Safe at Home: An interview with artist Rebecca Montgomery

 A behind-the-scenes look at BC artist Rebecca Montgomery's painting When to Fold, inspired by Sarah Ens' debut collection, The World Is Mostly Sky.

1. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your work as an artist?

I was born in 1992 in Lions Bay, B.C. Canada. Ever since I was a child, I have thought in images. Speaking came to me at a different pace than my peers, and I often found myself at a loss for words. Creating art, on the other hand, was a way of expressing that came to me naturally and abundantly. I can remember drawing and creating things that interested other people as early as 3 years old. I quickly found that visual art provided a way for me to communicate and connect, to learn and process information, and to show my thoughts and feelings.

Now, I am living in Vancouver and I work as a freelance artist while studying Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. This is where I also completed my bachelors of Visual Arts with a minor in Art History in 2015, during which I completed an exchange year at the UNSW College of Fine Art in Sydney (Australia). Though I am particularly drawn to drawing and painting, I feel it’s important to be open to using any medium. My work ranges from printmaking blind contour drawings, molding little clay bodies, and letting light leak into my analogue camera.

2. Your painting When to Fold is a response to Sarah Ens’ new poetry collection, The World Is Mostly Sky. What was it about Sarah’s book that inspired you to create this image? 

Sarah is one of those great writers who is able to find a way to describe a feeling you’ve had but never been able to make total sense of. I am so grateful for her words and their amazing capacity. “When to Fold” depicts the image that came to my mind after reading her poetry. I love reading as a source for inspiration because I find words and images can intermingle to create rich layers of meaning. The poems that speak to this painting are ones that describe the process of growing up, part of which requires understanding how to be present with uncomfortable feelings such as sadness.

This theme also extends to other poems Sarah has written, such as one featured in Poetry is Dead: “I was really trying to not be sad anymore, kind of folding those parts over like paper into cranes” - Sarah Ens, poem “#TEENROADKILL”.

“a boat is not the whole world (the world is mostly sky)” is another line from The World Is Mostly Sky which evoked a personal memory. I remember being a child in a rowboat, and how difficult it was to get anywhere on my own. One day, I put my head down to focus on paddling as hard as I could, staring hard at the boat's innards. When all my energy was spent, I loosened my grip on the paddles and looked up, expecting to be in front of the neighbours’ dock. But I had been paddling so hard, focused only on moving forward, that I hadn’t paid attention to where I was going, and was still far away from where I intended. After that, I paddled slowly with my head up. Though my pace was slow, the view was much better and the task became easier. I remember it was as if the world had opened up for me. That experience of tunnel vision (or, you might say, when the boat was my whole world), taught me the importance of looking up from myself, to pay attention to the bigger picture. In the painting, the boat is sitting patiently in the prairie grass.

3. How did you create this painting?

The image developed over a long time, and after many loose sketches I came up with this composition. I used oil paint because it mimics the oiliness of skin. The canvas is the largest size I could fit in my car (some decisions must be practical) and I ended up painting this in three different locations over a period of months. The cranes were meticulous and time consuming, requiring prolonged committed focus, whereas the grass and sky were more free form and flowing.

4. Can you walk us through the meaning behind the various elements within the image composition?

For me, the cranes represent a willingness to take action (even small actions) towards a future of possibility, while the boat is both a mechanism for movement and a reminder of perspective. The hands in their expression are weighing and handling, tossing up and letting fall like breathing in and out. The background is inspired by the prairies, after a visit to Sarah’s home I was struck by the different landscape (which also plays a major role in her book).

But this is just one of many views we could take. I like to allow for more than one meaning for images. When I’m creating something, I care more about what feelings it could bring up. For example, I loved that within the same week I had two very different interpretations from friends. One said, “This person needs to stop folding paper cranes and get in the boat already! There’s a storm coming and they need to get to it!” while another friend said, “This space feels so peaceful, I could spend a lot of time here.” I always encourage art viewers to keep in mind that their own thoughts and feelings are important and valid subjects of analysis. That’s why I love surrealist images, they allow for that openness and some mystery.

5. Numerous pieces in your portfolio feature folded paper cranes; what keeps you coming back to this image/symbolism?

After reading Sarah's book, I kept coming across more and more echoes of crane stories - sort of like how once you start driving a new car, you see the same model everywhere you go. In Japanese culture, there is a legend that those who fold 1000 paper cranes are granted a wish, or eternal happiness. I learned more about this from the children’s book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. So I thought, there really must be something to this, and started folding cranes myself. I found that there is a relaxing, ritualistic, and hopeful quality to origami. The gradational process of folding offers my mind something to focus on when I am anxious, troubled, or simply needing something structured to occupy my mind. Now that they’re a habitual occurrence in life, they are in my art too.

6. What inspires you?

Connecting with others and a feeling of belonging is often the core of what inspires me. If I’m feeling blocked, what works for me is a combination of letting myself be really bored, then giving something my full attention. This gets me out of my automatic, endless-scroll kind of brain and into a space of caring about what I’m doing. This week I’ve been particularly inspired by the artist Shaun Tan. If you haven’t seen his art, go have a look because it is beautiful and wondrous. I watched many of his talks online and these words I found particularly inspiring:

“Creativity is empathy, a will to find otherness actually interesting rather than problematic.”

 - Shaun Tan

7. How is the global pandemic currently impacting your artwork?

Some would think that with spending all this time at home in isolation, I would have been making a lot of art. Truthfully, I was drawing more before the global pandemic. At first I felt guilty about this, like I wasn’t taking advantage of this time somehow. But lately I have let go of that pressure and allowed myself to do the things with as little stress as possible. This definitely includes evenings of folding paper cranes (plus some dragons, butterflies, and sharks) with my family.

I’m also finding that I have a new appreciation for online communities. This month I made a website, returned to social media, and illustrations I did for Confessions of a New Grad podcast were released. I am doing an online university course, and am also a new writer for the Canadian Art Therapy Association editorial magazine. Being an interviewer and interviewee has been fun! The pandemic has been a good reminder for me that even as a professional artist, I don’t have to force the work. If now is the time to look and talk about art rather than create it, then that’s ok!

8. What do you see as the next step for your art?

I’m excited to share that I have been researching Masters of Art Therapy programs as a next step in my education. Art has been a modality for healing in my life, so I’d love to be able to dive into this and share what I learn with others. It feels like a good fit for building on the work that I have done and am doing now. I would also love to see my artwork up in a gallery once the pandemic is over, perhaps with Sarah’s words on the wall too! We will see, all in good time.

Rebecca Mongomery

Rebecca Montgomery is an artist, illustrator, and creative consultant based out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Find her online at https://www.rebeccamontgomery.com/https://www.rebeccamontgomery.com/

Produced with the support of the Safe at Home program and the Province of Manitoba.

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