Cabbagetown is known for having one of the most vibrant and engaged communities within the City of Toronto. One way that the neighbourhood showcases its commitment to the arts is through The Cabbagetown Arts and Crafts Show. The event is held within Riverdale Park West during the second weekend of September each year and has become a staple of the downtown neighbourhood since 1988. The Cabbagetown Arts and Craft Show provides artists and patrons with an opportunity to sell and buy work created by the many talented people within the Toronto art community.
The winner of the 2019 Richard Silver Award is the gifted and accomplished Toronto-based visual artist Vanessa McKernan. Following her win Vanessa McKernan shares the inspiration behind much of her work and artistic process.
How do you decide which art shows to participate in and showcase your work? Why did you select the Cabbagetown Arts and Crafts Show?
I decide which shows to participate in based on what’s going on in my personal and professional life schedule wise. I try not to pack too much in so I can ensure that I am not rushing the process of making paintings. A good friend and talented jewelry designer, Michelle Ross, always raves about the Cabbagetown Arts and Crafts festival and encouraged me to give it a try. So, this year I did!
How has being from a large, artistic family with eight children, influenced your views on artistic expression?
Artistic expression through music, theatre, and dance was always encouraged in my family. I carried with me into adulthood the belief that expression through the arts is a powerful, therapeutic, essential component to every life.
What was the catalyst for shifting your choice of artistic expression from dance to painting? Do you still dance?
I sort of fell into dance because my older sister was very passionate about it and I wanted to be just like her. I enjoyed dancing but never wanted to pursue it professionally and I hated performing. It gave me a lot of anxiety. I had been drawing my whole life so the decision to apply to Concordia for Studio Art in my early twenties and the shift to visual arts, came very naturally. Since giving up dance I have maintained a yoga practice and in the past five years or so I have taken a few Butoh (a form of Japanese dance) workshops with Denise Fujiwara, whose work I admire greatly.
What are some of the most important things you learned during your BFA Studies?
My painting teacher Leopold Plotek used to tell me, ‘Kill what you love’. What he meant was that if you are stuck compositionally it’s good to wipe out or paint over the part of the painting you deem most precious. If you kill what you love usually the composition opens up, and there are all kinds of new possibilities within it.
What lessons have you learned since, that a formal education can’t provide?
I have learned a lot about the business of being an artist and how to support yourself financially while maintaining a studio practice. They forgot to talk about that in art school!
Has your background in dance had any influence on your painting of people/the way you see and paint the human body?
Oh definitely. I can’t escape the foot of the dancer when I draw figures and I am always working with themes of costume and performance.
What is your artistic process when creating a new piece of work?
I like to start with a narrative of some sort, a dream, something I read in a book, or saw on the news. The narrative acts as a gateway for me and gives me something concrete to put on the canvas in terms of subjects or setting. As I work on the piece in the following days or weeks, I try not to hold on to the original storyline and instead let the composition go in a different direction, allowing a new narrative to emerge. It’s almost as if at a certain point I try to let the more unconscious intuitive parts of myself take the lead and then watch how those actions mingle with the underpainting that was the original story. The work becomes a layering of paint and also a layering of narratives.
What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
I just started a residency at the Toronto Heliconian Club, a women’s arts club founded in 1909. They provide a setting for engagement in the arts on many levels, across many disciplines. I will have an exhibition there in June 2020 and am planning several large paintings that explore themes around group dynamics.
Has becoming a parent influenced your work at all? How?
Parenting has had a HUGE impact on when I can paint. My studio is outside of my home so no late-night sessions anymore. I work during the day while my son is in daycare and leave the studio promptly at 4:30pm. In terms of how it has affected what I paint, a lot of my work is auto-biographical and I think parenting has put me back in touch with my own childhood and my inner child. Working with those themes has been both scary and empowering for me.
What is the most challenging thing about working in visual arts? What is the most rewarding?
I find navigating the gallery scene really challenging. By this I mean figuring out where your work fits and trying to get the gallery owners to look at it. Most galleries prefer not to take submissions so it’s hard to figure out how to get your foot in the door.
The most rewarding part of being a visual artist is in those golden moments when a truth about the world or yourself is revealed through the process of painting.
What is something that most people don’t know about you that you’d like to share?
I’m having my second child in February!
What are your favourite places to experience art, gain inspiration, in and around Toronto?
Soulpepper Theatre, Canadian Stage, and the AGO.
What artistic achievements are you most proud of?
I don’t know if this counts as an artistic achievement, but I am really proud of balancing being a mom and being an artist and continuing to prioritize my studio practice. I was so afraid I would lose that when deciding to have kids, and I didn’t.