Alberta

City Dream: An Extended Interview with Artist, Jill Stanton

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.

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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 (excerpt) 2014 Photo by: Jill Stanton

Strange Dream (excerpt)
Digital
2013
Photo by: Jill Stanton

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.

From Headspaces II Ink, digital on paper 2014 Photo by: Jill Stanton

Nothing is Chasing Me But it Sure Feels Like There Is (exerpt)
From Headspaces II
Ink, digital on paper
2014
Photo by: Jill Stanton

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.

FREE Mural For FREE Advertising company Latex paint on wall 2013/14 Photo by: Jill Stanton

FREE Mural
For FREE Advertising company
Latex paint on wall
2013/14
Photo by: Jill Stanton

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.

Manning Hall, AGA Ink on Paper 2014 Photo by: Jill Stanton

Manning Hall, AGA
Ink on Paper
2014
Photo by: Jill Stanton

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.

Iceland Dream Screenprint on Paper 2013 Photo by: Jill Stanton

Iceland Dream
Screenprint on Paper
2013
Photo by: Jill Stanton

Stay up to date with Jill’s work:

twitter.com/scenic_edmonton

jstanton.ca

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Check out the original interview here.

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Live Cafe

Exiting the double doors of the Provincial Building facing Main Street, I walk down the concrete steps stained with purple and brown hues of (hopefully) once upon a time beverages covered in patches of sticky, frothing spit.  Crossing the driveway, I leap over the knee-high rusted bar separating the parking lot of government vehicles from public transportation on the opposite side.  I linger and hide behind a bus as I wait to dash across Main Street, when it’s clear of traffic.  I should use the Franklin Avenue cross walk, but my destination is right in front of me.

The sky is a stark grey.  Just like yesterday and the day before.  Soon rain would pour down from above washing the hard working buses clean.  The last bus pulls in.  Here is my chance.

Traffic is clear, but I still hustle across the street with my olive green carrier bag in hand.  I feel it bounce off my left leg, as I half walk, half jog to the other side.  Finally, feeling the safety of the sidewalk underneath me, I reach for the door in front of me.  The handle is always surprisingly heavier than it seems.  Feeling a drop of rain plop against my neck, I swing the door open and enter Live Cafe.

My eyes briefly linger on a group of three lounging to the right of the door.  I don’t give them much thought as I weave in and out of mixtures of wooden and plastic tables to get to the front.  Under the dim lighting, I stand at front waiting to see three familiar faces behind the counter.  Instead, I’m greeted with the back of the customer in front of me.  Waiting for a couple of minutes, I’m able to switch between observing her body language and the display of cheesecake sitting in a bright round cake dish.  The cheesecake looks tempting.  The woman in her purple floral shirt seems tired.

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

In response, her floral back slouches forward as she struggles to find change in her purse.  Shaking her head and mumbling words which most likely mean “no”, she turns away to walk to the end of the counter where her caffeine fix will soon arrive. Moving forward, I see two familiar faces smiling at me.  One is clearly in her twenties with a face which would be perfect for a Neutrogena campaign.  The other is older, but it is hard to tell by how much.  But their smiles both made them appear eternally youthful.  I couldn’t help but to smile back, as always.

“How are you?” the older woman asks.

“Good!” I respond, “You?”

“Good thanks,” as quickly as she appeared she disappears.

I step forward to speak with the younger barista.  Waiting in line, I had decided to get a white chocolate mocha—skim, no whip cream.

“What can I get you?”

I place my order.

“Would you like that with whip?” she asks with her head down scribbling madly on the paper cup in her hand, already knowing the answer.

“No thanks.”

One day, I will surprise her and order whip cream, I think to myself.  As if not believing in my answer, she asks whether I would like to try something new.

I listen attentively to her description of the new version of a white chocolate mocha and somehow miss everything she says except for the words truffle and nut, heard above the loud grinding of the coffee machines behind the counter.  I tell her that I have an allergy to nuts.  “Have you tried it?”  I ask feeling a bit guilty about my refusal to order something new, despite my allergy.  Her head vigorously nods.  I smile at her enthusiasm, “Well I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through you then.”

The till beeps.

After effortlessly paying with my debit card, I walk off to my right, following the trail of customers waiting for their orders.  Once again, I’m staring at the back of the lady with the floral shirt and the tired slouch.  “White chocolate mocha!” a man’s voice calls out from behind a series of coffee machines.  Avoiding eye contact with the woman who ordered before me, I move to the front of line, feeling her eyes watching my own back.

Above the steaming cup covered in black scribbles, I meet two piercing deep blue eyes.  It reminds me of the hue of the Mediterranean Sea.  Clutching my hot non-truffle mocha, I allow myself to dive in and take a holiday.  It works as well as the picture of the Coliseum waiting for me on my desktop at work.  But this method is slightly better.  Turning right, I walk a few paces to grab a lid from the tray behind me, where the slouchy woman once stood.  I steal a glance at my appearance in the mirror covered in strange blotched stains, before deciding that it isn’t as exciting as staring at the reflection of people sitting behind me.  I don’t stop to reprimand myself for staring openly–it’s not rude to look at a reflection of a person after all.  Forcing a lid onto my cup, I look into the mirror again, but this time, for a free seat.

Sliding into a seat in the middle of the room with the wood chipping away in places, I comfortably watch the world pass by.  I smile at a few people as they pass.  Without realizing it, the world is narrowed down to one person who’s absorbed by the newspaper spread on the table below him.  The table is much too short for his frame.  His face is partly hidden beneath the shadow of his red baseball hat.  As far as I can tell, he doesn’t notice me at all.  Why is he so interesting?

Trying to focus on something else, I’m drawn to the bright glowing platter of cheesecake.  My mouth slowly begins to water, but it stops.  Does the sign in front read $4.50 a slice?  Not possible.

My cheesecake fantasies are interrupted by shouts.  But I’m not worried as it’s only the sound of the radio overhead.  It forgets as always, that blaring out ads will not necessarily convince people to buy the products it’s selling.  The loud ads are replaced by two tenor voices fervently discussing the dangers of helicopter flying on a local talk show.

Despite the loudness of the radio, the cafe is still calm.  It has its own rhythm.  The buzz and whirring of the coffee machines at the front.  The subtle clinks as the baristas pick up cups from table tops.  The muted conversations of customers mixed with occasional bursts of their laughter.  The sound of fingers lazily hitting keys on laptops….

Carried away by the rhythmic noises around me, I unconsciously steal a glance to my right once again.  The man in the red hat is gone.  Startled, I realize that he reminds me of someone I once knew…despite the fact that half of his face was covered in darkness.  Suddenly, I worry about the time.  Is lunch almost over?  Searching for the time, I smell a hint of bleach, and a mop swirls by in front of my table.  According to my blackberry, there are twelve minutes remaining until I have to cross Main Street, walk into the Provincial Building, and sit in my blue and lavender desk chair.  I mentally prepare myself to go back to work instead of observing cafe rhythms and cheesecake.  I look down at my cup.

I haven’t taken a single sip from it since I’ve sat down.

A Game of Words

I sit within the emptiness of the Young Adult section in the Fort McMurray Public Library.  Teenage books about the dangers of plastic surgery and fantasies involving angelic vampires keep me company.  I have come to the library in the hopes that its environment would inspire me to write.  As I experiment with several positions in my four-legged chair, I drag it along and leave the marks of my struggle for all to see, scrapped against the hardwood floor.  My hope for inspiration was slowly being crushed with each passing minute.

Beyond the door behind me, the library is full of bodies hidden behind piles of notebooks and sleek laptops.  Here is a typical scene for any library, but there is a particular vibe felt in the air of this library, and it can even be felt occupying homes on every street in the city.  The ‘Fort McMurray Dream’ inspires and drives residents to believe that success is given to those who work hard.  Hard work leads to satisfaction and happiness (until it’s time to pay your imploding rent or mortgage bills).  I passed by many tired minds sitting throughout the library focusing on unlocking the secrets to this happiness with searches for jobs on computer screens and throughout classified ads in newspapers.  Images of big yellow tanker trucks packing oil rich soil beam down at us all from walls above the polished cubicles and spacious table tops.

A rush of cool air brushes against my neck as the door opens.  The room quickly fills with more bodies.  A young woman whizzes by as a blur of fuchsia (the effect of her bright cardigan) while jangling a box of pencils and paper.  Soon after, a mother walks in with her two children and leaves behind one of the two— her son.  He is a skinny adolescent, who looks even thinner under the bagginess of his brown T-shirt.  I watch him sit before the woman in fuchsia with surprisingly excellent posture, as his back sits upright in the chair before me.

The two swap tips as they converse about the latest and greatest X-box games.  Silence builds as the conversation dies.  It is now time to begin what they are here for—perhaps a peer-mentoring session.

The energy of the gym seen from the window stretching behind the woman, captures my attention until I hear, “I’m sure more people will come eventually, but we can start.  Which game would you like to play?”  Her face is cheerful but her voice lacks genuine excitement.  I imagine this exact line has been said before to other boys and girls.

Under faded lights, he looks at his choices, pauses for a brief moment, and apathetically declares, “Scrabble is good.”

Letters rattle and shake.

Looking at the bag of letters she asks, “Would you like to pick out a letter and figure out who goes first?  Whoever gets closest to ‘A’ gets to start.”

The boy reluctantly reaches out a hand to grab a letter.

“Oh, you get to go first!” She sounds hopeful that her “student” will be just as excited as her to begin playing.  If he is, he does not express it.

As words materialize on their game board, I look at the glaring blankness of my laptop screen.  My empty thoughts are interrupted by, “Oh that’s a good start.”  There is reservation in her soft voice, as if she wants to say more, but she is holding back.  Instead, unspoken encouragement is given as she smiles at his efforts.

No one else has come to participate in this battle of words.

“You can’t just start a random word. Here’s what you can do,” her reserved nature begins to crack as her fingers point to possible solutions, but she leaves his word intact and prepares for her turn.  Afterwards, she jots down a few notes before perching her chin onto her clenched fist.  Her eyes challenge the boy to make his next move.

“Nicely played!  That’s a triple score.”

The congratulation is taken in their customary silence.  My ears are buzzing from the increasing volume of silence spreading throughout the room.  As they sit they both radiate an intensity which despite their quietness forces you to look at them and watch their next move.  And in that moment, I suddenly feel a surprising revelation.

I realize that the two are playing a disguised game.  It still involves words, but the game is directed by one significant rule.  Only speak when necessary.  It is not a straightforward game as it seems that the two are carefully calculating their every move, including their use of speech (or lack of) with one another.  I hope their hard work pays off.  In the meantime, they both seem to agree that it takes more than a conversation to get to know a person.

The game goes on.