It’s tough to make friends in adulthood. Without the confines of a classroom to force you together, forging new friendship relies on extending out beyond your comfort zone. Enter Vancouver Neatos interviews, where I introduce you to a new face in Vancouver every week (ish). Want to take part? Drop me a line.
Meet Larissa Blokhuis. She’s a glass artist in Vancouver and I had the pleasure of meeting her recently. Have a read through her interview!
How did glass become your medium?
I became a glassblower by chance. I have the good luck of being from Calgary, where I attended the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD). At the time when I went to school, this was the only post-secondary school in Canada with a glassblowing bachelor’s degree program.
As a child I had decided to go to ACAD after high school, but I didn’t know what I would major in. When I was 14, my parents said I could take a summer course at ACAD, and glassblowing was one of the options. I think this was the first time they were offering the course to people under the age of 18. It was usually restricted, I think because of safety concerns and the cost of insurance. Glassblowing was unlike anything else I’d had the opportunity to try, so that was what I picked. I decided to major in glassblowing, and in 2008 I completed my bachelor’s degree with a major in glass. If I hadn’t had the chance to try glass, I would still be an artist, but I’m not sure what kind.
Is there anything that particularly influences or inspires your work?
I’m inspired by life cycles. Both short-term as it applies to individual beings, and long term as it applies to evolution. Many of my artworks have to do with seed pods, or a specific time in an organism’s life. The life forms I depict are generally plants, fungus, or colonies you might find in a coral reef. These kinds of life forms can be quite strange, and when you start looking at historical forms, they become even more strange. There can be a great deal of visual crossover between sea creatures and plants in fossil records. One example that always comes to mind is a sea creature fossil found in the Canadian Rockies, (Siphusauctum gregarium), which looks like a tulip.
The historical crossovers of form and function become an avenue for exploration of strange mutations and evolutionary paths. With my current work, I project strange evolution into the future, to create sculptures based on potential future evolution. Our environment is shifting rapidly due to human-caused climate change, and we don’t know what the future will look like. In creating my sculptures and installation pieces, I am placing humans in the future. We can choose to be part of the future by being good stewards of the environment. If we don’t choose to do that, we may miss out.
What are the biggest challenges for artists? How do you think we can overcome those challenges?
The biggest challenge for artists in Vancouver is the biggest challenge most people living in Vancouver face: prices for land, housing, and rents are not linked to the local economy, and have become too expensive. Finding affordable space to create work is difficult, on top of the cost of living. Many people are house-poor, and living in small spaces. It can be hard to sell sculptural work to people living in small spaces with overpriced mortgages.
One solution is for our government to restrict foreign ownership. As the child of immigrants I welcome people who want to live here and contribute to the life of the city. But our land prices should be tied to the local economy, to ensure a vibrant and functional future for our city.
In Canada, our art scene is a bit conservative. Canadianart.ca published an article in April 2015 about the average demographics of artists awarded exhibitions in Canada, 2013-4: 56% white men, 33% white women, 8% men of colour, 3% women of colour. About 25% of Canadians are people of colour, and of course half of Canadians are women. There are many Canadians who are not getting a fair chance to exhibit their artwork, or to see art exhibits produced by someone from their demographic.
Galleries could easily fix this by adding some explicit language about inclusiveness and accurate representation to their curatorial mandate. Galleries are continually looking to increase engagement, but some want to do it without risk. Art must push boundaries, and that includes giving power to under/mis-represented groups to control their own narratives. Conflicting narratives may arise, but that means more people will feel like they have a place in the conversation.
In general, there are many stereotypes about artists, the most annoying of which is that we’re flaky. The volume of paperwork, planning, and liaising I do as an artist is significant. Nobody will tell me to meet an application deadline, so I have to be self-motivated and organised to pursue opportunities. My CV would be quite sparse if I was flaky.
The most dangerous stereotype is that artists are mentally ill, or depressed. Mental illness detracts from an artist’s productivity, and it decreases artistic creativity. While there do seem to be some corollary relationships between mental illness and artistic creativity, mental illness should not be encouraged or go untreated with a goal of creating art, and many artists have no experience with serious mental illness.
The idea that artists are flaky and/or “mad” devalues the work artists do. (It also doesn’t do much for people dealing with mental illness.) It perpetuates further stereotypes that we don’t live in the real world, that non-artists can never understand us, and that what we do is non-essential. Dealing with stereotypes is difficult, because there is evidence that people are more likely to buy from an artist who fits the “mad artist” stereotype. Artists don’t have to do much research to figure this out and decide to develop a persona.
I prefer de-mystification. Ideas do not come to me in dreams; they come after much thought and research about ideas that are important to me. I live in the real world, where I have to worry about the cost of living, where I have to negotiate professional relationships, and where I need to meet deadlines. I would love for people to recognise that what artists do is very much necessary for a functional society. Art of all kinds keeps society from stagnating. It gives people the opportunity to discuss difficult topics, to feel that they are not alone, and to become more connected to their communities. Engagement with the arts increases critical thinking, increases brain connectivity and plasticity, and increases empathy.
What advice would you give emerging artists?
1. If you just graduated from art school, it’s normal to feel unmotivated. Suddenly you’re out in the real world where people may or may not care about art, where your student loans and bills are hanging over your head, and where you don’t necessarily have easy access to equipment. It can take years to find your adult voice as an artist, and there is no set timeline. Give yourself a break when you need it, and otherwise keep working.
2. Family and friends will give you all kinds of unsolicited advice, because they love you and want you to succeed. That doesn’t mean it’s good advice. If the person offering advice loves you but doesn’t work in your industry, don’t argue, just disengage. Arguing takes forever and makes the other person feel rejected. Take all advice with a grain of salt, because creative careers are different.
3. Rejection is an opportunity to learn. Always ask for feedback regarding where you could improve.
4. Surround yourself with productive people. A good community will support you, allow you to learn, and help you become/stay motivated (for this to work, you must return the favour). If you want to collaborate, don’t just pick people who are fun to hang out with, pick people with a good work ethic who match your level of seriousness.
5. If you’re unsure about pricing, use a pricing formula. Don’t compete with the pricing of mass-produced items, and don’t underprice your work to sell it quickly. Underpricing devalues your brand and your industry. A gallery will take 50% (any more than that is an unfair deal), and if you sell without a gallery there are other fees and expenses related to making sales. You are the only person who will make sure you are paid fairly.
hourly rate x hours worked + materials = base
base x 15-20% (overhead) = wholesale
wholesale x 2 = retail
6. Artistic creativity is a skill. It takes time and effort to develop. If you don’t dedicate a certain amount of time regularly to your art career, you won’t have one. Whatever you spend 40 hours per week thinking about will become a dominant factor in your life, and will likely invade your thoughts during off-hours.
7. Don’t compare yourself to others. If you’re worrying about what someone else is doing, you’re not focused on what you should be doing. Every art career is different, and what works for someone else is not necessarily right for you.
What do you like best about the art community in Vancouver?
We’re all in it together. I love the community I’m in because we support each other, and we really take joy in each other’s successes. I like that the city has diversity, unique events, and enough creative people that I can find artists who are compatible with my work ethic. I think artists can find a good community in any city, but with varying levels of effort. In Vancouver, my neighbourhood has a high percentage of artists and creative people, so I’m often walking or cycling distance to them, and to my fabrication studios.
Can you share any resources you’ve found most helpful in your career?
My best resource is my community. You can google artist calls and other opportunities, but you can’t google meaningful words of encouragement. Other artists can tell you what opportunities worked for them, they can help you think through an idea or tackle technical concerns, and they can keep you going.
What’s in the works for you right now?
I’m just finishing up my first public art commission, which is in the Vancity on 4th Ave in Kits. The project was a great learning experience, and I’m happy with the resulting artwork.
I find that every year is shorter than the previous year, so while there are many things I’d like to accomplish, I don’t know how much I’ll actually get done! I’m looking to pursue other public art opportunities, complete an artist residency, and have an international exhibition.
In terms of upcoming events, I’m in a group show in February at Cityscape in North Vancouver. I also have a solo exhibition in Red Deer beginning in February, and a solo exhibition in Crafthouse (Granville Island) in the summer. You can join my mailing list through my website to receive updates and reminders.