Studio Visit with Shanna Van Maurik: Fictional environments with imagined characters in the ‘land of wasted hours’

Shanna Van Maurik is a Canadian artist who lives and works in Toronto. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from OCAD University in Drawing and Painting with a minor in Art History. Her practice is centered on the creation of invented characters in painting.

Taking inspiration from her ‘own youth and high school experience’ Shanna creates the world which ‘feels like a perpetual wandering-around-after-school daydream where everyone is a little bit awkward and heartbroken but all the while, magical and celebrated’. Being raised in a very creative environment from early ages Shanna has practised art making from drawing and painting to creating jewelry and other crafts. Being attracted to everything with colour, neon lights and carnival-inspired elements Shanna explores ‘how light and colour mix and play on the human form’.

We were totally hypnotised by the dreamy youthful feel coming from Shanna’s paintings and were delighted to have an in-depth look into her art practice through the interview below. Enjoy!

AMM: Hi Shanna! Tell us about your journey of becoming an artist. What was your first experience in making art and how has your practice developed over the years? 

SVM: I remember mixing paint colours together probably around age 4. Discovering colours I liked and trying to recreate them again and again. I guess before I was even drawing things that were recognizable, I was obsessed with colour and the possibilities it held.

AMM: Which events or experiences in life have made the strongest impact on your work? 

SVM: I come from a pretty creative family. My grandfather was a sign painter from Holland and two of my aunts are really talented painters. Growing up, we had paintings from all of them in our home. When I was little my dad would make animals out of clay, and he could draw cartoon characters right out of his head. I remember my older brother bringing home his art projects from school and really looking up to him. My mom has always supported me being creative in every way, we were always doing crafts together when I was young. Anything art related I needed, my family was, and is still, willing to help out. Having creativity around me from such a young age definitely fostered the idea that art is something positive and fulfilling. Because my family encouraged it, I learned to value art and see that it could lead to something in life. I feel pretty lucky to have had that upbringing.

AMM: Could you outline some of the themes you explore and convey within your art?

SVM: I consider myself a kind of visual storyteller. I create fictional environments and fill them with imagined characters. A lot of my inspiration comes from my own youth and high school experience. To me, the world I’ve created feels like a perpetual wandering-around-after-school daydream where everyone is a little bit awkward and heartbroken but all the while, magical and celebrated. I feel like my work captures the whimsical nature of youth, but also the angst and boredom of that time. Before you have your own place in the world and you’re just hanging out in parks and forests getting up to no good after school. That’s the place my subjects inhabit. Scumland is a land of wasted hours.

AMM: The female characters you are creating are full of vivid colors and dreamy, youthful appearances. Who are the figures in your paintings and how do you go about creating their looks? 

SVM: I grew up watching Disney movies and reading a lot of picture books as a kid. I’ve always liked keeping busy with my hands like doing crafts, making jewelry, and drawing. I started off drawing princesses and the Spice Girls and branched off into imagined characters and it expanded from there. My subjects are a mishmash of imagination, online references, and photos I take, blended with memories of people I see in my day to day. Reference photos for me only serve as a jumping-off point. I am not really interested in portraying a likeness.

AMM: Why did you choose such a vivid palette for your paintings? Where does your love of colour come from?

SVM: I have a huge sweet tooth and that spreads to my use of colour. Cotton candy, ice cream, neon lights, carnivals, and dingy bars all have colours that attract me. Colour draws me in. I go to a lot of concerts where typically the stage and performers are lit by neon lights. While I’m watching the musicians, I’m equally attentive to the way the light plays on their faces and bodies. How light and colour mix and play on the human form in that setting is really inspiring. I love seeing bright and dreamy colours appear naturally in the world. I live for those days with cotton candy sunsets or rainbows in the sky. They have a way of making a regular day feel so magical. Colour has a huge impact on my mood and it’s usually the biggest inspiration in a piece. It can start the whole idea for a painting, make me hate a piece, or bring everything to a full circle and feel finished.

AMM: How would you say your day in the studio looks like? 

SVM: I usually bike to the studio if it’s a nice day and grab a coffee on my way. If I don’t have coffee from my favourite spot, it feels like the whole day is off haha. I am pretty tidy at the studio.  I can’t work if things aren’t organized. I usually start out by cleaning my brushes from the day before and setting up my palette. Clean brushes and a fresh palette are such a mental starting point for me. I guess I’m superstitious, but having everything perfectly set up just puts me in the right headspace. That along with the fact that I’m super particular about colour. I mostly work with clean, bright colours so a muddy palette just doesn’t work for me. My day’s work can really depend. Sometimes I have an idea I’ve been thinking about before I get to the studio, other times I have to look through ideas I’ve written down and sometimes, if there’s nothing in particular I want to do, I’ll work on studies or smaller paintings. On a good day I can usually get 2 or 3 really small paintings done or 1 small portrait. My larger works take a few days to complete. I try and get paintings done all in one go if I can but sometimes it varies. Generally, once a painting feels done to me, I leave it alone for good. I try to give myself as much time at the studio as I can. I hate feeling rushed while making work. While I’m painting I usually listen to music or old episodes of Columbo, or Rupaul’s Drag Race. I have an amazing west facing window in my studio so I’m always checking out the clouds at dusk to see what the colours will be like. Often those colours find their way into my work.

AMM: Do you experience creative blocks? If so, how do you replenish your inspiration and bring yourself back on track?

SVM: I don’t really have creative blocks in the sense of not being able to produce anything at all. However, I do have bad days. It can be hard but you just have to stick with it. Nothing can be rewarding all the time. You need those days where you doubt yourself, then when you make a work you’re happy with it feels more like you’ve earned it. I do sometimes struggle with parts of paintings. I’ll scrape off faces of my portraits and redo them multiple times until they feel right to me. It’s almost like when you think too much about what you’re doing, it’s harder to do. It’s difficult to describe, but any painter knows the feeling, when something just feels right and your hand just knows what to do without even thinking about it. Those are the really rewarding moments.

AMM: Do you try to promote your own work, and if so, could you share some of your strategies and experiences about it?

SVM: Social media is where I promote myself the most. I like it because you can reach people who wouldn’t normally see your work in a gallery setting. You can reach people from various age and social groups, as well as geographic regions. For the most part, my work appeals to a younger generation of women and teenage girls, most of whom aren’t in Toronto and likely wouldn’t have seen my work otherwise. Having that online platform to connect has introduced me to collectors and other artists in my own city and abroad that I wouldn’t normally have access to.

AMM: Who are your favorite Canadian artists?

SVM: Kris Knight, Shary Boyle, Kim Dorland, and Eliza Griffiths are my some of my favourite Canadian artists. I have to mention a couple of non-Canadians too because I love them, Allison Schulnik and Otto Dix.

AMM: What is your outlook on your local artistic community in Toronto?

SVM: My friends and I have this kind of ongoing joke about our work that it’s “too weird to sell” in Toronto galleries. I love my city and the art scene here is home to some of my favourite artists. Unfortunately, the cost of living here is high. Although there are some really talented people in Toronto, many have to work side jobs to make ends meet. This city has the potential to have an even more thriving arts community but because of high rent there isn’t as much of a possibility for smaller galleries to find a place here and stay afloat. That means that a lot of talented artists who are less commercial don’t really have a space here. Toronto seems to be turning into condo land. There’s been a lot of knocking down older buildings and putting up condos instead. I wish that instead of announcing plans for a new condo, the developers announced plans for new artist centres, studios, music venues, or big paid murals. That would be really cool. Art in Toronto feels like more of a destination rather than an all around experience in the city. I love it here, but right now it feels like artists are being kind of pushed out.

AMM: What’s on your agenda for this year?

SVM: I’m always just trying to make work and improve and grow as an artist. I’m really excited to be heading to Japan in the summer of 2017. Like I said, I’m really inspired by colour, neon signs, and fashion so I’m excited to see what Japan has in store. I’m probably going to be switching materials for my trip as well, because oil paints aren’t the easiest to travel with. I’m looking forward to experimenting with some new mediums and getting inspired by what Japan has to offer.

AMM: If there was one artist or film/book character that you could hang out with for a day, who would that be?

SVM: I would love to hang out with Lieutenant Columbo for a day. Columbo is one of my dad’s favourite shows and I would always watch it with him when I lived at home. The show has a really nostalgic and vintage feel, which I love. I rewatch the seasons over and over. Columbo has such a disheveled and awkward appearance, but is so genuine and caring. People always underestimate him but in the end the method to his madness is revealed. I feel like everyone can identify with the notion of being underestimated and then proving yourself, it’s empowering.

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