Multi-media artist Victoria Vitasek gets up close & personal in Anxiety exhibit @ Fran Hill Gallery

Multi-media artist Victoria Vitasek’s exhibition Anxiety opened at Fran Hill Gallery last night to a packed space full of friends, family, fellow artists and likely – given the gallery’s neighbourhood vibe – folks who live in the area. Anxiety is Vitasek’s MFA thesis exhibition – she’s studying at York University after doing her undergrad at OCAD – an extremely personal exploration of moments of anxiousness, recorded through photographs, video and text.

Visitors to the gallery can see the one of the three self-portrait photographs as they approach the entrance. When I arrived, I met Vitasek, who gave me a tour of the exhibit, along with background info on the project. I couldn’t help but think about the irony of opening such a personal, revealing exhibit, which then had to be defended in front of her professors – an anxiety-inducing act in itself – a point that, while unspoken, I don’t think was lost on either of us. After we finished chatting, I took the opportunity to wander and visit each piece myself, going back to revisit, winding through the crowd as the space filled up.

The larger of the two intimate exhibit spaces displays three photos, all taken during moments when Vitasek was feeling anxious. She wears no make-up and her long dark brown hair is tied back, her gaze fixed straight ahead, giving you the impression that she’s looking right at you. What is especially remarkable about these three pieces is the scale. Each is a 40” x 40” inkjet print close-up – larger than life, emotion writ large. In each case, the emotion itself has a still intensity to it that makes these photographs both challenging to view yet impossible to look away from.

On the wall between the two spaces are three framed questionnaire pages, taken from two anxiety questionnaires. Each has been filled out, boxes ticked and statements regarding behaviour rated on a scale, along with written descriptions of anxious moments addressed by cognitive therapy responses, along with the outcome. As I read through them, I couldn’t help but mentally fill out the questionnaires myself. How often do I avoid, and how anxious do I feel about, being alone? Being in a crowded space? Travelling?

In the smallest exhibit space are two monitors, facing each other from opposite sides of the room. Each plays a video on a two-minute loop with no sound – both close-ups of Vitasek’s face. One shows the artist doing a breathing exercise – in through the nose and out through the mouth. On the other, the artist has her hands full of milkweed, her face in the background as she gradually blows the white fluffy, seed covered stuff off her hands – the last tuft becoming airborne with one puff of breath. The videos speak to each other even as each speaks to the viewer – and I found that, after a few moments of standing in front of the breathing exercise, the rhythm of my breathing fell into sync with Vitasek’s. Of the two videos, the breathing exercise is also the most challenging to witness. It has a rawness to it, an intensity that stands in sharp contrast to the more whimsical milkweed blowing video, where the artist’s face is in background focus.

Anxiety is extremely raw, personal and brave project – and also very beautiful and universal. Everyone has had moments of feeling anxious, apprehensive or uneasy, with individual responses driven by an eagerness to please, fear of failure, fear of the unknown. It’s all just a matter of degrees.

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Artist Victoria Vitasek, as seen through the gallery window.
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One of the three large self-portrait photographs.
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The anxiety questionnaires.
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The breathing exercise video.
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Blowing milkweed video.
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Vitasek speaks with some of the opening night visitors.
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Artist Victoria Vitasek and gallery owner Fran Hill.

Anxiety is up until April 20 at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Road, Toronto – St. Clair/Rushton Rd., west of Bathurst). Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. or by appointment.

Interview with the multi-faceted Lisa Anita Wegner

When Kat Leonard introduced me to multi-talented, muti-faceted, multi-media working artist Lisa Anita Wegner, what struck me the most was that Lisa credits art with saving her life. You can read her story here. And when I visited her blog site, I was blown away by the imagery in her pixel paintings.

I had a chance to interview Lisa over email – here’s what she had to say:

LWMC: Hi, Lisa. I was looking at your WordPress blog site and the Mighty Brave Productions site to get a sense of the work you do – and was amazed at the multi-faceted aspect of your work overall, and how it all boils down to authentic storytelling, and using story to make interior and exterior connections. You’ve worked as an actor, producer, writer, filmmaker and visual artist. What else? What came first for you and how did the media you work in evolve?

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5-year-old Lisa’s Mary Poppins casting call

LAW: I have always made stuff with whatever I have access too. My first project idea to put on a Mary Poppins play didn’t fly because no one responded. I was five years old.

When I was little, I was shy but when I had an idea for a play, I would become bold. I got permission from the school principal to produce an all-grade two production of Little Orphan Annie and perform in the auditorium for the school. I played by myself a lot, and I would envision fully formed plays and then did my best make them happen. I really was just following instincts, moving toward what felt good. And when I was performing, I felt like it was doing the right thing.

I stuck with theatre mostly because I had no video camera and was good at making costumes. In grade nine, I got the lead in the high school play and played Catherine Sloper from Washington Square on a proper stage with older kids. I felt like I’d arrived home. In high school, I produced and performed several other plays, including a racy version of The Rocky Horror Show. I continued to produce plays of larger scale and after three years at York U theatre, I left to start my acting career. For several years, I dabbled in commercials and print work, with a string of small parts in local theatre eventually playing some meaty roles on stage (Mephistopheles, The Wife in Rashomon, Joan of Arc). With good reviews, I was happy, but far from creatively fulfilled.

With Mighty Brave Productions, I started my creative team, some of them still with me, all these years later. Each year, I would do one play in another city and one play in Toronto – I liked to do theatre in non-traditional spaces (church, radio station, dance studio) and here started to become obsessed with authenticity. If something was phoney, I lost interest immediately. I raised money, begged borrowed and bartered, and paid for stuff myself if necessary. I decided never to let money stand in my way of making anything.

In 2004, I produced my first full-scale short film, union talent, 50-person crew, two-camera set up. A veteran TV director, John Bertram (Degrassi Jr.High), and some of his seasoned team joined me. From then on, I was hooked indie filmmaking. I realized that this storytelling eye was more intimate and personal – and so up my alley. I set up the project, organized the team, dream the story and then be an actor on my own set. It is heaven on earth.

I nurtured my creative family and now have produced 47 film and video projects – from 10-second interstitials, to feature length films.

In 2008, I fell sick and basically couldn’t function (collapsed at Cannes, how romantic). Once I was home, I started making small video projects on my laptop while lying in bed, because that was all I had access to. Figuring out who I am through these videos was a big part of my healing. They are all based on what was going on inside my head at the moment. For example, I found a typewriter on the street and I shot a series of kitchen sink dramas about a woman who wanted to be a writer. I played both husband and wife in the series. Here is a playlist of some of these videos: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB10F738DB74E612E

So Who Am I Anyway?, a short where I put on my own outfits and listened to music, I knew I used to like to see if it was still suited me. This simple little video was chosen as part of Selection 2011 at The Phoenix Art Museum and I was honoured to be there at the screening.

2008/2009, I could barely wash and feed myself, but if I got an idea for a video I would get up, set up, shoot, cut, post it and fall back into bed. I knew I was in the right job because no matter how sick my mind and body, that I couldn’t stop making stuff. When I was sick, I created as much content as when I was running two small production companies. This personal work really was me trying to figure out who I was after my mind stopped working properly. These little no budget, lo-fi videos affected more people and did more for my career than any other film I’d produced.

While for me, performing is the icing on the creative crack cake, but dreaming up a project and communicating the story are something I will never be able to stop doing, it’s the actual crack.

Someone called me a folk artist, because I make do with whatever is available to me.

LWMC: Do you still act?

LAW: Yes. I am performing in my current projects and once I am finished with my medical leave, I will act in other people’s projects again. I feel like I am 10 times the performer I used to be. Now, with the experience of putting my brain back together, I feel like I have a deeper, more complex, intimate understanding of my own emotional system, and the inner workings of my brain and heart. I am very much looking forward to getting back on other people’s sets again. Did I mention that being on set is like being at the most fun camp in the universe?

LWMC: I wanted to ask you about your pixel painting. How do you approach storytelling in this medium – and are there any similarities with the other media you’ve worked in? 

LAW: Pixel painting started as a therapeutic measure when I had a lot of anxiety. If I would do digital art, it would quiet my mind and calm my body. I rarely planned what I was doing. I would often start with a webcam shot of my face and I tried my best to convey where I was at. When I was finished, it was often a surprise to me what I created. I tend to use images from my life – if I’m watching a movie, I might grab a screen capture as my canvas and a picture of my face and go from there. The story or the message is revealed, but not planned.

After doing this awhile, I realized how much story one can convey in a moment. What stays in what is out of the image. And also in the creation of the image (I started filming me making them) Jane Siberry’s video “When We Are a Vampire” is one example of this and the current work I am doing with musician Benjamin Boles (both on YouTube).

LWMC: Your image appears in a lot of your pixel paintings – and though your style is influenced by the Dada movement, using yourself as the subject brings to mind the (surrealist) self-portraits painted by Frida Kahlo. Has your work become more personal, more autobiographical, since your work in art therapy?

LAW: At first, I was surprised that I used my own face so much. But it was always there right in front of my on the webcam. These self-portraits have evolved into something that is now a part of my life. I make them every day. I consider it a lifelong project to try to be more and more authentic in everything I make. Now, I am an authenticity junkie. I feel like my story is being told in everything I make, from pixel painting to feature film. I blushed when you included me in the same sentence as Frida.

LWMC: There’s a really cool sense exploration, playfulness and intensity in your work – and the imagery can be dark, whimsical or erotic. Do you set out with a theme in mind, does an idea come in a flash…do you just go for it? What sows the seed of a project for you?

LAW: Thank you. I feel creatively very free. I just put it all out there. I was surprised that the happier and more balanced I feel in my life, the creepier and darker my work gets. I can’t help making erotic stuff because it’s a part of me. I post that on deviantART.com and not too much on Facebook. I do think there will be more work in that direction.

LWMC: The juxtaposition of images and text is especially thought-provoking. Does the inclusion of text happen organically during the creation of the piece – or does the text come first and the piece gets built around it? Where does the text come from?

LAW: I’ve always liked words in pictures. I found my grade nine art project and I had already that basic style going. The words just pop out of me and into the image as part of my pixel painting trance.

LWMC: What are you working on right now?

LAW: I pixel paint every day, and I recently set up a studio so I can also paint with paper, paint and brushes. I’m working on an ongoing video series to Benjamin Boles’ one-man band improv set up (there is a YouTube playlist of all these) he creates music and I create videos based on the moment we are in. I have been calling this endeavour The Moment Factory. I have started layering all the performance videos together, so there is a visual echo of each prior performance in the current video. Here is a playlist of these:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLH0tvCpNpuIav4FMJBhLFgYkZjEFbHhNd

I am also currently working on a multimedia project called The Interface Is The Message, a feature film called MY FAVOURITE MISTAKE and an larger scale art/video/fashion/performance installation with The City Of Toronto, which will be announced soon (keeping secrets is hard for me). I have also been working on some commissions and album art.

LWMC: Any upcoming exhibitions, installations or screenings?

LAW: One Desert Two Desserts will be screening in Phoenix, Arizona this month. You can see my pixel painting as part of Elvis Mondays when Benjamin Boles is playing at The Drake Hotel (dates tba). I am also speaking at WonderFest about How Art Saved My Life and showing some visual art pieces as part of the concert at The Gladstone Hotel.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share with folks?

LAW: Figure out what it is you love doing and never stop. I never imagined my creative path taking the route it took, but I didn’t buck the current. I flowed with it and now I wake up happy every day. I can’t believe how lucky I am that I found my voice, and now I have the freedom to create what I want every day and see where it takes me. I learned to keep my reactive tap open. Everyone can do this, and I encourage everyone to find what it is for them and go after it with gusto. Pierce the mundane to find the marvellous inside you. You are worth it!

Here is my latest art work: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152402439810521.938033.658075520&type=3

And here are other links:

BossLady@MightyBraveProductions.com
www.mightybraveproductions.com (films)
www.lisaismightybrave.com (blog)
www.youtube.com/rightofasylum (video shorts)
www.facebook.com/lisaanitawegner

LWMC: Thanks, Lisa!