On Making Art and Being an Artist
Interview by Minzhi Wang (Business Manager) in collaboration with Tasia Shen (Graphic Designer)
This semester, Tasia and I are taking an advanced photography class about book-printing, which is delivered by the U of R Professor Evelyne Leblanc-Roberge. In early October, the Hartnett Gallery E-board members, along with the committee, came up with this idea of creating a campu-wide art newspaper. The name of Evelyne popped up in my mind when I knew there would be an interview section in the newspaper. After communicating with her via email for some time, she readily agreed to be our guest interviewee. On the morning of October 22nd, Tasia and I “sat down” with Professor Leblanc-Roberge to do the interview on Zoom.
“There’s not really one point that I can think of that I have decided that I wanted to be an artist. It was a gradual process.”
Working as an artist for over a decade, Evelyne has made it to worldwide exhibitions for both her independent projects and also collaborative pieces with other talented like-minded within the industry. We ask her about what has been the motivation throughout all these years. She tells us, “There’s not really one point that I can think of that I have decided that I wanted to be an artist. It was a gradual process.” But she also talks about how she showed artistic interest back in childhood. “When I was a kid, I changed my mind all the time on what I wanted to be, sometimes I didn’t know what I wanted to be, like many kids [chuckling]. But one thing that was coming back was drawing. I had a period where I wanted to be an architect. I was really interested in spaces and buildings and houses.I got discouraged by the mathematical skills that you need to be an architect so photography came into my radar.” Along the path, she’s done explorations and made decisions until she came to where she is today. “I decided to enroll in a technical commercial photography program. It was a three-year program. When I was done, I realized that I was not a business woman [chuckling]. I was not interested in becoming a commercial photographer. Almost half of your day is spent to find clients, to promote your work and I didn’t like that. I decided to continue school and enrolled in a Bachelor in Fine Arts in photography at Concordia University, where I could explore further photography as an art form, including animation and site-specific installation. After my BFA, I did an MFA in Electronic Art at Alfred University.” She also adds that she does not define herself as a photographer, instead it is the idea of an artist working with photography and objects in space and via different mediums that attracts her the most.
“If you think of art as a language, it’s a language that has not a lot of rules, that you can really make your own.”
Evelyne was born in a Francophone village in Quebec, Canada. “A small village,” she emphasizes while grinning. She speaks French and English, which are the two languages she uses alternatively for her works. We wonder how this bilingual background has influenced her creativity. “I guess I could answer [this question in] one way,” she says, “art is somewhat a language too, right? So knowing more than one language can be some sort of a window to develop this language of making art, of communicating. If you think of art as a language, it’s a language that has not a lot of rules, that you can really make it your own really. Maybe the privilege of knowing two languages helped me develop my art language quicker. I don’t know if that could be an influence. But I think having multiple experiences definitely feeds art-making.” She continues, “I didn’t really speak English until I was maybe 16 or 17 years old when I moved to Montreal, a bigger city. It’s not that big of a city, but for me it was really big. And then I traveled a lot. Maybe because I grew up in a small rural place, I was really fascinated by big cities. I went to Paris for the first time when I was 18 and it was very inspiring. And London. And then I spent time in China, too. I did my first art residency in Beijing in 2008 and one semester of my undergraduate studies in Hong Kong.. I am still fascinated by big urban cities where there are a lot of people and architecture.
“A question that was always lingering was how come in the city where we are piled up and we live so close to each other, we don’t really know each other; and then in the countryside and smaller villages, we live really far apart physically, but everyone knows everyone? I guess the question is not necessarily of speaking more than one language, but having the privilege to travel and to know more than one situation, living in the city or living in a small town. I think that these experiences helped me develop what my art would become and my voice as an artist.”
She is very fond of travels, where experiences and inspirations happen, and to her, doing residencies is the best way to serve this purpose—”doing art residencies for me is the best way to travel, the best way to be outside of my everyday life and learn about that space and create and make new things. It’s also a goodway to meet new people and network. And when you meet new people and create a network, it brings you to other places in the world. Residencies have been structures where I thrive and that allowed me to develop my art career. .” She thinks it is quite a pity that travel is made more unlikely because of the ongoing pandemic. A residency in Finland, had to be postponed given the current situation.
Considering the current situation with the pandemic, we ask her, during this time of change, what has been her coping strategy with art-making. “That’s a good question. I think a lot of artists are reinventing or struggling or rethinking their practice. I actually started that reflection before the pandemic started. I want to have a practice that is less grounded into material and large prints and objects and more mobile,” she says, “so for me, there are two ways to do it. One is books. I love books, as you know. I think a book is a wonderful exhibition space. You can send it. You can mail it. And as an audience, you can spend as much time as you want with the work. I really like the potentiality of a book as an exhibition space, so that’s one thing that I’ve been focusing on a little bit more on, because then you don’t need an exhibition space.” She tells us that film has also been another shift of focus for her. “I’m really interested in film, so I’m working on a film that will be for any type of screen, not necessarily for a specific space. Usually I would install video in a space in a very specific way, but now I want to break free from that and do something that is more self-contained and that people can watch on their computer screens. Or maybe go to a theater and watch it together in the room when that is possible again. Then I will not need that much set up, and it would be like everything will happen within the frame. But still experimental.”
“I like to work slow, so my projects sometimes take a few years to become something.”—Evelyne always finds working on long-term projects quite enjoyable. She also mentions, “For the Wall+Paper project, I was collaborating via mail with incarcerated artists and writers so it was a slow process. It took a lot of time for the letters to get to them and for their letters to come back to me. I knew when I started it that this would be slow andI was interested in that.” She gestures while explaining and further emphasizes her interest in long-term projects, beaming. She is currently working on a multimedia project about waiting rooms—Les Attentes, which means The Waiting in French. “I’m researching waiting for Les Attentes, which can intrinsically be long because it’s about time passing.” Were there times she was out of inspiration while in the midst of long-term projects? “Yes!” Evelyne answers with a shrieking voice in tangible agreement. “There were many times that I questioned—is it good? Or if I should continue it or if I need to take a break from it.”
She is also fascinated by “the ways in which attention (or lack thereof) leads to consequential (or subtle) shifts in perception at the level of the everyday”, described in her artist statement. Over the years, guided by her artistic explorations along the path, she has worked with installations for many projects, whether solo or collaborative. Then how does she think about installation arts? She pauses for a moment before answering, “To me, installation art would be something in the space that makes you see the rest of the space—like you will be surprised and you wonder, what is this thing? Why is it there?—because it’s not framed for you like, look there, this is art. It’s more just put there and installed, and you don’t have an official invitation to see it. So I like to hope that if you discover it, you’re going to start looking at the rest of the space, or the street, or maybe the walk you are taking. You will start looking at things a bit differently because you’ve been surprised or you wonder about that object or that art piece that you’ve seen, and then you’d look at the rest of the world with just a different attention, and maybe that’s a good thing. It triggers you to pay attention to different things.” Until today, she is still navigating using her artistic instincts and “paying attention” in her own way—”The question of how we relate to physical spaces and architecture is a question that I’m not done with and that I am still exploring it throughout my projects,” she tells us.
We also talk about inspirations and how to deal with documentation, both of which is very essential to art-making. She starts, “It’s always a challenge to document work, especially when it’s an installation created and designed for a very specific space, and that the experience of being in the space is part of the piece, so I’ve been trying different things. One of my professors in my MFA program told me something that stayed with me and I repeat it to my students, which is to try to document the work in the same spirit that the work was made.” She continues, “Because my work is sometimes very subtle, composed of small things that you will not necessarily notice at first sight or you would notice it and then be surprised that it’s not what you thought it was. I often decide to go in the space with a camera and navigate the space with the camera as if I’m a detective exploring. And now I like to think about it as the documentation being also an art piece, so then I can have more freedom and I can make it a self-contained short film, so it’s not as important to have seen the piece in person. If you see that short film, it’s another experience.”
She also shares, “Inspiration is a weird, strange thing.” But deadlines have been something quite useful to her, “And then there’s the deadline. If I’m invited to do an exhibition, then I really have to make something and that motivates me. If there’s a deadline then, I’m like, OK, now I have to make a decision and take actions.. Until you have a specific deadline, you’re kind of in a floating moment, there are a lot of things you want to do and you’re doing a lot of thinking. I never really know what it’s going to be until I actually start.. I take a lot of visual notes with my phone or other camera, and then I archive them in folders. Sometimes they [images] can stay dormant in that folder for a few years and I don’t use the image. And then it comes back in a project. But I don’t have a systematic way, it is different for each project.”
“It’s hard on the ego when you receive a rejection, but if you just switch the thinking to the idea that this is not rejection, just not a good match. That goes for everything you apply for. Show up for yourself.”
The interview lasts for only forty minutes instead of an hour as scheduled, because that’s the limit of time for a private meeting hosted by a free account. We skip several questions in the middle and rush to the last one to see if there’s any word Evelyne has for U of R students who intend to take a step into the art career. She gives quite a few of her suggestions. “Do not get discouraged by what we think of “rejection letters.” They’re not rejections—they are just not a good match. Keep applying. That was a big one that I had learned.
“It’s hard on the ego when you receive a rejection, but if you just switch the thinking to the idea that this is not rejection but just not a good match. That goes for everything you apply for. Showing up for yourself is a big one too.” She also adds, “Get started before you think that you know that you have the full idea. Starting something is the most difficult step. When you jump in, then things get a little easier, things start to define themselves.. Until you actually have started, you cannot really know if it’s going to work or not. Get started. And share. Find your community, and find people that are like-minded. I guess that’s also important and it’s not that easy.”
In the follow-up email that I sent to Evelyne to thank her for doing the interview with us, I asked for her answer to one of the questions that we weren’t able to get to during the interview— Besides being an artist, you have been teaching art courses as a professor at the University of Rochester since 2012. How do you balance your teaching career as a professor and the art career as an artist? Do these two roles complement each other in any way? Shortly after she wrote back to me:
Here is a response to your last questions:
Teaching feeds my art practice and vice versa. I approach teaching as a rhizomatic practice, and I wish to make learning a transparent, participative, flexible, and spontaneous experience — much like what I try to accomplish in my studio practice. I believe that students have much to learn from each other and that, as a teacher and an artist, I have much to learn from students. In my teaching, I aim not to ‘instruct,’ but to engage a conversation with the students and encourage them to play, take risks and experiment with the tools/media proposed.