Sustainable Painting Practices: Interview with Gillian King
Gillian King is a painter and art educator from Winnipeg, Manitoba and recent MFA Graduate from the University of Ottawa (2016). She is the winner of the RBC Emerging Artist Award 2017 as well as the recipient of the 2017 Nancy Petry Award.
King has shown in galleries nationally and internationally and has completed residencies at NES Artist Residency (Skagaströnd, Iceland), The Banff Centre (Banff, Ab), and Sparkbox Studios (Picton, On). In 2016, she exhibited work at PDA Projects (Ottawa, On) and Karsh-Masson Gallery (Ottawa, On) for the City of Ottawa Annual Acquisitions Exhibition 'Souvenirs' (November, 2016) as well as 'The Full Catastrophe' (March, 2016). King also exhibited a solo show, Becoming Animal, at the Ottawa Art Gallery in August, 2016.
More recently, she exhibited 'Megacaldera', a solo show at the University of Marinette Wisconsin (March, 2017), participated in the group show entitled 'Peau' at La Maison des Artistes (Winnipeg, Mb / April, 2017), and for the second consecutive year, her work was included in 'Longevity', the City of Ottawa Annual Acquisitions exhibition at Karsh-Masson Gallery (October, 2017). In 2017, she was chosen as the Ontario representative in the Robert McLaughlin Gallery's 50th Anniversary Exhibition, 'Ab NEXT' (Oshawa, On / April 29 - Sept 3, 2017) featuring five emerging abstract painters from across Canada.
Tell us about your artistic background. When did you first develop an interest in pigment and its history?
I am a painter originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and a recent MFA Graduate from the University of Ottawa, Ontario where I am currently based. I started my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts on the path to becoming a ceramic artist. Three years in, I transitioned my focus to painting but found that the elements that drew me to ceramics are still alive and well in my paintings. Material connection to the earth, the visceral, bodily qualities of the materials, and the ease at which they move in my hands are elements that attract me to both ceramics and painting.
My interest in pigments began in grad school when I started to explore how the materials I chose could speak to the body and the land. The first cave painters developed their painting materials from burnt bones, charcoal, and minerals, and depicted non-human animals and human animals, our relationships, and our interactions together. With this in mind, I began using raw (also known as loose) pigments—plant and vegetable matter, hair, animal ashes, sand, and dirt—in my paintings for their symbolic relevance as well as their physical properties. I use my hands to apply the materials in order to gain a more intimate understanding of them.
Using pigments in painting, I attempt to connect ancient art practices and our changing geographical landscapes as a way to address our collective histories, mutual fragility, and mortality with other living beings and the Earth. I explore ways in which we may move forward in this destructive environmental time while questioning what it is to be a human animal and possible ways to reconnect with nature and other living beings.
How do you feel your work evolved over the past few years? What are you currently focusing on?
Over the last few years I have continued to educate myself on new materials and sustainable methods for painting. I have been reading and listening to audiobooks on Earth Based Spirituality and Witchcraft as well as authors that challenge and build on the idea of the Anthropocene: a new destructive environmental period thought to be caused by human impact on the natural environment. These texts explore how to navigate existence by being actively aware of art-making from postcolonial, feminist, and environmental perspectives.
In 2017, I received a Canadian painting award that gave me the opportunity to live and work in Europe in order to research changing geographical landscapes and the methods and techniques used in ancient painting practices. I travelled to the Lascaux and Chauvet caves in southern France to see the land that the first cave painters collected their materials from and was able to experience the replicas of the original caves which were located close by but are permanently closed for preservation purposes. Following my research at the caves, I spent the next three months in my Berlin studio working on a new series of paintings. I continued that work during a month-long residency in rural Iceland early 2018. The work I’ve been making for the last six months will be exhibited in Ottawa with my gallery, PDA Projects in a solo exhibition ‘Ghosts’ this spring.
Your process is fascinating. Tell us a little bit about your work with plants and natural dyes. What initially inspired this part of your practice?
Thank you! After experiencing the Lascaux and Chauvet cave paintings, I was eager to continue to learn how to create pigments and dyes from my surroundings. I was in Berlin, so I contacted a local eco fashion designer, Elke Fiebig of Still Garments, and began working with her to dye my canvases using locally gathered plants and flowers. Learning from Elke about dye plants and how they function was an incredible experience. She has many years of experience in plant dyeing, so working with her allowed me to learn quickly from her breadth of knowledge in the area. We dyed canvases with a variety of plants, including tansy flower, wildflowers, ferns, acorns, madder root, onion skins, avocado, and one of my favourites, rose petals. Yellow rose petals create beautiful speckled lime green when dyed with a steaming process.
When I arrived at the residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland, I continued to gather my own materials for dyeing, including seaweed, moss, and the blueberries that a previous artist had picked in the summer months. My wonderful studiomates also saved their avocado pits and onion skins for me!
Through material gathering, I am able to develop a more intimate understanding of my immediate surroundings. These working materials reflect my aim to become more aware of how I function within local ecosystems. My new body of paintings combines the beeswax, raw pigments, and oil paint I was using in previous bodies of work with plant dyeing.
What do you hope the viewer learns from your paintings?
My hope is that when viewers experience my paintings they will feel that the marks made by my hands could be made by their hands. I want them to be able to imagine what it is like to move the wax, pigments, plant materials around the canvas as I did. I hope that the familiarity of materials used combined with the visual unease created by contrasting colours and shapes will prompt viewers to question their own relationship between their bodies and the natural world.
How has traveling and participating in artist residencies in Germany and Iceland influenced your art?
Travelling to Germany and Iceland had an immediate impact on my paintings because of my choice to start plant dyeing with European plants. However, the impact both places will have long term are still unfolding.
While in Europe I was exposed to the art practices of contemporary artists from all over the world as well as new landscapes and dynamics between people, their environments, and other animals who share those environments. My friends joke that most of my photos and videos from the big cities I visited were of the animals that live in them. I would continually find myself following the German crows around Berlin, fascinated by their grey and white feathers, their intelligence and adaptability to the city.
Iceland was drastically different than Germany. The sparseness of the volcanic landscape in winter, the low population density, combined with the harshness of their weather made me feel right at home—as if I was in the Canadian prairies, the maritimes, and the Rockies simultaneously. The immense power of that landscape will have a lasting effect on me.
I have been looking at my home in Canada in a different way since returning. Back home now, I am experiencing the everyday surroundings with fresh eyes, which has allowed me to appreciate the Canadian landscape in a new way. For instance, I’ve gained a new appreciation of the particular animals we share our home with here. In Iceland, the largest animals you could run into in remote areas are reindeer, horses, and foxes. Meanwhile, in Canada, you will find moose, bears, elk, and coyotes. I’m also looking at my garden in a new light. I was growing mostly edibles last year, whereas now I am beginning to consider plants that can be used for plant dyeing and will thrive in my specific environment. One of my goals since my experience overseas is to plant and maintain a dye garden and to continue to learn what painting materials can be sustainably gathered and grown within Canada.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not in the studio?
I keep myself very busy in and out of the studio. When I’m not in the studio I am often playing cribbage or knitting over wine with friends, attending art openings, travelling, cooking vegan meals and reading. Last year, after a long hiatus, I started playing soccer again, so once a week I can be found running around on a soccer pitch working on my bruise count.
Living in Ottawa also means that the wilderness is very close to city. In fifteen minutes you can travel from downtown Ottawa and be in the middle of the woods. I feel best away from the noise of busy cities, so I try to plan escapes into nature as often as possible. A substitute for being in the woods is being in my garden.
Share a quote or a piece of advice that helped you so far.
A piece of advice that was given to me by my former painting professor Sharon Alward was when it comes to painting, “... Don’t be precious”. This is a challenging instruction but is something I think of often. It was very helpful advice when I first began painting and still is today. It allowed me the confidence to edit and eliminate work in order to rebuild and improve.
It is an idea that I wrestle with though, especially as I become increasingly concerned with the materials I am using and my processes of making become more labour intensive. What does ‘don’t be precious’ mean when you have given so much thought, time, and energy into the sourcing and production of your materials? What does ‘don’t be precious’ mean when you think about sustainable painting practices?