It came as no surprise that after thanking Diana Meredith – independent artist, writer and critical thinker – for letting me interview her in her Wiltshire Avenue studio, located in the Junction district of Toronto, she replied with, “I only wish I had remembered to show you the bathroom where I’m storing art in the shower!”
Diana relocated to a new studio late last year. A mad scramble to find a suitable location ensued after she was given a 30-day notice to vacate her former studio she shared with other creatives for 9 years.
Only a month into her new studio and Diana was telling me I could move things around to capture better photos. But I didn’t dare. Everything was orderly and placed or displayed thoughtfully. From the canvases wrapped in matching Dollar Store pillow cases and stored sideways to the beach stones with patterns of white calcite veins placed atop a bookshelf.
Punnet, 24”x30”, Mixed Media on Aluminum
Sure she was expecting my visit and a superficial tidy-up may have been in order, but Diana was pulling open drawers and cupboards, even flipping open toolboxes and catch-all containers for me to capture. And yet, everything was perfectly arranged like a still-life painting. Which is the one subject matter you’ll see very little of in her work.
What was intended as an artist profile on Diana Meredith, became a look at how space, both physical and mental, affects creativity.
What do you think are the biggest barriers to creativity?
Creativity has different kinds of barriers. There are all the external world barriers which mostly boil down to – how do I make a living and be creative? Some people make a living from being creative, but sometimes the price of that is doing work that isn’t necessarily the work you want to do. If you do another kind of job, then you have the time/energy barrier. Of course, there are lots more variations on the external world barriers.
Then there are the internal world barriers – self-doubt is one of the biggest ones. Sometimes I sabotage myself even before I start. Sometimes mid-project I don’t know where to go next and self-doubt rushes in to fill the vacuum. Other internal barriers are not having steady work habits or not accepting that problem solving is part of the creative process.
Rick, 16“ x 20“, Mixed Media on Pellon
What factors do you consider to be helpful to your creative process?
I’ve learned to foster certain ways of working which help my creative process. One is my ungrammatical motto, “limitations are my friend.” It can actually help you when you come up against something you can’t do. Recently I decided I wanted to make really big pictures, but 24” is the widest my big inkjet printer will go. So I started making diptychs and triptychs – one picture made of 2 or 3 panels put together. Once that door opened, I suddenly realized I could travel across a whole wall in small pieces and that they didn’t even have to stay in an even grid. I could jig-jag my way up the wall. All this opened because of something I couldn’t do.
Another most useful tool to help creativity is a deadline. Nothing like a little pressure to help me make creative decisions. It also helps me focus. Suddenly that inBox full of unanswered emails doesn’t matter because Art First.
Steady work habits – a practice – will do wonders for creativity. To paraphrase the writer, Tom Robbins, “all you need to do is to show up everyday – then the Muse knows where to find you.” This is the stuff that takes me through self-doubt and a dry well. I come in everyday and I do it because that is what I do everyday.
Lastly, I have to take an interest in the world. Although my art making is done privately in my studio, my job is to filter the world through my process. I have to be awake enough to notice what’s going on around me. That might be noticing how early morning light falls on the garages in the back alley. Or, currently I have cancer, so I spend a lot of time in hospitals. I watch how the intertwined pharmo/medical systems work and I watch how people live with cancer and what happens to them because of it. All that gets woven into my art.
Meredith’s work from Mortal Selfies
Do you have a favourite quote about creativity?
I have two favourite quotes:
1] To achieve great things, two things are needed: A plan and not quite enough time. Leonard Bernstein
2] Pay attention; Be astonished; Tell about it. Mary Oliver
If you could visit a studio of any artist’s (living or dead), who would that be and what would you hope to gain from that experience?
I’d like to visit the studio of William Kentridge in South Africa. I’d like to be a fly on the wall and watch him work. I’d like to know more about his process. Does he use preliminary drawings? Does he talk to himself while he works? How many hours a day does he work? Do all his projects come from externally commissioned sources or do some of them come from things he wants to do? How big is his space? Does he have assistants? If so, how does he organize them? I’d like to see his workflow.
You have music playing in your studio. Is music always on and if so does it help in your creative process?
I typically have music on. Most often I want the energy that the music brings. If I’m moving around the studio doing physical things like stretching canvases or applying protective coats, then I want dance beats or rock and roll. If I’m at the beginning of a painting or drawing, I need complex World music. Writing requires music with no words, either classical, jazz, or lately, minimalism. If I’m doing my accounts I need something comforting like folk music. Sometimes, though, I like the silence that comes at the end of an album. I like how it can fill the space.
Do you think being methodical can sometimes be the antithesis of creativity?
I think creativity needs a healthy balance of method and chaos. It is almost as if we come into the world more inclined towards one than the other. I tend to be more in the chaos, wild crazy creativity camp. And that’s great – it feeds my creative spirit. It gets the ideas rolling and reels in the inspiration. But at some point I realized I couldn’t live on pure air and fire. I need my inspiration to be grounded in earth and water. I needed to cultivate method. For someone like me, that was hard. I had to knuckle down and learn perspective, learn how the paint works, get inside Photoshop, understand digital printers. I had to get more methodical in my practice. As a teacher, I’ve watched students struggle with these two aspects of creativity – method and inspiration. Some people can draw amazingly well but they don’t have anything to say visually that hasn’t been said a million times before. Others have lots of ideas – but not enough method to manifest them. Which ever way you are inclined, you need to also work at the other path too.
Are you working on any project currently that you’d like to share?
My current project is called Fractured Identities. It is a series of 5 portraits of people who are living with cancer. Each portrait is made up of 4 separate canvases, so the image is fractured into quarters. This fracturing is a metaphor for how cancer breaks you open. Your identity in the world is no longer the same. Whoever you were before the diagnosis, you are now forever changed. The viewers initially find it visually difficult to put the face together in their minds, but then it suddenly works. That jolt helps them see how illness maps itself onto faces.
Why did you feel the need to return to some of the fundamental principles of drawing?
I’ve been drawing and painting faces for a long time. My faces are very wild and colourful and expressive. I’ve always said I wasn’t into realism and my goal is to capture the spirit of the person. But I don’t necessarily capture an accurate likeness. It was hit or miss. Sometimes it would happen but sometimes not. For a long time, I didn’t really care because I was after something else. But when I started this new portrait series, I decided to up my game. Even though I’d done all those fundamental exercises years ago about the proportions and relationships of heads and faces, I wanted to go back to the beginning again. There is an odd paradox where the beginning makes much more sense once you see where it is going, but you don’t know that when you are there the first time – that’s why it is the beginning! If you get to revisit the foundations and build a more solid building, you understand how the whole thing is constructed. You understand why you are doing certain beginning things. I find that I’m more patient now. I know that I have to invest in the foundations of a head if I want to make a convincing visual statement. It is really back to your question about method and creativity.
If your studio had a soundtrack, what 10 albums would fill your space musically?
Thank you Diana, for sharing your thoughts on creativity and space. For more on Diana Meredith and her work, please visit her website.