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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Canadian Visual Artists: Charlie Easton

Charlie Easton is a Vancouver-based landscape painter who moved to B.C. from Britain, where he grew up in a family of artists.

Killarney Rocks After Sunset by Charlie Easton

Killarney Rocks After Sunset

What draws me most to your paintings are the vibrantly warm colours – your landscapes are rich in incandescent oranges and blues that give these scenes the feel of being bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Can you talk a bit about why this particular palette? It seems full of joy – is that the intended effect?

Well, I paint as much as I can on location as I firmly believe that photographs are so limiting. They are amazing for detail, but they tend to flatten colours, blending them instead of layering them. When you are sitting in a field, or on a mountain, or by a river you see more colours – transparencies, hints and colour changes. I work in acrylic so you can apply glazes and scumbled layers really quickly to capture the colours without too much fussing.

Street in snow by Charlie Easton

Street in snow

It’s interesting that you pick up on the joy in the colour choice, I’m pleased you do. I often find that an artist’s work reflects his or her mood, and I’ve got to say that right now I’m an incredibly lucky guy. I’m doing what I love, and I’m glad that comes through in the work.

What prompted you to make the move from England to British Columbia? What differences did you notice in the artistic environment/community once you settled in?

I was working in advertising in London, and when the company I was working for was bought by a Canadian company the opportunity to transfer was too good to refuse. I initially thought I was going to be in Canada for just a year, but I soon fell in love with the country (and a fine Canadian girl!) so it is now my home. Seven years on my love for the place, for its amazing beauty and for the openness of the people, continues to grow.

Hot feet by Charlie Easton

Hot feet

In comparison with the UK, I find the art community here is more open to sharing ideas and techniques. I have painted with some phenomenal artists here and in the States – and that is far more difficult to do in the UK, where people are a little more guarded in their professional outlook.

When it comes to your process – what proportion of your paintings do you complete on site versus in your studio? Where do you enjoy painting most?

I start it ALL on site. Whether that is getting the piece 95% done in the field, or 5%, I think it’s really important to understand colour relationships on site. Sometimes I might paint a full 36”x48” piece on site, other times I might use a photo and a colour sketch I had done previously. Either way, I need to have an understanding of the colour complexities that I’m going to use in any piece, and you can’t beat it when you have worked those out first hand. In this way I guess I subscribe to the old traditions of the classic plein air painters.

Yonge morning by Charlie Easton

Yonge morning

I have just had the best painting experience of my life so far – I’m currently in Alberta, preparing for an exhibition in Calgary, and I have driven through the Rockies painting as I go. A few nights back I painted the sun going down at Moraine Lake near Lake Louise and was absolutely blown away by the beauty of it. I like the painting I did there, but there’s just no way you could ever capture the scale, the grandeur and the beauty of such a sight on canvas. But hey, what an experience.

What is it like growing up in a family of painters? Did you always know you were going to be an artist? Or did you go through a rebellious teen phase where you threaten to run away and join an investment firm?

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Canadian Visual Artists: Rob Croxford

Rob Croxford is a Toronto artist whose paintings and mixed-media works playfully combine elements of graphic design and vintage 1950’s aesthetics with thought-provoking messages.

The In Crowd by Rob CroxfordRob’s personality, like his art, projects such optimism, that the first question I ask when we meet up for coffee near his Queen East studio is about what helps him to stay so upbeat.

“I’m just grateful that I get to do this. I worked some terrible jobs over the years. I’ve got so much going for me already – I get to do what I love every single day. Even if things are not always as financially rewarding as I might like them to be, I get to do something that I’m passionate about and that’s amazing.

“It really helps when you love what you do. My paintings are really upbeat and positive, and I try to really be playful – and when you have that around you all day you can’t help but feel that way.”

But the consequences of the recent economic downturn can be disheartening for a professional artist, and focusing on the positives requires an occasional self-reminder, especially after a disappointing show:

Things 2 by Rob Croxford“I have to say to myself,  ‘It’s ok, Rob. People are really responsive to the work, and it’s really good work, and remember you love to do it. It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process.'”

Speaking of the process, how does he choose the phrases that make up are such an integral part of many of his works?

“I sit on some of them – there’s a few that I’ve been sitting on for some time, I can’t think of how to make them.  I don’t want to be too preachy, and I don’t want to be too ‘cat of the month calendar’ either.  So I sit on a lot of them until I find the right inspiration, the right imagery.”

One Answer by Rob Croxford

One Answer quotes Neil Gaiman:
“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Rob admires many of the authors of the clever, funny and thought-provoking quotes that accompany his paintings: “They come from people who are the person I would like to be […]  I’d like to have the knowledge and experience it takes to say those smart things.”

He says it’s very exciting and rewarding when all the pieces of an artwork finally come together.

“I’m just finishing one right now. I’d started it one way and thought, ‘It’s a bit preachy, but ok, I’ll try that.’ Then I thought, ‘It’s not nearly funny enough,’ so I went back to the drawing board and made it a little bit funnier, a little bit sillier.”

Wanting to make his work more humorous, to “turn up the heat a little bit” sometimes makes Rob doubt its marketability: “Every now and again I get that voice in my head, ‘Don’t say that, Rob. No one’s going to hang that up in their house.'”

Free&Easy by Rob CroxfordBut his main concerns about turning up the humour in his work are not commercial. He worries that because his paintings are fun, they are sometimes dismissed as not being Art.

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Canadian Visual Artists: Jeremy Down

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.

Lady of the Lake by Jeremy Down

Lady of the Lake

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.

Jeremy Down painting up on a mountain

Painting up on a mountain

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?

skiisl / skisel

The “skisel” with the painting Nemo Glow

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.

Kauai North Shore Ocean

Kauai North Shore Ocean

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?

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