This week we chat with Erin MacKeen who recently left her full-time gig in Communications and Community Development to pursue her creative path. Erin tells us about the transition, how her process has changed, her recent exhibit at Nuit Blanche, and what’s coming up next.
You recently took the creative leap to leave your day job and work on your passion projects full time – can you tell us more about what you did before this, and more specifically what that transition was like?
For over 15 years, I worked at Urbanspace Property Group, the company that owns and manages the award-winning arts hub, 401 Richmond Street West. For approximately 10 years of that time, I was the Director Communications and Community Development. I grew up at 401. I was lucky to have both contributed to and participated in the rich community that thrives there and it’s where I became an artist.
I befriended the late-career artist Paul Fournier who encouraged me to try painting. It took a lot of persistence, because I was intimidated and, at the time, didn’t think you could just decide to become an artist. But I eventually “tried” painting in Paul’s studio and this started a friendship and mentorship that has brought me to where I am today.
After about 5 years developing as an abstract painter, it became apparent to me that I really needed to devote time to cultivating my voice and exploring what it looked and felt like to create without distraction. So I made the decision to leave Urbanspace and strike out on my own as a full-time artist. I was about to turn 40, had some savings, and no dependents, and felt like there might not be a better time to take the leap.
In all honesty, the transition was terrifying. I knew what I was doing was risky, but had a sense that the risk would be worth it, no matter the outcome. I decided to trust myself. I knew there would be disappointments and failures and that they would likely surprise me, but I also knew that I would learn countless things about myself and my craft by riding the waves. For the first time in my life, I knew I would be okay no matter what. I was also excited and joyfully curious to see what I would make when all I had to do was make things.
How has your day-to-day routine shifted since taking this leap? (Do you have any daily creative rituals? Are you noticing you work different hours than 9-5?)
I’m naturally a night owl. I always struggled to feel comfortable (and awake) holding a 9 – 5 schedule and used to blame it on bad habits and night time routines. But the truth is that I come alive at night. There’s something special for me about the hours of midnight to 2:00 am – the world is quiet and I feel permeable in a way that I don’t during the day. Creative ideas are more likely to strike during those magical hours. All the better if I’m awake when they show up 😉
I also work best in chunks of time, rather than long stretches. I’m productive for about a 5 hours max at one time. Being in charge of my own time means that I can take advantage of this by breaking up my day into segments. It makes the work more enjoyable and ultimately means what I make is better quality. It also just feels civilized. I suspect that most of us work better this way, but don’t have jobs where we can explore this as an option.
Lastly, undertaking creative work blurs the line between work and life in a way that is entirely refreshing. Leisure, recreation, play, or whatever you choose to call it, is no longer this separate thing that happens when I’m done working. It’s all life. As Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, “the passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible.” Making space for the creative mystery makes me feel connected to my “work” in a way that blends with who I am in the world. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t crappy tasks, or times when I procrastinate, but the goals are different, so there is pleasure in the process.
Your speciality is paper art – what is it about that material that interests you and how did you get started in the craft?
Working with paper actually came before painting, but I considered it a “hobby.” What I discovered shortly after starting my stint working in a studio every day, is that painting alone wasn’t going to nourish my creative curiousity. I needed other challenges to keep me engaged. I started honing my paper folding and design skills to create a little craft business called Salt Cellar Paper Co that took me on a tour of the local flea market circuit and opening a shop on Etsy.
I’ve always found paper endlessly appealing. It’s a simple and affordable material that can be transformed in so many ways – there is wonder in folding a flat sheet of paper into a 3D object. I took a paper making and sculpting class at Paperhouse Studio that inspired me to consider paper in a fine art context. When I found out that I had an extension on my studio space at 401 Richmond until January, I decided to take on an ambitious paper sculpture installation for Scotiabank Nuit Blanche.
What advice do you have for other creatives who are thinking about making the leap you did?
I answer this question with hesitation, because I think it can be easy to get endlessly caught in all the reasons why doing something like this doesn’t make sense. In some ways, there’s never a perfect time and fear has the ability to derail the best laid plans. You just have to trust your gut that what might look like sacrifices are all worth it for what you’re granting yourself in time to explore.
In hindsight, it would have been helpful if I’d started some of the new projects I tackled (such as a craft business) while I still had a steady paycheque. New things take time before they become financially viable. I don’t make art to make money, but you need to be able to support yourself in order to create. An important learning for me was how little money I actually needed to be happy. When I’m doing work that feeds my soul, my relationship with money changes. I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to sustain self-employment, so decided to take things month to month, cobbling things together, until it was time to shift gears. Whatever comes next, I’ll never look back with regret and say “remember that time I almost tried being an artist full-time?”
You exhibited at 401 Richmond for Nuit Blanche this year. Can you tell us more about Conjuring? (Where did the idea come from? Who did you collaborate with?)
The idea for Conjuring came from a creative challenge: to tackle a large-scale, installation and execute a conceptual vision in real space. I wanted to figure out how to take modular origami designs I was familiar with, such as cubes, and use them as structural elements to build an immersive space. Making them entirely from paper was part of the challenge and the effect. The pieces were light, flexible, and deceptively delicate. They were also ideal surfaces for inscription. The idea of adding imagery and making a physical memory palace began to take shape. Then the scope of the entire project shifted radically when I met my creative collaborator Dwanye East.
Dwanye and I were introduced by Matthew Potter, who I met to discuss adding LED elements to the paper pieces. I expressed an interest in having a few simple, small-scale, projections on the side of the geometric sculptures and he put me and Dwanye in touch to discuss “projection mapping.” At our first meeting, I learned what projection mapping was and what it could do. My head exploded. Then I immediately expanded the scope of the installation and formed a new vision of a magical, childhood forest that was a sensory experience of memory and the space between reality and imagination. Along with a team of wonderful friends, we folded and installed 118 paper diamonds on the wall and close to 100 paper cubes of various sizes stacked in a cascade on the ground through the space. Dwanye created original animations that transformed the diamonds into blinking and flickering “leaves,” the cubes into glowing “rocks,” and a large cube into a moon in a starry sky. Matthew rounded out the team providing LEDs, invaluable technical support, and resources that made the project possible.
Dwanye and I will be talking about this project, how we made it happen, and what we learned at the next Create in TO event on November 25.
What were some of the biggest things you learned from experiencing Nuit Blanche from the artist perspective?
The guaranteed audience at Nuit Blanche makes it a great place to flex new creative muscles and get immediate feedback and it’s a high profile event that encouraged us to fully realize the project on a deadline. It was also the first time either of us had done this kind of installation, so it was exciting to have so much interaction with the public (for better or worse ;)) The audience attending Nuit Blanche has changed considerably over the years, but mixed in with the young partiers were friends, other artists, and engaged folks who asked instructive questions and helped us see the work from many perspectives.
The reality is, not enough local artists are paid to make work for Nuit Blanche. We were lucky to have time, a free space, and support from Urbanspace Property Group, FITC, Maker Labs, Critical Mass and Rangle.io to make this happen. It’s possible that the exposure will also lead to other funded projects, only time will tell.
A great outcome was that it started a collaboration that will extend beyond the event. Dwanye and I are talking about forming a collective to bring more projects like this to life. It was a tremendously rewarding experience for both of us.
What’s next for you? What projects are you working on and what are you most excited about for the coming months/2016? (workshop announcements, new projects, new clients)
Salt Cellar Paper Co will be at the Toronto Art Crawl on November 22 at the Great Hall. I’ll have holiday cards, paper ornaments, and the popular How to Fold a Paper Airplane origami artworks made from Toronto road maps.
I’ll also be leading a Paper Ornament Workshop in November (dates TBD) when you can learn to fold tree decorations for the holidays. I’ll post the dates by the end of the month on social media.
I’ll have new paintings in Yumart Gallery’s 3rd Annual Holiday Salon from December 5 – 19 at 401 Richmond Street West. My next solo show of new paintings will be at Yumart from April 9 – 30, 2016.
In keeping with our “business of making” series, we have three questions to ask so our audience can see how projects get off the ground.
How are your projects typically funded?
My painting and craft business generate revenue through sales. The installation work I did for Nuit Blanche was primarily self-funded. I unsuccessfully applied for an Exhibition Assistance Grant, but will continue to pursue other forms of government funding for certain components of what I do.
What materials/tools do you use in order to manufacture and prototype your product?
My prototypes are usually made by just giving something a try. Luckily, acrylic paint and paper are both relatively inexpensive, so I can prototype by starting to paint or build and see if it works. I can’t draw, so rarely sketch anything beforehand. It usually travels from a vision in my head to making the piece without a lot of planning in between.
Have you partnered with any organizations in your city (Makerspaces, small-batch manufacturers, schools) that have helped you in your process?
I have taken great classes at the Contemporary Textile Studio Cooperative, Graven Feather, and Paperhouse Studio that inspired my process. For Nuit Blanche specifically, we received equipment loans from FITC, Maker Labs, Critical Mass and Rangle.io.