Meet Zoe Welch, Vancouver Artist

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Zoe Welch Vancouver Artist on Stylings and Stories

Tell us about yourself.

Well, I was born and raised in Vancouver. I grew up in Kitsilano, moving around a fair bit, but always close to the beach. It was the 1960s and 1970s, and Kits was the Haight-Ashbury of Canada. The women’s movement was rising strong, the peace movement, great music on AM radio, counter culture was spilling out onto the streets up and down 4th Ave., the NDP was in power for a while, and it was a gentler time overall. I was hugely influenced by all this.

I moved to Quebec in 1981 because I wanted to learn French, and I lived there for 17 years, with a one-year break when I lived in Holland to go to art school. I lived in the British Columbia interior for a while, and then returned to Vancouver, for what was supposed to be brief stay—that was 16 years ago. I have a very uneasy relationship with this city, and would very much like to leave.

I’ve always been a maker, picking up enough to be able to play and write music, design and make clothes, home décor objects, handmade books, jewelry, knitting, the list goes on. My professional life includes working in media arts as an administrator and an advocate, and as an artist making film and darkroom photography (often combined), with some writing on the side. I’ve also worked leading community-based projects with the disenfranchised, and social and cultural development programming in public schools. After running my own clothing design company, and my own store, I’ve returned to photography in the digital world; and have returned to a not-for-profit work part-time, so that I can continue to focus on my photo practice.

What drew you to being a photo artist?

I honestly can’t remember. I bought my first SLR camera in 1979. The camera was stolen a few weeks later when I was camping at Long Beach, so I worked until I’d saved enough money again and bought the very same camera. I then began shooting more or less non-stop until 2000 when I moved to back Vancouver and could no long afford the square footage to have a darkroom in my home.

When I returned to photography in 2013, it was a gradual thing. I’d had a clothing design company for three years, and had been operating a store for almost a year, and I was using a little point-and-shoot digital camera to photograph my designs for promotion. I enjoyed doing the photowork, and had finally become comfortable with the migration from analogue to digital. In the fall of 2013, when I was beginning to shut down the company and the store, I started shooting images with a different intent, and noticed that my visual language was transforming somewhat with the new technology. One day I spilt tea on my camera, so I bought another one, getting something slightly better for more serious work. But I kept it light.

Clothing design and production is materially heavy—it involves a pretty big work area, with a fair bit of equipment, tools, and supplies. While I’d loved the work and the experience, I had a sense of the weight of it all. Now with that business behind me, I embraced everything that was light about digital photography—literally and figuratively. So, while I have a camera that shoots in RAW and has a lot of manual options—all important for pretty good print quality and shooting options—it’s still a point-and-shoot so it’s lightweight and quite small. I love the portability and freedom that comes with it. As they say, the best camera is the one you have with you.

Is there anything that particularly influences or inspires your work?

I’m very taken with forms of biography and personal narrative, particularly what I might characterize as the exploration of origins and exile. What tends to spark a new piece or a new series—lately anyways—often comes from my memories about growing up here, and from my deep desire to leave. (Origins and exile.)

I’m also really interested in the workings of experience—what composes our reality, what composes our feelings about what we experience, how perception is constructed, what feelings look like. I’m a big believer in the subjectivity of experience, and that’s what I explore and try to communicate through my work.

What advice would you give someone who wants to start photo art?

Follow your own sense of aesthetic and instinct. Learn about the technology, for sure, but concern yourself with your ideas more. Stay true to what you want to communicate, not to what’s pleasing to others, to what’s in style (and sure to pass). It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or intimidated or inadequate in the face of what’s fashionable, and before those who might seem more fortunate. But I believe it’s worth it to commit to hard work, integrity, and sincerity in one’s practice and process, and to stay on your own track. There’s more than enough coolness, compromise, and copycats out there. Let’s warm things up with earnestness and wholeheartedness. I believe the world needs this.

Keep learning, about all kinds of things, because exposure to new ideas, to new ways of seeing things and thinking about them, is hugely stimulating.

Find your tribe. We all know about the haters and the posers, but why put one’s self in that line of fire? Being connected in a community of like-minded and positive folks is not just fun, it’s healthy and good for production.

What are the biggest challenges for artists? How do you think we can overcome those challenges?

I think most artists are racked with doubt. Making art demands a lot exposure of one’s self. Whether your subject matter is personal or not, it still requires that you expose your way of seeing things and exposing to the public your technical prowess with your medium. Most other types of work don’t make such demands, and so most people operate in a more protected environment. Most artists, though, are also driven—they can’t not do what they do, and this is a great counter flow to the doubt. We just keep going. Getting with a good community of artists helps, and indeed getting with a good group of friends in general. Nothing permeates like love.

Earning a steady income is also a big issue as few us make a living at what we do. So there’s the need to strike a balance between the time it takes to do paid work, and making sure we have enough time and energy left over to work on our art practice. There’s no one pat answer that offers one solution. Artists are a creative bunch, and there are so many different ways that people make it work.

Where’s your favourite spot in Vancouver to set up a laptop and get shit done?

My home studio. I know myself well to know that I get too distracted in a café or other public space to really get much done. I also love my studio, and I love being at home, so it’s a fortuitous combination of circumstance and personality. And while I have a lot of my work on my computer in terms of files and software, I have fair bit of material in notebooks and archives that I may want to reference or to scan, so it makes sense to be in the studio where everything is at my fingertips.

That said, I also know that I need to pull myself out of the work so that I can get some perspective. I’ll often go to the park next door to exercise and to swing (there’s a children’s play park with a swing set) while I listen to music. There, at some remove, I always enter that abstract, problem-solving space in my mind where I get great insight and resolution around what I’m working on. Then I return to the laptop.

Can you share any resources you’ve found most helpful in your career?

I took a great Continuing Ed course at the Vancouver School Board when I hit my learning wall with Photoshop. It was more affordable there than elsewhere, and I learned a ton. (I took VSB classes in couture sewing when I had my clothing line and was happy with them too).

I really love Creative Live, the on air page offers free viewing for any course that’s airing when you happen to visit (it’s my browser homepage). The courses are otherwise fee-based, but very worth it too. I’ve bought four of them for Photoshop.

Lynda is also very good, and access is free through the Vancouver Public Library website if you have a library card and ID number.

And, of course, YouTube—the plethora of good instruction is amazing. Once waded through the search results, I subscribe to the channels where I find the instruction good and easy to understand; that way I don’t have to reinvent the wheel the next time I’m looking around for quick tutorials.

I spend a lot of time hunting around on social media for organizations and artists that jive with my interests within my photo practice. I find a ton of calls for submissions this way, occasionally information on funding, as well as tips and tricks of the trade. I also engage with like-minded artists in my effort to expand my network and connections on the ground.

What’s in the works for you right now?

I have two photobook projects on the go, both combining writing and images. One’s taking the lead over the other right now, and I really need to commit to just one of the two so I can actually complete each of them with the focus and thought they deserve. I have another couple of text-based books on the back burners, which is where they’re going to stay for a while because they aren’t as important to me to finish right now—I don’t consider them as central to my practice.

And, as ever, I have a suite of images at various stages of completion, either stand-alone pieces or series, most of which involve writing as well as the photographs themselves.

Lastly, I need to tend to my website. It’s built with Weebly, which is a great platform for a quick and easy start, but I need something more robust that I feel better supports, presents, and serves the content. This is a priority “to-do” that I keep putting off, and the procrastination has to stop.

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