We had the pleasure of invading the studio of Toronto-based artist Shanna Van Maurik to capture a glimpse of the chaotically organized space where she paints her vibrant, rainbow-embedded oil paintings of young women. A fusion of neon skulls, palm ferns and mirror selfies in varsity jackets, Shanna's portraits emulate an empowering "over it" attitude of stylish girls the artist discovers on the internet. We had an engaging conversation about selling art on social media, schmoozing the gallery world and talking with paint.
Have you always painted women?
Always. When I was little I would go to my grandparents’ after school and draw all night. Different characters with different styles but all women. I guess it has just continued to evolve because I’m pretty much doing the same thing now but with a little more skill and less pencil crayons. (laughs) I find painting women so much more interesting than painting men.
How would you say your work is challenging or ‘mocking’ the male gaze?
These women are looking right back at the viewer and painted by a woman so it’s challenging the male gaze in that way, but to be honest I don’t really think about it a lot when I’m working. I scout images online, I find pictures of girls that I think look badass and just paint them. I don’t consciously think about it. It’s interesting because a lot of people come up to me and say things like “Your work is so ‘feminist’, it’s about friendships between women” and such, which I am totally okay with and can appreciate, but the subject comes organically for me. I’m not consciously attempting to reflect a specific message. I see myself more as a storyteller. I'm still creating characters like I always have but as I've aged and grown, so have my subjects.
What would you say have been the pros and cons about going into your practice in an entrepreneurial way?
You’re not making projects dictated by what someone else wants you to do, as is usually the case in school. It’s a continuation of thesis, you go in with some ideas but go where you want to go. Evolving my own ideas… If you’re just starting out it’s good for you to learn where you're going with your work, but once you sort of figure it out those projects just end up hindering your process. I love experimenting and doing little studies, not all of my work goes together and that keeps it interesting for me. You can’t limit yourself to what people want to see.
What role has social media and the internet played in the process or distribution of your art?
When I started doing figurative paintings of women, I would buy a lot of magazines and look for images that caught my eye all over the internet. Now, I find myself just scrolling through Instagram to find subjects… it’s become my new image bank. I also feel like my audience is mostly young women, so having these types of platforms open doors for more people to get to see my work. I’ve shown in galleries before but I have a feeling that the people that go to those shows and actually buy art aren’t necessarily into the imagery I create.
Why do you think your work doesn’t receive the same response when shown in a traditional gallery setting?
I use very vibrant colours and my imagery is a bit jarring… To be honest, I don’t see a painting of mine hanging above someone’s couch in a wealthy home. (laughs) People who are interested in my work are usually young individuals who can’t afford it. That’s why I started doing all of these little paintings. I used to work only large-scale but smaller pieces are good because they can be bought for more affordable prices. It’s funny because I never really thought of art as a job, it’s always been something that I just felt I had to do. I’m at the studio every minute I can be.
Do you find yourself pressured at times to create work that’s can be catered to specific audiences?
Maybe I’m selfish but I can’t do that. (laughs) I hate commissions. I can see why people would think that’s my style, but I just can’t service other people’s ideas. It takes away the part that I love which is my ideas and it’s not as fulfilling for me. When I design band logos and do illustration gigs, even if I enjoy them I put them off for so long. It takes a lot for me to get up and do it, it’s just not as inspiring to me. I know how to create what I want to see and that's what I love doing.
Have you ever found yourself having to defend your work or ‘convince’ your audience?
Not really, people sense that it’s about powerful women and I usually get a really good response. For example, my friend Patty wrote a small statement about my body of work and she just got it. She was able to express something I had never been able to put in words before. I say things in colour and paint. It’s cool when someone articulates something you had inside you.
What do you think about artist-run institutions and alternative pop-up spaces in Toronto?
It’s difficult to access spaces in the city. I love and appreciate Toronto but it’s lacking in that area. I’ve had people who have worked in galleries tell me that they judge whoever walks in by their shoes to assess whether or not they should talk to them. It’s pretty unapproachable and something about it irks me. I’m not into schmoozing people and playing those games, which is why I think social media is fantastic. You’re representing yourself.
How do you keep yourself motivated when you get discouraged?
Painting can be so stressful. Sometimes I will erase a face three times until I get it right, other times I go in and paint something beautiful in one hour and then the next day I’ve forgotten how to paint. (laughs) It’s such a roller coaster. It can’t all be smooth sailing, it’s a finicky process. A series of decisions and corrections. Honestly, I’ve been making art my whole life so I don't even consider giving up as an option. If I’ve been at the studio for eight hours and it’s not working out, sometimes it's better to just head home and relax because you just cant force creativity. It’s very much about where your mindset is. Even if you’re in a bad mood, as soon as you start painting it melts away.
What advice would you give to other emerging artists?
Keep making work. That’s the main thing. Whatever you’re doing, do a drawing a day, a painting a day, whatever… It adds up. Don't be so hard on yourself either, if you are putting in the time, you'll get results. I always keep old paintings as well, because months later I uncover something I hated and see it in a totally different light. It’s all about timing and where your mind is. Once you've figured out what process works for you, stick to it.