Charlie Labelle is a woman of many talents – including a knack for capturing and elevating the nuances of life’s mostly mundane and personal moments.
We recently spotted Labelle’s series of paintings, Not The Mood, on the walls at the Charles Clark Gallery. Intrigued, we reached out to the artist with a handful of pressing questions…
You’re a comedian and filmmaker, and now a painter – what spurred this exploration of a new medium? And what appealed to you about painting, in particular?
I’ve always liked to draw and doodle, but I was always intimidated by painting because I felt like anything I painted had to be an Important Subject or something. I also generally hate doing things I’m not immediately good at, which is a mindset I’ve been trying to work on.
In fall 2019 I think maybe I was a little depressed and I impulse bought a bunch of paint and canvasses which I used probably six times. A lot of “creative people” felt so much pressure at the start of Covid to like write a great novel or something; I took a screenwriting class online and could barely do my homework. The paint and canvasses were still in my room and I started taking those out, partly to avoid writing, and it ended up being pretty therapeutic.
Something I find really important about doing different things is that I can use what I know about one medium in another. My experience as a director and cinematographer really informs the framing and lighting in my paintings, and I think that my years of doing improv have helped me with character, detail and specificity.
Tell me about the moment that inspired the Not The Mood series.
In the fall before Covid I was walking by Liberty Bakery on Main, which has great big windows everywhere, and there was a woman sitting in there just totally staring into space. “Shhh don’t talk to her she’s working on her novel” is one of the paintings I started in 2019 and ended up revisiting during Covid, the feeling of it was so clear to me I guess it felt like I had found my Important Subject!
“I think for most people life is actually not super exciting super often and I think however much we might want to focus on the fun stuff, the time we spend alone outside of work is pretty much the only time we’re really having an “interior life” or whatever you want to call it.”
Viewing the series myself, I picked up on a subtle sense of confidence and self-ownership bubbling beneath your subjects’ surface appearances of indifference or ennui. Do you think there is power or something to be gained by embracing the mundane moments?
Definitely! I’ve worked in the service industry most of my adult life and there are aspects of it I like. I bartended at Dageraad for two years and, because of the location, a lot of our regulars were older trades guys. They would come in and just want to talk about, like, renovating their house, or else complain about how the guys who run the Fairmont will cheap out on getting their refrigeration system serviced regularly and only call someone when it breaks down, and they’re losing a ton of money because the AC isn’t working. I always loved talking to those guys, just generally meeting people who aren’t normally a part of my social circle I guess, but it also saps my social energy so that I need alone time on my days off.
Anyone who has to work is probably experiencing something similar. I think for most people life is actually not super exciting super often and I think however much we might want to focus on the fun stuff, the time we spend alone outside of work is pretty much the only time we’re really having an “interior life” or whatever you want to call it.
The title came from a collection of essays that I really love by Durga Chew-Bose named Too Much And Not The Mood, which itself is taken from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary where she talks about being tired of having to edit herself for an audience. I tried to focus the series on people having the types of unguarded moments you can only have when you are not editing yourself for an audience.
I love work in any medium that doesn’t gloss over the boring parts. I remember seeing Another Year in theatres when it came out – it was the first Mike Leigh movie I saw – and I was so excited, even though it’s probably one of the least exciting movies ever made. It’s about a year in the life of a couple nearing retirement age, the time they spend working on their plot in the community garden or just making dinner. Lesley Manville plays the wife’s annoying co-worker, a lonely divorcée whose story arc is essentially that she buys a car and crashes it a few months later, and she’s probably one of the most thrilling characters in the history of cinema to me.
It seems likely that, whether we wanted to or not, all of us have dealt with boredom since Covid hit, and forced perhaps to face it head-on or avoid it. How have you been coping with these moments? What is your favourite (or most shameful) distraction?
I’ve gotten really good at the New York Times crossword. I used to do it sometimes with my mom, but in May 2020 I got the annual subscription and I have, like, opinions about it now. I read Wordplay, the column the NYT publishes along with the daily crossword. It has a really active comment section. I have… lightly antagonistic feelings towards some of the people who go there every day just to complain that a reference to Super Mario 64 is “too modern”. I may have gone there to brag the first time I finished a Sunday puzzle in under 30 minutes.
When do you feel most unabashedly like yourself?
At the risk of sounding completely anti-social, I want to say it’s when I’m going to eat at a restaurant alone and half people watching, half reading a Patricia Highsmith novel. But also I love to go out for drinks with friends and gossip about a new crush!
What’s next for you? Do you currently have any projects in the works, or that would like to tackle in the near future?
In terms of painting, I’m working on some stuff that might form a new series, but I’m mostly trying to experiment a bit. I’ve started exploring oil painting and playing around with watercolours a little bit too.
I’m planning to shoot a short film in the fall about a goth teen who gets really into internet message boards in 2006. I was at Dawson College when the shooting happened and I don’t usually talk about it much because I don’t know if there’s anything interesting to say about school shootings. Like probably anyone who reads the news at all, I’ve been worrying a lot about toxic internet culture the past few years and I recently started thinking about it in connection to Dawson. I want to explore the world and circumstances of the shooter without it being about him or that event specifically.
I’m also developing a feature based on my last short film. It’s a sort of love triangle comedy set in art school, where the triangle is actually more of an octagon and every character is bisexual and extremely annoying.