The Helmsmen Series - A Conversation with Artist Glen Ronald
He’s an internationally recognized artist, with an unconventional path to success and fulfilling his passions. From his early days as a biologist, and ironworker (yes we said ironworker), to his time in Thailand setting up and teaching at one of the first bilingual schools in the country, our latest Helmsmen has plenty to share.
In this installment of our Helmsmen Series, we sit down with renowned painter Glen Ronald and chat entrepreneurship, art, growing up in rural Manitoba, Instagram, and his encounter with the infamous Banksy.
CH: So Glen, here we are at your gallery - Spark. What is Spark?
GR: Spark is a bit of a mixture – a company that does branded promotional materials and designs, and we also work on events. Basically, it’s an events base with co-working and also an art gallery all blended together.
CH: You have a sort of multi-use space between your art, your tenants – so it’s become almost like a community.
GR: Yeah, it’s a creative community, it’s a creative hub. It’s a place where you get all kinds of interactions between different people – entrepreneurs, artists, art buyers – all kinds of people coming through!
CH: What’s your story? Where did you grow up?
GR: I grew up in the tiny town of Russell, Manitoba, population of 1200, right near the border of Saskatchewan. It’s a small farming community out there. Not much art going on there.
CH: So, when did you move? There’s always a story that you hear with small towns, with people saying, “As soon as I was old enough, I got out!” Was that the same with you?
GR: Pretty much! By the time we were 17, I went to study Science at University of Manitoba. My whole family went into Science – all four of us - so I had to take up the tradition, and studied microbiology.
CH: So that was your natural path then. Did you do that for a while?
GR: Yeah, I worked for a couple of years in microbiology. I worked for University of Alberta and University of Manitoba and then decided that science was not in the cards for me. I liked the experimental side, but disliked the administrative side – that bored me, so I got out of that and into more entrepreneurial ventures after that.
GR: I kept studying after that. I went to Grant MacEwan to study fine art for a while, and then I studied Theology for one year, and then ended up in Vancouver, where I became an ironworker, and go a teaching degree at the University of British Columbia.
CH: When you invited me to Spark a year and a half ago, you told me a story about you and your wife spending time in South-East Asia.
GR: Yes, right after we got married we bought an open-ended ticket to Thailand in 1997, and stayed for three years. We ended up liking it so much that we just stayed. We didn’t have any special commitments back here so we figured we would experience what it was like there.
CH: What did you do while you were there?
GR: Two of the years I spent working on starting up a bilingual school, and the other year I basically painted non-stop and had a few shows in some galleries in Bangkok while helping to market the new school that we had started.
CH: In the 90’s there must not have been many of these schools around. How did that unfold? I guess your education background helped?
GR: We had the teaching background, yes, and my wife was always a vocational teacher – she loves it, whereas for me, I was never great at teaching, but still felt that it was a great thing to help with, so I helped with the marketing and branding. It was around the time the first bilingual school was opening in Thailand, and it ended up becoming more and more common, which means that they were all about retaining their Thai heritage while learning all about Western culture. 70% in English, 30% in Thai.
CH: Rumour has it that you had an encounter with Banksy. Tell us about this!
GR: True story! I was down in New York with some friends, and we were walking through Central Park. Everyone was getting ahead of me - there was a bunch of type-A entrepreneurial guys – and me, the artist. I came up to a table that had a bunch of stenciled images, thinking, “Oh, these are some Banksy knock-offs.” I looked at them for about 30-seconds or so and thought that they looked too real. That if those were not Banksy originals, this guy was doing as good of a job knocking off Banksy as Banksy could do; the absolute perfect rip-offs. They were amazing, very clever, very well executed, and were being sold for $60 each. I had five or six hundred bucks in my pocket, so I thought that I’d buy ten of them.
I waited at the table for five or ten minutes, wondering where the salesperson was - but they were nowhere to be found. I was going to take some of them and stash the cash under the table with a note, but by then my friends were yelling at me, so I opted out from buying them, which I’m now kicking myself for because they’d be worth about $50,000 each by now.
CH: Wow! Yeah, It came out later that it was a stunt that he was doing on that particular day in Central Park, selling his own art.
GR: It would have been hilarious to have bought those. It would have been such a good collection.
CH: Tell us about your personal style. The everyday Glen. What are you wearing? What are you up to? When you get up in the morning, get dressed, and you’re going to paint an eight-foot canvas, what do you like to throw on?
GR: Well you’re not going to like this, but not suits.
CH: (Laughing) That’s fully understandable!
GR: I do like wearing a suit during certain occasions, but typically I’m wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and that’s about it because half the time I’m splashing around with paint, so if I’m wrecking my clothes, I don’t like to wear nice clothes.
CH: You like to be in an outfit that you can muck up a bit.
GR: Exactly. Sometimes I’ll have paint splatters on my clothes. I was part of a business club, and everyone in it wore suits, and then it’s like, “Uh oh, here’s Glen, right?”. I show up in t-shirt, jeans, with paint splatters.
CH: Designer denim is running up to $1800 for splattered pants
GR: So, hey, maybe my time’s finally come!
CH: A few questions that I’d like to ask you about your art. How would you describe your art style? In my eyes, it’s a little bit abstract but very detailed.
GR: I would definitely agree with that. Abstract and detailed, having elements of realism and surrealism. It has elements of chaos and chance, and then parts that are designed very intentionally and strategically, so I’m often walking the line of accidental and intentional I would say. That’s what I like to do! And have a bit of a question mark around which is the case.
CH: Is that planned? Like when you sit down and you look at a blank canvas, do you start out with a plan, or do you let it evolve?
GR: Most of the time – probably 90% - I let it evolve with random spilling of paint, ink, and see what starts to appear, what starts to emerge out of that randomness. Maybe 10% of the time I’m strategically directing it with a lot off intentional inputs right at the start, especially if it’s something for commission or something I would be like, “Let’s make this go this way because it’s probably going to be in this (setting), but it’s not super controlled.
CH: You paint a lot of wildlife and people. What is it about those two things?
GR: It’s two different things. With the wildlife, it’s to do with – I have this fascination with nature and biology; I always have. I’m very interested in animals and how they relate to the environment. With the people and portraits, I’m interested in – I mean, portraits can include everything from psychology, pop culture, celebrity, philosophy, religion, etcetera. It can all be included in just the portrait of a human face. All those things are very interesting to me; endlessly interesting.
CH: Obviously! You told me earlier that you’re putting out nearly one painting a day, so you’re not short on inspiration!
GR: (Laughing) Yeah, either a small one or a big one. I try to do one a day just as a habit, right? Just a little sketch or something to keep the momentum going.
CH: I couldn’t sit here and talk to you about your art without bringing up your Instagram account. You have 265,000 followers! How did that evolve?
GR: It’s weird how that took off. I started on Instagram probably five or six years ago around the same time that we were starting up the studio on 118th Ave, and basically when I started, it was almost a new platform, so people were interested to see what would go on with art. In terms of the following, I think it was a combination of having contests and things, and tried to promote it that way, but also just a lot of regular posts and regular comments – replying to comments as much as I could. Keeping it pretty interactive.
CH: I can see how your art could draw people in – it’s impressive, and you can just stare at it for hours and see more and more, and I get that. Did it go viral instantly, or was it something that grew over time?
GR: It went really slow at the start, and then kind of went up in a bit of a hockey stick kind of curve, where you start getting a momentum from other art sites giving shout-outs for it.
CH: It has resonated with people. They see it, like it, appreciate it.
GR: I think a lot of them were maybe getting the idea of chaos versus order dynamic – they were picking up on that. Maybe they thought that it was relevant to the modern situation, I don’t know.
CH: On your website, you mention that you channel your inner creativity when it comes to your work – that you do more original than custom work. Where does the imagination come from?
GR: The inspiration comes from the actual chaos itself – putting down random images and finding what’s going on in the chaos, and that’s how – for me – it brings an unpredictability into the art because you’re pouring something down that you don’t know what will happen, you have to work with that – you have to resolve it. In a sense it becomes the fuel and a challenge for the painting, like how do we resolve this, all the while gaining inspiration from it at the same time.
CH: I feel like this is a metaphor for life. Is this an angle that you take?
GR: I feel like it is as well! I think part of the human condition is always wondering what part of your life can you predict or control, and what parts are unpredictable and you don’t know why they’re happening. I think it is connected to the human condition in that way.
CH: Do you listen to music when you paint?
GR: Pretty much 100% of the time. The only time I don’t is when I’m super in the zone and I forget to turn it on, but other than that I always have it going.
CH: What do you listen to?
GR: Such a weird mixture of everything from Rock to Folk to Blues to Metal. Everything in there.
CH: But what’s your go to music now? If you’re going to hit “Play” on something and let your creativity flow, what would you listen to?
GR: One band I listen to is King’s X. They’re a heavy metal, hard rock band. I don’t think they still make albums, but I listen to them, and when I do, I immediately get straight into the zone. It’s almost like a trigger.
CH: I get this vision of you like Christian Bale in The Big Short – where he’s got heavy metal blasting. (laughter)
CH: Does fashion inspire you?
GR: Definitely! The reason I started this whole promotion business was because of clothing. I was obsessed with t-shirts and how we put art on shirts and how we design a cool hoodie. That’s what drew me to the branding materials and promotion industry. I’ve always loved that stuff. Just seeing what you can do in terms of how you can express personality on that canvas, and onto clothing.
You can do so much with clothing, although right now clothing has veered away from the graphic tees – when we started, that was more of a big deal, but it does tend to go in phases. It’ll probably go back eventually.
CH: Typically, people become a little bit more outgoing, a little bit subtler with colour and graphics as the economy becomes unstable, like when the global price of oil dropped. Colours become a little bit more muted with a struggling economy.
CH: You’ve painted a lot of pieces – you’ve been doing it since you were a teenager. Are there any pieces that stick out as memorable or your favourite?
GR: I think my favourite piece is on-hand. I have it back there in the studio, but I also have this one that I did of a wolf, and I poured it when it was -30 Celsius. I went outside and poured it, and it kind of froze in about three or four seconds, and then I brought it in and it was forming quite a good wolf body, so I morphed it into a wolf, and the reason I love it so much is because it walks the line of accidental and on purpose, which I love. It could have been meaningless, and it could also be very much like a wolf’s body looks – right on the edge.
CH: Thanks for your time today Glen. Now we’re going to go to the studio to get creative – we’ve brought a blazer in for you to paint. I think you’re pretty excited about this? Apparently, it’s the first time you’ve painted on clothing?
GR: It is! And I'm super excited. Let’s do it!