Discussing Salt Spring National Art Prize submission, art, cross-country travel and more
Teresa Young was interviewed by Yanik Gallie on March 4, 2019. Young is an Indigenous artist of mixed Cree and Norwegian ancestry who was born on the west coast of Canada and is currently making art in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Young’s created two album covers for rock groups in Sweden and the U.S. and covers for books and magazines. In 2014, her art was used in a book called the Rigged Universe by Canadian poet Anthony Labriola published with Shanti Arts.
Young’s art has won numerous awards in competitions worldwide. Her work is part of collections throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Her artwork can be purchased directly from the artist’s website teresayoungartist.ca or at Art 1274 Hollis gallery in Halifax.
YG: How did you get into art?
TY: I was pretty isolated growing up. When I was thirteen, my mother brought my brother and myself from Saskatchewan to the Lower Mainland in British Columbia. We had relatives there and stayed for a summer. I used to go down to Stanley Park where artists did portraits, and I befriended some of them, basically getting myself some private lessons (chuckles).
I was focused. Art was all that interested me. I’m hyperactive so it was my coping mechanism. I looked at people like they were part of an ongoing visual display of light colour and shading. As I’ve gotten older, I can turn it off. My viewpoint of the world is with an artist’s eye.
YG: What is the artist’s eye?
TY: It’s part creativity and part appreciation of the world. It makes the world a brighter place because it’s almost like a symphony of music in a visual form. The oddest thing can catch your eye and draw you in. A lot of my artwork has evolved from a more abstract style and that flowing-organic style started since I was 14. There’s a feeling of movement to life, and I’m trying to capture that emotion in my art.
YG: Can you describe an approach you take when drawing or painting figuratively?
TY: If I’m doing art figuratively, I take different approaches. Sometimes I’ve got a concept, and I want to bring it into the design and composition that flows the way I want it to move. I’m expressing feelings, emotions, perceptions, and inner-perceptions that I’m not even aware of yet. Inner-perceptions always come out in the art as I’m painting.
Now, I’m working on a triptych for the Salt Spring National Art Prize (SSNAP). When I taught Contemporary Indigenous Studies at Dalhousie University, it was quite interesting because it changed my direction.
YG: How so?
TY: I used to be more reliant on a stream of consciousness with my art. I didn’t want to restrict or direct it that much. My art changes constantly. The way I handle colours, movement and stroke in the composition of my works from 20 years ago has evolved.
My art is very different now. I’m more interested in self-direction to explore the idea of a message behind the art. I’m about halfway through completing my triptych submission for SSNAP. There are three canvases at a 30-degree angle. They are going down to represent the feeling of going downwards. I’ve got a gavel in the upper left. It’s all deep, deep, sunset colours like oranges, magenta-type reds going into purples, tans and browns, and a powdered blue. Streams flow down from the gavel. The justice buildings in Ottawa are in the dark, and they’re flowing down into a cross-legged figure seated in the right bottom corner. I have a stream of blues with feathers around it, and it’s flowing down like a river. It starts with nothing, and then there are lights floating down representing spirit. There’s a pow-wow in the middle painting of the triptych. The artwork is about missing and murdered Indigenous women. What I’m trying to do is present the idea that for reconciliation, we’ll have to factor this reality to get anywhere.
YG: That’s a powerful message.
TY: I’m going to hit them with a sledge hammer, I figured (chuckles). I typically had such a beautiful style that was not shocking. I’m moving away from that because I needed a direction. Finding my heritage was important. I learned about it 20 years ago, but I didn’t focus on it in my art until now. Getting to the point where I want to focus on it has led me in this new direction.
YG: Does your art change depending on the geographic location in which it’s made?
TY: I’m sure it does because I used to have more height and West Coast sail-ish aspects in my underlying style. I’ve noticed that in the last nine years I’ve been in the east, my art is becoming an underlying woodland-coloured style, and that change is unconscious. It’s got to be something to do with the environment and even the light. I’m very aware of light shadow. I love the Nova Scotia light. It feels like it’s almost painted. It’s so different than everywhere else.
YG: You’re well-travelled across Canada.
TY: I’ve driven across Canada eight times, two of them on a motorcycle. It rained two-thirds of the time each way during one cross-country trip on the bike. I have a blog that I haven’t touched in years called Surrealistic Reflections, and I published an article about how the sound of motorcycles makes me nostalgic. I talked about that trip across Canada, going from New-Brunswick to Kamloops when I was in the military as a radio technician. I had lost my plastic windshield on my Kawasaki 440 on the highway when I hit a bad-rough stretch in the prairies. I ended up getting rid of the windshield. It’s quite challenging to ride a motorcycle without one, but I did. On the way back, and this is why the windshield is important, they were resurfacing the Trans-Canada with tar, and it sprayed back up on to me from the road. So, I had this layer of oil on me, and I hit a small bird with white and grey feathers. It sprayed out. I was tarred in feathers. I started laughing so hard I had to pull off the highway. People were stopping and taking photographs, and it was hilarious. I enjoy life, and I find it amusing.
YG: Which elements of art by Salvador Dali and Georgia O’Keefe speak to you the most?
TY: O’Keefe, I didn’t know about her until about five years ago. Someone pointed out that the way I use colours and the organic flow of my artwork reminded them of O’Keefe. When I look at her abstracts, it’s almost like they’re distant cousins with mine. They’re close to my style, and I really like her work. Another artist in Nova Scotia that I like now is Monika Wright. She does beautiful flowing abstracts.
I like surrealism, Dali is basically the great forefather and master of surrealism. My favourite painting of Dali’s is “Santiago El Grande,” and it’s at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. I’ve seen it. It’s like nine feet tall, and it’s beautiful. I’m not even religious, but that artwork is gorgeous.
YG: Are you familiar with petroglyphs?
TY: I’ve seen them in person when I lived in Ontario for a while, and I find them interesting. I know that Alan Syliboy bases his style on petroglyphs. I saved him until the very end when I was teaching a course. Students had to do an art analysis of many contemporary Indigenous artists, and I never covered Syliboy during the course on purpose because he was on the final (chuckles).
YG: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
TY: Go into digital art. It’s a growing field, and there’s a lot of room for experimentation and growth. Get some fundamentals so that you’re not left without tools. I think if you stick to traditional these days, you’re severely limiting yourself for no reason. Digital artwork is exploding, and there are a lot of opportunities in that field. Mind you, I minored in Computer Engineering, so maybe I’m biased because I work in the IT industry. I feel that getting all the tools you need, trying everything you can, and adapting are healthy habits. When I was teaching myself as I was growing up, I bought every book I could afford. The only few things that I hadn’t tried was encaustic because I developed asthma and can’t stand the fumes and painting with egg tempera. I tried everything else I could get my hands on, including silk screens.
Another advice that I would give is to step outside of your comfort zone regularly. I’ve had my phases when my art got dark and subtle because I was not stepping outside my comfort zone. Create your own feeling of stasis and confusion. Never stop and think, I don’t want to wreck this. Take ownership of the art and say, “it’s my art. I’ll do whatever I want.”