Patrick Iberi: The subject of your work is mainly abstract; but I’d like you to put your paintings in a context. By this I mean what reality do you hope to capture in a framed canvas? Give MTLS a general idea on the outlook behind your work.
Meghan Hildebrand: I've always been compelled to paint and draw. Abstraction has been a natural and automatic way for me to turn complex subjects into simple symbols, from here, narrative can take hold. As the child of an artist growing up in the Yukon, I was immersed in the reductive styles of Inuit and First Nations art, as well as that of my mom's contemporaries, such as Ava Christl, Nathalie Parenteau, Jim Robb, Jim Logan and Ted Harrison - painters inspired by the unique northern palette and the weather-ravaged landscape.
In our house were paintings of colour-soaked sunsets, decaying cabins and mines, signs of the north's industrial identity, and symbols of my father, a miner and road-builder to this day. These scenes spoke to me of the rich melancholy of being small and inconsequential within an epic background, or sometimes of a yearning for a past time, before we covered this place with our roads and pipes. The same themes can be seen in my early abstract work, the series “Megalopolis” for instance, a thirty-piece panoramic installation depicting cross-sections of industrial landscape.
I see myself in the storytelling tradition. I provide a setting and sometimes characters; the story is left to the viewer to ponder thereafter, and possibly interpret. I am inspired by the beauty of the places I've seen, from northern Canada to ancient towns of Italy to the ocean and forests of the west coast, tempered with fear of the future and other unknowns.
A familiar setting in my work is a dreamscape disaster, based around a childhood dream that has stuck in my consciousness. Imagine our cities are crumbling and precarious, but the sky is so amazing that the air feels pink and warm. Amidst the ruins, the living souls of this battered landscape communicate without words, and accept that the birds and animals are leading us towards the ocean. This contradiction of joy and dread is a quality that has defined my work. In this vein, I find inspiration in the works of filmmaker Guy Maddin, "Maufactured Landscapes" photographer Edward Burtynsky, and Quebec painter David LaFrance.
It could be that we each create our own story, to which we bring our own personal culture. I was recently lamenting to a friend about not being part of any historic culture, and she set me straight. Everything in my life from my father's Mennonite roots to the piano lessons I struggle with defines my story, and this brings life to my art. It felt good to realize I hadn't been left out. Perhaps our constructions are the temporary and ever-shifting props in our stories, and as we try to share these props and settings; our relationship with each other strengthens the plot.
P.I.: In a recent Yukon arts review, you expressed the challenge of painting on a smaller canvas; your remarks were, “it is harder to work on a smaller canvas because the composition is less forgiving; it’s just smaller and you only get one shot.” From the foregoing statement, can you offer any more contrast between working on smaller and larger spreads?
M.H.: A large painting offers the opportunity to work around the problems. A difficult passage can be ignored while another portion of the painting comes to life. The space between these areas can become the relationship that makes a difficult passage easier to navigate. A passage becomes difficult for one of two reasons: something old and too familiar has reappeared, or something new, and therefore challenging, has emerged. The latter should be respected and considered carefully, and perhaps accommodated. The former should be considered, and then destroyed.
My paintings usually begin with a colour field and are developed by creating a dripping chaos of colour. From these beginnings, I look for a composition and tease it out. This first shot at the painting are my favourite moments, fun and loose, as opposed to the hunched rigidity of channeling my inspiration into a six-inch square.
The large canvas is a wonderful chance to swing my arms and throw paint around. I often get so caught up in the details of a piece that I forget that my body is there holding me up. The physicality of huge brush strokes and wiping colour away is a great reminder that this is something I want to be able to do my whole life; it reminds me to consider my health.
The well-executed small painting can be very intimate and can have as much power as a piece many times its size. “Chords of Fame” is an example of this; it is small scale and this lends a jewel-like preciousness to the piece which would not exist if it were big. A small, good painting wants to be held and taken home. It is interesting to see what is revealed when changing the size of an image (in a photocopy, for instance). If the composition and the contrast are good, it looks great.
P.I.: I’d like you to comment on how prolific you have been as an artist since you left school. With three collections of paintings and so many more in your archives, how far do you think you have come?
M.H.: There was one instructor at art school who was always assigning works in series. His theory was that exploring an idea through a single piece would not teach you as much as building a body of work, in which an idea goes through many stages of refinement. My preference is to work on many pieces at once, which feeds this theory well, I can move onto a new piece when inspiration fails, or when good things happen I can start a new piece with that thread. Having plenty of canvases on hand is also a good way to continue a colour scheme through several works. This leads to having many paintings, but I like having a big inventory. I'm confident I can hang a show at any time, and studio visitors are often interested in seeing the older work.
I spend a lot of my time in the studio – which is why I have been able to build up so much work. I will typically spend 30 hours a week painting and 10 hours in the clay studio, where I am creating a sculpture series. All of the successful artists I've met have been highly prolific producers, so I follow their lead, as well as making choices in my life that allow me this freedom. My husband and I have no plans for children, no pets, no vehicle, and live inexpensively in a small town with a nice climate.
Ten years after finishing art school I continue a full-time art-making practice, which is well beyond what I had hoped for. However, the market is changing. Time invested in the studio needs to be balanced by time spent marketing.
One way I measure my growth as an artist is in knowing when to pull back, especially when a painting is seemingly unfinished. As I mature as an artist, I am more certain of that moment. "Wells Project" was the product of a workshop I took with Canadian painter Norman Yates in Wells, BC. He advised that I put that piece aside for a while, which was difficult, but over the years I have come to recognize it as one of my strongest and most emotional paintings.
P.I.: I think “Wells project” stands out in part because it doesn’t look contrived in anyway. Were you hesitant in choosing the colour scheme for that particular piece? And I’m also curious to find out if you think the variations in tone add any illusion of depth to the painting.
M.H.: “Wells Project” stands out for me because of its simplicity and brightness, and it’s always shifting narrative. There was not much time spent thinking about the piece; I had no preconception of what I would do that day, it was over in minutes, and the painting still surprises me when I see it, it always seems to be saying something different. I think the lack of hesitation is evident in this piece, and it is part of the freshness that keeps it alive.
I wanted to take that piece in a different direction, because the canvas itself was a piece of nice quality hemp linen given to me by a friend, so I left it unprimed to explore the characteristics of the fibre. I intended to use a drawing element I had come up with that day through a group exercise, the black marks connected by fine lines, evocative of dental braces in my mind. There was not much time spent deciding on colours, it was a matter of what was wet in my palette. The result of the wet colours on the unprimed fabric was wonderful. The way the dark purple colour ran and separated into its red and blue elements, the way the red, thrown from a brush, bled and gave the illusion of dripping flames, forming a delicate halo against the darker shade behind.
With this particular painting, I discover that the tonal range adds a certain ambiguity to the perspective, traditionally the most contrasting element (the black) pops in front, but in this case the colours seem to start in front of the black then pass behind it. This might be because I flipped the painting upside down, so the pictorial elements are not where they predictably should be.
P.I.: You’ve highlighted the reasons why you prefer to work on so many pieces at once; I think this is a very pragmatic approach. However, does this also make it convenient to link your paintings together as a series or body of work?
M.H.: Having given myself a handful of different starting points, the pieces created in the same period usually emerge with enough commonality to be considered a series. There are sometimes breaks in the theme, however, and I'll break off a tangent from the theme and run with it. These often are windows into the next series, and I might include it with a subsequent exhibit.
My painting, “Defriender” has two canine characters almost right in the middle. I thought these two could tell an interesting story, so I worked them out as magnified central characters in the next piece, “The Long Memory.” The animal narrative became the theme for my next series, “Friendship Station,” which included both paintings.
P.I.: You are also working on a sculpture series with clay. Are you involved in any other art-related project or activity and how is this coming along?
M.H.: I have a few more sidelines. I'm taking some drumming lessons from a neighbour friend who opened a music studio. Some piano and guitar too, but the drumming appeals to me in a different way; because it is the first instrument in which I've found a personal voice. I love playing imaginatively and creating unique rhythms.
Like in painting, I am finding the value of empty space and the joy of spontaneity. A friend has loaned us a drum kit so the music dream is coming alive, as our friends begin to gather here in expectation of picking up the instruments. Being part of art (and at this point I could call it art more easily than music) that is social and interactive is something I had previously underestimated. It is absolutely magical!
I have a sporadic sewing practice, which I often return to after a long period of painting. I have been working for years making a kind of stuffed animal art. Part of the appeal of this is the hunt for materials, lately I've decided to go for recycled and natural fibres, so I look for old, well made suits sweaters, and fur and leather coats. Looking for buttons is also a passion. I like making these things to add to the canon of original handicraft; I know they are out there being appreciated as very special toys.
Sketching from life or imagination, I like drawing in ink or on scratchboard. It is great to have all the old sketch books to look back on, often a sketch will take me back to the momentous occasion on which is was drawn, like waiting for the ferry on our first trip to Powell River. Good resources for future paintings, lately I have taken to collaging these old drawings into the painting.
P.I.: Your work has been used for the Shambhala music festival. What was that experience like?
M.H.: Occasionally, I am approached for promotional artwork, and when a client is familiar with my work and is looking for something unique, I take the job. I have had some work purchased for permanent collections, but I haven't yet had the opportunity for the type of corporate commission in which I am asked to create something for a specific space. I'm open to this kind of commission; a chance to create something unique to define a space, with the rare security of knowing the work has a purchaser.
The Shambhala Music Festival art has been a challenging but enriching experience. This kind of job stretches me artistically and to stay fresh year after year, is good training for my development as an artist.
I usually create a painting and then use that as a starting point to design holographic tickets, posters and clothing designs. The nature of work in music promotional art is one of digitally modified and multi-layered psychedelic overload of imagery. This is not like the work I produce; but fortunately, the producers like my ideas and trust my judgment.
While the artwork needs to appeal to their audience, I try to appeal to an even broader base, by referencing local culture, art history, current fads, and try to stay ahead of colour trends. We want something eye-catching and original, an invitation to a huge party with endless possibilities. I enjoy the manipulation of my images and the challenges and choices of combining it with text.
My images get printed by the thousand, then, when I go to the city, it is all over the place! It makes me feel glad. Especially when a stranger is wearing my design and thinking they themselves look pretty cool.
The relationship I've formed with the producers over eight years on this project is a big part of the enjoyment I get. Each year I try to create a new face for the festival and they have always supported my ideas. I'm part of a team, and when we go to the event, it is like being part of a family. Other jobs like this would be great, but this is a unique situation and with eight years of experience behind us, we have worked out the kinks and I love the experience.
P.I.: Despite your growth as an artist, your involvement and influence in art seems to be regional. Is this because you don’t see any need to take your ideas and initiatives outside your province; perhaps explore the chance to collaborate with artists outside of Canada?
M.H.: Basically I take cues from my immediate surroundings and memories when building up landscapes in my paintings. I like the idea of reflecting my part of the world; the coast and the north are parts of my identity. I still love the northern palette of violets, yellows, and so many whites, and I am just beginning to explore the pictorial possibilities of the ocean.
At the moment I have a stronger presence in western Canada. It is important to me to meet my representatives and see the exhibition spaces in person, and it is nice to be able to attend my openings, so at this point, working in western Canada has been practical. I hope to build a strong foundation here in the west and then expand. Judging by the response to my work in Winnipeg, there seems to be potential further east.
I would readily embrace the chance to collaborate with international artists, of course, and this is a plan for the future. I would love to learn a new technique or medium such as film making, be involved in a group project, like a mural, or do a residency. I could love to see how a different place would shape my work, and learn how other artists confront their challenges. I loved the aspect of art school in which peers could build each other up with support and ideas.
I have done some travelling however, and have been amazed at the reception towards artists in other parts of the world. For instance, in Italy, if I were introduced as an artist, I would absolutely not be allowed to pay for any food or drink, even though they had never seen my work, they seemed honoured that an artist was in the room. This leads me to imagine what rich experiences are out there.
Here in Canada, a common response to my occupational status is sympathy, "it must be so hard to make a living!” I think some Canadians have a hard time believing that anything homegrown can be compared to the more celebrated ideas of the United States and Europe, and this is not helped by the attitudes of our current government. In fact, today I read that after the Olympics, the BC government is cutting arts spending by 88% over the next two years so we can expect our public galleries to be in some more trouble.
Despite these Canadian short-comings however, I have found the ideal place to base a studio, and in the spirit of supporting a local economy, keeping my work close to home is my priority for now. At a local level, people feel arts funding is an extravagant expense, and that artists should find a way to make a living like everyone else; contribute to the economy and then make a hobby of the arts. I wish they could see it as I do, as something that can bring communities together in dialogue, employment and identity.
P.I.: As a mixed media artist, what do you think of the post-modern art culture that affords artists the choice to use a computer tool in enhancing formal elements of an artwork for instance?
M.H.: This question brings to mind an animated and emotional debate we had with friends recently. The friends were speaking in favour of Pixar animation, such as the recent "Up", and my husband and I spoke for hand-drawn animation, like the classic, "The Cat in the Hat".
My friends liked the range of facial expression, unlimited special effects and feel-good plots offered up by these productions. I, on the other hand, feel manipulated by these aspects of computer generated, three-dimensionally simulated films. Yes, like traditional animation, they begin with an artist's concepts, but all the polish and 'dimension' is created digitally, which to me, negates the hand of the artist and steals the opportunity for a viewer's imagination to add their own layers to the story.
In the new Pixar-type films all the imagining seems to be done, leaving clichéd expressions and vapid one-liners, illustrating a final point: a digital medium that could have opened new possibilities in animation has instead come to be dominated by a single style. The viewer is given what they expect and never challenged.
I employ computers in my art like I would use a photograph or reference a book, for specific imagery or to serve as a guide. But it would not be in my practice, however, to improve a painting digitally and present that as my art.
I think an important part of enjoying a work of art is tracing the artist's path, looking for the sequence of the brushstrokes, which areas show confidence and which are played down. Spending time with an original can reveal wonderful insights into its creator.
For an artist to decide to enhance one element over another within an image, whether it's painting, film or photography, can be presumptuous and discredit the viewer's intelligence. Like in the Pixar animation, the imagining is already done.
It is my understanding that post-modernism is supposed to slough off the constraints of modernism, allowing us to reference classical traditions as we continue to reflect a modern society. I appreciate being part of a painting tradition and I often experience this connection to the past when I am painting or sculpting.
P.I.: Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter is also known for his collection of letters which were extremely introspective and revealed his uncanny ability for self-analysis. On this premise, I’d like you to comment on the person behind all the creativity?
M.H.: Well, I try to capture some of my childhood dreams in my painting. It revolves around the hunt for something missing but the actual thing itself is just a fantasy because finding it is always an illusion. The sequence starts with a dark highway that spirals around a mountain into my hometown. There is a series of choices between doors, and always a door found at the back of a closet, and then I sneak through the dress rehearsal of a play. Then, it progresses to a bus ride through a dusky city. Often I depict a place as if we are just passing through, as though from a train. My paintings usually turn into a sort of dreamscape, even if they start out as a mass of arbitrary colour. There is often an entrance: a door in a corner, an open window. These are invitations to enter the painting in different ways.
I am not gifted at introspection or self analysis, actually this is the first time I have considered my art through the lens of my own inner fantasy life. I think Van Gogh became a depressed and cerebral man, who spent much of his time in his head. I have a difficult time separating who I am from what I do, what I can say is that I feel whole when I am making art. When painting, I am lost in the music on the radio or the aesthetic choices in front of me, which I enjoy.
To look at myself through the art, the person revealed is someone connecting to the sheltered joy of my early childhood, wanting to be held by my mom, eat huge cinnamon buns, or have the feeling of lying in a tent on a bright Yukon summer night. I see the places around us, stiff human constructions, and I default to a place of seeing it through a child's eyes, amazement, simple shapes and wonderful things happening within. I am always too curious about what happens behind closed doors, can't help glancing through neighborhood windows, always jumping at the chance to explore someone else's home. I recently re-purchased some of the illustrated books I had as a little girl, The Rainbow Goblins, Norbert Nipkin, A Painted Tale, and I was delighted to discover how much of what I saw there has formed me as a painter and a storyteller. Although my art is sometimes read as a cultural critique, I think the person I am comes through as well, someone imagining fantastic places from stark ones, and trying to make the best of things.
P.I.: Can you recall your first attempt at painting and what the experience was like?
M.H.: My mother and I used to live in a cozy trailer just outside of Whitehorse. It was plain white with olive green trim. I suppose I was four years old, and we decided to paint the front door. We chose, probably I chose, parrots on a rainbow against a bright blue sky. The last time I was up there I drove up that road to see if I could recognize the trailer, but I couldn't tell it from the others. I don't remember a time before painting; and since the death of my mom in my twenties, painting offers me a connection to her. There was a peaceful contentment in that early experience, which I still feel when a painting is going well. I notice now that when I'm in that space, time seems suspended, as if an hour is a whole day. This feels like some sort of cosmic gift, like I have easily discovered the place where my labours bear the best fruit, and I feel grateful for it.
Although I always painted, there was an instructor, John Cooper at the Kootenay School of the Arts that revealed how much more painting could be. He was the colour theory instructor. Beyond representing the world we saw, Cooper showed us how colours could be played off each other, creating emotionally heightened versions of our subjects in full saturation. This unlocked a code that would inform my painting from then on. He pinned a coloured paper to the wall and told us to stare at it until our eyes were saturated. Then, look beside it. Without any prompt, every student saw a ghost of the opposite colour hovering beside the sample. This was a lesson in the powers of deception one could achieve with colour. We discovered that we were not bound by our subjects, these were just shapes on with which we could riff on. Furthermore, he said there are no lines in nature, only places where things meet. Then, looking at Van Gogh, Seurat and Magritte, the paintings made infinitely more sense.
Yes, they painted colours that may not have been there, they surrounded colours by their various compliments, bestowing their pictures with uncanny intensity that can almost hurt the eyes! With this awareness, I have more control over the world within a painting. It can also be fun to ignore the tricks and paint as if I were four again, painting in symbols and gestures.
P.I.: What are your expectations and plans for the future?
M.H.: Spending time working on projects with my husband and working on my art are the activities that make me feel whole and productive, free of anxiety. So the plan is to work towards more of that. We would like to design a small and efficient home, with a magnificent studio, and build it on a nice piece of land overlooking the ocean. I hope to keep painting, possibly changing mediums. Perhaps I could produce my own paper, and create paints from natural pigments. I also foresee engaging on a more serious level with clay sculpture, this is a love affair that has just begun, the possibilities are endless, and I could create a truly local product within my area.
At the moment, I'm creating an installation exhibit combining paintings, clay sculpture and mixed media, which I hope to circulate through public galleries. I'd like to find gallery representation in a few more of Canada's major centres, particularly further east. Ottawa, Toronto and Halifax are on my list. International representation would be fine too; I think this will happen when the time is right.
Retirement is not really an option, besides; I don't think I would do much differently in retirement than I do now. By then of course, my art will be providing a good income, allowing us the creative space to work on our band! Of course by then we will be quite good at playing our instruments.
P.I.: Thank you very much for your time and detailed response to my questions.
M.H.: Thank you Patrick for this exchange; it has been a healthy challenge to answer your questions and I believe my work will improve for having done this extra and unexpected contemplation. More so, I think it will definitely be useful when it comes to updating my artist’s statement.
You can view any of the pieces of artwork in this gallery by clicking on the thumbnails below:
Photo: Morgan Whibley
Meghan Hildebrand was born in Yukon and went on to study art in Nelson BC, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Meghan likes to work on multiple canvases, often replacing brushstrokes with collage and representing fragments of time and space. Her sunny Powell River studio is a tornado of paper scraps, paint, tools, books, sewing and music. Currently, she has put the wooden panels away in favour of large-scale canvases, and a new series is emerging. She has also recently discovered the endlessly versatile medium of clay and a show featuring her sculptural pieces is in the works. Meghan's work is collected world-wide, and is available in galleries across Canada. Find more information at her website, www.meghanhildebrand.com
Patrick Iberi has a background in philosophy. He is greatly interested in existentialism and works as a freelance writer, with attention (in varying degrees) on essays on the arts, literary criticism and poetry. His writings have appeared in both print and online publications. A forth-coming collection of poems tentatively titled “Echoes of a desolate voice “is in the works
April 6th, 2010
Griffin Poetry prize shortlist announced
April 1st, 2010
Gaspereau Press Wins Five Alcuin Design Awards