Wednesday, September 2, 2009

meeting an artist

As my partner Mariel and I were getting ready to embark on a camping trip in northern Saskatchewan, I received a phone call from my supervisor at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. I was asked if I would be interested in documenting the Australian indigenous artist, Vernon Ah Kee, while he was engaged in creating work in his studio during his 6 week residency in Regina. I had heard of Vernon Ah Kee, but I was not immediately familiar with his work. The project sounded interesting and I agreed to participate with the hopes of gaining some insight and experience from engaging with another artist from another country. Later that night I did some research on Vernon Ah Kee and I was fascinated with his work, in particular his text pieces.

I recall walking into the studio at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and witnessing Vernon working away on a large scale charcoal drawing of a man with a very intense frontward gaze. Later on I would come to learn that it is a portrait of his great-grandfather. I guess he might have been expecting me because he knew my name and he greeted me right away. In the beginning stages of documenting his work, I tried to remain unobtrusive so I would not distract Vernon from his artistic process. I was simply acting as a lens to capture his studio work. It wasn't long before the silence was broken and he started to chat with me. At the time he was listening to "The Talking Heads" through his Ipod and since I too am a fan of their music, it gave us good grounds for a conversation. As the day progressed, we had several conversations about the subjects of travel, music, art and food. It was all very casual, but at the same time I was blown away by the extraordinary piece of work that was emerging in front of me. The drawing was so intense with character and expression. What really caught my attention was Vernon's own fascination with his process and his perception of the piece as more lines were added and the drawing continued to develop. He let me view his snaps shots of the piece in progress over from the previous day to the present. I was able to gage that even in its most minimal beginning stages, Vernon's drawing looked aesthetically appealing and could stand as a finished piece even as an outline of things to come. His approach to line seemed to have a certain methodical spontaneity; in that I mean he was so quick to place the lines on the paper with such a lose and free energy which progressively manifested into a very life-like portrait. He was working from a photocopied picture of his great-grandfather. After I commented on his use of line he explained to me that it is very important for an artist to avoid over-working a drawing.
Process seemed to be very key for Vernon. He told me a sotry about a past studio space of his that was located right accross form the lcoal pub. Monday to Sunday he had to endure the loud noise and drunken ambience form accross the street while he was busy preparing simialr large scale drawings for the Sidney Binelle. Before each large scale drawnig he would get himself psyched up and focused before jumping into the process.
I spent the day video-taping layers upon layers of charcoal that Vernon was applying to his canvas. He would stand back ever now and again to examine the depth and volume of the piece. I really enjoyed and admired Vernon's open-studio approach. We talked about how reserved and closed off people can be about their art as if they had some big secret they were trying to keep. We then joked about how is big secret was chorcoal. My first impressions of Vernn Ah Kee were plesant and casual and I immediatley sensed that he was an artist comitted to his working process.

As the week past I continued to meet with Vernon Ah Kee to document him working on a series of drawings in the basement of the home he was staying at. I remember walking downstairs into his temporary studio and seeing several sheets of arches paper hanging in succession on the wall. Each sheet of paper showed a charocal sketch of an emerging face with some human characteristics; they were so haunting and intriguing upon firt glance. As the day passed we discussed science fiction and I came to understand Verrnon in his own words "a science fiction nut". We spent the entire afternoon talking about films and popular culture. Some of the most interesting conversations we had were around desgin. Vernon Ah Kee belives that there is no excuse for bad design in a tea cup, an instrument or any functional object in modern times. Nothing pisses him off more than a tea cup that is hard to pour with or akward in propotion. He thinks about his physical space quite thoroughly. He spoke in detail about car design, for example where the most convenient and optimal placement for functions should be in according to the driver's needs. These were some of our most memorable conversations.

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