Canadian visual artist Mat Dubé is living a dream. He spends his days traveling the world, seeking inspiration from city streets and remote mountains, filling a suitcase with his paintings along the way.
Dubé delved into visual art at the early age of 7, when he began teaching himself perspective and anatomy using books his mom had around the house. Now, 30 years later he’s more dedicated to his craft than ever; creating in a new style that has an edgy street art feel and a social awareness that can’t be ignored.
I sat down with him during his artist residency at Listhus Artspace in Iceland to talk about his new multi-medium technique, his minimalist lifestyle, how he overcomes widespread rejection and finds his inspiration on the road.
It’s hard to answer that question now that I’m almost 40 because I’ve been making art since I was a little kid. Back then I just thought drawings and sculptures were awesome and I wanted to be able to make my own. I kind of always knew that I would be an artist and tried to develop my skills as much as possible at a really young age.
What are your artistic influences and where do you find inspiration?
Having a mixed media artist mom and a dad who’s really into photography definitely inspired me to make art in the beginning.
Lately I’ve found that traveling and experiencing new cultures and environments has helped me put my art and my life into perspective. It gives me so many new ideas, so that’s a big reason why I travel so much.
I also really like the aesthetics of street art and graffiti. Not necessarily the tags, but I like the figurative stuff that merges caricature with realism.
Your aesthetic is constantly changing. In less than a decade you’ve shifted from creating bronze sculptures to acrylic paintings and now you’re making watercolor paintings. Why do you feel the need to change mediums so often?
I never consciously thought I would keep switching materials all the time. It just kind of happened. I started my artist career mostly as a sculptor but I’ve switched to two dimensional paintings for a few reasons. Mainly because the materials you often have to use with sculpture are toxic and messy, the size and portability of unfinished pieces are hard to travel with and it is also much harder to sell a sculpture compared to a painting.
When I make something, I want it to look like what is being represented was filtered through my brain and I want it to look a little imperfect. I’ll often work without reference and I’ll paint or sculpt from what I remember. I don’t do much experimenting on paper. I don’t sketch or try that many things for real. Most of the creative process and sketching happens in my head.
The process you’ve developed to create your latest paintings is pretty complicated. What goes into making each piece?
Well, I’ve been a sculptor for many years and I was basically looking for a way to merge sculpture, painting and drawing together when I developed this new technique. I start by making small clay sculptures of various body parts, mostly hands and heads. Then I take photos of them from many different angles and print the images of the sculptures on watercolor paper. I cut out the images and make a collage on a bigger sheet of watercolor paper. To finalize each piece I use watercolor paint and pencil to add color and movement. It’s a long process but I love how they look in the end.
It seems as though you often incorporate social and political messages into the titles of your pieces and the works themselves. Are you trying to change the world with your art?
I am not quite so ambitious to think I can change the world, but I definitely want to raise awareness about important issues. I’ve always been a bit environmental. My very first show back in 2005, Erosion, was about the impact of humans on the environment.
It’s not just environmentalism that I’m concerned with anymore though. I’m exploring social issues, internal things like the subconscious and animal rights issues. Lately, I’ve been reading up a lot on farming, the food industry and animal welfare and have quite frankly been shocked by what I’ve found. If you really put yourself in these creatures places and feel genuine empathy for them, you can’t help but be deeply affected. I think after all this research, I was compelled to incorporate it in my artwork.
My latest series of works – Multi-Tools – focuses on the commodification of animals and their transformation from wild and independent individuals into products and tools used for farming, testing and entertainment.
My first experience with rejection was in high school and it was devastating. I applied to this great visual arts program that taught basically every art technique you can think of but I didn’t get in the first year. I was really disappointed, but I did a whole new portfolio, reapplied and just barely got in the second year. I think my mom actually had to talk them into letting me in. That was ridiculous. Then the same thing happened to me in college; I had to re-apply and I got in the second time.
I know that I should just be like “I learn from rejection”, but it does really make me super angry. If I actually start to think about the volume of rejection I’ve had as an artist, it makes me want to flip the table and lose my shit. But I keep going because I have a creative urge that is beyond my control. If I don’t create anything for a few months, I start getting tons of ideas and I’ll just make something.
What do you love about being an artist?
I like it when I make a piece that I’m really happy with because all the lines, elements of drawing and sculpture that I love are in one piece.
I also really like it when someone comes up to me at an art show who is touched by my work or excited about it. Whenever that happens I think, yeah, that’s why I do it. It’s not for grants and prizes and gallery representation. I like connecting with people.
Well I actually worked part time for a long time to give myself more time to make art even though it meant I was making less money and had to change the way I lived to make it work.
Then a couple of years ago I had a near death experience during a really bad highway car crash. It made me realize that life is fragile and that time is much more precious than things and money. I decided to take my cheap and minimalistic living to the next level and ended up selling and giving away almost everything that I owned. I cut my expenses in every way possible. At the end, when I looked at the numbers, I didn’t have to make that much money to survive every month but I had even more free time. It’s crazy how much you can do without a big salary when your expenses are super low. I’ve been able to travel and make a lot more art.
You’re now traveling to four back-to-back artist in residence programs in Toronto, Iceland, Berlin and Barcelona. Tell me what prompted this tour.
I did my first artist in residence program last summer in Colorado, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but it ended up being a great experience. I worked like a maniac and came home with a whole new series of paintings. I also met some great people. Since I don’t have a home or an apartment and I’m not tied down to anything, I figured I may as well do some artist residencies to keep me working and experiencing different parts of the world. So far Iceland has been really inspiring – there must be something about mountains that gets me working!
What are your plans when you get home from the tour?
I plan to exhibit the Multi-Tools series at my residency in Berlin and again in Ottawa when I get home. I’m also contacting galleries across Canada and the US to see if I can show the work to a wider audience. I really like the idea of having an exhibit that travels as much as I do.
— Danielle Chabassol