Toni Hamel on Toni Hamel: a conversation with my alter-ego

This conversation took place on a Sunday afternoon in the Spring of 2014. Sitting down in my studio with my usual cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I was pondering on the uncertainty of being, on my life, on where I had been and where I was going. I was staring at the unfinished piece standing on the easel, and it was quietly staring back at me. My mind was travelling as usual, digging into the hidden folds of my thoughts trying to find answers, solutions, or points of reference in order to complete the work that was so eagerly awaiting me. I was silently talking to myself, asking the questions and providing the answers, perhaps attempting to get to know me a bit more. We have shared a lifetime together, my alter-ego and I, but I still can’t confidently say that we really truly know each other. The following is a transcript of what transpired…

A.E.: Hey Toni, you seem lost in thought. You are re-visiting your life again, aren’t you? What brought you here, to this studio? Will your urge to make art ever dissipate?

T.H.: Unfortunately I don’t think so. It’s part of me, it defines me and has shaped me as a person. I have been drawing, painting, sculpting and making things for as long as I can remember. The times I couldn’t spend alone drawing or painting I would be helping my mother with her sewing and embroidery work, or assisting my father in his garage while he was doing some work – “pass me that tool, go get me the other” kind of assistance. But I used those times to learn from them by simply watching, observing, taking mental notes. I guess I was a precocious learner as they didn’t have to explain how to do certain things, I would learn just by watching. While growing up I realized that I tremendously enjoyed creating things with my hands, whatever the medium or the process. As an adult, although I was formally trained as a fine artist in my native country, I realized that in my adoptive country continuing on that path seemed like an unrealistic expectation. So I had to store “art” away on a shelf for a while, hoping to re-visit it at a later date. I took a career detour, became a university instructor and digital developer. I thought that such decision would be okay, that I wasn’t really betraying myself but simply working with a different medium. Yet I felt empty, drained, tired of the confinement of a computer screen, yearning to create directly with my hands and not through vectors and pixels. I needed to escape, to go back to my nature, to make art. Eventually that time came in 2007, when I finally had the courage to leave it all behind and focus on my practice on a full-time basis. That transition period proved to be quite difficult for me, as too much time had gone by and I had lost the confidence in my creative voice, even becoming afraid to show my work. I kept on telling myself that I wasn’t ready, that more practice was needed, more techniques had to be tested, more subject matters needed to be explored. Eventually, I realized that these were all excuses fueled by my fear of rejection or, worse, even ridicule. Luckily, it became easier as time went by, and in 2009 I finally started showing my work in public galleries, receiving one award after another. My confidence had been rebuilt, I knew then that I was on the right path. So here I am today.

A.E.: I know you’ve struggled in finding your own voice, artistically speaking, and that today you are finally feeling confident in your personal style. How would you define it? Do you have a word for it?

T.H.: It took me many years of trial-and-error and experimentation. I have always been politically and socially engaged, and I was searching for a way to integrate my intellectual standing into my art. In my earlier years my output tended to be quite aggressive and confrontational. As I matured, I realized that much more could be said with a whisper than a shout, so I refined and adjusted my imagery transforming it into a supporting structure for a particular message I needed to express.
In terms of defining it…that’s really difficult to do for me. It is certainly content-driven, but there’s no particular definition that I’m truly fond of or that would closely describe it. I detest defining my work according to one label or another and choose to be free to let it grow, change and evolve. I consider myself a story-teller, in that my artworks must always carry a narrative or a message. Stylistically, it is representational in nature although what I represent is not the physical realm but intellectual concepts relating to human behaviors. In fact, I refer to it as “an illustrated commentary on human frailties”, meaning that my focus is on the exploration of our psychological traits and how these might dictate and/or alter our perceptions and behaviors. My background in Psychology helps me in that. I chose humanity as the subject of my investigation because I am fascinated by people, yet at the same time I am afraid of them. In this sense, I utilize my work as a means to come to term with my own shortcomings. Text is also important for me. I use its juxtaposition to the imagery as a way of directing or deflecting the viewers’ expectations, some kind of intellectual game I like to play.

I also believe that art must bear witness. I feel that, as an expression of the historical context that bears it, art must speak of or refer to the geo-political/social/cultural issues of that period. Otherwise it becomes just a decorative addendum and not much more, unable to add or contribute to the greater discourse affecting humanity and its companions. I like art that has meaning, that makes the viewer think, reflect and perhaps even learn.

A.E.: Both music and poetry are your source of inspiration. Tell me about that.

T.H.: I enjoy listening to jazz, blues, classical and even opera when I’m producing a piece, but I listen to Leonard Cohen, Fabrizio De Andre’, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and other old-school singer-songwriters when I’m seeking inspiration. Their lyrics seem to open an entire world of visuals for me, and I’m very grateful to them for that. It’s like reading beautiful poetry, without the need to take time off work to open the book and read. Mellow sounds accompanied by beautiful words is what I am attracted to. I also read a lot and write my own poetry, which many times becomes the starting point of an entire body of work. Yes, words and music are my inspiration, my muse if you’d like.

A.E.: I know that your life has been marked with quite a few struggles. Is there a particular circumstance that was a catalyst for who and what you are today? Would you mind sharing that?

T.H.: I guess my life in general has forged me into what I am. I have suffered from bi-polar disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, all my life. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it seems that this mental illness has dictated how I approach life and whatever is in it. My mood constantly swings between elation and despair, joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness. Even after years of therapy, anti-depressants and out-patient programs at the hospital, I still live in a state of “not here nor there” most of the time, constantly adjusting to the emotional ups-and-downs of my days. But I’ve come to terms with it, and accepted it as a fundamental part of who I am. The only good thing about this mental illness is that it fosters introspection and a heightened sensitivity, an ability to read beyond the surface and find alternative interpretations. I am grateful for this. Sometimes I feel that, had I not been suffering from depression, perhaps I wouldn’t even be an artist. Other important factors that seem to shape my work are also my experiences as an immigrant, filled as they were with feelings of estrangement and isolation, as well as memories of my less than ideal upbringing.

A.E.: When you look at your art books, do you ever wish for your work to be similar to a particular artist you admire?

T.H.: There’s not one specific artist in particular that I admire, but many from different eras, different genres and for different reasons. I like the works of Velasquez and Goya, Henry Darger and Joseph Cornell, Kent Monkman and Mona Hatoum, Annette Messenger and Amy Cutler, Michael Borremans and Ai Wei Wei, Neo Rauch and Mark Tansey, Ray Caesar and Mark Ryden, to name a few. Each one of these offers a particular angle that interests me, or have contributed somehow to the development of my own work. For this reason, I don’t identify with any, yet I appreciate them all. The danger of considering a particular artist as the main point of influence and/or inspiration, is that it will eventually cause our own work to become derivative of theirs, and I honestly wouldn’t want to fall into that trap and let that become my curse.

A.E.: Well…break-time is over. You’d better get back to work. Thank you for the chat. I hope to see you soon. And please, don’t smoke too much.

T.H.: Thank you for listening, my dear. It’s been a pleasure. And I really feel much better now. Please close the door behind you on your way out. You take care as well…

Copyright 2014*2015, Toni Hamel. All rights reserved.