Blair Brennan gave his Get It Down On Paper artist talk to a packed house in November 2017. If you weren't one of the lucky ones to get a spot (sitting or standing), or if you just want to revisit his excellent thoughts on artmaking, you're in luck. Blair has graciously provided his talk for our blog.
Get It Down On Paper
Artist Talk by Blair Brennan, November 18, 2017
A recent opportunity to work with Edmonton artist and designer Bernd Hildebrand gave me an opportunity to reminisce about the Edmonton gallery scene in the late 70’s and 80’s. This reminded me that in my early years at art school and immediately following; I saw a number of wonderful art shows that featured drawings primarily by local and national artists. These exhibitions presented drawing as a legitimate and independent area of artistic inquiry, not something subservient to more “major” art forms.
I mention Bernd here and I will be mentioning other friends, local artists etc. I hope you will take this in the spirit as it is intended, as a chance to acknowledge where some ideas have come from rather than overt name-dropping.
I am 58 years old. I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon or pencil so I’ve been “refining this craft” for something like 55 years. I went to art school. I graduated from the U of A, Department of Art and Design in 1981 but I’ve had my artwork included in group art exhibitions since 1980. While at the U of A, I focused primarily on sculpture and drawing. I had my first solo sculpture exhibition in 1984 at the Woltjen/Udell Gallery, a commercial gallery in Edmonton (which later became the Udell Gallery). I was 24 at the time. My work has been written about and reproduced in art magazines, books and online. Some of my work has been purchased and is in public collections (which means public art galleries and universities with collections) and private collections (which means the homes of people like you).
I keep track of all of these things and I compile a curriculum vitae or a CV (which is Latin for “course of life”). I use this CV when I apply for shows, grants, projects etc. It shows people that I am serious about this activity and that I’ve been keeping busy.
Every time one of these things happens – the kind of thing I would list on my CV: a show, a workshop, an article, etc. – it means people are paying attention to me. Every time I have a show or give a lecture like this, I am the center of attention. It is hard not to think this may be the sole reason for this activity. Artist statements (and some times lectures) generally try to “look beyond” and pronounce the societal or cultural importance of one’s work but the “ego stroking” aspect is hard to ignore. I will return to this later.
In 2004/2005, my work was included in a drawing show at the Edmonton Art Gallery (which later became Art Gallery of Alberta). I know the date because I checked my CV. The show was called DRAW. The Curator, Marna Bunnell asked participants to provide information on some of our influences. With little hesitation, I offered my Pantheon of drawers.
I make sculpture, objects and installation work and no other artist has been as important to me in my three-dimensional work as German artist Joseph Beuys (1921- 1986). Much of my understanding of Beuys’ sculpture comes through his drawings/works on paper. Beuys drawings are fundamentally connected to his sculpture. They are not explicit plans for his sculpture but they are unequivocally linked to his three dimensional work. I always appreciated this non-prescriptive connection between Beuys sculpture and his works on paper.
Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948) is known primarily as a dramatist, poet, essayist, actor, and theatre director but Edmonton artist and writer Lelde Muehlenbachs introduced me to his drawings. Although Artaud endured a debilitating mental illness, it afforded him a rare insight. He believed in the magical efficacy of his words and images not merely their descriptive power.
French/American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911- 2010) says we draw because it is the truth and, she points out, “truth is better than nothing”. When I feel my work getting too sarcastic, ironic or petulant – well sometimes I try to make a virtue of “sarcastic, ironic and petulant” – but, when I feel myself drifting from the truth she describes or when I feel the drawings lack emotional honesty, I think of Bourgeois’ drawings and sculptures and I look at the drawings of Parr (1893 – 1969), an Inuit artist who settled in Cape Dorset. Like many other Inuit artists, Parr made pencil, ballpoint pen or coloured pen/pencil drawings in preparation for his prints. These beautiful drawings are incredibly sophisticated and yet direct and guileless.
Some other drawers have been especially important to me. They include David Shrigley, Garry Panter, John Scott and the comic books of my childhood. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Frank Frazetta, Roger Dean and the talented people who wrote and illustrated MAD Magazine (in the 60’s and 70’s) were all of great help to me in my “formative” years. I had not intended this to go from high art to lowbrow (from Joseph Beuys to MAD Magazine) but I will let this stand. It is a nice comment on my evolution.
I draw regularly, almost every day, and I attempt to let this happen as spontaneously and automatically as possible, mixing ideas and techniques freely and never knowing, before the pen hits the page, if the dots, dashes and lines will form an image, a word or some combination of both. When I am at a loss to explain it to others I just say: “It’s like a diary or a journal”. People seem to understand why it might be important to keep a diary and why it might be important to go back and look over old entries.
A friend, Yuri Drohomirecki taught English as a second language and he once explained to me the idea of “plateauing”, that some people stop progressing in their new language once they can make themselves understood. Many of his students would “plateau” once they could make their needs known. For example, “We go zoo.” is enough for some people rather than “Would it be possible for us to go to the zoo today?”
I think I “plateaued” with regard to representation in drawing. I think of my drawing style as the “We go zoo” version. There’s room to get lost in “We go zoo”. “Many other readings are possible. It is poetry. There are only a couple of answers to the question “Would it be possible for us to go to the zoo today?”. I recently found a more eloquent (perhaps more academic) description of this process. In and essay on Interdisciplinarity, Murdo Macdonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee states: “…the fine artist creates thought patterns which are intended to be ambiguous, that is to say open to a variety of interpretations.”
I thought the best way to talk about my drawings would be to explain the evolution of a number of linked works over a couple of drawing sessions.
October 11 was the second anniversary of my father’s death. A conversation with my mother on that day left me sad. I do not blame her. It could be no other way. I knew, however, that I would feel better if I could just draw. This work is not explicitly art-therapy but I knew that if I could put some ink on paper, everything would be OK. This is roughly the sequence of events:
- With a nib pen and black ink, I drew six swan heads and four teeth. With the same pen I wrote, in my best cursive writing, “ten swan’s heads and teeth”
- With a nib pen and black ink, I drew the outline of a sculpture of a person wearing a fedora-like hat
- With a brush and ink, I drew a witch’s hat.
- I pressed another piece of paper firmly against the witch’s hat while it was still wet, creating two fuzzy images of witch’s hats on two separate pieces of paper. (That is how many images in this exhibition were made or how much of this work progressed)
- Using a nib pen and ink and a brush and white gouache, I turned the hat on the sculpture into a witch’s hat then I smudged it.
- With a brush, I put a dab of watered down white gouache over each swan head and tooth.
- Using a brush and ink, I tried to draw a face under the first witch’s hat but I didn’t like it so I blacked out the whole area.
- With brush and ink, I started to write the word “DEW” under the second witches hat. I made the first “D”, started the “E” but stopped, and then I drew a backward “D”. I put “teeth” in the box where the “E” would have been and then crudely drew branches/antlers symmetrically on the page.
- I pressed a piece of black paper firmly against the swan’s heads and teeth while they were still wet with diluted white gouache.
- With a small brush and white gouache, I drew dotted lines around the white smudges on black paper.
A Day Later:
- With a red pencil, I absent-mindedly drew leaf forms on the tree branches/antlers on the second witch’s hat image.
A Few Days Later:
- With a nib pen and white gouache, I turned one of the smudges on the black paper into a fingerprint
I’m very much in favour of the artwork that reveals a continuous thought process. I am less interested in art practices that create the kind of artwork that can be elevated as a single autonomous masterpiece. The result of a few drawing sessions, starting on October 11, 2017, are five related pieces – four drawings on buff coloured paper with some combination of ink, gouache and red pencil and one white gouache drawing on black paper. All works are 11” x 8 ½” (H x W).
I did not try to relate these works specifically to my father. I can tell you some vague starting points:
I have a deck of cards from Grande Prairie (“Home of the Trumpeter Swan”) with a swan statue on the back (I feel that the head is the best part of the statue). I liked Marigold Santos painting in the recent Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art and it was a large painting surrounded by small teeth and other odd shapes made of Fimo (or some other modelling clay) and gold leafed.
- I was also thinking about the statue on the intro of The Simpsons (you know, the statue of Jebediah Springfield that Kearney and Jimbo cut the head off… and it falls on Ralph Wiggum… I probably watch too much TV) and two real statues in Edmonton (Emily Murphy in Emily Murphy Park and George Francis Hustler in Cloverdale).
I made a witch’s hat because Halloween was coming and I always thought the Emily Murphy statue looked like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. And, It is fall (was fall!) so it is the season when trees look like monsters.
My wife, Simone, says the sculpture looks to her like the Exorcist and, simultaneously Curious George’s Man in the Yellow Hat – or if the Man in the Yellow hat was an exorcist (when he wasn’t taking care of a mischievous monkey). I think this is a wonderful interpretation (so good, that I may make the hat yellow when I get it back home). It is just as much those things as it is any of my starting points (Jebediah Springfield on the Simpsons, Emily Murphy or George Hustler). Every artist knows the danger of explaining one’s work in too much detail. The problem is that once people know the artists thoughts, they think that their own interpretation is wrong. This is nonsense. Every thoughtful response to an artwork is valid. The artist’s interpretation is not necessarily the “correct answer” but many people think it is.
I don’t know if this information is even useful to you. I thought it would be the best way to talk about the work but it is not the best way. It is merely one way to talk about them. Another way would be to say, I just went where the ink pushed me to go… or I pushed the ink where it wanted to go.
At the end of the first day of drawing I felt better. Not because I had created a sort of tribute to my Dad (it is connected but not in ways that are easily explained), not because these works would sell for hundreds of dollars, not because they would be written about in a national arts publication based in Toronto and not because they would be reproduced in a book about contemporary visual art. For reasons I could not explain, I felt better merely because these works existed in the world, or because I had spent time making them and making them right even though I may be the only one for whom this “right” would matter.
When I am drawing and when I think about how art, especially drawing, helps me understand the world around me, I am happiest, When I think about my “career”, my “reputation” or “posterity” I am saddest. (I told you we would come back to ego).
In his book “Art of the Postmodern Era", Irving Sandler writes:
American artist John Baldessari remarked: "These days a lot of artists say, 'By this age, I should have had this many shows, sold this much, gotten a color reproduction into this magazine and a review in that one'-- that's how your judged that's how you judge yourself. It distresses me, but given the current climate, what else can you do?’ But did that affect what artists did in their studios? Les Levine thought not, suggesting that they recognized that "the savviest marketing approach won't work unless the art is worthwhile." "In the end" Baldessari concluded, "it's just you and the art.” 
Sandler is referring, here, to the 80's art boom. Baldessari's statement, "In the end, it’s just you and the art”, has been especially comforting to me as I believe it would be to most artists.
I am consistently overwhelmed by the possibilities of drawing. Local artist Alan Reynolds makes sculpture and drawing and he told me about a book that he thought I would appreciate. In his book simply entitled “Drawing”, Philip Rawson says that drawing is the “most fundamentally spiritual – i.e. completely subjective – of all visual art activities”, Rawson goes on to say “[A] drawing’s basic ingredients are strokes or marks which have a symbolic relationship with experience, not a direct overall similarity with anything real.” 
To paraphrase and expand on Rawson: colour, as we might find it in painting, and form, as we might find in sculpture, can be experienced in the natural and human-made world but line, the fundamental component of drawing, is an abstract concept that does not exist in the real world. In the real world, the line that separates different colours is not a line. It is just a separation between physical forms. The line that separates two tones is often merely the difference between light and shadow. Even those things that look to us like lines - small tree branches, telephone wires, etc. - are actually three-dimensional forms. And our perception of them, like everything else we see, is a function of our perception of light and shade. Drawing is, to some extent, unrelated to our experience of real life. It is, as Rawson points out, a highly symbolic and “fundamentally spiritual” and therefore a part of our connection to the eternal.
Drawing is by far the lowest investment and highest return art medium. The low investment is short time it takes (to learn or to become proficient), minimal technique or ability and low cost of materials (or the few materials and techniques required). The high return is the wealth of ideas that can be generated. Drawing, as I practice it, has the potential to help you think something you never thought before.
At events like this we often acknowledge the people that were here before us. Horrible things were done and some form of this genocide and despoliation continues so we mention it at official gatherings as though that might be a remedy for our guilt. When we acknowledge it, we clean it up a lot. We usually just say these are the traditional lands of certain groups of people. We don’t specifically mention, rape, murder, genocide, plunder and desecration. This mention, cleaned up as it is, often seems automatic, meaningless and insincere. We have found a sterile yet ornate way to say, “We murdered people, just to stand on this spot today”.
And the people we murdered were the ones that guided us to the richest most fertile land. They showed us where we could find the most abundant game, the best farmland, and the best places to find timber, coal, minerals, oil and other resources. The people we killed showed us which berries to eat and which were poisonous. They showed us where to hunt and trap. They helped us figure out which crops would grow here and which would not. They brought us to fresh water and they taught us how to survive here in the hot summers and the very coldest winters.
They befriended us. So we didn’t just kill them, we also betrayed them.
I don’t want to diminish or trivialize the real pain that people have experienced. And I’m not exactly trying to appease my conscience. I would like these acknowledgements to be more meaningful but, mostly, I’m just trying to find a way to survive. Many artists, performers, musicians, recovering (and not so recovering) drug addicts and alcoholics are all megalomaniacs with inferiority complexes. I count myself among this group so keeping my ego in check and maintaining some humility is a necessary survival skill (again, ego!)
At a recent Mile Zero Dance presentation, Artistic Director, Gerry Morita reminded the audience that the people that were here before us danced, sang and told stories. We know they made images and objects too. I will remind you that we obliterated much of this. We forbade them from making their images and objects, from singing their songs, performing their dances and telling their stories.
Morita suggested that when we sing and dance and tell stories, we are part of a continuing tradition (only the worst kind of bigot could think that they “invented” storytelling, dance, music, image and object making or that it was somehow unique to their people). This is clearly the continuation of a tradition and, if it is a continuation, then it comes through me and not from me. If it did not come from me, it would come from someone else. I’m not special. Discovering this has been essential to my survival.
- Murdo Macdonald, “Leap Before you Look and A Note on Interdisciplinarity”https://murdomacdonald.wordpress.com/leap-before-you-look/
- Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998) 444.
- Philip S. Rawson, Drawing (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 1.