Ecosystems of an Alien Realm: The Paintings of Claire Scherzinger

Come step into an alien world filled with creatures unknown, where thick plant life swarms and thrives with an off-green glow. Canadian artist Claire Scherzinger creates these wonderfully strange scenes of other worlds in her highly inventive paintings. In her worlds, greens and blue often radiate from a hazy mist within a lush, dense forest.

Inspired by anime monsters, Scherzinger fuses together a beautiful concoction of the unnatural and the familiar in her mysterious ecosystems. We can identify a leaf, a mouth, or an eye. However, we also recognize that these elements are certainly not of our own world as we see a smoky substance oozing out of large holes in a creature’s face.

Having a strong interest in science and the possibility of life forms outside our own world, Scherzinger’s enigmatic yet stunning paintings draw inspiration from an interest in what life would look like on planets outside of our own solar system. Join us as we discuss with the artist where she finds inspiration, her trip to the Amazon, and the short-film created from black and white drawings that she is currently working on.

AMM: Your work is very imaginative! There are so many brilliantly bizarre creatures lurking behind every corner. Have you always expressed your creativity through art? Where do you find inspiration for these wonderful monsters?

CS: Yes, actually! I began drawing at a very early age. I copied dragons and monsters from anime books on discarded sheets of paper my dad would bring home from work with quadratic equations of some sort on the other side. Eventually, I began making my own aliens, but there were instances in art school where I was discouraged from making that sort of work. It was only until three years after graduating from my BFA that I began to work with this otherworldly content again. In terms of how I come up with this material now, I am constantly drawing for several hours a day. I look at loads of art books at night, as well as Instagram, and then try to forget what I saw by meditating or sleeping, or just doing something unrelated to art. Then, I continue to draw and let concepts for these aliens come out on the page. At that point, I usually start making paintings from the finished drawings, but they are never exactly the same.

AMM: The scenes in your paintings seem alien, as if they are not part of our world. Can you talk a bit about the strange environments that you create in your work?

CS: I am trying to show what alien life and alien ecosystems on exoplanets would look like. An exoplanet is a planet outside of our solar system that orbits a star. Scientists are in the process of discovering the millions and millions of planets that orbit various stars in various galaxies as our technology to gaze improves. That means the potential for life is quite great. Not just “intelligent” or “conscious” life, as humans consider the words. Trees have their own kind of consciousness and there is the potential for that sort of life on many different worlds. Trying to conceive something that isn’t humanoid is the focus of my research in painting. Through the process of painting, I am trying to challenge the embedded anthropocentrism permeating through all of Earthling culture. These environments are not completely accurate yet, to the settings a certain type of class of star would impose, but I am slowly educating myself in the science of it all so I can create more realistic, but still imaginative, representations of how these worlds could look. I think if artists push this view—this narrative—perhaps we will become concerned more with public policy and technology concerning our own environment and try to go beyond the identity politics that’s distracting the public conversation (this is to say, those with power and/or privilege should learn how to be better and put it into action. Those without shouldn’t stop having this conversation). If we ruin our planet, or don’t leave it in time, then all squabbling on this topic is moot.

AMM: Tell us a bit about your process creating your work. Is each painting a stand-alone piece, or are your creations a part of the same narrative, living in the same world?

CS: That is actually a hard question to answer. The characters are part of a larger world and the narrative that is developing, but I’ve painted these characters in several different colours and scenery where the plants are different. So these paintings have some tropes connecting them, but to a degree they do look like one-offs. My first body of work with this content, Shy Hologram, was much more cohesive, as it was pretty much just one colour palette. I use spray paint and oil paint together and work in layers with alkyd and driers, since I come into the studio each day and enjoy working quickly. Usually, I’ll work on two or three at a time, but if I’m really into one piece, I’ll have to see it through to the end. Sometimes I’ll be painting for ten to twelve hours since I find this world so enticing.

AMM: Currently pursuing your Master’s of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria, how has this experience changed or influenced you as an artist?

CS: I originally wasn’t going to go to grad school. But my options were also limited. I had to leave Toronto since the rent there is…laughable. I was priced out of the market. My studio building was also torn down to make way for condos. However, I didn’t want to move back to the suburbs and live with my parents. UVic seemed like a pretty good compromise. I don’t like academia and luckily there aren’t a lot of written components here. You don’t have to write a final thesis paper—it’s all about the work. This jives more with my personality since I don’t actually really believe in MFA programs. I just never want to work retail full time again, if I can help it, and UVic has a really good opportunities for teaching while studying.

Honestly, I’m so critical of my own work it makes me fairly self-sufficient and not requiring a ton of feedback. I know I’m a good painter. This place has had somewhat of a change on my work, but I know I would have gotten to this place on my own. I’m just trying to constantly expand my horizons and push the envelope. Kelly Richardson is my supervisor and she is a dream come true. I think I’m still in this program because of her—since Canada is otherwise a very conservative scene for painting and art in general. It’s been very tough trying to make the work that I make here.

AMM: Much of your recent paintings show scenes of luscious, jungle-like plants. Is this inspired by nature? What role does nature have in your artistic practice?

CS: I began making this work a few months after I went to the Amazon, in Peru. So, yes, to an extent it is inspired by nature. However, the Amazon is not my home—it’s not my jungle and I don’t want to take away from the indigenous communities who live there by representing a land I don’t know. That’s why I decided, partly, to create my own worlds. I go hiking with my partner—who I also met on that trip to Peru—in the Cascade Mountains. He lives in Seattle, so nature is always around us. I’ve only started to go hiking on Vancouver Island.

I try to see everything in front of me instead of taking tons of pictures to document and index something. I think that’s the most important thing. I have a great long-term memory and so I can sit and think on a place or event for a while, forget about it (and let my subconscious process it), and then come back to it, ready to draw or paint. I think that’s what helps make the work truly my own.

AMM: You have also worked with ceramic as well as paint, such as your work “The Tree Grows Its Crown in the Image of the Root.” Can you talk a bit about this work? Does your ceramic work connect to your current paintings?

CS: The ceramic work is complicated. I love making it since it’s such a physical process. It’s actually air-dry clay around an armature and then it cracks (since the quality of the clay is terrible). After it dries out and cracks I’ll pour buckets of self-levelling gel over the sculpture and continually move it around until it dries. It looks like saliva when it dries—like this object has been slimed.

To me, these sculptures appear like ancient artefacts from a lost world. At least this is what I’m going for. I like to arrange them as if they were found in a treasure room or on the sea floor. That exhibition was a two-person show with Jason Deary. Our work at one point was quite similar, and then I decided I needed to change my work to be more of my true self. So, I thought my sculptural work fit better with his geometric abstract paintings for that show. The tree grows its crown in the image of the root is an inversion of Paul Klee’s words from his text on art instruction. He says the tree does not grow its crown in the image of the root. I disagree with his polemical statement.

I would say that these sculptures could one day connect to my paintings. I’m not sure, however. Aesthetically they are similar, but not quite similar enough for a cohesive display. Perhaps if I have a large museum retrospective in future, they could just be displayed in a different room so it doesn’t become too confusing. But I do make these creatures, as mentioned, from the same imagined space. I’m hoping I’ll have more space in my studio this summer to make more sculptural works.

AMM: Have you ever worked in any other art mediums or different forms of creative expression other than visual? How does this feed into your painting practice?

CS: Right now I’m working on a short film! But it’s a long process, as I’m using my black and white pencil drawings as the content. Ultimately, everything I approach, everything I create that isn’t painting, is approached with the methodology of a painter. The way I touch and move clay, the way I construct my film, is with the same decision making processes as a painter. Kelly Richardson is also very much the same. She is a filmmaker, but trained as a painter—and also working with similar otherworldly content as I am.

AMM: What person in your life has motivated you the most to become the dynamic artist you are today?

CS: Without question, my family. My mom. My dad. They both inspire me in their different ways. My sister and brother, too. They are all incredibly smart and our conversations are really interesting. I couldn’t honestly say it’s just one person. My closest friends have inspired me and encouraged me, continually. They all live across Canada, but I know I can always go to them for advice, if I need it. My partner is not an artist and doesn’t necessarily understand every painting he sees in a museum, but he still inspires me on a daily basis.

AMM: If you are experiencing a creative block, what never fails to get your artistic juices flowing?

CS: Science fiction movies. And novels. But I have no time currently! The semester is already wrapping up and every moment of my time is accounted for. I’ll try to watch something on Netflix and draw at the same time. If my brain is focusing on something else of that nature, then I really have a chance to process what’s blocking me.

AMM: If you travel anywhere in the world to work on your paintings, where would you go and why?

CS: It’s interesting that this is the hardest question of all to answer! I hope to work on my paintings in all different parts of the world. But it’s a tie between Berlin and going back to Peru, again. I know I would be contributing to the gentrification of the former, but it’s still a relatively cheap place to work, and I would love to be in Europe for a while and explore potential cheaper cities to have a studio. I have a deep love and respect for the latter country since it’s where such pivotal moments in my life happened. I don’t think I could ever spend enough time there.

Find out more about the artist: www.clairescherzinger.com

Interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.