The notion of “inspiration” is exciting, romantic and, well, inspiring. Our mythologies of creativity tell us that the right synchronicity of circumstances will spark not only The Idea that will change everything, but the will and ability to execute it. In reality, sitting around waiting for inspiration to “strike” is about as effective as waiting for actual lightning to strike and start your campfire. Inspiration can be cultivated and sought out, though.

Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, no matter how much consistent work and practice one puts in. It is the encounters and experiences that excite, intrigue and teach us that generate and motivate creativity. Sudden, striking ideas do happen – but they don’t come out of nowhere, they are the result of a long-simmering idea suddenly coalescing as the last piece falls into place. To be creative, go out into the world and seek out inspiration. This can take any form you like, from getting back to the land and nature, to delving into works of philosophy for new ideas. Inspiration is all the little pieces of life that keep you motivated and keep you thinking until The Idea finally coalesces (or, more likely, is finally forced into being like molding a stiff piece clay.)

Do not shy away from engaging with others’ works of creativity as a source of inspiration. Far from tainting the authenticity of your creative expression with influence, others’ art can be a great source of inspiration. Most peoples’ original inspiration to become a writer, artist or any other creative was probably someone else’s work. Don’t be afraid to revisit that original inspiration in times of low motivation.

Art exists to provoke emotional and intellectual responses and to expose new ideas and perspectives, all of which are the essence of inspiration. In a sense, art is a short cut to inspiration! Whatever kind of creative you are, try to be open to what all kinds of creativity can teach you – visual art, performance, music, literature, digital arts….

A risk of relying on others’ art to inspire you in periods of low motivation and inspiration is that witnessing the peak of others’ creative process may stir up insecurity and fear. The doubting voice inside might just say “Well I can’t do that, so why bother…” The gulf between where you see yourself and where you want to be may become stark and intimidating. Remember that inspiration is also about learning. Look at work that you admire, or consider “better” than yours, as something to learn from rather than envy. What is it that you see in that work that seems to be missing from your work and how can you develop that missing piece? What technique and craft does that artist use that you can learn? If inadequacy and fear clouds inspiration, focus on learning and honing your craft.

Creativity requires consistent work, but it also needs to be nurtured with inspiration. Fortunately, creatives do not need to passively await inspiration: they can go out and find it. Part of the work of creativity is spending time immersed in others’ creativity, looking for the little pieces that will build and motivate your own.

 


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

In a productivity-centric society, busyness is not just a norm, it is almost practiced as a virtue. Keeping busy demonstrates dedication to productivity and efficiency, but it is ironically counter effective to genuinely fulfilling and meaningful productivity. Busyness is how we experience the route to shallow productivity: the accomplishment of multiple tasks in quick succession under pressure. Busyness looks, and initially may feel, like efficiency, but it is unsustainable. In a prolonged period of busyness, even the most adept multi-tasker becomes distracted, rushed, and unable to absorb information, ultimately leading to burn out.

Different people can manage, or even thrive at, different paces and degrees of busyness. Most people, however, need room for their creativity to grow and be nurtured. Meaningful and fulfilling productivity, both in the sense of artistic output and more broadly in the sense of innovation, is driven by creativity. Creativity requires focus, depth of thought and practice, and room for simmering ideas to coalesce in seemingly spontaneous inspiration. Many people benefit creatively from high levels of stimulation or a certain amount of pressure, but shallow, urgent busyness is antithetical to the circumstances under which creativity grows.

As much as we may wish to prioritize our creativity, busy periods are inevitable in most lives. Most workplaces, school programs or even personal projects have certain crunch periods. Personal circumstances like moving home, or even celebrating a holiday season put greater demands on our time and attention. Most of these are relatively short periods, but some circumstances such as raising children or working multiple jobs can cause more long-term busy periods. Fostering and maintaining creativity through these periods is important. The fulfillment and meaning derived from creativity can even be an antidote to the mental and emotional tolls of being overly busy.

Keep practicing.

Keep doing what you do, even if just for thirty minutes a day or an hour a week. Lower your expectations and let yourself cut back the amount of time you spend on creative projects, but don’t abandon them. Recognize your creativity as a priority amidst life’s demands, but don’t turn “write every day” into yet another task on your busy list.

Take in others’ creativity.

Schedule time to visit an exhibition, see a performance, or just read a good book or watch a film. In a busy time, you may be tempted to use mindless distractions to wind down (and that has its place!) but choose to spend time with works that will feed you creatively.

Make space.

Whether you want to call it “mindfulness” or not, give yourself some mental peace. Do activities that engage your body but make limited demands on your mental focus, like walking the dog, attending an exercise class, or doing a familiar handcraft. If you’re really pressed for time, you can even use mundane, necessary tasks like doing the dishes as a chance to either let your mind rest and wander or practice more focused mindfulness.

Trust that it will end.

Remember that this busy period will end and you will have room to practice and focus again. When you again have time to engage with your creativity but are struggling with motivation, remember how you missed it when you were too busy with other things! If there is no foreseeable end to your busyness and it is causing you distress, it may be time to consider some bigger life changes.


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Curatorial Assistant at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

 

 

 

 

 

As writers, we can often get stuck in a routine with our writing that can feel a bit dusty after a while. At its worst, this can cause us to stagnate and falter with our writing, or even set it aside for other pursuits. Writing takes persistent and consistent effort to produce worthwhile results, but that doesn’t mean the process by which you get there has to be boring.

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Many writers have different methods for keeping things fresh, regardless of the genre. Some writers like to use prompting exercises. These are usually one sentence assignments like “Write about the smell of your childhood neighbour’s house” or “Write about the first time you were disappointed in your parents” and from something fairly straightforward and simple, entire short stories or even books can evolve. These exercises get the creative juices flowing and nowhere is this truer than when prompts are combined with free writing. Free writing means that you aren’t thinking of things as a project or an essay. You’re just writing for the sake of writing without pressure to produce something even of quality or value at the end. This sense of freedom often gives writers the confidence they need to get started, and once they do, great things happen!

That being said, it’s not a trick of the mind, necessarily. It’s not a matter of making yourself think that there’s no pressure to accomplish something with your writing, but in the end you still have a lingering hope that something tangible will come  from it. Rather, this exercise is purely for the joy of writing as a transformative process, in and of itself.

I often link free writing (which I, sadly, have very little time for these days!) and meditation because I see the outcomes of both processes to be very similar, and below are few of the reasons why.

They are both good for you. Meditation has been medically linked to lowered stress and anxiety levels as well as decreased risks of major illnesses like depression and heart disease. Free writing allows you the freedom to express yourself and let go of things that are holding you back emotionally. In fact, therapists will often recommend free writing simply for the release it allows you and the mental health benefits that can come from that.

They both focus the mind and keep you present. When you are meditating on something, or even meditating on the clearing of the mind to bring it to the present moment, you are focused. Focus takes concentration and discipline, especially these days in the world of fast-paced technology and split-second attention spans. Free writing can offer a similar kind of focus, particularly if you set a time limit for the free writing. Set yourself a ten minute alarm for writing on a particular subject or whatever comes to mind and stay committed to the writing and only the writing until that alarm goes off. More times than not, you’ll get so invested in your work, the alarm will likely come as a forgotten surprise.

With both, you have to be aware of all the senses. For anyone who has just started meditation practice formally or informally, one thing can be said for sure: meditating certainly has the uncanny ability to make you aware of all facets of your surroundings from your itchy nose to the ache in your back, from the smell of the room you’re sitting in to the sounds outside your window. You become acutely aware of the world around you and your body within that world. With free writing and any writing in general, an awareness of the senses is critical. The best kinds of writing don’t tell us what is happening, they show us what is happening by making us feel, touch, taste, smell, hear and see things through our written words. The best writers are those that are in touch with these senses and know how to express them on the page.

Sometimes, they are painful. Meditation isn’t all fun and oms. There are serious challenges in terms of physical and mental endurance that need to be overcome through careful, calculated practice of keeping the mind aware and still. Writing can be similar in that it forces a kind of discipline that can be uncomfortable at first but pays off in the end. Also, not all meditation or writing sessions will be considered “successful” by you – and they don’t have to be successful… Failing and trying again are both their own forms of success.

They both help you evolve. Whether you are meditating of free writing, both tasks help you to learn a lot about yourself, particularly how fluid you are as an individual. A lot of people think that writing is about crystallizing a moment or a character in time, but in actuality, it’s more of a snapshot of an ever-changing scene or individual. In a similar way, meditation helps you hone in on the present moment because this is where attachments fall away. It is only in past and future memories that we hold onto rigid conceptions of ourselves and our identities. By breaking through and being present with ourselves and our pens on the page, we can capture some of the sense of our own movement and can grow because of it, becoming gentler with ourselves as we pass through time in perpetual motion.

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For the past 5 months, I have been studying the Arabic language at the University of Alberta. This is not my first foray into the Arabic language: I have been enamoured with it for years, even before I converted to Islam. I have taken some online self-study classes, bought books at the local bookstore to teach myself, took a few private tutoring lessons and the like. I even lived in Morocco for three years where I picked up a significant and usable amount of Moroccan Arabic to survive taxi rides and trips to the enchanting Moroccan souk (market). Even though Moroccan Arabic stuck with me and is really the first language I can safely say I speak besides English (my strengths in French are reading and writing), darija as it is called, is quite far from the formal Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha, as it is known).

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Since I began my Master’s degree in History at the University of Alberta, I have had to focus on learning the Arabic language to further my research in Islamic-Jewish studies, particularly if I want to continue on and do a doctorate degree in a similar study area (which I do). As such, I enrolled in a couple of courses to learn Modern Standard Arabic and it has been an incredible experience, but for reasons that might surprise you, as they most certainly surprised me.

The Camaraderie: The last thing someone would expect when I tell them I am taking an Arabic class is that the class would be full of Arabs. Well, it is. I weaseled my way into the “heritage” class which is full of students who have grown up speaking the dialects of their parents but have little to no knowledge of formal Arabic or how to read and write it. There are three other non-heritage students in my class, each of whom I love dearly for various reasons, most significantly a kind of solidarity in the face of the madness of learning this language. Mainly the class is full of amazing, jovial people who are enjoying learning the language together. The class takes place at night, for two and a half hours, twice a week. Since the class is so long and at a weird time of day, we tend to get a bit delirious together especially when you add the complexities of Arabic grammar concepts to the mix. I have rarely had as much fun in a class as I do in this one, and I have to say that I actually miss the class when there are days between meetings. Part of this has to do with the fact that I am a convert to Islam and I don’t have much of a strong connection to the actual Muslim community even though I do a lot of activist work on behalf of that community. Most of my time, however, is spent with academics or family and both of those groups don’t necessarily overlap with Muslimness at all. The Arabic class, however, is full of Muslims and even though we don’t always mention much about our way of life (deen), just being in close proximity to people who have a similar religio-cultural context as you is more of a relief than I expected it to be. To not have to explain ever micro-action of your behaviour or character is refreshing, even though I normally relish in the opportunity to do so with people who may lack knowledge about Islam.

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Pages of Arabic: I regularly have moments of looking down at my homework or an exam I have just written, or even some extra writing I have done for my professor, and I have to marvel in awe at the fact that the entire page (in fact, pages upon pages) is written in Arabic. How is this even possible? How can I possibly understand what I have just written? And time does not cure the awe either. It just keeps getting more and more pronounced as my writing improves and expands. This used to happen to me when I was studying Greek and I think it is for no other reason than the alphabet is different. I genuinely feel like my brain is being rewired (and it is) because I am introducing an entire new set of meaningful symbols into my linguistic repertoire. And more than that, I can express myself with these symbols in ways that are affective for people who know and understand Arabic. I’m living part of my life in another language; I’m saturated by it. When you choose to express yourself in another language, it is not merely an act of translation. You are adopting and carrying the depths of meaning from that language into your self-expression, and with a rich language such as Arabic, where oceans of meaning are contained in one word or phrase, the expressions are almost limitless – especially when combined with those I have in English and French and Italian as well.

Egyptians are hilarious: This is not news to many people, especially not me. One of my best friends is Egyptian and his wit simply cannot be matched, so this is one cultural stereotype I am happy to uphold. My professor, Mai, is Egyptian and the stereotype holds true and strong for her as well. Her sense of humour is impeccable and she puts up with all sorts of class antics with a smile on her face and a laugh on her tongue. I have come to know a bit more about how Egyptian people view themselves through her (passionate, temperamental, hilarious, lovers of love and beauty, impatient, generous, kind, caring etc) even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to universalizing narratives about cultural systems. I am interested, however, in how individuals within that system talk about themselves and what stories they tell, and especially when this is done in good humour. Frankly, there is a kind of rapport between the heritage students and Mai that you don’t find in other classes and it reminds me of how my students were with me in Morocco – always trying to get away with no homework or leaving early, being trolls in general but respecting their professor to death at the end of the day. Her presence has only fuelled my unnatural obsession with the Arab world in general and the Egyptian world in particular, so I look forward to the day when I can visit the homeland and see these gorgeous stereotypes firsthand. I only hope I can touch a fraction of the language before then to make that experience really come to life.

Using different parts of my brain: It should come as no surprise that learning a new language messes with your head in a good way. You are forced to think about things in a completely different way, especially when the alphabet is something different than what you are accustomed to. Sometimes I find this process painful, especially during vocabulary lessons in class where it feels like every heritage speaker in the class knows everything and I can’t even remember how to spell the first word on the list; however, that kind of hyperventilating suffocation that I feel when learning Arabic is pure bliss. It’s the feeling of being on a precipice, about to tumble over an edge, head-first into the world unknown. It is the feeling of pushing your own boundaries of knowledge and existence, of unlocking worlds within worlds and breaking down our assumptions. I love this kind of ego-slay, especially when it is as humbling as learning Arabic is for me. This is exactly the kind of work that academia should be for people: the kind that makes the boundaries of who you think you are, and what you think your world is, ambiguous and blurry.

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Thinking in Arabic: When I am particularly immersed in my studies, which is a lot these days, I find myself thinking in Arabic. I will pass street signs written in English and imagine how I would spell such a thing in the Arabic alphabet. Or I will try to translate simple conversations or sentences to Arabic in my head. Sometimes, especially because of my visceral understanding of Moroccan Arabic and the fact that I am Muslim, I feel compelled to respond to situations in Arabic, uttering a Yallah or an Alhamdulilah wherever it fits. In Arabic there are just so many key words and phrases that encapsulate so much meaning in a tiny package that sometimes I find I am at a loss for words in English. It just doesn’t sound the same when you see a particularly beautiful sunrise and you say to yourself “All praise, glory and thanks are due to God Alone” when you can just say Subhana Allah instead.

Reading the Qur’an: On that note, my connection to Arabic is not only cultural in the sense that I love Arabic cultures but it is also cultural in the sense of religion. For those who do not know, Arabic is the language in which the holy book of Islam (the Qur’an) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him for all eternity). One incredible outcome of learning to read and write Arabic fluently is that I can now read the Qur’an in Arabic at a pace that is a lot faster than before (let’s be realistic, I could barely read 6 words every 2 minutes before). Even though Qur’anic Arabic is quite different than Modern Standard Arabic, many principles are the same and the same basic letters and sounds apply, even though there is an entire science behind reading the Qur’an (tajweed). The fact that I can read what I and other Muslims consider to the exact and direct word of Allah (God) in the language it was revealed lessens the temporal and spatial gap between myself and the Prophet Muhammad and brings me closer to my spiritual practice, even if I am slow in learning the meaning(s) of such words in their own context.

My journey with the Arabic language will be life-long and this is only just the beginning. There have been moments of real agony already where I feel like I will never touch the depths of meaning that I want to with the language, where I lose myself in its music, tinged with melancholia and sorrow that it is not my mother tongue as I fail to remember terms or pronunciation again and again. But there are successes along the same path, big successes, things that I could never imagine were possible like those pages full of words I can understand and feelings I can describe. And for now, that will have to be enough until the day when  I will fully memorize the Qur’an while internalizing its meaning and when my own Arabic poetry will roll flawlessly off my tongue, insha Allah.

lizThis article was writen by Liz Hill, historian and writer/researcher for The Drawing Board.

There is a typical Canadian tendency to assume that our art (like our TV programming) is either a poor imitation of American products or too regional to be interesting. To which I would argue that regionalism and being just off-centre in the art world is what makes Canadian art interesting! Twentieth Century Canadian artists navigated the complexity and diversity of Canadian identity(s) both internally and in relation to the wider art world. The list I’ve selected below aims to be diverse and represent a variety of groups and movements, but cannot begin to be truly representative so I encourage you to check out your local galleries!

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Leeward of the Island 1947

Paul Emile Borduas (1905 – 1960)

Paul Emile Borduas was the leader of the Montreal Les Automatistes and the writer of the main essay of their manifesto Refus Global. Borduas was inspired by the automatic writing technique of Andre Breton and the Surrealists. He applied the spontaneous and automatic writing to painting. After exhibiting these automatic works in 1942 he gained a following including Marcel Barbeau, Jean Paul Riopelle, Roger Fauteaux, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, and Jean-Paul Mousseau. The group met in Borduas’ studio to discuss Marxism, surrealism, and psychoanalysis. As artists the group successfully exhibited in New York and Paris in 1946 and 47. In 1948 they produced a manifesto entitled Refus Global. Borduas wrote the main essay which argued that “rational exploitation [was] slowly expanding to all social activities” to the detriment of creativity, expression, and freedom. The Automatistes were opposed to the conservatism of 1940s Quebec society and Borduas rejected Catholicism and nationalism in favour of a “resplendent anarchy” which he saw as a political extension of the Automatistes’ spontaneous and intuitive aesthetic. The group disbanded shortly after the release of Refus Global, with some of the artists already leaving Quebec for Paris, including Jean-Paul Riopelle who would go on to have a successful international career. Refuse Global was widely condemned by the Quebec government and media. As the eldest and the leader of the group Borduas was removed from his position at Ecole du Meuble. He never taught in Quebec again but continued to work in New York and Paris until his death in 1960.

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Stripes to the Right 1965

Jack Bush (1909 – 1977)

Jack Bush was a Toronto based artist who, as a member of the Painters Eleven group, contributed to bringing international modern art to Canada, and Canadian art to an international audience. His work, which would become associated with the Colour Field and Lyrical Abstraction styles of Abstract Expressionism, is characterized by an expressive use of colour and the creation of structure through colour. Bush worked as a commercial artist through out his career and was initially a landscape painter in the style of the Group of Seven and the Canadian Group of Painters but he became dissatisfied with Canadian art’s detachment from the international art world. He was exposed to American abstraction, as well as the work of the Automatistes, through trips to New York and Montreal. In 1957 he met the influential New York art critic Clement Greenberg who encouraged him to refine his approach to abstraction and became a life long mentor.

Bush was a member of Painters Eleven, a group of artists formed in 1953 who were similarly frustrated by the 1950s Toronto art scene that continued to be dominated by the influence of the Group of Seven. Alexandra Luke organized the first exhibit of abstract art in 1952 and the group exhibited annually from 1954 – 58. In 1956 they reached an international audience in an exhibit with the American Abstract Artists in New York. The group was diverse in background, training, and style but were united by the influence of the New York school of abstraction and a desire to bring the international art world to Canada and vice versa. Other members of the group were Oscar Cahen, Hortense Gordon, Thomas Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, JWG Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town, and Walter Yarwood.

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Untitled 1967

 

William Kurelek (1927 – 1977)

Unlike many of the other artists on this list, William Kurelek was not a member of any artists’ groups or movements. His output and influences are intriguingly idiosyncratic, including Brueghel and Bosch, his prairie roots, Roman Catholicism, and fear of nuclear war. Perhaps best known for illustrating children’s books in the seventies, his other work includes realistic images of prairie life, particularly of Ukrainian immigrant communities, still-lifes, didactic series and apocalyptic images based on his devoutly Catholic beliefs, and earlier works depicting his struggles with mental illness. Born in Alberta and raised in Manitoba, Kurelek began painting in 1950 while living in Edmonton. In 1952 he ended up in England and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for depression. He continued to paint as a form of therapy, producing some of his darkest and most surreal works. During his art therapy he worked with Dr Bruno Cormier who happened to have contributed to Refus Global as a colleague of the Automatistes. He found comfort in Roman Catholicism and began to convert before leaving the hospital in 1955 and returning to Canada in 1956. Through the 1960s he established himself as an artist, producing a body of work that reflected his Catholic conversion, Ukrainian prairie roots, and growing preoccupation with nuclear war and the moral state of modern society. In the seventies he produced a number of books and series depicting Canadian immigrant communities.

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Theatre Queue 1962

 

Daphne Odjig (1919)

Daphne Odjig’s Winnipeg gallery, The New Warehouse Gallery, provided an early meeting place for the Professional Native Indian Artist’s Incorporation (PNAI), or “The Indian Group of Seven.” Odjig learned to draw and carve from her grandfather as a child, and as a young adult taught herself to paint by visiting the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Toronto. In response to discrimination she adopted an Anglicized version of her name, but in the mid-sixties she returned to her Indigenous roots, both personally and creatively. She began to explore Indigenous history and traditions in her painting and in 1971 she opened the Odjig Indian Prints of Canada gallery, which would be renamed The New Warehouse Gallery, in order to promote and distribute her work and the work of other Aboriginal artists. In the seventies she also began to create large scale historical and legendary murals and paintings that dealt with themes of cultural survival and regeneration, and were based on personal and collective memory.

Odjig’s gallery became a meeting place for artists who would go on to form PNAI in 1974. In addition to Odjig, PNAI members included Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morriseau, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez. The group was diverse in background and artistic styles, but was united by a frustration with the prejudice and lack of opportunity faced by Indigenous and Aboriginal artists in the mainstream Canadian art world. In addition to seeking to improve opportunities for Aboriginal artists, the group was concerned with the survival of Indigenous culture, and critiqued assumptions about Aboriginal art which portrayed it as something from the past or as crafts and artifacts belonging in natural history museums rather than art galleries.

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Spring Blues 1960

 

Joyce Wieland (1931 – 1998)

Joyce Wieland’s use of imagery and materials influenced by Pop Art and feminist art challenged the dominance of painting and high art traditions exemplified by other artists on this list, including Borduas and Bush. In addition to painting, Wieland was a filmmaker and multimedia artist. She expressed her perspective as a woman artist in a male dominated art wold through the use of domestic and craft materials such as embroidery, knitting, quilting, and even an elaborately decorated cake for one exhibit. Her use of lithography, collage, and cartoons reflects the influence of Pop Art and represented a challenge to high art modernism. After her first exhibit in Toronto in 1960, Wieland lived and worked in New York from 1962 to 1970, with her husband Michael Snow, another major Canadian pop artist. Despite nearly a decade spent working in the American art world, and exhibitions in the United States and Europe, Wieland remained invested in her Canadian identity and themes of Canadian nationalism. She viewed the landscape and ecology of Canada as female, tying together issues of nationalism, environment, and gender. In 1971 Wieland was the subject of the National Gallery’s first major exhibit of a living woman artist. It was entitled “True Patriot Love.”

 

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The Drawing Board owner, Nakita Valerio, had the pleasure of sitting down with graffiti artist and community leader, AJA Louden to talk about his art, his genre and all of the incredible social justice work he is doing with both. As always, Louden proved himself thoughtful and eloquent beyond measure and it is our joy to speak to such passionate, intellectual individuals, as well as uplift their work by providing it with the public platform it deserves – something to which Louden is no stranger. As the founder of the Aerosol Academy, a participant in CypherWild and avid supporter of First Nations community causes, Louden has the perfect marriage between doing what he loves and doing something that matters: his art is where those two principles meet.

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Louden grew up in Calgary and recounts his first distinct memory of seeing an incredible graffiti display when he was around ten years old. “I don’t have a lot of contextual memory for it, but I know I was traveling in the backseat of a car, even if I don’t know where I was going or anything. These kinds of memories are the best because they are hazy but so foundational – something really jumps out at you through a fog. I saw a series of five or six light posts and each of them had the word “Trikone” written on them vertically. I couldn’t help but wonder “Who was doing this? Who would do this?” It was like a rabbit hole of questions I was falling into trying to reconstruct the story behind this public display. I just kept imagining six people standing there and painting the posts at the same time – I could see it like a film in my head, and for me it represented something hidden and esoteric – a private world made public that not a lot of people have access to. After that, I started seeing tags all the time – they stopped fading into the background for me.”

He didn’t do much about it but in middle school he got into hip-hop and break-dancing. In such communities, people are encouraged to develop a new identity that will be connected to their work and Louden was gracious enough to reveal (laughing the whole time) that his middle school name was “Spyda.” Of course, we vowed never to let him live it down, but Louden, with his sharp wit and humble demeanour, was quick to offer himself up, telling us the story of his first graffiti experience:

“I remember that one of my first graffiti moments was carving that name into my desk at school and then filling it in with markers. I didn’t think of it as wrong at all. It was just putting myself out there. Later, I wrote an exam and on the back page of the test, I wrote the same tag. Well, not surprisingly, my teacher saw the graffiti and then the tag on my test and pulled me aside. This was my first clash with authority over my graffiti. I was so brutal because I just told him a bold-faced lie: I had seen the graffiti and copied it onto my exam, of course.”

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Despite this first foray into this world, Louden says it left him a bit. He didn’t take visual arts seriously and was not informed on the history of the culture around it early on. In high school, he became rebellious and anti-authority – what some might call “a critical thinker.” He ended up taking a year off after high school and this, combined with moving to Edmonton for university and having more control over his own time ignited a search for his identity. He ended up studying sciences and much of what he learned is used in his painting work now, including lessons from biology and anatomy but also the soft sciences like psychology and sociology. Despite dedicating himself to his studies, he never saw himself working in a lab and realistically, employment prospects were low.

Louden notes that the biggest thing he took from that experience was realizing how passionate he is about knowledge and learning. It has informed how he asks questions and expresses himself artistically as well, especially since subscribing to several academic journals. He credits scientific observation with informing his ability to recognize patterns, activities and methods of expression to elicit affect.

While Louden’s work seems so visceral and spontaneous, he does mention the influence of technology in what he does. He has a graphic design background as well and that has affected his painting as an artist by putting different tools in his repertoire. He admits to being deeply interested in the technology of actual paint which is not something people often think about. “Changes to paint have reflected the commercialization and commodification of graffiti which is not necessarily good or bad. There are some people who have strong opinions about it but I just view it as change, like anything else. As a result, an artist these days has a whole lot of caps, cans, propellants and pigments to choose from, each of which can dramatically alter how they express themselves.”

Of course, Louden is also inspired by the masters like Caravaggio or by those who are really passionate about typography, citing a classic book by Robert Bringhurst called The Elements of Typographic Style which he says is essential for painters using words. The book helps us to understand how words have shapes of meaning and makes us more conscious of those we choose to express ourselves.

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Despite all of this brilliant forethought, Louden still has a hard time answering the question of how he would describe his work now, noting that when he first started getting back into painting, he worked solitarily for four or five years. In the graffiti world, that meant he was using styles that hadn’t been passed down through the community; however, as he broke into the community more, he started meeting more people and getting a variety of influences. And because of this diverse background, Louden is influenced by different, somewhat disparate things. He might describe his work right now as being about realism with some impressionistic effects. He is into portraiture and his lettering varies depending on the project, adapting to his expressive needs: It can be somewhat abstract at times while his subject matter revolves around authority, conflict and asymmetric warfare.

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Recently, Louden has put these themes to good use, doing important community work in indigenous communities and other humanitarian work as well. He had the pleasure of doing an AFA one week workshop at Beaver First Nation, near High Level where participants focused on the theme of finding identity through creativity and in place. A strong understanding of one’s identity becomes a powerful tool in the uneven match between oppressor and oppressed. Louden states that he tends to be less interested in struggles when the power is matched, helping participants to draw attention to discovering who they are, the psychological effects of occupation, reigniting one’s relation to the land, and how traditional wayfinding is communicated. Discussing one’s orientation in their environment and how this is dictated by our historical upbringing and cultural awareness was a particularly moving point in the project.

Additionally, Louden has been thinking to do some work on the parallels between Palestine and the plight of indigenous peoples in Canada, drawing symmetries between their experiences with colonialism and invasion. This has been a driving interest for him and a personal curiosity and is part of how he thinks more critically about the land he lives on and the context of where he paints in the environment it sits. Louden is nothing if not conscious of being respectful of the fact that this is Treaty 6 territory, effectively stolen land, and taking serious steps to avoid the appropriation of settler narratives into his work unintentionally, while at the same time not telling stories that are not his to tell. This careful balancing act is part of the reason he flourishes in graffiti education and in helping others express their own stories as well. Louden notes,

“In reality, I’m connected to the colonial narrative and the indigenous story through the land; it is part of my history too.”

Another high-profile project Louden got to work on was a wayfinding and signage program for the net-zero Mosaic Centre, creating landmark art pieces and using recycled parts from the building construction to do so. It was an amazing project because it got him thinking more consciously about how words perform a communicative function but are also aesthetic. The group collaborated with a neurologist at the University of Calgary who was studying brain cells that define our spatial awareness and how people navigate spaces, their literal place-making cells – research which has huge implications for the creation of landmark artworks and its relation to the interpretive capacities of our minds, even if such landmarks have a long historical use, such as Inukshuks.

Ever humble, Louden casually notes that he has also been fortunate to do a lot of workshops through Aerosol Academy which is a graffiti school he started. Through this group, he has developed an educational workbook – a kind of history of unsanctioned public art which examines culture, graffiti practice, tools and techniques and how to make art in legal spaces. And he has also had the privilege of opening up some street art walls as a lead artist consulted by the City of Edmonton and chosen as the city’s artistic representative. Traditionally, walls are about separating spaces and keeping things apart but Louden is unique in that he has tasked with building communities around walls, as gathering spaces to meet and practice the craft.

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Through these walls and other work, Louden is inspired to resist, especially in breaking down the false binaries between art and graffiti, and graffiti and crime. Louden is aware that there is a lot of scapegoating that happens about graffiti primarily because it is an intensely visual form of protest and the ultimate unruliness to change the landscape around us. However, in this context, it is important to realize that graffiti is a symptom of other social ills and a way for the disenfranchised to express themselves when made voiceless. The public expression of graffiti provides a venue for people to have their voices heard in terms that they dictate.

Louden points to the exaggerative campaigns against graffiti by hegemonic powers that be show an imperfect approach to the understanding and remedying of social ills.

“Graffiti is easy. It makes it easy to look like the government is doing something when they clean graffiti up, but in reality it’s a bandage solution masking what is still simmering below the surface.”

Ever the scholar, Louden cites a criminology theory called Broken Window Theory that continues to influence public policy development because it claims that where signs of crime exist, crime will accumulate. The theory is so named because it uses the example of broken windows in destitute neighbourhoods as an example. For Louden, he doesn’t see how this applies to graffiti at all, except to those who are not sufficiently well-versed in graffiti language to interpret what kind of painting exists in certain areas. Ultimately, it is the quality of graffiti that dictates more information about the state of a community and indicates its richness, not poverty, of culture.

Louden’s project of “gathering walls” seems like the ultimate reclamation of a symbol of colonial oppression, turning its meaning on its head to give the oppressed a voice. But resistance is not the only regular theme of his work. Louden is also inspired by what those in the trade call “them feels” – a term to describe a moment of inspiration or emotion. He is influenced by something as simple as an aesthetic glimpse, the emotional response one gets when they look at something.

The other cause that calls him to certain avenues of visual expression is the study of restorative versus retributive justice. Louden describes the latter as what we are accustomed to in North American settler culture: There is a lack of contact between a victim and their perpetrator because their conflict is mediated through the state and the resolution is usually a state-mandated punishment of the offender. Restorative justice models are based on traditional indigenous models and aim at “restarting” a relationship between “victim” and “perpetrator”. The meditation is not of the punishment but of the relationship that has been damaged without recourse to revenge narratives. The model is based on a circle in which both groups communicate with one another and an authority mediates the discussion to initiative self-reflectivity. The goals are understanding not only why the person violated the relationship but to make them understand the ripple effect it had on the lives of everyone around the victim. Louden says that if graffiti artists were more aware of the effects – positive or negative – of their painting on the world around them, it would go a long way to bridging the disconnect between the painters and the community in which they paint. Venues for communication, breaking down the fear of graffiti, and its decriminalization would go a long way in showcasing the realities of a sorely misunderstood group. Not a lot of people realize that less than 2.5% of all graffiti is gang-related, but the societal obsession with it is a symptom of capitalist society’s obsession with private property – a cultural phenomena, that contrary to popular belief, is historical and not universal.

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Ultimately, this is what Louden puts into his work but he is clear when he says that there doesn’t have to be a higher ethos behind graffiti work. Rather, self-awareness among graffiti artists and changing the language around public art in the communities it exists would go a long way to creating mutual understanding between people.

What all of this boils down to is a commitment, from Louden, to education creating channels of communication. He believes in providing people with tools to understand the Other and argues that sometimes doing this through art is the best way because it often speaks right to the heart, “them feels”. Through his work, something as ethereal and fleeting as empathy is a very real, achievable goal.

As we drew our interview to a close, Louden wanted to leave our audience with the final inspirational thought:

“Look a little closer. There are a lot of rabbit holes to peer into and there is a richness to life you can easily miss. You have you use your eyes and your feelings to see it.”

An incredibly talented and ever humble artist, AJA Louden is just the kind of visionary that the Canadian arts and graffiti scene need – someone to who gathers people and takes back the walls we build between one another.