"I have been doodling my whole life," Ryan Dineen told me when I asked him how he first got into art. "I was raised in Cabbagetown, downtown Toronto, where my mother, an amateur painter, drew illustrations for gum ball machines. When I was 11, my babysitter introduced me to graffiti and I instantly loved it."
Dineen's grandfather was Eugene Kash, conductor and violinist, and his grandmother was the celebrated contralto Maureen Forrester. His aunt and his uncle were both actors (no word on the babysitter). Meanwhile, there was little Ryan, spray-painting walls. Spray-painting lots of walls.
"I spent hours sketching designs and spray-painting walls throughout the city, basically putting in the 10,000 hours required to build the skills and reputation as a local graffiti artist. Central Tech was where I learned to paint with traditional paint and brushes. I also spent short stints at George Brown (graphic design) and OCAD (Illustration), all of which has added to my work."
Now, of course, you can find Dineen's murals scattered around downtown Toronto, while his oil and canvas work is housed in the Ingram Gallery on Avenue Road. He remains, though, very much an outdoor artist where subject matter is concerned.
"As I get older, I retain an affinity for street life, urban landscapes... On the same streets that were a canvas for my graffiti murals, I observe other subjects that I find interesting and inspiring. Pigeons, people, bridges, abandoned buildings are all part of the landscape I am drawn to. Recently, I have also spent time in Northern Ontario, where I am drawn to the wind-swept rocky shorelines, big sky, and colours in nature."
Looking at Dineen's gallery work, one might be forgiven for thinking that the painter is a bit of a hermit. There's hardly a living thing shown in any of the pieces I've seen, and many have a stark and lonely look.
"The goal is not to make a lonely painting,"
Dineen assured me.
"I feel the scenes reflect an inner thoughtful mood, not in a negative way, but rather a calmness — this is my introspective state of mind as I wander the city looking for inspiration."
Such inspiration can come in rather odd forms.
"I am attracted to the quirky juxtaposition of images in the downtown, images that inspire a story or describe modern urban realities. I bike and walk around the city and when something catches my eye, I photograph it and add it to my collection of painting references. Sometimes the images inspire me to imagine funny context. For example, my painting Red Chair is of a red plastic chair suspended in the branches of a tree outside the apartment I lived in for five years. I imagined that it was tossed over the balcony in the heat of an argument and it remained there for two years as a daily reminder to that couple of the argument. I thought it was ironically funny.
Pink Umbrella, a painting of a Muskoka chair set in a fabricated beach scene, surrounded by rusty industrial buildings and an icy landscape, struck me as absurd and funny but also with a quiet beauty to it. My rural paintings are more about natural beauty, tranquility, and the vastness of our landscapes."
They also tend to look as though they were painted in November, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For warmth, it's probably best to go to some of Dineen's murals, which are much more colourful and chaotic. Since he mentioned both murals and graffiti, and since I was interested in challenging the common image of the teenaged vandal spray-painting a bridge, I asked Ryan Dineen for his definition of "graffiti." His answer, essentially, was "no."
"There is no definition of 'graffiti.' Since the dawn of time, people have been drawing on walls. When I reference 'graffiti,' I mean painting on walls... you can call it art or not. It's public opinion. Some people like it and some don't."
He did go on to add,
"When I talk about graffiti, I am talking about artwork that is focused on playing with letters. There are many distinctive styles of calligraphy, representing subcultures form hip-hop to punk rock, from Sweden to Argentina. All have unique styles. All are considered artwork. Often abstract designs and figures are incorporated in a graffiti piece. There isn't a strict set of rules and that's part of what makes it appealing to youth."
And, just to challenge the adolescent graffiti hooligan idea further, consider that graffiti may actually be done on request.
"You might assume a graffiti artist works for the fun of it, and is not paid for his work and that a muralist works as a commissioned artist. However, sometime a graffiti piece is commissioned and a mural can be done for the fun of it. These definitions are just titles that don't really define the artist."
Graffiti, perhaps more than most other arts forms (unless you count architecture), is influenced by — in fact, dependant upon — the physical landscape that spawns it. I asked Dineen about the influence architecture had on his work.
"Every project has unique qualities and the inspiration can come from anywhere. A painting like Filmores is really a record of a moment in time, whereas murals like the BStreet Condos or the St. James Town Pheonix are influenced by the size, shape, and orientation of the walls they are painted on. For example, Chew Chews Diner incorporates the brick wall into a trompe d'oeil of a train tunnel."
But architecture is more to Dineen than simply a large and contoured canvas. In fact, not only does he have family in the business, but he also managed to give an interesting answer when I wondered if he could link his work to the topic of real estate.
"My brothers, Galen and Henry Dineen, have worked together on several large renovations through Galen's Echo Rock Construction company (named after my grandmother Maureen Forrester's Muskoka Cottage). My grandmother had a passion for interior design and moved many times, always decorating impeccably. Also, my uncle Peter Berton is an architect who has designed many stunning cottages in Muskoka as well. Perhaps I developed an interest in architectural design from family conversations about real estate."
Title image: Current (2014) 57.5 x 84 oil on canvas