whitehot | January 2009, Erik Volet Interview
Old World Soul
Kevin Nelson interviews Erik Volet
We all draw inspiration from somewhere – from the books we read, the art we enjoy, our daily lives or our childhood memories. In Victoria, BC-based artist Erik Volet's case, he draws from a deep well of European influences that mingle with the ghosts of graffiti past and North American independent comic books. He seems to have tapped into a distinctly bastardized old world style, evoking the roots and dirt of the "old countries" but updating it with a wry, comic twist. Through his depictions of of distressed harlequins, wise fairies and masked figures, he's simultaneously channeling Picasso, Julie Doucet and Pinnochio all at once. Working primarily in oils but also in pen and ink and graffiti, Volet's work features characters with skewed proportions that are a mix of supple, graceful limbs and glandular disfigurement, a sort of distorted, child-like impression. I sat down with him recently to discuss his paintings, as well as "Saturnalia" (Anteism, 2007), a recently published collection of his pen and ink drawings.
Kevin Nelson: When did you first get interested in art?
Erik Volet: I've been drawing since I was two. I guess everyone draws around that time, but I stuck with it. I took art lessons in grade 4. Eventually I started painting on canvas when I was 16.
KN: What are your feelings on artistic training vs. development without guidance?
EV: I'm usually inclined to support just doing it yourself, but at the same time, I've done a lot of training, so I think it's pretty necessary and helpful to know the basics, like life drawing and some of the classical stuff.
KN: The reason I ask is that a lot of your work, specifically your colour schemes, reminds me of fauvism, and some of your subject matter tends toward turn of the last century European artists.
EV: Definitely. As a kid I was really into Van Gogh and Picasso and I still am, so I think it probably marked me a lot.
KN: It's interesting that you mention Picasso, because in his Rose Period –
EV: Yeah, that's my favourite.
KN: And it shows. A lot of your subject matter is similar. He had his harlequins and you have your clowns. Do you design colour schemes for your paintings, or does it flow naturally?
EV: I don't tend to plan it too much.
KN: Do you work with set colour schemes, like in a series of paintings?
EV: Not intentionally, but groupings do crop up. To some degree I tend to stay in a sequence, but I like to break out of the sequence too.
KN: You use a lot of primary colours in your work.
EV: There's a kind of children's book illustration thing going on in the drawings, and I think bright colours go with that aesthetic.
KN: You mostly paint in oils, but you've also done pen and ink drawings, like in your Saturnalia collection.
EV: Drawing is a constant, and painting is more like when I'm ready to go into a bigger work.
KN: For the collection, why did you choose those specific drawings out of what I can only assume is a much larger body of work?
EV: I always have a sketchbook going, and I've always wanted to put out a small book of drawings. Some of those pieces were taken from books that dated back to 1999, but most of the stuff was in the last five years. I got a little help from friends when choosing the drawings.
KN: Were they chosen to represent any theme?
EV: I think a theme runs through it, but I wanted to represent the broad, central themes that go through all of the sketch-books, rather than anything really specific.
KN: You've said before that you were influenced by Hans Fear, an early nineties Victoria graffiti artist and you do a little graffiti yourself. What attracts you to street art?
EV: I'm fairly sure that most of the early graffiti I saw was by Hans Fear, going back to Elementary school. I think I first became aware of knowing it was his work in Grade 7. I was skateboarding at the time, and that was the culture. I obviously liked art and I liked comic book art, and graffiti just attracted a lot of young people that were into art.
KN: You mentioned comics and I can definitely see some of that in your pen and ink drawings.
EV: The last comic I can really remember enjoying is Black Hole, but I also like Chester Brown's Louis Riel comic, Julie Doucet, Marc Bell and Jason McClean.
KN: Great! I love Charles Burns' style – he's immaculate! Which brings me to woodcuts. I was also going to mention "The Lovers" –
EV: It's not actually a wood cut, it's just adapted from a wood cut I found in a kid's book version of Jane Eyre. Some illustrator had done all of the plates in woodcuts and I was trying to imitate the style, but in a large format with india ink and charcoal.
KN: Have you done any other woodcut style pieces?
EV: I've had people say that some of the drawings remind them of woodcuts, because I like some old medieval stuff, German artists like Albrecht Durer. That style often looks a but like woodcut.
KN: Is it the hard, pristine lines that you like versus the application of painting?
EV: Yeah, that hard graphic line, for sure....
KN: When you're doing graffiti, you often tag the name "Pinocchio" or do a little doodle or him. Any significance there?
EV: I always have trouble answering that, but I've read the book and I guess I like its folkloric, fairy tale quality. Pinnochio is kind of the fool who gets into all sorts of scrapes but tends to get out of them too. I guess I'm just drawn to the tale.
KN: You have a lot of supernatural aspects to your work, but a lot of it is kind of an old-world aesthetic, like fairy tales. Specifically, I'd say "The Changeling" and "The Wandering Mystic" paintings. What draws you to that sort of subject matter?
EV: Symbolism. Also, attempts to communicate things that are beyond the usual, everyday reality. I'm drawn to that in literature and art.
KN: The bio in the Saturnalia book is mostly a jumble of ideas, but one little snippet reads "city becomes site of battle between various factions of witches and warlocks, descent and re-emergence with new strengths and gifts." That last part of the sentence sums up a lot of fairy tales and myths, and there is that feeling of "characters in distress" throughout the book.
EV: Characters in distress.... well, who isn't lately, y'know? I'm a very happy person, but many things can cause distress, and you know what those English teachers always told you in high school: no conflict, no story. The self, in conflict with himself and the outer world. I guess the whole descent and re-emergence thing came from things I've read on shamanism and a trauma of sorts that I experienced. One way of looking at it is that I went crazy. Another way of looking at it being that I was afforded entrance into a "visionary" state of perception that has remained to this day and has greatly affected me. It resembled a lot of accounts of shamanic initiation.
KN: I guess both shamans and artists offer a different societal role for people with different perspectives or maybe different levels of sensitivity. Maybe that's the "new gifts" part of the equation?
EV: That was sort of a buried reference for myself to the Nu-cha-nulth people's legend about children who were abducted by wolf spirits for a time. When they returned to the village, they possessed new abilities given to them by the wolf spirits. To me, that seemed the most poetic, most resonant accounts of shamanic initiation. At the same time, it was a return to sanity, to the village, to the community of life and of cooperation with others. Also, to the responsibility, in some sense, to guide and share.
KN: That seems to parallel the fairy tales about changelings in Europe. How does literature influence your work, not just fairy tales, but also fiction or non-fiction?
EV: I like folk tales, like Italo Calvino's book of Italian folktales and the Arabian Nights. Also I like ETA Hoffman, Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire's Flowers Of Evil, and I read a lot of French surrealist fiction. Alfred Jarry's Pataphysics, and his absurdism. Whatever there is to steal/absorb – it's always changing.
KN: What kind of art do you identify with?
EV: I like Arthur Rackham and the carnival drawings of Tieopolo, his sort of Punch and Judy drawings. There was also a kind of fairy-tale vibe that existed within the Victoria graffiti scene, and the underground comic stuff that a lot of kids that I would draw with had going on.
KN: Have you ever done a comic?
EV: No, but there's a drawing in the book that looks like it's trying to be one. It's not a big story, but there's a little red riding hood kind of girl that looks at a bird, goes for a walk, comes home and her mother seems to be saying "where have you been all day?" [laughs].
KN: What about your "Visions of Cody" drawing? There's a lot happening in there, almost like a comic panel.
EV: That was after my buddy and I went hitchhiking, actually, and his name is Cody. It's kind of a riff off the Kerouac novel of the same name. I drew it after we got back to Vancouver after being on the road for about 2 weeks.
KN: How far did you get?
EV: Not too far [laughs]. We got to Cranbrook BC, and we turned back because it started getting terrible for getting rides.
KN: Where were you headed?
EV: He was trying to get to Montreal to see his daughter.
KN: You were going in the wrong direction! [laughs]
EV: totally. [laughs]
KN: There's a hallucinatory aspect to your drawings, I find.
EV: I'm very influenced by the ideas of surrealism and psychedelic art in general. I like when it's not a totally determined, fixed idea. Like when we're dreaming, there's mash-ups of ideas. I like to try and leave it in that state, so the viewer can go off on it a little, rather than it having one meaning.
KN: Quite a few of your characters have exaggerated bodies with misshapen limbs.
EV: Exaggerated limbs, I dunno it just looks good sometimes. Maybe it adds to the distress, sometimes it just enhances other feelings and effects. Hans Bellmer, an artist I was into for a while, had this whole idea of a physical unconscious, sort of tech to get into here, but it's an idea of the body reflecting mind, particularly unconscious mind I suppose, as well as a re-arrangement of senses. He drew an ear behind or on a woman's hand, so touch became hearing and her feet are two lovers kissing and at the same time her genitals, that kind of thing. The body becomes allegorical or distorted according to the feelings or thoughts moving through it.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief