The last of her work sat ready to transform the walls of Niagara Street’s Walnut Contemporary gallery on Tuesday night when we checked out a sneak peek of Toronto artist Julie Gladstone’s latest exhibit, The Sky is Falling. In a variety of colourful, mixed media abstract paintings, she explores the line between beauty and destruction and our fascination with disaster and apocalyptic fantasy. With an infusion of eye-popping colour, including a somehow-soothing neon, Gladstone’s chosen forms include clouds, raindrops and waves; a deconstruction into abstractions as objects are reduced to their essence. This means a silhouette of clouds, rain as stylized teardrops, and polka dots and lightning as stripes.
We chatted with Gladstone about everything from her source of inspiration for the exhibit to how she gets into the “creative zone,” and her advice for art newbies.
Can you tell us a bit about the exhibit?
This show is a series of work that is all new from 2013. I guess the starting point was just my experience of living in our world of extreme weather and how to make sense of all the changes going on, in addition to the different perspectives on the situation. There are different levels in which you can look at the work. On one hand, I was looking at traditions in painting and different approaches to portraying landscape. One of my influences was the romantic landscape painters from the 19th century who really explore the story and archetypal theme of “The Great Flood” in Noah’s Ark. They were inspired by the interaction of humans and the forces of nature. I took that traditional landscape and combined it with abstract interpretations of landscape in our contemporary reality, looking at how landscape and abstract can intersect. My colours and materials reference street art and pop culture quite often, and as far as the theme of the flood or apocalypse goes, I use neon colours to suggest something sinister but also child-like and naïve about humans vs. nature.
To what extent did you draw any of your inspiration from your life experiences?
All the paintings are straight from my imagination but were influenced by certain experiences and stories. For example, one was this summer’s flood. I was in a building and all lights went out and the water level was rising and it really occurred to me that things that we rely on can change in a second. What would we do as a city? What would that feel like? Our whole reality would shift. Everything we rely and depend on is so tenuous. It also explores people’s reactions to potentially catastrophic situations. My dad has fun, fond memories of Hurricane Hazel, for example, of making boats in his basement and whatnot, and it was such an imaginative, creative and child-like response to the disaster. So the works also show the contrast of how people can perceive disaster. It’s about attitude and response, optimism vs. pessimism.
What’s the biggest difference between this and your past work?
Last year the collection was pretty big and I did a huge show, but the themes in the past have included more aerial views. It was still landscape, but more topographical and made up a lot of contrasting aerial views mixed with close-up views to create a patchwork-like view to explore the transformation and change within the urban landscape.
What is your background? Did you pursue an artistic career path right after high school?
I went to Concordia University in Montreal and did a bachelor in fine arts with a major in drawing and painting and a minor in film studies. I guess you can say I have been a working artist since.
What’s the biggest challenge faced by young artists in Toronto?
There are a lot of talented people, so I guess it is challenging for everyone to find their individual niche and path, especially when there is little structure compared to most career paths. I can’t say I know too much about the scene here – I lived in Montreal for five years – and I’m still figuring it out myself so I don’t have a lot to compare to.
Who would you expect to be the purchaser of this work?
Private collectors who enjoy it in their homes, but also people who are looking for something a bit edgier too, because the colours are a bit unconventional. I aim to have content and message in my work without being didactic. I think that’s the main thing; I want the work to touch people so they can keep looking at it and getting more things out of it over time. I want the work to be beautiful as well, and colour and composition are also really important to me.
How would you suggest art-curious young professionals discover art?
People who aren’t familiar with the art world may see it as intimidating but the main thing to remember is that you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate art. Trust your instinct and your individual preferences. Each painting has its own language and it’s up to each individual to decode it. I would say that appreciating and learning about art requires a little bit more time. Getting out of our ever-so-common split-second attention span can be challenging. It’s worth spending at least two minutes with a piece, that’s how you can get into it. We are too used to things being blatantly spelled out for us these days. In the past, people would try harder to figure things out; it’s not all presented in the first few seconds as it is today through things like media and technology.
Is there something you do to get into the “creative zone?”
Often my route to the studio gets me to the right headspace. In the summer I either walk or ride my bike. I like being in the urban setting and find it inspirational and I really take in the landscape and the visual stimulus of the world around us. Last year my work was inspired by sidewalk and road patterns, things like spray paint by city workers. Once I get to the studio, though, I am right into it. I do find things like music can get me into the zone, but I am also into a few great podcasts. This American Life, for example, is great. It’s a public American radio broadcast, with all kinds of interesting stories where a theme is chosen every week, from politics to human interest, art and religion. They interview all sorts of people, so you gain this amazing insight and learn about world events and world issues. On Being is another podcast that I like and they interview people about spirituality, science, religion and whatnot.
What does success look to you?
I want to feel like I’ve done a good job with the work and that I’ve pushed myself artistically and creatively. I would like to see many people come out to discover the art for themselves and continue to reach a larger audience. Sales don’t hurt either.
Sky is Falling opens to the public today, Thursday, November 7th, with an opening reception from 6pm-9pm, and runs until November 30th.