The are many ways to “make it work” as an artist, but at the end of the day, you need a space in which to work, materials and equipment with which to make, and a community of peers and friends with whom to share the products of your toils. Chrissy Poitras has it all at her fingertips as the co-owner and founder of Spark Box Studio, a print studio and artist residency located in Prince Edward County. Spark Box, a renovated farmhouse, is also her home, so her work and life overlap in the closest possible way in the very particulars of her daily life.
Chrissy is a graduate of Queen’s University, where she studied painting and art history in a close-knit fine arts program. After graduation, while working at a commercial gallery, Chrissy began imagining a space that would foster her creativity and provide support to other artists. When her partner, Kyle Topping, graduated from Queen’s the following year, they launched into a wild adventure that led to Spark Box. On the road to making their dream a reality, Chrissy and Kyle worked at Loyalist College as instructors, published a quarterly magazine, and delivered lectures and workshops on printing techniques and building a career as an artist. Together, they have assembled a hub of professional resources and materials, many of which are available for free online. Impressively, Spark Box has hosted hundreds of artists since it opened in 2009 and it continues to draw local and international talent in a diverse range of media.
Preparation for the Aylmer Street mural is well underway and Chrissy is eager to begin installation later this month. As that day approaches, I was grateful for the opportunity to talk with Chrissy about the mural, her practice, and Spark Box Studios. The conversation below took place on Tuesday, August 28, 2017.
HK: Why were you drawn to the Aylmer Street project?
CP: Kirsten McCrea is a good friend of mine and I have been working on a project for a local business here that is a mural—though it has been postponed to next year due to some construction—and I was asking her lots of questions about mural projects and getting advice from her and she is amazingly helpful and such a great resource. When it got posted [the call for submissions], I think she saw it on Akimbo, and she sent me an email that was like “hey, I really think you should apply for this; I had such an amazing time working with this group, so just go for it. I believe in you.” When I read about it, I was like, I love Artspace, it’s a really beautiful gallery. We did an Ex Libris show in the back gallery earlier this year and working with Jon was such a breeze and I would really like to do a project with them again. I also went to Trent for a year and a half and so I lived in Peterborough for two years; I have a lot of fond memories of being in the city and, also, speaking of the transit station—I was there a lot coming and going from Picton. I guess that’s more or less what drew me to it: Kirsten and just thinking it would be fun to do something in that space again, to be in Peterborough and connect with the city, which I haven’t done in a long time.
HK: How did you approach designing your mural? In what ways did it coincide with or diverge from your typical art-making process?
CP: Well, I had done a mural last year in a home. It was a friend of mine and she had sent me a few examples of things that she had liked and that she saw online. And I had done a project that January with Burt’s Bees where they asked if I would do a drawing or a painting using this lipstick line that they were coming out with that year. It was part of a big launch for the company. When I was thinking of ideas for this lipstick drawing, I realized that the work that I traditionally do, which is very abstract and colour based, wasn’t really going to work with the lipstick because they were all just shades of the same colour and it was going to be hard to do layers like I normally do with oil painting. At Christmas I had been given this book about natural illustrations, mostly botany illustrations, from a friend of mine and I was really drawn to the line work in them. So I thought, maybe I’ll just do a floral study with this lipstick. It makes sense: the product is about using natural materials and the colours lend themselves well to this kind of imagery and this lipstick, if I dilute it with coconut oil, can actually get really beautiful line quality that can make a crisp, illustrative drawing style.
So I made this giant drawing with lipstick and I kind of fell in love with drawing these flowers and sort of weird shapes and inventing flowers based on looking through this botany book, which was sort of a surprise for me because I always felt like I wasn’t the kind of painter who would like drawing flowers—I love abstraction so much. And then the friend that asked me to do the mural said “I really liked what you did for the Burt’s Bee’s project, it would be kind of fun if you could pull from these influences, and bring some of that into the design as well.” So I made a mock up for her that was using a lot of the shapes that I use in my abstract paintings, colours found in the inspiration images she had sent me and a few of the floral designs she really liked. She was like “that’s great; let’s do that.” So I painted that last March and had a lot of fun. It was different from the abstract work in that it was super flat and really graphic and the line quality is pretty similar throughout which is different from the abstract painting that I am used to doing.
Then I did another piece in this style commissioned by a friend of mine who has an organic flower farm called Floralora—I painted a banner for her. I suppose, I feel like I need an “excuse” to do this kind of work because it is a bit more playful and graphic than “serious fine art” oil painting. So when I saw the call for the mural, I was like “oh my gosh, this is a great opportunity to do a giant version of this”, plus I love the idea of bringing nature into a city. This was a nice place to bring this new-found passion for floral design (that I didn’t know I would be so in love with) and elements of my abstract mark-making to a much bigger scale.
HK: And in your design you have those plywood layers. Where did that idea come from?
CK: Honestly, it was a practical decision, originally. Kyle and I run Spark Box Studio, which is an artist residency program. Through Spark Box we have people coming and going all the time from the house (artists) and the deadline for the mural project was pretty quick, the turnaround seemed really fast to me, for the scale, and so I was like “is this possible for me to do?” When Kyle and I were talking about it, I mentioned that I could see it being possible if I did the whole thing on panels and we would just install the panels. But then we thought the size of this is insane so it would be too hard to do it all panels properly. Then I was like, what if I could do the complicated parts on panels and then install those and paint [the mural] around them, which is something I have been wanting to do in my paintings for a long time, but have never actually done. The more I thought about, the more I came to love the idea. The “pop outs,” as I’ve been calling them, will make a dynamic and interesting mural because I can shim the back of some of the panels with cedar so that they pop out a bit further and have some of them flush right against the wall so than you have this mural that has a sculptural energy to it. This would also allow me to be meticulous and detailed in parts of the wall on a very smooth, flat, even surface, which is what the panel will provide. So then, you can get these really gestural, big marks that are on the surface of the wall beside these really soft, flat, detailed marks that will be on the panels and I think the contrast of that will be really, hopefully, lovely.
That’s what I was thinking with that. And then a friend gave me a gift of all of these posters from… Facebook has an artist residencies program of sorts. I don’t know too much about it, but a friend of mine, Andrew McLuhan, has a family member that works there. It sounds like an amazing project and this year they made a series of posters that sort of showcases the work of the artists that stayed with them. One of them, Thomas Campbell, did a project, a painted installation, where parts of the large painting were done on panels as add-ons to the piece. As soon as I saw that—I had already pitched you guys and heard back from you—and then my friend gave me this package of posters, I was like “oh my gosh this is exactly what I want it to look like!” So that was pretty cool. So I got to see, yup that works, and that’s how I imagined it in my mind. Perfect.
HK: It sounds like… it’s kind of neat how the site itself and the scale of the project has sort of pushed your design in a certain direction.
HK: On a somewhat related note, then, how has your own practice been influenced by your experience running Spark Box and living with other artists full-time?
HK: I imagine quite a lot!
CP: That’s a multilevel question. I mean, it means that I work more like a project-to-project basis, rather than a go-into-the-studio-everyday and just make for the sake of making. Because when you are changing over rooms and answering emails and reviewing applications and touring people around and doing interviews and helping with projects, it can be very easy to say, “I don’t need to paint right now” or “I don’t need to print right now; I can put that off and I will just focus on being present for these awesome people that are here.” So, forcing yourself to apply to things and get projects really aids in you producing and I would say that that’s been the biggest influence on how my practice works most of the time. And then, you know, living with such a variety of different people working in a lot of different processes, you find interesting tips and tidbits. You see the way people approach things and you’re like, “oh man, I never thought of approaching it that way.” Or you know, Kirsten was a resident; that’s how we know her. So you develop these lifelong friends who do amazing things and you get to watch their journey from when they were here to what they’re doing now, which is awesome.
We have this really cool artist with us right now, Linh Thai. She’s working on this projection, paper-cut animation project. And Jennie Suddick, Kyle, and I are doing an installation in November for the Firelight Lantern Festival, which will include projection. The way Linh has her projection system set-up is something I had never seen before… sort of this layered projection, overhead projector with a tiered plexi-glass structure, it’s great… and I am totally going to borrow it for our installation. Don’t worry she knows ;) So ya, it’s a pretty unique and really inspiring place to be working. I love my job.
HK: From what you’re saying and some of the other reading I was doing online, it sounds like you have a really ambitious desire to make stuff happen and a certain amount of fearlessness, I would say, to jump in with both feet. How do you stay motivated through the highs and lows?
CP: Kyle and I work as a great team with skills that allow us to jump into a lot of different projects. I also have amazing parents who, every time I’m like “what am I doing, should I just be a waitress again?” are adamant that I’m making the right decisions. I would say that Kyle and my family and my very close friends are what keep me motivated all of the time. Any time you’re sort of going into… oh, what’s that website… Hyperbole and a Half? I think she does like a comic strip about the “sneaky shame spiral” where you sort of feel yourself slipping into this dread and uncertainty. I feel like every artist gets this because I think we’re a pretty conscious group of individuals that think about the environment that we live in and how what we’re doing impacts people, place, and community. Sometimes you wonder, “could I be using these skills in a different way?” And so it’s good to have a network around you that keeps you focused, keeps you grounded, and pulls you up when you need them.
HK: And do you have any helpful strategies for working in the creative field, or, your particular place in the creative filed is really business-oriented, so one or the other or both?
CP: I think that you kind of have to be willing to compromise. I think that’s a big one. Kyle and I are good at compromising and scratching things that aren’t working. Don’t be so… I mean, be hell-bent enough that you don’t give up immediately, but be realistic and willing to change and restructure and drop things off and maybe pick them back up again. You know, there have been a lot of projects that we have done that just didn’t work. And it’s not because the projects in themselves are bad ideas or didn’t have a lot of potential. It’s just that in the moment or where we were or who we were working with or whatever, it just didn’t make sense in that time. Sometimes we had to say goodbye to this for now or forever. And that’s ok. Failure, I think, is a really valuable thing. It is something that any creative or business owner has to become very comfortable with and see it as adding value, instead of something to be afraid of.
Then also, find a system and a structure that works for you and don’t feel like you need to conform or shove yourself into a mold that’s not well suited. I know a lot of people who go into the studio everyday at a certain time and they work for a certain number of hours and that is a great structure for them. It makes them super/hyper productive. For other people, that is the opposite of what gets them to where they need to be. I don’t think that there is a specific way that everybody has to work in order to be successful or seen as a “good creative” or a “good businessperson.” I think you just have to listen to yourself and follow whatever seems to make the most sense and try a bunch of things on and if it doesn’t work for you then don’t stress about it.
HK: That’s good advice! My final question is sort of a fun one. Living or deceased, who is your dream resident artist?
CP: There’s so many!! Just one?
HK: I mean, if you have a list, I will take a list!
CP: Oh man. The list would be so long. I love people that make. I think they are an incredible group. There are a bazillion musicians I would love to be here, Canadian and non-Canadian. We’ve had some awesome people here already. But, you know, if Arcade Fire showed up I would be super game for that. Or Devendra Banhart–that would be totally cool too. I literally tweeted out to Childish Gambino that I would let him come here any time. I would love to meet Matisse. I am really inspired by his work; I think it is pretty evident in the way that I approach shape and colour, especially in the mural piece. He’s a huge influence. I love James Jean. Man, that’s a really hard question.
HK: I think what is so interesting about the residency, from my perspective, is how each person might surprise you in terms of what they can bring, or offer something different than what you expected.
CP: Oh ya. Definitely. I think sometimes it is easy to look at someone’s work and go, “oh the pictures aren’t very good so they’re not very good.” I think it happens to a lot of jury applications—it’s hard for it not to—or, “oh they could have written about their work better” or “I don’t like this selection of poems they sent in to be reviewed.” But in a space like this, where I have the opportunity to be like, you know what, maybe this part isn’t very strong, but there is something that is resonating with me about the ideas that you have or the project that you are pitching or the way that this work looks versus how you wrote about it. Then you have these people show up in your space and you’re chatting with them and you’re learning about their inspirations and you’re watching the way they work and you realize that no photo or artist statement or CV can actually live up to what artists can do when they’re given time and space and the permission to just do what they do best, which is making.
Thanks for chatting with me, Chrissy!