A House and a Home: An Interview with Graeme Patterson

Graeme Patterson, Woodrow, 2005, installation view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2007

Graeme Patterson, Woodrow, 2005, installation view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2007. © Graeme Patterson  Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Graeme Patterson grew up in Saskatchewan and lives in Sackville, New Brunswick. He graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2002 and his work has exhibited across Canada, as well as internationally, including the Toronto Film Festival, the Montreal Biennale and the Philadelphia Film Festival. A sculptor and award-winning animator, the 40-year old has twice been the Atlantic Canada representative in the Sobey Art Award and one of this year’s 25 artists to receive the prize in 2020.

Home is a recurring theme in his work, which combines installation, sculpture, robotics, models and animation. The Grain Elevator and Monkey and Deer, both in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, are two works from his 2005 Woodrow project that captured a community on the brink of becoming a ghost town. His newest work, A Tree Fell On It, incorporates virtual reality technology into sculptures, permitting viewers to experience his dream-like worlds with remarkable realism. His animations and Instagram “dance bombs” can be viewed on his website. In this interview, he discusses his way of working, what inspires him and how COVID-19 affected his latest work.

Graeme Patterson, The Grain Elevator, 2005. Wood, foamcore, electronics, audio and video projection of animation Train

Graeme Patterson, The Grain Elevator, 2005. Wood, foamcore, electronics, audio and video projection of animation Train (25 sec), 335 x 76 x 76 cm. Purchased 2006. National Gallery of Canada. © Graeme Patterson Photo: NGC

The Grain Elevator was part of your first nationally touring exhibition, Woodrow. The project comprised ten works, all referencing aspects of the real village of Woodrow, Saskatchewan, where your grandparents had lived most of their lives. Why that place?
Well, I guess, it was for a couple of reasons. One, I had already been making work related to my grandfather and my memories of my grandparents. My grandfather had recently passed away, so it was fresh in my mind. I had gone to school in Halifax and I was still pretty young; it was the first time I had really been away for a really long time. I was feeling disjointed from my family and I was making work about it. The other reason was that there was this talk about Woodrow dying, and the family farm dying. There was this opportunity for me to move out there, to live and work, to become absorbed with the place itself. It was kind of those two reasons that I really got obsessed by it and wanted to make work about it.

Monkey and Deer is a twelve-minute animation that serves as a kind of master-narrative for the Woodrow cycle of works. What inspired you make such a labour-intensive work?
Most of my work is animation of some sort, at that time it was stop-motion animation, now its VR and pixilation – which is using my own body or real world objects to animate. I had been wanting to make a narrative short film, regardless of Woodrow. It had been on my mind to commit to that. I wanted to make essentially a fairytale, a narrative related to the village of Woodrow and its landscape. In this scenario I wanted to use animals as the main characters, who would meet each other and work their way through the town. To experience the town and its ghosts, its past and present within the story. In that work – and this happens in all my work – they are portions of my personality. Having lived in cities for most of my life, Saskatoon and then Halifax, and moving out there, to Woodrow, being alone in this rural area, I started to feel the two parts of my life having to coexist, and clashing at times, but also sometimes becoming one. The story is about that, about me coming to terms with the environment, with things I didn’t know, things I found out.

When The Grain Elevator and Monkey and Deer entered the collection, you were among the youngest artists to have work acquired by the NGC. You were also one of the youngest Canadian artists ever to have a solo exhibition touring to public art galleries across the country. Did you feel like you were doing something exceptional? 
It felt kind of crazy, and amazing. It was the first work that I sold to an institution. It helped me legitimize that I was going in the right direction. It wasn’t that I didn’t have confidence, but it showed that my work would have an audience. It totally motivated me.

Graeme Patterson, Secret Citadel, 2013, view of the installation

Graeme Patterson, Secret Citadel, 2013; shown in traveling exhibition tour co-produced by the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2013. © Graeme Patterson Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Your second large body of work, Secret Citadel, made when you were in your early 30s, shared stylistic elements with Woodrow, although it is a more melancholy body of work. Why that sense of regret, even sadness?
It has a lot to do with me as an artist, aging and becoming more comfortable with my voice. It is something that I am taking on in my latest work, as well, taking on my own fears and anxiety. Whereas in Woodrow, really, it was other people’s anxieties and fears. I shared them, but a lot of it came from my grandparents and parents, and other family members, fears about Woodrow that I had heard from them. I was kind of relaying the message in Woodrow, whereas Secret Citadel was more of an inward dialogue about my past, and fears about friendship.

One of the sculptures in Woodrow was your grandparents’ house, where you were living while you completed that body of work. In Secret Citadel one of the sculptures is of your childhood home in Saskatoon. And in your latest body of work, A Tree Fell On It, the central sculpture is your house in Sackville. Can you talk about how the idea of “home” informs your artwork?
First of all, it has to do with where I start all of my projects It’s always about my own experience and my own life. How much I turn that into fantasy comes later, but I always have a starting point of some kind of non-fiction. For the new work, I had been alone living in my house, and there was a moment when I started to feel weird about my own home. My attachment to it kind of became a little bit scary, kind of abstract in my mind. That feeling just turned into a project where I wanted to focus on the house to begin with—as a character— to describe what I was feeling. It’s partly the COVID isolation. I had a realization with the home work—I was already there. Thinking about being trapped in your home and there’s good things and bad things about the experience. You’re there for so long that things become abstract and a bit of a horror show. It talks about mental states, about fear and anxiety once again.

Graeme Patterson, Detail of the House in A Tree Fell On It, 2020

Graeme Patterson, Detail of the House in A Tree Fell On It, 2020. © Graeme Patterson Photo: Courtesy of the artist

All of your work has a dream-like quality, as viewers experience it, they are immersed in worlds of your creation. Your newest body of work involves a virtual reality experience. You put the viewer directly in the new sculptures, or so it feels. Do you see this as a departure? As an evolution? 
With this work I want people to have their own experience, more so than with anything I’ve made before. Obviously, anything interactive—VR especially—will allow that. Essentially, you’ll walk through the model house, there’s characters moving around, and no one person will have the same experience. You’re moving around, you can bend over and look at things, move things.
VR allows me to do something that I’ve always wanted to do for the viewer. I’ve used animation to bring things to life inside the models, but with VR it actually allows the person to feel like they are physically inside. It’s a gamechanger in my mind.


For details of works by Graeme Patterson in the National Gallery of Canada, see the online collection; see also the 2020 Sobey Art Award. A Tree Fell On It will be on view at Galerie 3 this spring, see graemepatterson.com. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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