If you’ve spent even a modest amount of time immersing yourself in Vancouver’s local art scene, the name Denise Gasser might strike you as familiar. Also theoretically possible is that you have no idea to whom I’m now referring. In that case you’re presumably now beginning to wonder what she’s done to merit all the attention of an interview and of course, I would have no idea which of these would be case (I am not, contrary to public belief, skilled in telepathy.) What I can know however, and what I do know beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that all of us here at Plaidfox really really like Denise.
It isn’t that she’s from Utah necessarily, or even that she shares by her very own charming admission our idiosyncratic, West-Coast obsession with trees. These things and other things, like her lovely personality, we appreciate, but admittedly, there are other more selfish, reasons we have for liking her too. It’s better if I don’t pre-emptively divulge too much before you even have the privilege of being properly introduced to her on paper (I assume you welcome spoilers about as much as we do), so for now I’ll concede only that it might possibly have something to do with her agreeing to take time out of her busy working-mom schedule to design a fabulous new and exclusive line of prints and original paintings for us!
In the end, my carefully orchestrated plan to catch up with her sometime last week was a success, and somehow I managed to get her talking about all sorts of serious grown-up questions. Her responses I’ve transcribed for your reading pleasure below, in all their original unadulterated glory.
PF: Right—so all of us here at Plaidfox are terribly excited about the exclusive art pieces you’re now in the process of designing for us and the paintings you’ve only just finished, but before I get carried away and berate you with a thousand questions about that whole enterprise, perhaps we should cover the preliminary basics of who you actually are, and how you ended up here at the mercy of my interrogations. For starters, where are you from? Are you a Vancouver native, or were you raised elsewhere?
DG: I’m actually relatively new to Vancouver… and Canada for that matter. I was raised in Lehi, Utah. It’s a small-ish town near Salt Lake City, famous for it’s big rodeo, the Lehi Round-Up, and even more famous for being the film location where Kevin Bacon danced his heart out in Footloose. Major claim to fame!
PF: Was your move to Vancouver one that you consciously planned and orchestrated, or was it more just a chance serendipitous outcome?
DG: It was actually quite serendipitous. My husband, Dan, and I moved to Berkeley, California for his graduate degree. We loved the Bay Area and definitely considered settling down there. As he was applying for jobs he mailed his portfolio to Bing Thom Architects, located here in Vancouver, almost on a whim. We were shocked when we heard back from them just a couple weeks later for an interview, and three weeks after that we were headed to Canada. It was all very fast…but exciting. We are loving our time here in Vancouver.
PF: How and when did you discover your interest in art? Were you aware from a young age that you wanted to be an artist?
DG: Oh yes. I specifically remember being in kindergarten and all of my classmates were drawing stick figures, and I was trying to draw three-dimensional bodies. So for legs, I would draw three vertical lines close together and close them off with two little feet at the end…so it would look like the person’s legs were touching. It’s hard to explain…but trust me, it was legit. So one time a classmate pointed and laughed and said, ‘she drew that person with 3 legs! Ha ha!’, and some other kids were laughing. I remember just sitting there, shaking my head and thinking, ‘Pathetic…they don’t get it…I am way too advanced for them.’ So I think I always knew art would be a part of my life. I really only wavered when I started attending University. I was doubting myself and considering studying something more practical, but ultimately realized that I really wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
PF: How about your training as an artist– did you attend art school at some point in your past? If so, was there a particular program and/or area of focus that you were concerned with?
DG: Yes, I was attending Utah State University and they have an excellent art program with some great options for studying abroad. I spent some time in Germany through one of their programs and it was an incredible experience that really helped me grow as an artist. I ended up doing the art education program with an emphasis in drawing and painting. So in addition to all of the art courses, I took a year of education courses, as well as a semester of student teaching in a middle school. And yes, it was terrifying!
PF: I understand you previously taught art, both privately and in an institutional setting. What was that experience like? Did you derive any valuable insights and/or lessons from it?
DG: I did teach high school art for a couple years right after I graduated. It was fantastic, and horrible, rewarding and utterly exhausting. I don’t know how anybody can do it for a lifetime. I absolutely love high school students. They are great! And I love teaching art to teenagers, but to actually be a public school teacher comes with it’s own set of challenges. So in that sense teaching private lessons is really nice. But you definitely don’t have the power to influence lives in quite the same way. Teaching high school really makes you a force for good that is nearly impossible to replicate any other way. So I miss that feeling sometimes.
PF: And now, of course, you’re a full-time practicing artist. Do you mind commenting on what it’s like to lead the lifestyle of an artist here in Vancouver? Is the experience of being an artist here in Vancouver in any way a distinct one?
DG: I think it’s extremely unique, actually. Few places in the world can offer such a vibrant city, surrounded by incredible forests, beaches, and mountains in such close proximity. There is an energy in the air here that is definitely inspiring…almost to a fault! I have a hard enough time focusing my creative efforts to make work that is consistent with a specific series. It’s like I suddenly get these intense desires to be a landscape painter, or I want to do a series of rooftops, or tree stumps, or animals. I have to consciously try to rein it all in and give myself some limitations. Luckily I have a whole lifetime of painting ahead of me. One of these days I’ll get to those rooftops.
PF: What does a typical workday consist of? Do you abide by any particular habits or routines, and/or might there be any other devices (behavioural or otherwise) that you’ve engineered to aid your productivity? Are these the terms you’d use to describe your artistic process?
DG: I have two young children; Liam is four and Grey is one. So a typical workday usually consists of painting in tiny spurts while simultaneously trying to keep Grey from crawling into the dishwasher and making sure Liam doesn’t run off with my phone and gorge himself on hours of weird YouTube videos. This lifestyle definitely doesn’t leave much room for routine, but I make the best of it. I do a lot of work during Grey’s naps, and TV for Liam is definitely a powerful device that aids my productivity! Ha ha. It’s not something I always use, but when I have a deadline, Liam certainly enjoys an abundance of TV and computer time. Truthfully, my most productive hours are late at night when the kids are in bed and the house is quiet. I turn on music and really immerse myself into my work. It can be exhausting trying to balance it all, but I wouldn’t change it. If anything, life with my kids provides a certain amount of texture, or grit, if that makes sense. It pushes me in unexpected ways, forces me to take breaks when I would ordinarily just push through, it gets me outside, puts me into unexpected situations…a lot, it adds traction and growth to my creative process.
PF: What inspires you? Are there things in particular that provide you with intellectual and artistic inspiration?
DG: I find bits of inspiration in all kinds of random places. Trees and other organic forms are a big one for me, but even just things like shadows on the floor, or the pattern on a dress of someone walking in front of me. These little moments often spark something new, or give me an idea for how to move forward with a particular painting. I’ve also been finding a lot of inspiration in children’s illustrations. I love that illustration is allowed to be a bit more playful and lighthearted, and I think it has definitely influenced my work.
PF: You state on your website that the concept of tension goes some length in informing your work. Can you tell us a little more about that?
DG: Yes, I think about tension a lot actually…on a number of different levels. In life, as much as we wish to avoid it, it’s the tension and the challenges that force growth and refinement. Or if nothing else, tension helps us to appreciate times of simplicity and ease. I think it’s true with art as well. So if I’m working with trees and creating some really organic forms, I love to add a rigid geometric pattern, and find a way for them to inhabit the same space. Sometimes it takes an element that is rigid and structured to really help the viewer appreciate the flowing, organic nature of the tree. And as I try to manipulate the tension between organic and geometric forms, foreground and background, reality and dreams, the work becomes stronger and richer in the process.
PF: And trees also you claim are of interest to you. What can you tell us about that? Has this always been the case?
DG: Trees have been popping up in my sketchbook, and small projects for as long as I can remember. Aside from their genuine beauty, I love trees as a subject matter because they are such a unifying experience for all people, which offers some perspective when viewing my work. Trees are an incredible link to the past, with layer upon layer of stories to tell. On a practical level they have so much to offer as well. They leave a lot of room for my own interpretation, they are everywhere, and they always hold still.
PF: Let’s turn now for a moment and discuss some of the exhibitions you’re working on. I gather that you’re planning at least two shows, and expect to be debuting them sometime this fall. Can you comment on what audiences might expect from ‘Art After’ and the Stanley Park showing?
DG: So you are correct that I am currently planning two shows, but you are not quite correct on the timeline. I like to keep people up to date on current projects that I’m working on, even if it’s in the early stages. I think it helps to start generating a little buzz, and it keeps me motivated to know that people are expecting something from me. So ‘Art After’ is actually well on it’s way and I’m in the process of submitting it to galleries right now. It’s a group exhibition that examines the creative process of artist/mothers, and the tension that exists between art-making and childrearing. Yes, it’s always about tension! Ha ha. For my part of the project I’m creating over 200 miniature paintings, and I can only work on each one until I get interrupted. Once an interruption occurs I have to put the piece down and never finish. So some get as little as two minutes or less, and some get as much as two hours or more. I’m always documenting the start and end time, and the nature of the interruption. The idea is for these hundreds of small works, in varying levels of completion, to give the viewer a glimpse into my fragmented creative process. I’m working with two other extremely talented artists, Julianne Kozak, and Jennifer Johnson, who will be showing photographs, and sculptures respectively. So at this point we are just looking for a gallery space that will be a good fit. As for ‘Stanley Park’, that’s a personal project that I just started, and hope to chip away at over the next year. These works capture the intersection where vibrant urban activity meets the incredible, deeply rooted forest of Stanley Park here in Vancouver. I’ll be looking to show it in a year or so.
PF: And, as we know, you’re working on some exclusive pieces for Plaidfox as well while you continue planning these public exhibitions. Can you tease our audience with any clues as to what form the pieces might take, and what they might end up looking like?
DG: Of course! Working on these pieces for Plaidfox has been an absolute delight; I feel honored to be collaborating with them. I really pushed myself into some new territory, which was really fun. Let’s just say that rather than creating soft organic forms with a hint of geometry, I created geometry with a hint of softness.
PF: Well, we look forward to their debut, and to at last have the opportunity to showcase them in our own homes! Which leads me to another question—how significant would you say ‘home’ is to you (both in the real world sense, and in the rather more abstract sense)? What sort of presence does art have in your own home? Do you have any preferences in how you adorn your own home with artwork?
DG: Home is definitely important to me. Mostly, home is where my husband and kids are…if I’ve got that I can be happy. We have lived in some pretty hilarious places…like in Berkeley Dan and I lived with, and took care of an elderly woman with dementia. The stories I could tell about that experience are literally endless! Here in Vancouver we are in a little basement apartment where we transformed the huge laundry room into our bedroom. It’s what it takes sometimes to live in these great cities. But we always take ownership of our space. Even if the space itself is weird, we make it feel like us. As for art work on my walls…that’s one area where it really pays to be an artist. I have acquired a lot of great original pieces by trading with artist friends. It’s nice because I love the work, as well as the person who made it.
PF: In any case I’m sure your two children appreciate having such a wonderfully artistic and inspirational mother! I haven’t had the privilege of meeting either of them, but Liam and his younger ‘fat baby’ brother Grey sound utterly adorable. And as a last question I can’t resist asking—have you started recruited them to wash your paintbrushes yet, or is their introduction to art something you’re putting off until later?
DG: I never even thought of using them for labor yet…I don’t know what I was thinking! Ha ha. It sounds like a genius plan. However, they have recruited themselves to ‘help’ me work on a number of occasions, which is always a bit frightening. I try to mitigate the damage by encouraging them in their own creative endeavors.