When I was asked to write a profile of artist Graeme Patterson, I said sure, that would not be a problem. I found him that same day at a BBQ at the artists run gallery Struts in Sackville and asked him if he would mind sitting down and talking to me about his life and art. We both live in Sackville, New Brunswick, a small maritime university town, where it is difficult to avoid people even if you try. I don’t try to avoid Graeme as we are always at the same coffee shops and bars and we both like to talk about art. Actually, I reviewed his exhibition, Secret Citadel, then at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, for this magazine in 2014. I was very impressed with the exhibition and really wanted to find out more about what he was doing now.
Let me state upfront that I am generally not impressed by installation and performance art usually because their poor craftsmanship is equally matched by vapid ideas. Everyone, includ- ing artists, has ideas and concepts using them to make art is quite another thing. Graeme’s art, however, is able to pull me into his magical world and hold me there. That is because he is a first class storyteller and these stories are told through his beautifully crafted installations where the parts, each wonderful on their own, come together in a wondrous whole.
At a glance, it would be easy to think that works like Secret Citadel (2014) and, an earlier installation Woodrow (2007), are autobiographical, but that is not entirely true. They are a metaphor in Woodrow for childhood and in Secret Citadel the entry into adulthood. They are more stories of every child or adult or at least Canadian ones. They go beyond that, though, as in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his Dubliners that are more than stories of Joyce’s coming of age in Ireland.
Graeme was born in 1980 in Saskatoon where he spent his childhood. Both of these works invoke his prairie upbringing. He told me that his parents indulged his creative imag- ination. Saskatoon, while not a New York or even a Toronto, did have its creative side. He was able to see real art at the Mendel Art Gallery where he spent considerable time as a child. It is really important to have a handle on an idea of what art is if you are going to picture yourself as an artist. I taught in Alberta and Manitoba in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was when I first started to write professionally about art. I was always interested in how Prairie artists became interested in becoming artists when there was not that much real art to draw on. This is an interesting question about the development of many Canadian artists who were not raised in a major centre like Toronto or Montreal. Graeme and I have talked about this. I told him of my childhood in San Francisco and London, England and how that shaped my idea of what art was and why I wanted to be an artist. He, on the other hand, was looking at other things, mainly illustration and, in particular, animation such as in Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. Far different than my looking at Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky as models, but there are many roads to becoming as artist and it is getting there that is important.
He told me how beautiful he found the drawing in Warner Brothers cartoons and who could argue about the genius of Chuck Jones. It was only natural that his love of animation led him to study the subject at Dundas School of Art in Hamilton (Ontario), but he discovered other things about art in Hamilton that brought him back to Saskatoon and a year studying art at University of Saskatchewan and finally finishing a BFA degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax in 2002. It was at NSCAD that he found his mentor, in the person of Governor General’s Award winner, Rita McKeough, first as a student and later as a friend and collab- orator. One of Graeme’s most recent exhibitions, Murmurations, was a joint effort with McKeough at Mount Allison’s Owens Art Gallery in Sackville the fall of 2016. He recalled that she, an out- standing interdisciplinary artist in her own right, encouraged and allowed his imagination to flower.
His first major multi-unit installation, Woodrow, mirrors the eponymous rural Saskatchewan town of his grandparents, with its grain elevator, houses and hockey rink. Everything is beautifully crafted and makes you want to spend considerable time looking at the details. You are drawn into the story of the artist, or his avatar, and his memories of childhood. The installation is a total experi- ence with the artist controlling all aspects of the work’s environment – placement, lighting, sounds, music. It’s rather like theatre. This control is a trademark of Graeme’s art and why some of his installations take years to complete. I spent a very long time looking at both Woodrow and Secret Citadel and still thought that I was missing things.
Graeme Patterson is a first class storyteller and these stories are told through his beautifully crafted installations where the parts, each wonderful on their own, come together in a wondrous whole.
Graeme told me that he sees his art as a door to another reality. To me it is rather like a modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where he takes me through a mirror or down a rabbit hole to a reality of his making. He also said that he sees his work as a process of always adding new effects and ideas to learn new ways of story telling. There is more than a little of complex technology in his work, but it is always so seam- lessly integrated that its importance to the total experience might go unnoticed. He uses video, stop motion animation, lighting, and his own musical compositions to build his sculpture and, of course, controls the installation of his exhibitions.
Not all of the artist’s work is memory based. He told me of a new work that was shown in a room on the 68th floor of the Bank of Montreal building in Toronto for nearly the entire year of 2017, A Suitable Den, where a virtual raccoon destroys what appears to be a bank office. It is all made possible by rear projection stop motion photography of a stuffed raccoon and interactive software that is activated by motion detectors when someone is in the viewing room. It is pro- grammed so that the action of the raccoon is random and different viewers get different results. It is rather a nice comment on capitalism even if the Bank of Montreal paid for the installation.
What is next for Graeme? Well, he tells me that he is really interested in virtual reality and its possibility of taking the viewer directly into his work and interacting with it. It does seem like the next logical step for the artist as viewers already interact with much of his work through motion detectors. Virtual reality would make the effect for each viewer even more personal than was possible with his past installations. Certainly new technology, and Graeme’s mastery of it, is spelling out new frontiers for art that go well beyond the old standbys of painting, sculpture, and photography. Art schools will likely have to change to meet the challenges of new media. Graeme had to teach himself much of what he has brought to his art. Perhaps that is a good thing as he has little preconceptions of what is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, he just makes it happen. As an eighty year old art writer, very fond of painting, my conversations with the thirty-eight year old Graeme Patterson give me new hope for the future of visual art.