Not long ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the gorgeous studio of Toronto-based figurative painter Erin Armstrong to chat about her practice and experience navigating city art scenes abroad. Currently represented by Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland and Otomys Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, Armstrong speaks of the varied responses her work has received and gives her thoughts on the conservatism of the Toronto art market. We had an engaging discussion about entrepreneurial independence, resisting the pressure to create 'feminine' content and a desire for intergenerational mentorship. Read more below!
What do you reply when asked how to describe your work?
People always want an explanation for art and sometimes it just is what it is. (laughs) I always tell people my hand is possessed. I come into the studio, put some music on, drink a bunch of coffee and get going. I constantly have ideas and have no idea where they come from.
What role do dreams play in your art making process?
I don’t like it when work gets too literal, I think art is meant to expand the imagination and trigger something creative… It’s more of a stream of consciousness. The paintings themselves aren’t grounded in real or literal places, it’s weird. I’m constantly switching up the images on my wall of inspiration and I never sketch ideas out.
What do you think about the Toronto art scene?
I think that Toronto - and Canada in general - is a bit conservative and reserved within the art market. Everything is safe. My experience exhibiting in New York and London for example, has been very different.
How has your work been perceived or responded to differently in those cities?
The response is much more immediate and people are way more open to something new and different. People actually wanted to talk to me and learn more rather than just walk right by. Although in Canada there are those who are willing to spend money on emerging art, it’s not as regular because more are interested in making an ‘investment’. Those usually go for more snowy landscapes, Group of Seven stuff. I don’t think people are ready here.
Do you think this safety has trickled down into the production of art itself?
Maybe. I do think though, that there are some really talented artists in Toronto that are getting quite a good response.
With a growing online market, do you feel the artist/gallery relationship has shifted?
It depends. I’m currently with Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh and Otomys Gallery in Melbourne and love it, they're fantastic. It works if you’re with a really good gallery that’s dedicated, well-connected and ready to bring you to the best shows and fairs. It’s good to have people representing you and doing the administrative work. I have found it unnecessary at times though, especially with social media… There are so many more opportunities for people to find you and reach out to you on their own, without the gallery acting as middleman and taking a chunk of your profit.
What would you say are the pros and cons of artists being unrepresented by a gallery?
I think it’s fine if they are succeeding at it! Galleries can take more than half of what you make at times. It’s important to be independent and ideally financially successful, but it’s not only about making money and getting clients. You want to create engaging work and have a good reputation and the best way to do that is through a gallery. It can go both ways.
Could you speak on gender inequality in the art scene? Have you found stigmas being raised around being a female artist?
Male artists are automatically more successful. The majority of people exhibiting in Toronto are male and most people would have to hesitate before naming one famous contemporary female artist. And as for the content itself… when I first started exhibiting, Many would say my work would make them feel uncomfortable. Countless times I’ve been requested to draw landscapes or pretty patterns and I don’t think that just because I’m a girl that my figures need to represent a constructed vision of who I am as a person. People expect women to produce work that is gender appropriate and get confused when it’s not that way, whereas a guy can make whatever he pleases and it’s seen as bold or daring.
What steps do you think can be taken to change that within the city?
I think it would be very helpful for successful artists coming out of Toronto to mentor, guide and connect up-and-coming artists. It would be cool to see more government grants and curated exhibitions of women’s work.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists?
When you’re just starting out, I think one can feel a need for things to happen immediately but you have to give it time. You’re not going to be the same artist today as you will be three years from now. I guess the advice would simply be to just keep at it. In order to evolve and change, you have to stick with it. I paint every day, I’m always going to shows, researching new artists… I love seeing what’s coming up and if you stick to it long enough, you learn so much and people suddenly start coming to you. I used to have to email people every day, and now I can’t keep up with what’s going on. (laughs) You’re your own creative business. Always try new things.