Contemporary, Toronto-based artist Shary Boyle discusses how Christiane Pflug’s Cottingham School with Black Flag, 1971 was a seminal inspiration for her as a student. Boyle reveals her fascination with Pflug’s unique, intense, graphic artworks and how they made her feel that becoming an artist was possible.
Ken Lum: You know I think, when you’re an artist, it’s really about developing through your art a language, a self understanding. And it’s a never-ending process of self-invention and self-discovery. And that’s what I like about art.
Stefan Hancherow: At the age of six. Ken Lum remembers telling his mother, who worked in a sweat shop after immigrating to Canada from China, “I am going to take you out of poverty.”
KL: It makes me sound more sophisticated than I was. I was just six years old. And I certainly had a grasp of what it was like to be in deep poverty. I remember developing a very keen sense of consciousness, of the rules of the world, I suppose: who are the winners, who are the losers.
SH: This childhood awareness of class and social justice would later become characteristic of Lum’s work, and he is now one of Canada’s leading international artists. Although Lum’s values were already formed at a young age, his interest in art came later. As a teenager, one of Lum’s first encounters with artistic greatness was when he began seeing Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, widely known as the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art, living on the streets of downtown Vancouver. Morisseau, who was forced to attend a residential school as a child, struggled with alcoholism, and, despite his fame, wasn’t a stranger to life on the street.
KL: I somehow identified with his state in a way; it was obviously very poor. And I saw something, you know, in terms of my own formation, I guess—earlier formation—in him.
Stefan Hancherow: Hello and welcome to Art & Influence a series of podcasts about Canadian artists and the art legends who influenced their work. I’m Stefan Hancherow. Today we’re talking to Chinese Canadian artist Ken Lum about how an interaction with Norval Morrisseau would greatly influence his life as an artist.
Hi, Ken. Thanks for being here. We’re excited to have you on the show. Let’s start with a little bit of your background. Can you tell me about this story when you were six years old, and you told your mother you wanted to take her out of poverty.
Ken Lum: Oh gosh, OK. [laughter] Well, we grew up very poor, and my mother didn’t speak any English. My mother worked in a sweatshop, even though she was highly educated. And, so, I remember just saying—you know because my mother is coming home very late and so on, and she was getting sick—just saying to myself, I need to, you know, I need to help you transcend the situation. I mean it didn’t work that way, but it was basically the gist of my thoughts at that time. So, I remember developing a very keen sense of consciousness, of the rules of the world, I suppose: who are the winners, who are the losers.
SH: How did that perspective as a child shape how you make art today?
KL: Well, I had to negotiate a kind of entry into the art system, you know, which was not always easy because, you know, first of all it’s not based on meritocracy, just like society is not based on meritocracy. There were lots of unspoken rules and lots of reaffirmation of status. I’ll give you the example of a furniture work I did—and this is only maybe 10 years ago—and I rented furniture, and I put them together, and, you know, I can only afford renting the cheapest furniture, and so on. And then I gave a talk, and there’s a major European museum curator in the audience, and I said “well, you know, I bought this because I thought this is good furniture and nice looking.” And he said, “Oh come on that’s just, how could you say that? It’s obviously the worst taste.” And so on. And I said, “No, truly, I thought it was good,” at the time, and everyone just laughed, and didn’t believe me. And I remember thinking at that time—I had another epiphany—thinking, yeah, that’s taste and that’s about class—like, why was it so far-fetched for me to exercise something else approximate to my real economy, and [for me to] say, this is the taste that was important to me? I think what I try to do is something authentic about the state of being for a lot of people in terms of the, you know, the accoutrements that they live with.
SH: When you started at university, you weren’t studying art. What was the turning point?
KL: The turning point started even earlier, because I liked art as a kid. I always had a facility for drawing, and, throughout grade school and in secondary school, I was the school artist, so to speak. I drew the cover for the for the yearbook, every year, or three years of my five years in high school. I was the Vancouver Public Library artist; I did, you know, posters for puppet shows and things like this. Then I also worked later on as a flora and fauna illustrator for the British Columbia government. So I illustrated a lot of the, you know bears, or slugs, or, whatever, snakes, for these brochures that you’d find on BC ferries. So, I did a lot of, you know—it wasn’t art, but it was a kind of substitute for art, so to speak. But in grade, I guess it was grade 6 or 7, I was interested in art, but I had a teacher, and he thought that my work was always too odd. You know? He’d asked everyone to draw horses. And I would draw a horse that was very strange, you know, would be not quite a horse, it would be have a T-Rex head, or something else. And, so, he actually told me at the end of grade 6, I don’t think arts for you. Believe it or not! [laughter] So that was one turning point, and I didn’t take grade seven art.
And then art kind of was put on the shelf for a while. So, I went into science—pesticide research—and I went into that. I guess my curse was, in a way, I was reasonably good at it. Then what happened was I took an art class in the evening, and I took it, not because I wanted to rediscover art, I took it because I didn’t—I wasn’t happy in terms of my social being. The science world, I knew was very, let’s just say, unsensual, let’s put it that way. And I wasn’t really happy. It just seemed like there’s a whole side to life which was not being touched. And, so, I kind of had this crisis in terms of wanting more out of my life, but I was also afraid to make the leap to art. But at some point, I remember thinking, I had to do it. And so I did.
SH: Where does Norval Morrisseau fit in there or do you think?
KL: It was interesting because when I met Norval Morrisseau—and I don’t make claims to being his friend or knowing him at all, really, except for some interactions—but it was during that transitional period, where—late high school to the point where I made the leap to go into art. So it was really bracketed by that period. And I remember being shocked by seeing him in front of the Carnegie Library [at] Hastingson and Main, and, you know, he would be crouched on the ground, and he had a board and he’d be making quick paintings. And I remember him because I remember he had some celebrity in local newspapers and you’d see his prints. I think you saw it in Hudson Bay Company or Eaton’s and so on as well. I remember, he was one of the figures, the few figures in art, that I really liked. I liked the color. I liked the style. I liked—something about it, I liked. So when I saw him there, I recognized him immediately. You know, it was just very sad.
SH: What kind of personal connection do you have to Morrisseau’s artwork?
KL: Well, I would answer it this way: I grew up in an east-side school, which probably had the most, certainly had the highest, First Nations student population, by far, of any other school. So I had lots of friends who were Native-Canadians. So I somehow identified with the state, in a way. It was obviously very poor, and I saw something, you know, in terms of my own formation, I guess—earlier formation—in [Morrisseau]. I also was vexed by this sight of this, you know, highly regarded artist, and no one was there to take care of him; no one was there to protect him. And I’m sure it had to do with his Native status, to be honest. I really thought—this is going back to what I said earlier, about [how] as a young kid, at six, I remember thinking these are the winners, these are the losers, and this is how you pull yourself up, somehow. You know, it was a very crude kind of mapping that I did in my head, but, obviously, I’m dealing with, you know, the kind of racism I saw there, and I thought there was this othering, alterity: who gets to speak, who doesn’t get to speak, who doesn’t get heard. And the class stratification that capital brings to a society.
All those things kind of converge for me, and all these people were giving [Morrisseau], like, a dollar, to do sketches, so he can sign them—and he insisted he sign them. And I refused to buy one; I just refused to commission one, so to speak. And then I remember people bartering. They’d say, I’ll give you 50 cents, you know; [he’d go,] no, I want a dollar, and [they're say,] I’ll give you 50 cents—you know, things like this, and—I don’t know that he relented. But I remember, you know, this very unseemly kind of context. And there was actually always a small crowd around him. Because people thought they could profit off him and so on.
That offered insights in terms of not just the way of the world, but also something to do with how the art world is not immune to the ways of the world. So that even though when I went into art later on—not much later on—I went in because I had this utopian sense of possibility that the art world would give me, and I think that I was correct to feel that way,, but I also had some doubts as well. I didn’t feel entirely at home in it. You know, I’d go to New York and meet everyone and they’re all dressed in black. I didn’t feel comfortable. I couldn’t afford the clothes anyway. These sorts of thoughts entered into my own development. I can’t really, you know, write a narrative in terms of sequentially how the composition of my formation came to be. But, more anecdotally, that’s how it came to be.
SH: It’s interesting you say that. This is in the 70s. And, you know, Norval, at that time, was known as this incredible artist. And it wasn’t even until 2006 that he was given a solo exhibition at the National Gallery, and that was the first solo exhibition of any Indigenous artist.* Do you think that there’s been a change occur over the last 40 years, on the treatment of Indigenous artists?
KL: The tough one answer because I think it’s more possible for young Indigenous artists to participate in art and to receive due recognition. And there’s more funding, there’s more support, in general, I would say. At the same time, you know, the reservation system, the status system is still in place. The Indian Act is still in place. So sure, you know, every time there’s an airport opening up, bring out the, you know, First Nations to do the official ceremonies. But the reality of the way Native people live in places like Sickert Portage in northern Manitoba or Spences Bridge in British Columbia—that hasn’t changed. It’s still shameful. So that’s the only way I can answer it.
SH: Do you think you have anything in common with Noval?
KL: Well, I don’t want to overstate how important Norval Morrisseau was to me. I had a couple of brief conversations—I got him coffee once [laughter]—I saw him over a number of years and then he disappeared. But when I was asked, was there someone who had this influence, I thought, oh, I could name someone in the New York art world and so on. But then I thought deeper, and I remember that was quite meaningful to me, you know. And so, I guess, he’s always there in some way. I don’t want to overstate it, but I also don’t want to understate it either. It is just one of several reference, I would say, that inhabits my mind.
I certainly built a kind of narrative in my own mind about him, and, as I said earlier, I drew lessons, in my way, about the reality of art and the idealism I attached to art, at one time, and I still do. I actually think art should be different. I used to think art had to be had to be a higher calling. Immune from more base realities of what constitutes the world. And now I think art should be infected by that too. It should be real.
SH: That was Ken Lum, a Philadelphia-based artist, teacher, and writer, who has exhibited widely across Canada and internationally, including at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada, Documenta, and the Whitney Biennial.
SH: Art & Influence was created by the Art Canada Institute, whose executive director is Sara Angel. The show’s producer is Ashley Walters. Project staff includes: Simone Wharton, Marie van Zeyl, and Joy Xiang, advising by Jessica Bradley, and music by A Tribe Called Red. I’m your host Stephan Hancherow.
Thanks for listening.
*The Art Canada Institute would like to acknowledge that the National Gallery of Canada mounted a retrospective exhibition of Inuk artist Pudlo Pudlat’s work in 1990. The exhibition Norval Morrisseau—Shaman Artist in 2006 was the first retrospective mounted for a First Nations Indigenous artist.
To learn more about Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, his impact on the art world and his importance to the history of Indigenous art in Canada, read Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work by Carmen Robertson, published as part of the Art Canada Institute’s Canadian Online Art Book Project. Browse all our titles here.