Canadian Visual Artists: A. Shay Hahn

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.

The Woman Who Loved to Read II by A. Shay Hahn

The Woman Who Loved to Read II

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.

For Hank Williams

For Hank Williams

“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.

Cameron House mural by A. Shay Hahn

The Cameron House mural, west wall

The Last Gorilla on the Moon by A. Shay Hahn

The Last Gorilla on the Moon is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to make the viewer consider the plight of gorillas on Earth

“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.

Victory Garden by A. Shay Hahn

Victory Garden

“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.”

Girl with an Axe by A. Shay Hahn

Girl with an Axe

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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Sneaky Dee’s bathroom graffiti mosaic

Yes, it’s more than a little crazy, I agree. But isn’t it also illustriously grungy?

This is the first completed mosaic in the bathroom graffiti series I’ve started. This one represents the unholy mess at Sneaky Dee’s.

(More info & original photo I was working from in an earlier post: here.)
Sneaky Dees graffiti mosaic
The whole bottom part of this is a mirror – which of course a joy to photograph – hence the artsy contorted photo shoot. Here is the same thing with the sky reflected:

Sneaky Dees graffiti

There is stained glass, pieces of mirror, and four colours of grout in this thing but what I’m particularly proud of is how the “STEAL! records” sticker turned out.

If you want to see this insanity in person, come out to the Art Walk North this Friday or Saturday. It’ll be there. Messing with people’s minds.

In progress: bathroom graffiti mosaic

I’m thinking of making a series of mosaics based on bathroom graffiti, and I’ve started on the first piece to see whether it’ll be worth doing a few of these.

Mirror in Sneaky Dee's washroom.

The mirror in Sneaky Dee’s washroom I’m using as the basis for this mosaic

I decided to start with an image of the bathroom mirror at Sneaky Dee’s, both because the mirror aspect of it seemed like an interesting twist to explore, and because this was the place that gave me the idea in the first place.

Graffiti is the main aspect of Sneaky Dee’s decor, and while in the restaurant itself it doesn’t overwhelm you, every time I enter their washroom, it’s like an aesthetic punch to the solar plexus. Every inch of wall, cubicle and ceiling space is covered in sloppily lettered platitudes and highly unoriginal insults.

I like the place, it has good food. And I’m sure its punkish nighttime crowd, whose inebriated decorating efforts are represented here, would be pleased with the revolting effect they have on the casual weekend bruncher. But rather than try to tune out this passive aggressive assault on my artistic sensibilities, I decided to see whether I can turn it into something that I’d find beautiful.

So far it’s working. I love how this unholy mess is turning out in stained glass and mirror, on a 1.5′ x 1.5′ board. But cutting the glass with the required obsessive precision is taking such a long time.

Graffitti mosaic in progress

Detail of the mosaic in progress. Under the pieces of stained glass is the printout of the original photo that I’m using as a sketch.

And since I’ve been accepted to exhibit at the Riverdale Art Walk, which is taking place June 1-2, I’ll need to take the next four weeks to make a few new pieces for that show. So I’ll have to lay this one aside for now, otherwise I’ll kill most of that time finishing it. But it’ll be worth the wait, I think; it’s turning out kind of incredible.

Bluegrass night at Barfly, Montreal

Barfly, Montreal logoWhen I lived in Montreal six years ago, bluegrass night had already been a decade-old Sunday night tradition at Barfly. Last weekend I had the chance to visit this favorite haunt of mine after a wretchedly long absence, and was happy to see that this landmark of the Montreal music scene is still going strong and about to celebrate its 15th anniversary on November 11th.

Though a legendary dive, Barfly can be hard to find with its tiny front on St. Laurent boulevard in the heart of Montreal’s trendy Plateau district. Decorated with Montreal Canadiens hockey memorabilia, dents in the walls, and a bust of Elvis, the bar with its cheap beer, excellent live music and free pool draws a crowd of university students, music lovers and whiskey-sodden barflies in varying proportions.

The musicians that show up to play old time country and bluegrass music on Sunday nights are equally varied in age, style, and musical experience. With a typical turnout of about ten, the group usually includes a couple of guitars and banjos, a mandolin and a lap steel guitar, a stand-up bass and a fiddle. The players rotate in fronting the band for three songs, in a lineup randomly generated by chalking their names on a blackboard as each arrives. This spontaneous arrangement results in a new show every week, the style, feel and quality of which often varies immensely depending on who shows up and at what time of night.

A group of musicians on stage at Barfly

A typical bluegrass night lineup with fiddle, mandolins, upright bass, guitar and Dobro

If you think you don’t like country music because you associate it with the mainstream acts in oversized cowboy hats and glittering outfits singing about keying their ex’s car to the overly engineered sound of electric guitars, you are in good company. That’s how most patrons of bluegrass night feel the first time they are reluctantly dragged to Barfly by their enthusiastic friends who have been there before. The raw, acoustic, alive, complex bluegrass sound you will hear there is as far from what you think of as country as you can get. The intricacy of Flatt & Scruggs breakdowns will knock your socks off, the multi-part vocal harmonies of Stanley Brothers‘ gospel songs will give you goose bumps, and the dexterity of the banjo pickers will blow your mind. Inevitably, the extensive oeuvre of Johnny Cash will also be featured.

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