Artist Interviews 2022
By Johnny Otto
How did living in the Middle East and retiring to Nova Scotia affect you and influence your art?
My parents grew up in Nova Scotia, my roots are here. My dad was a Military Engineer with the Canadian Forces and NATO, so my 5 siblings and I moved every couple of years when we were young. Living in different cities and countries became second nature to me.
I was in my teens in the ‘60’s, at university in Nova Scotia, when the ‘Be here now’ culture was in full swing, rife with hippies and gurus. It was the beginning of my art journey.
Nova Scotia was and still is, a haven for artists, attracted to the light, the turbulent coastal landscape, the wide open spaces and the vibrant art community. I always called it ‘Canada’s best kept secret’. When we moved to Saudi Arabia in the early 90’s there was no question we would return here.
We bought land on the ocean and my daughters named it Tir na nOg, ‘The land of eternal youth’, after a Celtic Legend. Every summer we came home to the land when it was too hot in the desert to go outside.
Relocating to Arabia opened up a whole new world, the complete opposite of everything I had known. The restrictions of the country defined their art. Nothing figurative, no photography in public places, no advertising, no public showings. The group of artists I ‘fell in with’ broke all the rules – doing life drawing with willing models in our homes, having private showings of our work and generally feeding off each others’ energy and knowledge. I remember going out to the desert regularly taking loads of pictures and developing them in the darkroom on the compound. My own artistic style started taking shape in these years.
Are you self taught, schooled, mentored?
I would say all three. My mother was a painter and a collector so I was exposed very early on. No right or wrong, just slap the paint onto the paper. Watercolour was her medium. I think it is the most challenging of the painting mediums to master and I’m glad I stuck with it. Though I work primarily in acrylic, I still use watercolour in many of my mixed media pieces.
My formal education was a bit scattered – a foundation year in Art History in Nova Scotia, (Dalhousie U), a year of general art in a ‘Creative Centrum’ in the Netherlands, and an Applied Art diploma from Capilano Art College in Vancouver. I finished my formal education in a post grad year of Art Therapy. It was a new program at the time and I found it fascinating to learn how art could be used as a healing tool.
The Applied Art years gave me the opportunity to try everything – drawing, pottery, textiles, printmaking, photography. It was hard choosing one area to concentrate on because I wanted to do it all! I work in several mediums now and excited with the results I get from mixing the media.
As far as ‘self taught’ goes, when formal education finished, a different kind of learning opened up. Exploring and discovering at your own pace and direction, following your own rules. Over the years I have taken lots of workshops, done many retreats. In Arabia I started the first art gallery on our compound, (with permission!) providing a venue for artists to show their work. An artist friend and myself started the ‘Freespirit’ art retreats from Saudi to southern Turkey, our mantra being ‘Embrace, Create, Savour’. I believe everyone has a creative side – it just needs to be gently coaxed along. So yes, there has been plenty of self teaching, learning and mentoring that have shaped my artistic process.
Is it crazy to think art can change the world?
Not at all! It’s the universal language that knows no borders or prejudices, tells stories, makes us think, brings beauty into our lives, records history. It permeates every part of our society, from corporations offering employees creative retreats, to art therapy rehabilitation in hospitals. Schools and nursing homes offer art as part of their curriculum and recreational programs. And there are thousands of souls out there, young and old, seeking the artistic path to understand themselves better, heal themselves from trauma and grow as individuals. Art is one of the positive things impacting and changing the world right now.
Who and what changed you the most?
My mother, a freespirit, an artist, the one who introduced me to the art world as a child.
My older daughter, who taught me a lot about myself through her deep insight into the body-mind-spirit connection, her contagious sense of humour and her whimsical artistic style.
Travel – we spent 20 years in Arabia. During that time we explored much of the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia. Delving into ‘thousands of years old’ cultures, exploring their land, their rituals, music, art, food, and costume was a steep learning curve. The energy of these ancient places is palpable and have influenced me greatly. I see everything as art or artistic possibility, from shredded prayer flags on a Tibetan mountain top, to rusted out steel behind falling down barns. There’s no lack of ideas. I can’t always express them as visual abstracted art immediately, but they are simmering somewhere in my brain.
Other passions? Things that make you happy?
Music is the thread that runs thru all the other things in my life. From jazz to classical, it’s a constant. Nova Scotia has a rich musical tradition - an eclectic mix of Celtic, African and Acadian rhythms. The ‘Kitchen Party’ is an institution here, where friends and family gather to make music, tell stories – my family is very musical. I like to sing.
Cooking - when I can’t get it together in the studio I go to the kitchen. My dad spent his early life in India, so mum’s curries and chutneys were some of the first foods I ate as a kid. I love cooking (and consuming!) ethnic cuisine because the flavours are so exotic and varied. I’ve participated in many a cooking class in foreign lands. I have an embarrassingly large collection of cookbooks.
Hiking and trekking gets me back on track, mentally and physically. Whether it’s in the Himalaya or the forest and beach walks in Nova Scotia, it rejuvenates the soul. The day I can’t hike anymore will be a very sad one indeed.
Tai Chi - My Tai Chi Masters taught me focus, balance and being in the present. It took many years and many classes before I could do the practice on my own. It starts my day, everyday.
And finally, my family. We’re a close knit bunch, and not surprisingly, all found our way back to Nova Scotia.
Who do you want to collaborate with? Why?
I am itching to travel to rural Japan, and work alongside any of the artisans who are masters of their craft – particularly the papermakers, calligraphers and raku artists. That would be a dream come true.
Any shows in near future?
Tir na nOg studio doubles as a gallery space, tho’ I haven’t exhibited in it since my renovation during the pandemic. A scheduled event forces me to clean up my act, and my studio! I like to exhibit with local artists whose work I admire and dovetails with my new work. I’m planning one for early summer, 2023, still working out the details.
My last solo show was in 2021 at the Chester Art Centre in Nova Scotia, entitled ‘Into Light’, inspired by the transition from the Winter solstice into the Spring Equinox.
The Meeting Room Art Gallery in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has been representing me for the past decade.
How do you describe your art?
I’m an abstract artist, but people can call it what they want.
I start with an idea, a few sketches, and it develops itself along the way – marks go down, first layers happen, maybe some collage, more layers, more marks, things appear, then disappear. Intuition plays a part. I love working with inks. I love asemic script. I paint my own collage papers. The work starts to take on a life of its own, reflected in the materials used, the mood, the music. The results tend to be organic and ethereal.
I love the abstract because the viewer gets to write their own narrative.
When a grade 6 class came on a field trip to the Art Centre to see my show ‘Into Light’, a young boy took me by the hand, led me over to a painting and said, “I like this one - it reminds me of where I used to live in Newfoundland, looking out my backdoor to the sea.” Abstract takes you anywhere you want to go and lets you see what you want to see.
I will always be reaching, trying new things, new media, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable. Drawing inspiration from the joys and tragedies of life.
My favourite poet, David Whyte, writes:
“Sometimes….you come to place whose only task
is to trouble you with tiny but frightening requests,
questions that have patiently waited for you,
questions that have no right to go away.”