There’s a poetic quality of capturing fleeting moments in Alice Maclean’s watercolors. A quality neither too subtle nor outlandish that resembles in sentiment Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro; it’s as though Alice not only sees the faces in the crowd but understands what it is about them that needs conveying.
Alice was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and studied biology at Dalhousie University before she ventured into fine arts. She’s studied and lived in Paris and Scotland and now lives in Toronto. The mild manners of the Atlantic’s small town and the confidence of metropolitan life she’s come to know are found in her soft spoken yet assured answers. I recently had a chance to meet with Alice at her studio and talk about her latest series, Impermanence, and her career.
Hoon: You studied science at Dalhousie before studying fine art. How did you come to make that decision?
A: It happened in an unplanned way. I was finishing my undergrad in biology and found that I was not enjoying my time at Dalhousie, so I kept thinking, How can I make this last year better and what would I really like to do? There was this quiet voice inside that just said I’d really like to take a drawing class. The class didn’t even count as an elective. The teacher was very supportive and she continuously urged me to go to art school full time. For a long time I didn’t agree with her because I was worried about money and was fatigued with undergrad. But what ended up happening was, she set up a meeting with the chairman and he gave me entrance to the school based just on my portfolio.
So I went into art school with the intention of doing just one year and was thinking about scientific illustration where I can use my science background. But once I started to learn more about painting, I felt that I connected more to an impressionistic style and decided to do four years at NSCAD.
H: Did you also paint or draw as a child?
A: I don’t remember taking many art classes in high school or junior high — there really wasn’t much support for that. But I did draw as a child and my mom she still has framed drawings of mine from early on. She herself is very creative so I grew up always doing something creative, like drawing on walls, etc.
H: Does your understanding of science inform your work today?
A: I think it does. I was thinking back to what it was like when I was studying biology and all the lab works involve observing and drawing; some of my favorite classes were concerned with ecology, which is about looking specifically at animals and plants. At those moments, you’re really looking closely at, investigating something. I think in my art that kind of observational and investigational approach is applied to people.
H: Tell us a little bit about your creative process.
A: It’s changed recently. In the summer time, while I was doing a two-week residency on Toronto Island, I decided to focus just on watercolor mostly because it dries quickly and is more accessible for projects that need to be done more quickly. It changed my process a lot. I started to document people I met on the island and drawing from that: I’d go around and be around the community and take a lot of pictures of people I knew and people I didn’t know. Then I’d go over the photos. It’s hard to say but there is some connection I feel when I think that someone is showing a kind of unmasked version of themselves; you can catch people being a bit vulnerable, or showing the reality of their emotional state at the time. I look for those candid moments where I think I get a reaction and think, There’s something more there. So I’m not interested in documenting sports or yoga poses — I’m more interested in people when they are not aware.
It was important that when I ask for permission I’d make clear that I wasn’t about their identities. There are sometimes clues — in later ones you can tell the subjects’ genders and whatnot but some of the very first ones were really abstract. It was about posture and capturing the moment than anyone’s identity.
H: Would you say that there’s a thematic continuity between them?
A: At the time, I was reading a lot about archetypes and shadows; aspects of a person’s persona that they don’t want revealed. That was really what sparked all of the works. That’s why I don’t really want to document people’s identity so much because archetypes are shared mythologies that we all can take on and inhabit ourselves. It’s more about shared experiences. I see something in someone else that invokes in me a kind of vulnerable, familiar human experience.
H: Tell us a bit about your latest series, Impermanence.
A: Impermance is a bit of a departure. I began to think less about the archetypal aspects of ourselves and more about impermanence as an idea, the constant flux and change found in nature. Emotions and physical bodies are constantly changing and it inspired me to look at things differently. I also just started to think about how water color itself is in constant flux and I allowed it to have a lot of say in the final pieces. The materiality of watercolor — the water and pigment mixing on paper and changing through evaporation — fit just so perfectly with the concept of impermanence.
H: What was the transition from oil to watercolor like?
A: There are some links but they are very much different. I’m still informed by all the time I spent with oil, mainly in that I will block in the image, use monochromatic first layer. and work on top of it with more color. But what I get to do with watercolor is, I get to be a bit looser and more spontaneous. With oil, I felt that I was in control of it all, but with watercolor, I get to have more of a conversation with or an exploration of the material.
H: Is there a reason for choosing numbers over descriptive titles for your pieces in Impemanence?
A: It seemed more practical. Previously I would name the paintings after the person or with a description of the person, like say, ‘the girl in the blue dress.’ But with Impermanence, it was less about the individual and his or her individuality and so the numbering made more sense in that they are all titled Impermannce. It seems to fit all of them.
H: Series as a whole rather than as individual pieces.
A: Yeah, I think so.
H: Do you paint everyday?
A: I would like to be painting everyday but it’s not something I can always manage. I can’t force it and there are other responsibilities as well. When I was doing the residency I was painting everyday.
H: How long does it take you to finish a piece?
A: I really don’t know because I’m always working on a number of them at the same time. There have been paintings that came about in a day and they are special for that. They were clear from the start and just happened. I would say that most of the time, I work in layers, so I go back at least a few times until I feel that it’s become completed. It’s a funny thing to know when something’s done.
H: You are originally from Nova Scotia and you now live in Toronto, and you’ve studied abroad in Paris and Scotland.
A: I moved to Paris to study for a semester and that was mostly to experience a lot of visual works in the flesh. Growing up in Nova Scotia, I didn’t have that many opportunities to see a lot of paintings in person. So in Paris, I spent a lot of time going to museums and looking at art. I also walked all over the city. That’s where the watercolor work all came from. Looking through all of the photos I took in Paris I started thinking about how bizarre it was to have all these strangers in my pictures. The same goes for Scotland. They’d often be in the background of something I was actually trying to take a photo of. When I travel, it puts me in a very observational space. I’m connected to who I am in a different way, away from my comfort zone. You become more observational and it visually informs my paintings.
H: Are there any subjects or ideas you’d like to explore in the future?
A: I’m not so sure. At the moment, I want to do a project based on a rural setting and an urban setting and to compare them. But I’m not exactly sure what this will look like. I’ve also been thinking about compositions that involve more than one figure and compositions of people from different places — they wouldn’t have shared a moment in reality but become a composition that can perhaps tell a narrative. And I want to explore the materiality of watercolor and work on it on different types of papers.
Alice Maclean’s latest series, Impermanence, was on view at Souvenir on Dundas West. She was recently featured in Toronto’s Artist Project. Impermanence and other works by Alice are on view on her website here and on her Instagram page here. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.