Please could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I live and work as an artist in Ottawa. I am originally from Montreal, where I trained to be an architect. I worked for 25 years as an architect in Montreal, Yellowknife and Ottawa.
What sorts of buildings did you design?
In my final year at McGill School of Architecture, I worked with a community in St. Henri in Montreal that was fighting the proposed demolition of a part of their neighbourhood to allow for the construction of a new exit from the highway. We proposed alternatives to the city, including the construction of in-fill housing. The exit was relocated and the proposal for in-fill was accepted. Together with my visiting professor, Ray Affleck of a firm called Arcop Associates, we designed and built 15 small units on vacant lots. It was the first in-fill public housing built in Montreal. The buildings are still there between Atwater and rue Lacasse.
I had always wanted to live in the north, so a few years later I moved to the Northwest Territories. At first I worked for the government on school projects, but I was managing architects rather than being an architect, which is what I wanted to do. Also, I felt that I was on the wrong side of the fence at a time when young native leaders were demanding more power from Ottawa. I left the government and then worked for the Dene, designing many houses, two community centres and band offices in the Mackenzie Valley.
I then spent four years as a house-husband, which was unusual at the time, before returning to architecture in Ottawa. For a number of years, I did small government contracts and renovations with another architect. There was certainly more competition in Ottawa than in the Northwest Territories, where I had been the only registered architect in private practice. One of my last projects was with COLE+Associates Architects Inc., where I worked on the Biosciences Complex at the University of Ottawa.
Why did you move from being an architect to being an artist?
I always liked drawing. When I was at university, I took a drawing course as part of training to be an architect. I also used to draw for my own enjoyment and I’d visit art galleries, but it never occurred to me that I could be an artist. When I was in my forties, I started drawing more seriously. A friend of mine, the painter Graham Metson, asked why I didn’t work in colour, because I always used pencil and charcoal. I tried acrylics and a light went on. I realized this was what I always wanted to do. After a friend of mine died suddenly, I decided that I would move out of architecture and into art. I took some courses on painting and printmaking with the Ottawa School of Art. I didn’t feel they taught me much. It’s hard to teach art. You just have to do it.
I’m familiar with a series of paintings you did that feature buildings in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, often depicted with sinuous, curving walls. Are these typical of your paintings?
I’ve always been struck by the visual world. I really like looking at buildings, people, street scenes, objects, and I like drawing all those things. When I left architecture, I thought that part of my life was over, but perspective fascinates me, as do forms, space and texture, which are important to architecture. I’m not interested in what the camera sees. I’m more interested in how what you know affects what you see. I had an experience when driving through the town of Alfred with my son. At the east end of the town, there’s a vista where there’s a long hill and then you see farms in the distance. I tried to draw it quickly, but what I produced was as flat as a photo and wouldn’t tell you much about the place. I turned over the piece of paper and started listing what I had seen, the farms, the clouds, the hill, and so on. Then I started drawing all the things I remembered with my eyes closed, and the drawing was much better, because it described the sense of the place. Your brain is aware of so much beyond what your eyes or the camera can see. I blame the Renaissance, when everyone was forced to see how a camera sees!
You also produce art on a grand scale. I’m thinking of the installation at the Carleton O-train station. Please could you tell us about that?
With the O-train piece, or locomOtion (see photo above), the idea came to me almost right away. The station is in the middle of a university campus and had no demarcation, even though it’s the busiest station on the line. It needed to be given an architectural identity, which I think this piece does.
The work is highly visible and tailored to the site. Its station-sized scale — 5-6-metres high and stretching the length of the 40-metre Carleton Station platform— engenders a sense of arrival at a place. The sequence of deconstructed/reconstructed steel wheels plays with the idea of movement and travel. The reflective red circular shapes, naturally lit by day and by reflected light at night, identify this place with the logo of the O-train.
Please could you tell us about the piece that will be part of the renovated Main Street?
Main Street is one of the uglier streets in Ottawa, but the canal and the river are nearby, so there are lots of wonderful residential areas and green spaces in the neighbourhood. That gave me the idea of adding “windows” to those places on the street. As there is no public space on the street, I thought I’d make a little square, so the project is called Main². The installation consists of three free-standing panels in the square, one representing the river, the one in the middle representing green space and the other one representing the canal. Each panel will in fact be made up of three layers of glass, each separated by 18 inches, so that when someone is passing by on foot, or on a bike or in a car, their view of the image will be animated by their movement. I’m preparing the digital files for the windows on the computer. I want the images to have texture, so for example, on the river, there’s a sense of light being reflected by the water.
It’s a very technical project. The glass panels are being made in Pennsylvania by a company that specializes in digital printed glass. The ink is a ceramic pigment that is baked onto the glass in an oven like a ceramic glaze. Having made the designs, I’m now the general contractor, working with tradespeople for the aluminium structure, the glass, the lighting, the paving and landscaping, and the benches, which will be made of boat-grade fibreglass.
You clearly work in numerous media. I know that you also produce digital art. Could you tell us about that?
I started using Photoshop as a tool to evaluate my paintings. I’d take a photo of a painting and then play with it, adjusting the lighting, changing the colours or moving elements around. I hadn’t planned to stop painting, but now I spend my time at the computer for the Main Street project or I draw on the tablet. I have done a couple of series of works on the tablet: drawings of people playing board games and a series of images of the Golden Gate Bridge.
What or who inspires or influences your work?
My eyes! Sometimes I walk along the street and I see nothing, but sometimes something whacks me in the face and I want to play with it, draw it or photograph it. I also look at Instagram every day. I follow about 150 sources, mostly galleries, museums, artists and photographers, which give me ideas and influence me to a certain degree.