I had the pleasure of invading the home studio of the lovely Alex Garant to pick her brain on all things life, art and motivation. An incredibly inspiring character with a strong soul, the painter's charismatic energy is as addicting as her double-eyed oil paintings and we had a good laugh throughout the interview as she cheekily punctured our conversation with quips, jokes and her anecdotes.
"I used to work as a flight attendant and it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. We’d be staying in hotels six days a week and the reason I moved to Ontario in the first place was to be based at Toronto Pearson Airport but after a year I was so done, I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s a great experience but it’s not for everybody. I’m the kind of person that strives on routine, you know? I can get so much done if I organize my day but without that routine I’m a mess."
What triggered you to pursue art?
It was a long process. I’ve been doing art my whole life; in high school I would always pick the art electives and I did two years of college in Quebec before going to art school. After that, I travelled and worked as a nanny to learn English. After quitting being a flight attendant I decided to stay in Toronto, got an office job and lived the corporate life for a while and would always be painting and drawing on the side. And here is the sad story: two and a half years ago, I had a heart attack. I got a viral infection that went straight to my heart and got it so swollen it just crashed. I was just 30 at the time, it’s like my warranty expired. (laughs) Recovering from that changed the way I see things so much. I’m more eager, less patient than I was before and my personality is way more intense than it used to be. I decided I really needed to focus on my art. It was one of those things where I was always doing it anyway so I started producing more intensely. I still work during the day but now I see my art as another job. I still paint every night, every weekend.
It’s incredibly inspiring to hear that you’ve moved past that and it’s only made you and your dedication stronger.
It’s very time consuming. A lot of people consider themselves artists but what many don’t realize is that you can draw pretty things but if you want to be successful it’s almost like a business. You need to market yourself, you need to update your website and social media, you need to sell prints, you need to contact galleries, you need to write contracts, you need to install hanging hardware behind all your stuff… There’s so much to it! You need to be sure that your passion is strong enough to deal with all the hard work that comes with it.
How do you deal with criticism or lack of interest in your art?
I don’t think too much about it and I think that’s because I went to art school. It’s funny because I honestly don’t think art school helped me so much on the technical point of view but I definitely learnt how to deal with critique. You end up developing a tough skin and learn to take it constructively. I think most artists grow up with everyone telling them that they’re great. You’re that kid in class who knows how to draw and everyone is telling you you’re so good, putting your drawings on the fridge, you’re the artsy one and you think you’re the shit and then you get to the real world and it’s a shock. It’s that fine line of self esteem where you think you’re good enough but you still learn from others that there will always be someone greater than you. You always have to surround yourself by people who are better than you.
Do you notice a big difference between the art communities in Quebec and Ontario?
Honestly, the art scene is pretty much in the same space regarding taste and what people like so I think the biggest difference you can find would be between the Canadian market and the American market. In Canada, I think we’re still in the era of abstract landscapes and the more “serious” galleries are appreciative of that in comparison to New York or California, for example, where pop art and pop surrealism is huge. People there are way more open towards urban art or this “art of the people”. Here in Canada it’s slowly gaining popularity but the more established galleries usually don’t take the risk of going for a more funky type of art.
Do you find it a struggle being a female artist in Toronto?
Not really. My name is Alex so a lot of people think I’m a guy from the start. I grew up as a tomboy, I’m into wrestling, I hang out at the gym a lot with all the other meathead dudes (laughs). I’m also in sales during the day which is a very male-dominated industry. Maybe the struggle is there but I choose to ignore it and do what I want to regardless. It’s funny because I was recently invited to do an all-female show in San Diego next month. I don’t see someone organizing an all-male show and love the fact that us females can still get away with it.
Your portraits are majority female subjects as well.
Maybe it’s because I’m a female myself. Actually, if I go back to when I was a kid, I remember always asking my mom to draw me a face so I could colour it. I was fascinated by the 70’s-style female faces with big lips and big eyes that she would draw and I’m pretty sure that’s where part of the influence comes from. I feel like maybe girls are more beautiful to look at as well, I’m drawn to that aesthetic.
Did you grow up with a lot of creative influences due to your mom being an artist?
My mom is a writer and paints herself, so having grown up with her I was exposed to art and culture in general from a very young age. She’d take me to galleries during the summer to go look at different works and would have tons of books about Van Gogh, Modigliani, Klimt... I grew up with a lot of classical influences and kept on educating myself when I went on to art school so I can name a million different artists that have influenced me. It’s funny because I loved math and science but my parents pushed me to go to art school, my mom really wanted me to go into art. Isn’t it usually the other way round? (laughs) I remember the first time I saw a Bouguereau in person I sat there and looked at the toes for an hour. I couldn’t believe how perfect it was! The technique is on another level; it’s so beautifully done.
You mentioned you’ve become more impatient. Oil paint dries so slow! How do you manage working with it?
I absolutely love it! I love that you can sculpt and change it, keep moving it around. When you’re working with acrylic you can work with layers as well but it’s more of a commitment. People usually think the opposite, that oil painting is more of a pain but I just keep going back to it. I do love experimenting with different mediums though… a couple of weeks ago I started playing again with pencils and am liking it. Materials are like a relationship. There are relationships you work at forever and end out shitty and then there are relationships where you meet someone and everything is so easy right away and you don’t have to overthink it. That’s me with oil. But now I’m cheating on oil with pencils. (laughs)
Your portraits have also become super recognizable for their signature double eyes. What’s that all about?
It was an evolution that begun with me just doodling stuff. I would do a lot of reflections, doubling images and playing with symmetry a lot. I started by duplicating the image and mirroring it. When I pushed it a bit further, I ended up doubling the eyes and when I showed that piece for the first time I just loved how people reacted to it. It makes people engage with the piece differently… It’s a bit of an optical illusion and it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the painting. I love creating that physical reaction, something they have to stop and think about and I like that it engages people on a different level instead of just having them look at something pretty.
You’ve travelled so much and are living in Toronto now. What is it about the city that has made you stay?
There’s really not much I dislike about this city. Since my heart attack, I just see what I see and take what I want to take. You have to open yourself to the good stuff. I’ve met so many amazing people in Toronto and choose to surround myself by them so I can’t say anything about the people I don’t like, you know? I actually really love Toronto, I’m so thankful. I guess one thing I wish the city had more of was more parks. And I could use the water from the lake to be cleaner because I really like swimming. (laughs) But that’s not something wrong with the city, it’s just that it’s an urban area. If you don’t like it, you can always move! I find that people get dragged into these lives and it’s like a lazy river where people are on tubes and complain about everything that they see instead of swimming. Get off the tube and go wherever you want to go! You can choose to be whoever you want to be and strive towards improving yourself every day. I’m not saying quit your job, but start looking for a new one. It’s like working out. After I got unhealthy I decided I had to work on that. I had the power to get in shape; anyone can get in shape… you just have to make the right decisions. So many people come to me and tell me “Oh you’re living the dream life, how do you do it?” And my answer is that I just do it . (laughs)
What can you tell us about your art that some people might not know?
It’s like establishing a brand. The years where I wasn’t taking my art seriously I’d be doing whatever. I’d be painting random aliens with yellow pencil one day and acrylic landscapes the next. I would do whatever I wanted to do which I think is a great thing because if you’re in the mood to draw something you should just draw it, you shouldn’t overthink it. It’s art, you’re supposed to express yourself. But it’s also necessary to narrow it down to a formula so you’re able to express yourself through one specific style. It takes forever sometimes, but once you get to that point where you’re able to channel anything through that established style, that magic formula, you can create anything. On the days I feel like exploring a different medium, I usually don’t advertise or sell it anywhere; I just do it for myself. That’s as important as the marketing part of art, which is different. It’s like being a mad scientist. (laughs)
What’s essential to keep in mind while creating a body of work?
To explore as much as possible until you find your own voice. You don’t have to know what you’re going to be doing from the beginning but once you find that voice and people react well to it, try to stick to it. Every artist evolves and has different phases and it’s just so important to experiment. Some people get it from the start… You see younger kids with this consistent and beautiful body of work, but for me, personally, it took forever to find my magic formula. I guess you just do art so much it eventually makes sense.