The Block Magazine

MARGINAL SPACE, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas. 49" x 63", 2010

In anticipation of this year’s Cheaper Show – a buzzy, decade-old art show highlighting emerging artists and selling their work for $200 a pop – we’re profiling a trifecta of young artists whose work we love. Our first profile in this series is Fiona Ackerman.

Vancouver-based Ackerman’s kaleidoscopic abstracts have us hooked; her landscapes, rich fantasy worlds with unusual colour combos and forays into graffiti, promise to rival even the pristine mountain view from our window. She spills about meeting her art-star dad for the first time, how she makes the choice between army green and, say, neon pink, and drawing inspiration from within.

The Block: How did you become an artist?

Fiona Ackerman: I grew up in Montreal and was always drawing, but when I was 13 I met my father for the first time. He’s a well-known German painter, and I went to a workshop he did in Italy, just a two week painting class, and my eyes were completely blown open. It was the most interesting, fascinating thing I’ve ever seen and I went back the next year. I ended up studying painting and drawing at Concordia, graduated from Emily Carr in 2002, and really never looked back.

TB: When did you know you could make it as an artist?

FA: I am always waiting for that moment! Some months it’s my career and other months it’s my passion – if you know what I mean. Painting is part of my life forever, and everything else in my life organizes itself around it.

TB: What do you do in those times when art is your passion?

FA: For the last five years I’ve worked at Pigeon Park Savings Union in the Downtown Eastside. It’s a bank for people who don’t have bank accounts or often even anywhere to live.

TB: Does your artwork have any social activist influence as a result?

FA: I don’t think so. My work has always been, though not intentionally, very much about painting and about finding my own language as a painter. For me it is a place where I explore my curiosity about painting, about form, and composition, and colour.

I LOVE YOU, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 48" x 48", 2010

TB: So where do you find inspiration and subject matter?

FA: Because i have a range, stylistically, the answer is two-part. I have this very abstract work that is driven by colour and by taking little snippets of textures and patterns from daily life that I may not even realize I’m taking in. It’s painting for painting’s sake and building up these imaginary words, very abstractly. Then I have another arena of painting that’s more representational. I’ve done a series of portraits and they are truly about the subject and about representing people I’m interested in and places I find interesting.

TB: Was your painting always abstract or did you start out a realist?

FA: I actually started off more abstractly, but a lot of it happens very simultaneously. Right now I’m working on a body of fairly abstract work at the same time as a series of portraits, so I have these two things happening at the studio. Working back and forth with these two ways of painting, I find that they feed each other. It’s sort of like, as a muscle builder (not that I am one!) you don’t want to exercise so that you lean too far in one direction – I’m exercising both sides of my painting brain in order to be able to wander through both worlds with comfort.

DISTRACTION, Acrylic on canvas, 40" x 30", 2010

TB: Some of your colour combinations are very unexpected; how do you choose colours?

FA: A few years ago, I was deliberately trying to use colours that are very difficult for myself. It’s funny because now they’re colours I can reach for quite easily. When I start painting with these colours, with a palette of odd greens, for example, then it’s really the paining itself that tells me what it needs, the painting chooses for me.

TB: You like to use spray paint, and unusual medium for a fine-art painter.

FA: Sometimes when I’m feeling restless with paintings, I’ll go to the art store and find materials that I haven’t used before to see if it’ll make a different mark or add a different element to a painting. Spray paint is a really powerful tool, but I have a limited colour selection. The colours cause you to work around them a little bit which is an interesting challenge.

TB: How do you choose titles for paintings (some of our favourites are “Washed Up On Soda Beach” and “A Philosophical Maybe”)?

FA: I’ll stumble upon a line in a book and think, oh that’ll make a pretty title and jot it down. Oftentimes it’s after a painting is finished and I have a show coming up and Untitled 1, 2, 3 is becoming far too confusing. It’s really the fun part; it’s like putting icing on a cake, naming a painting.

XO, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas 132" x 36", 2010

TB: You were once quoted as saying: “I’ll never be a landscape painter.” And yet, here you are painting beautiful – if abstract – landscapes.

FA: I should never have said that. That was the first line of a talk I gave at Dianne Farris and I go on to talk about how foolish that is and how I didn’t understand landscape painting – or even painting – at the time, when I was 19 and living in Montreal. I thought I didn’t want to just do more landscape paintings, but I didn’t understand that landscape painting means so many different things and it’s such a basic human thing to represent our environment. Now I’m absolutely a landscape painter, I adore it. My paintings are abstract but they are abstract landscapes, they are environments.

TB: Do you discover these landscapes in the world?

FA: They come from my imagination. I create imaginary worlds. I’ll find a new material or colour and the landscape builds itself up from there, often without me being conscious of it. When you open your mouth to speak, and a voice comes out, it’s not clear why you use that voice; it’s not always intentional

TB: What do you hope to convey with your artwork?

FA: Precision, playfulness, mood. I want to create something that never gets tired. Someone I know who owns a piece of mine tells me they see something different in it every year that they own it. That, to me, is a successful painting.

MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY/ PORTRAIT OF RALPH ACKERMAN SR., Oil on canvas 72" x 36", 2010

TB: Are you painting something special for the Cheaper Show?

FA: I paint with the Cheaper Show in mind but not in a committed way. For a couple months leading up to it I think, this could be a possibility or this could, and then only in the last weeks do I really narrow it down.

TB: Can you give us a hint about what you might be planning?

FA: Over the years I’ve done a series of framed abstract works on paper. These have been a way for me to get to the root of new ideas, which I really enjoy doing. I decided to do a few bigger ones this year, and there’s a chance that those that will be strong enough for the show.

TB: What do you think the Cheaper Show means for Vancouver’s art scene?

FA: Publicity, obviously, for an artist is always so much appreciated, and buzz – people are so excited about so many things, and painting is often a media that is harder to get excited about because it’s such a personal experience. The event itself is fun in a way that artists don’t get to experience as often, but also I think all these artists are getting a closer look.

TB: An artist friend sometimes complains that the Cheaper Show means everyone waits for this one day to buy art at a discount. What’s your opinion?

FA: I’ve thought a lot about this too. I think buying one piece of artwork, if it’s someone’s first piece, is a real foot in the door. If a person thinks they could never own artwork and we can break that feeling down for them with such a great price, we’re really opening the door for a life of owning art.

Interview Darcy Smith

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