The following is an edited excerpt from an intimate podcast interview that Andres Garzon held with Craig Guthrie, a scenic artist and painter from London Ontario. You can hear the full unedited version of this podcast here on the Centred.ca website.
Andres: Hey, my name’s Andres Garzón from Centred, an online art publication that strives to bring the phenomenal abundance of artists and artist exhibitions of southwestern Ontario to national and international attention.
Centred exists to shine light on the thoughtful and sometimes provocative contemporary artwork of our regional artists, as well as to support the galleries and museums that show in Southern artwork. Today we’ll be talking with Craig Guthrie.
Craig was born and raised in Guelph and early on felt connected to nature, spending countless summers of his childhood fishing with his father around Georgian Bay and the Kawartha Lakes. Following four years of study in the University of Windsor’s Fine Arts program, Craig stepped behind the scenes and into the world of set design and scenic art.
He’s worked in many set design venues throughout Ontario, including those in Niagara on the Lake, Hamilton, Grand Bend, Stratford and in Toronto. Craig is now coming up on his 19th season as the senior scenic artist here in London at the Grand Theatre, and his practice has expanded much further than that, exhibiting in many galleries as well, developing his studio practice while maintaining his passion for scenic set design work.
I’m excited for you to meet Craig through this podcast and I hope you enjoy!
Andres: Well, okay, so we’re at TAP Center for Creativity and we’re on Dundas Place downtown. And I’m on the second floor with artist, Craig Guthrie, which is exciting for me. Craig, can you tell me about this space and how you came to be here?
Craig: I feel very privileged to have this space. I’ve been in this space for about three years. There was a time where I needed to paint, but TAP didn’t have any studios available, so I painted in a little room downstairs that’s kind of like the back part of one of the front windows. It was hot. I used to paint in my underwear, I’m not gonna lie.
Andres: Wow, I love that though. Like that’s some real dedication. I love when people like working these like little nooks that are so random.
Craig: I used to paint in my kitchen, and I would have to watch the clock. And when my partner, Richard, was coming home, I’d have to turn it back into a kitchen?
But now I have this space. I’ve worked for it. I waited for it and then when I got this space, I really worked to make it what it is. It wasn’t as nice as you see it now. It was a very different space; I’ve collected little things from Thrift shops and other places, and I have brought those things to this space. So, when I walk in, I’m surrounded with furniture that I like not that it’s expensive. I always say I like this stuff but it’s not precious. I like the vintage furniture. So, it has been pleasant to say the least, to be in this space.
Andres: Do you live in your studio space?
Craig: I live in The Coves. I don’t know if you’ve heard of The Coves. It’s a great little environmentally sensitive area. It’s sort of a conservation area around some small lakes just west of Old South here in London.
Andres: So how to you find painting in this space? Are you able to focus?
Craig: It really depends for me where a painting is at. So I work on just one at a time. I like to give one piece my full attention. And I’m not a great drawer, the drawing stage is challenging for me. It’s hard to tell myself I have to do that. And then when I get to the later stage of the painting, where I’m sort of layering colours and creating those sort of colour relationships that I feed off of, you know, that feed me as an artist, I almost can’t wait to get to work.
I also do a lot of work in my head while I’m at home watching TV, or while I’m walking in to work. I just can’t wait to get paint on the brush. And I paint quite quickly at that stage. A big part of the process for me is work.
Andres: Are you doing a lot of thumbnails in terms of composition? Or do you just say, this is what I have in mind, and this is the one I’m going for?
Craig: Well, I do a lot of source material photography. I will set things up and photograph them so I can get a sense of lighting, shadow, bounce, colour, colour relationships. You’re really using a still life kind of approach. Not always, but often. I’ll have a source photo of the thing that it actually is and then I’ll have a source photo of what it reminds me of and try to give a little bit of that energy into that same painting. It’s like it’s realistic, but then it’s not… It’s not like a strawberry that you have on the table. It’s more like a mixture of this strawberry that you saw and this other one that you saw.
Andres: So why did you choose fruit?
Craig: I am the fruit – like gay, you know. Like it’s very simple.
Andres: But this is not like your previous work.
Craig: So, I really love painting, but where do I start this? Let’s just say I found myself at a place in my work where I realized I wasn’t letting a lot of me into it. I was maybe painting for an audience. Something was expected of me, and I was delivering that. When was this? Maybe five years ago. Okay. I still love those paintings. I still put my heart into them. I still believe in them. But this was recent. I’ve been painting for a while, but I’ve only been painting my own work for 10 years. So, sort of halfway through, I realized I was sort of focusing on the wrong thing. I was trying to please someone else instead of pleasing myself, or even allowing myself into the work. So, you know, the whole shutdown thing, when that happened, I know no one likes to talk about it.
There was this thing that happened like I moved up in my painting. Yeah. But when that happened, I thought I really want to paint something that reflects this time. So, I did a little still life painting of a rolled toilet paper. And it was funny to me. It was really funny. And that’s what I really needed. And I realized that I like to laugh. I like funny people. I can be funny. And I was never letting that in. And when I let it in, I really enjoyed the work. I really enjoyed the response. And I felt like I was actually making art. Okay, so I realized there’s a lot about me that I wasn’t letting in. And specifically, like a little humour, a little queerness, you know, and letting that in made the world of difference to me.
I was suddenly sort of reconnected to my work. So, the Pride Art Show came up and I thought, I’m going to put something in that. And I painted a peach and an eggplant. Yeah, I just kind of thought, what is going on? I am a queer artist in London painting downtown. There is a Pride Art Show a block away and I don’t participate in it. So, you know, I started to right some of those wrongs and put work into that show and I thought they were funny, too.
And then I got into painting fruit, and it was kind of suggestive and it was sort of a reclaiming of the emojis. And I was really enjoying it. Well, it’s kind of like, it’s very modern and very historical in both ways, right? Like still life painting and like realism are such historic forms of painting, but then the emojis and iconography is so modern. And they are both happening at the exact same time, but you’re really leaving the interpretation to the person. That’s great.
What I’m trying to do is I have this thing where I have both. Pop-art realism, and portraiture. You know, for me the works that I’ve been painting in the past were always portraits and I approach these as portraits too. But this work reminds me of advertisements. It really is about the individual thing, and I try to include the flaws and the imperfection. I want it to be realism. I want it to be pop art. It’s a mixture of those two things. I feel like if you’re on the edge of that, that’s how you know you’re going in the right direction. Like it makes you a little nervous, but it makes you excited. So, when I come into the studio, and I really beating myself up because I am feeling uncertain about the body of work. And then I just think, I’m making something that hasn’t been made before. I think I’m supposed to feel uncertain. I think that’s the state I’m supposed to be in to make this work. So then I just embraced it. I was like, okay, I’m going to uncertainly make this work.
Andres: Yeah, you have to trust yourself too and know that it might not look like what you wanted to look like at the beginning, but you’ll figure it out. You have to trust your vision. I don’t know all of the answers at the beginning of this journey.
Craig: You won’t have them. If you did, it would be obsolete. You wouldn’t need to make it, right? That’s right. If the finished product is for the viewer, the process is for you to experience. I think for me, it’s like when I start feeling like I can predict what I’m going to do, that’s when I’m like, okay, I need to reevaluate what it is I’m doing again. And that’s tough because for me, momentum is so difficult to maintain. And so, if I feel like I’m losing momentum and I must start from zeroes again, I feel like I’m failing. I say to myself, I had all these ideas months ago or I did this body over a year ago and that felt so good. And now I’m kind of back in square one. I don’t know if I have anything left to say there, but it’s all I’ve been doing for such a long time. How do I now shift topics, shift subjects, all that stuff?
Andres: How do you keep your painting vibrant?
Craig: Yeah, I really fight for flow. You call it flow once you call the momentum as well. I really I almost feel like Yes, I’m a painter, but my job is to protect flow I can create things if I have the time sort of uninterrupted time where I can engage with the work, but it’s like There are so many challenges that come in and try to interrupt that flow – plans for a dinner you have to attend, somebody’s event, and so on, and you have to choose yourself sometimes if you want to keep that flow going, which is I think where most good work comes out of, that is uninterrupted time to yourself. I can do maybe like a four- or five-hour session. I always think that unless I was able to sit down and work for an extended period, it wasn’t worth doing.
I have a hard time with that. I have a hard time with just a little bit of time here and a little bit of time there. If that’s all I have, of course, I’ll do my best to use that. But I definitely work better the other way.
Andres: So, you have to capture it, while it’s alive?
Craig: When I sit down to do the painting, maybe five days, maybe… That’s really fast. I’m getting faster because I’m getting looser.
Andres: Do you aim for perfection?
Craig: I like to think of this work as inviting from a distance, and then vulnerable up close. You can see the paint and brush strokes in these paintings. I used to try to hide my paint, hide my brush strokes, hide my work. In these paintings, I’m loosening up a bit because I actually want you to see the paint. Otherwise, I should be showing photographs. I want you to see the work, and it’s there. I really want people to be in the room with the paintings because if I show you a photograph of my painting, you will comment about how it looks like a photograph. But if you stand in front of the painting, you won’t. That’s when I know I’ve shared the work. Sharing this work on social media just isn’t sharing. Sure, I hope the accuracy is an invitation or an indication of intention. But I also hope you think, “Well, this took work. There’s intention behind this.” And then I hope you take the time to try to figure out what I was doing. Does this mean something else is going on here?
One of the things I’m kind of obsessed with is the process. How these are done is the layering of colours. So, you can see through all of my colours to colours underneath. And then what happens is this, instead of mixing colours on a palette and applying them, those colours are mixing in your eye because you’re seeing green through red. And then it looks like it’s a deeper red, but you can also tell that it’s green under there. And they become more than the sum of their parts. Like something happens. I don’t know. I’m kind of fascinated by it. They’re magical to me. I just sort of keep applying that process to things over and over.
Andres: They look incredibly detailed.
Craig: Well, I don’t know if I’m letting the cat out of the bag, but they’re not really that accurate. They’re just complex.
Andres: I think your eye is trained differently than the average person.
Craig: Maybe. Yes. I definitely see the pieces. I see the bits and pieces. Then when I stand back at the end and I see the whole, I don’t know where it came from. I kind of go, hmm. That’s interesting. I don’t know who made it. It’s like I kind of blacked out.
Andres: Okay, let’s go back. Yeah, let’s go back to your first steps in painting and your scenic art work and your position as lead scenic artist with Theatre London.
Craig: So I went to university in Windsor for BFA acting program. I was going to be an actor. I kind of thought, well, if you could be anything, what would you want to be?