Last week, I had the pleasure of grabbing a coffee with multi-disciplinary artist and art therapist Paul Byron. As always, when I pick artists' brains, I asked a thousand and one questions resulting in a stirring conversation about Toronto culture, creative thinking and the interaction of art and community. Read more below!
Tell us about your creative background.
I have drawings back from when I was six and my first memory of creating something would probably be making play doh elephants with my mom ( laughs ). My practice is almost totally 2D - sculpture is a very different mode of thinking for me. It’s interesting because we all exist in three dimensions and you think it would be easier to reproduce something that way, but I find it oddly challenging! One aspect of the philosophy behind my enjoyment of 2D rendering is that it’s a kind of hallucination. I’m interested by the illusory nature of art…by its ability to get us to see several things at once in an ambiguous space.
Were you ever interested in pursuing art history?
I have a Masters in the subject and for a long time wanted to be a prof but there’s always been this part of me that can’t help doing art, so I broke off from formal study to pursue the more craft-based side of things. I have taught art and art history before and I love teaching. You can do the same thing with it as you can as an artist, shaping critical and creative thinking, which are two sides of the same coin really, opening yourself and others up to new possibilities and developing your tolerance for ambiguity, which I think is crucial.
How has Toronto influenced your practice?
I moved here seven years ago from Hamilton to go to school. I love it here, it’s my home now.From my particular perspective, especially when it comes to art therapy, Toronto offers so many opportunities. It can be occasionally crowded, but its diversity is my number one favourite thing about the city. I have the studio side to my practice where I’ll be working on thecomputer, drawing or painting from home and I’m in a certain space when I do that. But on theother side, I also love doing collaborations with other artists or groups within the community.Meeting new people and making connections, it’s how you grow. It’s all part of the process.
What’s the most important thing to take into account when collaborating with someone else?
Their feelings. ( laughs) .
What current projects are you working on?
I have a mural project going on at Central Neighbourhood house which I’ve been working on since December. It started out as a consult with youth on the theme of community and we’repainting a massive wall with the kids. I also have another mural project at the forensic unit of CAMH which will be very different than anything else I’ve had the chance to work on. We’ll see how it takes shape.
What do you enjoy the most about working with kids?
Picasso used to say that he used to draw like Rubens when he was younger but the older he got the more he wanted to draw like a child. I don’t necessarily strive to draw like children or believe that their imaginations are as romanticized as we think. Sometimes we view childhood as this place of total freedom and there’s never total freedom… I think I’m more free now than when I was a kid, you know? You have more options, more places to grow. What I enjoy the most and respect is how they can come up with bizarre couplings of things. They don’t have the same sense of rules or social appropriateness so they ask anything. You have to respect that.
In situations where you might lack inspiration, how do you overcome creative blanks?
Sometimes I come up with a bunch of ideas but I feel like none of them are good so I have this hollow inside. It’s best when what you’re creating feels instantly fresh but sometimes the only way to work through an empty feeling it just by producing a lot of stuff and looking back in a different state of mind to find the redeeming qualities in previously discarded ideas. At the same time, being able to get away from this process is always helpful when you’re a workaholic ( laughs ). My art is spiritually fulfilling for me so anything I create I try to make it about my path, about what’s good for me as a human, about what’s evolving in me. I’m learning to take breaks as an alternative to the chugga-chugga-choo mentality, and make art that reflects pause as well as work.
What’s your opinion on the generalized idea of a “starving” artist?
My art is as complex as I am. I can understand where it comes from, that romanticized idea of the suffering, tortured artist up in his crazy attic… but I don’t think it has to be a struggle. I took it seriously for a couple of years, and when you take it seriously it can destroy you. It can have a really negative impact on your life when you believe that if you do X, Y and Z it will lead you to good art. You see examples like Pollock or Basquiat which can lead you to think that if you suffer that you’ll be great but it’s not guaranteed to lead you to that.
What would you change in the city to strengthen the interaction of art and community?
My suggestion would be for a slower process overall. People are used to getting information fast which can lead to not giving something the time it deserves. Things, and people, need time. Often, when you meet someone they ask you what you do instead of asking you who you are. Same goes for art. Although certain forms of art aren’t as instantly understood as others, it doesn’t mean they don’t have something to offer. (Although it might mean that.) What people really need to do to get at that is to trust their immediate perceptions rather than falling back on some preconceived conceptual structure to grasp things. This is the sort of education I’d like to see happen in schools, where the basis to appreciating art is your own personal response.
What piece of advice would you give to emerging creatives?
I’ve given this advice in different forms, but it would basically be to not jump to conclusions. This is pretty much the foundation of wisdom, of art, of creativity. Although certainty and truth does exist, experience is how we achieve it. And experience is generally messy.