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How To Be a Successful Artist: A Conversation with "Bubblegum Surrealist" Stephen Gibb

Stephen Gibb standing next to his entry to Art Comp entry: Essence of Hope and Despair
Stephen Gibb standing next to his entry to Art Comp entry: Essence of Hope and Despair

It was an especially rainy April day when I had the chance to pass the time by chatting virtually with Canadian artist and "bubblegum surrealist" painter Stephen Gibb. Stephen is a Canadian painter based in Amherstburg, Ontario, who uses wacky characters to portray parts of his feelings and identity and to explore themes such as consumerism and the inner workings of the mind.

Stephen is the father of my good friend Keely, who models some of my apparel (like the Lobster Tote), and who is also a PhD student in engineering. I discovered Stephen's work through her, and was mesmerized by how he viscerally portrays certain feelings and emotions in a way that is both harrowing and silly. I just had to pick his brains to find out what his process was, his views on art's place in the modern world, and what lessons he's learned in his career.

As Stephen joined the meeting and turned his camera on, I was transported to a setting that felt appropriate to surround him; to his left there was a fire going and an armchair occupied by a giant cutout head of one of his characters. To his right, there sat an old television playing a Twilight Zone screensaver on a loop. The scene was set.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited to hide my embarrassingly frequent use of the words "um" and "like".


Emma: This isn't supposed to be super formal, I just wanted to ask you a few questions because since I've been friends with Keely, I've seen your art and I absolutely adore it. I love your style and I love how out there it is as someone who also does really out there art.

Emma: So I guess my first question is: when did you realize that you had a knack for visual arts?

Stephen: I know when I was three or four, I had an incident where I couldn't explain something to my mother. I couldn't explain it, but it occurred to me: I could draw it. So it was just a simple thing. I drew it, and I thought, "This is great, I have this way of communicating that's more effective than me struggling with words." So, that was a moment where I realized that art could be a communication mode.

Emma: Totally.

Stephen: But, I think as far as realizing that I stood apart from others, it was about grade two. They gave us a piece of blue construction paper, and we were asked to draw a tree with chalk or something. I thought, "Okay, I can do that." So, I drew a tree. And then I looked around, and all the other kids were drawing rectangles with sticks coming out of them. [I thought,] "Those aren't trees, what are you drawing?" So I think that was clearly the moment— and it was funny, because the teacher made a big fuss out of what I did. I remember her calling in other teachers to look at what I did. So right away, I felt like, "Oh, I've done something special."

E: That's awesome.

S: Yeah, and I guess from that moment on, I knew I had something different. The kids in the class were like, "Do you want to be an artist when you grow up?" And I thought, "I already am an artist. What are you talking about?"

E: That's cool. I like that perspective of it not just being a career, but it as a way of being and part of who you are instead of a job, per se.

S: Yeah.

E: How would you describe your style in terms of, for lack of a better term, genre or what art movement, or you can invent a new one, if you feel like you're in that category.

S: Well, it definitely borrows from a lot of things that have gone before. I think probably most obviously is Surrealism. There may be a little Dada in there as well, because I do like the idea of absurdity and humour. Definitely pop or psychedelic art, there's elements of that I bring in with my themes of commercialism and consumerism. Pop art just seems to be a very obvious one, for that kind of stuff.

E: Very true. Yeah, I would say I have similar influences in mine as well, and like you were saying, with the absurdity of things, I feel like when you draw something that feels surreal or looks a little bit ridiculous, it's what grabs the attention of someone to look into what you're trying to say with your art.

S: Yeah, there's that aspect of it. That uncanny aspect. Where it's not trying to emulate reality. It's not trying to mimic a photograph. It has its own vibe or presence

E: Its own existence.

S: Almost like its own universe, right? And welcoming people into it.

S: I know at one point, and I can't remember who said this to me, but I used to do a lot of drawings in cafés and stuff when I worked downtown. Someone came up to me and said, "You know, you're not a surrealist, you're a bubblegum surrealist." And I thought it was perfect.

E: What's that supposed to mean?

S: Because, in the music industry, there was pop music and then there was bubblegum music, which was a watered down version or more accessible version that was targeted to younger kids. And it wasn't so serious and wasn't so pretentious, it was just to package something that kids could consume.

E: Right.

S: And I thought, "I'm okay with that." I guess my thought about my art is yeah, it's got a message. It's got some mode of communication. But I don't have this lofty pretentiousness about it. I'm okay with being goofy, funny, and playful.

S: It's funny because when I'm doing it, sometimes I find myself laughing out loud. And I think that it's a litmus test for whether or not it's effective. I love it when people laugh at my work, you know… I have it up on the wall and they're laughing, and I'm thinking, "I've made a connection."

E: Yeah, absolutely. I like what you were saying too about the bubblegum aspect of it, in terms of not gatekeeping, or how more accessible it actually is to people. The more people can connect to it, the more you can get people to think about what your message means and how it relates to them. So yeah, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing either, to introduce more people to it, to engage people.

S: Yeah, and when you think of the art world as it stands today, there is a lot of pretence. There's a lot of inaccessibility, or remoteness even, from what the artist is doing to the sort of general audience. The general audience isn't going to grasp their intentions if it's a pile of sawdust in the middle of the gallery floor. That doesn't mean a whole lot to your average person.

S: Someone looking at one of my goofy paintings; they're gonna extract something, I would hope. So yeah, in a sense it is more accessible. There's probably a good word for it, but right now I can't think of it.

E: Yeah, no problem. I totally agree.

E: My next question is who would you say are your biggest artistic inspirations and influences?

S: Well, from the art world I think, Dalí and Magritte, Breughel and Bosch are probably my top four. Those to me are the most obvious that, when I first discovered them, there was just something intangible that resonated with me.

S: And people say that to me as well. They can't understand why they're attracted to it, but for some reason they are, and some people even say they find it intimidating because they're attracted to it and they shouldn't be. So it's kind of a weird dance, you know, people fighting emotionally with what they think they should relate to and what they really relate to.

E: Yeah, I feel like when you react that way to a piece of art, at least for me, I find that when I don't immediately understand what exactly I'm feeling or why I'm reacting to it, it usually triggers a sort of internal journey where you try to figure it out: "Why do I feel that way about that piece?" And I feel like that sort of engagement with art is super important just in terms of getting people to reflect on themselves, and society, and their place in society.

S: Yeah, and neurologically speaking, when people are confronted by something that confuses them or isn't immediately recognizable or understood, their brains fire off all kinds of neurons, because they're trying to make sense of it, which is an exciting state of mind to be in — that search for meaning.

E: Yeah.

S: So, I feel like that's the initial impression people get when they see my art. They get into that mindset. And I think some people are frightened by it... because they don't like that frame of mind. But others, I think really relish it because it's exciting. To be in that state of excitement, right?

E: Yeah. I find it really cool that you work in that space; that uncomfortable zone for a lot of people. So I feel like that's really important work to be doing as an artist, in that respect. So that's another part that I really enjoy about your work; taking people to that place.

S: I don't know if it's something I consciously think about. What I do is just what interests me. So I guess I'm pursuing the things that inspired me. And trying to understand what those things were. Why does Bosch inspire me? I don't know, I don't know what it is. I think part of my artistic journey is is trying to discover that.

E: That's awesome. Yeah, I often find myself, not necessarily borrowing, but trying to discover, like you said, ideas that other artists put forth first. So I find that's really interesting. Part of the journey of any artist, honestly, is discovering who you are among your influences.

S: Yeah.

E: So, I know that you don't do art full-time. Keely told me that you work for a paper. How did you decide to balance your art career with your other career?

S: Well, it wasn't really a decision I made, an intellectual decision, it was more like a convenience decision. I needed to have an income as a matter of survival. And what I found was that the steady income allowed me to do what I wanted to do.

E: Yeah.

S: If I hadn't had that foundation, I might have been one of those people who struggled to find an audience or relied on art sales for survival. I think that's a slippery slope, because people get stuck in a rut. They find something that sells and they keep churning it out, churning it out, and it's the same thing over and over and I see it all the time. They do the same painting with a slight variation. Some of them, I really admire their work, but it's just so repetitive.

E: Yeah, I definitely see a lot of that nowadays, especially on Instagram, and it was one of the other topics I wanted to chat about. At least for myself, I find there's this ever-present pressure to, like you said, churn things out pretty fast. So having that around... how do you feel? Do you feel impacted by that social media pressure at all?

S: No, no. My whole involvement in social media is like an art project. I'm there because I'm sharing my artwork and, you know, trying to find an audience there... that's receptive. Even the goofy things that I post, just text-wise, usually are playful. Echoes of what I do in my visual art.

E: Right.

S: You might get caught up in the fact that, oh, this one painting got more likes than the other painting, but I don't lie in bed worrying about that. That's not my objective. It's posting things as they come along, and I don't do it with any regularity because I might take two or three weeks to paint a painting, and in the interim, might lose 1,000 followers on Instagram, so.

E: Yeah, totally. My big thing with it is that it's difficult because it's what is perceived as needed, being a modern artist; you have to market yourself. You have to be out there. You have to always grow your audience. But for me, it doesn't align with the artistic process. Like you were saying, right? It would take you two, three weeks to make a painting and during that time, what else are you gonna put on there? Because you don't have anything new to show, but there's that pressure always to pump something out frequently, and you see it everywhere now. And it's the perception of being successful as an artist now.

S: There's so much stuff that artists put out that I just— I can't do it. I'm not gonna do timelapse images of me painting. I'm not gonna video myself actively working in my studio. I just can't do that. I have no desire to do that.

E: Well, I've been struggling a lot with that as well. Just because I know that that's the main way to get more engagement and eyeballs on your art. But personally, I find it hard to do because it takes me out of that zone. You know, when you're doing something and oh, hold on, just have to rearrange my phone for the next shot. It just takes you out of what is supposed to be a genuine moment between you and your art and it adds that extra step of, "Oh, this is now a set. This is a production now." You know what I mean?

S: Yeah! Yeah! I get a lot of kids that ask me, "Can you post a timelapse shots of you working? Can you do this? Can you film videos of you working?" Well, I have these, you know, quick 15 seconds shots of me painting something. And I feel like I never would have done that unless people were asking. And I don't like it.

E: Yeah.

S: Like you said, it turns the process into performance.

E: Yeah, absolutely. And unless that's intentional like it is sometimes for some pieces, I feel like it's becoming part of the general expectation of what to do as a modern artist, and I've been so reluctant to take part in it, but I've been starting slowly. I've been finding it hard, just from that place of like... it doesn't feel genuine.

S: Yeah. And to me, I'm some old fart who doesn't really involve myself much in that world.

E: Yeah, it's definitely a generational thing as well.

S: I didn't have a cell phone until two years ago, and it was forced on me during Covid because my company wanted me to have a phone. And it sits by my computer all day.

E: Really? My God, the peace of mind you must have had before that phone.

S: I don't really touch it. So I'm detached from that world, and people are always amazed and startled.

E: Yeah.

S: I think one of the benefits of removing yourself from that endless cycle of scrolling is the quiet mind that you get. And in that quiet space is where all the magic happens, right? When you're thinking without distraction, that's the richest fertile ground for coming up with ideas.

E: Hmmm. Yeah, that does make sense. A lot of my work is honestly about the stress of the the technology and media age. So for me, when I'm on my phone way too much, it just makes me think of all these societal things, how we're all so connected and all these things. But it's interesting to hear about the complete opposite. That a lot of your work comes from an absolutely clear mind. That's really cool. I should definitely unplug more.

S: Yeah. Like you say, it can also be a source of inspiration because if you are playing with ideas of stress and anxiety of modern life, then right there, you have a perfect foil to exemplify your thoughts. Obviously, it impinges on me too, because occasionally I'll show a reference in one of my paintings of someone being distracted or someone being drawn into some distraction.

E: Totally. Speaking of social media, since we're on that topic and we were talking about how to measure success, or how we feel like we must measure success in modern times as an artist... How do you measure your success?

S: Still working on that one.

[Both laugh.]

E: Honestly, fair answer. It's tough for everyone.

S: It's funny, because you know in your mind you think, oh, success is the big solo show in what— in New York, and having a management team set up shows and appearances and the idea that all the mundane details that you normally deal with; someone else is taking care of that. That's the stereotypical impression of what a successful artist has or does or whatever.

E: It's like the American Dream version of art.

S: Yeah! Yeah. I don't think you can get past that, right? Society imposes that.

E: Yeah. I mean, there's an image of what a successful artist looks like.

S: I think feedback from fellow artists, feedback from fans. I think that is a measure of success. Or selling a painting even though it's a bittersweet sort of thing. It's validation. Someone likes my stuff.

E: Totally. I did my first commission last year, and it was from this couple who came up to my booth at a craft fair. And they were like, "I really like your stuff. Can we get a custom painting from you?" And that just meant the world to me, because I was just this little artist at a tiny little booth at a craft fair, you know, nothing special. But the fact that someone came up to me and was like, "I want you to do a piece of art for me," that meant the world. And even when someone picks up a business card because they like your stuff— to me, that's enormous.

S: I struggle with the commissions. Unless it's something I could see myself doing, even if it wasn't someone asking for it, I usually say no.

E: I mean, your paintings are so personal, right? They're about your way of thinking and how you characterize your feelings. So I feel like it would it would be quite difficult to do commissions.

S: I struggle whenever I get a commission; I find it very stressful. I would just rather not do them. I do turn them down a lot.

E: Is it just the creative struggle of not being able to meet the client in the middle? Or what's your reasoning behind that?

S: I would just rather work on my own stuff.

E: That's fair. That's totally fair.

S: And the times that I have been commissioned, there was something in the transaction where I thought, "Oh yeah, I could do this. Alright." A perfect example was the painting I did for Hope Tala. It was an EP and she called it Girl Eats Sun. In a video call I had with her and her people, she said the title, and right away, "Oh yeah, I'm gonna do this."

Girl Eats Sun EP - Hope Tala, with artwork by Stephen Gibb.
Girl Eats Sun EP - Hope Tala, with artwork by Stephen Gibb.

E: I can envision it in your style as well. Immediately, just those three words. So it has to be right up your alley for you to take something on.

S: Yeah. Or unless the money is really good and I can't say no.

[Both laugh again.]

E: But it has to inspire you, right? If you're making a piece of work, you don't want it to be lifeless. It has to be coming from within. I know that sounds really cheesy.

S: No, no, it's absolutely true. It was funny; some collector had bought four of my paintings, and he said to me, "I would love to commission something, but I'm afraid it would not get the outcome I'd expect because I'd be forcing you to do something you otherwise wouldn't do." And and I was like, "Oh, he gets it." I'm glad he said it.

E: I mean, I would hope that somebody collecting your art would understand where it comes from, right? That's kind of cool.

S: I guess that's a measure of success too; where someone or some collector understands you.

E: Absolutely. I feel like one of the core reasons a lot of us do art is to be seen and to be understood, because that was something that I wanted a lot as a kid. It's one of the big central themes of a lot of my work: not feeling like you're understood by a majority of people. And then through what you create, you're like, "This is it, this is who I am." So it's cool that the collector understood how you would approach that, just from your work and what it conveys.

S: It is interesting too. When you start meditating on the whole notion of success, there are certain aspects of it that are straightforward and almost empirical, right? You have these automatic measurements that say, "This is a degree of success." Then there's other aspects of it that I think are all chemical. What's happening up here [he points to his head], it's not happening in the physical world where it's a transactional thing. You do a piece, someone buys it, you get the money. And then someone enjoys it and that's very outside of you. But when it's affirmation or inclusion or acknowledgment or something, you get chemical pleasure in your head.

E: Yeah, absolutely.

S: If you get selected for a show, a little bit of an endorphin explosion, or you get mentioned in an article or that kind of thing. One is better than the other as a measure of success, but I find those little thoughts creeping in once in a while.

E: I feel that with the two kinds of success, it really depends on if you got to the point where you care a lot more about the commercial aspect. And then, of course, the empirical part is gonna matter a lot more than the: "Oh, somebody made a connection with my art." Because that doesn't matter as much anymore past that point.

S: Yeah. And in today's world, you find yourself in front of things like, "Oh, would you design stuff for my brand?" Or, "I really could see you doing my logo." I don't do that, sorry.

E: That's not what you're about either, right? So if somebody asks you for something like that, the question becomes... do you understand what my art is about, if you really like my stuff?

S: Yeah. In fact, I pretty much said that to a record company that was looking for a cover for someone, and they wanted me to do something that's outside of what I do, and I said, "Are you even familiar with my art? Because that's not what I do." They wanted to do something kind of erotic and I don't find my inclinations go in that direction at all.

E: If it's not within your scope of stuff, you're fully well and in your right and in your artistic integrity to be like, "No."

S: It's almost gratifying to say no.

E: I'm pretty constantly annoyed by people who message me on Instagram being like, "Hey, I like your work. Would you make an NFT?"

S: Oh, god.

E: And I'm like, "No, my God, no. I don't care about your little Ponzi scheme. Leave me out of it." It's a similar thing. A lot of my work is so against mass production and all of these things, and it's just like, "Do you not understand?" You clearly don't understand what my art is about, because it's against all that.

S: Yeah, I get that all the time.

E: I couldn't give a damn about NFTs!

S: I get it about two or three times a week, where someone will offer me a big pile of money for each one of my images and I'm like, "No, sorry." Whether or not it's even legit.

E: I know there's a lot of scamming too within that, but even then I say no, and then follow up with: "If you're really interested in my art, I also sell prints and paintings. So if you really want, you can buy one of those," but I'm not doing an NFT. Ridiculous.

S: I did set up a Redbubble account, and that was largely due to the fact that most of the kids who like my art are between 18 and 24. Those kids can't afford my art.

E: It's a good middle ground between the commercialization we were talking about and accessibility for people who enjoy your art.

S: Those kids will grow up one day, and they may have a more vested interest and more disposable income to go towards that then. It's a way of nurturing a fan base.

E: I don't think it's hypocritical to participate in a little bit of commercialization, because you have to make a living, so... Nowadays, we're all in the same system; we have to do what we have to do.

S: It would be nice to be in a position where you wouldn't have to worry about things.

E: Oh, absolutely. That's everyone's dream, I think.

E: Here's my next one, and I'm really curious about your response: I want to know which piece of yours you're the proudest of and why.

S: Yeah. There's a piece I did in 2016. I had just switched studios. I had been working in this small— it was essentially a broom closet in the back of a café. And I'd worked in there, it must have been five or six years. I was friends with the owner. He ended up selling the café. I needed a new space, so I found a space with some other artists, and it was an actual artist studio. So it was liberating. And when I got into that space, I had this lofty notion that I was going to do, you know, a masterpiece. You know, the sort of that old-fashioned notion of…

E: The One.

S: The romanticized version of art. The artist creates a masterpiece, right? So I thought: I'm gonna do that with intent. That's my objective.

S: I kind of came up with this idea that was all based on consumerism and I did it in a way that I was making the characters literally consuming through their mouths. And so everything, all the products they were consuming, were candy. And the piece was called Dopamine.

Dopamine by Stephen Gibb.
Dopamine by Stephen Gibb.

S: I put a lot of energy into it. It took a long time to complete. Very detailed, one of my epic pieces. And I don't think it's a masterpiece. But the idea of trying to get a masterpiece — I think that was a fun exercise. And the results opened the door to the direction I have been going. Seven years since I've done that.

E: That must have been such a pivotal and rewarding moment.

S: Absolutely.

E: My next question for you is because I am an acrylics person myself. So... why oils?

S: I just like the way it looks; the optics of it. There's this quality to it that is kind of luminous, and I think it's because I actually have quite a few layers of paint built up. And those layers of paint are usually somewhat translucent. On a microscopic scale, there is a layer of translucent pain that is going to react with light coming at it in a way that you just can't get with a flat acrylic paint.

E: That makes total sense because honestly, that's what I like about acrylics. I feel the complete opposite. I really enjoy the flatness of it— it's hard to describe, but I understand what you're saying.

S: You can get blending that I don't think you can unless you're super expert with acrylics.

E: Yeah, it's difficult. I'm definitely still learning a lot. I'll have to give it a go one day. I just have this weird fear of oils because I've always heard of how difficult they are, if that makes sense.

S: The thing is: you can't be afraid. You have to look at it as a process. I work up a board with a pencil drawing. Then in the next phase, I do line work with liner brushes. I do the contour lines all in oil paint, very thin. Then I do a wash. On top of that, I define the tones, gradations and shadows and the establish the depth that I want. And then from there, I start building up the the first layers of colour. It's ugly. A young student would probably be frustrated at that point. It'd be like "This is going nowhere, right?" But if you stick with it, and you're not afraid to take the time, the results are very surprising.

S: It's a process that you really have to understand. It isn't gonna give you instant satisfaction. You've got to stave off your expectations until that final layer goes on. And then it's like— bang! It's very rewarding because it comes to life.

Psychopathology by Stephen Gibb during an early stage of the painting process.
Psychopathology by Stephen Gibb during an early stage of the painting process.

E: You're like: "That went exactly the way I was planning." But, it's not always perfect. There was one time, I was working on a painting, and it took me much longer than I thought it would take to finish it because I just could not get to that feeling of: "It's perfect and I'm done." So I struggled a lot with that initially; not stopping. Now I try to reel it in sometimes and tell myself, "Okay, it's fine, it's fine. It's as good as it's ever gonna get. Stop fixing things." But I feel like that initial phase of the painting too, where it doesn't look put together at all is so difficult because you're like: "Oh this looks so ugly."

S: You have to go through that process. It's like a house. The builder would start in a room with timbers and studs. And then they put up the flooring, and then they put in the drywall... Mud the drywall, prime it, paint it, you know; that process is there, and you just got to work through it.

E: Yeah, totally. I always have that image of the layers in my head, too. Just knowing that after this part's down, you're gonna be able to do that, and then it just slowly falls into place. But I'll definitely be muttering that to myself when I paint now: "Building a house... building a house... layer by layer..."

S: Do you have a sort of formula ? Dark to light?

E: Honestly, my process is pretty messy. I'm not gonna lie. I'm still learning a lot more about techniques because I haven't really been able to put the time into learning the more technical aspects of painting until now. Because, you know, studying engineering for six years and then being burnt out from working in tech for two years. So this is the first time that I'm actually able to sit down and learn a lot of the more technical stuff that I'm missing. But what I do right now is I essentially do it in sections. So I'll start with the outline with pencil, and then I'll do more background-y stuff, and work my way forward layer-wise to more foreground-y. So that's the approach that I take right now and I touch up colours and stuff at the end. So yeah, that's my process right now. But it's a work in progress.

S: Yeah.

E: I'm pretty excited about learning more, just because I finally have the time.

E: So, onto one of my last few questions. We already touched on a few of the points that I imagine you would bring up here, but, what do you think the importance of art in today's world is?

S: I waffle between the notion that art is this lofty pursuit— that art is this divine gift. And then I flip flop onto the other side. I think: it is totally pointless. It is trivial. In the scheme of things, it's just a distraction. It's entertainment. It's a diversion. I find myself going: "What am I doing? Why am I doing this?"

E: Yeah.

S: So, you have that dichotomy. One end of the scale comes from the romantic period of art where the artist was looked at as this divine character who was getting the inspiration from God or whatever. And then, you know, the sort of practical view from today's perspective, where there's a lot of things that are way more important than art. Does it still fulfill those old-fashioned notions of what art is? Or should it be downgraded to something not so pretentious?

S: That being said, I think people still enjoy it, people still get inspired by it. I get kids all the time saying, "I get so much out of your work," and I'm like: "Yeah, that's awesome." I remember when I felt that way about other artists and I appreciate that kind of comment. Those kinds of interactions give you the sense that maybe the work I'm doing is worthwhile after all. If I can make that impact on on somebody, it isn't a bad thing.

E: Yeah, for sure. In a similar vein, I think that the reason why we need it now more than ever is that it's such a good vessel to deliver a message to people who are so jaded by a world that doesn't work for them anymore. If they see something that moves them, then that could be the last domino in a set of dominoes that triggers an introspective journey.

S: Yeah.

E: You never know how much impact it could have on someone. That's where I see the importance of it in today's world; especially after the pandemic. We're all so guarded now, and so I feel like part of why it's so important. It helps break down those walls between people. That's what keeps us apart.

E: Even myself— I've been finding it a lot more difficult to participate in public, honestly. As in out of the house. I became a bit of a hermit after the pandemic. So, I'm still coming out of my shell myself, but there's countless others.

S: Yeah, definitely. I'd be glad to stay at home for the rest of my life.

[Both laugh.]

E: Yeah, I feel the exact same.

E: And it's not necessarily only for the people who prefer to stay at home. I mean more so people who have given up on trying to help make society better, or to make an impact on the world, and it's not that you haven't done that because you make art that impacts people. So, even if you don't feel like you're doing that personally, you are making a contribution. When people connect to your art, they become more vulnerable.

[Long pause.]

E: Is that stewing?

S: No, it's just a difficult thing to grasp the whole concept of: "What is the value of our work?"

E: It's enormous!

S: There's never a consensus.

E: There's never only one answer.

S: People's biases and idiosyncrasies are always defying their opinions.

E: Yeah, and I feel like that's also how art means something different to all of us, because of the lens that we view it through, right? And so does the question of... what's the importance? It's different for every single one of us. So, why it's important for you in terms of art and society could be completely different than why it's important to me.

S: Normally, I don't think about these things. I kind of shelve a lot of that stuff that maybe I thought of as a younger artist or younger person. I now operate from my own manual. These kinds of questions stir up that murky water that's been dormant for so long.

E: Oh no, I am so sorry!

S: No, no. But it's good! Because I think it's good to meditate on things and contemplate things, especially things that are really part of you, but may be either left stagnant, or dormant, or ignored, or suppressed.

E: Totally. For me, art is a vessel to release all of those things. So, all those things that you shove aside, or that you can't express physically, in reality. Those are things that you can express on a piece of paper, or on a canvas.

S: I think one of the things too that I determined was that, to me, an artist isn't just a camera. You see so much art today where it's a photo-based response to show how well someone can paint or draw. And the hyper-realistic stuff— people just love that. To me it's like, "Okay, I'm not a camera." I have something to express. It's not about mimicking the external world. It's about trying to express something inner. And in fact, I think I wrote something down... "Your art is the language you speak from your mind to the world." There's got to be some kind of depth or communication.

E: Absolutely. And I get what you're saying with the photo-realistic stuff too, but to me, it's a good gateway for people who are interested in visual arts because they're engaging with it... but there's no underlying message. It's just flooded with the "Oh, pretty!" kind of thing, which goes directly into mindless consumerism and all these things.

E: It should be more about trying to take people into your world and your lens of the world. Do you see what I see?

S: If you don't express yourself through it, then it becomes more decorative. It can be beautiful artwork, but to me, there's no life to it.

E: Absolutely. And that's what we were saying earlier too, right? How you won't just take any commission, because if you don't see yourself doing it, then it's just lifeless?

S: Yeah.

E: I've made some pieces where I looked at it after, and I was like: "There was no inspiration in this! This is shit!" And it could look really good, but I'm just like, "This is this is awful! I didn't do this with intention."

S: There are others who would probably argue their position against ours. If you can convince me, okay. I'm not saying that my opinion is the gospel. It's one perspective.

E: It's different for every artist.

S: This is the way I operate.

E: That's the whole point of art, I think. We all bring ourselves into it and that's why it's so diverse in meaning, and in what it looks like, and in what it's trying to say.

S: That's why it's so interesting to talk about. There are no absolutes. It's always this open-ended discussion. It's like when I go to the theatre, and I walk out going "What the hell did I just see?" and for the next hour and a half, I'm trying to make sense of it. That's the shit I love. I can also come out of a theatre going, "I've seen that before, I knew that was coming." Everything was tied up in a tidy bow. It doesn't make as much of an impact as something with an open-ended question mark at the end that makes you go: wait a minute...

E: Absolutely. And it also ties back into how that's the feeling that you like to give to people through your art. That's your whole thing!

S: I hope they're going: "What's going on here?"

E: I love getting that feeling when I look at a piece of art: "What the hell is going on here?" I love that feeling because it just takes you directly into the mind of the person who made it. That is my absolute favourite feeling in art because of that. If you get that connection that's like, "I'm in your head right now," then that to me is absolutely the epitome of what art means to me. So, I find that really cool about your work, because it takes you there.

S: Some people will reach out to me and say that they grasp it, they totally got it. And then I think, if we're totally on the same page, where are all those other people? If you get it, and I get it, then what's going on with everyone else?

S: Say you've got your stuff up in an exhibit. You'll come up against the people who just walk by it with blinders, with the mentality of "I don't understand it. I don't want to embarrass myself by pretending I understand it." You'll get that kind of stuff, and then you'll get the people like this one woman who stayed in the same area for probably 20 minutes, looking at this one painting. She was with her two kids, and pointing to parts of it and explaining stuff here and there. The kids stood there and watched her, just taking it all in. And I thought, "Wow! This is the epitome of what I feel connecting with art should be."

E: Wow, that's so cool. Just knowing that you made that much of an impact on one person is enough. It's like we were saying earlier: that's success.

S: Yeah! I made that connection. It came from my head, to my hand, to the board, and it went through her eyes, to her brain, and it just... exploded.

E: Absolutely. And again, this is why I feel like it's so important nowadays to make meaningful art. Because you break people out of that technology-zombie-consumerism-whatever bubble as soon as you see something like that, and you connect with something like that. You just snap out of all of that, and then it's just pure connection from the piece to who you are as a person. So I feel like that's why it's important.

E: And with that, we're on to my very last question, which I think you kind of touched on at the beginning, because I know it's the most stereotypical question that young artists will ask. So, that being said: what advice do you have for the next generation of artists? I know you probably get asked that a lot, but I want to know.

S: When someone asks me that, I get a notion that the person already has some artistic skill and is maybe interested in pursuing that kind of life. So, I think my usual response is that you can't be frail; you have to grow a thick skin because you're going to have to face rejection.

E: Oh, totally.

S: No matter what you do, if you're submitting to a show, or to a competition, or even having an exhibit or participating in a group show, you're still going to get those people who reject you, and if you can't deal with that in a useful and healthy way, you really should find another line of work. And then the basics like: practice, and learn from your mistakes, examine the world around you, study the the things that inspire you, and try to discern why those things inspired you. If you have questions that keep coming up in your mind, try and resolve them in a painting. If things externally cause you anxiety, examine those things. "Why is that?" And those things can always spin off into a visual representation, or once you've intellectualized them, and mulled over them, sometimes those things can be turned into something positive and you've just found a way of sharing it with other people. Really, overall, if there's something you don't understand, examine it. Try to understand it. I think that curiosity is one of those essential ingredients to our work. If you're not curious, what's the point?

E: Yeah. As an artist, you're kind of an explorer.

S: Yeah. Oh, it's totally an adventure every time. You never know where it's gonna end up. The best plans laid are often discarded because, when I'm working on a concept, it often mutates into something totally different. I had an idea recently and I thought: I'm gonna explore the concept of bliss. And the painting ended up being something totally different. When you're starting out a drawing, you may have a rough idea of what you want to work into it. But as you go along, you may think, "Oh, this isn't working. I'm gonna have to change this colour to be more complimentary or balanced," or whatever. It's a process. It's not just: "I'm going to be an artist." It's like you said: a journey. You have to explore discovery.

We Have Ways Of Making You Talk by Stephen Gibb, initially started as an exploration of the concept of bliss.
We Have Ways Of Making You Talk by Stephen Gibb, initially started as an exploration of the concept of bliss.

E: Absolutely. For myself, every one of my paintings is an exploration of a concept, or a question, or a feeling, and I feel like it's really cool to be able to explore those things on a canvas. So, in a similar vein, I'm pretty happy that I'm able to make art in my life.

S: Yeah.

E: So yeah, that's pretty much all the questions I had for you. Thanks for sitting down and taking the time to chat with me. I had such a great time, and it was really cool to listen to what you had to say. Thanks a lot.

S: Oh yeah, well let me know when you get it all together. I'd love to see what you come up with.

E: Yeah, will do! Awesome. Thanks so much, Steve.

S: All right. Okay, take care. Bye.

E: You too, bye.


Initially, I was incredibly nervous to chat with Stephen. I'd never met him before and only tangentially knew of him through my friend (his daughter) Keely, and through seeing his art. In my eyes, he's an incredibly successful artist, and as someone who's in the early stages of their professional art career, that intimidated me. But I wanted to know how he did it.

As we started to talk, I started to realize that we were a lot alike and that we shared a common vision of what success meant to us: impact and connection with others through our art.

So, Stephen, if you're reading this: thank you. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Our chat was extremely insightful and validating in terms of my struggle to keep up with the new online standards of being an artist, and gratifying in the way that speaking to another artist about their passion is.

There are lots of things that I retained from our chat that I hope readers will have absorbed as well. As an artist, it's okay to set boundaries. If you don't like doing commissions because you feel that it would compromise your artistic integrity, then don't do them. But at the same time, do what you need to do to survive. Stay curious, and explore the questions you have about life and feelings you don't understand through art. Expect rejection, because you're going to face a lot of it.

And most of all: don't be afraid. Do the things that scare you, and see if you can learn something by doing so. That being said, maybe I'll take Stephen's advice and try oils one day. Who knows! Once you step out of your comfort zone to make art, the possibilities are endless.

xoxo Emma



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