Illustrated Commentary On Human Frailties
by Mike Sweeney
Mud Season Review Issue #28
Our art editor Mike Sweeney recently had this exchange with Toni Hamel, featured artist for Issue #28 and our Volume 3 print issue. Here’s what she had to say about subverting viewers’ expectations, the importance of titles, and the inspiration behind the sense of tranquility in her art.
The work we feature in Mud Season Review is from your series titled “Land of Id,” which looks at the environmental consequences of human action. I’m enthralled by the mix of the serious and the fanciful, the symbolism and the satire, inherent in this series. Can you share more about the motivation and concept behind this series with our readers?
The “Land of Id” evolved from personal thoughts that brewed over many years and that found their initial expression during my artist residency at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa in 2015. I am an avid documentary watcher and one documentary that especially stood out for me was “The Polar Sea,” an extraordinary series documenting the effects of climate change on the Arctic. I was shocked and captivated at the same time and decided to further my investigation to learn how our actions were affecting other aspects of the natural environment. The more I discovered, the more my outrage grew, and I soon found myself thinking of ways to visually express my concerns through the marks of my pencils and the strokes of my brush. I desperately needed to emphasize the level of absurdity and gravity of the actions I had witnessed, but I was also aware that most people dislike being preached at. So I utilized humour and satire in order to sweeten the pill and at the same time appeal to a broader audience. I consider this series my Public Service announcement.
A big part of the tension in this series, for me, is the fact that the scenes are presented in a context that feels at once absurd and yet routine, and in some of the scenes, I can’t quite tell the goal of the actors. For example, in Weathermen, these men appear to be working on this cloud in the room as though it’s just another lab in the lab. And I find myself wondering, are they creating the cloud or draining it? Can you speak more to this tension in your work?
The tension you see is indeed intentional. Generally speaking, my narratives reference a world full of uncertainties and anxieties. Yet my scenarios are not as far-fetched as one might think. As a student of human behaviour, I enjoy observing “people at play” (see Eric Berne’s Games People Play, 1964), much like a biologist would while conducting a field study. I simply illustrate what I see, hear, or experience—in fact, I refer to my work as an “illustrated commentary on human frailties.” In a roundabout way I guess I try to explain reality, whether to myself or to others, in an attempt to alter its course by means of arguing its very precept. Reality could indeed be different if we really wanted it to be.
I consider myself a Surrealist in that I enjoy playing with the viewer’s expectations, devising scenarios that are not clearly understood and that in most cases defy logic. I always employ a skewed narrative, because I want the viewer to spend time pondering the meaning of a piece rather than quickly scanning its rendered surface. As a result, my subjects seem often mindlessly engaged in actions or pursuits that lead nowhere and that eschew fixed intentions, an approach that allows for and in fact promotes personal interpretations. In some artworks the meaning is left dangling altogether, while in others the message is well-defined, albeit obliquely. Weathermen is an example of this intellectual slant. These men are working on the production line of a cloud factory. They might be either draining or filling the cloud, but what’s important is the realization that Man is in the meantime altering (in fact producing) weather patterns. It is a statement about Man’s culpability in the creation of climate change.
You write on your blog about how your earlier work was more aggressive and that, over time, you’ve come to realize that you can make a greater impact with a whisper instead of a shout. This comes through in your work. The colors, the figures, the scenes offer a certain sense of peace and tranquility, yet they are very clearly sending a message to the viewer. Can you talk more about this evolution in your work from the shout to the whisper?
We all tend to be loud and obnoxious when we are young and become mellow and subdued as we grow older. Mine was a natural progression. My art today is just a reflection of where I am at this period of my life. I want my work to exert a gentle yet insistent pull and, by adopting supports of diminutive size and/or a subtle palette, I lure the viewer in close for intimate viewing. My images demand a contemplative response.
I’d like to ask you specifically about the image that we are so honored to have on the cover of this year’s Mud Season Review print volume: a rainbow polka-dotted unicorn stubbornly refusing to be pulled by a group of men with matching, rainbow-colored strings. I think our readers would love to hear more about what inspired this image.
Unicorns, due to their mystical and mythical qualities, easily lead to esoteric and transcendent inferences. Perhaps in someone’s mind this unicorn symbolizes the LGBTQ community standing strong in front of society’s aggression, for others it might be a stand-in for noble ideals (e.g., justice, equality and fraternity) resisting the pull of an autocratic militarized regime, while for someone else yet this unicorn might represent the unwillingness to submit to societal pressures.
Different viewers will draw different inferences from this piece, and all are welcome; however, in The Abduction, I intended for the unicorn to be interpreted as Nature. The unicorn is being pulled in different directions by different men, each intent in securing their own piece of it. It’s a statement about resistance, resilience, but also about loss. What greed and unethical practices are destroying is not only Nature as a physical entity but also the Romantic ideal we once held of it, along with humanity’s innocence and its chance for survival. We have all failed miserably as stewards of the land and its occupants. It was once thought that Nature could not be tamed nor tempered, but in the last 50 years alone we have easily proven otherwise.
Two of the images we feature include narwhals, known as the “unicorn of the sea.” Can you share the inspiration behind including these creatures in your work?
The animals depicted in my work reference Nature in the broader sense. In these particular artworks, the narwhals symbolize the Arctic. The race to access fossil fuel reserves stored under the Arctic Sea will undoubtedly lead nations bordering those waters to assert their ownership which, history has taught us, will eventually lead to armed conflict. The exploitation of oceans has already had horrible consequences, but the North had luckily remained untouched thus far. The warming of oceans and consequent melting of the polar cap will soon make accessing those reserves a much easier feat, and pretty soon, the narwhals (once hunted for their tusks) will again suffer the consequences of our never-ending greed.
In your previous series, titled “Opus,” you explored the concept of the unexpected consequences of role-playing, and in another of your series, titled “The Lingering,” you addressed the harmful psychological repercussions that culturally imposed expectations and restrictions cause on women’s self-image, self-acceptance, and identity. Throughout your body of work, you circle around this idea of unintended consequences quite a bit, both in a personal and environmental context. When you embark on a series, do you do so grounded in a psychological concept? Has this exploration of unintended consequences been a path you’ve set out from the beginning to explore in a range of different ways? Or have you found this thread organically occurring through the years?
What are the consequences of our actions? Do we ever truly think about the repercussions of our behaviours? That is what interests me the most: the leftovers, the remains, the “corpse” we leave behind. The conceptual framework of my art practice has always revolved around human behaviour: I observe it, dissect it, analyze it, uncover the most intriguing bits, and then report my findings in my work. At times this is an instinctive process, and at others it’s a much laboured one, but I have worked in this manner since the very beginning.
The figurative illustrations in your work have a certain Rockwellesque nature to them, and the figures themselves feel reminiscent of another time in their style of dress. This feels enhanced by the fact that the figures in the pieces are working with their hands, which most of us don’t do anymore. What moves you to create these images of these people and their work? Where do you share a connection with the figures in the work?
I was raised in the south of Italy during the second half of the last century. My parents lived through the horrors of WWII, and that life experience led them to push us children to rely on the work of our hands for personal sustenance and self-fulfilment. My mother was a seamstress in her younger years, and therefore I spent most of my after-school hours observing her while she cut, basted, and sewed the fabric. Those quiet moments spent in her presence are to this day the fondest memories I have of my childhood. My tendency to depict solitary figures performing humble and somewhat contemplative tasks might represent my subconscious need to recreate those very moments, perhaps in an attempt to seek solace and refuge from the constant noise crowding my head (I suffer from bipolar disorder).
My choice to portray figures “reminiscent of another time” has multiple reasons and implications. The source material in my work does in fact reference the first half of the 20th century. My predilection for this particular time period has both aesthetic and conceptual roots. I’ve always been attracted to all things “vintage,” and I love the simplicity of the subjects’ attire and grooming style. At a more conceptual level, this time period also marks the beginning of industrialization and eventually consumerism, which I think is at the base of our current ailments on a social, political, and environmental level.
The source/reference material is culled from a wide array of image banks and photo archives; however, only specific elements from each image are utilized. By severing elements from their original context and combining materials from different pictures, I assemble an alternative reality, a “mise-en-scène” that is fictitiously constructed and that in most cases defies logic. Consequently, these newly created environments allude to a specific time and place, rendering the imagery both universal and atemporal. I work with cultural fragments of the past in order to interpret and redefine the present.
You work in a range of media, from oil to drawing to sculpture and installation. Can you share more about your creative process? How do you choose the medium to work in for a specific piece or series? Or does the medium choose itself as you begin the work?
I am certainly not an intuitive or instinctual artist, and in fact I am methodical perhaps to a fault. The most important part of my process is the planning stage. My early mornings are spent doodling thumbnail sketches of ideas or simply playing with subconscious and automatic associations of images and titles. Titles, in fact, occupy a place of great importance in my work and are indeed an integral component. They are devised to either support or negate the image it accompanies. Some of these sketches will be developed into finished works, whilst most others never will. Either way, these initial sketches will inform the medium, support type, or technique to be utilized. But it’s not a foolproof method by any means, as sometimes I’ll spend weeks working on a particular painting only to realize, as it approaches completion, that it would have worked better as a drawing instead. But it’s all part of the creative process, so I take it all in stride.
You’ve written on your blog about your journey as an artist and how you went the path of teaching and digital development, the more “practical” route many of us find ourselves on, for a long while, until you finally found the courage to get back to making art. You spoke about the difficulty of that period and of overcoming the lack of confidence and fear of showing your work. But when you did start showing, you met with much success rather quickly. Do you have any advice for other “someday” artists who may find themselves in a similar position of wanting, yet at the same time fearing, making that leap back into their art after a long time away?
It’s truly a leap of faith that unfortunately offers no shortcuts. I know it’s been said many times, but it’s worth repeating: it is all about hard work, perseverance, and determination. Sometimes it works, many others it won’t. Spending time refining one’s craft and elaborating concepts and ideas is key, as is the belief in one’s own voice and the willingness and courage to “let it all hang out,” so to speak. Oprah Winfrey once said that Luck is a fictitious construct, one that can only be obtained when preparation meets opportunity. I tend to agree with her assessment.
You’ve spoken about the fact that you’ve always been politically and socially engaged. I’m wondering about how the volatility that feels like it’s all around us right now in politics is affecting your work. Are you finding a greater sense of urgency in the work, or the emergence of work that is addressing specific events going on in the world?
Of course the current political and social landscape is affecting me greatly, and I am sure that my future work will reflect that. But I have to be careful about how to go about interpreting it and expressing it. Unfortunately, today’s global events are nothing new: war, famine, refugee crisis, the rise of fascism and autocracy are not new phenomena. If anything, history is just repeating itself. What changes is the flag under which these aggressions are carried out and the names of the political/corporate powers responsible for it. The reasons are always the same; so is the colour of the blood spilt. I worked on a series many years ago titled ”When history cried” which was based on my parents’ accounts of their experiences of war. Those works never left my studio. The pain they portrayed was just too unbearable to show. Nowadays I prefer not to touch subjects stained with someone else’s tears, since I can barely manage my own.
In relation to that last question, can you share with our readers a bit about what you’re working on right now? And what do you have planned for the future?
I’m currently working on new pieces for the “Land of Id” series, which will be shown at Talon Gallery in Portland, Oregon in October 2017. I am sure that this particular series will continue to occupy me for the next couple of years or so. However, I have also started sketching ideas for a new body of work tentatively titled “Happy hour,” the subtext of which reads: “… A collection of thoughts about the things I’ve heard, the things I’ve seen, and what will come.”