Rippling gently with the stillness of whispered emotion frozen into a moment, Indigo’s soft serenade of stencil and spray over the last two years has graced our universal public spaces with profound echos of an intangible dream. A stunning photorealism resonates with ethereal other-worldliness -laced with memory and silken sighs of melancholy that open a window onto the self reflection of a floating soul. Hand drawn and hand cut stencils balance sublime harmonies and a supple delicacy with dissonant waves of silent sadness : humanity, loss, loneliness and a tender innocence flow out of her work and flood the streets with inscrutable layers of emotional texture and the gentle mysteries of feeling. Wrenching the viewer into the uncomfortable realm of the personal, her paintings have a magnetic pull into the life and the imagined world behind the portraits, as journeying deeper into the paint opens up ever more poignant internal wanderings as the flourishes of haunting power touch the recesses of our own reflection. As Indigo moves from pure stencil work into a wider exploration of technique, cutting a swathe through oils, acrylics and freehand spray paint, we caught up with her for a discussion
Can you give us a little insight into your background?
I grew up in a small northern British Columbia village called Burns Lake, and have been living in Vancouver for the past ten years. I’ve always been a multidisciplinary artist. My creative output has over the years gone in and out of different phases where I’ve been more focused on one medium than the rest, but I value each just as much as the other. Most of my life has been spent inside various dance studios, feeling like a dancer who likes to draw and paint. After high school I was accepted into a university visual art program but for various reasons decided instead to do a degree in contemporary dance. Graduated in 2004 and spent the next four years working as a dancer, choreographer and teacher in Canada and the United States. Two years ago I got a bit burned out, decided to take a break and focus on painting for a while. I started stenciling and making art for outdoors in March of 2008 – just little stuff, simple one layer things, nothing super special – but I was finally feeling excited about making art again. I had been doing a lot of site-specific performance work in the year or two leading up to this, and it seemed like a relevant transition to make – and still seems to be a place where there’s a lot of possibility for the two art forms to overlap. Last fall I made the scary but ultimately fulfilling decision to quit my day job and spend all of my time making art – I spent some time travelling around and painting, through New York, France, Germany, London and Amsterdam – I met some amazing people, learned a lot, ran out of money, went home inspired and ready to get to work…since then it’s just been fast forward to forever.
I think that movement and stillness are each present in the other, in life and ideally in art as well. What I try to find in my work is a sense of the captured moment – the brief eternity between the fall and the impact, those few seconds of suspension when a jump feels like flight, the evolution of sadness to strength when there are no more tears left to cry and life goes on. Regardless of the subject matter, the images that I am drawn to use as source material seem to always have a sense of motion and fluidity, whether the body is moving or at rest. I am not sure if my dance training has something to do with that – but I do think that it has given me a good awareness of body mechanics, an anatomical and visceral knowledge of the ways that muscles and tendons and bones fit and work together to make our bodies move. A large part of dance training is increasing your awareness of every part of the body separately and in relation to all the others, all at the same time.
Whatever has made it into my painting has been ultimately on an intuitive basis. I don’t approach the creation of new work with an analytical mindset, I just go with what I am drawn to; make decisions because they feel right. Luckily my intuition usually points me in the right direction. When I am creating a piece of choreography, a lifetime of training sometimes means that I overthink the process every step of the way. With art, I don’t usually have that problem. Of course I always spend time thinking about what I’m creating and why, but I find it a lot easier to go with my intuition.
Do you think that applies more generally – does analysis accentuate beauty or subvert it
I think that it really depends on the situation, and the person. I find that if I spend too much time thinking about a particular piece or a project, I sometimes lose sight of that initial creative impulse that can feel so magical at the time. If I spend too much time in my own head, I fail to appreciate the beauty inherent in each moment. Ideally, analysis goes hand in hand with curiosity, experimentation, discovery and innovation…and if so, leads more towards an appreciation and celebration of your subject matter than away from it – whether that is beauty, ugliness or anything in between.
Tell us a little about the Vancouver scene
From my perspective, the artistic scene in Vancouver leans heavily toward contemporary fine art – painters, illustrators, photographers, installation work, multimedia artists, conceptual work…While there is a very strong and vibrant arts community existing on many levels, there are very few active street artists. I’d say that street art in Vancouver was at its peak a few years ago, before I was doing anything outside. But to my knowledge, it’s never been a really big scene. This is a relatively new city, and a small one, compared to major cities in the US or overseas – and unlike New York, LA, London or Paris, we just don’t have a history of graffiti or street art to support a major movement here. Also, it rains six months of every year. Each summer we usually see a few new kids getting up, but they tend to fall off over the winter, when the rain sets in. There are lots of graffiti artists here, many of whom are super talented – but the piecing scene has moved out of the city into the suburbs. Most of what you will see if you walk around downtown is a bunch of shitty tags, a lot of bare concrete walls, and the occasional mural – most of which are relatively bland, due to the city council’s preoccupation with family-friendly, Vancouver-centric public art.
Vancouver’s known as a pretty liberal city, and one would think that logically that mentality would extend to art in public spaces. I think in the past the city was more lenient but over the past few years, pretty much ever since Vancouver was decided as the location for the 2010 Olympic Games, the city council went into cleanup mode. Anything that went up got buffed as quickly as possible, even in the shittiest alleys in the shittiest parts of town; even in spaces that have been known for years as graffiti-friendly walls. Whoever owns Goodbye Graffiti must have gotten very rich over the past few years, cuz they’ve been practically working nonstop. Even legal murals have been really strictly regulated, especially in the last year or so – basically treating mural installation with a similar permit application process as you would typically associate with construction. If you want to paint a wall, you need to pay a lot of money, fill out a big long form, submit a complete layout and if your mockup includes any letters then you can pretty much guarantee that it’s not going to be approved. While I was in Europe last fall, the city passed a bylaw granting themselves even more control over public visual space – not only did they give themselves the power to buff out walls without first serving the owner with notice, they included in that the authority to buff out any murals that were painted without a permit, even if the artwork had been commissioned by the building owner.
We are all hoping that since the Olympics are over and the main graffiti management program has been dissolved, that walls will be easier to get and work on the street will last longer. I know a lot of people who are interested in coming to visit and paint, and would like to be able to offer them some wall space if and when they do. This city is so beautiful, it really needs more color. The potential here is huge to make something really amazing happen, it just takes a bit of hard work and open-mindedness on both sides.
Fill us in a little on the Paint Your Faith project
Oh that was rad….it was a lot of work but when we finally started painting, it was so much fun. I got involved with the project in late 2009, after I got a message from Toronto-based producer Alan Serpa while I was travelling in Germany. After some emails back and forth and Skype meetings, I learned a bit more about the project and decided to take part. After a few months of planning, the rest of the lineup solidified, and I ended up collaborating with Faith47, Peeta and Titi Freak. Paint Your Faith was an initiative of the United Church of Canada. The Vancouver mural was the second time that this project has taken place – the first event happened in Toronto in September 2009, with Chor Boogie, Siloette, Mediah and Elicser. The concept was exactly the same this time around – an exploration of faith on a personal level, not necessarily religious faith, just faith in general – whatever that meant to the individual artists. What sold it for me was that the artists had full discretion, with no creative control on the part of the church. None of us were particularly religious, so it became more about the opportunity to paint a really big wall with a group of amazingly talented and inspiring artists. On a personal level, I was really excited to be able to paint something of this scale in my neighbourhood, in the Downtown East Side, a part of town that needs color and art and positive energy more than any other.
The DTES is the poorest postcode in Canada and has the highest rates of substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and mental health issues…but it also has the highest proportion of artists per capita, so it’s a really interesting mix of people cohabiting the same five or six square blocks. A big reason why I am interested in street art in general is that I feel it’s a way to give back to my community with the means I have available – to create art that is available for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their social status. And over the week that we spent on the wall, we really got a sense of support and appreciation from everyone who walked by. Every day we had people coming by to thank us, smiling, really happy to see something like this happening in their neighborhood. While we were painting, a crew of volunteers took the opportunity to clean up the empty lot, completely of their own volition, creating a big peace sign on the ground with all of the rocks that they had gathered from around the site. By the time we were done, we were able to transform what had been for years a forgotten, overgrown, needle and garbage-strewn space into something that I feel the whole city can enjoy.
Yeah, definitely. I think that feelings of loneliness and sadness are through lines that run through most of my work. It’s interesting that you mention loss in particular, as I’ve just started work on a new series that explores the process of loss, grief, and regaining hope. It’s the first time in far too long that I’ve done a body of work with acrylics and brushes (and possibly some oils, for the first time!), and I am really enjoying the freedom of painting freehand as opposed to working with stencils.
I think that part of my fixation on sadness is due to my current surroundings, and also in part because my artwork – regardless of medium – has always been a way for me to work through personal baggage or issues. For me it’s not so much about a particular message, it’s more about a mood, emotion, a feeling that I am trying to work through and express in the things that I create… When I am starting a new piece or a project I tend to gravitate towards images that have a very particular kind of quiet melancholy. Like that empty ache that you get after you can’t cry anymore. When you have no more tears left, but still the sadness remains. I am generally a happy person in my day to day life – but I tend to listen to sad music, I choreograph sad dances, I write sad poems…umm…this probably says more about what’s under the surface than I’d like to admit. If I wasn’t making stuff I’d probably be horribly depressed.
Are all of your painted portraits real people
Yes, although not all of them are people I know personally. I take some of my source images myself, but most are created in collaboration with a photographer – and I am lucky to have many friends who are very talented with a camera. In the past year or so I have collaborated with Victoria Potter, Kris Krug, Fiona Garden, Miles de Courcy, Janice Cullivan, Steven Lemay and Ron Purdy, either using images they’ve already created or working together on a photo-shoot for a specific work. Sometimes the subject is a model, sometimes a stranger on the street – but when the project is right I am always happy to involve my friends and family in the image creation process.
I am doing an ongoing series of portraits of my nephew Harlem, one a year, around his birthday, for the next however long. I’m also taking photos of the people in my neighbourhood for a potential series of work somewhere down the line – when I’m painting with the door open during the day or if I’m having a smoke outside people tend to stop by and chat, and sometimes I take their picture. People tend to lump everyone in the DTES together into one category of worthless drug addict – and after spending a lot of time down here over the past couple of years, I appreciate more than ever how many amazing individuals there are, people who have so much talent and intelligence and experience and honesty, and have ended up here either by choice or by a wrong turn somewhere in their lives. I have had a lot of very beautiful moments while I’ve been working here, and would like to be able to in my own small way show that people are just people, and that each one of us has something to offer the rest of the world.
Yeah, it could be. But I think that really that metaphor applies to all of us, as disadvantaged or not we are all here temporarily. And regardless of what happens after that, learning to let go is a huge part of life. Whether that is letting go of a loved one or letting go of a piece of artwork you’ve spent many hours creating, the lesson is the same: all things are temporary; cherish beauty when and where you find it, as it may not be there tomorrow.
Do you feel that the recent evolution in street art has taken on a far more feminine, holistic quality – moving away from large fairly masculine pieces of graffiti to softer, more nuanced, more emotional and more mysterious work
I hear the term ‘art fag’ get tossed around a lot these days, in reference to street artists whose work is a departure from traditional graffiti or street art styles. Work that, as you’ve mentioned, is often softer and more nuanced, blurring the line between fine art and urban art…work that is more conceptual, emotionally charged and often times quite mysterious.
I am not a fan of labels or categories. I do not see the use in disparaging other artists for experimenting with different approaches towards artwork and public space. What I do support is the idea that artists, regardless of medium or genre, should always be pushing the boundaries of what they do, exploring new ideas, new methods of creating, new ways of interacting with their environment whether that takes place indoors, on the street or in virtual space. I am excited at the number of artists from different backgrounds who are currently placing their work outdoors. If anything, it adds depth and strength to the street art genre as a whole, with a multiplicity of diverse perspectives from which to draw inspiration. For a movement to have any hope at longevity, constant evolution and innovation is key. And with all due respect to the history that has brought us to this point, what I am most interested in are the infinite possibilities inherent in the future.