Valerie Butters

"Interestingly gaudy and exuberently messy" Henry Leighman, Montreal Gazette

 
 

An Interview with Valérie Butters

Jul 13th, 2017

What is your first memory creating art?

I am an only child of parents who moved around a lot because my dad was a fighter pilot.   I can’t say my first memory because art is just something I did, like riding a bike.   But I do remember maybe drawing and painting more than riding a bike.  I do remember drawing a lot of airplanes.  They were such a big part of my life.   My dad flew in a time when rules were more relaxed and Canadian military aviation was at its prime during the Cold War.  I remember him flying over our house so low the entire neighbourhood would shake, just to wake my mom and I up.

I drew airplanes like Basquiat drew faces.

As I grew older maybe in my tweens …  I remember lots of watercolours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.   Even when I had sleepovers we would paint.   I honestly thought everyone did that but as I talk to my friends now, they tell me how special it was to come to my house and paint.

 

You call yourself nouveaux automatist – what does that mean to you being automatist?

There are a few technical definitions I will start with.

The dictionary defines automatism as an involuntary function of an organ or other body structure that is not under conscious control, such as the beating of the heart or the dilation of the pupil of the eye.  The reflexive action of a body part.

Les automatistes de Québec favoured a fluid, painterly technique over the comparatively, hard- edge abstraction so popular in the U.S. and eastern Europe in the time of the late 40’s early 50’s.  Much like the group of seven, they were looking to create a distinctively Canadian artistic identity.

Their work was largely stream –of-consciousness inspired, and believedthis to be a truer means of communication of  subconscious emotions and sensory experiences;  they wanted a liberation from intention, reason and any kind of structure in order to communicate a universal human experience without bias.

Although their efforts contradicted their claims of working without intention in the opinions of some.

I am on a quest inspired by these ideologies but accepting a certain amount, or as much knowledge I can get.   It’s how I define in the classes I teach as a balance of “knowing” and “letting go”.

The process of being clear on your ideas… or even as simple as a single idea and approach the canvas to try to channel that idea with everything you have learned that is now drilled in your head, so you are not consciously thinking about “rules” and you have reached a state of just responding.  All the intuitive decisions are in a state of non-thinking and you are just reacting.

I do not paint from a photograph nor do I want them to look like a photograph.  This state is a special time when you can abandon your subject and look at the paint.  Adapt to the automatic marks that I make that are unique to myself.   Finding the beauty in what many people might call accidents but I would rather call it a dance or a communication between my true self and the canvas.   Make a mark and respond to it, rather than resort to the subject for the next mark.  The subject is there as an inspiration or a resource of information for when I don’t know what to do next.  A tool for decision making.  Not The tool.

 

What is your process to conjure your sub-conscious?

My process is gestural.   I went to school in Montréal and was taught be the likes of Sophie Jodoin and Jennifer Hornyak, amongst many other artists who gave me what I believe to be a legacy.

I do start with a subject, and I use my energy to cover the canvas with large loose gestures that are very general.  Like looking with your eyes squinted and all blurry.   Then I stand back and abandon my subject to look for what might be interesting in the paint.   Often we are so many steps ahead that we fail to see all the wonderful stuff that is happening right now.

This could go on and on for several sessions.  Sometimes getting more specific, and sometimes, disappointed with the details and will proceed with the process of deconstruction.   This construction and deconstruction is entirely intuitive.

People get very stressed out when I paint because I am fearless and I am willing to deconstruct something that in their eye looks finished.  But to me, it’s too contrived.  Too thought out, or at least thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time.

My time to think is on my contemplation chairs.   That might take a while.   Then I am absolutely adamant on spending lots of time on mixing colours and my palettes.   All the work I do before I start painting sets me up for success so all I have to do when I get up to my wall is stay loose and use my energy.   Everything I have already thought of becomes a reaction from my last mark to my next at this juncture.

When I no longer know what to do, I stop and think.  Until I know what to do.   That might be that day or months from now.   This is part of trusting the process.

When I lose objectivity it’s time to stop and start doing other living things like gardening or whatever.  Just something other than painting.

All these things have taken years of discipline and becoming self-aware and also recognising my weaknesses as actually my strengths.   Trusting that my own uniqueness with any luck, will be something the world has never seen before.  It took a while to stop fighting what comes naturally to me, to not only recognize it but manage all the pieces to highlight these strengths and showcase them.   It is a process of self-awareness and learning confidence.   For me, my gesture is my natural mark.   When all the pieces of the puzzle are consciously nurtured, it gives me the freedom to just let it all go and let my mark and my energy take shape.

It is a balance.  Although Les automatistes trusted their intuition primarily, I do believe there is lots of work you have to do to give yourself the luxury to find your intuition and own voice.   Again, a balance of the two but also knowing when to tap into what side of your brain.

 

Who is your greatest artistic influence and why?

My greatest influences are many but they all share one quality, they taught me how to respond to my environment rather than paint what I think it looks like.

They taught me design principles that nothing is precious, that we are always working on the same painting, and painting is drawing, and drawing is painting, and a good painting looks like a sculpture, and a good sculpture is like a painting.  They showed me what was unique to me even at times when I just could not see what they were seeing.  They were honest with me.  They taught me that just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s not good.  What I was taught is an inspiration for me to start teaching too, not only to share what I know, but to make me remember and to drill it in my head, write it down and tell other people about it.

My teachers are and were, Sophie Jodion, Jennifer Hornyak, Brian Atyeo, Philip Iverson, Jaques Clement,  and so many other great artists who shared a legacy with me.

One of my biggest influences whom I have not met (and won’t) is Richard Deibenkorn who was able to seamlessly transition from abstraction to figurative.  He had an inherent sense of design that he studied in whatever genre he was exploring.   I can relate to his gestural process with design always being in the forefront.  I appreciate his unapologetic tenacity to switch back and forth even at the expense of his reputation in the eyes of the art critics.   He did what he needed to do regardless of sales.   And learned from each chapter.  I also can relate to the Struggle with pure abstraction as I have a hard time also letting go of anything slightly tangible.   I like the little stories I make in my head as I am painting and I am not interested in letting them go entirely.

Obviously Les automatistes who showed me that artist are historians of our time and you can change the world with the ideas of how you translate your process.   To not be afraid that your process is not mainstream or what people are used to looking at.   So for me, in a world of mapped out expectations and a desire for the end result to be the motivation, I’m fighting for the road.  The process.   As ambiguous as it might feel or seem, sometimes you just have to trust it.

For me, these people give me faith that if I was to look back on my life, I would not have any regrets.  That to me shows me that I am on the right path.   And maybe one day, the world will be on my path too.

 

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

There might be a few.

I was faced with my own mortality at the age of 8.  With melanoma.   I believe I lived fearlessly because of that.

From joining the Canadian infantry, to living on a Greek island for three years.  I am a great shot (military rifles), I love fishing and fashion.   My mom always said I would not play with my Tonka trucks unless I had my ruby rings on.

I graduated high school at grade 15, and now I am on their wall of fame.   I bartended my way through art school even though I had scholarships.

I met my husband in the intimate section in lava life in Montreal and months later started my move to Pemberton BC where I live, work, laugh, cry, parent, nurture, teach, paint and play.

 
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