In Conversation: Resident Artist Tyler Toews
Borrowing its title from a famous line from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, Tyler Toews’ show ‘He who marches out of step hears another drum’ shares his remarkable journey. A survivor of mental illness, Toews is no stranger to oppression, and his dramatic, expressive large-scale works convey a message that is hopeful and positive without shying away from the darkness and struggle that’s integral to the human experience. In this interview, BAF spoke to Toews about the influence of memory on his practice, his recent experiments in screenprinting, and his visions for the future of his work.
In this show, what did you differently from past work? What was new in this show?TT
I added screenprinting and print work into my paintings. I have done this in the past, where I’ll tape off areas to make a crisp line and build up from there, but here, I used it differently.
Tell me about the screenprints and the materials you chose for them.TT
In one of them, I chose an insert from a comic book, one I’d had since I was a kid. It’s a circus [“freak show”] ad or something, telling you to come see these people, to witness their deformities and struggles and triumphs. It just kind of spoke to me and i wanted to print that. Their disability was visible, and other peoples’ is invisible, so it kind of breaks that down.
You talk a lot about binaries in your work: chaos/calm, positive/negative, dark/light. What can you tell us about those?TT
Defending yourself against negativity can be tiring, and it also triggers different memories of things in your life. Now and then, when my mind is going everywhere, and I feel like when the painting’s finished, I can finally rest.
So by painting, by making a painting, you’re processing past experiences?TT
I’m processing the past, present, now. My head’s not in the past all the time, but sometimes negative experiences that do trigger the mind to get trapped into that kind of state. You have to defend yourself. The world has gotten a lot harder on a lot of people and you can feel that energy in the air.
When people look at your paintings, do you want them to feel that way too? Or are you okay with them just seeing beauty and colour?TT
I want them to just feel the utopian vibe from it, the peace and serenity in the paintings. A while ago, I came in to look at the show with my friend. We were just gazing at the paintings, and before we’d come in, I was feeling all this stress and stuff, just from walking down the street. When we left, we both felt refreshed, like the paintings re-shifted our thoughts.
How do you usually start a painting? What’s the first thing you do?TT
I have to make sure I can paint on it, so i’ll let prep the surface so i can paint on it properly. By the time I’m prepping the canvas, I’m already ready to paint. Sometimes I have a specific idea, but the idea goes with the emotion – with the idea of just raw painting.
I think you’re so good with colour, so I was wondering if you could tell me a little about colours in your work.TT
That’s a tricky one. I have chosen them to give different feelings. I feel like there’s this kind of connection within each painting, to people that are inaccessible – like can it break down barriers. For instance, to someone from a blue-collar family, who won’t necessarily mingle with the art world. I want my work to break down barriers and social protocols, because everyone can connect to it.
Is there anything you want to try in your art that you haven’t done yet?TT
I feel like just going crazy, painting text-based political stuff and then doing something messy beside it, on the same canvas. I would paint political slogans, directly on the canvas instead of printing them. There also used to be this old drawing that I did with my dad, when we’d be sitting there, maybe him drinking a beer, or not, and just talking all night. I would have a piece of paper or a notebook and I’d draw this character, his name was El Capitan, he was kind of a rebel figure. So, I want to do a text piece based off that. I don’t know where that drawing is, but I did tons of them.
Who are some artists you really admire?TT
I like a lot of Picasso’s paintings – I like the folk art-y aspect of it and that he kind of rebelled, he was a survivor. He used to write – he worked with this socialist press, they produced an anarchist book but all it had was pottery, paintings, sculpture and stuff in it. He worked with this guy who ran the press, and they’d print these booklets. I felt like that was interesting that he did that, but that’s never talked about.
I like other artists, so many. I like Gordon Smith, I’ve connected with him, we’ve traded small pieces before. I don’t like favoritising certain artists, because I feel it’s an antisocial way to go about things, but I like the connections and bonds that I have with other artists. I don’t think I could even name every artist that I’ve had that with.
Tyler Toews show, ‘He who marches out of step hears another drum’, will be exhibited until Saturday, December 15. See it in person at BAF Gallery, 258 East First Avenue. Searching for Truth, a public art installation of linocut prints by Toews, will also be exhibited at the Broadway-City Hall Canada Line station throughout Winter 2019. Find Toews on Instagram at @tylertoews.