Portrait of an Artist: Collin Elder

Upon looking at Collin Elder’s artwork it is no surprise that he majored in wildlife biology at university. What is surprising, however, is that he only began painting four years ago and has never studied the craft.

Elder drew and sketched growing up, but didn’t delve into painting (mostly oils on birch board) until leaving his job at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“My artwork translated from drawing into painting. It just worked,” Elder explains. 

One might expect to detect boastful pride in the voice of an artist who in less than half a decade is already working full-time, but Elder is instead quiet, thoughtful, and speaks passionately about learning to understand paint and dedicating himself to technique. His desire to paint started with a yearning for a more in depth understanding of ecology, the science behind the relationships between organisms and their environments—or, perhaps, more poetically and simply: the relationships between organisms and their environment. 

He wanted to investigate this common shared sense that we all have, "we as in humans and non-humans—that we’re not just isolated individuals". In the beginning his work was a lot of animals and human figures acting as symbols, becoming one another. Then he progressed into doing more landscapes, ”wanting to recreate the vivid experiences I have when I’m out in”, Elder says. 

Though Elder grew up in a small town outside of Edmonton, he spent many of his summers in B.C., visiting family on Vancouver Island. Currently settled into a studio in Tofino, he describes the stormy atmosphere as a “different energy—kind of like living in a city—you get all the excitement a city brings, but the natural world [provides it].”

Elder’s time in the Pacific Northwest has undoubtedly been an imperative influence in his work, but it is his travels to India and Central America, as well as his studies of philosophy (in particular David Abram and the philosophical study of phenomenology) are what gives his art breath and dimension. 

When told his paintings are reminiscent of images created by individuals on Amazonian psychedelic ayahuasca, Elder is not surprised and replies, “I think those cultures [that use ayahuasca] have a very different way of viewing the world…and I think that’s really important. I would like to become more accustomed to being able to step outside this western world view that we’re so entrenched in, that we can’t really escape from, because it’s a part of who we are.” He continues, “We’re all just characters in a big, huge story and the human language is just one way to view it.”

That different worldview—that anti-anthropocentric interpretation of life—is what Elder strives to capture and translate through his paintings. When asked to pinpoint where his initial passion stemmed from, Elder mentions a vaguely Buddhist upbringing but expresses that most important influence has and always will be nature.

Though he seems to have already tapped into something truly special, Elder can see his work continuing to evolve. “I can see myself changing a lot. I get really excited about mythology and ancient stories and legends.” He hopes his my future paintings are going to be a little bit more political. More landscapes of course, but they’ll be used to raise awareness about political issues.

Speaking further to his political leanings, Elder says, “I’m really excited about a lot of First Nations taking a stand on the things going on in Western culture and industry…[working] towards reconciling our way of life with nature. I think we should look to them for leadership in that area.”

Up next for Elder is an artist residency in France. And, after that? One wonders that despite his incredible talent if he’ll move on to different endeavors, the whim that he began painting on could pass as quickly as it arrived. But speaking about the future, Elder says, “I still want to be painting. I like the way it connects me to other people and how I can share this common human experience with people in a really deep way.”

One of his goals is to paint a large mural in a public space, sharing his art intimately and constantly with the public. He doesn’t care where: a wall in the city, a barn in the countryside, or his current home, Tofino. Wherever his mural ends up (and looking at his work and drive thus far, you can be sure one will), all that matters to Elder is, “Being able to tell a really good story…to be able to touch something in somebody, somehow…and creating something really profoundly beautiful.”  

Whether or not you jive with his worldwide, agree with his politics, or take anything from his work, one thing is certain: every stroke Elder has given us is unequivocally and profoundly beautiful. 

Find Collin Elder on ArtsAlly.com and on Twitter.