UnderCover: Artist Interview with David Roberts

In the first of Turnstone Press's new UnderCover interview series, we chat wtih David Roberts, the artist behind the cover of David Arnason's The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Your painting Gimli Harbour at Dusk evokes the wonder, curiosity, and endearment of David Arnason's The Best of All Possible Worlds. Can you please tell us how that particular piece came into being?

It was August, early evening. The daytime clamour was ebbing toward stillness. You know what it's like: everything suddenly turns down a notch and you notice it’s quiet. The wind was calm and the boats moored in the marina barely moved. The light was multivalent. Some say this is the best light for painting and photography. I think it was a lone motorboat that lumbered by, rippling the surface of the water. I shot some photos and made a 16" x 12" watercolour on cold press paper a day or so later.

A few of your works on your gallery gallery depict the shores of Lake Winnipeg. What’s your relationship to this almost sea in the middle of the Canadian prairies?

Folks who live elsewhere are always surprised when I tell them the lake is almost the size of Vancouver Island. It's a lake that can leave you breathless. It also can be dangerous. It is 20k by snowmobile or boat from Gimli to my brother’s cabin at Belair on the opposite shore. After dark on a calm night, way across in the distance, you can see Gimli's yellow flicker. On a clear day, like the plume from a papal enclave, you can see a wisp of white smoke rise from the distillery where they make excellent whisky. The Nor'wester, the rocks and trees, mud and sand, the pelicans, bears, skunks, raspberries and foxes–the warm sunrise and grand sunset –they all know this lake. Paddling the shoreline, I've been beside the bald eagles as they swoop, crash the surface, and lock their talons into a pickerel lunch. Decades ago, I drove an old car across that lake from Bloodvein to Pine Dock. It was January and -30 degrees and I got stuck in a snowdrift. There's much to think about when you're alone and stuck in a snowdrift in the middle of a big lake. Other than a pack of wolves I'd seen no sign of life for six hours. So I started to walk, hoping to reach the shoreline cut-through before nightfall. Lucky to be rescued, I am a survivor of that lake which still keeps drawing me back – sometimes with paints. 

 Paintings Rough resizedWhat inspires you? How do you select what finds its life on your canvas?

I quit painting in Kindergarten. But the scent of the pigments and squish of wet colour between my fingers was an important memory that stuck. When I took up painting again as an adult it changed my way of seeing. Colours are more intense than they were when I was just a writer struggling to put words in the right sequence. The world takes on a wider palette and sometimes it's just obvious that there are faces in the trees and clouds, that all of nature has texture and there's a kind of natural geometry in everything. At one time, I copied famous works by other painters so that I could learn by mimicking their strokes, palette and technique. Now I just shoot photos of things I see and use them, or parts of them, as a reference. I tend not to stick with any one style or artistic technique, since I don't know what those are anyway.

Are there particular materials you currently prefer working with over others?

I tend to work with aquarelle (watercolour) and acrylic paints. . That's because, while I love the smell of turpentine, I am lazy. Of course, oil might be more fun. But it is also more work. And I go through a gazillion brushes anyway.

Is there a particular time of day during which you work best?

I have never been much of a morning person.

Paintings Rough 009 Lenny resizedDoes the subject matter dictate what materials you use, or do the materials you wish to work with to some degree dictate the type of subject matter you wish to tackle?

Nah.  Although I once made a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci in acrylics and outdoor latex from Canadian Tire. Come to think of it, I read somewhere that Leonardo was like that too – he just used whatever he had on hand. You keep a mental inventory of all materials that are reasonably within reach. Somehow you just know intuitively that it is the right time for that old can of CanTire house paint to take centre stage.

Do you undertake commissions? How do commissions affect how you work?

Looking back on Michelangelo’s experience, I approach commissioned work with trepidation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9Aj7W3g1qo

You have training and experience in other disciplines, namely theatre and the literary arts. How do these other areas of expertise influence your visual arts?

Sometimes I wonder if Drama Centre, London, with its emphasis on the Stanislavski method, the movement work of Yat Malmgren, and the character typology of Carl Jung, left some scar tissue that has yet to fully heal. The journalism degree, on the other hand, brought me a couple of decades of steady income for which I am grateful. It also taught me to try to convey things in short sentences, one thought at a time, and to recognize a good story when it hits me in the face. It's all about storytelling really. Painting too, it’s just storytelling.

You are also an essayist. Do you ever explore the same topic in both your visual art and in your nonfiction?

You bet. We are preoccupied with linking the words and brush strokes together thematically. Although I have always had a day job, even a part-time one, because you’ve got to eat, right? But yes, it feels right: painting and writing together. Sometimes the painting sparks the essay. Sometimes it is the other way around. There is a scene in Aki Kaurismaki’s film La Vie de Bohème where two strangers, a writer and painter, meet in a Paris cafe. There is a shortage of tables and they must sit together. Both order trout. The waiter delivers one fish with two heads ... As both a writer and painter, I contextualized it here: http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/5/28/the-sauce-was-excellent.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/5/28/the-sauce-was-excellent.html

So, for example, the essay Post-Truth News, written in early 2017, provoked the painting After Amano. And After Amano came to be because I happen love the work Japanese printmaker Kunihiro Amano and his treatment of the horse. So it is in the style of Amano: http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2017/1/12/post-truth-news.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2017/1/12/post-truth-news.html

Here is a little bit on Amano, BTW: https://www.tokyoamericanclub.org/index.php/en/intouch-magazine/item/290-a-print-master

With Cocking a Snook at Perfection I had the painting in hand prior to the essay: http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2013/2/10/cocking-a-snook-at-perfection.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2013/2/10/cocking-a-snook-at-perfection.html

With A Seriously Happy Man I had the paintings in hand when I saw the AFP story about Matthieu Ricard in 2012 http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/11/7/a-seriously-happy-man.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/11/7/a-seriously-happy-man.html

The portrait 'Man with Blue Thoughts' prompted the short fiction: The Fakir of Wolseley http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/11/19/the-fakir-of-wolseley.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/11/19/the-fakir-of-wolseley.html

The essay No Loitering was written after the painting 'Arturo Lashed to a Tree' http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/7/10/no-loitering.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/7/10/no-loitering.html

Both paintings 'First Light’ and 'The Way Home' and were made prior to my Facebook bromance with Hosni Mubarak in A Friend Indeed: http://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/6/8/a-friend-indeed.htmlhttp://www.grandmamma.com/blog/2012/6/8/a-friend-indeed.html

What are you currently working on?

I just finished a 7000-word illustrated essay, published digitally and anonymously. Maybe a book of short strokes and brusque sentences is in the not-too-distant future …