An Interview with Ariana Sauder

Canvas & Cassette: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and your experience with art?

Ariana Sauder: I was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, and went to the arts high school where I specialized in Visual Arts. At the end of school, there was basically no other choice for me, I was like, I’m just going to study art. So I went to Concordia, studied four years in Studio Art, and did a bunch of different stuff. I mostly focused on painting and drawing. I’d been doing mostly oil painting and recently transitioned into illustrative graphic work.

C&C: Was there something that prompted that change?

AS: I started doing a lot more graphic design work. I feel as an artist it can be tricky to navigate making your art something that’s accessible and interesting, and at the same time is truly what you want to make and something you’re passionate about. I found that with taking on commissions, you can end up in this weird in between where you’re sacrificing yourself or your creative process for somebody else’s specific need. Graphic design is a really good balance of the creative and more technical commercial work, that I find interesting but still feels separate from my creative personal work. So I started bringing out more illustrative graphic stuff that bridges the gap between my academic and commercial work, in a way that I’ve found people have responded to really well.

C&C: It’s interesting to see through your portfolio on your website and social media, that you’re really a Jack of all trades pursuing all sorts of media, like your clothing collaboration and oil portraits, things that are unexpected in some ways. Do you still work in all of those different medias now?

AS: It’s hard trying to choose because I find myself able to do a lot of different things. I love sewing and costuming, and I’ll always be making oil paintings. Visually they don’t all necessarily connect in an obvious way, but they’re all still different sides of me that come out. I haven’t found a way to weave it all together, but I’m just putting it all out there and trying to exercise creativity in as many ways as I can. The work on paper that I’ve been doing recently comes really naturally and easily to me, so I can produce a lot fairly quickly, and it leaves me more time to work on other things as well.

C&C: When creating commissioned work, how do you make sure you’re not losing yourself in other projects and still making art for yourself?

AS: That’s sort of the point of the aesthetic I’ve been putting forward more, specifically on social media—something that I like visually, aesthetically, and I find interesting, and developing a style that people might know to come to me for. So if someone comes to me with a project it’s usually that they’re interested in the style that I’m already doing, even though I’m probably able to do whatever it is they want. It’s more like meeting in the middle and there’s an established idea, that I don’t have to bend too much or sacrifice too much for.

C&C: We discovered your work over the summer at Genuine Montréal and immediately fell in love. What really stood out was the relationship with color. How has your style with color developed? In the work you’ve posted, there are blues and pinks moving into oranges and right now it’s red, we’re interested to hear about that process and how you approach color.

AS: I’ve always used a lot of color in my work, even in my oil painting. I honestly don’t know why, I just like color, and in a lot of other aspects of my life it’s all black (laughs). All my clothes are black, all my stuff at home is white, but my creative stuff has always been fairly colorful. I couldn’t get away from the blue and pink combo, it just looks so good. I bought gouache for the first time last spring, and I’d been previously using watercolor in the same color palette. I specifically bought a range of colors—cadmium red, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue and white. Just the combinations there, I tried to limit myself, one because buying a whole rainbow of gouache is pretty expensive, but it also provides a nice challenge. No matter what you’re painting, it will just sort of fit with something else, you know?

C&C: Taking into account the different media and color that you’re using in your work, do you find that you use a similar process in terms of sketching and producing?

AS: With my oil painting, it’s always been non-found imagery and very intentional. I’ll take a photograph and work from that to create the painting. With the work on paper it’s more of a freeform, sometimes I’m working from photo reference but it’s been more imagined. I don’t do a lot of sketching for them, I’ll maybe do one free sketch but then I’ll go into freehand, so they end up growing and developing on their own in ways that the oil paintings don’t. I mean, they do their own thing, but there’s more of a plan with them, and this is more, “figure it out as I go along.” I think it relates to the graphic design work of adding an element, being able to switch it around, change colors and stuff. A lot of the gouache drawings that I’ve been doing have been with the intention of digitizing them so I don’t feel like what I put on the page can’t be altered later, it’s a little more mutable which I’m finding really interesting.

C&C: Thinking about your process for both, is there a specific listening style that you have, certain bands you always listen to? Does it change with each product you’re creating?

AS: It depends on the mood. I listen to so much. One thing about music and creating visual work is that I find them inextricably tied afterwards. Like if I’m working on a painting that’s a longer project and I do it in several sittings, when I come back to it later and am painting some specific part, immediately what I was listening to before comes through for me. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and audio books, not that I don’t listen to music at all, I do, but it’s a good balance I think. To have someone talk at you, learn and think while you do something a little more automatic while you’re working, your brain can multitask and I really like that.

The other thing I’ve gotten into recently is turning on the radio or listening to tapes. I have a radio in my studio now and it has a tape cassette in it. My mom’s best friend lived in Australia, and he would send me all these mixed tapes growing up, so when the Spice Girls were a thing he sent me a “Spice Grrrls.” mix. He sent me one that’s all women, one that’s all men, they’re such good tapes. I don’t have a cassette player at home so my studio is the only place I can listen to them still.

C&C: What’s your studio space like?

AS: I just moved to a new space last month, but previously I just had—well, it was a room in this kind of decrepit building (laughs). But it was nice, a big open space, wall of windows sort of vibe, and I would just go and make my mess, sit there and do my thing. But in classic Montréal style, there’s no real lease, and that sort of fell apart recently because the state of the building got very bad. Conveniently it’s in the back half of the building which has a much more established system for artists, so I was able to move up into the front, and it’s a really nice space. It’s on the top floor, so you can see the mountain. It’s also a shared space, so it’s nice to actually have people around to talk to and share with, whereas I was so isolated in my old space.

C&C: How would you describe the creative community here in Montréal?

AS: There’s a lot of stuff going on. A lot of self-propelled stuff, but there are so many things that are happening that you can be a part of. It took me a while to learn that sitting around assuming people are going to learn that you’re doing something without telling them that you’re doing something is kind of a fool’s errand. There’s a great community here, it’s such a great place to live as an artist because it’s not expensive. It’s absurd as far as major cultural cities go to be able to live so cheaply and to afford a studio space. It works really well for a lot of people, I find. It really fosters creativity.

C&C: Do you have any advice for illustrators coming into the scene, what they can do to get their work out there in Montréal?

AS: There are a lot of markets and stuff like that, there’s just so much going on. The digital platform is invaluable, it’s been really helpful for me, just to use it actively and it’s a really great way to find other people that are doing great things. Not just to share your own stuff but to meet people that you’re interested in, it’s an incredible networking tool. There are plenty of opportunities through that to set up shows, or communicate with boutiques or galleries. My advice would be to put yourself out there in as many ways as you can.

C&C: Talking about collaborations, what have been some of your most favorite collaborations, and how have they come about?

AS: I have a clothing line with my friend Tim Messier, he’s a Swiss-Canadian artist. We collaborate on patterns that he prints on textiles, then I sew them. It’s nice to be able to learn through other people’s skills, like I don’t know how to do screen printing, but there’s Tim, it’s just one more potential project.

C&C: Are there certain things moving forward that you’re looking to return to, for example, with the clothing? Or, maybe you’re doing all of these things at once (laughs).

AS: I’m hoping to improve my graphic design skills and get better at that. I took a course last year at Concordia and it made a huge difference for me, blew it wide open. Graphic design has been so enjoyable for me. It’s fun and creative and feels like a puzzle. Trying to figure out design problems and solve them, that feels so satisfying, and is really exciting to me. But I don’t want to devote all of my time just to that. I want to keep improving my painting as well. I’m open to all sorts of different media, but trying to streamline it a bit, I guess, moving forward to make more of a career with the design work. It’s fun, but it also... pays money (laughs). Paintings are harder to sell.

C&C: In looking at your oil paintings there are a lot of portraits, so there seems to be a real sense of gesture, that in a lot of ways is related to the works on paper that you tend to share with your online community. Is that something that you’re conscious of?

AS: For so long, it’s been about people for me. It’s really unusual that I’ll do a work that doesn’t have a human presence in it. Portraiture and building up a character is really interesting to me, and how that’s translated to my more recent drawing work has been women and flowers and plants, it’s just always what my brain thinks to do. It’s sort of automatic and subconscious, when I’m drawing it reveals itself as another nude lady and a bunch of plants (laughs).

C&C: In your oil portraiture and in the works you’re doing now, are those characters based on anybody that you know?

AS: The portraiture, specifically oil paintings, are always people I know. A lot of it ends up being myself, sometimes I just can’t get it together to take a good photo so I end up using myself because I’m available (laughs). The gouache stuff is a little bit more invented but I have a running list—I’m trying to be better when I get an idea for something, whether it’s a visual idea or a more abstract concept, to take note of it so when I get to my studio, I can refer to it. It’s a little more vague, and then it develops, but it’s still inspired by moments with people. So there are still personal stories involved.

C&C: With the illustration work, even though you’re primarily drawing abstract women, it’s a very inclusive portrayal of women, in that there are women of different body types. Is that something that is conscious for you when you’re making them?

AS: Yeah, for sure. It just feels natural to me to make the bodies feel real to a degree, even though they are stylized versions of them. Representation, I find, is really important and just trying to show a bit of diversity in that, I know it’s still probably limited and could always be better, but putting those kinds of bodies out there in any way possible, and celebrating them is really important to me.

C&C: I don’t want to attribute something to your work that you don’t feel about it yourself, but seeing the women in nature that you create with your works on paper—there is a sense of empowerment.

AS: For sure. I feel like I’m seeing that a lot in the community. Specifically at my other job, I work at a series of vintage and design stores. Annex Vintage is one of them, it’s a really great community of artists that they’re stocking there—Kaye Blegvad, Ness Lee, Kristina Micotti to name a few—I’ve been communicating with them a lot and it’s a consistent theme that really resonates with people of our generation and creative community, to put out powerful imagery and messages of self-appreciation and self-esteem.

C&C: When you first started sharing your work, did you have any reservations? If so, how did you get over that, letting it live in the world?

AS: The whole building of your brand on social media, it’s important but also sort of a tricky idea. You’re more than a brand, you’re a person. But I just figured it was about time and there’s potential there so I just started sharing it all as unreservedly as possible. The fact that I’m able to do these reasonably quickly and put out more helps with that, too, because it does motivate me.

C&C: From that, how do you tend to deal with moments of creative block?

AS: Sometimes you just have to stop and do something else. Some days it’s just not working, and it sucks, but eventually something will come along. Going and looking at other people’s work, not necessarily stuff that’s remotely like what you do—go see a music show, go see an art show, go see whatever—that never fails to make me want to get back in the studio. Inspiration comes from all sorts of weird places you wouldn’t expect it. So I try not to do the same thing all of the time with all of my days, I always try to diversify that.

C&C: What was your relationship with art when you were a kid?

AS: My parents were very supportive of my sister and I doing creative stuff. I think one of my caregivers was like, “oh she’s so creative!” to my mom and she was like, “great! I’ll just buy her a set of paints and she’ll be fine.” I’ve just always been making stuff. My sister is an actress, she lives in Toronto and she’s doing theater, so I was always doing the costumes and posters for her plays. She’s got all the ambition and drive that I dream of, she’s so good at what she does, but that’s what you need to live in Toronto. Montréal speed is a little bit different. The hustle is a different kind of hustle.

C&C: You mentioned that you use oil, watercolor, and gouache. What other materials do you like using?

AS: I’ve gone through different phases. I worked with pastels and charcoal for a bit, and pencil, which I haven’t been doing as much dry media anymore. I think, part of it is, the color of paints, the power of the pigments are so strong so that’s what draws me to it. Then sewing and working in costume design is sort of separate but I like it too. What else do I do? Probably a million things... I used to do a lot of ceramics. I haven’t in years, I’ve been thinking of getting back into that, but I don’t really need more stuff, you know? It’s too much already.

C&C: Would you say you have a personal philosophy towards your work?

AS: Somebody told me once that the thing you should be doing with your life, the way to make yourself happy, is to take what your brain is constantly doing on it’s own when it’s not supposed to be doing anything else, and make that your job, or spend as much time as you possibly can satisfying that need. I try not to limit myself, which is why that ends up being lots of different things for me, because it’s hard to focus (laughs). So I guess it’s just an inherent need to get the aesthetic and ideas I have in my head out there, whether or not I can describe it well, or in words, or writing. To communicate my ideas visually somehow, in whatever form they end up taking.

- Autumn Fox and Marissa Passi