We met Genna while at Sparkbox in Picton Ontario, and were so lucky enough to spend some time learning about her journey as an artist and what inspires her printmaking practice. She shares with us fun biological facts and the true meaning behind fairy tales.
So tell us a little about your work! We noticed you have an interest in children's literature, and expressing those motifs.
G: When I was in Queen's doing my undergrad, around third year, I took a course focusing on children's lit and was immediately hooked. I decided to commit to exploring my interest in that through my art practice, and never really stopped. There's a lot of imagery and information in all of those different stories, and there's also something really great about fantasy and the impact it has on a reader. These stories are supposed to teach a lessons. You can get some pretty loaded content using simple, and well known archetypes. Or if you want to get more Freudian there are books about relationships with parents, or about discovering sexuality. So I thought all of this was really interesting, and I liked the fact when you're a kid, everything is terrible (laughs). I'm a teacher, and I know that kids can be really mean other while they're learning how to to do things. Stories for children often contain some of this cruelty. It's not always sunshine and rainbows and I think as adults sometimes we forget that. I read a lot and I collect children's books, so the inspiration is always there, all the time, but the amount of work I've made in recent years has really gone down. I've been teaching full time, and that takes up so much of my time and energy. If anybody says "I'll teach art and also make my own" they are stupid and a liar (laughs) because it's just not physically possible. It’s so draining, emotionally to, because you’re responsible for so much. It's completely different than being an instructor or a prof, not to say profs don't do work hard, it’s just not the same as it is with younger children. My husband - he is also a teacher - and I moved back to the County recently, which is great because we're not teaching and we have time to pursue our art because we aren’t teaching. I'm trying to shift back into making time for that creative space.
Where did you move from?
G: I’ve moved around quite a bit. I grew up in London ON, I lived in Kingston while I was at Queen’s. My husband and I moved to northern Manitoba for three years and taught at an elementary school on a First Nations reserve there. A lot of the stuff I've been working on now has been really influenced by that. That was the beginning of our marriage, it was the beginning of my career as a teacher, it was our first experience being introduced to and acknowledging Canada's relationship with it's First Nations people. It's not great. The children and their families were really wonderful, but the experience was isolating and emotionally exhausting. We decided after three years that we needed a change so we moved to England for a year to teach high school there, because there are no jobs in Ontario. That was insane, we travelled a whole bunch that year but there wasn't time to make anything and we couldn’t picture ourselves staying long term. So we moved back here to settle and start a family. So far it's pretty perfect. How long have you guys been visiting here?
N: I actually grew up just outside of Belleville, so I know the area pretty well. It's the best.
G: We've been spending our summers in the County for the past 5 years so it’s where we feel the most at home in Ontario. We have really good friends living here, my husband's family is here, there is studio space here. I don't like cities, so I don't have to navigate that.
So when you're making work, and thinking about children's literature or some other kind of content, do you have a process where you take a narrative and turn it into visual imagery? Explain the shift from words to images.
G: I guess it's where things kind of line up with real life. When I was doing my undergrad, my thesis show was a mix between some different novels that I'd read, folklore, and European storytelling. So it was woodcuts of North American or European animals. Animals in stories, a good example would be Aesop's Fables, are used to tell the human stories. Animals act out the different parts and symbolize different things so we can easily recognize them. Wolves tend to symbolize gluttony or evil, foxes intelligence and cunning, owls are usually wise, though they used to symbolize death. It depends where and when you are taking it from and how it’s framed it in that story. So I read a lot, I think about what kind of story I want to tell, and I take those images and try to kind of create a new narrative using that existing language.
But I work slow. I've got one print in the studio that has taken the better part of two years and it's still not done because I've decided to carve another block. It takes a long time to make a woodcut. I was really inspired by Libby Hague, and artist from Toronto who came to visit us at Queens and she was showing her artwork and how she could work from home, and print with a spoon instead of a press. It's much easier with a press but you can make do pretty easily without one and I needed that option after graduating. There’s also something really great about wood and paper and ink if you're talking about literature anyway. Using the same physical materials as books the books I’m inspired by creates a nice continuity. So while I’m drawing I’m thinking about the materials and what hands mean, and what different animals and plants mean, or can mean, and it’s kind of like putting a code into the things I’m making. But I don’t want to be too heavy handed either so it’s a fine line, communicating ideas without making them too obvious.
E: There's a subtlety to your stories.
G: Yes definitely. I've been thinking about it a lot more recently, because I've had time to start drawing again, making things again, so I've been trying to figure out how to put my stories and the stories I’m influenced by together so that that it means something to a viewer. It's kind of very exploratory right now.
N: That's exciting, getting back into it.
G: It is exciting, and kind of weird because you have to put yourself in that space and you have to go and do the work. It’s not automatic.
Can you speak about repetition and mimicry in your work? For example, in the snake prints in particular.
G: Yeah, so my husband is a biologist, and I'm casually interested in biology as well, and I find it really interesting how there are a lot of animals that will take on the appearance of something else to protect themselves or take advantage of a situation. It's kind of a wolf in sheep's clothing approach. And when we're talking about that evolution, that's not an intended thing like "oh I want to look like that other butterfly because it's poisonous and then no one will eat me"! It's almost sort of like "I accidentally put this thing on, and it's working for me, so now I'm going to keep doing this until it stops working for me." So it's not insidious, it's just sort of happen stance, it happened to work, and then that creature has become more successful because of it. And there are a lot of stories in literature where the hero will dress up in some way, or the witch will dress up as someone who is really pretty, or a fairy will dress up as a witch to hide their intentions and trick someone into getting what they want. Which is really interesting, that stories and nature tell us not to always trust what we see at face value. The mimic pieces are also about wanting to do some more technical prints, where things are smaller, where the lines are tighter, where the blocks need to line up because there are multiple layers. The prints also need to look really similar to each other to communicate this pattern mimicry which seemed like a good technical challenge. Those prints were made back in I think 2009, and I’ve just wanted to keep challenging myself technically. I carve a block, then think think “what can I do that's a little bit harder? How can I complicate this image, can I do two blocks, or four blocks?” That's what the one I am working now is evolving into. I’m learning a lot from the mistakes I make, how to simplify things. You always learn from the process.
So in your artist statement you kind of talk about playfulness and danger as two things you always like to have in your work. Does that come from children's literature, or where do those things come from for you? Why are they both important?
G: Really it has to do with the way children's stories are told. Most children's stories are either really formulaic, everything comes in threes, you meet particular helpers, you see that old woman at the beginning of the story and if you don't help her she's going to turn into a fairy and something bad is going to happen. There's a predictability to it. It’s comforting and feels really nice to read those stories and tell those stories. Or there are stories where there are a lot of horrible things happening, or the message is really really important. Like Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, where there is a lot of political content behind it but it's told like a children's story. We studied, in England with my year 7s ,Animal Farm which is meant to be an animal fable, an animal story, and it’s obviously much more loaded than that. The form, allegory and archetypes, is really great for communicating deep messages because the form doesn't come across as serious; it sort of tricks you into learning. And then you read the original fairy tales, or at least the Grimm Brothers versions, stories like Cinderella where you've got the stepsisters' eyes getting pecked out, and heels being cut off. Really horrific things. Little Red Riding Hood, they're getting eaten whole but the wolf is then hacked to bits. There's also a really great story about a family of goats and a wolf. Wolves almost always mean gluttony, and this story essentially teaches you to never let strangers into your house. So the wolf comes in, eats all of the kids except for one, and then while he's sleeping off his massive meal, the mother comes home and cuts him open with her sewing scissors and takes her kids out, because they are always eaten whole. She then puts a bunch of river rocks in him, sews him up, and when he goes to take a drink from the river and he drowns. It’s incredibly violent, but because it is told in a certain way, with rhyme and an almost musical rhythm, we gloss over that violence. But if you were to see it in a film, it wouldn't happen, or it would be R rated. There is something really powerful about a story that can scare and delight you at the same time, and through that teach you how to be. Hans Christian Anderson does a really good job of that. Most of his stories are really heavy with the Christian messages, but he's got a really great story about a tinderbox. It's about a soldier who does a bunch of horrible things - he kills a witch, gambles, kidnaps a princess, murders her parents - and gets away with all of it. He does everything with in service to himself and it doesn't matter. There's no moral, there's no message, it’s just fun.
E: So both kinds of stories exist.
G: Yeah so it's interesting to kind of figure that out. Who is this actually meant for? Just because it sounds really nice doesn't meant there isn’t a message, and just because it sounds like it’s for children doesn't mean that it is either. Many of these stories were really just meant for adults. Is there a moral message, is it supposed to teach you anything, or is it just supposed to kind of be a story about human beings trying to figure stuff out and that’s entertaining?
You also quote Ursula Le Guin in your artist statement, how has she influenced your work?
G: I've read a few of her essays, and I've read some of her novels. I've got a real love of sci-fi and fantasy for the same reason I love children's literature. You're trying to take big complicated ideas about society and human nature, and explore them in this limitless fantastical world where people look a little different or there's magic, but things are mirrored, the politics are mirrored in some way. You're not limited to history or the way we do things currently, which is really freeing and entertaining. Sometimes you just want a world where there are wizards and dragons and spaceships. Again, you get kind of tricked into learning. Versus if you pick up something historical or non-fiction you know kind of know what you're going to get out of it, but with fantasy you get taken along for a ride.
E: Those kinds of freedoms also exist in art, right? The ability to create things that do not exist
G: With fantasy and in art, you get to just sort of invent whatever you need, like I don't have this particular thing that I need so I'll just make it. I have that power and nobody can tell me whether or not it’s allowed to exist. I built the world, it's mine.
E: I've never thought about those parallels between fiction and art before.
G: I mean it's all making stuff, right?
So in the process of printing, do you go into it with a specific meaning that you are trying to create, or does the creation of the print change the outcome?
G: I think when you're doing something that is so process heavy, print is all about process, sometimes things don't work out or they work out in a different way than you were expecting, and that adds to or changes perhaps the original intended meaning. Unlike with a drawing, print is about creating multiples, and I like dealing with the fact that there are multiples. Being able to repeat something, you can change the scale. Sometimes if things mess up, make a mistake, that will change the meaning, and if I decide to add or change the image as I go that will change it as well. I have one image where I printed it in black and blue, to start off, because when I was first making it the images came from a sad place and I was feeling pretty sad and wanted it to be sad. And also a bit more dreamy, and I was thinking about water, so I chose blue, and printed it. I was happy with it, went away for a year, came back, and with some distance from the work, I decided to print it again in a nice warm brown. Put them side by side and they are completely different! I think that when you first start off learning about these things, you think about prints as being really precious, you do an edition, you close the edition. But you don't have to. You can really do whatever you want as long as it’s labelled properly. I think especially after getting away from school and thinking that there's a proper way to do things, and then realizing no, I'm not tied down to that. I'm not in a position yet where anyone is collecting anything, or anything is very official. And can always rework and reprint older work form a new perspective.
You talked a little bit about traveling, and being in different places, has that influenced your work in any way?
G: I'm still digesting the past year. While we were in England we visited 10 countries in less than 12 months. Teaching during term was intense, but England's education system is great in that their vacations are spread out. So every half term you get a week off, and every full term you get two weeks off, instead of a big long summer. So every break we would just pick somewhere and go. We saved while living in Manitoba and our debts were all paid, so when we left we just aimed to break even. We went to the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Denmark and France and I spent a substantial amount of that time in art galleries. So you see a whole bunch of amazing art and then you have to kind of process it. Goya is probably one of my favorite artists hands down and it was really wonderful to be able to go and see his prints in person. His bullfighting prints were amazing to see in person. So I'm still processing that and figuring it out, but right now I’m still working through images from Northern Manitoba, teaching young children where it's really isolating. We were outside a lot hiking or snowshoeing or picking berries or fishing. You have a lot of time to take pictures of things, do quick sketches, and think about things but not necessarily do anything with them. So I’m still working on that but travelling has been really great. It was just a lot really fast.
E: So the influences might reveal themselves in the future.
G: Yeah I've got notes and photos of things I really like, like seeing the way that this was carved, or seeing those colours. But if you live in Toronto you can go to the AGO, you can go to the ROM, you can go in and pick one thing and you can sit in front of it and you can draw it. You can really spend time with it. But you can't if you've only got four hours and your husband is going okay we've been here for 3 and a half and we really need to eat some food. It was intense. I would and I wouldn't recommend it at the same time.
Now we have fun questions. This is a big one, prepare yourself.
G: Is it my favorite colour?
E: No. But what is your favourite colour?
G: Blue. It's a great freakin' colour.
If you could collaborate with any artists in the world, alive or dead, who would it be?
G: I think Goya, but I mean Goya is a difficult person because he wasn't always happy. It would be really fun to be on the peripheral of that, but I don't know if I'd want to get involved in his life. But what's really great is the amount of different processes that he used and experimented with. He went from making tapestries to being a court painter doing paintings in a very particular way to using printmaking to create some really freaky and really powerful stuff. He was printing lithographs almost up to the end. Yeah, I think doing some end of life litho with Goya would be pretty rad. (laughs)
So you mention you're getting back into the studio, what do you imagine your studio routine looking like?
G: Well I just got a job at a cafe in town, and I'm figuring out my hours with that. But what I'd like to do is to carve out a schedule of expectations. I've got a corner set up in my apartment, I can draw and carve there no problem. I can't print there, I don't have the space, so I'm going to need to come here press or no press. I'm going to make a schedule of drawing for so many hours and working for so many hours, and then setting the time for coming in and working here at Spark Box. It's great at Spark Box because I’m not having to pay by the hour, I've got a 10 day pass that I can use whenever. It's not like at Open Studio where you go in and coat a screen and that counts for a day, if I needed to coat a screen I could probably do that. Not that I’m going to do screen print, strike that from the record, that is not going to happen. (laughs) but I know can get everything prepped, I can come here, I can cut the paper, I can test print the block, to see what needs to be cleaned up, go home, clean that up, come back, mix ink, then print. It's really up in the air right now but I think I'd like to have something that becomes a consistent expectation for myself. But definitely figuring out whatever amount of timeI want to set for myself each day or week to just sit down at that table and draw. I think it was Neil Gaiman, he’s talking about writing but I think the same applies to art, who stresses that you need to go to work everyday. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you that’s now books get written or art gets made. To him you just sit down and write, no matter if what you write is any good, or if it's useful, the expectation is still there that you show up and you work for that amount of time. Because it's really just as much about being there and doing the work as it is about producing ‘good’ work..
E: It still counts, even if it's crap.
We just have one more question: Do you have a book, video or movie that you would recommend to our readers?
E: I mean you have already thrown us a handful of books already, so that’s great!
G: Oh, Evolution: A Visual Record by Robert Clark and David Quammen. Clark is a photographer for National Geographic and the book is a photographic record of a whole bunch of things that are demonstrating evolution, so whether that be Darwin's finches, or photographs of zoo animals, and really beautiful close-ups of things like crocodile skin, or this is what this particular eye looks like, and everything is labeled and has great descriptions. It’s really accessible, it’s not a scientific textbook, and it’s beautiful. Libraries are wonderful but it’s great I think to have books that you love, even if they are just pictures of things or cookbooks because they give texture and information which is really nice to have on hand. Oh and another just really great book that I think was really in the news a few years ago was by James William Daschuk, it’s called Clearing the Plains. It's about the history of reserves and Canadian/European, First Nations relationships from colonization all the way up to the current situation now. He looks at a problem, like high rates of tuberculosis on reserves and traces it all the way back to find out what the actual source of it was. Living and working on reserves you get exposed to a lot of things that I think everyone should be aware of. I don’t want to end things on a negative, and I do have some very positive experiences and memories from living in Manitoba, but I think it’s important to be aware of why things are the way they are as opposed to keeping a narrow perspective that ultimately can lead to some really racist misconceptions. It’s a really good book to get educated. I was talking with Chrissy about this a few years ago, you know you have things happen in your life and you really want to make work and images related to those things, but you also don’t want to appropriate anything. What would be missing the point entirely so I’m still trying to figure out how to make art that tells my experience within the context of someone else's. You experience a lot of things being a classroom teacher, you know what's happening in your children's lives, when things are hurting, you know about those things. Feeling isolated just amplifies those those experiences because you are thinking about them constantly. So it's figuring out how to work through all of that. You have images in your head and you have to try to negotiate how to use them in some way.
Is there anything that you are really excited about for the near future?
G: Well what's really nice about staying still is that you can make big work. In my undergrad I did this massive owl head, it was 9ft by 9ft and I printed 140 birds and a pack of wolves. Really big stuff that comes to life because it’s so big. And then you are done your undergrad and you can’t make big stuff anymore because you no longer have the space and resources. It would be really great to make big installations again. So I want to get started on that in the next year. Oh! That’s another person who would be really fun to work with, wolfbat, a.k.a Dennis McNett. His work is amazing, he takes his prints and makes them into masks and huge sculptures and installations, it’s super great!
We are so excited to see what Genna makes in the coming months and how her literary influences continue to be inspire her work. See more of Genna's work at www.gennakusch.com.