Christopher Friesen has read biographies of artists that claim their work was profoundly changed by their environment, but he never thought a short move from Abbotsford to Langley two years ago would do the same to him.
Trading in a tightly knit suburban life for one with a little bigger backyard, and much bigger trees, not only affected the medium of Friesen’s art, but the subjects as well.
His love of acrylic paint, for one — which earned him distinctions as he completed both his Bachelors and Masters of Fine Arts — was quickly abandoned in favour of oil paints, after an expensive replacement of his septic tank on his quarter-acre Brookswood property.
And where Friesen’s previous work focused on technology, social media and pixel distortion, his latest collection — Silvery Tones — is largely inspired by the mature trees and nature found in southern Langley.
“Interestingly enough, Brookswood actually had a lot to do with it, because I used to do a lot of acrylic painting, and I would just wash my brushes in the sink and think nothing of it,” said Friesen, 39, who is also an associate professor of visual arts at the University of the Fraser Valley, and president of the Abbotsford Arts Council.
“But after getting a new septic system, I learned very quickly that the last thing you want to put in that septic system is paint.
“So I switched to oils, because now I can clean the brushes in a jar.”
Featuring nearly a dozen large oil paintings, Silvery Tones, running at Vancouver’s Elissa Cristall Gallery until Nov. 26, is a nod to French painter Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, who was known as the “very poet of landscape.”
“Paintings can do two things,” Friesen said.
“I always tell students that it can be representational. And we value representation in a lot of ways because we can identify with it. We know that it is the thing that we expect it to be. And that’s what the role of paintings were for a long time. Prior to photography, that was the only way that we understood the world … Literally, why pictures are rectangles is because they were (windows) into the world.
“But given the history of painting, when photography was invented, it freed art up to be abstract. So what abstraction became about is the human experience with paint … It evolved from having a sublime experience to more of a material experience.”
“That’s kind of what is happening right now with art, is we’re insisting upon both. We want something to be representational, but at the same time, we also want to understand how it was constructed. So that’s how this style (in Silvery Tones) came about — literally slashes of pure pigment over top of something that has its foundation in traditional ways to do paintings. It’s a hybrid of both — representation and abstraction.”
The collection began as a project on Friesen’s sabbatical — a year given to university professors for research and publication — and has taken two years to complete. In that time he has also built himself a custom art studio at his Brookswood home, and created several smaller sketches of his work.
“I think this series wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t moved to Brookswood, because I am surrounded by big trees, I’m surrounded by landscape, I am very aware that the trees matter here. And people fight for them,” he said.
“I moved out here because of the quality of life. I really enjoy Langley. South Langley is just a dream to do what I want, or do what I do.”
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FALLING IN LOVE WITH ART
As a kid, Friesen was always drawn to art through comic books and animation, but it wasn’t until university that the “light switch turned on.”
“I went to a (high) school that was very much about sciences and things that are quantifiable, measurable. And that’s not what art is,” Friesen said.
“Art is about talking about the human experience, which has yet to be quantifiable and measurable. It’s a way to have plurality of conversations, rather than something that has proof attached to it. And that’s where art has it’s freedom. It takes people to different places. It might be an intent, but you can’t monkey hammer the intent into somebody. People are going to walk away from it and have that moment and have that experience with the world. Because ultimately that’s what painting is — it’s a human experience.”
Attending the former University College of the Fraser Valley for two years, Friesen then transferred to the University of Lethbridge for his Bachelors of Fine Arts, followed by the University of Regina for his Masters of Fine Arts. He was one of the youngest people in Canada accepted into the masters program at that time, and as a result, began teaching in university classrooms at the age of 21.
“After UFV, that’s where I absolutely fell in love with art,” Friesen said.
“The dialogue is more of a cultural critique. And that to me really cemented the value of art. It’s not pretty pictures. In fact, if you go into university with the mindset that ‘I’m going to learn how to paint pretty pictures,’ you’re not going to last. Because it really is a critical field, more than I think a lot of people realize.”
With a masters degree in hand, Friesen returned to Fraser Valley and began doing something not art related at all — flipping houses. He helped his parents, who are realtors, renovate and sell homes throughout Abbotsford.
“It’s always a cliche, oh you’re going to be a starving artist. So I actually got into banking,” he said with a laugh.
“I became a lender, I learned mortgages and did courses around lending and I worked for Vancity for about four years. And at the same time I was teaching at the University College of the Fraser Valley. And then right place right time, where I was involved as a sessional that became a replacement and then I got hired on as faculty. And when I became faculty, we became a full fledged university.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY OF ART
Beyond his skill for painting, Friesen has also developed a passion for community.
In Abbotsford, he has been a lobbyist for creating more galleries to showcase local art, has helped to organize the Fraser Valley Regional Biennale, and has even created a course at UFV to produce murals for elementary schools.
But despite being heavily involved in the Fraser Valley arts scene for nearly a decade, he still believes his audience clings to Vancouver.
“We seem to have a great divide with the Port Mann (bridge),” Friesen said.
“People really don’t want to go across the river and nobody from Vancouver wants to come out here … I wouldn’t call it a physical barrier, it’s more of a psychological barrier. It’s kind of an interesting conundrum to have, so you have to form your own community as it relates to art, specifically.”
Similar to horse jumping, Friesen says people can appreciate the beauty of a horse jumping over a hurdle, but if they do not know the intricacies and corresponding rules, they cannot truly understand the sport.
“If people don’t have that audience, they’re not going to appreciate the nuances of what’s happening,” Friesen said.
“Like for me, I look at a horse and I go, oh that’s a pretty horse … it’s the same thing with art. You could have this amazing art piece in the community, but if you don’t have the audience built in to understand what is going on, they don’t appreciate it.”
And for that, he puts partial blame on art itself.
“It’s kind of arts fault. Art used to be ubiquitous, people understood how a painting operated, but when photography came along, painting went in another direction. And it brings its audience along with it, because paint became about art being about art and it become esoteric, and a dialogue for a few.
“But art is going to be more populous. Art is about trying to become audience focused. How do you present this in a way that can talk about different political issues, like residential schools, like immigrant workers? All of these things get told through art, and it’s not the same for everyone.”
Just as communities across the province build soccer fields and hockey rinks to promote young athletes, Friesen says more attention should be given to developing young creatives — and the numbers support it.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2014, B.C.’s total culture GDP (gross domestic product) was nearly $6.7 billion, a $1 billion increase since 2010.
That represents 3 per cent of B.C.’s economy and 12.2 per cent of culture GDP in Canada.
“You always find yourself having to justify what it is that’s important about art, or culture. You know economically it’s there,” Friesen said.
“When you go travelling, you go check out the culture, you want that experience with the city. You don’t want to go into a bank. ‘I’m going to go to London (England) and I’m going to look at the banks because they’re the economic driver.’ No, we want to go to the museums. We want to find out what the stories are that exist. And there’s stories that exist here.
“For me — and I can’t be the only one — I appreciate culture. I appreciate human endeavours, and to develop an audience, you need infrastructure. So that’s why I was involved in Abbotsford.”
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Although he admits it may have something to do with being an art professor, Friesen says a shift is happening, where businesses are placing greater value on arts degrees.
“As the world becomes more expensive, there’s more pressure for students to get jobs. I’m going to come in here, I’m going to get this education, what’s my job at the end of it?” Friesen said.
“So, that becomes really problematic as well when you’re dealing with getting educated only to fill a job … Who says the only thing we can be in the world is an employee?
“Well, you can make money in investments, you can make money by owning your own business, by being a sole-proprietorship, by being an entrepreneur. An employee is just one aspect of it. But that’s the one thing that we value in people.”
Friesen believes our culture places a great emphasis on earning power, rather than passion, and that people often do not pursue creative fields for fear of being a “starving artist.”
“In arts, what we value is innovation, something that you can think through, be a critical thinker. That is a problem solving skill,” he said.
“There’s been some talk that a MFA, a masters of fine arts, is the new MBA (masters of business administration), because when you ask corporations what they want from someone, it’s not their ability to regurgitate and follow instructions. It’s about being someone that can solve problems, that can add value because they come at things from a very different point.
“So it’s not the value of taking tests and learning how to learn. It’s the value of how can you be innovative with what you do know? How can you take all of these points of data, and create something new from it, rather than just, this is what my textbook taught me?
“The Google is out there, you can find information. But what you can’t find is knowledge. So if you create knowledge in someone, you create a very valuable ‘employee,’ but someone who also understands how the world operates at a more meta level.”
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The Elissa Cristall Gallery is located at 2239 Granville St. in Vancouver. Regular hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, Monday by appointment.
For more info, visit cristallgallery.com/artists/christopher-friesen/.