An interview by
The Carl Benz University, Germany
with Laara WilliamSen
International professional painter and art educator
Q: Ms. WilliamSen, how did you discover that you are a painter? And later, how did you find your distinct personal style, your "handwriting", if you will?
A: Actually, I knew at age five years that I was a painter; artist. My mother asked me when I was going to my first day of Grade One Elementary School, what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her that I was an artist. She was hoping that I would become a teacher in the provincial school system and that was not for me. I became different sort of art teacher; facilitator so that I could develop my own methods of facilitation and create my own programs. I have worked as an art educator for many various organizations; The Surrey Art Centre, University of British Columbia – lecture for Women’s group, the Okanagan School of Fine Art as well as other government and non-profit agencies over the years. Parallel to these teaching positions, I operated my own business, “The Laara WilliamSen School of Art” for over thirty years. I doubt that I could have taken this confident creative path without my dear friend, Christine Workman – Barnett who convinced me when I was twenty three years old to claim my professional place as an artist. It was Christine’s deep belief in my painting abilities and communication skills that got me started teaching my first adult art class at the Surrey Art Centre in 1975.
Over the years, my art language has grown and changed as I experience life. When I studied with Robert E. Wood, International landscape painter for two years at the age of nineteen, I developed a loosely realistic style (abstract expressionism) of landscape painting that was recognizable as my own. The largest leap in my way of making marks happened during the four years that I was at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, B.C. Attending full time and receiving the mentorship of Geoff Rees, Sylvia Scott and Susan Hillman helped me immensely to find my own art language. I experimented more than ever before. I did preliminary sketches and learned about art history. It was during these years that I began painting quickly with my fingers and I gained a better understanding of my place as an artist in our contemporary art world. I hope that my art language will always continue to change as I continue to experience new and amazing events and sights in our world.
Q: I've read that you usually work with your fingertips - is that true?
A: Using my fingertips has been, for years, a delightful process for me. I love the texture and feel of the paint and of course the immediacy achieved. The brush seemed at one point to just be an extra instrument that kept me further away from what needed to go down quickly onto the canvas. The past few years, I have discovered a hard plastic paddle that I can use and I like how quickly the area of canvas is covered with paint. Now, I often use the paddle on its side to achieve lines and I can draw back into the paint with the tip of the paddle. However, I still find my fingers in the paint while mixing to test colors and to complete the details of the painting.
Q: I've noticed you are pretty active in the web and social media - how has our modern transformation to an information society influenced you as an artist? It has clearly made projects like this one possible, on the one hand. But then, what is your personal view of it all?
A: I am very happy that the internet has opened up communication between artists and other venues. This was just not possible in the past and artists were restricted to their own community and building out from there through the high end galleries to reach the international art world. I use social media to communicate with many emerging artists as well as professionals. It is my joy to assist a younger artist to learn about the way to present their art professionally and to encourage others to further their career through the many websites and exhibitions that are available. I have an amazing collection of friends in over seventy countries; almost 5,000 members on my Linked in network, 2,500 on my Twitter account and many more that follow my creative news blog. I’ve received many unexpected honors these past few years, through my connections on the internet and of course this amazing invitation to exhibit solo at the Carl Benz Cloud University is in part a result of my friendship with Immo Jalass on the internet who recommended me!
It is truly amazing that artists can share with one another from around the world when previously we really were almost living in closets unable to know about what was happening in the larger art world. I can visit the MOMA in New York online and see what’s happening there any time I wish. I can go to the Sistine Chapel and get a better view of the ceiling than if I were there in person standing in a lineup of visitors. Most of all, by staying informed about the current activities of artists around the world through various online art newsletters, I gain a deepened understanding of our ever-changing contemporary art world.
Q: You are also hosting workshops sometimes, right? The Carl Benz Academy is an academic institution mainly active in business education for professionals; and things are often very rational and number-driven at our side. We're curious: In the arts, what is your approach to "teaching", or rather helping other people to develop their abilities to express themselves?
[Is it one-on-one, or rather group work - or both? How do you exchange ideas; how does the actual "learning" happen? Is it a mutual thing, or are there clear roles? And of course, everything that comes to your mind that I couldn't even imagine to ask! ]
A: I am happy to learn more about the Carl Benz Academy and it is certain a worthwhile cause to assist students to develop professionally in business.
Occasionally, I have given lectures to over 300 people. This is a single event and I do feel I can reach the audience. It is more of a short one or two hour mass educational experience by giving a lecture and one just needs to hold the audience’s interest while giving useful information that may benefit them in their lives.
However, during the course of my years of facilitating as an Art Educator, I quickly realized that a group of twenty-five people did not allow for me to assist with individual development. Early on, in the 1970’s, I began my own studio which later became The Laara WilliamSen School of Art so that I could individualize each student’s program of learning. I held classes of no more than six students or did private tutorial. I tailored the program of creative development to each individual’s particular pace and style of learning. It is very important to me to honor a student’s creative development as each person has a variety of blocks to overcome and achieves successful moments in their own time. I am so fortunate to have had over 10,000 happy students by facilitating in this way. And I have learned so much from my students. A level of trust is established and then I can offer an individualized variety of activities. It has been a joy to receive the trust of so many people and I am very grateful to each student for their confidence in my teaching methods.
While operating my Art School, I developed over forty programs of creative development; some of which are Professional Development for Emerging Artists, Children’s art programs, Senior’s art programs, Creative Writing, Painting, Performance Art and a special program of Healing Art that is definitely a Private tutorial course of studies.
The Sunshine Art Studio is a program that I developed where teenagers were selected from local high schools and attended an Art Facilitators program with me for ten days to learn the variety of activities and methods of working with children age 6 to 12. Some students were chosen from this group to facilitate The Sunshine Art Studio which was a summer day program of painting, drawing, storytelling and drama for children. I supervised the Sunshine Art Studio and all of the children and teenagers and I had wonderful, creative summers.
These years, I am mainly painting in my studio and occasionally have a Healing Art student or a Professional Development for Emerging Artists student. I do facilitate two or three weekend workshops in a year for those who may wish to work with me. I continue to draw upon many activities to facilitate individually for each student!
Q. Are there other painters you admire, or who have been an inspiration for you? And who you would maybe even recommend to someone who loves your paintings?
A: I follow the art movements around the world and find that Europe and especially Germany is very advanced. There is a wonderful freedom where the artists are using technology in very creative ways to achieve new art that I admire. China is developing their very own voice in the arts rather rapidly, and I enjoy seeing the new work coming out there. Russia is moving forward and I was privileged to write a catalogue for a London Gallery in 2010 for the New Russian Artists. South America has some amazing artists who are mixing their traditional arts with a contemporary viewpoint. I still enjoy African traditional art very much and the Australian artists are really branching out into a variety of art forms. In each country I do see some regionalism.
I love the Modern Artists from the Fauve movement and the Impressionists as well as our own contemporary Canadian Group of Seven and women artists such as Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr. Joseph Beuys is my personal all-time favorite because of his ideals and his very committed performances. When I am chatting with people, I will recommend an artist that I feel will help to develop their own particular creative voice or their own interest in the arts. So recently, an artist friend of mine, Doris Anderson travelled to France and I recommended that she visit Claude Monet’s gardens. She was more than delighted with this experience!
Q: [If rather no - sorry for the question...] Looking at your very impressive ELEMENTS picture cycle, nature seems to be a strong source of inspiration - are there actual places you go to watch the forces of the elements?
A: As a child, I grew up in the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia, in Canada. This was virgin forest and some large farms. My Grandfather and Grandmother Ferguson owned 80 acres nearby in Aldergrove, B.C. so my childhood was spent running through fields of grass and flowers, climbing vine maple trees, wading in sparkling creeks and riding horses. Most definitely, the natural world is a deep part of me and unconsciously I return again and again to slices of time or edges of memory that emerge onto my canvas.
I was amazed recently when my cousin Bob Upton and myself returned to the Ferguson farm which is now a B.C. provincial park. We found the very same creek that we played in as children. As I looked down into the creek from the little bridge, I really felt the energy of the light dancing on the water, the moving reflections of hundreds of greens from the trees, the gentle wind carrying the smell of earth and moisture and I knew even more deeply that these memories are a core inside me; a deep well to draw upon each time that I paint.
Every morning where I live, I spend some time looking out my window enjoying the surrounding forest. I am also two minutes away from the Pacific Ocean and I love to walk both in the forest and on the beach absorbing with all of my senses each new moment!
When I traveled for the first time to Italy to the Ozu Cultural Centre for a residency, I created the Elements series not only from memories of nature but also from a deep sense of the ancient and well traveled Italian land. It was a very powerful and unique experience for me to feel the difference between our fresh, wild and rather young Canada and the Old Salt Road in the country outside of Rome where thousands and thousands of people have loved and warred and worshiped for a seemingly endless amount of time. The Elements are, I believe, more up close and personal than some of the other works I have done.
I do enjoy the city life and the people on the streets from all walks of life. I have done many city paintings when I was living and working right in the heart of Vancouver; the endless movement, the sharper corners, the weaving of lives on the sidewalk as people hurry past. This fascinates me also.
In the end, I believe that when I am painting, I move into a clear space and allow the images to flow and this comes from a meditative state and my personal experiences. I do my best to use my materials with integrity and transform them during this process.
Q: Thank you for the interview, Ms. WilliamSen! All the best for your future work!
Thank you for asking these interview questions. It has been a pleasure to answer them and it is an honor to be the solo artist for the Carl Benz Cloud University online for September. I wish you and all of your associates much success in all you do!