Vanessa Lam is an emerging contemporary abstract artist based in Canada. Working with mixed media painting, Vanessa explores the relationship between unconscious, form, and space. The artist loosely uses paint to create spontaneous brushstrokes, maintaining a balance between chance and control. Expressive nature of Vanessa’s work establishes a contrast between the placement of paint and collage elements found in her work.
Recently, Vanessa won the 8th Annual BOMBAY SAPPHIRE Artisan Series award and decided to collaborate with ARTSY, the global art platform, and Bombay Sapphire to create a new public exhibition in New York City.
I spoke with Vanessa about her journey up until now, ‘There Is Another Sky’ exhibition and her future artistic aspirations.
Hi, Vanessa! Before we dive into a discussion about your new show in New York, tell me about when was the first time you realized you want to be an artist.
I always liked drawing when I was young. Pencil and paper were all that I needed to start expressing my ideas. I had taken some classes during university, but it wasn’t until over a decade later that I reconnected to art again after taking a mixed media course at Emily Carr University Art & Design. Taking this course was the turning point for me to continue exploring art. I was curious to uncover my potential. After a few more classes at Emily Carr, I decided to give myself a five-year window to pursue a fine-art practice and see where it takes me. It’s been about five years now.
What was your journey up until now?
I worked as a healthcare professional for over a decade and continue to juggle my day job with making art. I took over a small spare room in my home and painted mostly at night after work. One of my instructors became my mentor. Although I began finding other artists to connect with to build my community slowly, I still didn’t know many people in the local art world and became my teacher for the most part. For the first few years, I read a lot of books, tried to make as much work as I could and submitted work to any exhibition opportunity that presented itself. During this time, I was working very hard, but soon I found that I took on too many projects and I burnt myself out.
It was at this time that I happened to move into my current studio space. It’s a shared, open studio space in an industrial area and it turned out that it was the change that I needed. I not only had more space to grow and experiment but I had the chance to physically connect with artists from a variety of other disciplines on a regular basis. I took a break from exhibitions to enjoy my new studio space. During this time, I created work without any deadlines and pushed exploring both collage and painting.
Then, I began looking into residencies and was offered a month-long residency in Berlin last year. It was my first residency and my first time in Berlin. The combination of being in a new city and having a dedicated month to develop new ideas was extraordinary. It gave me exposure to international artists and different perspectives which helped raise my confidence in the work that I was doing. The ideas generated from this residency led to some of the new work that is in the upcoming show in New York.
I noticed color takes the main stage in your work. What inspires you?
This new body of work is a culmination of my experiences and observations translated into color and form. I take notice of textures, shapes, and colors around me, particularly ordinary objects, like a piece of rusted metal that I have walked by on the roadside. Whether I’m in the city, traveling or in the mountains, I pull from all these experiences and feelings. My process is very intuitive in how I apply paint as well as color choice.
I wouldn’t say that color is my primary focus, but it’s more the feeling I get from seeing a specific intensity or combination of colors together within the context of where I first observe it. It could be one of many jumping off points that leads to trying a new color palette. Color doesn’t often come naturally to me, so I think that is why I look for ways to experiment in this area. Overall, I’m trying to find new ways of doing things, and it’s those unexpected outcomes of those experiments that keep me motivated.
‘THERE IS ANOTHER SKY’ EXHIBITION
Tell me about your upcoming collaboration with Artsy and Bombay Sapphire.
This year I began regularly connecting with Artsy to discuss ideas for the exhibition and venue. I had only seen photos of the site, so it was a challenge to create work for a space that I had never set foot in before. I chose to create a lot of the new work on canvas given the logistics of shipping. These pieces have a lot of loose forms through the staining and pooling of paint but also contrast against more drawing and solid, hard-edged shapes. Throughout my meetings with Artsy, I was encouraged to use the opportunity to stretch myself artistically.
Some of the pieces are the largest I have ever made, one of which is an 11.5’ foot long painting. Working on this large of a scale forced me to change my process. It was a very physical process, and I immersed myself into the canvas so I can reach all the areas to paint. Also, I wanted to somehow shift painting into the three-dimensional space. The concept came from some cut-outs of paintings on canvas that I made during my residency in Berlin. I had also been experimenting with paint skins but found that it would be hard to maneuver on a large scale without some support.
This installation incorporates draped canvas which plays on the idea of dried paint skins. Layering together these shapes brings in my interest in collage and shape-making. I created another four large paintings on canvas which will be layered together over wooden frame support to create a sculptural form. I have learned so much in creating and coordinating the work for this show.
‘There Is Another Sky’ will create an immersive experience for audiences. What’s the key idea of the show?
The title of the show is from the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson. She refers to the existence of new sky that belongs to another mysterious place which behaves and feels differently from the world that we physically see and know. The invitation to enter the garden implies a message to her brother to read her poetry and enter the world she has created.
My work makes reference to space much like the expanse of the sky, and use of ambiguous forms in space is suggestive of another “realm”. There is also an invitation to experience “entering into” the art and as well as move amongst the works in the exhibition ranging from sculpture to collage and painting. The sculptural piece was a key component in the space where I’m releasing the layers of a “painting” from the usual confines of two-dimensional rectangular structure.
ARTIST AS ENTREPRENEUR
Do you think nowadays artists need to become entrepreneurs to build and manage their brand?
I do believe it is vital for artists to be entrepreneurs. The definition of what an artist can be is so varied which offers more freedom but also can make it hard to know what direction to take. My understanding of a personal brand is that it is an extension of who you are, and generally, it’s the what and how you want to present to others. For me, I’m still figuring things out and is an ongoing process. But what I do know is that people are interested in knowing the story behind your work, who you are as a person, and the influences in your life. How I share my story is through social media, mostly Instagram.
I’m trying to find ways to connect with others, and hopefully, it will resonate with them. I recently did an Instagram takeover with Create Magazine which made me think carefully about what kind of impression I wanted to leave with people. I wanted it to feel polished, like the work I create, be reflective of my style and be authentic. The projects that I choose to take on also contribute to who I am and where I would like to go with my art practice. Everything I do has some element of risk as I don’t always know what the response will be.
I still need to try and take these risks so I can grow as an artist.
What’s next for you after ‘There Is Another Sky’?
I have some possible commissions coming up, but mostly I want to expand on some of the ideas that I created from this show as well as continue to experiment with collage and different painting techniques.
LEARN MORE ABOUT VANESSA LAM’S WORK ON HER WEBSITE