Wonderful Montreal has one of the best subway systems in Canada. I suppose this is arguable because I have not ridden on all of them. But I promise, Montreal’s Metro certainly beats Toronto’s TTC, hands down…
One summer day, almost 4 years ago, while riding the Metro (and in the middle of an awesome daydream), I noticed that I had missed my stop! Always seizing an opportunity to snap more pictures, I decided to get off at the next one, and walk it. Little did I know it then, it would prove to be a wonderful mistake as I was about to encounter EN MASSE, art with complete attitude and a total unique style.
I was so happy when Jason Botkin agreed to allow me to interview him! As cofounder of EN MASSE, I was immediately drawn to his creativity and vision.
StreetsNBeats: Let me start by saying that I have been a huge supporter and fan from when I first discovered your work outside of the Ste. Laurent Metro station! I truly have been a loyal follower ever since. Could you please tell us about yourself?
Botkin: Well, thank you so much! I’ve been addicted to pushing charcoal and ink across paper, panels, walls, anything really, for a long time now. I was born in Denver, Colorado in 1974, and then lived in Winnipeg from 1980-1992. After high school I then headed west, picking up a BFA (drawing major) with honors from the Alberta College of Art and Design (in Calgary, Canada).
For just over a decade now I’ve called Mount Real (Montreal) home. I divide my time between a personal practice and as the co-founder and director of the ENMASSE project, a highly engaging series of multi-artist-experimental-large-scale-black-and-white-collaborative-drawing explorations.
As an aside, I like what Constance Naubert-Riser (Honorary Professor Université de Montréal) says about my work:
“By its strangeness, the unusual sense of detail, and its oneiric (dream-like) style, the artist makes nod to Flemish painting, as well as those of the Venetian school, thus ensuing a dialogue between the past and the present…”
In effect, Botkin endeavors to have us “see” an interior transformation, by finding plastic methods that obligate us, by force of their expression, to step out of our daily routines in order to stop, and reflect.”
StreetNBeats: Wow, that’s quite an endorsement of your work! I’m really not surprised by that wonderful compliment at all. With your complex and intriguing visions, I can’t help wondering, how on earth did you start out?
Botkin: Well, I’ve always enjoyed making art (as a wee lad), but it wasn’t until my very first class in art school that this pleasure transformed to passion.
We were instructed as a class to go out onto the nearby hillside, pick a tree, and draw it as well as we possibly could for an hour. After a break we were instructed to find that same spot and spend an equal amount of time drawing the same tree as poorly as possible. What seemed an exercise in absurdity was to soon blow my lid off.
Returning to class that afternoon, we were asked to hang each drawing side by side. Our teacher challenged us each in turn to articulate how our ‘best’ was better (or not) than the ‘worst’.
The process profoundly opened my eyes to drawing not only as an act of draughtsmanship, but a vehicle to capture and map complex expressions of thought, emotion, gesture, space, etc, without limitation. I was hooked.
Following school I gave up art completely, disillusioned by what I perceived to be the contemporary state of affairs. Soulless, myopic, self-indulgent, and confounded by elitist theories disguising failed communication…as much as I tried, I did not relate, nor could I find a meaningful point in trying.
Semi-monastic life in Buddhist meditation; extensive travel; marriage; 2 years in Japan; kids; divorce; and life led me back to the art game in roughly 2003, when I made the decision to become a professional artist. Took a long time to find my bearing again and rediscover the deep value of this path, and my sticking to it…efforts made to live outside of the box have an immeasurable impact on the world around us (even if at times subtle).
StreetsNBeats: That is quite the profound journey. I am sure that your time away & life experience only proved to deepen your creativity. It is THAT amazing. May I ask, how did you get into graffiti and street art, specifically?
Botkin: That door opened up through the EN MASSE project, which has offered me the incredible privilege of meeting and working directly with so many amazing artists internationally.
My first trip to Art Week Miami/Basel really changed the game roughly 4 years ago. Confronted with a living, breathing, boundless tapestry of ideas spread across every surface of the streets of the Wynwood district was a heavily inspiring experience. “Love” is the right word.
To be clear, I do not identify myself as a “street artist”. I steer clear from labels beyond simply calling myself an artist…someone who draws. I follow where passions pull, using the materials that best serve the message, in the streets, gallery, office, barn…doesn’t matter. I love and feel privileged to have that fluidity! Street art and its ability to inform and influence the world is powerful business! A power tool.
The best street art concerns site specificity (in my opinion). It is work that understands and communicates with its environment, and the surrounding community. Street art by its very nature sits outside of the gallery and museum…this act is it’s power is seat…a contextual issue. There is nothing happening on the streets, which has not already happened on canvas or paper in some gallery somewhere historically. This is about a process designed towards the democratization of art…a massive public shot in the arm of creative confrontation.
Art speaks directly to a ‘climate of opinion’. It sways and controls the direction of popular cultural values, myths, and concepts of utopia. With this in mind, the artist through their work can cause very powerful sociological, political, emotional, and spiritual change, provided it is used that way.
StreetsNBeats: I appreciate your perspective on the label of, street artist. I know that it is a controversial one. I will be even exploring this in future articles, as it is a theme that keeps coming up. But back to EN MASSE, I have seen throughout the city of Montreal that you have envisioned and created a lot of beautiful art. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences there?
Botkin: Sure. Montreal has a powerful community of artists…I love living here! The creative spirit here, the generosity and sheer expressive energy of the vast majority of the artists I’ve met here is pretty incredible …it inspires me endlessly.
I’m not sure that a project like EN MASSE could have been created and thrived like it does in any other city that I’ve been. Something special in the water. Or the bagels. Can’t tell which.
StreetsNBeats: Oh, I so agree with you about dem bagels, and about Montreal! They are sooo good! Let me ask you, besides great taste in a great city with amazing bagels, do you admire any artists? Who inspires you?
Botkin: I admire SO many artists!! Way too many to list, and thrilled to count many of them as close personal friends!
Sources of inspiration change constantly, but some do remain constant. The work of the Mexican muralists have always thrilled me for example, in their vibrant colors and fearless approach to powerful political and sociological themes.
I’m also compelled by the science of Alchemy and it’s visual codification/logic. Strange woodcuts and engravings, attempting to capture and codify very profound and complex ideas; relationships between the human spirit and the physical world surrounding it, including the body. Endlessly fascinating stuff. From there, the list goes on and on and on and….
StreetsNBeats: Well you should know that your vision has inspired me to take pictures, so I thank you. What are your next steps? Where are you going from here?
Botkin: Next steps? Much travel in the coming year. Headed to Mexico a few times this year, for personal projects. Paris and London with the EN MASSE project, and, if all goes according to plan, China on an occasion or two. Got a very cool project lined up in the middle east, and we anticipate the release of a beautiful hard-cover art book over-sized edition chronicling the last five years of EM activity.
I’m super excited to return to the studio in a more serious way in the coming months. This is where I get my good work done…a place of research…plunging into the cave, getting lost for a while (desperately I hope), and then coming out some weird, uncharted passage with some good stuff in tow.
StreetsNBeats: Neither can we! I know you were just here to contribute your talent by painting some of the Underpass Park in preparation for the PanAm 2015 Games, but won’t you pleAse come to Toronto again? I need to catch you painting, and shoot a pic or two with your backside!
Botkin: YES! Would love to!! ALWAYS looking for a good excuse to go to TO and paint walls. I’m certain this will happen much sooner than later!
StreetsNBeats: What are your top 10 favourite things?
- My kids (Mika and Sebastian)
- Painting. I always find myself extremely happy when painting. I try to make sure I get to do it as much as possible of course.
- ‘Baby Arm’ sandwiches. [big as a baby’s arm…no actual babies harmed]
- My family…I’ve very close to these people
- Music. Teaching myself to DJ these days…just wiggin’ out on that business!
- Art supply stores (in a general way)
- Lake Winnipeg
- Did I say pastry?
StreetsNBeats: I feel deprived. I never had a baby arm sandwich. Going to try one out! Thank you so much for our interview! Any parting tips for graffiti artists starting out?
Botkin: Thank you! I’m honored to participate! Tips? Good question. The key to all of this good business is to work as much as possible. Keep pushing and growing as an artist…draw draw draw. And show your shit to folks. As one does this, in a professional and public way, it becomes increasingly harder for you not to become noticed…people will pay attention.
StreetsNBeats: Thank you again so very much for this amazing interview, Jason! It has really been such a pleasure to meet with you, and have this time together.
If you want, you can follow Jason’s work at @robotkin, @enmasseproject, or facebook and instagram. I am really inspired by his vision, and his ability to work black and white themes like an intricate visual dance on a wall. I also like his colourized view, and look forward to seeing more this year!
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