STEWART MILNE AND THE ACCIDENTAL LANGUAGE OF OUR EXPERIENCES
Stewart Milne was born in Toronto in 1986. He works with paint, music and poetry to convey what he calls “the obvious and accidental language of our experiences.” Largely self-taught in all aspects of his creative work, he has found a purpose for strong colours and shapes to dress the world on his canvases, in his songs and words. Stewart uses people and the things that their homes and spaces consist of to tell his dream-like stories. Part confessional part surreal. The freedom he takes with his work lands it in a relatable context where the subject is to be observed. Past Artists like Piet Mondrian and Keith Haring have used similarly focused ways of speaking to the observer.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Can you describe your childhood? What kinds of creative activities did you most
It was a pretty nice childhood, largely centred around play and doing things outside. I have two sisters and we would often entertain ourselves with things we had made up in our heads. It was also strict in some ways. Kind of a dichotomy of play and discipline. My Mom bought me a guitar when I was pretty young. That started the creative direction, of course I had no idea then. Music was the main thing for the longest time. The rest was just riding around on bikes with friends being a nuisance to strangers. I was a shy kid, in some ways I still am so I think I had a lot that I never said and it came out in these other ways.
How would you describe your teenage years? How did you spend your free time?
I was trying different things out now that I look back. I played in punk and hardcore bands, wrote songs for girls and thought my parents didn’t understand anything. Isn’t that typical? I can remember everything feeling really serious and visceral. I was in my head a lot, even when I was with other people and in turn was constantly thinking and evaluating things I had made or did. I like that about myself now but back then it was harder to live like that, when the world is less serious.
What art did you gravitate towards in your youth? (Books, music, movies..)
It was always music that made me feel regulated and connected to something. I remember going to hockey practice and my Dad would play stuff like the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead and I would play guitar solos in my head along with the music. I was always looking for that magic spot that those guys seem to find so easily, in between in the in between. Music was always on or easily accessible. My parents definitely fostered that love for the power of music, I’m really thankful for that.
What high school classes did you enjoy the most? Did you have any standout
School didn’t come naturally to me. I always felt like I was trudging uphill and the top kept moving. I remember most of my teachers seeming really anxious, maybe it was me. It was never going to be an option for me to go that way, so I did what I had to do to get by and keep my parents at bay. I took a photography course one year, and it felt great to be able to do anything you wanted, no rules really. A place where you would mess up and it could end up being the right thing. I liked that.
Now That You're Here
What route did you take after graduating from high school? What were the big
questions that fascinated you the most, going into adulthood?
In my last year of high school I signed up for a Co-op program with the Fire Department. I don’t really know what exactly made me do that but it ended up changing everything almost instantly. I went to College for Firefighting and then to Paramedic school. Firefighting and the culture there felt natural to me, the spontaneous nature of the work and that it mattered in the immediate moment. So that kind of became my focus for a few years until I was able to get a job with Toronto Fire.
I always wondered, but it was so constant that it almost didn’t seem like wondering at all. It seemed like that’s just what you did. I think I always wanted it to matter, whatever it was. I guess the big question looking back now was what really matters, not just to me, but to us.
What kinds of painters have you enjoyed the most in your adult life?
I seem to be drawn to the people who did it their way, kind of unapologetically. Andy Warhol, Picasso, Basquiat, Klimt. I’m not much of a scholar, those are big names obviously but I guess they’re big for a reason. It’s just work that you can’t really argue with, it wins almost every time.
Can you talk about I'm Not Trying to Change Your Mind? What is this show all
about? What questions are you exploring in these paintings?
Sure. This exhibition kind of came together accidentally. I have never planned to paint to a theme or whatever so I would just paint something and then another, and so on.
Eventually I had all of these paintings sitting in my house, and I saw what has become this show. Sort of like when I was a kid not being able to say how I felt, often I didn’t even know how I felt, until things would come out in other ways, good or bad. These paintings are like that. I don’t know what else to do. The question and the answer sometimes come at the same time, after it’s finished. When I look at this body of work it looks really optimistic but it has the melancholy tone that all life is blanketed by. I guess I’m still exploring what actually matters, and in the wonder you can’t help but be hopeful and terribly sad at the same time. I’m not trying to say this or that, I don’t think any art is, trying that is. That’s usually a role taken on by the observer or listener or whatever. I’m good with that, it’s a relationship I suppose.
How did you first develop an interest in painting?
My Grandmother, Mom and Aunt all paint. I grew up knowing that there were painters and it wasn’t glorified or anything it was just a matter of fact kind of thing. So there were always colourful paintings in the house and at the houses of our extended families. Each room in my Aunt’s house was a different colour. My Mom would always choose vibrant furniture and artwork and I think it leaked into me as well. Just before the pandemic I acquired some paints and kind of just started to try. I’d look at a photo or my reflection and see if I could paint it. When the pandemic really got going I was spending a lot more time alone and eventually it became a daily thing, I’d see what you could do with paint and it just kept getting wider and wider. The only instruction I ever received and it changed everything was from Toronto Artist Laura Dawe. “Just paint what you see.” For some reason that clicked and it opened the door for me. I’m still walking through it.
She Has Everything She Needs
Do you find Hamilton to be an artist-friendly city?
Of course my comparisons are few but yes. I think it’s a friendly city in general. I’m sure people disagree based on their circumstance and they’re probably right. I am a white guy, doing okay, you know? But I feel supported here and kind of free to try anything and put it out there and if it doesn’t work that’s not a problem. It seems okay to try things and people get excited about that energy. It’s a luxury to not have any expectations put on you and that’s kind of where it’s at, right now anyways.
Why is art and painting important?
Well, I can’t definitively say that it is, but it certainly makes life more tolerable. I mean there’s got to be a reason it’s been done since the beginning. I think firstly it’s important to the person making the song or the painting or the anything really. It is a language and for some people this seems to be the best way to communicate. It’s just a little tricky because it’s not always so overt, which can make the process a little more painful or time consuming but sometimes it’s the only way. I know when I see or hear something that kind of stops me or makes me rethink everything it makes what that person did the most important thing in the world at that moment. It really can change your whole world and then you move on to the next thing and bounce off that, and you’re changed by each encounter. I think that matters.
Which artists in your own community do you admire?
I mentioned Laura Dawe, she was the first Artist I met in this stage of my life to be really doing it. Guts, you know? She kind of took the mystique away. There’s a musician out of Fergus, Rich Burnett. I met him through a guitar shop, Folkway Music, and he’s another Artist who just does it. He does it his way and doesn’t expect anything to happen but because he needs to do it. It’s a lot easier and painless, at least at first, to just go and be like everything around you, even the lizards do it. But I admire people who contrast with their surroundings, kind of like rising up in a field of green with a yellow hat on, saying “I think this matters?”
What are you looking forward to?
It’s hard to answer that and not feel guilty with everything that’s been going on in the world these last few years. I guess I’m hoping I can have more days like this. Knowing there isn’t ever going to be an end or a point when you’ve got it all figured out kind of takes the pressure off, but I’m still going to try. That road is what I’m looking forward to.
Stewart Milne's solo show 'I'm not trying to change your mind' will be shown at the Lyceum Gallery from June 30th until July 22nd. 969 Queen Street West, Toronto.