January 24 to May 3 features the works of Albertan artists as part of the Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art 2015, Future Station. Jill Stanton is one of the artists whose work is on display this year. Her mural City Dream No.5: Virtual Reality evokes a dreamlike wonder about the world while playing with the biennial’s theme of a post-industrial landscape. I had the opportunity to speak with Jill about her last mural which was displayed at the Art Gallery of Alberta called Strange Dreams during the summer of 2014. From that interview, it became very clear that no matter where Jill takes her art or how it develops in the future, it will always have a playful spirit in it. One that comments on the way society sees and understands itself in a “post-industrial landscape” that is constantly under development and trying to realign itself with the ethics of people in our societies. In honour of her current work at Future Station here is the extended version of our conversation.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: Your current exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), Strange Dream [March 5 – December 31, 2014], “inspires questions of how we look at our environment and how our environment can affect one’s subconscious” according to the AGA. How did the idea for Strange Dream come about?
Jill Stanton: My work is very detail-oriented. As a kid, I’d spend hours reproducing Where’s Waldo drawings, fascinated by how a single two-page illustration spread could command a viewer’s attention for so long. These drawings — made with the tiniest, thinnest black pens I could get my hands on — certainly formed the basis of how I approach my work today. I make extremely detailed drawings with an element of narrative in them, whether that exists in actual, text-based narrative (in my comics), or implied narrative, in a drawing with several characters and secret pockets that are only noticed by the viewer as they stare at it for a period of time. I want to hold the viewer’s attention; I want them to weave a narrative out of the visual clues I leave in the drawing.
I only recently started to work large-scale. Historically, my drawings have been the size of a single sheet of paper, the largest being around 22” x 30”. In the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to work on a larger scale for other pieces and freelance jobs, and it sparked a bit of an epiphany; the larger the work, the more detail I could include, and the more the viewer will be sucked into the drawing.
Strange Dream was a culmination of my mural projects and my comic projects. I wanted to create a very large-scale environment that featured several hidden characters and suggested narratives. Creatures and questions pop out the more you stare. After a minute or two, secret eyeballs are suddenly noticeable; they’ve been staring at you the whole time. Where is this place? Who is the girl in the colour nest, why is she there?
Becky Hagan-Egyir: What environment has the most impact on how you get inspired to make art?
Jill Stanton: I’m a bit of a plant nut, thanks to my mom’s early greenhouse and gardening brainwashing techniques (I love you mom!). In 2011, I travelled to Vancouver Island for an apprenticeship to learn how to start and operate a 10-acre market organic farm; I was there for the entire 9 month growing season: building crude greenhouses and cabins, seeding, transplanting, weeding, driving the tractor, harvesting, farming. It was initially supposed to be a break from art in general, but the natural environment and the experience of real, solid hard work was rewarding and stirring. I ended up making a small series of comics about life on the farm, worked on advertisements and newsletters and posters for the farm and other businesses in the small town of Duncan (the closest town to the farm), and painted several crude farm signs with latex paint advertising our produce. Those comics were pretty dumb and not very well drawn, but they were the impetus for all my recent graphic narrative projects, including the subscription-based comic book, Headspaces. Even now, in my tiny downtown apartment, I’ve got a small jungle of 50+ houseplants. They just make me feel better about living back in the city.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: Your art work shows a true appreciation for comics and their alternative, dream-like worlds. Often the real world can seem dream-like too — especially when you turn on the news and see all the transformative as well as heart-wrenching things happening out there in the world. Do political and social events in the world ever play a role in how you approach your work?
Jill Stanton: The first major works I completed after completing my BFA were pieces that responded to injustices related to food, food security, and food politics. These issues were part of the reason why I moved to the farm in the first place — to learn how “sustainable” food production works firsthand. Food and its surrounding issues have always been a focal point for me; I’ve struggled with it on a personal and political level for many years.
I was a vegetarian for much of my adult life (farm life has since changed my relationship with animals, their environment, and meat). I drew a lot of hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, and melty cheese, because I was fascinated with the seductive quality of these foods even though they were inherently disgusting and awful and immoral. I was drawing my way through thinking about these issues. First: Why do people want to eat these things? Why did I want to eat these things even though I “knew better”? Did it make me a fundamentally better person because I didn’t eat factory meat or even meat in general? And then, later, on the farm, surrounded by ethically raised meat and dairy: Is a “vegan” salad made from a head of lettuce and cucumbers produced on a poorly-managed farm in China or California with migrant, underpaid workers any better than a steak sandwich made from locally produced, grass-fed beef? Worse?
Three times a day (ideally for us lucky and privileged people), we navigate through the ethics of food politics; with each ingredient within a single meal, we have the potential to either harm ourselves (the health value of the food in question, or our financial position to choose a better option, or not), harm an animal (through animal welfare questions related to meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), harm the environment (pesticides, clear-cutting, fish farms, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, etc.), or harm someone else we are peripherally unaware of (where the food was produced, by whom, and under what variables and terms of employment). What used to be a fairly straightforward thing –– even 100 years ago, before such rampant globalization –– has turned into a real minefield. We all have to eat, that’s what makes food questions so all-encompassing and awful.
…I still refer to these ideas from time to time in my work, though less lately since I am feeling increasingly as though I have less of the answers I once thought I held so firmly. I still think hot dogs and cheeseburgers (etc.) are incredibly interesting and powerful tropes in society, but I like them more as ways to introduce a kind of cognitive dissonance into a narrative or drawing, rather than a guilt trip. It’s a constantly evolving relationship.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: One of your recent works was creating the cover design for local Edmonton rapper and performer, Mitchmatic’s new album. Do you often support Edmonton artists with their own creative projects?
Jill Stanton: Working with musicians and locally owned venues has been a real cornerstone in my practice. Gig posters in particular are among some of my favourite projects; Craig at Wunderbar has let me make dozens for him over the past years for various shows, and I’m forever grateful. Posters give me a public platform and a low-stakes deadline that I can use to experiment with different imagery, compositions, and techniques. Drawing a little bit every day and throwing in challenging variables for myself is so important to how I work out future ideas.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: What have been some of the most memorable times this has happened for you?
Jill Stanton: Some of my favourite drawings are still some of those Wunderbar posters. Absolutely! Especially the ones where I liked the poster I made but the show was even better. I have also done a handful of improvised, live-drawing sessions for a variety/comedy show hosted by comedian Jon Mick. Basically I bring ink and pens to the bar and whip up drawings on the spot based on a topic that Jon picks. Generally the drawings are making fun of Jon. It’s weird for me because I’m not a performer but I enjoy it! I like thinking and drawing quick on my feet —most of them turn out pretty alright, though some of the results of these shows are pretty awful!
Becky Hagan-Egyir: How has the Edmonton artistic community influenced your own work?
Jill Stanton: Edmonton is home to a big batch of really talented artists and musicians. It’s a pretty tight, small-ish community, considering the population size of the city in general. The closeness of this community is interesting because it creates an environment where everyone is pretty open and supportive of one another. But it’s also competitive, since there are only so many real, solid opportunities available in a city where arts is maybe not quite as important or revered as say, hockey. It’s a cocoon in a way. It also means you have to be very conscious of what other artists within the city are doing, and that your work stands on its own.
It’s nice to feel like if you work hard and place value [on] your peers and connections, you absolutely can do great creative things within the city. Edmonton has a weird small town vibe for a relatively large city, which makes it feel as though you can tackle things that you might not feel as though you could tackle in, say, Vancouver or Toronto. I’m impressed and inspired by start-up creative initiatives like Chelsea Boos’ Drawing Room space downtown, and Brittney Roy and Connor Buchanan’s Creative Practices Institute in the 124th street area. Also, running the printmaking program and working with clients at the Nina Haggerty Centre [an art centre for adults with developmental disabilities] on 118th avenue has been a really excellent experience for me personally and artistically.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: If you could collaborate with one artist right now, who would that be and why?
Jill Stanton: Josh Holinaty, local illustrator extraordinaire. We’ve been meaning to collaborate for a few years now, I think. He’s moving to Toronto, but I think we’ll finally get a chance to doodle a bit together while I’m out there this fall for a residency I’m doing at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: Growing up, did you ever imagine that you would be a different type of artist? A singer or comedian maybe?
Jill Stanton: No, strangely, I never even wanted to be a marine biologist or doctor or dinosaur or whatever kids traditionally think want to be when they grow up. Just ask my mom. I just [wanted] to draw things.
Becky Hagan-Egyir: Where do you do you see yourself heading with your work five years from now?
Jill Stanton: I don’t like to think too far into the future with my work. I think making five or ten year goals is a little dangerous because often it puts a specific idea of yourself up on a pedestal that you continually strive for under the impression that if you don’t reach it, you’ve somehow failed. This mindset doesn’t allow for natural creativity and following tributaries and branches from ideas and projects you work on in the present.
If I had a five year plan for myself five years ago, I might have been a successful illustrator living in some large city, but then again, maybe not. But in the process of working towards that goal, I might not have followed the stream of ideas in directions other than exclusively illustrating for widespread publications, and likely never would have made the work I’ve made thus far. I probably wouldn’t have gone to the farm. Maybe I wouldn’t have been drawing comics. I certainly wouldn’t be making 1800 square foot ink drawings.
I think it’s more interesting not to plan too closely and let things happen and opportunities present themselves. Work and art gets stale and boring if you don’t let yourself mess around in hopes of accomplishing some pie-in-the-sky goals. The most important thing to remember is to just keep working. Relentlessly.
Stay up to date with Jill’s work:
Check out the original interview here.