Idiosyncrasies of the Human Race: Interview with Kayla Buium

I am a young artist from Toronto who uses my character the “Nuknuk” to parody the idiosyncrasies of the human race. I have exhibited my work in Toronto, Montreal and Berlin and work as a freelance illustrator in my free time. I am intrigued by the mundane everyday activities that I participate in. From taking the subway to sitting in the laundry mat, I think it’s these everyday activities that make up a lifetime. I try to dig deeper into these moments to try to understand myself and my society at its essence. That is the main goal in my work, and I try to be inconsistent in it in order to get a full scope of the world I live in. 

There is one piece that I worked on recently that has really resonated with me. It is called “TTC” and it highlights our fear of interacting with one another on public transportation. 

I never realized how isolated we are in the city until I visited Bermuda and took a trip on their public buses. It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that I was on a bus because it felt more like the car pools my parents organized everyday on my way to gymnastics class. Everyone was talking, laughing, connecting with one another and I assumed it was just a small community, until they invited us into their conversations. It wasn’t weird to talk to strangers. It wasn’t uncomfortable like it is in Toronto on the public subways. In Toronto, anyone who tries to talk to you is declared crazy. And in Bermuda, if you ignored someone you were crazy. In fact, it wasn’t even just Bermuda, it was Costa Rica, it was Fiji. In fact, in Fiji the bus driver would blast party music and the entire bus would be dancing. Why do these developing nations connect in ways that our nation can never do? 

I don’t think we have the potential to change and I don’t necessarily think that that’s a bad thing. We come from different cultures, like how in France they kiss each other on the cheek when they say hello. I’ve tried to bring the friendliness back into the TTC in Toronto. I did a public installation in the subway a few years ago in order to inspire conversation in the subway, and it worked but not anything long term. I’ve tried approaching people and sometimes it results in a nice conversation but it always feels unnatural and quite exhausting. I try to be friendly to the odd normal person who strikes conversations with me on the subway. But even me, a self-aware art student who obsesses with this issue thinks it’s weird. 

I think that transportation has a different purpose in cities. I think it allows us time to be silent and self-reflect in a world where we are always preoccupied by our phones. Suddenly there’s no Wi-Fi or cell service and we are forced to be present. It allows us time to read books. It allows us time to listen to music and watch the world around us. It allows us a thirty-minute nap on the way to work. I really enjoy this transportation time because it allows me to be myself without the interruptions of anyone else.


We love the exploration of "mundane" moments in your work. When did you first gain an interest in observing human behavior and translating it into your art? 

I’ve always loved people watching. Whether it was admiring ultra - alternative people walking around downtown Toronto or trying to guess some stranger’s life story on the subway, I’ve always had a fascination. I don’t remember the exact moment when everything shifted and this fascination translated into my art, but it must have happened when I moved to Berlin. In Berlin, I didn’t have a phone, I don’t speak German and I didn’t have a friend within a few hundred Kilometres. I remember just being really observant to escape my own loneliness. I’d go to bars and draw people who I didn’t have the courage to talk to. The first drawing that was founded on this idea is my piece entitled “Brainwashed”, which takes place in a laundromat. For some reason, I found it so fascinating just sitting and watching the people in there, especially because there were so many colorful faces in my neighborhood. People reading, chain-smoking, talking on the phone. I thought it was very telling of someone’s character how they chose to spend that time. It was the mannerisms of the strangers in the room that orchestrated my time there and I thought it was fascinating how much of impact strangers can have on us.


Tell us what you hope to communicate through your paintings? 

Each of my works communicates an idea of its own. Whether the source is my pessimism toward being able to save the environment, or my observing the antisocial nature of subway passengers. If there was an overarching idea that tied all of my works together, it would be the notion that these works create a sort of autobiography of my life through a series of moments. It tells the story of a young artist in the 20th century who loves and dreams, or mourns the loss of her innocence.

Artist studio nuknuk.jpg

What inspires the imagery and style in which you paint? Tell us how you come up with each piece. 

I’m inspired by so much. Hieronymus Bosch and the whole surrealism movement… Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte… I love the storytelling and imagery of Dr. Seuss. I love street art. I love tattoo culture. Polly Nor is incredible… the list goes on. 

I take these artists and movements and learn from their approach to making art but the content is always unique to me and my experiences. Something I learned from Dali, after reading his memoir, is the notion that I can take certain metaphors I use to explain how I feel and create work from it. For instance, I work at a burger joint and I’m legitimately eating too many burgers - I feel like I’m “slow” and “blobish” because of my overindulgence and lack of self-control. What if I really was a blob, what would that look like? How would I exist in the world? How do I communicate that feeling without saying? It can be quite challenging. 


Describe a typical day in the studio. 

My days in the studio usually begin with me cleaning up from the night before. I usually stay up really late painting and collapse into bed when I can't go on anymore...which results in paint-stained bed sheets and frayed brushes. Come morning I’ll usually go feed my parrot, Schnitzel, and bring her into the studio where she loves to steal my brushes and rip out all the hairs. It’s really nice having her around because I have someone to bounce ideas off of and talk to. She’ll talk back sometimes but usually says something totally unrelated. I never really go to the studio without anything to do. I’m really good at always having an idea of something to make, and I won’t leave until it's done. I go on painting frenzies that can go on for a few days. I’m probably at my happiest when I’m in that state of mind. 

What is the most exciting moment in your art career so far? 

Probably my solo show in Montréal. I thought having a show like that would be a long way down the road for me, but I was invited to exhibit there. I guess being in a room filled with art I had made over the course of 10 months and having people come here just to see my work was truly inspiring. For a moment there I told myself “maybe this whole art thing could really work out.” 

Do you feel art can help us be more present? Share your thoughts on creativity, disconnecting and being mindful in our world. 

I think art can help us be more present but you have to want it. Art in our internet-addicted, consumerist culture is viewed and forgotten very quickly, and I think that if you get caught up in letting that happen it's going to be hard to really tap into that art, be moved by it, gain something from it... I myself am guilty of this habit of scrolling through Instagram and giving an artist 3 seconds to wow me before I keep scrolling. I don't think you can really commit to a compelling inner dialogue in that time.


What are you currently working on and what should we be on the lookout for? 

I find myself mostly experimenting these days. Playing around with gouache and ink. Making comics and faces. I’m trying to push myself to see what I’m capable of. I’m running an art therapy class and organizing an all-girl art show over the next few weeks. Really just focusing on exploring my creative potential and putting myself out into the world.