Getting Playful with Visiting Artist and Colourful Rebel, Frances Hahn

Photos of Frances by Michelle Peek

Frances Hahn is a collage artist and painter, probably best known for her colourful and cheeky portraits of young women blowing bubblegum bubbles.

The East Coast artist is one of thirty “oddly exquisite” creative people specially selected by Object Handmade Studio to participate in this year’s 2nd Annual Krampusmarkt. Be sure to swing by the event when it goes down at Strange Fellows Brewing on December 7th and 8th to check out some of her original paintings and scoop up a print.

I’ve noticed a steady stream of new “sketches” on your Instagram lately. Please tell me a bit more about what you’re working on. Who are these new women, what is your relationship to them and what are their relationships to each other?

Good eye. The new work is evidence of me wrangling with the best expression of what’s next for me. I’m attempting to work towards greater simplification of the figure, more colour play and possibly even distortion – as if that overall filter of nostalgia has lost its sweetness a bit. Generally I work from photos and not models — I think the diversity of women is the only connector right now. In essence, I’m asking more for the viewer as the subjects and images get more challenging. So, in fact, I don’t know yet where or how they’ll end up; I’ve just got to keep painting. In this way, painting is very much like a job for me (albeit an incredible and dreamy job): if I put in the work I’ll get somewhere.

Women are frequent subjects of your paintings. What compels you to depict certain people/characters over others? What makes a person, or a group of people, interesting to paint?

I painted a series called New Rebels for three years – this included my portraits of women blowing bubblegum. I started this before #MeToo, as the current tide of feminism was rising. I set out to paint women with serious attitude, with complete disregard for the politeness of the “good girl”, and stripped of the sex appeal we’re accustomed to seeing on women subjects in art. They may have been pretty, but they certainly didn’t care if you thought they were. This related very much to my personal story.

Your images inspire reflection in viewers; but what do they tell us about you, the artist and person?

I was born rebellious but I was taught to be a good girl and was certainly not allowed to chew gum as a kid. As I grew up I receded a bit into the challenge of work and relationships and caring for small humans. In a way these subjects reflect my own hope to escape expectations, especially gendered ones. And the art is a reminder for me that I’m actually kind of comfortable outside the norm. So often the feedback I get from viewers is that my art is joyful – and I wouldn’t disagree – but there’s also a twinge of grittiness too. Happy thoughtful. Hopeful darkness? Thoughtful happy maybe? I’m rather attached to the poetry of Mary Oliver who was able to capture the coexistence of hope and ugliness so well.

I’m also very curious about what you think your subjects and themes – being so rooted in an imaginary past – say about your current context?

When I started painting I very much wanted the subjects to be non-specific to any era – and so part of all our pasts in a way. And now I would say I’m much more comfortable with commenting on the nature of our present. Politically things are bleak, but at the same time the voices of feminism, body positivity, LGBT+ and diversity are so strong. Another contradiction. I suppose I’d say I’m depicting contradictions.

I’ve been reading about how you describe your approach to your practice, and your idea about how play is a “meaningful pursuit” stands out to me – it’s quite a subversive idea. Is this a theme that you intend to continue developing? Or what other ideas are you interested in exploring in the future?

Play is so very important. We play as kids in order to practice at failure. And as an adults, we become so timid and stuck. I teach at OCADU in Toronto in the Environmental Design department and I teach lots of students who have a hard time coming up with new ideas and are very often afraid when their projects look different than their peers. What I end up teaching mostly is about design process – or how to shape a creative process to be understandable, systematic and reliable through structured play. Levity is key to this. And lots of collaborative exercises to get comfortable with failure. We do lots of turning drawings upside down and drawing ten more versions of things that look ho-hum. I think my ideas about play inform my process so they’ll always be present though not always at the forefront.

When I look through your portfolio of landscapes and portraits they seem very cohesive, almost as if they are two components of the same imaginary universe. Is there a link between the landscapes that you depict and the characters? What is it?

I really love that you see this. Most commonly I explain that the landscapes and figures are like exercising two different muscle groups. My colour palettes are similar and at the most basic the tools are the same and the medium is the same. But I agree, there is something more in common. Perhaps the link is my own longing – to travel to that place to be that woman. The landscapes are images of places I’ve never travelled to and the figures are people I have’t met. With both, I’ve projected stories onto them. Humans are compulsive storytellers. We can’t stop ourselves. I’ve done so few experiments of putting the figures into the landscapes, but my gut tells me it wouldn’t work.

Your fascination with remorse and personal fantasies about missed opportunities leads me to wonder whether you have an alter ego and what they’re like? What alternative life and career path would you have taken if you hadn’t pursued art?

I think about this a lot. I sit in a cafe and try to figure out if in an alternate version of reality I could be the barista. I’ve been lucky enough to have choices, but also cursed with indecisiveness. I blame my imagination for being too good. And, I’m the first to admit remorse, as ugly as that may be. I left (and have just returned to) a job in interior design. It’s super challenging and rewarding but I manage to do it part time. I’m very protective of my painting time. But really I want to do it all – surely that’s possible?

An overarching opinion from BC artists and creatives that I’ve interviewed is that pursuing a career in the arts can be very isolating and I’m curious about how your personal experiences might compare with Vancouver’s…I know that in the past you were involved with the co-working space Necessary Arts Company (not sure if there’s still a relationship there?) What is the artistic community like where you live? What are the particular challenges that it presents and how are you, your peers and the city addressing them?

I live in Guelph which is a smallish city west of Toronto. A lot of my work takes me to Toronto but the core of my art practice, my studio and my community is in Guelph. I moved here with small kids and it really is home to me now. The arts community here is incredible and fierce – the Guelph Arts Council is one of the oldest in the country I believe. It’s very much a place where artists practice without concern for competition and the economics of the place allow that. There are challenges and lack of public funding, but the overall sense I get is support.

I started Necessary Arts with a partner after about a year of working in isolation – the need to connect was urgent and that co-working space provided a great platform to meet other creatives, host events and get involved with a community I was new to. As I got busier the balance tipped towards needing more focused time rather than running a studio and I left. I now work out of my home studio and really couldn’t be happier.

Although you’re based on the East Coast, you seem to have a pretty close connection to the Vancouver art/artisan communities. What is your relationship with Vancouver and how did you get involved with OH Studio?

I met Grace Lee at a One of Kind Show in Toronto some years ago and we hit it off instantly. My oldest friend and I were buying gifts for each other and Grace remarked what a great friendship we had. As it turned out, many of my clients are also some of hers – some aesthetic crossover perhaps. We’ve talked for a long time about a really collaborative project and the wheels are still turning. She is a great connector and community builder. It’s through OH Studio that I was able to meet the team from The Kube in Gibson’s that shows my work. Also, social media has been brilliant in forging new connections with other artists on the West Coast. Conveniently my dad and step mom also live in Deep Cove, so the pull is strong.


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