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.
Emily Pittman was born in St. John’s in 1994. She graduated from the University of Guelph in April of 2016 and received an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree (with Distinction) with majors in both Studio Art and English. She moved to St. John’s, NL, in May of 2016 and started work at the Anna Templeton Centre for Craft, Art & Design in September 2016 as Program and Promotions Coordinator. She was nominated for the BMO 1st Art! Invitational Student Art Competition and received the University of Guelph Faculty Award for Painting. Emily co-founded The Gathered Gallery, an independently run visual arts gallery and curatorial writing blog found at www.gatheredgallery.com. You can also view Emily’s recent artwork at www.emilypittman.ca
Member of the Month
1. First of all, can you give us some background on why and how you came to NL to establish your professional art practice?
Coming to Newfoundland happened really spontaneously! We vacationed here a lot when I was young and have family friends here, and years later my parents retired to Ferryland. When I came to visit them, Eastern Edge was first on my list. I met really energetic people there and they were exhibiting really compelling work, so when I moved here my first impulse was to volunteer with them. From my first time as a volunteer at the (then) Art Marathon Festival, I was hooked. What struck me immediately about this artistic community is how collaborative it is. Some of my first connections were with established artists here who supported me wholeheartedly, from my first grant application to my first show and beyond. It was through long nights of discussing and debating in studios or in the gallery or by fireplaces that instilled in me not only a deep commitment to supporting our community, but also a critical lens that remained present in all our dialogues and organizing.
2. Your work Nervous Whether was produced during the Elbow Room residency in 2015/2016. When and why did you begin working with weaving within your art practice?
I have wanted to learn to weave since I first saw a loom. I was seduced by the exquisiteness of the loom as an object; I had no idea what it did but it was stunning unto itself. I later got a job at the Anna Templeton Centre where Katie Parnham, Sarah Minty, and a variety of others very generously taught me the basics. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I have come to realize that repetitive action is my jam; looking back through my practice you can see it’s a fundamental feature of my object production and performance. Repetition is a means of conditioning or training, and in all aspects, it forms us as physical and psychological beings. What is repeated in our lives sort of sets our parameters for action and reaction. Weaving allows me to take the repetitive habits that I have formed as reactions to my experiences of anxiety and reroute them into something meditative and generative. Weaving is a physically and mentally consuming task. You get swept away in it, paying close attention to the order in which your pedals need to be pressed to create the pattern, ebbing and flowing with the threads back and forth like a tide. It allows me to translate that action into a pliable material that has such a rich and varied history. It extends through craft and fashion, organizes social and production spaces, and – many don’t know this – set us up for technology as we know it today. The Jacquard loom’s punch-card system was the basis for what eventually became binary code. Conceptually there’s a lot going on there!
3. This month that show is touring to the Grenfell Art Gallery in Corner Brook and you recently had collaborative work installed in an old house in Port Union, Grass in the Sky. Is it important to you that your work be shown in different parts of the province?
Showing work in different regions is very exciting. And you can tell that people are excited to engage with it; in just one day Grass in the sky received over 150 visitors – some local, some travelers – but it proves that people are hungry for more cultural content. And it’s really important to take the work we make and re-situate it. Sometimes things take on new meaning when you move them around, and it’s important to look at why. Or you call in a whole bunch of people you didn’t expect and they enrich and lend new lenses to your practice. It gives an opportunity to ask who we’re addressing, and how? Who is being left out of the conversation? Who is being called in? I’m really looking forward to bringing Nervous whether to Corner Brook for that reason.
4. Can you talk a little about some of your upcoming projects?
As we mentioned my exhibition Nervous whether will be touring to Grenfell opening on September 28th. I’m really excited about this show. Not only are we installing the work from the original exhibition, but I’m making new works for it as well. I’m doing lots of research into the history of weaving in terms of production, social spaces, and as a precursor to modern tech; I’m also doing a lot of research on bees, if you can believe it. One of the main inspirations, formally and conceptually, for the installation was a hive or bees nest. There are a lot of poetic parallels to be made there that I’m excited to explore. I’m also working on a long-term project with support from the Canada Council for the Arts and ArtsNL that is a series of hand-drawn, painted, stitched, and paper-cut animations. These videos re-present imagery made digitally through things like Instagram, Skype, and Snapchat, and are looking at the mix of vulnerability, earnestness, and defensive irony present in our online image-making and communications.
5. What do you think are the unique benefits of working as an artist in Newfoundland and Labrador? What are the disadvantages?
As I mentioned earlier, the collaborative spirit of artists in this province is remarkable. It’s one of the most valuable things about working here. I think there is always more we can be doing to support and call in new members, but the amount of encouragement we are already working with – emotional and tangible, through workshops, professional development, and multidisciplinarity – is great. There is an inspiring and necessary amount of cross-over between our artists and other agents for social change: musicians, film-makers, students, political organizers, and so many more.
The challenges of working here are often physical and financial: it costs a lot to ship work on and off the island, and to get out of province yourself for exhibitions or residencies. Another challenge is the number of exhibition spaces that exist. I can mostly speak to St. John’s, but it feels like we’re really lacking avenues, especially for emerging artists to showcase their work and get the necessary feedback and exposure to develop their practice.
6. How do you spend your time when you aren’t working on your art practice?
I work a lot! Something that we talk about a lot in terms of advocacy in our communities – popularized by VANL and our revolutionary friend the late Mary MacDonald – is that art = work. We are so grateful for the support we receive as artists here municipally and provincially, but there needs to be a hard look taken at the research presented by our cultural workers and the value that we contribute to our cultural and tourism sector. That financial support needs to be negotiated in a way that doesn’t impact the integrity of the works being produced and exhibited here, especially those with political content and objectives. When I’m not at work I’m reading, drawing, playing board games with my family, watching movies, weaving, or making silly noises with my friends! I also play a lot of Tetris (I mean a lot).
7. Lastly, a fun question: describe your perfect studio space.
Oh gosh! Bright! Clean! Extraordinarily tidy! My dream studio would have hardwood floors and white walls, big windows and lots of shelving. Supplies would be meticulously organized by type, size, and colour. It would contain my loom and weaving supplies, a woodworking area, a drafting table, lots of plants, and a charming quiet cat.