‘It’s a big NOISY world, so I make small, quiet paintings’
Where are you from and how does this affect your work?
I was born and raised in a small Canadian praire town, Kamsack, Saskatchewan. I spent the first 6 years of my life on a farm and enjoyed the wildness and freedom of country living. The land and sky were large and I could roam at will. My approach to landscape painting is in part determined by the experience of that time. I always look far into the distance and enjoy that expanse; that sense of great distance is always experienced in life on the prairies; one can see for miles. When I was 6 years old we moved into town, but I always sought ways to leave the town limits to find and explore near-by wilderness on the banks of the Assiniboine River. In those early years I learned to love solitude…a necessary trait for an artist. I still love solitude.
Where do you live and how does this affect your work?
I now live on a beautiful rural acreage about a half hour north of Lake Ontario, in Southern Ontario, Canada. In the process of becoming an artist one tries all sorts of methods over the years. When I first moved out of Saskatchewan to my wife’s home town of Oshawa, Ontario, about 30 years ago, I despised the environment. Oshawa is and was primarily a car manufacturing city. The only way I could ‘make friends’ with the city was to walk for hours in all parts of the city and photograph every aspect of the urban environment. This resulted in a series of large acrylic canvases of industrial landscape. My earlier pieces were not landscapes, so this Oshawa period really did start my lifelong concern with landscape painting. After moving to the countryside in 1989, the rural landscape became my primary subject. It has now long been my practice to walk and document what I see on these country roads, hills, and fields. Every day there is a hike of an hour or two, during which I make small, quick scribbled drawings of my responses to place. I also take photos. This serves as reference for a painting that is made every day. I love this place. Although the character of the land is very different from my early home in Saskatchewan, it provides a similar sense of freedom and adventure.
What art education have you received?
During my high school years I studied art on my own and learned through books. I value those early years because they taught me the importance of being independent and relying on your own wits. At the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, I completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and painting. I then won a scholarship to study painting and printmaking at the Banff Centre for a year. This was a fascinating time because world-class artists from across North America arrived for 2 week sessions to instruct and critique; so much could be accomplished in a short time! That year was followed by two years earning a Master of Fine Arts in painting at the University of Calgary. I built a studio practice for a number of years after this, and then completed a Bachelor of Education at the University of Toronto. I then taught visual art for 26 years, while maintaining a studio practice at the same time.
Please can you tell us about your artistic practice?
I aim to make a painting a day. My work these days is on a small scale, usually not exceeding 11 x 15 inches. I have had a long love affair with paper; I sometimes work on small panels, but almost everything is completed on paper. My approach is diaristic. The paintings are from my life, what I see, or find important at the time. The landscape in some form or fashion is my most usual subject, but sometimes still-life or self portraits will also be made. Each work session lasts about 2-3 hours, and the picture is fully complete in that period. Sometimes, a few work sessions happen in one day. A hike also happens every day and material is collected in the form of drawings or photos. I make a number of different kinds of pictures and don’t necessarily try for a stylistic uniformity. In fact, diversity is sought to keep the entire process as fresh as possible. My aim really is to keep the process of picture making as continuous and exciting for myself as possible. If too much predictability enters the process, my excitement for the whole enterprise will diminish, so I try to build methods into my process that prevent this. Sometimes I make abstract collages that are based on an experience or memory. Sometimes I will start a work with collage, and paint over it in part. Sometimes I will paint the landscape from drawings, memory, or brief photo reference. Sometimes I will work exclusively from memory. Sometimes the work will be based on a specific experience, but will not be noticeably representational, or will appear semi-abstract. Finished drawings in pencil and India ink also form part of the output. Despite the relatively small scale of the work, there is much variety within those small sizes, and the paper and panel types vary as well. For the most part, I keep and sell everything I produce. I have a certain aesthetic regarding process and finish and I work at fever pitch to resolve each picture fully in one sitting. While there is much consistency in terms of subject, especially when dealing with the landscape, there is a large dose of variety in the whole enterprise that keeps the practice very exciting on a daily level. I am always happy to get to work each day.
Where do you see your work sitting in relation to figurative and abstract work?
I am a figurative artist for the most part. Almost everything I attempt starts with a visual experience. There is lots of looking at the world, and sorting, balancing, and juggling that data into something that feels real on the picture plane. But of course, the moment one makes a mark on the picture surface, the whole business is really about bringing abstract qualities into some sort of exciting equilibrium. Everything about picture making is based on abstract qualities that must be dealt with. The painting has a life of its own that is completely separate from subject matter; this essential fact is really what painting is about in large measure. But one starts with experience in life, visual or otherwise….the picture refers back to this essence.
What and whom are your influences?
I’ve had a number of good teachers, and I still often live their lessons in my work. But there is much to be said for being an autodidact as well. I have learned so much by looking at other artists, deconstructing what they’ve done, comparing one to the other, working through various visual problems, styles, and methods on my own. There was a period of a few years in my undergraduate time when I must have gone through each shelf and aisle on the visual arts floor of the library, taking an armload of books home each time. Those books were exciting and delightful…I couldn’t wait to spend hours with each one! It is in this way that I learned the field. University seminars and critiques had their place, but I learned a great deal on my own. I continue to revere much in the history of art, especially the periods from the early 1800s, through impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism, including many artists working in Paris up to 1960, certain Canadian highpoints in landscape painting such as David Milne, and much in American painting up to and including Abstract Expressionism, and some years beyond. My professors at the University of Saskatchewan were mostly post Abstract Expressionists, and those ideas are still very much at work in my paintings. To this day, looking at contemporary art on the internet is a daily influence, as well as a great pleasure.
Do you have any shows coming up?
I no longer show in fine art galleries. Rather, I prefer to list and sell everything I make on my 2 selling sites paintbox.etsy.com and www.harrystooshinoff.com . I love dealing directly with my buyers. I’m happy selling the work inexpensively as I am prolific, and the steady sales help keep me motivated to continually produce work. It is not unusual for me to make a work in the morning, list it in the afternoon, and ship it to the buyer in the next morning’s mail. I love this sort of direct feedback and exchange.
How do you juggle life and painting? Do you still teach?
I taught visual art courses in a beautiful private school, Trinity College School, in Port Hope, Ontario, for 26 years. I retired last year and have been enjoying concentrating exclusively on making paintings each day. It is wonderful having a mind less busy! I used to tell my students that one retires from all sorts of careers – surgeon, dentist, journalist, politician, teacher….but one never retires from being an artist. Teaching is no longer a financial necessity, but every so often, I will teach in workshop situations.
Do you have a place you are trying to move towards in your work?
Painting is at its best when it’s most inventive, most intuitive, most real, and made with great ease. How one achieves the ‘real’ is open to much debate, but I want the painting to call to mind an experienced reality in a similar way that a good novel can create a complete mental picture in the mind of the reader. I am not one who laments the stature of painting today. Painting is not dead. There are many terrific artists producing exciting work. But one only becomes exceptional at this art after years of practice and daily thought. My aim is to keep my excitement and energy for the daily tasks always high, and to keep working steadily. That’s how important work gets made.
In practical terms, how do you organise your life? What is a usual day for you?
When I was still teaching fulltime, it was challenging to get the time necessary to paint as well. The day was full of teaching tasks, but I always found ways to devote time to steady art making. I’d often drive into the country nearby on my lunch hours and make drawings for the painting that would happen later that night. And I often got home late because private school teachers do not dismiss at 3:30 p.m. like regular school board teachers. In my entire time as a painter, I needed to complete a painting in one sitting, even if it was a large canvas. One of the reasons I switched to smaller scale work was so that, as a teacher, I could find time to complete the painting each day. There were also a lot of other reasons why the small scale work was so satisfying, and now that I am retired from teaching, the small scale work continues, with no signs of letting up.
From my earliest days I was a night person, and I still prefer to be up for half the night. Work from the day before gets photographed, processed, and listed to my selling sites each morning. I also list everything I make to Facebook, which also helps to drive sales. I like to discuss the work on Facebook and exchange views with artists there. I also post work to my blog and make regular entries. The paintings and collages are small so packaging sales is not difficult. Daily drives to the post office are made. The landscape of this region is documented both during drives and on daily hikes. I will often drive to a new location, park the car, and set off on foot to draw and photograph. Sometimes, complete, fully resolved pencil landscape drawings are made from the front seat of my car. These take an hour or two. The daily painting usually gets made in early to late afternoon, from drawings or material gathered the day before. A daily hike of an hour or two usually takes place in late afternoon or early evening when the heat is less of a problem. I do try to mix up the timing of the walks so that some take place in very early morning as well. When the daily painting is complete, I spend a lot of time looking at it. A crop of recent work is showcased all over the house. In the evenings, when watching TV or a movie, or during gaps in the day, the weekly production is always on view and slowly digested. The close scrutiny of the work afterward has always been a great pleasure for me.
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