Featured Artist: Valentin Brown

Categories: Blog

Creative Users Projects commissioned Hamilton-based artist Valentin Brown to create accessibility graphic icons that were featured on the landing page of our website!

We are excited to work with artists to rethink and interrogate how we organize, classify, and translate notions of access. Valentin created a total of five original graphic icons for the following accessibility categories: ASL interpretation, audio description, relaxed performance, captioning and touch. We asked Valentin to sit with us on Zoom for an informal conversation and share his experience working on the project.

Tell me about your artistic process. What kind of themes are you using? What kind of materials do you work with? How would you describe your process or your art?

My current body of work is called Body Farm. This is ongoing work that started when I was living somewhere else – I had this job at the mall, and I wasn’t making anything and was pretty depressed. During this time, I kept a log of things I did, or birds I saw, or how many hours I worked at the mall that day. I called it my “Captain’s Log” because I love Star Trek–it’s something that kept me company leading up that time and continues to hold me in many ways. As I continued this log, I’d be in my bed with a couple of pens or a pencil or something. I would just doodle, and I started these very simple line drawings.

As the days passed by, and the more notebooks I filled, the drawings got more developed and I added more materials. They were these really layered drawings on lined paper in my notepads, using pretty humble materials – ballpoint pens, pencils, gel pens, whatever I had around – and eventually I got to the point where I had more drawings than notes in my Captain’s Log. At that point, I started filling regular sketchbooks, and I introduced more painterly materials, like paint markers and well, acrylic paint. I ended up with 100 or so drawings in six or seven months, ranging from 4”x6” to 8”x10”.

Around that time, I had also applied for a group exhibition with ArtSpin (Holding Patterns), and the work I made for that was completely different in terms of materials. It was called Unidentified Remains, and it was 1000 pieces of unfired clay. Each piece is a fleshy abstract object that calls to forms from the body and from forms from nature at the same time. They are similar to the drawings I was making of bodies – although the drawings are more figurative, more creature or monster-like, depending on how you envision monsters. I stopped doing the drawings so much in the summer of 2018 and worked on Unidentified Remains full force that summer. That was my main focus for several months – literally making 1000 clay objects, the majority of which I made over that summer.

These one hundred or so drawings and the 1000 pieces of Unidentified Remains were the first two legs, so to speak, of what would become Body Farm. When I started, I was just grasping at what the work was about. I now understand it to be a way of reimagining my transness and my cripness in a language that holds the fear and the grief of my experiences hand in hand with humour and hope.

It’s funny that now, after using the drawings to make a series of larger paintings, and also diving into making soft sculptural work that is physically bigger than anything else I’ve ever made, that now because of COVID-19, I’ve come back to making these small drawings again, in a different kind of isolation than that which I experienced when I first started drawing.

Graphic drawing for category “captioning”

Could you tell us about where you live? Does the area you live in influence your practice?

I live in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s been almost a year now since I had to leave an abusive situation – a living situation where I was very isolated both by the nature of the abuse and the nature of where I lived. I lived in a different part of the city – up on the escarpment (what we call “the mountain”), and my world was very small.

Now, I finally have safe housing in a totally different part of the city. I love living downtown – the people are nicer, my world has opened up, and I’ve met so many wonderful people in Hamilton and Toronto. After leaving, and experiencing what it means to be “hidden homeless,” I lived with incredible fear and a deep need for things to be “okay again.” I realized that things would never be okay again, because how I was living before wasn’t okay, it was just familiar. I still don’t know what “okay again” feels like, especially now with COVID-19.

I do know that leaving is the best thing I could do for me, and thus the people around me. It’s the courage I see in so many people, to weather the sometimes nearly soul-destroying fear that comes with naming what you need, and pursuing those needs, that is the soul of my work. Connecting, trusting, playing, being, all in the absence of proof and in the presence of great uncertainty, is the greatest gift we give to each other and is how, I believe, we can be responsible to each other as a community.

Graphic drawing for category “ASL interpretation”

Who are your art heroes or mentors? Who do you look to for inspiration or support?

Two people come to mind – one is Sean Lee (Director of Programming at Tangled Art + Disability). I imagine everyone thinks he’s their hero! One of the things that was so important to me in making the choice to leave my previous living situation was the show I was going to do at Tangled.

During our initial chats, when Sean asked me to pitch him a show, he asked me to dream big, and I tried to dream the biggest dream I had in me. Doing that was one of the things that made me realize that I had stuff inside of me that needed to get out, and the world I was living in was too small for what Sean was asking me to do–too small fit the world that I believe in.

That was one of the things that pushed me to take the biggest risk in my life. As a person, I really look up to Sean – he has such a sense of diplomacy and flexibility. As someone who struggles a lot with trauma and other neurodivergency, it’s amazing to see someone embody that kind of quality, and to just be so open to being collaborative and to speaking about the work. Since then, any time I’ve had an art question, Sean has always been there, just a message away – I hope to be the kind of person one day that has the ability to give to others in that way.

Another person I think of as a mentor is James Fowler, a member of my cohort at the Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency that I participated in last summer. James is just full of so much joy. He was also my studiomate at the residency. It makes a lot of sense he was my studiomate – I remember researching all the artists and it made so much sense because he’s also a painter, but I also think that it was more than just being painters that makes him a mentor to me.

As someone designated female at birth, I find it hard to feel safe around men, but I feel safe around him. He’s so full of ideas, and he just seems to know so many people in Toronto. I asked him how he is so connected to the art community. He told me that you need to volunteer and be in these spaces, so before COVID-19, I was finally volunteering in arts spaces in Hamilton and it was so good. I’m really happy to have met James and have him in my life – he’s so warm and bubbly – again, as someone who is dealing with a lot of shit, it’s really important to know that someone else has been there and has come out of it, and didn’t lose who he was, or perhaps found who he was because of it.

Graphic drawing for category “audio description”

What’s your biggest challenge as an artist? What advice would you give to other artists who might be having similar challenges?

There’s a hell of a lot of challenge in being an artist, of course. I think for me, as an artist and as a person, my trauma is uniquely both my greatest challenge and my greatest opportunity. I reject the medical model of trauma as a life sentence, or as something that you have to heal from or “cure”. I see it along the lines of Dr. Peter Levine, who has developed certain modalities around trauma that I really identify with. The way I see it, trauma – although I would wish it on nobody – can be a portal or opportunity to have a new way of seeing or being in the world. That’s why so much of my work is based around my experience of trauma, because it gives us, like other forms of cripness or Madness, the potential to dream a different kind of world for ourselves.

I think one of the things that I’m learning is unlearning the dialogue around mental health that urges us to seek “professional help.” It’s important for me to understand that, while there is a place for “professional” help – it’s not infallible. Mental health professionals are literally just people, with all the regular things – good and bad – that come with being a person, and they are people within an institution that wasn’t based in the best interests of the people it’s supposed to help. With that in mind, I feel we do ourselves a great disservice when we push our friends too quickly towards “professional help” when we feel uncomfortable or don’t know how to help.

I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit – as human beings we have an innate capacity to move through trauma together, like other animals. We’re very much social creatures, and through the research I’ve done in trying to work with my trauma, I think about how back in the day, when we were very early humans, no one could really sit and think of themselves as a person, because if you were alone you were thinking about eating and not being eaten. It was only if there was another person there, that you could think about who you were.

I think that’s one reason why I feel so strongly about rejecting the idea that people have to heal in isolation – this message that urges us to take all our problems to a therapist, to be traumatized but to be traumatized on your own time and in certain ways. From what I understand through my own research, it’s a very western understanding of trauma, to see working through trauma as something that is only done on an individual level and in a sterile, isolated environment. I feel like that is just so against our nature as people – people, who need other people.

What did you like and dislike about the project you worked on with us, and what do you feel like you learned?

I think it was really interesting when you first reached out to me, because I don’t really do a lot of design work. I learned some things in school but it’s not something I do a lot of. I thought I’d give it a try anyways even though I was apprehensive and had trouble seeing my work in this way. I thought it was a good way to try to practice being flexible. I liked being pushed to try to think of the images in a different way.

I kept asking myself: how am I going to make images that work on a very small scale and a larger scale at the same time? But we kind of figured that out together – I sent you the line drawings and you sent back the vectors. It’s that wonderful thing about working with other people: you can feel at a loss, but if you’re able to be vulnerable, you can share where you’re at and the other person can take it from there.

Graphic drawing for category “touch”

What kinds of values do you hold in your practice and how are they connected to the drawings you made for us?

When I was making these drawings, I was thinking about a project that Sean Lee called ACCESS IS LOVE and LOVE IS COMPLICATED. In making these images, I was thinking of love in a way that speaks to both its playfulness and its complexity. The image of the poetic heart appears multiple times in the icons. I also decided right away that with the ASL icon, the ASL sign depicted would be “I love you.” I wanted there to be a playful sense of love in the imagery because, from what I’ve learned from my work, and especially my work within the disability arts community, is that love is navigating all things together in one big, long conversation, and that’s not a bad thing, even when it feels uncomfortable.

The spirit of interdependence is so powerful and complicated and involves a lot of vulnerability – talking things out and navigating the incredible fear of asking for what you need, and trying to unlearn this idea of relationships and community as a capitalistic give-and-take. In reality, both giving and taking are acts that fulfill different needs, and the beauty and challenge of it at the same time is just how complicated it is – which is why I keep thinking about that string of words that Sean came up with when I made these images for you.

What was it like to see your work in a digital context and being used in this way?

I think when you showed me the mock-up of the landing page, it was a feeling of, “okay, that makes sense!” and feeling grateful that I embraced a willingness to work in a way that maybe I felt like I wasn’t familiar with or maybe didn’t know enough about, especially as somebody who works digitally mostly only in the sense of creating documentation of my work. I’m really excited to see it all come together, and to see the images being used in this way. It was cool to see how the imagery I make can be functional, even if it’s kinda fucked up.

Graphic drawing for category “relaxed performance”