and I highly recommend it.

Canadian Visual Artists: Heather Vollans

Heather Vollans is a mosaic artist specializing in salvaged materials and concrete sculpture. She works and teaches mosaic courses in her studio near Hamilton, Ontario.

Mosaic in red and gray

Red Power was was inspired by a photograph of Chinese labourers painting the exterior of a power plant, hanging on long ropes.
Photo © Heather Vollans.

You’re originally from Australia and you’ve traveled a lot around Europe and the Middle East. How have your experiences in different parts of the world influenced you? Did your travels play a role in you becoming a mosaic artist?

My years of travelling definitely influenced me – especially in terms of use of colour. Being Australian I was already influenced by desert colours and earth tones, but then living in the desert those colours became an even stronger influence. The textures and contours of the sand, the vegetation and shadows also had an effect. And all these years later l see some of those same textures, shadows and contours in the snow!

The textiles of Europe were another big influence. I am drawn to textures wherever I am – and it’s all around us… rusting metals, patterns of dirt and grime on a truck, plastic wrapping materials, old paint peeling, bark, ripples on water… I journeyed through many arts/crafts before finally discovering mosaic about 10 years ago, but all of those influences are part of the place I have come to.

The mosaic on this side of the wall is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, terracotta - all salvaged or taken from nature.

Mission Statement mosaic is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, and terracotta – all salvaged or taken from nature.
Photo © Heather Vollans

My favorite piece of yours is this amazing four-paneled mosaic wall you’ve built on the property beside your studio, which you describe as your mission statement. It embodies your enthusiasm for making mosaics using natural and salvaged materials, and it represents many of the themes and values central to your art including man’s journey through the ages and his relationship with nature. What was the most important you learned while making it? Does the wall provoke any reaction from passers-by who see it from the road?

The materials were important to me. They symbolised the waste in our world. I wanted to use materials which were just lying around, having been discarded, to make this statement. Much of the ‘process’ for me was the gathering of the materials, cleaning them, sorting and storing them before coming up with the design.

The other side of the Mission Statement wall - this is the side seen from the road

The other side of Mission Statement wall, facing the road

I’ve learned such a lot doing this large project: the biggest is – dream big, think about it, research it, keep the passion, work at it … you can make it happen. The thinking/dreaming/planning process for this wall took far longer than it actually took to build and mosaic! The building and mosaic work took 2 summers. Other things I learned were: you don’t have to do it alone. Surround yourself with enthusiastic supporters – get friends involved, run a class around it, throw a bar-b-que in with it and people will come to help. Another thing: research materials and construction methods well before you take on something this big – and build beyond specifications, especially in Canada where nature takes its toll on everything. Build to last.

Slate mosaic

This piece was created using slate roof tiles discarded after renovation of a victorian house.

We get a lot of reaction from people passing by on the highway – strangers come up the drive and ask to see it. Often when I meet people and tell them where I live they say “you mean the place with the big wall?” It’s gratifying that people notice and even more gratifying that people understand why I did it.

I love your philosophy of creating art from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. You use salvaged construction materials and discarded objects in your mosaics, as well as natural stone.  Do you have any good scavenging stories?

I have salvaged stuff all my life and yes, I have many great stories. It’s the materials I find that fire my work. I always begin with materials, rather than the idea or design. My work is all about the process – the thrill of the find, the endless hours of thinking about how to combine my treasures with other materials, and the final production.  All of this process is as important as the final result.

Working in construction, I have come across some wonderful dumpster materials – aluminum, ceramics, wood, rusty nails, copper and other metals. Once you take away from your mind the expected use of these materials you can see them purely as textures to be played with.

Mosaic sculpture using salvaged construction materials

The crushed Tim’s cup in the tool belt? My favorite part of the sculpture!
Women in Skilled Trades, back and front views. Photo © by Heather Vollans.

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Introducing the Canadian Visual Artists interview series

Canadian Visual ArtistsThis blog started out as a document of my own artistic journey, but one of the most interesting and enjoyably unpredictable aspects of a journey is the wealth of experiences and stories shared by the people you meet along the way.

Something fantastic that I’ve come to realize over the last year is just how many talented, inventive, passionate people are out there – making art. Making art inspired by places I’ve never visited and people I’ve never met, making art using techniques they themselves invented or media I didn’t know existed, making art guided by worldviews and philosophies that enrich my own.

So I am expanding the scope of this blog to share the work and the stories of other Canadians who make art. The first in the series will be posted tomorrow. I hope that you will, as I do, find them curious, ingenious, inspiringly kooky or madly inspiring, but all utterly fascinating.

Site redesign

New designHere it is! New website design.

I’ve been working on it for longer than I would’ve liked, but it seems to have been worth it. I do like how it turned out.

Please comment and tell me what you think of the new look! Or if you discover anything acting wonky, comment on that too, and I will fix it.

There is great new content on the way for the blog as well, but more on that later.

A new policy of charitable donations from the Fragmentalist Etsy shop

Etsy, where my mosaics are available for sale, is a great handmade marketplace and a fantastic way for small artisans to be found by customers from all over the world. It may not be the ideal place to sell large, heavy, one-of-a-kind mirrors and coffee tables – small, inexpensive items that can be easily shipped anywhere in the world do much better there – but it is still one of the best options for selling one’s art online.

Since I’ve set out to make mosaics full time last May, I’ve been told by many artists that the recession has been hard on the arts market. While customers are still making small impulse buys, such as handmade jewellery, those artists who make larger works of art requiring more of a financial investment have seen a big decline in their sales in the last few years.

I know that my mosaics are luxury items. I feel fortunate to be able to afford – both in terms of materials cost and time – to do something I really enjoy. Those who still buy art and handcrafted objects despite the tough economic times are supporting artists and makers in doing what they love, and for that I am very thankful to them.

All this is to say that I have decided to donate a percentage of all sales made through my Etsy shop to charitable organizations in appreciation of the fact that a market in art exists at all, that it enables me to do what I love, that global e-commerce makes it easy and that all of us who participate in it are really very fortunate.

These are the three charities I’ve listed as the options for where the donation can go: EFF for protecting the frontiers of our digital freedom, WWF for protecting endangered species and wildlife habitats and United Way Canada for protecting our local communities.

Thanks and please spread the word!

In progress: Fragmentalist sign

Having now recovered from the holidays and a nasty ear infection, I’m now finishing work on a big four-foot wide sign with the Fragmentalist logo on it. The plan is to use it in the summer art shows as the name sign for my booth, as well as the new title banner for this blog.

Here’s a slideshow of the progress so far:

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I think the font turned out just great in mosaic, and I’m planning to grout this thing in two colours to preserve the crispness of the text: dark brown grout for the letters and light beige for the background.

When the sign is complete – hopefully later this week – I’ll be working on incorporating it as the new banner into this website, which will need some colour scheme tweaks. I’ve also an idea of creating a background image in which a few of the curved lines of the sign/banner would continue outside the rectangle’s borders, extending into the site’s background.

Closeup the mosaic sign in proggress

Maplestone Mosaic Gallery in Creemore

Yesterday I and three other mosaic artists from the Toronto area took a trip to the small Ontario town of Creemore, population 1300, home to the only (as far as anyone knows) art gallery in Canada dedicated exclusively to mosaic art.

The front of the gallery, on a snowy dayCreemore is also home to Creemore Springs microbrewery, which adds to its tourist appeal. Well, it did for me.

Gallery interior, showing a red wall with mosaics and large window with Creemore Springs Brewery visible outsideThrough the large picture windows of the Maplestone Gallery, large snowflakes that were slowly falling onto the main street of this tiny town yesterday looked particularly picturesque.

Abstract mosaic on gallery wall in greens, blues and browns

A Terry Nicholls mosaic on the right

The gallery’s two rooms are filled with mosaic artworks by contemporary local and international artists in a range of styles and materials. From rustic to glitzy, in layered glass or wood and stone, from fine art to functional objects, from the nature-inspired abstracts of Terry Nicholls to the precisely crafted compositions by Lin Schorr, to Heather Vollans‘ work with upcycled and reclaimed materials, Maplestone gallery has an inspiring variety of contemporary mosaic art on display.

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Portfolio design for application to the graduate architecture program at Daniels

Portfolio coverFor the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on laying out the portfolio which will accompany my application to the Master of Architecture program at the University of Toronto.

Going back to school to get a Master’s degree in Architecture has been on my list of “things I will do someday” for a couple of years now. Over the last six months, I’ve had the opportunity to get to a few things on this list, and am now really excited to get this application done as well.

Daniels Faculty of Architecture at U of T has one of only two graduate architecture programs in Canada that takes in students from all academic backgrounds, not only those who have a Bachelor in Architecture. The only other school that offers similar entry options is UBC. I’m hoping to get into U of T and not have to relocate my husband and two children to the other side of the continent. Especially since Daniels sounds like the ideal place to be.

Portfolio spread showing three abstract watercolour works

Five-storey brick building

Daniels Faculty building at 230 College St.

About a month ago, Daniels held an open house for potential applicants to their Masters of Architecture and Landscape Design programs. The day-long event included Q & A sessions, drop-ins on current students’ project reviews, and tours of the building and the art gallery that houses previous year’s student thesis work.

Attending the open house was, for me, the most useful step in preparing for this submission. Nothing in the admission requirements or the faculty website was as informative as this in-person visit and as revealing of the atmosphere of the school – of how young and forward-looking the faculty is, of the latest technology available to the students (there are laser cutters, a 3D printer and a CNC router on site), of the school’s focus on urbanism, on ideas about the future of architecture and just ideas in general.

Gallery display showing wooden objects with complex jointsA very surprising thing you will notice if you visit the faculty’s Eric Arthur Gallery where the student thesis work is on display – and do visit it if you have the chance, it’s free to the public and incredibly interesting – is that many of the Master of Architecture projects don’t really have much to do with architecture. This year, there is one that explores complex wooden joinery, and another that’s a stylish design for a wearable biofilter and diagnostic environment for use in pandemics.

A gallery display showing bio-filter face masks and disagnostic wear

Gallery display showing bio-filter face masks and diagnostic wear

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