Let’s start off with some background information – tell us a little bit about how you starting working as an artist and the pathway that brought you to where you are today?
I’ve always been an attention-seeker: as a little kid I loved being in the spotlight and I would sing, dance and act for total strangers at the drop of a hat. I had a flair for the dramatic pretty early on and I instinctively recognized the magnetic power that pretending and story-telling had on people. So I think it was through theatre that I made my first real connection to the magical way art pulls back this mortal veil and let you step through to another layer of existence. Art is a tool making dreams real.
I went to art school in Montreal, but looking back I see that during this time I had lost my early primordial connection to an artist’s purpose. I was concretely trying to learn how artists live, work, what their daily lives looked like, but university only gave me a very superficial answer to that. I found a lot of people just seemed to walk around with a lot of paint on their pants, talking and sipping coffee, and that was enough to make them artists, and I wasn’t buying it.
I graduated with my BFA and then went through the standard post-graduation phase of drifting and rootlessness that feels strange and frightening at the time, but I see now is actually a crucial point in career development. I did a bunch of different things back then that I can connect directly to what I’m doing now: I started working in the film industry and learned the ups and downs of the freelancer’s life; I made silly videos and songs on iMovie and Garageband that only my friends saw, I learned hand-knitting from a friend and experimented with a sewing machine; I made a lo-fi bedroom recording of my songs, and lots of other things. Back then I was really hard on myself because I didn’t “feel” like an artist, and I didn’t have the external markers of “artist career” (none of my pants had paint all over them). It’s clear now that what I was doing then was just an early prototype of the work I’m doing now.
In 2012, instead of doing an MFA, I started a college-level textile program in Montreal and learned how to use digital technology to create fabric. During that period, I was slowly formulating a cohesive artistic theory that would be the glue that would support everything in my artistic output and. In short, I was building my artistic backbone and starting to make it all hang together. After I graduated from Textile school in 2015, I decided that my education was complete and that I was going to start putting my work out into the professional world and see what happened. At that point, I knew, after several wonderful visits, that St. John’s was where I was going to establish my professional art practice.
What do you think are the unique benefits of working as an artist in Newfoundland and Labrador? What are the disadvantages?
Close proximity to nature is one of the things Newfoundland has that simply cannot be underestimated. Coming from one the most densely packed urban areas in the country to a place with more trees than people had an incredibly positive effect on my creative output. Each time I came back to Newfoundland, I felt like I could breathe again. Large, dense cities give you access to a lot of material goods but the hidden cost of that is that restriction and compression of personal physical space. I found that stressor to be an obstacle for me. So it made sense to come here to make, think and create for a living. Also, I had been getting to know the St. John’s art scene over the years and I was starting to make that into my community, despite still living elsewhere. I have never felt anything but warm welcomes and enthusiasm from people working in the arts here. I think the value of a professional artist with something to say and an interesting way of saying it is something that the St. John’s arts community takes very seriously. I’ve witnessed people going out well out of their way to nurture that and do everything in their power to help artists establish themselves here. That isn’t something that you get just anywhere. What you’ll meet in a lot of places is total indifference, and I have yet to come across that here.
I think the long, dark winters here are actually great incubators for creativity. You only have to look at the number of RPM albums people record in February as proof. I had the best times in my studio basement this past winter, with a mug of tea and the heater on, listening to my favourite podcasts, working on a piece for a show, following my thoughts. Storytelling is one way people occupied themselves through the winter back in the day, and I would say that hasn’t changed at all here. If you can deal with isolation well (and maybe you even seek it out), then it’s a fabulous place to work.
Isolation’s drawbacks for me are mainly financial: if I have to order a lot of materials from away, shipping costs can be significant. And shipping yourself off the island and back can be expensive too. But the good and the bad are two sides of the same coin. I also really wish someone would open an inexpensive Vietnamese banh-mi sandwich shop somewhere in Georgestown. It’s a long shot… but fingers crossed!
In Giorgia Volpe’s artists talk at The Rooms last month, she told her audience that her ideas often evolve through walking. We hear that you’re a skateboarder, do you find that skateboarding helps your creative practice move forward?
I’ve been skating for about a year now and I don’t focus on doing tricks – instead, I mostly use the board to get around, so my goal is cruising with style.The biggest thing I learned through taking up skateboarding is that to overcome fear and embarrassment, it’s actually necessary to deliberately and purposely experience fear and embarrassment. That might seem obvious but eventually, I discovered in a profound way that I couldn’t have the thing I wanted (being able to skateboard) without physically experiencing some of the things that make it hard to learn how to skateboard (falling down, hurting yourself, looking foolish). I’ve found that developing an artist career is a similar experience. A lot of people will have opinions on what you should make, what’s too risky, what makes money or doesn’t, which milestones you should be hitting etc. In the end, your mistakes are your own and you can’t make good art without making terrible art as well, all the time. I also like that the idea that artist in the studio occupies the same role as a scientist in a lab: testing the limits of what is known, and coming up short many times on the way to that edge. A skateboarder trying to land a new trick is doing the same sort of thing. Each time they don’t land it, whether they’re aware of it or not, they’re learning one small detail of what will eventually help them land it. The only thing they have to do is keep making enough mistakes to get there. It’s a simple process but it takes a lot of courage.
What’s next? Any projects on the horizon that you would like to share?
My project queue is pretty full right now but I’m always dreaming about future projects, and lately, my thoughts have been turning to film & video. I’ve been envisioning a web-series for kids where I could mix up many different disciplines like animation, music, dance and textile design. I was raised on a steady diet of retro cartoons like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones, and of course 90s kids TV shows like Ninja Turtles, Pinkie & The Brain, Animaniacs, Rocko’s Modern Life. I watched a lot of Ren & Stimpy as an older kid, which was also pretty formative. I think that particular intersection of time, place and invention was really neat and innovative, especially in a visual sense. I remember watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse as a very young child, which must have imprinted itself on my brain. 90s TV was also a time when a new type of experimental humour was being developed, and I think that left its mark on me. My dream project would be one where someone would come to me with enough money and resources and say: “Make up your own world”. And I would do exactly that, and get it on video. That’s about as far as I’ve dreamed up until now…but then again that’s where everything starts. Dreams are the beginning.
Tessa Graham is a visual artist hailing from rural Ontario. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Arts from Grenfell Campus, Memorial University in Corner Brook in 2015. After receiving her BFA, Tessa worked as the Program Coordinator for Visual Artists Newfoundland & Labrador (VANL-CARFAC) until the fall of 2017. During these two years in St. John’s she volunteered at St. Michael’s Printshop and Eastern Edge Gallery helping with multiple events and workshops. As an artist she works primarily with film photography and has a keen interest in silkscreen printmaking and typography. Tessa is currently completing her Bachelor of Education at MUN.