Vancouver artist Michelle Mathias says that she encounters many “urban wolves” when she walks from her West End home to her Downtown Eastside studio. This is her term for people living on the fringes of society.
“They make an impression on me,” Mathias told the Straight by phone. “And I paint them because the uniqueness of an era is often defined by the urban wolves.”
In the early 1970s, she said, the Manson cult was on the fringe. By the early 1980s, it was the punks.
"At the time, putting a safety pin through your ear was seen as the extremity but now, it’s nothing.”
Mathias’s vibrant oil paintings serve as a contemporary and colourful narrative for Vancouver in the 21st century.
Whether they feature a solitary, hunched-over street person in an alley or two middle-class women at a cocktail bar or a rich couple eating dinner, they reflect Vancouver’s growing divide between the down-and-out and those who’ve been more lucky in life.
Then there are the canines that pop up in several of her paintings, including in one nude called Young Woman With Pitbull.
“It seems like never in history have people had so many dogs,” Mathias said. “Like, 40 years ago you hardly ever saw a pit bull. Now you see pit bulls all the time and from all walks of life.”
Mathias isn’t one to write long descriptions alongside her paintings. She prefers snappy titles, such as Cement Futon, Confessions With Cocktails, and Graffiti Guy.
Then there’s one called My Mate Is in Real Estate.
“I saw a middle-aged couple kissing on a restaurant patio and I just wanted to capture that emotion in their relationship, the happiness,” Mathias explained. “But I figured if I gave it a romantic title, it would be really sappy. So I called it My Mate Is in Real Estate because they looked kind of rich.”
Mathias is also a sculptor but switched to painting several years ago because she enjoys how this art form can trigger a thought or feeling that will lead to introspection.
For Mathias, a painting must have an initial impact or else it's meaningless. Artists who've inspired her include contemporary realist Daniel Sprick, portraitist Hope Gangloff, and British painter of nudes Jenny Saville.
“Painting is like climbing the highest mountain," Mathias said. “And if I do it, I have to have a modern edge and make it contemporary.”
She's been an artist for 23 years. And over that time, almost all of her studios have been demolished to make room for condos.
"Vancouver has been absolutely brutal on artists," Mathias said.
Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in San Francisco, Miami, and Paris, as well as in Metro Vancouver. But this is her first appearance in the Eastside Culture Crawl.
Her new studio is in the Centre for Social and Economic Innovation at 312 Main Street, which is within the festival’s boundaries. And she's relieved to finally be in a building where she feels there's security of tenure.
"It's a wonderful destination," Mathias said. "The managers there are great people."
The outside door is always locked, so she encourages anyone who wants to visit during the Eastside Culture Crawl from Thursday (November 18) to Sunday (November 21) to email her at email@example.com—even at the last minute.