Nic Vandergugten: The Art of Education

This week's interview delves into the life and work of a second generation Victoria based artist, Nic Vandergugten. Nic's artistic adventure began with print making but since he started his BFA in Contemporary Art at UVIC he has embraced new mediums including painting, projected street art and installations. His most recent prints and multimedia works were displayed at an exhibition at The Fifty Fifty Arts Collective.

Nic's love of art was evident as soon as I entered the apartment he shares with his partner (fiancé) Kate in James Bay, Victoria. Their collection includes a piece from 1983 of Fan Tan Alley done by his father, Bert Vandergugten, another by Luise Merino, and more recent pieces from younger local artists including Theresa Slater and Zoe Cassidy (RIP). Nic graciously pours me some coffee as he tells me about his collection and we drift from talking about his dad’s work, to the Limners, to academia and the business of art. Nic’s welcoming nature makes interviewing him almost too easy (we cover many of my questions before I even pull out the tape recorder). As a second generation Victoria artist and printmaker, Nic has been immersed in the creative process from a young age but his view of a career in the arts remains humble and realistic.

What was the first experience you had with art that inspired you to be an artist?

The most obvious answer is that my dad was an artist. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been around art and had an understanding of what art was. My earliest memory of art was my dad putting me down with some paper and pencils so he could paint. Interestingly though, other than how to sharpen a pencil with a knife, I don’t remember him giving me any instruction. His whole thing was just to let me do it, he never told me how. That’s the practical answer. I also had a grandmother who was an artist.

So lots of family in art. Did that ever make you not want to be an artist?

I resisted the idea of being an artist for a long time. I’ve always been artistic, I’ve drawn and painted and fancied that I was good at it, but it took me a long time of trial and error in life before I got to a place of self-knowledge and desperation to realize I wanted to be an artist. I was resisting it for a long time for whatever complicated reason but around 26 I realized people were artists, that it was a real option, so why shouldn’t I be an artist.

You have mentioned being inspired by the Japanese block prints traditions for your work. What do you connect with about this style of print making?

It’s a bit complicated but again going back to when I was around 26 I remember very specifically I was confronted with a lot of realities about how I’d lived my life up till then. Throughout my 20's I’d worked kitchen jobs and any kind of job I could get all across the country because I’d decided that I wanted to be a writer. I was chasing the Jack Kerouac dream. I fancied the idea that you could live life for the experiences. So what I did with my life became secondary with what I did with my writing. The reality of life set in around 26 and I realized that as much as I liked writing about crisscrossing the country and having crap jobs I was being excluded from the larger experience of joining adult hood. I was also lonely because I was trying to be a solo nomad type of guy which I'm not. Around this time I saw prints by Naoko Matsubara, Shiko Munakata and Billy Childish. There something about them that was so direct and beautiful. Painting, watercolour and pen work was great but there was something honest about printmaking that appealed to me.

I wanted to figure out how to do it so I went and bought a piece of easy cut and cut up a street scene outside of my partner at that time’s place on Johnson St. I just loved it, it went from a little quick sketch to a carved relief in 15 minutes. It was satisfying that from all of that unsureness came something so assured. The printed form looks definitive, it’s very strong, and it was kind of magic because I felt unsure. Then serendipitously I was in Chinatown and I went to Ground Zero Printmakers and met this community of people who did printmaking. I had a place to do it, people to learn from and I was really excited to dedicate myself to printmaking. All of a sudden everything seemed to make sense.   

Nic Vandergugten, Apartment/Studio Space, Feb 2015

Nic Vandergugten, Apartment/Studio Space, Feb 2015

Your prints celebrate the iconography of Victoria and the west coast, whether it be the Johnson Street Bridge series or rainforest imagery, what is it about this setting that inspires your art?

The Johnson Street bridge work had a lot to do with that point in my life and the big circle I’d taken to get back to Chinatown. All of a sudden I found myself working as an artist just one building over from where I grew up. It's a really romantic part of town for me. I loved looking at and being on the bridge. I have fond memories as a kid of looking at it as we passed over it in a car. I hadn’t seen a lot of work of it and it was a good challenge. The bridge was a really complex set of technical difficulties but I also loved it. I hoped this imagery would resonate with others. Then shortly after that all the politics around the removal of the bridge happened which brought more attention to my work.

The west coast pieces came out of growing up here and having my mom raise us to love and appreciate the woods. That was where we went to talk about serious stuff. So it was again a natural challenge to do pieces inspired by the woods. We’re saturated with that kind of imagery out here so it’s hard to not project it into your work.

You are currently completing your BFA at UVIC in contemporary art. Your path is different than that of other artists in that you established yourself as an artist before you did your BFA. I know a lot of artists are torn over the benefits of academia, can you relate to this?

Yes, I can. Printmaking was great to get to a certain place. It allowed me to sell work to a reasonable price to people and allowed me to teach workshops. Nevertheless I felt that I’d reached a glass ceiling for me. I was running out of steam with it. I was spurred on to go back to university by having to make a decision about my relationship with being an artist. I was asking printmaking to do more than it could do and I was excited about the possibilities of contemporary art. I had a series of long conversations with my friend Tara Hurst (Creative Director at Tara Hurst Design.) I remember asking her, ‘how do I contemporize what I’m doing’ and she was very honest and said that aside from going back to school it would be difficult to switch from being a landscape artist to contemporary. I thought about it more and more and realized the only thing stopping me from taking the step to education was my ego regarding going back to school later in life. I finally saw it as an opportunity to work on myself and expand my horizons as an artist.

Nic Vandergugten, Fine Arts Building, UVic, Studio Space, Feb 2015

Nic Vandergugten, Fine Arts Building, UVic, Studio Space, Feb 2015

Do you think it’s beneficial to attend art school after having experience as an artist and in life?

Yes. If you like contemporary art than going to school in a contemporary setting like UVic is very fulfilling. I remember wishing there was more of a community of artists working on new ideas not focused on what will sell. I didn’t want to be isolated in a studio anymore. If you like the contemporary conversation and contemporary art it’s a great opportunity. On the other hand the young artist in my program have a lot of gumption which is really valuable.  There are also some who don’t identify as artists yet. At this point in my life, I know art is my passion and this program is about me expanding my experiences as an artist and being able to focus on it for really the first time in my life.

How are you finding the art school experience?

I love it. It’s amazing. Being older and having gone through a period of time where I struggled to find time to be in the studio, with all of the expenses, with trying to work another job at the same time and with all of the loneliness of working through it on your own, it solves all of those problems. I’m surrounded by really intelligent people of all ages. It’s super humbling. I have resources at my fingertips.

Nic Vandergugten, Straw Light Box Experiment, Feb 2015

Nic Vandergugten, Straw Light Box Experiment, Feb 2015

In your exhibition at the 50/50 art collective last year you had a number of pieces with words or quotes. Why do you incorporate text into some of your work?

This was a response to making the big hand prints for the show which required a ton of technical work that I didn't find very creative at all. It was a drag. I was feeling pent up artistically. With the text work I loved the lightness and the immediacy of it. I had a couple of ideas and I became interested in how the words were interpreted by the viewer. One in particular said “this is a note in a language I made up describing the worst thing you ever did.” I was imaging that each person who saw it would think about the worst thing they ever did.  The piece would reference their unique thing and they would experience it in a very individual way. People said that when they read it if affected them, they were getting something out if it, it was intriguing in some way.

But basically it was a way of balancing the technical work with something that was immediate and fun. Sometimes the words were sentiments. I enjoyed playing with sentimentality. I like how it makes people uncomfortable.

Victoria has a strong community of artists and artists run centres. Does being part of a community like this impact your work?

I think for me personally my community has been about finding allies. I’ve always had a hard time really opening up. I’m a bit of a loner with my art practice. Knowing that here are people that are working on art, no matter whether it is like yours or not, is comforting. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how we need that. As humans we need to know that there are others like us. Sometimes as an artist if you’re not around other artists you feel really lonely, isolated, especially when you’re in a time in your life where you want to connect more. The value for me is comradery, finding other people who understand what it’s like to be an artist.

I didn’t intend to ask this in the interview but in Victoria's small artistic community the loss of someone can be very hard. With the recent loss of Zoe, do you find release in art or in the community?

Zoe was very central part of the art scene because he was a muse for a lot of people. He was always at every show, he was always contributing. He was very intense but everybody, especially artists, understood the value of his energy. Losing him made me evaluate a lot of things but mostly in a positive way. We don’t have our eccentric Zoë anymore, there’s a spark that is gone. I miss him all the time. I’m still coping and I have some pretty dark times. But whenever I’m stuck with a decision or I’m not sure about following my instincts on something I feel like I know what he’d say to me. I can hear him being supportive of my journey, I know the kind of answers he would give me. He kind of lives on in your mind and heart. He wouldn't want us to dwell on his passing, so I try to keep learning from who he was. I still see his tag everywhere downtown. His friends and family still have a long way to go though.

Nic Vandergugten with portrait of Cameron Kidd, Feb 2015

Nic Vandergugten with portrait of Cameron Kidd, Feb 2015

Sorry to switch from that to a totally benign finishing question, but, what are you reading right now?

That’s okay. I’m halfway through the Book Thief. It’s a kid’s book but I needed some escapist literature because of Zoe actually. The last great book I read was Edgar Allen Poe’s Science Fiction. I’d highly recommend it.

Who is your favourite artist right now? No restrictions, living or dead, Canadian or international.

I’ve been really been enjoying looking at the painting of Daniel Richter. Really weird dark animalistic paintings. I’ve also been looking at Gauguin’s horses a lot. Horses are something that I doodle a lot and I want to work more with as an artist.

I’ll have to look Richter up, I’m not familiar with his work (*I also had to look up how to spell Gauguin). Thanks so much for talking with me Nick.

No worries. I hope I didn’t blab on too much.

Interview by Theresa McFarland