I was introduced to the work of Heidi Taillefer at a fantastic gallery in Montreal last year, and decided to have a conversation with her. The interview is a little longer than I'd anticipated, but she just had such interesting things to say. Here's my interview with her, for your enjoyment.
--Silence is Golden (2005), oil on canvas
Ryan Witte: Your paintings are in some ways quite precise. Would you say your studio--your working environment--is also precise, immaculate, and well-organized, or do you get messy while you work?
Heidi Taillefer: I get messy, the place gets messy, it's all fertile chaos. Then after each painting is done, sometimes after a month or more...I clean up and start all over again. It's quite refreshing to strip all the confusion and dirty rags and paint particles away to start fresh. It invigorates and adds momentum to the beginning stages of a work, which I find quite a challenge. It's like breaking out of an egg, I suppose. The rest is easier.
RW: That's as long as it takes you to complete one? Not all that much more than a month? You must work extremely long hours!
HT: I don't get as much painting done as you'd think!
RW: You're said to come from a very creative family. Are your parents artists, also?
HT: My mother is an artist with a great sense of humor, and my father is very musical with a logical business side. But he was a huge mischief-maker and is entertained by shenanigans still, so I would consider that to be creative (or playful), as well.
--Amphibious (1993), watercolor on paper
RW: What do they think of your work?
HT: I had a lot of freedom to create and if I didn't, I just did it anyway--the result of my father's influence. I had great parents; lots of love with enough strictness to become functional, and freedom/ independence to strike out and make it happen with a touch of chaos to stir the pot and generate a flurry of imaginative ideas.
--The Argument (1993), watercolor on paper
RW: It seems the Terminator films had a big effect on you. They're great. What did you think of this most recent one, Rise of the Machines?
HT: I actually haven't seen that one, yet. I stopped focusing on the Sci-Fi films after my adolescence and focused on Classical myths, which were woven into the vocabulary of Sci-Fi imagery I'd established for myself already. That is now tied in with current trends in examining technology in art, which I try to marry with our fundamental human nature--which is totally separate from Technology (primordial, universal, what the ancient cultures and religions explored).
RW: Don't you suppose our technology is threatening to become so sophisticated (with Artificial Intelligence, the drastic prolonging of life expectancy, and so on) that it could begin raising very fundamental questions about human nature?
HT: Yes, but I don't see how longevity interferes with human nature. Maybe Artificial Intelligence, for sure. But there's no going back without a cataclysm, so the only choice is to run forward with it and get mature and wise people into the fray to offset the inevitable tide of craziness that will come with the foolish and corrupt--living longer and being more intelligent, too.
RW: Oh, completely. The way I tend to understand them, anyway, pretty much all of our spiritual philosophies throughout human history stem from either questions of mortality and death, or reproduction and social relationships--all of which would be drastically affected if we lived to be 800 instead of 80.
HT: I think our spiritual philosophies transcend death altogether and deal with love, trust, the ego, morality for sure--but the nature of events--as being more neutral, and there being a need for synthesis and unity. Time adds a constraint in that there are only so many experiences we can have to deal with this, but just as Greek gods faced the same human foibles, yet remained immortal, so would we go through the same dramas--just drawn out over longer periods of time. Maybe in the past longevity didn't exist as a possibility, so it was never sewn into the myths and philosophical representations...but they were, actually: the bible speaks of Moses being 800 years old, I think...something like that. Sloppy as it sounds, Time and Philosophy are not mutually exclusive, other than philosophizing on the limits of time.
RW: Yes, I understand what you're saying, especially about mythological figures. Perhaps you're right.
So right after the Lindberg baby was kidnapped, Salvador Dali's wife, Gala, showed up at a party with a doll that looked like the bloody corpse of the baby on her hat, and everybody completely freaked out. I love that story. Do you think your personal style in dress and demeanor reflects who you are as a painter?
HT: Not at all. I may have my own style at times, but I live out my expression through lifestyle and art production. At first glance, you'd never think I was an artist...which I kind of like. I don't need another avenue of expression; it's automatically inherent, even if I try to go the conventional route. But if I told you my life story you would think I was different, for sure.
RW: I wasn't aware that you'd designed the theme for a production of Cirque du Soleil until I looked around for more information about your work. I absolutely loved the one I saw, though. Had you seen any of their shows before you were approached to collaborate with them?
HT: I had seen a couple shows a few years back, but when I was told who the poster contract was for, I had no idea how big they were at the time, believe it or not. Mind you, they were still at a more intermediate stage then, ten years ago. It was an ad agency that approached me.
RW: What was your impression of what they do?
HT: I had found their shows inspiring in the stimulus I received, visually and musically. But I'd say, by now, there needs to be much more edge to the shows. I'm quite familiar with them and they need to be weirded-up more, made much more surreal, although the acrobatics are incredible (I would accept to help direct a show!).
RW: I hope they ask you! I kind of agree, from what I've seen, that their surrealism could be made a more cohesive element in the way the show flows. The comedian Kathy Griffin, on the other hand, has a whole hilarious bit about how she loved the contortionists, but she doesn't need to see a clown very slowly rolling a beach ball across the stage and going "AYE AYE AYE." So I guess some people don't quite get their quirkiness.
--Venus Envy (1999), oil on canvas
So much of what I read about your work zeroes right in on your meshing of animate and inanimate forms. I love that duality--I probably wouldn't mind being a cyborg someday. But to me, that seems to completely miss the point, or at the very least, is a relatively superficial take on your style. One thing I'm struck by, for instance, is the incredible way you play with the idea of Gender. Do you consider yourself to be a Feminist?
HT: I love men too much to be a Feminist! I admire and respect their greater sense of equanimity when dealing with things, although that's a generalization, since it's just a reflection of the influences from women I saw from my past. Women need to become more like men, be more radical and less emotional and dependent on having a man. But not to trump men, just to draw from their strengths. And men could do the same with women and their strengths (which includes sensitivity and greater observation--it's very useful, especially in business, for example--the founder of the Cirque du Soleil operates very much on intuition, a feminine quality, and it has helped him dramatically).
I definitely don't like double standards, because they nullify too much of what women could offer and trivialize their abilities, as if they were useless. But men and women are different, for sure. It's just that women's attributes and qualities need to be recognized and not overpowered by men, who only validate nuts-and-bolts facts, whereas women are almost more esoteric, somehow. It's the intuition: a product of motherhood and the need to read between the lines and understand beyond language.
--The Ventriloquist (2007), oil on canvas
Women need to emulate the strength men possess, while remaining true to their femininity, which is quite powerful in itself. But men need to stop trying to domineer women. It makes them seem threatened or something. That's one way I may be a Feminist--I have trouble being domineered, unless I respect and accept the man's superiority as an individual, but it has nothing to do with gender. If I am respected and appreciated, I will gladly cooperate and follow.
I also think women tend to be much stronger and courageous, emotionally. So combine it with men's greater inclination toward logic and imagine the synthesis! I think the bottom line is that women need to be given the chance to meet challenges from a young age and not overprotected as they are just because they're "cute little girls."
--I Put a Spell on You (2006), oil on canvas
RW: What might your thoughts be on our current ability to surgically reassign a person's sex?
HT: Well, I think it's an individual's decision, which is their business and impacts them the most--but often families reject transgender relatives, from what I understand. In the animal kingdom, it would appear that bisexuality is quite normal in nature and beneficial in sustaining peace and harmony among groups. But a transsexual person is flirting with the notion of bodily mutilation of some kind, and I think there is a primal aversion to that; the same way people don't like cosmetic surgery, and Judaism doesn't like tattoos, etc.
I don't know enough about Psychology, but if a person is truly unhappy as a man or a woman and wants to change, I wouldn't have a problem with it, unless it meant losing a man I was in love with or my dad, then I might be affected. But for sure it is unsettling to think of so much toying with nature, although I think cloning is fascinating. It's a matter of stretching the envelope and getting used to different ideas. I'm sure most of the advances in medicine and nutrition and the like would have shocked and offended people a few hundred years ago. So there is a continual evolution in public perception which lags behind the initial technological advances.
--Frustration Attraction (2006), oil on canvas
RW: Would you say there's a discord between the bodily mechanics of our sexuality and the emotions that accompany them?
HT: Let me see how to answer this...in Western culture today, yes. It seems fashionable to become sexual immediately or soon after meeting someone new, regardless of the chemistry. I do believe there can be an immediate chemistry which draws people together in some instances, but there seems to be this exaggerated expectation of sexual intimacy as a social norm soon after meeting someone, regardless of the more delicate aspects of interpersonal connections. When sex for its own sake becomes a general norm, it amounts to such shallow and superficial encounters with little meaning--which turn into lonliness--and many people aren't even aware of why that is.
However, I have to say, after being to Brazil, which is a country of seething sensuality and bodily comfort, things feel a little different, and that sexual veneer is quite liberating. The same holds true of French culture, but I think the difference may also lie in the fact that they incorporate an appreciation of pleasure of all things into life: food, music, arts, business, and physicality. But after a while, you can't get past the limitations of sexual mechanics, and I think the family values upheld in (at least Brazilian) culture helps bridge the sterility of pure sexual mechanics.
--Sneaky Work at the Crossroads (2006), oil on canvas
However, the Vedic religions (Hinduism, etc.) originally understood the fundamental connection that does exist between bodily "sexual mechanics" and emotion, as explored through Tantric practices, which encouraged a devotion to the entirety of the other person, body and soul. There, the body is the tool, or vehicle, or "machine," through which the essence of two (or more) people can merge, express their truest vulnerabilities through the act of intimacy and trust in the safety and care the other is offering--via the respect and devotion of each person's divine essence...and body. Pretty nice, eh?
RW: Sounds very intense.
HT: It is why it has such a healing influence on so many ills suffered by an individual. So there is definitely a synthesis to be had between the two, it's the philosophical perspective that makes the key difference.
--Silverfish (2005), oil on canvas
RW: Do you have any pets?
HT: I had pets growing up: cats, a dog, a snake, piranha, budgies, raised guppies, hamsters, salamanders, ants, etc...and now I'm thinking of getting a cat.
RW: Holy cow! It's no wonder your work is so full of animal imagery. Did you often draw or paint your pets?
HT: Not back then.
--Nothing and Yet... (2006), oil on canvas
RW: Are you a vegetarian or vegan?
HT: I became a vegan in my early-20s, for ethical reasons. Then it became easier to include fish and seafood, and occasionally dairy and eggs.
RW: Why are you a vegetarian?
HT: It's only because of the factory farm industry and its hugely destructive environmental impact--and morally, it's way too cruel--the ultimate slavery.
RW: Oh, yeah. One thing that really hit me hard was how unbelievably destructive the farming of shrimp is. You've probably seen this before, but they basically dredge anything and everything up off the ocean floor, tearing out everything that gets in their path for miles at a stretch. The shrimp amount to like 5% of what they bring up, the other creatures die, and then they just dump the rest back into the ocean as waste. It's horrible. Do you think you'd be less inclined to feel the way you do about your diet if we lived 1000 years ago and collected all our own food?
HT: The reason I became a vegan/ vegetarian was because of the cruelty, then the environmental damage, which is hard to avoid anywhere now.
--The Muse (2006), oil on canvas
RW: Are the human subjects in your pieces friends of yours?
HT: They are usually friends, and I take photos from which I then paint.
RW: Lucky for them. I'll be sure to send you a photo of myself so I can be in one of your upcoming paintings.
--Govinda and the Heifer Nymph (2007),oil on canvas
There are also deeply spiritual implications in your work. Do you believe that icons, particularly those represented by the visual arts, become somehow more "alive" as a result of being worshipped, fetishized?
HT: Any image gets a certain life of its own once it's worshipped, just as celebrity confers an almost divine quality onto a person. They seem set apart from "regular" people and are expected to be above all the noisy and clumsy happenings of everyday life. Symbols are powerful things. They can galvanize forces such as armies, or populations, groups, etc., and that power is a mechanism which seems alive unto itself. Once they are a target of focus, they channel our own inner power and may seem life-like--just like the Orishas of Candomblé or African fetishes.
--Chimeric (2005), oil on canvas
RW: Did the creatures in your pieces come into existence in the form we see them, or did some outside force combine, alter, genetically mutate, change their physical composition? Is this state painful or awkward for them--like an animal with only three legs--or does it feel perfectly natural for them?
HT: Well, their altered form is meant to be felt as would a real being's altered form. So missing a leg might represent hobbling of some kind, depending on what animal is "represented" at the time. A goat with a broken leg might signal diminished potency, as the goat is also a symbol of sexuality. Although sexuality symbolizing potency does not mean potency is of a sexual nature, exclusively. It could be potency as energy, etc. But if the leg is jagged, yes, then it hurts the animal. If it's just a string of bells instead of a leg, it's just an anomaly, inconvenient as it may be.
RW: Do you suppose it's painful having some of their parts be machinery, or is it more like having a fake hip or an artificial heart: painful at first, but then the body adapts?
HT: I think only the surgery would hurt without an anesthetic! And maybe scarring, after, for a while.
RW: Certainly I could interpret and interpret until my brain explodes, but viewers of artworks can often get into trouble doing that. When I asked him about your work, the man at Yves LaRoche Gallerie in Montreal told me practically every object in your pieces has some specific meaning. Perhaps you'd go through one of them for me--and why not the one he was motioning to--Auto Erotic Immolation. Could you describe, as succinctly as possible, what each symbol represents for you, its reason for being there?
HT: More and more, the elements aren't as individually significant as before, but there are key elements which are. In Auto Erotic Immolation, the painting is about self-destruction through erotic pursuits. That destruction is meant as a change of state, not as a negative impact.
--Auto Erotic Immolation (2005), oil on canvas
The snakes in the hair are Medusa snakes = bad, or in this case, sin.
The hands are sensual, and preoccupied with the self.
She is a Sati, or Hindu woman, who throws herself into the funeral pyre, so her many arms attest to Hindu culture, as do the Hennaed hands.
The image is decorative and pretty because it is happy, nonetheless.
Red because of the inherent sensuality.
The snails symbolize (very active) feminine arousal.
The snakes at the base of the spine indicate Kundalini energy (represented by coiled snakes, usually), which pierce the chakras via sexual activity.
The breasts are traditional Indian hunting lanterns.
There is a plecostomus in the stomach in place of a baby. The preoccupation with motherhood is frustrated, but present, nonetheless, and its associated symbols (breasts, uterus) are sterile or diverted from the real thing: the plecostomus echoes the presence of life, but doesn't allow for the real thing to take hold; and there is no milk in the breasts, rather, lantern oil, which burns along with the subject of the painting. You can see flames at the bottom right.
RW: I'm going to pat myself on the back just a tiny bit because I feel like I was getting most of that--some of it maybe subconsciously--but I'm not convinced I could have gotten it all, or at least not very exactly. Are you attracted to the idea of using symbolism from cultures other than ours here in North America (or Western Europe) because of the mystique they can have for a "normal" (relatively culturally isolated) viewer, or do you believe many symbols transcend any one specific culture? In other words, do you believe certain symbolic elements--say snails, or the color red--come to represent certain ideas by a process that's more universal to the human condition (however subconscious it may be) than it is cultural?
HT: I'm not sure if there are universal symbolic elements. I'd say yes--like a skull is a symbol of time and mortality--there are elements which cross over into the transpersonal, like Jungian psychology would suggest, which is very tied into Surrealism and the subconscious.
--Bemoaning the Loss of Limbo (2006), oil on canvas
RW: The tensions in your work are often quite palpable, emotional and symbolic rather than optical. Do dissatisfactions often drive your work? Is painting a catharsis?
HT: A painting is carthartic, for better or worse. Dissatisfactions fuel many ideas, and the painting process is a cathartic one which allows for a release of frustration, a healing of the soul, greater understanding and wisdom, in general, and clarity of spirit. It's clearly healthy and therapeutic. But the problem is the source of ideas being dissatisfactions. Sourcing oneself from challenges translates into a Sysyphian task of endless dissatisfaction and subsequent resolution to keep the flow going. Very tiring!
RW: I tend to think life will just hand that to us whether we seek it out or not. If at least you're drawing inspiration from it, you're making it work for you, rather than just being its hapless victim.
HT: Yeah, I think so, too. It's 10% what happens and 90% how you react. I think we each have a destiny of some kind and we're going to go through certain experiences no matter what. But we can direct how it goes if we move onward and upward by our reactions, or else get sucked into mayhem and hell all over if we react in maladaptive ways. It's all a matter of personal control.
RW: As long as it's not a secret, what do you have wet on the easel right at this moment?
HT: An image for an album cover of a winged mermaid.
RW: Thank you so much!
HT: It was my pleasure, and thank you for taking such a keen interest in my work.