Sun interview shines on … Steve Gouthro

January 11, 2016

Born in Picton, Ont., Steve Gouthro was a self-described army brat who lived in various places in Canada until he was nine. At that point, his family moved to Germany for three years because his father was stationed there. Following that stint overseas, the family moved to Winnipeg, where Gouthro remained until he arrived in Brandon 10 years ago to teach in Brandon University’s fine arts department. He teaches a range of courses and remains active as an artist, continuing to paint the large-scale, photorealistic works that are his passion. (COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN)

The Brandon Sun published a full-page interview with BU faculty member Steve Gouthro on Friday, Jan. 8. Conducted by Diane Nelson, the interview is reprinted here with permission.

So what do you teach? A whole range of things, I’m sure.

Well, yes, to some degree. I’m the person who teaches fundamentals, visual design, I teach printmaking, I teach painting, sometimes drawing. I’m very much looking forward to teaching advanced drawing this term.

I’d like to get your take on an old saying: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I’ve always resented that. Many of us do what we do AND teach. So to me, that’s the biggest insult there ever was because I think you have to know, and know intimately, what you’re doing before you teach it — or at least teach it well.

That’s true. I think part of it, certainly in art, is that a lot of artists want to make work that challenges the conventions or the most regular or expected thing. Which sometimes means they make themselves not saleable in a normal way. Their work might be for content, or it might be for something else. And so teaching is a way to be able to maintain that integrity and at the same time, make a living. So while one does teach, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t do. It means that one chooses not to do work just for sale.

So in other words, just making art for art’s sake? Or to have it exist?

Oh, for communicating, though. I fully believe that an artist, it’s your culture you want to express. So you’re a conduit.

Did you teach before you came to Brandon?

Oh yes — I taught for 24 years sessional at the University of Manitoba. I taught part time, but I usually taught a full course load and they only paid me for eight months. I didn’t have the other official responsibilities or obligations, though. I really like teaching. I like working with students, I like helping people become artists, and so, for example, if students were in thesis, they might ask me to be their thesis adviser, and I might do that. And then 10 years here. So teaching’s been a good part of my life.

So when you do that full-time, as you have here, how do you find time to create art yourself and not end up working 12 hours a day? Or do you?

Well, when I worked as a sessional, I could leave the other aspects of the job behind. And so I would still have some time I could spend at the studio. Since I’ve been full time here for the last 10 years, it’s more sporadic. So what happens is I find that if I have an exhibition coming up or something, then I push aside all of the things that one normally does with the rest of one’s life — like family life things, such as getting groceries, while I work on a body of work. But that’s not like a week. To do a body of work, frequently it’s about a two-year span, at least the way I paint. And during that time — not all of the time, but for blocks of time — I would be very much just doing that. And sometimes I do work right through the day and into the night.

I was going to ask you about contemporary art because that’s always how I always thought of your work. But I come into your studio and I see all these images, these scenes, that are very familiar — very real — to me.

There is a stream of realism in contemporary art as well. It’s abstract art, or there are aspects of it, that the term modern art or modernism applies to. It’s not an overall descriptor. And the term postmodern, of course, is a more commonly applied one, too.

Anyhow, I guess my stuff is rooted in photorealism, which was a movement in the ’70s. And that’s painting from pictures. But the original photorealists were very programmatic or dogmatic. Some of them would do things like project an image in magenta and in yellow and in cyan and paint each of those in layers. And there were landscape or photographers that worked that way. But I’m kind of in between. I’m kind of a romantic. I guess that’s part of my postmodern quality and my anachronistic quality. Because some of what I do is based in historic painting. I’m very reverential of particular historical artists and realists. So that does influence my work. And while I think my work is contemporary, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other influences.

Realistic qualities, I’d say, because I’m looking at this painting and I’m driving down that stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway in that bluff east of Carberry.

Yeah. But in order to make it contemporary, my intent or hope is to have it have a specific viewpoint or quality. So when a person looks at it, I want the painting to put them into a different mental space or physical space. And that’s part of what I hope happens with the work. So I try to make it so that I’m not illustrating in the conventional sense, as much as I’m creating this thing that’s going to pull people in. When I’m hanging a work, I’m very conscious of where it hangs.

You mean heightwise? Because that just feels like I’m driving down the highway, seeing what’s in front of me in terms of the road and those looming clouds.

And that’s what I want. I want someone who comes into the space and looks at it to relate to it in a certain way.

Do you think there’s a reluctance on people’s parts to embrace contemporary art? Because when I used to have an art shop at Shoppers Mall, people would come in and ask, “What’s that supposed to be?” And I would reply, “Anything you want it to be. What do you see in it?” And they’d ask again, “What is it supposed to be?” Often they’d walk out in disgust because I wouldn’t pin it down for them.

That was 20 or 30 years ago, right?

Yes. It was about 30 years ago.

The reason I’m asking is because in the time in between, abstract art has become safer than figurative art often.

Really!

Yeah, because if you hang an abstract painting in a corporate office, it’s like decoration. There’s nothing in there that’s going to threaten anybody. People can look at it or ignore it. Like I have a painting with a guy whose face is cut — that makes people uncomfortable. The point I’m making is that representational things can upset people because of the content. Or if it looks like somebody specific, then 90 per cent of people won’t want it because they don’t know who it is. So it’s just interesting.

It used to be if a painting wasn’t scenic, many folks wouldn’t give it the time of day.

There was a study done on a website about what appeals to people in a painting and it’s like you said — the love of landscape is there. But it’s a harmless landscape. They want something not too threatening.

Which leads me to ask, then, although I think I know the answer, if it’s difficult to make a living as an artist.

A few people do. I have a few former students who have become really successful and earn lots and lots of money — I’m just not one of them! The thing about art, in all of its manifestations — design and fine arts and all that — is that people with those skills are always in demand. I had a former student who went to California and took animation and he worked on “Jurassic Park” — it was that long ago. His name was one of those 200 in the (credit) list, but still. So there’s lots of ways of surviving or making a living as an artist. I used to joke that other people wait till they’re retired to get to do what they want. But we’re doing what we want now — it’s just that we can’t retire.

Do you create art because you want to or because you NEED to do it?

Sometimes I think I’m not compelled to do it, but I always seem to have to keep at it. So who knows? As you get older, you become more aware of the fact that you’re leaving a lot of stuff around. And you start thinking, do I need to leave another one behind?

So I was going to start working smaller. Because I realized the bigger they are, the more likely it is that I’m going to own them. No one’s ever going to take them. But then I kept getting these ideas for big paintings.

It’s interesting what you say about leaving things behind. Is it a way for you to live on, in a sense? Or is that not even a consideration?

Well, it was when I was young. But now I don’t think I’m going to be important enough for that to happen, really. I have a couple of pieces here and there. But no — it’s just something I do — something I have to do.

Back to teaching, now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you can’t teach just anybody to paint or draw, can you? I mean paint or draw well? I’m sure people must have to have some innate talent that can be honed. Like I can’t even draw stick men. My stick men don’t even look like stick men. That’s how pathetic I am in the visual arts.

When I first started teaching, I believed you could teach anybody to draw. But then in my very first year of teaching at university, I had one person who proved to me that you can only teach MOST people to draw.

But you can teach people to understand better. I think it’s like riding a bicycle. Not everyone is going to be an athlete. But everyone can learn to an extent. Part of what I do when I’m teaching foundation art — when I’m introducing people to drawing — is rely on some of the requirements of realism. Depicting things. And partly I do it because it’s an unarguable criterion. Like if it’s supposed to look like this, and it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong. And that helps or forces people to become discriminating — to look and pay attention.

Because when they first start, people are often easily satisfied with anything. So the only way you can learn to be critical is if there is something that demands your attention. There is esthetics, of course, and the concept of what the artist is trying to say. But the young people, when they first come into art school, sometimes think that’s an excuse to not have any self-discipline or any self-regulation. So in my discourse with them, I let them know that, while I recognize what they’re doing is a concept, unfortunately they’re in my class, and there are certain criteria in the class that have to be fulfilled.

I think that one of the reasons I’m a realist is because I was born working class. And my father was a corporal — a bombardier in the artillery, in fact. He was the son of a coal miner in Cape Breton and one of the best ways to get out of that — and his father wanted none of his kids to be in the pits — was to join the military. And my dad was in the army for 25 years. And he had Grade 8, I think. But he also had math that he had to have to aim artillery guns.

But because of that, in a desire to legitimize myself in my father’s eyes, I needed, in my mind, for my work to be practical to an extent. And representational work had the potential to have other functions than just be highfalutin art.

I did do some dabbling, when I was at university, with abstraction, but what I found was — and I don’t know if it was the laissez-faire ’70s or what — but the thing about abstraction was you couldn’t do anything wrong! Whatever you did was always fine.

That was one of the lines one of my profs used all the time. “How do you feel about it?” Well, I like it! And when I started to really embrace realism then, the thing about it was you could fail. You could do it in a way that didn’t succeed. Even though people think of realism as being conservative, for me, there was risk involved because I could do it wrong.