by Kim Larson

Sean Alistair's art is a visual journal and memoir. Attending Langley Fine Arts in Fort Langley Canada, Sean studied art with a focus on photography. During art school he discovered his passion for textiles and embroidery. Sean received the Hyeon Award for Mastery for embroidery. After graduation, Sean worked in the fashion industry while pursuing art as a hobby. After several years, Sean began pursuing his art career and discovering his voice as an artist. In each artwork, there is a combination of the artist's love of nature, material experimentation, and the techniques used in couture that is applied to each piece. What's most important to Sean is that his work lives, it changes with the light, inspires and surprises. The artist purposely adds details or uses materials that can only be seen at a certain angle or when the light hits it at that perfect direction.


We are excited to welcome Sean back to the gallery this month with his most current works on view at the gallery. 


KL: Hi Sean! How have you been doing this past year? Have you found the shelter in place and subsequent COVID restrictions a time of creative abundance or more challenging than regular times? 


SA:  A little over 2 years ago I felt stuck within a perpetual cycle of boring day to day routine and I begged the universe for an adventure; well it certainly delivered. Starting a new life in a new and foreign country during a pandemic has been the most challenging experience of my life, however with that said this journey has given me so much perspective and direction for my art. Being in lockdown since November I have had the opportunity to really focus on my craft with no distractions of the surrounding world. Although I am slightly disappointed thus far in my European adventure, this slow speed in which things have happened has given me ample amount of time to adjust to my new life and work on my language skills. This last year has been a bit of a pressure cooker of personal and artistic growth; I am very proud of how I have managed the start of this new chapter but I couldn't have done it without my partner being by my side everyday, his parents and Oma here in Germany or my family back in Canada. It is because of all their support that I have been able to create my current work and stay focused.


KL: You originally worked in fashion, how did you transition into mixed media arts? How did the fashion industry influence your work and artistic development?


SA: My creative journey is definitely not a linear one. Since I was about 15 years old, I always had an interest in fashion, had a camera around my neck, or was creating mixed media and embroidery art. The best way I can express this is comparing it to someone who is raised in a bilingual household; they don't learn one language after another, they learn them together. However different periods of my life were more focused on different forms of expression. In high school it was all about photography and working in my mixed media sketchbook. Of course, I would still create non photographic but my main language during this period was through photos. Once I graduated I needed to pay for art school so I got a job as a Visual Merchandiser (even though at the time I didn't know much about fashion and I honestly was just tired of working in a coffee shop making lattes). 

 

From there I almost completely stopped creating art and my entire creative energy went into my job as a Visual Merchandiser. This was a great experience because it gave me an opportunity to travel all over North America and to meet people from different walks of life that I wouldn't have otherwise met. However, it wasn't until I started to work with luxury fashion did I find my day job inspiring my creativite self. It was after a very challenging period full of rejection where I realized that now was the moment to get back into art for art's sake. At first, I started with watercolor portraits which transitioned into using tissue paper to create portraits that simulated watercolor. Through that process I realized how I loved the more expressive mixed media work rather than the limitations of using a single media. At this point I recalled my love of mixing materials and I referenced those old sketchbooks and early works; however I wasn't getting enough texture within what I was making. That was the moment I transitioned into embroidery.

 

Working while being surrounded by luxury fashion is like painting in a gallery filled with master works. Whenever possible I would stop and analyse every item of clothing that came directly from the runway to  see how these artisans combined simple materials. This daily ritual made me brave enough to experiment with my own creative process; I started to pour rubber or resin over embroidery, or even burn my work. Through this entire journey I constantly cross referenced all my artistic practices; from embroidery to photography to mannequin styling, they all inspired each other. Even to this day I still enjoy painting with watercolor or taking photos, but I have settled upon mixed media embroidery has my main language to express myself.



KL: We’ve shown a few of your self-portraits at the gallery. Are your most recent eye pieces your own eyes? What is the general meaning behind the eyes?


SA: My current series has been primarily my own eyes with the exception of "Hurricane" where I used my partner's eyes because the piece was inspired by him. I actually used freshwater pearls that came from some broken necklaces his grandmothers used to wear for the whites of the eyes; I thought it was a nice tribute using materials from his family in a piece dedicated to him. This current series was inspired through my experience of being in quarantine. I didn't want to waste any time while waiting for the world to reopen, so instead I decided to explore my own psyche and dissect my subconscious with a focus on being bipolar and how I experience different situations.

There was a series of events that led me to my current state, with the one constant being tears. I left my job after I was sexually assaulted by a customer in a washroom. I had to say goodbye to my partner because he had to return to Germany. Having the world lockdown the moment I was about to buy a plane ticket to be reunited with him which subsequently meant not knowing when I would see him again. Saying goodbye to my parents at the airport. Being reunited with my partner after 9 months. Or trying to navigate this new life with minimal language while once again in a lockdown. Through all these situations I had cried; whether I was angry, scared for my life, heart broken, relieved to be with my partner again or simply just being happy.

 

I believe that the best art comes from that which is the most challenging. There is so much pressure from social media to be perfect, flawless or succeeding in life; I want to be the antithesis of that kind of person. I have always discussed my personal trauma through my art, currently I am just using eyes as the vessel because I am able to combine an abstract emotion with a more understandable imagery.


KL: On average, how long does one of your pieces take to complete from sketch to finish? 


SA:The average time a painting takes is around 300 hours during a 6-8 week period, depending on the materials I use. Although I always start thinking about my next work about half way through my current work which gives me plenty of time to let the ideas organically develop. Inspiration changes during the process, different techniques, materials or colours…and most of the time these pieces turn out to be better than I ever expected them to be during the process of planning them out. 


KL: Who or what are some of your greatest inspirations and influences?


SA: Because of my multidisciplinary start to art, my influences span across all forms of expression. Cindy Sherman made me obsessed with the self portrait and this idea of dissecting one's appearance or using your own body to discuss an idea. Cy Twombly greatly influenced how I paint or use mixed materials to express an emotion. Gilbert and George for their use of juxtaposing graphic black imagery against aggressive pops of colour. But also designers like Thom Browne, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Raf Simons or Maison Martin Margiela. But most importantly the Chinese designer Guo Pei who really inspired my current works through her use of intense layering of textures and materials.


KL: What is some advice you would give to artists just starting out or to yourself when you were younger?


SA: The advice I would give to new artists is to work everyday on your craft. I recently heard someone comparing learning how to express yourself through art is like learning a language. You may be able to make the correct sounds or say the words properly, but you may not know what those words mean. It takes a long time to become fluent in a language. The same goes for art. To be able to find your artistic language, you must practice.

The advice I would give myself is that you already know who you are and the next 10 years will only be spent learning how to become confident in that person while trusting your gut. You were made exactly how you were supposed to be made; your mental illness is not a flaw but your secret weapon for an endless supply of artistic inspiration.  Oh, also learn German. 

 

Sean Alistair's work is on view at the gallery through May 1, 2021, view his available works here. Images courtesy of the artist and Modern Eden Gallery.


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