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A Guided Tour Through the Alternate Universe of Local Artist Paul Morstad

Artist, musician and bird watcher Paul Morstad has an insatiable curiosity and a penchant for adventure. These traits have driven his impressive real-life world travels, as well as the wild voyages of the characters depicted in his signature watercolour paintings. Morstad’s most recent series of artworks continue to traverse time, place and space, compiling his interests in zoology, geography, history and literature in two-dimensional context. We briefly pinned him down as he was preparing for a busy summer between Montreal and Vancouver that includes solo and group shows as well as participation in the Vancouver Mural Festival (August 6 – 11th). Read on to find out more.

Where do you currently live and what makes it home? I live in East Van. What makes it home for me is my banjo collection, my wife and my daughter.

Where do you go to be inspired? Locally? Reifel Island Bird Sanctuary where I can find endless species of birds. I especially like the Sandhill Cranes. I also like Maple Flats on Dollarton Highway in North Van, where Malcolm Lowry lived in a squat and wrote “Under the Volcano”.

What’s the last book you read? “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”, by Haruki Murakami.

How about your favourite book as a child? “Green Eggs and Ham”.

What is your first memory? Pulling a newly hand-made sock monkey out of a paper grocery bag that my great-grandma had made for me in South-West Saskatchewan. Maybe I was 2 or 3 years old?

How does your living in different places across Canada inform your style? Do you feel a particular fondness and/or creative attachment to any one place in particular? Vancouver and Montreal have been the places where I’ve made most of my work, and the ethnospheres and landscapes of both influence me greatly, but Africa and India have had the greatest impact on my art making.

Tell me about your creative process and how it has changed since you started. I always work from an idea, whether it is a story or song I’ve heard, or an old map or zoological illustration, something gets triggered or jostled in my brain and it drives me to make an image from it. Dreams sometimes inspire my work as well.

What’s the last dream that you remember? Two synchronized swimmers in a flooded art gallery; one a woman, the other a giant squid.

What is the best thing about working with watercolour? The worst? The best thing is the immediacy and unpredictable nature of the paint. The worst thing is its permanence and indelibility — mistakes are permanent so you have to incorporate them or abandon the piece.

“I feel that by removing our selves from the present, it gives us a better perspective to look a topics which we might be too myopic to analyze from our current position.”

The characters and scenarios in your artwork seem to inhabit an entirely different world, and there’s a narrative, fairy tale or fable-like quality to them. Where does that alternate reality originate from? How much thought do you put into the stories behind the images? The ideas for my paintings are drawn from many sources; my own dreams, folk tales, scientific journals, mythology, hyperbole and lies.

Besides the more obvious playful contradiction of place, there is also a sense of a blurring of time in your personal artwork. What is the significance of your historical references in fashion, etc? I feel that by removing our selves from the present, it gives us a better perspective to look at topics which we might be too myopic to analyze from our current position. The thing I like about narrative based art-making is the ability to be as anachronistic as I like. I will set down some basic ground rules for myself so things don’t get too impossible — I like to be rooted in realism — but after that, it’s whatever comes to me. The impossibility of time travel and other paradoxes are used as a foil to focus on certain feelings or issues wich concern me. Extinction, human encroachment, isolation, melancholy, and human/animal relationships are all themes I deal with.

Your colour palette has a dated, almost sepia quality to it. What inspires that? Are you a nostalgic person? I’m nostalgic for times from before I even existed. A muted palette speaks of another time, when the raw emotion of the present has faded. Lucien Freud, the painter, said it best, “Full, saturated colours have an emotional significance I want to avoid.” I feel the exact same way.

What’s your favourite era in history? 1920s. Everything about it. The arts, the sciences, and especially the music!

A lot of your work is very detailed. What sort of reference materials do you use when drawing animals/nature and people? I’m very interested in science journals, cartography, historical texts, older botanical and zoological illustration. I’m a pretty heavy birdwatcher as well. Observation is key for me, and it keeps me constantly interested and occupied.

What has your experience with the outdoors and nature been like? I’m very interested in long distance treks, whether on bike, canoe or by foot. I’ve paddled a canoe from Montreal to NYC down the Hudson river, and through the canal systems of Northern Europe. I’ve done walking safaris in East Africa and bike tours in Canada and the US. These journeys are like pilgrimages to unknown destinations and have a real cleansing effect on my psyche.

The thing that fascinates and/or baffles you the most about nature? I spend lots of time thinking about evolution. I think if I had another career it would be as an evolutionary biologist.

The thing that irritates you the most about nature? No-see-ems. Those tiny little black flies that attack the flesh behind your ears.

Is there a particular animal that you personally identify with the most? The Wandering Albatross is an ocean bird which can circumnavigate the globe while rarely touching water, and never land. This appeals to me in some strange way even though I’m a dad who spends most of my time at home.

What sort of child were you? Naive, daydreamy and a little clueless.

Tell me about your upbringing. Lots and lots and lots of LEGO building, bike riding, shovelling snow and chopping wood with my brother and sister.

How did the opportunity of designing wine labels for The Hatch come about? Through a long series of miscommunications, mistaken identity and serendipity. Thanks to Jesse Harnden and Andrew Melville, and Stacey Zabolotney.

Do you have any other collaborations in the works, or is there someone in particular that you would like to work with? I have collaborated with my sister, Julie Morstad, on animated music videos for Neko Case songs. I would do another one with Julie in a heartbeat.

What tool(s) can’t you live without? Windsor and Newton Series 7 sable brushes.

What upcoming shows can we look forward to? I’m mounting a solo show at Galerie Youn called “Baffin Island Bathing Club” – lots of watercolour paintings of icebergs, synchronized swimming clubs, hobo-explorers, flying bicycles carrying dead authors and professional wrestlers. It opens June 8th in Montreal. In September, at Gallery Jones here in Vancouver, my Montreal based collective, The Groundhogs, open a group show of paintings based loosely on nature called “Hinterlands” — kind of a metaphysical look at our relationships with the woods. In August our Vancouver collective, The Phantoms in the Front Yard, will execute a mural on a wall in East Van. Location to be announced.

Tell me a more about your involvement with The Groundhogs and Phantoms in the Front Yard. After being cooped up in my studio by myself for long periods of time, it’s very invigorating both socially and creatively to collaborate and share ideas with either collective. I especially like when we are charged with making art based on another member’s themes. There is fertile ground to be tilled there.

What does each of your artistic endeavours fulfill or ‘bring to the table’ that the others don’t? I think all of our styles, though different enough, are linked by a passion for realism, the figure, and the natural world. Each of our styles shines a different light on the same subject, and sometimes the results are thrilling.

What sort of impact do you hope that your mural contribution will have on Vancouver? I hope it makes cyclists and pedestrians stop in their tracks and say, “WTF!?” Car drivers too, but with caution.

Is there any new application for your work that interests you? If whales wanted tattoos I would volunteer for that in a second.

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