Round-table discussion on visual arts in Montreal

The following is a transcript of the round-table discussion held at the vernissage of Making It Montreal’s Exhibit One on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at Casa del Popolo in Montreal.

The discussion explored the experiences and issues faced by these Anglophone artists as they decided to pursue their visual arts careers in Montreal.

The discussion was moderated by Billy Mavreas, a native Montreal artist and owner of the Monastiraki shop and gallery, and included the exhibit’s artists Aimée Van Drimmelen, Tyler Rauman and Jesse Purcell.

The following is a transcript of the round-table discussion held at the vernissage of Making It Montreal’s Exhibit One on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at Casa del Popolo in Montreal.

The discussion explored the experiences and issues faced by these Anglophone artists as they decided to pursue their visual arts careers in Montreal.

The discussion was moderated by Billy Mavreas (BM), a native Montreal artist and owner of the Monastiraki shop and gallery, and included the exhibit’s artists Aimée Van Drimmelen (AVD), Tyler Rauman (TR) and Jesse Purcell (JP).

BM: Hello everybody, welcome to Making It Montreal: Exhibit One, a view on English-speaking artists who choose to make Montreal home.

We have here Jesse, Aimee, and Tyler and we are going to talk a little bit about the artist experience in Montreal. Guys, give a brief outline of what brought you to Montreal.

TR: I moved to Montreal about six years ago, and really it was to escape the small town that I’m from, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Montreal seemed like the best place to move to; I was drawn to what I perceived of the arts community. When I arrived, I found it sort of hard to enter into the arts community, but I entered the music scene, and through that started making poster art, which really ended up being my big introduction into the Montreal arts scene. Then six years later, this is where I am.

AVD: I moved here 10 years ago in 2000 to go to school, not to pursue art. But after I graduated from anthropology I sort of came back to art and started trying to pursue it because there was a venue for it, I guess. I’m also involved in the music scene; I think it’s a good place to be doing it. It’s kind of what I knew would happen all along, even through I tried to do other things.

JP: I moved here about 13 years ago. I came here originally to do trade school in French, because I wanted to learn French. And you can do trade school here for very cheap, so it seemed like a good atmosphere to do that. And then I stayed here. My original training was in ceramics, which is a terrible way to make a living. After going to art school, I got into printmaking, which I’ve done professionally for the last six years.

BM: So, like anybody else that moves someplace, you don’t necessarily know what the future holds, right? So especially people with a little bit of an artistic disposition, we might follow our noses to what occurs, things that just happen. I’d like to talk about expectations you had of an existing scene, and any difficulties in penetrating it, real or perceived, or how hard or easy was it to create your own scenes, if that’s what you had to do?

TR: Before I moved here I had a like a typical, small town naiveté that I was going to be moving to some flourishing Parisian-type arts scene or something. Then I got here, and it was actually very difficult as an Anglo artist to enter the galleries or exhibits that I saw. I felt there was a language barrier. And it turns out there is a very flourishing Anglo scene, I just didn’t perceive it at the time. But in a sense, I feel like I was part of creating a bit of the existing poster-art scene. It had started before I moved here for sure, with Seripop and stuff, but it seemed there was a school of it with me and Jack Dylan and other artists that just created something.

BM: I see artists from other places flourish, work together and make things happen, and I’m always amazed. What’s your experience with that, Aimee?

AVD: For me, I’m an illustrator, so Montreal itself doesn’t matter, it’s more of a national and international community that I’m involved in. But because I didn’t go to art school here, I felt that I didn’t have a community around me, so I started organizing drawing events around town, Drink and Draws, through which I met a lot of artists. It was good to meet other people doing similar stuff, and bounce ideas around. But it was never a language issue, or an issue of entering the gallery scene—I’ve never considered that to be accessible or even that interesting, to be honest.

BM: Jesse, any thoughts?

JP: I feel that people gravitate together if they have similar interests, and out of that start to organize exhibits. There are a lot of collaborative networks between artists that can lead to various projects organically, like the studio I’m part of.

BM: So this kind of thing can happen anywhere, regardless of perceived linguistic barriers?

TR: I think that the barrier I spoke of was more perceived than actually there. There are definite difficulties in going to speak to a French gallery owner, but that’s a different issue, the challenge was more about building a network in my experience.

JP: Our studio, for example, has 25 people, and it’s pretty much a 50/50 split between francophone and Anglophone. Some people speak French well, some don’t, but everyone interacts fine.

TR: There’s also a distinction between what the government supports in arts versus what the community that we seem to be a part of produces, and I think that creates a whole different divide.

BM: This leads to the next question, where we live in a world where global networking is easier with the Internet: does the internet render the local experience somewhat less important? Meaning: can the artist remain creatively and professionally active while disregarding the local experience?

JP: To a certain degree, yes.

AVD: For me, definitely. There are so many online forums and communities for illustrators, that’s where I spent a lot of my time, but that’s not the solution. I feel that in order to stay creative and engaged you do have to have people around you, in the flesh, that you’re seeing and you’re bouncing ideas around, and seeing what they’re doing and they’re seeing what you’re doing, and getting inspired. So yes, it’s both.

TR: I actually have very little online presence, I have a blog but these days I’m very local.

JP: I’m kind of in between. I work here with a number of people but I’m part of a collective called Just Seeds and we’re based in thirteen different cities across North America, from Mexico City to here. There are twenty-one Americans, three Mexicans, and myself, and we have an online blog and webstore. Within the collective we have on average ten to fifteen shows per year to promote and sell each others' work. As a collaborative network, it’s really worked out. I joined last year, and it’s really opened up a whole world of possibilities. I think it’s new and unique, this ability to work and keep in contact with people that you may have never met, you sell their work, they sell your work, you hang each others' shows. Without the web, it just wouldn’t be possible.

BM: Well, it’s obvious from what you’re saying that you can stay in Montreal fairly easily, and work internationally, so issues of politics or language might not impact your decisions. Do you see yourselves sticking around Montreal?

TR: I have no plans to move out of Montreal. Other cities appeal in certain ways, but not as much as this place. In my experience with the Toronto arts scene, though it has its own appeal, it’s not as cozy, to be vague about it; it’s a different community. I like it here.

QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE – Do you think that coziness encourages your art, or hinders it?

TR: That’s a good question. It’s hard to keep a really competitive attitude for a lot of people here. I myself don’t have that problem, I think I’m inherently competitive, but I can imagine that too much friendliness and lack of criticism between artists could hinder development and growth.

AVD: I’ve been asking that question a lot lately, like am I going to stay here forever or not. I’m about to turn 30, I take myself very seriously in what I’m doing, but I find it hard here because there is so much temptation. It’s a sort of never-neverland where people can live a certain lifestyle, and then you wake up one day and you’re 50 or whatever, and you think “damn, I’m still selling prints at the craft show”… Which is fine, I think that’s awesome in a way, but I also wonder… I had an interesting experience last June in New York City doing an illustration residency, and it’s a very different world. There’s an amazingly supportive arts community there, but I wasn’t a part of it as much as someone who lives there. I really found myself pining for Montreal and the support network I have here. So I worry if I were to leave, would I still have all the inspiration and the creative energy that I feel we get from being here. It’s an interesting love / hate thing…not HATE, but love and “love less.”

BM: Do you guys feel you’re part of a larger Anglophone community in Montreal? We might live in a Plateau / Mile End art bubble, but then there’s this perceived “west side of town” existing Anglophone community…

AMD: I would say that for me, it’s fairly mixed. I’m not just friends with Anglophones, where I work it’s 50/50, employees and clientele. It wouldn’t occur to me to say “I’m going to an Anglo event tonight,” even if I was, I wouldn’t think of it that way.

TR: I experience very little of those other Anglo communities myself. Maybe for other jobs, I’ve had to go out to Lasalle or something-- I’m aware of these parts of town, but other than that…

JP: I really had no connection whatsoever until my mother and two of my younger brothers moved here. One of my brothers goes to high school here, so he has this connection to all of these neighbourhoods, been to all these houses in neighbourhoods I’ve absolutely never gone to. Unless it’s within this limited social network, you’re not necessarily going to have much connection to the rest of the city.

TR: I think I’m more familiar with Hochelaga than I am of, say, Westmount. I’m more aware of other French artist communities that are more similar to mine than the generic Anglo communities, it really isn’t related to language at all.

BM: So that’s it, art kind of binds us together more than anything. I come from a visual arts background, so that’s what got me into the Francophone world, bonding through the visual language of the doodles we were making at events or exhibits.

AVD: I’ve been thinking about the “Drink and Draw” events I’ve been organizing… I speak French too, and in lot of jobs I’ve had, everything has to be bilingual. I’m doing this blog for the events now, and it’s pretty much just English, but we’ve tried to make our mission statement and stuff like that bilingual. That can really help bring in more people, help make everyone feel more comfortable. At my events, a lot of Francophone people come and that makes me really happy, because they’re helping me find out about events that are happening on the other side of St-Laurent (or whatever you want to call it) that I don’t know about because I don’t hear about it from the people I’m immediately friends with. That’s been really awesome. And it thinks it’s really important for Anglos to make an effort to find out about stuff that’s happening outside of this immediate neighbourhood, because there’s really cool stuff, really cool artists. I’m just starting to discover it all, and it’s very good.

BM: There’s a kind of an Anglo ghetto that could happen, such as where you’re just hanging out with your four buddies from Victoria, BC and that’s it. It’s a shame to be so insular when there are vast, amazing, varied scenes of all kinds in Montreal to tap into and exploit.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Do any of you think the same thing could happen somewhere else, hanging out with the same artist friends and knowing a couple of gallery owners and staying insular? It seems this might be something common to any bohemian arts scene in a big city, but do you find it’s something very different here?

TR: I think the reason we’re here is that artists from the rest of Canada move here, so it is special. I hear that there’s a “Little Canada” in Berlin now, a lot of Anglo artists and Anglo communities growing there now, which might be the same sort of thing. I personally don’t think it’s super unique here, in the sense of the type of community we have. It’s unique in that it’s this specific neighbourhood, and I love it… Something that also brings a lot of people here that’s pretty obvious is the music scene here. The Anglo music scene has been huge here, that’s something that binds a lot of people here together. Rock and roll-- that’s a huge factor in why a lot of us are here. Aimée, you paint on drum skins-- obviously that appeals to musicians.

JP: I print album covers and posters for rock bands, and that’s how I make a living, mostly.

TR: Yeah, and you share your studio with rock bands. There’s a huge tie-in between the arts and music communities here. I’m not sure if that’s the case with all arts scenes, but I’m guessing not.

BM: With this close connection with the music scenes, do you feel your work is more tied to popular culture, or the more traditional “fine arts”?

TR: I think I myself have a lot of trouble distinguishing between the two types of art, only because I’m a self-taught artist, and I don’t always understand the divide, except in the most obvious of cases. I try to touch on both bases, because I try to go with what I’m inspired by. I don’t think it would be easy for me to get any mainstream arts grants because my work is all sparkles and fluorescent colours, and it weirds people out.

AVD: Same with me, I’m self-taught, so I don’t have the same feeling of entitlement to grants. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t want to worry about where I fit. I think a lot of people are here just do stuff they want to, and they like to do stuff for their friends, they make posters because their friends’ bands are having a show. I paint drum skins for my friend’s band that’s going on tour, whatever, it’s very unprofessional in a sense, but it’s very awesome too.

BM: I’d like to touch on that for a moment. I don’t know whether Montreal itself has anything to do with it, but there is a lot of a casual kind of art production here. “I do things and other things happen, I meet people and things happen.” It’s not necessarily career-driven, like “I want to do the artist-run centres for two years and then I’m getting an agent, hitting the museum circuit, going go “big-time” …

AUDIENCE MEMBER: A lot of people don’t realize we have more artist-run centres here than any other city in the country, so the “professional” path can also include working with other artists, casual networking and so on. You don’t have to choose between professional goals and advancing through collaborations and so on, you can do both.

JP: It’s true that there are a lot of resources here for young people, young artists in particular. There’s YES Montreal that trains artists on how to do their finances, ARPRIM which is a print association based in the Belgo building. There’s grants available, various foundations, a whole list of subsidies outside of the government arts councils. Something like eighty to eighty-five per cent of Quebec’s artists live in Montreal, so that makes it really, really competitive because the grants are often distributed regionally. So if you want, you can move to the country for a year and get an arts grant, because there’s money out there. There are strategies that people employ in order to get the money because it is so competitive here. But then I think there are a whole lot of services here that are overlooked.

TR: Tell me about them!

AVD: I wonder how many artists actually do plan and strategize, like “this year I’m going to get to that gallery, and then I’m going to end up in the museum,” and so on. Maybe some do, but that seems really weird to me. If you’re making good stuff, then it should lead you somewhere …

JP: I feel that Toronto has a different attitude towards that. And I feel that in some ways, Montreal is this incubator where you feel all cozy and safe, and you don’t necessarily push your career so much, you and your friends can pat each other’s backs and it’s easy to stay where you are, be comfortable and happy.

BM Any other questions or thoughts from the audience? [Audience member asks about the Drink and Draw events.]

AVD: I started them two years ago, after deciding I was always shy to draw in public, so I would get over my fear and bring people with me. Apparently, other people have had the same idea around the world, including in Montreal, there were Comics Jams at Casa back in the day, I didn’t know about that. What we do is really chill, sometimes there’s a theme, you can focus on the theme or you can work on something you’re already working on, you can play games and collaborate on each other’s drawings. It’s just very open and a space to kind of experiment and play. We have a website, it’s People like the idea of getting together and doing art in an open environment.

TR: There’s a ton of different groups who do the same thing. It’s just people hanging out, “let’s do it at my place” or “let’s do it at Casa”.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: How can I start promoting myself as an artist?

TR: Start a blog, and write the web address down on flyers or business cards.

AVD: If you’re willing to work for free [chuckle], anyone would be happy to use your artwork, if they like it. That’s how a lot of people start, just offer to do artwork for a poster or an album. Eventually, you can start charging people.

TR: I’d like to point out, however, that it used to be possible to make a modest living off of making posters, and now there are so many people making posters these days, it’s getting near impossible. There’s a bit of a race to the bottom going on with people doing things for free. I encourage people to do things for at least a modest amount of money as often as possible, because the reason that no one pays for art or pays for anyone do art for them is because there’s so many people willing to do it for absolutely nothing these days. It’s a bit of a shame too, but you do what you gotta do. If you DO work for free, just make sure to tell them you aren’t doing any revisions…just be like “No revisions, if you ask me for revision…” No revisions! Not for free, at least. (laughs)