Whitehot Magazine

February 2008, Royal Art Lodge Interview

  The Royal Art Lodge, Everything, 2008, mixed media, courtesy of The Royal Art Lodge

Magic Children: The Fantastical World Of The Royal Art Lodge
Kevin Nelson interviews Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber

The Royal Art Lodge is a Winnipeg institution. Over the past decade, this collection of young artists have been an anchor of the local scene, showing around the city, the continent and the world, with notable shows in New York and London. Despite their success, two-thirds of the group still call Winnipeg their home. Just as the city is "the gateway to the west" for all Canadian highway and rail traffic, all pop culture touchstones pass through the group's collective unconscious and filter into their paintings. Under all the layers of collage, text and paint is an assembled world that is mysterious and steeped in weirdness, a place inhabited by ghosts, wise animals, precocious children and other assorted curiosities. In an Art Lodge painting, penguins give advice, trees drip words, octopi float through the air and children tap into supernatural communiques. Powered by the subconscious and mixing elements of surrealism, magic realism and children's books, the Lodge's subject matter and crafty style might give the appearance of naivety, but there are layers of sophistication and meaning to be unraveled.

I recently caught up with two of the three members (Marcel Dzama lives in New York) during their weekly meeting to ask them a barrage of questions concerning their methods and intent. While I spoke to Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber separately, the interviews have been edited together for continuity and coherence.

I was first introduced to you through a Broken Pencil article in 2002. At the time you had six members, and now you're down to three. What happened there?

Neil Farber- They left, maybe three or four years ago.

Was it amicable?

NF- Yeah, it was OK. People have left before. [An art group] is a weird thing to be in anyways... it's not so strange if it doesn't work out. People move or just want to do other things with their time.

So, how did you all begin collaborating?

Michael Dumontier-
People tell it different ways. Basically we were a group of friends, all students at the University of Manitoba. Some people knew each other and were collaborating already in different combinations. I had done some casual collaborations with John Pylypchuk and Adrian Williams, and Drue and I were collaborating. Neil and Marcel were collaborating for a long time before that. We were all doing similar work and became friends through that recognition. At one point, we picked a day to get together, to see what happened – we didn't have a clear idea of what the result would be. Somebody had a key to one of the university buildings, so we'd meet after-hours when nobody was around. At the first meeting, we just had scrap paper and supplies, and we decided to all start drawing. Once you were done something, you left it on the table for people to add to, if they could. These drawings were a mess, but they got passed around. A lot of the work wasn't meant to be shown to other people, it was just how we occupied ourselves on that evening, spending time together. It was very casual. At first it didn't seem so much about making art, it was more like establishing a time to spend together. We named the group The Royal Art Lodge, kind of in jest. It's eleven years later and we're still using the name!

I like what you said about having an established time to hang out and exchange ideas. It's almost like you're in a band.

MD- Once we got a proper studio space – which we still have after ten years – it changed how we worked quite a bit. People would come in and out of the studio freely and it was less about an established time. If people were there, they would work together. We would make videos or music – it was a lot more loose than how we'd end up. Around that time, Adrian left to go to Montreal and John went to UCLA, so the drawing itself stopped for a while, around 1998. There was a year where we weren't producing very much. We weren't sure what we wanted to do. Around 1999 or so, we started to miss the drawing meetings, so we set up a regular Wednesday night meeting.

So you meet every Wednesday at the same time?

NF- We try to.

MD- Pretty much. Usually around 7:30 or so.

With Marcel [Dzama] living in New York, how does collaboration work?

NF- He sends us collage stuff that we use. If he's in town, he comes too, but he's in New York most of the time.

How long do meetings usually last?

NF- Uh, maybe 8 till 2 in the morning. What's that, six hours?

That's epic!

NF- [laughs] I guess.

MD- We used to stay up a lot later, until 3 or so. I don't know if we're getting too old, but lately I get really tired [laughs]. We also meet occasionally in the afternoons, if we have some sort of project we're working on. We don't restrict it just to Wednesdays, but it's good to have a specific night where you know you're going to work and you don't schedule anything else.

Do you have day jobs?

NF- No, I've never had a day job.

MD- I didn't expect to be able to just do this. We've been really lucky.

I've read that you can crank out 50 drawings at a meeting. Is the number still the same?

NF- We don't draw anymore. We pretty much stopped drawing when we down-sized to three people. Now that it's paintings, maybe 8-10.

8-10 paintings a meeting?

NF- That get finished, but we start them and work on them over a long period of time. Sometimes nothing will get finished but lots will get started. An average would be maybe 8 or 10.

That's a lot!

NF- Well, it's little paintings now, between 3" square to 10" square.

  The Royal Art Lodge, Explaining Donkey Heaven, 2008, mixed media,
 courtesy of The Royal Art Lodge

How tight is your quality control if you're producing so much?

NF- Well, it's up from when we used to do 50 drawings. The paintings we can paint over. I think the quality is better, but that's all subjective.

Would you say a lot gets discarded/painted over?

NF -
Sometimes, if we really can't figure something out, we'll just paint it over or throw it away. I'm looking at the floor now, and there's around 50 paintings that have been started, and 6 that are finished from a couple of days ago. Of these 50, some of them are months and months old. Today, we've just been starting new paintings. We've got some new wood cut. I don't know if we'll end up finishing very much today, but we'll start a bunch. They might not get finishedfor – sometimes it's years, if an idea we start with is hard to work with. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to finish.

With so much extra material lying around, how do you decide what gets worked on?

NF- We do lots of just sitting there and looking at everything. They're all together on the floor, so we just look at them and throw ideas around. Sometimes I'll be in the mood for just painting or just thinking.

So, you said that Marcel typically sends you items to collage with. Do paintings evolve around the collage?

NF - Well, that's something we've always done. We've always used a lot of collage. When we were still doing drawings, they were all pretty much collage made up of cut-up other drawings. When we switched to painting, a lot of the first paintings were like that, so when we switched we carried that over.

How do you create your paintings?

NF- We paint on wood, but our technique involves putting a piece of masking tape over over the wood and drawing what you want to paint on it. You cut out the shape and paint within the tape, so that you have a hard, clean line. It's a craft kind of technique, but it looks like a magazine cut-out style.

So, you just use an art knife?

NF- Yeah. Then, when we use Marcel's collages, they look the same and fit in just fine, because the paintings look collage-y anyways, and they're painted, so... We were lucky that's the way we worked anyway.

So, it worked pretty seamlessly?

NF- Yeah. When he was still living here, he was still just cutting out drawings and collaging them anyway. Now we have to decide what to do with his characters instead of him.

Getting back to discards, what strikes you as a failure? Does something just seem off?

NF- It can't be resolved or it's just too ugly. Usually, it's that it can't be resolved.


NF- We don't like the painting to just be imagery, we like there to be some resolution, like a little story or explanation. Something that we intend the viewer to get. Whether they get it or not doesn't matter, but we like there to be something that you can understand, where it's not just random imagery. A lot of time is spent trying to figure that out.

As far as collaboration, are there set roles? I guess with Marcel living in NY his role is more passive, but as you said, there's a lot of text involved. Is there any one person who writes the bulk of the text versus the drawings?

NF- A while ago I was doing more of the text, but now we talk about everything,so it's pretty collaborative. We worry about the text a lot and re-write things and talk about it.

  The Royal Art Lodge, FU, 2008, mixed media, courtesy of The Royal Art Lodge
How has the RAL connection helped your solo career?

NF- I think we have a good reputation. People would look into me if they liked the AL stuff. They're pretty intertwined.

MD- Generally, I think if people saw my solo work I don't think they'd necessarily relate it to the Art Lodge, unless someone told them. My solo work is pretty different, and that's another thing I like about the Art Lodge – it’s sort of anonymous. Your contribution kind of dissolves into the bigger picture, which is a kind of freedom that's helpful in clearing your mind to experiment. My solo work is usually really formal. I establish rules for myself, in a way. Also, Neil and I talk a lot as we work, which helps.

It's like a constant flow of ideas, in other words.

MD- Exactly. You can keep talking until the idea gets clearer and clearer. And the other person sets things off in different directions that you'd never come up with on your own. That's the best part of collaboration – being surprised. That's way more fun to me than coming up with an idea and executing it by myself. You have less control with collaboration, but it's more exciting that way.

Naturally, you're getting a completely different experience in the Art Lodge than when working solo.

MD- I like being alone too, and I like that experience, but it's nice to have both. If I'm stuck in my solo work and not producing, I get depressed, but I know at least every Wednesday I'm going to make something.

When would you consider a RAL piece to be a RAL piece as opposed to your own? Maybe the goals are different?

NF- I could do a RAL painting by myself, like not at a meeting, and it would still be one if I knew that was what I was setting out to make.

You could produce these on your own?

NF- Well, there are painting that have always been work that one person makes, because if you think of an idea that can be finished quickly you can do it. It doesn't have to be more than one person. There are no rules of collaboration.

MD- My solo work is a lot more formal and minimal in a way, whereas the subject matter of the Art Lodge is kind of limitless. It's more conversational and humorous. I kind of lose my sense of humour – it makes sense not to be funny by yourself. [laughs]

You don't have anyone to make laugh directly.

MD- It reflects the situation. If you're with your friends, you're trying to make each other laugh. Whereas if you're by yourself, you're more pensive.

I like what you said about the work being conversational. Do your individual themes encroach from your own art into the RAL pieces, and find you have to dumb yours down to make the others work?

MD- I don't. There's obviously some stylistic things you do in your everyday work, but I think the Art Lodge is its own entity. Over the years, the kind of work that gets made is completely its own thing as opposed to our solo work. We all do things in this work that we never do on our own.I think because it's more license to do anything. I don't find there's any time when someone pushes their own ideas that come from what they're doing on a day to day basis. It's more like continuing where we left off the previous Wednesday. It's a pretty different mindset when we're making the Art Lodge work. For the past couple of years if a painting is going to be accompanied by some kind of text, we'll write a list of various ways to resolve a painting through the text. Whereas early on with the drawings it was less about a conversation to resolve something, it was more of a spontaneous joke. Someone would pick up a drawing from the pile, write something and they would surprise the group with it and get a laugh. Now, we're discussing how to resolve it the best way possible. Maybe that's the difference between drawing and painting. Painting is a much slower process, whereas drawing is quick. Especially the way we used to do it, where we would just produce countless drawings and edit afterwards. We're editing as we paint now.

Do you find it still to be a pretty intuitive process?

MD- It's not more rigid, but it's certainly more thought out now. I wouldn't say that's better or worse, it's just different.

What appeals to you about being in an art group?

NF- I find that the work is really different than what I do on my own. Also, it's a social activity, for the most part.

How do you think your individual growth as artists informs the whole?

NF- It shows up. We're not trying to hide anything. It's more like my working on the RAL paintings is changing my solo stuff, because it's a social kind of atmosphere and there's more freedom to do anything and try new things. I guess more so before, because we have more of a style we stick with now, but I'd learn a lot of things just trying them out. It was just making things for fun, sitting around a table kind of atmosphere. You'd figure things out and use them. But yeah, it goes both ways too.

Were you known more of a member of the RAL than solo?

NF- I was showing a bit more by myself before we started showing the RAL work. The very first shows I was in that people saw were the Art Lodge shows, but then I started showing by myself in the states through people that would've known Marcel's work first, and then after a year or so of that, people would get interested in the RAL through him or us. So, it kind of goes back and forth.

In the group's work, you seem to feature children and animals a lot, though they seem to have more knowledge than people would believe of either, animals being more instinctual and children being somewhat naive.

MD- I don't know if our children are always representative of children or used sort of like carriers of knowledge.

More like stand-ins?

MD- Kind of, but there's something about children: a mysterious potential there that I identify with that adults don't seem to share, often.

They're a little more receptive?

That's for sure. Childhood is pretty scary and can be pretty... There's potential for a sort of magic that's lost later. I wouldn't say that's representative of my childhood.

 The Royal Art Lodge, He Had Had Enough of Their Bullshit, 2008, mixed media,
 courtesy of The Royal Art Lodge

Is there a sense of a group mythology in your paintings?

NF- You can tell when something doesn't fit in, which we like to do sometimes for contrast, but there's a kind of universal look. It's mostly people and real animals with the occasional weird looking guy.

Some of the events in your drawings could represent things that happen in everyday life, but some it seems to happen in it's own little universe.

NF- It's probably something I think about more in my own work. I do think of having characters that would be a part of a separate universe.

It seems there are a lot of elements of magic realism, where animals and humans can communicate and there seems to be a quality of inter-connectedness between all the subjects.

MD- I think even in that, the relationships of the characters within that relate to ideas we have of what really happens between people but they're depicted with animals and fantastic situations. The ideas are consistent with how humans deal with each other.

NF- We think of some of these things as things that could happen in the real world, while others are more subtle observations of actual life.

Is the work stream of consciousness or are these stories part of a bigger, more coherent whole?

NF- Yeah, I think [stream of conscious] is a big part of it , but it's too thought out to be just that. That's a starting point.

MD- I think the way we used to work is a lot more stream of conscious than what we do now. And, maybe the way we start work now, we'll combine images without much thought. I'd call that stream of consciousness, but the way a painting is resolved is more deliberate. I might do something, give it to Neil and he'll add something without knowing why they're involved. Between us, we'll have to decide why those elements work together.

Your art features a lot of text with pictures, as you've previously mentioned. Do you find there to be a parallel between your work and comics?

NF- No, not anymore.

They seem to have a lot of similarities with photos, if they had a caption. Do you look at these more as a snapshot of time? Slice of a story?

MD- People used to talk about the paintings like they were a still from a film, and you wouldn't know what happened before or after – you’d have to make the story up yourself. Now, we're giving more clues as to what's going on than we used to.

NF- I think we purposely don't give you full stories, and we're not interested in telling you everything. It's just a little bit of information that leads you in a direction and you figure out what you want to from that.

The paintings do seem to hint at something deeper.

MD- I hope so. Even if we do have more of an idea of what we want people to take away from them, it's always better if there's more possibilities for meaning than we are capable of giving.

Have you ever thought of continuing a story in a different piece?

NF- The paintings refer to other paintings sometimes. We used to have more characters that would reappear, or a combination of things could be used a couple of times.

What attracts you to doing these one offs? Why not tell a sequential story?

NF- That's boring. A lot of this work has always been about having a lot of ideas and getting them out quickly and still having them be nice to look at – finding the right compromise between speed and quality.

MD- If you slow something down too much, you lose the ability to have an accident that surprises you.

In other words, it becomes a little more labored?

MD- Sometimes you'll mess up a painting and, on a whim, instead of painting over it you'll add something ridiculous. And, sometimes it'll be something done out of desperation, but it'll make a really good painting and ends up being more interesting than it could have been, had you thought about it a long time.

If you looked at one of your paintings, would you feel like you know where it's coming from? Do you as the artist have more of an idea of the background?

MD- It varies a lot, I guess. A lot of the time, lately, it seems more of an emotional tone we're giving a painting, and so that's based on some kind of idea we have of the world. It's coming from a place that we understand or a way we understand the world.

It's more a part of your world-view?

MD- A lot of times it is, but it's exaggerated for humour. We're not as melancholy – sometimes there's exaggerated violence for the sake of a dramatic effect, whether humour or making the point more. I don' t think it's a complete world-view.

For a glimpse into the group's quickly expanding body of work, visit their website. Be sure to check out their recent works in the paintings section, which are grouped according to size. The lower section contains some of their longer pieces, which are meant to be viewed in order, for a mind-bendingly immersive experience.

Kevin Nelson

Kevin Nelson is a writer in Vancouver BC.

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