I first became aware of Winnipeg artist Kenneth Lavallee through seeing his prints displayed at Parlour Coffee on Main street a few years ago. Featuring a pair of half-human half-owl figures that seemed to dance or commiserate with one another, the work was executed in a folksy yet elegant style that drew me in. Since then, I’ve become more familiar with Lavallee’s ouvre, admiring the sweet draftsmanship of his line and the richly harmonic colour palette that he bathes his paintings, murals, prints and graphic design work in. Though he always seems relaxed and at ease, he’s been busy with commissions since having a solo exhibition at the Kelowna Art Gallery in April of 2014. As of late, he has captured the imagination of Winnipeggers with his proposal to enrobe an entire run down building on north Main Street in a bold star blanket-like mural. I visited Lavallee at his studio in Winnipeg’s Exchange District recently, and had a chance to talk with him about his approach to art and catch a glimpse of his new work in progress.
BB: What makes you a good painter?
KL: I don’t know if I am a good painter, but I have ideas as an artist that are best done through painting. Like this latest Main Street idea, I’ve always been dreaming and envisioning things that could be, you know, I want my city to shine and look good. I don’t know if I could trust someone else to do it, so I’ve just got to figure things out and do it trial by fire. I think that’s what I’ve been doing the last little while as an artist.
BB: How do know when a painting is working then? How do you judge it?
KL: I’ve had these canvases for a month now, they’re all primed up. This is my favorite part of the creative process, this blank slate, picturing all these different possibilities. But then, there comes a point where just you have to put the brush to it, you know, time to go. Once I start making marks it feels good, and something happens. Making decisions and having to just go with it, and trust yourself. But the thing is, I’ve found that if I stop and take a break from it, maybe come back to it a week later, some of the magic can be gone. You’ve got to keep on it sometimes. I’ve had some past work that just kind of dragged on, became like a chore almost. The spark was gone. But, then sometimes if you sit on it and leave for a while, a month or two months, that spark can come back! I’m looking at some of these ones over here and I’m not over them yet, but I’m not ready to go back. There’s still something there.
BB: Do you like working on multiple pieces at the same time?
KL: Yes! That’s the best part about a studio. That’s all I wanted. Before this I just worked in my bedroom, on one piece at a time start to finish. It’s hard to develop that way I think, just one thing at a time. To have the space and lay everything out, and see so much at once is good. I want to build up a body of work rather than working with commissions and one-offs. It’s much more exciting and fun to work on things where you don’t know where they’re going, and work on a bunch of things at once.
BB: Is it important for you to show in galleries; is it part of your strategy?
KL: The Kelowna thing (his solo exhibition “Man and Nature” at the Kelowna Art Gallery in 2014, curated by Jenny Western), that was cool, super important for sure. But I haven’t had too much luck with galleries. That was a big break. Every other gallery I’ve shown at has been a friend’s vacant warehouse, just some walls. And just friends would come over, not really clientele. But, I want to have another show this summer, and I think I’ll just do it here, just clear it out you know? I have a gallery here! It’s nice to get those legit gallery fees though! I’ll have my retrospective at the WAG, but just keep hustling on Selkirk and Main street.
The Bush, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.8 cm) Featured in the Lavallee’s exhibition at the Kelowna Art Gallery in 2014.
BB: You’ve done murals and paintings on buildings. Is there some relationship between painting and architecture that you’re interested in?
KL: Downtown Winnipeg is funny, you know, it’s been compared to a mouth with a bunch of teeth missing, right? All these things we’ve torn down and we’re left with these giant, beautiful blank canvases that are just begging for something! Who wants to stare at a giant wall of just dirty bricks? They get the most beautiful sunlight and we could add so much! I’m just trying to work around Winnipeg, fill in the cracks. I’ll walk around for three hours some days like, I want that wall, and that wall, and that wall… I have plans for sure. But, I don’t want to paint on historical heritage buildings. It started with Deer & Almond, with a crumby cinderblock wall. I was like, let me just throw some paint up there! Even that was tough though, with the owner, who thought it was good as is.
Solar System (2013) Outdoor mural commissioned by deer + almond
restaurant for Nuit Blanche 2013.
BB: People are hesitant?
KL: So hesitant! In the exchange anyway, they want to preserve it for the film industry. But, you can’t live in the past, a hundred years ago, forever. There comes a point where you have to move on, life is for the living! A hundred years ago they used to paint on the walls, now we’re just watching it crumble. Why can’t we just keep painting on the walls and have it for another hundred years?
BB: Hard edge and colour seem to be major aspects of your style, is that accurate? What other elements inform your work?
KL: Hard edge and colour are pretty accurate. I think right after high school my goal for post secondary was to study graphic design. I’ve always loved good design, good clean design. I think my favorite book is that Book of American Trademarks. It’s a bunch of super clean logos, so beautiful you know, black and white. I’ve always had a huge interest in well-designed things. I learned Photoshop at a young age, I designed my own websites…
BB: So a big part of painting for you is the design?
KL: Oh for sure, and murals, designing a cityscape. I got called out a lot in art school for my paintings. During crits not much would be said, or that the paintings just looked like graphic design. They’d dismiss it as just graphic design, or something lesser. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know.
BB: What are the challenges of working as a full time painter? It’s a pretty romantic job but what are the…
KL: The realities? Uh, having no money ever! Sacrificing all fun, going out, eating out, even paying rent. Not everyone could do it I don’t think. And it’s like, what am I doing? There is a lot of doubt when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, but when you’re at your lowest good gigs come, or something sells. So, it’s a rocky road, but I know I’m going to a good place. You’ve got to do your time. I’ve got this beautiful view of all these old buildings, this nice roof top where I can sketch in the sun at the foot of the TD building where everyone’s in suits, and board meetings. I like that! That is super romantic. I’m a millionaire for how happy and content I am with my days, I’m my own boss. I get to explore my brain and my skill and people respond well so it’s nice.
BB: How is your style evolving? What connects your new body of work?
KL: I can for sure see the journey. Ever since the Kelowna show, I’ve had to think about why or what I make art about and what am I doing. And I’ve realized that a lot of it has to do with just where I am, my environment. So I’m still painting these plants in my bedroom, or the flowers at Natalie’s place, just things I see. It’s all still a journal of my life right now, snapshots. It’s all I know.