When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” — John Keats
Kevin Andrew Heslop: Rodney Mercer. When and where were you born?
Rodney Mercer: I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland on April the 8th, 1971, but I grew up in the fishing village of Dildo, Newfoundland. Trinity Bay. The community is about ninety minutes from the capital city of St. John’s.
Tell me about that place and about your upbringing, your family.
I grew up next to the ocean so the fishery was something that most people were engaged in in some way. My father was a fisherman; we lived just a few doors from the fish plant. Before that he was a whaler aboard The Arctic Skipper; and before that he was in the military. My mom worked in the fish plant and my grandmother did; my grandfather did. Another one of my grandfathers worked on the S.S. Kyle, a famous steamship that would travel yearly down on the Labrador for the seal-hunt.
The way things were—When I got away from there I kind of found out what growing up back at home was about. It’s much quieter; it gets dark at night. I never did get used to living in a city. And people were more resourceful and kids played more outdoors. People went to bed with the doors unlocked.
So it was a very, very different time and place. And that kind of changed with the collapse of the fishery, of the cod stocks. But people still work in the fish to some capacity. I grew up with four brothers so I was probably a barrel of fun, but we were fairly well-behaved and didn’t get in much trouble. But from an early age I was always making drawings or collages or whatnot since grade two. And I always thought it was something that everybody could do. It was just one of those things that people did, like writing, because I remember my eldest brother coming home from school—he was in grade six; I was in grade two—and he had some drawings done of a chevy van and mom and dad thought it was quite wonderful. And little whipper snipper that I was I said, Big deal. And my brother said, You think you can do better? So I drew a van—his was a side profile—and my drawing was three-dimensional and had a mural drawn on the side. It was the 70s so it had a little desert scene and a teardrop window and I was told by my folks that not everybody can do that, so I started drawing daily.
We were one of very few Catholic families in our school system and so we did our religious studies by correspondence with the Sisters of Service. I was exposed to a lot of secular imagery at that time and would often copy the many paintings and drawings. It seemed like the same three people over and over at the time: young boy, a fellow with a beard and a veiled lady with her hair covered. And I must not forget their halos.
Mm, mm, mm.
And people were buying these pictures from me in grade two for two dollars, which was a big deal back then. But yeah, I’ve always been creative and I found it to be a neat way to pass time, which kind of became useful during my childhood which often had me spending time away from home due to tummy problems.
So I kept on drawing through into highschool and in highschool I listened to a lot of music, heavy metal, so I was drawing a lot of album-cover imagery and making my pocket money like that. At the age of twenty-five I decided to come down to university and I applied for university and I applied for trade school and I received an entrance scholarship from both. The degree program was four years and the certificate program was two. I chose the degree program with the assumption in mind that I would learn more in four years than I would in two. I finished up university and have been painting full-time ever since.
Making a living most of the time from it. Along the way, working, you know, retail and kitchens from time to time, moonlighting as an independent art instructor. Managed a store of antiques and collectibles and stuff to kind of supplement.
I could imagine that you would’ve been quite recognizable, especially if you were doing commissions and people would know you as the local artist. Is that right?
Definitely. And in school and then living in a small province and being a professional artist in a small place, I would be recognized and people would ask me who I am and stuff, which is kinda—It’s kinda, you know, it’s kind of fun most of the time *chuckles*. People have a general assumption of who you are even though they don’t know you.
Your privacy kind of gets affected, so. With success, not everybody in life is successful at what they’re doing and sometimes people don’t celebrate other people’s successes.
And I’ve felt that as well, you know. It’s unfortunate that people think that way. You know, as human beings as a species we like to feel wanted and important or belonging to something.
We’re a pack type of creature. Nomadic, some would argue. But yeah, definitely being recognized, especially when I did a couple of works later on that kind of became viral. So being an artist—It’s kind of cliché: I decided to become an artist at twelve. I kind of always was. But it’s kind of true: I’ve always been creative and was attracted to—In the school system there was a textbook called Doryloads, an anthology that highschool students would use and that featured a lot of writings by Newfoundland and Labrador writers, but there was also a section in the book that had visual art. And that book—
There’s one image in particular that was a painting by the late Christopher Pratt. It sounds weird to say late but here we are. And it was just a little small picture on a page in the book and it was black and white; but I looked at that painting and I knew there was much more to that painting than the image and I found that very attractive and I now look back at some other works I saw as a child and I would check out books on the great masters and things and some paintings just resonated and looking back as an adult I can word it more than I could at the time. But the pictures spoke to me in a way that wasn’t necessarily with words: I got a feeling from them. They appealed to my senses in a way that other things hadn’t before. And that painting really, really, definitely—Seeing that painting, I think that was grade six, as well, or grade five. I knew I wanted to be an artist. And many years later—summer of 1997 I think it was—I was doing a summer session at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre and I just by chance stumbled upon the actual painting—I didn’t know it was there—and it’s been my all-time favourite painting by any artist ever since.
Yeah. I would later do a painting myself that explored similar themes titled Venus Calling—and it wasn’t a reaction or rebuttal to Pratt: I really don’t understand why people—the first thing they do when they get out of art school is—go after a famous person but that is what happens; I know first-hand. Composition-wise and stuff and the type of bed that’s in the painting, all these things are clues to Christopher Pratt. And interesting enough, there are a few places on the island of Newfoundland and Labrador that I always have a strong attachment to. And when I moved to St. John’s from Corner Brook—I forget exactly which year—I met with the editor of the Newfoundland Quarterly. We had a conversation at the Rooms and I was speaking with her about a certain place in the city, a house I stayed at when I was in grade five. One of my best friends—His father was a minister and he was promoted to the church in St. John’s, the big Anglican cathedral. I was told this house was just around the corner from the Rooms, and after we finished our coffee I was going to go back to a part of St. John’s called Rabbit Town but I realized there was another hour left—it was about eight o’clock—so I went down to the record store that I would haunt quite often; and along the way, I passed this very house and for the first time seen this house since I moved to St. John’s: the windows were open and I could see the light; I could see the room, those turquoise walls. It was the exact same room I had painted in Venus Calling though thirty years had passed since. A lot of happenstance and coincidence happens with my paintings, which makes me think that I’m kind of on the right path. If I could afford to own any painting or not necessarily afford but live with any painting in a space, that would be it for sure. I even thought about getting a tattoo of it on my arm but I decided I would look kind of absurd with tattoos, I think. I’m too bohemian, too Joe Normal for such things. And cheers to those who do have tattoos: nothing against them. They’re wonderful.
So, I’m looking at that painting and seeing a young woman—she’s maybe between fourteen and nineteen—and she’s wearing a simple black dress with a white blouse beneath it and she’s holding up the hem of her dress to contain, almost like a kind of marsupial’s pouch, before her, something …
It’s full of seashells.
It’s full of seashells, okay. She’s standing in a doorway; the light’s coming from outside in a sort of clear, angular way and you can only see a fragment of the left-hand side: there’s a colour that’s suggestive of green but you don’t see any sort of grass blades—it’s more of a sort of flat plane—and then, at the edge of that, water, a great body of water which begins where the grass ends without any sort of sand or beach that you might imagine in between. She’s gazing at these shells in the held hem of her dress and I’m wondering what it is about this painting that has so spoken to you.
The image is balanced; and much like Alex Colville’s Pacific the composition and placement of the figure is done to further the theme of the work. I had these things in mind with Venus Calling where the horizon line intersects with the heart and the vanishing point is placed at her womb.
There’s a lot of Christopher Pratt paintings with a lot of that type of bed.
In Pratt’s paintings, did you say?
Because—Was he hospitalized?
No, he was working at our military base.
So he kind of has an attraction to those buildings and stuff and they keep popping up in his work.
Hm. So you’re in dialogue with Pratt through this painting.
In some regards, yes.
So, I have quite a number of questions for you already. One of them—
Here’s another one of those beds. See? Same type of bed.
And is that your work—Yeah it is.
It’s a little thing I did for a fundraiser for East Ranch Gallery in St. John’s for Fair and Square. It’s a hundred artworks, a hundred tickets. And if you’re number two, you get to be the second person to choose the work off the wall.
Ah. Do you know incidentally when that one was selected?
Second or third painting. That painting’s called Levi’s Room. I didn’t put the name of the painting because it was kind of a work for me: Levi was the first friend I had back in my hospital days who passed away, unfortunately. He had leukaemia.
But it’s that type of bed that keeps popping up in my work.
And you mentioned that your dad was in the military before he was a whaler and a fisherman.
Were you alive when he was in the military or was that before you came along?
It was before. Dad signed up the day JFK was assassinated, of all things.
Was that by coincidence or with intention?
Intention. I asked him for a reason why he signed up, actually. He was in St. John’s visiting and the news came over the radio’s speakers outside of a store and … he signed up that day.
So, I have a number of questions for you but I think the most relevant one is this question of happenstance and this sensation of the recurrence of images or themes: you’d mentioned that room with the turquoise walls and the maybe coincident recurrence of military or hospital beds and I wonder if you’d just riff a little on this question of happenstance and whether that seems to you to be indicative of something. I think you used the word “path.”
These things happen with my work. I don’t feel bad about it. I kind of feel good about it.
And there are people who have looked at my work and they’ve revealed things about themselves that, because of the work—It’s not like in black and white, you know, which is where some of my works come from.
*Kevin starts making clucking sounds*
Taboo. He wants to be taken for a walk.
*cooing* Hi. Want to go for a walk? Yeah.
But I never take him for a walk when he tells me.
No, you have to establish some authority *chuckles*.
*Taboo meows again*
Um. I’m trying to think of some other examples.
*Taboo meows twice more*
I’m just trying to think of—
Tabby, don’t do that.
I did a piece called Valley Girl. I was supposed to visit Kingston last summer with a friend but I couldn’t make the trip because of a scheduling conflict; and he was outside, my friend was outside this church and he overheard a conversation this gentleman was having and he spoke up and said, You have a very thick accent. And this guy goes, You do too. I’m from Huddersfield. And my friend goes, Well I’m from Huddersfield. And they talked about how he was a professor from Corner Brook, Newfoundland. And he goes, One of my good friends lives there and he’s a professor there and his name is Reiner Baer. And Reiner Baer, just by chance, is the father of twins who have posed for several of my paintings. They mentioned seeing one of these paintings.
And he goes, Yeah, well, I’m good friends with Reiner. He goes, And we were in Newfoundland a couple of times before and the first time we went and seen a play about John Cabbot. And my friend Patty said, Yeah, I was in that play!
So, all these little things kinda—It’s one little thing after the other. It’s kinda hard to keep up with it, but yeah. It’s kinda neat.
I was talking to my friend Margaret—and she just finished her PhD—and I was telling her about this type of thing in my work, coincidence and change and that type of thing. And she started telling me about the constructs of narratives, how there’s a beginning and there’s an after; but other cultures’ narratives don’t have any beginnings or endings or afters: some stories will encompass other stories and then separate and come back together again. When she revealed that to me, a lot of my work started to become more cohesive.
Mm. As a body of work.
So, there’s perhaps something of the uncanny in that happenstance, in that coincidence, maybe that synchronicity; and, likewise, there’s something of the uncanny in the rendering of the portrait of these twins. And I’m thinking particularly of the image of the two of them wearing matching clothing, looking into their phones, standing across from one another. And I’m noticing that sense of paradoxical connection and disconnection technology facilitates.
May be a pervasive theme in your work.
I think Vincent Desiderio, a painter who works at the New York Academy of Art, was kind of crapping on paintings with cell phones and that sort of thing; and, Well, fuck you. To put something like a computer or contemporary technology into a painting, it’s kind of hard to pull it off. I’m not saying I pulled it off, but usually it looks canny or kind of hokey-pokey. That painting with the two girls that was called Selfie came about in response to Meno’s Paradox: If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary; if you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. I was kind of observing my younger nieces and former art students who follow me on social media—I’m on some social media; some of it’s private—and I was looking at how people would sometimes post things online and later on it might pop up on your newsfeed and it’s been edited. The whole idea that young people can present your version of your reality is one thing, but then you can alter it and change it and I found the paradox there, so that’s where that image came from.
And then there’s the crossing of the arms, which is a nod to Jacques Louis David.
And then the head of the figure on the right is kind of a Verrocchio head, so I’m kind of borrowing from different artists at the same time.
The Croll-Baehre twins in this look like mirror images of each other, too—even the way that their hair and their gazes are placed.
I started using twins in my series called the Nocturnal Visitor series. It has to do with sleep paralysis and night terrors and the succubus; and at the time, I was wondering, How I illustrate that? How do I make an image of psychological phenomena? And I thought, Use twins.
So I’ve done a few paintings with twins. And the first one I did with the twins, those two, was a painting called Daysleeper. And while I worked on that painting I was listening to the band R.E.M. They sing this song “Daysleeper.” Well, night-terrors have a high rate of occurrence amongst med students in their clinical years because of two factors: they’re sleeping in strange environments and at odd times of the day, whenever they can get a nap. And rapid eye movement, R.E.M—My initials are Rodney Eric Mercer. So I thought, I’ll take that. A bunch of my paintings in that time period, I nicked their titles from songs. Old Hag You Killed Me is from a band out of Ireland.
*refrigerator begins to whirr*
Is that sound the refrigerator?
Can it be unplugged?
*Rodney unplugs refrigerator*
Thanks. So, I’m looking at Old Hag You Have Killed Me, which is part of a series that preceded Selfie, and it bears the phrase that you’d used to describe that painting of Pratt’s, which is that it seems like there’s something beneath the image or behind the image. I wonder if you’d tell me a bit about this piece.
At the time I was living in Corner Brook; and in Newfoundland, regionalism is very present: you’re from the island or you’re from the west coast or from the east cost or you’re from St. John’s, and—
The narcissism of small differences, I think Freud called that.
And I just kind of got fed up with that regionalism, “the west coast is the best coast” and that sort of thing. I just thought, Fucking hell: I don’t care. Get on with it. So that painting was about that, in some ways: you have two figures in the painting, Daniel and Stephanie Payne, brother and sister. She’s a singer herself, a musician. They’re from the west coast of Newfoundland but their roots are from the south coast, the Irish coast; so that’s one bunch of Newfoundlanders. And on the wall in the background is a poster for a festival that was started by Steven Brunt of The Globe & Mail and his partner. The festival hosts writers from across Canada and some of the locals are invited, which doesn’t always happen at festivals: people come in and they don’t invite the locals, but I think that’s very important. And the artwork for the poster is based on a painting by another Newfoundlander, David Sheppard, and he’s from central Newfoundland: so here you have west coast—
Taboo, be good. You have central Newfoundland, and you have the south coast, the west coast, and the bugger who painted it is from the east coast of Newfoundland—And having lived in St. John’s and having lived in Corner Brook, you can kind of see both sides of the coin. So I thought that if all these things could work together instead of against each other, Newfoundland would be a better place. I feel very strong about Newfoundland: it’s a very resourceful place and has a lot to offer and I think that its greatest resource is the people, but unfortunately Newfoundland has a long history of things being mismanaged.
Mismanaged in what respect—or respects?
Well, natural resources. It has fossil fuels and forestry and it has minerals and it has probably the highest cost of fossil fuels on the island. One of the preceding governments under the regime of Danny Williams—an egotistical former premiere who actually bankrolled a National Film Board film about himself and expunged an artwork I did of him from the internet—he created a thing called Muskrat Falls, which is a hydroelectric dam. And I think the project’s finished now but it was way behind schedule; the province didn’t need it; and it cost more than NASA’s mission to Mars—billions and billions of dollars. And who’s paying for that? And just by chance, the people in his cabinet that voted the legislation in, lots of them did not read it—didn’t even read what they were signing—and some of them actually had vested financial interests in companies that got contracts to do the project. And that goes back in Newfoundland for generations and generations: the fishery was mismanaged; the off-shore oil royalties were given away by another nincompoop by the name of Premiere Roger Grimes. You know, in Newfoundland you cannot go outside your house and catch a fish to eat. That’s crazy. And you get in big trouble if you get caught doing that. And my parents’ families weren’t the first people there but they’ve been there a while and it’s just been mismanaged. The resources are there but the way things have worked out, there’s a long history of nepotism on the island. We had a Minister of Culture who fired someone from the Rooms and hired the Lieutenant Governor’s daughter. That’s the type of stuff—And I did artwork about him too. The following year there was an art fundraiser and I did an image of him on a colostomy bag that lit up. I was in hospital so I couldn’t paint so I made a little nightlight for him and it says, Ingredients: colostomy bag, nepotism—
I’ve always had a bit of a subversive nature to my work. The first time I ever did anything subversive was in Cook County: my friend’s dad heard me swearing one time and he said, I don’t want to hear anyone saying that word again or you’ll get your mouth washed out with soap. And I said, He didn’t say I couldn’t write it—so I wrote FUCK on the wall. And I know what Ivory soap tastes like.
When I was in university, I worked my butt off, did all my assignments, and to many people’s surprise, I actually failed painting in university.
Not because of the quality of my work but because the professor was insane. He was insane; he was; he was literally insane. And fast-forward a couple of years later, I got a commission to do a portrait of the president of the university. So, I read a lot about painting and also about restoration and techniques and things—and normally if you do an underdrawing on canvas with graphite, if you x-ray the painting, the drawing will show. So, if anyone was ever to x-ray the portrait of Dr. Axel Meisen, former president of the university, they will see a speech balloon.
So “MUN” means Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. And Axel Meisen is saying, “Hey! Not a bad gig for someone who failed a MUN painting course.”
I’d love for that to be in print.
It’s in print.
Yeah, I failed painting; and the professor eventually got kicked out because he was making up his own rules and assignments. We actually got in a shouting match one time in the studio. I said, Sir, I have a question. Yes, Rodney. How come when I ask you questions in the class, you don’t answer me; you walk by me; you never tell me anything, and then when I get my marks, I fail? And he started shouting at me, right? And at the time, when I came to Grenfell after I had two hospital stays—I lost my twin brother—and the professor asked me, Why do you think these things happen to you all the time? He was insinuating that my brother died because I was a shitty person. Unknown to him, up in the mezzanine was another student who wanted to go to the principal’s office. But I said, I just can’t do it: I’ve been dealing with so much stuff this past year. I can’t do it. But that was my little screw-you. A lot of the faculty members at the university I attended loved my work and they’ve often said that I had been snuffed by some of the faculty because—I don’t know why. Perhaps they were just a bunch of jealous little twats.
Jealous of what?
Because they don’t like to see someone having success: because when I finished university, I didn’t wear the funny hat; I didn’t walk across the stage; I didn’t convocate. And for me, it was never a political stance—I didn’t get my degree from Memorial University—it’s that I was in university for five years: suddenly I’m thirty years old. I really needed to take a break and find myself, find my sanity, and paint—because my last two years of university was hard. It was hard losing my brother and then the hospital admissions and you’re dealing with ideas of mortality and you have friends and relatives visiting you in the hospital. You’ve never seen these relatives in years and you start to go, Oh, shit. But I wouldn’t throw in the towel. So that subversive nature, that pops up every now and then. There’s the Ellen DeGeneres thing.
The seal skin. So, here was she supporting this organization—That work isn’t pro-seal-hunt; it’s not anti-seal hunt, but that work is about telling the true story about the seal hunt; and nobody is out clubbing seals, baby seals. They haven’t done that for decades: it’s outlawed. But it is a species of animal that is actually—They harvest the whole damn thing. Everything’s harvested. It was kind of done in the spur of the moment. There was seal skin in the gallery because a fellow artist had made jewelry and I thought, I’m going to make a picture of Ellen out of seal skin for a laugh—and it became viral. Ellen did this thing where she tweeted and every time someone retweets her tweet, a donation would be made by Samsung to the International Fund of Animal Welfare. And IFAW are one of the most classic sponge groups: administrators make pot-loads of money—it’s very questionable—and make a false narrative about the seal hunt. And I thought, Nope, I’m going to make a different face on the seal hunt; and it’s going to be Ellen’s face. And the picture she took at the Academy Awards—And it wasn’t even a selfie: it was a picture of her taking a selfie with a bunch of celebrities with a new Samsung phone. And her tweet came down. And a publicist did tell me that the reason why it came down was because of that artwork. A couple of years later, Ellen did an advertisement for Apple, the new iPhone; and her image is half the image of the twins with the cell phones. Kid you not. And it’s like, That’s a funny coincidence. Not saying Ellen was even familiar with my work or even knows who I am, but it was kind of cute.
One gets the sense that you feel yourself to be a sort of authentic outgrowth of Newfoundland, and that you feel you have a responsibility to expose the artifice of the self-serving and self-interested who claim, by virtue of ostensible merit, positions of authority or leadership. You don’t abide hypocrisy and you challenge it in clever and resourceful ways.
Yeah. Well, thank you. It’s meant to stir conversation. And I don’t do this for publicity just to drum up my name, because if anything I think that when I did the artwork that had Danny Williams in it, a lot of doors—I became very unpopular with a lot of people. I’d get introduced in conversation and people would literally turn their nose up to me. But, you know, the Catholic Church had a lot of power on the island for a long, long, long, long time. And if you want to get all the business people in St. John’s in the same room, go to mass on Sunday. They’re all in that same room. So to do something that’s satirical and takes an image from the Bible, people really get pissed off about it. Little did I know at the time I did that that Frank Colman was a very devout Catholic, and if I had of known that was the case, I wouldn’t have done the work, because I could see that being political about politician stuff is fair game, but when it comes to people’s beliefs, I think it’s kind of hands-off. And so it was never ever meant to be that; and when I found out I was like, Oh, shit.
One gets the sense of almost contempt or resentment of success because of a kind of small-town ethos in which everyone’s successes and failures are visible to one another: you’re talking about a relatively small and enmeshed community and *switching to Newfoundland accent* Fuckin’ Mercer down the street is wearin’ quite colourful clothes lately: who does he tink he is—
Thinks his shit don’t smell but his fart tells on him. I grew up with five boys in the community and I was taught at a young age to believe that, if you’re poor, you’re not as good as somebody who isn’t poor; and we were constantly reminded of what it was to be poor. One example: we came back from our summer holidays and one of the teachers asked people what they did on a summer vacation. Of course the teacher asked the kids whose parents had pots of money: Oh, we went to Florida; we went to the orange vineyard, and all that type of stuff. And he said, Did you take any oranges? We weren’t supposed to but we took a couple. So my brother and I were in the apple orchard the night before eating apples and my teacher said that that was wrong, but what this boy had done wasn’t: it was because we were poor and he wasn’t. Or you see a priest driving around the community in a Cadillac: it just didn’t make sense to me.
Often in school there were art contests and I’m not saying I should have won any of them—because I didn’t win any of them—but it’s just that the people … merit wasn’t based on what you did but who you were. I sensed that a lot at a young age.
Mm. And that was starkly revealed to you by your having failed painting in school.
Yeah, in university. I never took an art course until I went to university. We didn’t have art in school. It wasn’t important.
So I want to ask you about your development as an artist. In another interview you mentioned that you work in oils, acrylic, various drawing media, and printmaking; and I’ve seen other of your work in the plastic arts; and I wonder if you’d just talk me through the genesis of your relationship to each of those mediums.
I always did drawings in graphite and I never had any fancy pencil kits. I had one pencil, an HB, but I learned that if you wanted to make your graphite darker, you put your page on a hard surface; if you want to make softer tones, put something softer under your paper. So I developed a sense of how to make tones that way.
I never started drawing in colour until junior highschool. Then I started drawing album covers, mostly Iron Maiden album covers and whatnot. I did one painting before art school and it was an Iron Maiden album cover but when I got into art school, I started working in acrylic and noticed that in the bookstore they had these paints that were metallic—copper and gold and bronze—and at the time I was working classically: you’d paint in layers and you had to have under-paintings and layers and glazes and things and I thought that if somebody took a bunch of the metallic paints and glazed over a colour, it would look pretty spiffy. And if you varnished that, it’d even become nifty—because you could basically do the same structure as a candy apple paint job which I read about in my oldest brother’s van-customizing magazines and hotrod magazines. So I paint very unorthodox: I usually just mix one colour at a time and I could be laying down a yellow but I’d put it all over the painting, put it over a blue to make something green—
—And it just unifies things. My very under-under paintings are all copper and gold. It looks like earth tone but if you look at it, it’s all metallics. And that’s the final Hag painting: it’s a reprised work.
So the first and most important thing that I want to ask is: you mentioned that there’s a graduation here from spiffy to nifty.
And I wonder, What’s the apotheosis of adjectives in that line? What follows spiffy? If you go from spiffy to nifty to—
From spiffy to nifty to the bee’s knees.
To the bee’s knees—that’s right.
I have a habit of throwing these words in conversation, weird little mind games that I do. And remember I had the artist residency one time at university and I was working alongside students, visual arts students. It was a very different environment from when I was there because everyone in the studio had a laptop. Different times. But I collect these old-school words and phrases that aren’t used very often just to see what would happen. And after a while I hear people saying things and I think, Oh, you can influence people’s language. These are little things that I sometimes do to entertain myself. And I don’t usually tell people about these little things I do, but that’s what I do sometimes.
I think Norm MacDonald does that quite often when he tells his jokes, right? There’s the classic roast that he did of Bob Saget, but he’ll use these old words that you never use—like battle axe. The only person I ever heard use the word battle axe was my grandmother talking about her neighbour; but he would throw it in because I think it adds colour to the language, and you remember when somebody uses those words. It stands out. So I’ll throw those words into conversation sometimes, especially if someone wants to remember my name.
Speaking of memory, the question that I wanted to get to was about your reprising paintings that you have done in the past after undergoing a process of psychotherapy. Would that be okay?
I wonder whether you’d say anything about this opportunity to reflect on a subconscious that maybe has infused and motivated your past work without your conscious knowledge and how the process of reflection through psychotherapy has facilitated your connection with that subconscious, considering experiences you’ve had and how that manifests in the work.
Well, these paintings are narratives: they give me an opportunity to step outside of my own narrative and look inward onto it from outside, because through psychotherapy, as I’ve learned to discover, things about myself and my past and some things were revealed to me from my past, the mechanics of who I was at the time: there were things that I was exploring in my paintings even though I wasn’t conscious about painting them. Some of the things were really positive and some of them were really negative and had to do with death, trauma, paediatric trauma—
When you say paediatric …
Paediatric trauma refers to traumas that happened to children in the healthcare system—because with repeated admission to hospitals, you build relationships with other patients who are repeatedly admitted, so what made you an outsider in school made you part of the group in the hospital: a lot of these people became your close friends and not all of them survive. So at a very young age, you become very familiar with mortality.
And it was as a result of your Chron’s disease that you’d be hospitalized.
And you befriended many who didn’t survive.
Yeah. And it wasn’t really talked about, but there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about some of these people.
And there are opportunities in my work with the twins—I’m also a surviving twin since 1998: my twin brother was lost at sea. And that had an effect on my work as well. And it was actually when I was being interviewed by Marta and Emma that I kind of identified that the work was about that; and the painting of the two of them—I used to have recurring dreams as a child of somebody drowning; and I always knew who it was. But these dreams stopped. And one day I was on my way to class at university and this dream came to me while I was walking to school: it was kind of like an apparition, and it felt kind of odd, and the next day I got the phone call.
And that was the estimated time when he was lost: he was seen before that and then the storm came in. So there’s almost a calm and a peacefulness that came with working on a couple images of the twins. Having said that, it does take a lot of guts because it’s very emotionally draining, getting the last couple of paintings done. But it was closure, I think. There’s an expression that sometimes things are really hard because they’re supposed to be. Churchill: When you’re walking through hell, keep walking. I think it’s kind of the same thing here because some of the stuff that I recall now, some of it’s pretty dark, but I see a lightness in the things that I hadn’t seen before. I’m not painting Smurfs or flowers or anything—
I think Smurfs are rather dark, myself.
Yeah, they’re twisted. But my first patron lives in London so I can revisit much of my paintings that I did like twenty years ago. It’s a a bit of a mind-fuck, you know? It’s funny how we ended up at the same place. I can see my artwork going back a long time—twenty, twenty-five years. They’re fun to see but I seen them much differently in the past year. It’s growth. And it’s kind of hard putting words to what I feel: I feel that there’s things with painting that you can’t say through any other creative medium.
But since psychotherapy, these paintings say a lot more to me. And I don’t take it lightly that people want to buy these paintings and live with them for a long time. I realize that the cost of admission is significant and I don’t take that lightly.
So, I think about how you proceeded through education and how you didn’t pass painting and I think about these institutions—this was certainly my experience, to the extent to which you’ll allow me own experience to intrude upon this interview—
—Are set up to facilitate analysis and interpretation of work rather than the creation of work.
And I think about that sort of resentfulness that you mentioned earlier, but I also think about a concern among artists that’s something like, You don’t want to kill the goose laying the golden egg—or you don’t want to look too deeply at the well-spring of creativity, which could be your subconscious, and could be informed by traumatic experiences or experiences that might be better off submerged in your consciousness because they’re so generative; you might be concerned that by delving into your own psyche you might dilute the secret sauce, or something like this. Has that been true at all of your practice? Because I feel often that people who come through the academy are so stifled by their understanding of what they’re doing that they’re devoid of body and of intuition and they end up producing nothing. I remember having a teacher who said, I can write like Dickens; I can write like Baudelaire; I can write like Henry James; but I don’t know how to write like myself.
Imitation is important at first.
Sure, but it’s not an end.
I think that what’s taught at the academy is being motivated by what the teachers were taught when they were students. And I think when it comes to my history and my personal stuff, that stuff is in my artwork and it was not a conscious decision to put it in there. There’s no way it couldn’t be there. I think there’s a myth when it comes to the tortured artist or painter who paints by candlelight drinking gin or whatever.
But myths can be true. There’s a high occurrence of addictions amongst people who’ve had traumatic paths and then among the creative types.
I think habit and addiction has something to do with safety and familiarity.
Well, I’m a teetotaller but I wasn’t always a teetotaller: I didn’t have a drinking problem; I was rather good at it.
I was rather good at it.
But because of some people I know, I was able to step outside my narrative and look at it. Now, a lot of these people talk about surrendering to a higher power; but I don’t subscribe to that belief, to the sky wizard sitting on a cloud.
But you must believe in something if you notice this uncanny recurrence of coincident happenstance in your life, right?
I believe in something, just not what they believed.
Not the sky wizard.
Right. I think it’s kind of arrogant for people to anthropomorphize the Creator. It’s just one of those great unknowns; and of course people are going to say what they think about it. But when I’m in the studio and I’m painting, I kind of feel like I’m in the right place.
There you go.
You named him Taboo?
I was going to call him Marmalade until I saw him.
Kevin Andrew Heslop sits. Debut: the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, Fall 2021). Lately: Interview with poet Randy Lundy (Spring 2022); six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, Winter 2022), Revelations: Gathie Falk (Centred Magazine, Winter 2023); Sous ses yeux de pierre: Côté & Lafontaine (Centred Magazine, Spring 2023); “Toulouse’s uncharacteristic heat” (League of Canadian Poets, Spring 2023); Get Sidetracked (The Wortley Villager, Spring 2023). Soon: in medias res (Westland Gallery, Summer 2023); mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Summer 2023); Character Study (The Devil’s Artisan, Winter 2023); you are not required to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it (Rose Garden Press, 2024).