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Interview with Tess Martens

* Originally published in Culture Fancier

I sat down to have an interview with Pete Smith, a past instructor of mine at the University of Guelph. We discussed his experience for his NOANOA Residency Project (at St. Johnsbury Academy, Jeju Island, Republic of Korea). This interview will include images from Pete’s Instagram and website:

Martens: How are you?

Smith: I am good! You just finished your Master’s yeah?

M: Yeah.

S: Congratulations. 

M: Thank you! So you just went on a Residency?

S: Yeah. I was there for 25 days and did three weeks of work for them. They wanted a whole month but I could not work that with my teaching schedule. I still had spring classes. But was pretty great.

M: And you went with your son?

S: Yeah, that was really the point of going for me. It was a project at an international school. Grade school and high school. A private school there. It was almost more of a teaching residency. The primary difference for me was that I was teaching about me and what I do. To introduce them to what I do and take them through projects that related to my work. Principally, it was a cool opportunity but as a dad, I don’t do many international residencies because I do not want to be away from my family. The opportunity to bring one of my sons was pretty special. My oldest son, however, did not want to go. He said, “I don’t want to go to school in a weird country.” He was very adamant about it so I did not make him go. They paid for my flight and my accomodation. They gave us my apartment and our meals. They had a buffet and I gained ten pounds. (Laughs) Ollie got to go to school there. Principally, the reason I went was to give that opportunity to my son. You know being an artist is not always the most stable profession but cool things come up sometimes. It was a cool thing to do with him and do together. They’ve invited me back for next year. Maybe I would go for more money because I wouldn’t go again with only half my family. I have three sons and a wife and it was a long time to be away from the rest of them. If they footed it for all of us, maybe we would go. My eleven year old is still adamant about going to school in a weird country. But if we all went, who knows?

M: He may change his mind in a year. 

S: Yeah maybe. He is at the dawn of puberty and there is this going into grade 6 thing and starting to become more conscious of social relationships. Kids are starting to become more mean. I don’t know if that is likely to improve. The art teacher there in Korea was my T.A. from my very first year teaching post secondary at Western. I guess I did teach undergrads at Guelph, but first real full pro job was at Western. The first year class there is a full year course, and they give you an undergraduate teaching assistant. Mostly they’re kids that want experience trying to apply to teacher’s college. Basically that’s what Kristine was, and I’d been a high school teacher before I went to grad school and started teaching university. So I worked with her that year, and now she’s has been teaching internationally since 2010, I think. The administration at her school there thought it would be really cool to start an artist and residency program, and she thought it would be fun for me to be their first artist. 

M: They sought you out?

S: Yes. At this point it is not an application process and for the future, it may continue to be a word of mouth/invitation thing. I think she is just going to pick people. A lot of residencies, you actually have to pay for. So this was a pretty good gig to get paid for. From a shear dollars perspective, I maybe could of made more with spring courses at U of T or something. But with the perks it was pretty great. Once in a lifetime, really.

M: Where did you stay exactly?

S: On campus. We had a two bedroom apartment in a residence there. Most of the faculty live on campus and the students after grade six do as well. Sort of grade 7 through high school is a boarding school for them. There is a bit of a culture of this there. I thought it would be weirder than it was. It was actually really great. The students and the community there were really good.

M: You did a lot of Watercolour paintings.

S: I did! I made a whole book work of them. The watercolours, I posted a lot of them to Instagram because people tend not to want to read your full, elaborate text. But it’s a big journal travel log. Artistically, I really got into watercolours and some collage. But I hadn’t done watercolours since high school. Really, I hadn’t really done it since. I didn’t even bring oil paint with me because I wasn’t sure how it would go with the plane. I thought I would just buy some there. But it took me a week to get to an actual art store. So I’d bought a couple of watercolour kits and a sketchbook, and I got started working that way. It was nice too, although I had a nice studio space in the school, it was nice to work at the kitchen table also. We didn’t have a TV and even when we did in a hotel, we didn’t understand what was on it anyways. (Although: pingpong. Lots of pingpong.) It was nice sitting at the kitchen table doing these little watercolour drawings and they were super quick. A couple hours - an hour and a half maybe two hours, were the max for them as opposed to an oil painting which takes a good bit longer. I felt like I covered more ground this way because I didn’t get access to a printer even in that first week. I just  would take a picture, generally post in on Instagram for 20 minutes so that I get it on my laptops desktop and paint it from my laptop. My joke is that this is 21st century plein air. One of the reasons for the square format  of the watercolours is because of Instagram.  But I was very interested in the historicial relationship between watercolour and travel. Part of the great tradition of English watercolour was that people of certain social class would do this “grand tour” of Europe and make watercolour paintings along the way. Not just artists. Everybody. Watercolour, as we know it today, was invented by the Reeves brothers, and the Reeves company is still around and still make it. One of my watercolour kits actually was a Reeves kit. Also there was a connection for me to all the explorers  that would have a watercolourist on board to make pictures of the the things they’d see. But for me, my biggest reference as an art historical model was Paul Gauguin's Work in Tahiti. He made a travel book called Noanoa. 

So that is what I called my show. I read his book while I was doing the residency. There is obviously no actual relationship between Tahiti and Jeju Island where I was. But when I looked up pictures of Jeju Island on the internet it reminded me of his paintings from Tahiti because of the colours. I found that an interesting enough of a connection. The real question for me was: how do you go somewhere to make art that is somewhat critical when you are in a new, exciting place? You don’t want to make totally tourist paintings. You know? Gauguin’s book gave me something to do and think about and my  journals become a sort of stream of consciousness research/flanneury. I think of myself as a flanneur primarily. I think a lot about Walter Benjamin’s Arcade project, which is a wonderful piece of flaneury, as a model for how I approach aesthetic research. Anyways, I found Gauguin’s book to be an interesting work to read around context of contemporary conversations around colonialism and postcolonialism. It seems very in this moment. Even, I hate to say it, but with #metoo. These conversations seem to have been going on forever in academia, but they have become very prominent in the public discourse right now and I think that is super important. So I thought it was interesting to read this book in this moment. This is a first hand account of a white guy going to Tahiti in the late 19thcentury. It was such very “colonial thing” to do at that time, and this period sees the rise of “orientalism”. Certainly impressionism was inspired by a lot of the “exotic” art that came out of Japan, the Pacific and the East. So it was interesting to read this first person perspective of this European Colonial visiting that part of the world, especially someone who thought of themselves as a Bohemian operating outside of the conventionality of where he was from. Gauguin really despises Europe and he is going to Tahiti because of this. Reading it was very interesting. Just how difficult it is for someone to actually see outside their own frames of the world. I have no doubt that people will look back on us and our time like this too. I certainly try to see thje world outside the frames I was born into. But it’s so hard. I hate the expression “woke”. Really, I cringe when anything is reduced to a hashtag. But I also understand that it’s important within a popular conversation that needs to happen, and these hashtag social movements are making that happen. For me, I just try not to be an asshole. That’s basically all I try to do. But even that is super hard because we’ve been raised in a world that behaves a certain way, and has given us a skewed lens to see that world. I have no doubt that I am screwing some shit up in my goal of trying to not be an asshole. But the effort is there! (Laughs) Basically, there were a lot of reasons why I tried to make sense of all these ideas in a very tangential way. I think the best part about being an artist is that you can follow all of these tangents in your thinking and you don’t have to necessarily have perfect or sequential logic to things. A spiraling sense of a hop, skip and a jump can produce very interesting work. I like the work that I produced on Jeju. I learned a lot about that culture and a lot more than what I knew before I went to Korea and the East. I’ve always been a pretty Western culture focused guy with  that history. But I was so totally immersed in this other place, even if it was for just a short amount of time. Although, twenty-five days going in felt like a long time. It’s really not very long. But it is the longest time that I haven’t been with my wife the eighteen years that I have been with her. But to go to such a wildly different place, it also felt very quick and pretty condensed. We saw so many things in such a short period of time. We went to Japan for a weekend even though it was not part of the residency. For under a thousand dollars we could go over there from Korea for two days and that included our hotel. When is that opportunity ever going to happen again? I learned that the dynamic between Korea and Japan is very complicated. Historically, they don’t like each other so much. But it was super neat to get some experience with that place too. A little bit of Osoka and a little bit of Kyoto. It was fun!

M: Do you have a favourite part of the trip?
 S: I don’t know. It feels now like this weird dream that I woke up from where I went to a parallel universe for a little while. It is definitely the most different place that I have ever been to compared to Europe and other places that I have been to. I’ve been to Portugal before. Although I don’t speak Portugese, I DO know the alphabet. In Korea and Japan, I don’t even understand that. It was really weird to be immersed in something so complex where you understand absolutely nothing. I don’t know what my favourite part would be. I guess my favourite part would be the art show with my son. I just saw so many things and it would be hard to prioritize one amazing thing over another. On a personal level, the exhibition of work that my son and I put together was pretty fun and special. I have had so many shows at this point, but to do that with him was pretty great. He made so many things when we were there, and we put them together in our show. I consider that show to be a collaboration with him. He was so proud of himself, so happy and it was very profound for me to do that with him. 

M: Does he want to be a practicing artist?

S: I don’t think so. I don’t know. He doesn’t know. He plays bass. He says he is going to be a bass guitarist and an artist. But he can be a corporate banker. Whatever. He doesn’t necessarily like making things like I liked making things at his age. I encouraged him to journal and if he did a good  job that he could put it in the art show with me. First week, he didn’t do anything but the last week, he was just going nuts. And all he wanted to do was make art.  He was really excited to do that show. He really got into the idea of doing it. It wasn’t forced upon him and he was really inspired. 

M: Did anyone want to buy any of his pieces?

S: (Laughs) It wasn’t really that kind of a thing. We didn’t sell mine either. We didn’t put up prices.  It was more of an installation sort of display. We put one of his paintings up here in the house. He made this great painting about global warming. His book work is pretty great too. His journal is going to be soemthing for him  to look back on when he is an old man, showing his kids this thing, and who he was when he was nine. One of the neat things about the trip for me was that it was always mediated for me by being with a nine year old boy. Like. We were in this 9th century temple. It is the oldest thing in my adult life that I have ever been inside of. He’s like: “This is cool, but when are we going to the toy store?”. Everything we did like that he wanted to get though really quickly so we could go to the next toy store. Just pretend you’re like thirty for the next ten minutes so that we can get through this line up.