It is July, and the annual Picaroon’s Brewer’s Bash in Fredericton is a hipster’s paradise; a sea of humanity awash in sunshine, plaid, beards, and beer, punctuated with islands of live music and performance art. No fewer than sixty-three different craft brewers from across Canada had gathered around Officer’s Square this year, each dispensing a continuous deluge of fermented malt beverage in tiny half-serving mugs. I came prepared for a marathon, but others had come expecting a mad sprint, determined to sample everything the festival had to offer. By late afternoon there were already examples of previously upright citizens staring off into the middle distance, concentrating huge efforts of will into simply placing one foot in front of the other in something like a straight line towards their next drink. Mating rituals had begun in wild and ridiculous displays. The sea had the potential to get choppy.
I had noticed the painting earlier; the artist working away across a brightly coloured canvas under the shade of a tree. It made for a pleasant enough addition to the festival atmosphere in its unobtrusive way, people were milling about it, commenting on it and I occasionally marked its progress throughout the day. But that had been during the relative innocence of daylight hours, and now that the light of the sun was fading from the day the anarchistic mentality of a Thunderdome mob was setting in. Dead-eyed drunks were everywhere, and I looked up in terror to see some strange woman, no doubt one of them, was about to deface the painting that all day long had made its steady, peaceful march towards completion. My body coiled, ready to spring into the full-body tackle that would bring her to the ground. And then… there was the other artist right alongside of her, working away. There were two of them? Surely this unnatural collaboration was an affront to God.
As it turns out, it’s not. I later discovered that the two artists were Tom Smith and Kayleigh Kristiansen, both of Fredericton, and what they do is called ‘collaborative art’. I asked them about it, and they were good enough to welcome me into their home, or at least their permanent mailing address. This is where their art lives, and for the most part, they live in a tent, touring festivals, “We live in a tent all summer long; we’ve probably spent five out of every six days of the summer in a tent, probably forty of fifty nights so far. But we’ve got it down, and I’ve been an outdoorsman my entire life, and a sailor.
“Sailing and art have ruined my life.”
I find the two things are very similar; sailing is a real psychological operation. It suits my approach to life; the methods, procedures. It’s an ancient art. I’m so inspired by nature, and what we see out there in the world. There’s no better place to see that than from the deck of a sailboat. If I’m in the house here for more than a couple days I’m like, ‘We’ve got to get outside’, and we’ll go somewhere. We’ve been tenting all week at a festival and we’ll be home for two days and we’ll throw the tent in the car and go camping. It’s a long winter.”
Tom grew up in a family of artists; art is his natural habitat, it’s a lifestyle and a craft he was born into. “My father was an art teacher […] he was an abstract expressionist artist in the ‘50s and ‘60s so nobody had to explain abstract art to me. It was what my father did, it was a thing. In our house there was no TV and there was no colouring books, like nothing. My parents were quite austere in what they would allow us kids to have. It was all creative toys, and we didn’t really have any commercial products in the house.” He explains that art had always been a part of his life, and he regularly worked as a traditional studio-style painter, but got his start as a live collaborative artist five years ago, “I have to give credit to FeelsGood.ca, the music arts community that runs Folly Fest. They had a cancelation one night and they asked me if I could come do something for them on stage at the Capital with a band, and it was such a great time. I had done some collaborative stuff before, and we were just free-forming it, but that was the first time I had done it myself: made a finished painting while the bands were playing, and I just kind of got addicted to it, the performance part, not just the being alone in the studio, and I saw how it affected people. People were really getting involved, lots of people that had never thought about art, or had never seen a piece of art created, and it opened my eyes to how people aren’t really aware of where it all comes from.”
His partner Kayleigh explains that her upbringing was far more traditional, and her introductions to performing at festivals is a departure from that, “My childhood was the exact opposite. Lots of colouring books and commercial toys. I’ve always been artistic; I’ve always really liked to draw and paint ever since I was a little kid, but through the other parts of my life I get more and more detached from what society wants young people to do, like go to public school, and go to university, and be a doctor, or whatever it is. So I just started going to the festivals and not really putting too much stake in all of those kinds of expectations, and just opening myself up. Really I have no clue what I’m doing but I found this art thing and I met Tom and it’s just been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot and I’m teaching myself art: human anatomy, how to draw, and how to see. Tom’s got a pretty extensive library, so in the winter time that occupies most of my free time, and it’s good to reconnect to that.”
The two began working together two years ago while Tom was working on a larger piece requiring extra hands and Kayleigh had to sub in for another artist, “I grabbed Kayleigh and she had good instincts for it, and she had never done anything like it before. She picked it right up and definitely made what I do with live artists a lot better. If you trust all the artists working with you, you can just let everyone do their own thing. I think it’s a lot like being in a musical group; everybody has their part. If you don’t want the bass player to play it his way, then do it yourself and be a one man band. The ego has to suck it up sometimes. Especially for a guy like me who’s been doing it for so long. I’m not as bad as used to be, I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I never meant bright red spots to be over there’, and now it’s like, ‘Hmm, I wouldn’t have done that, but that’s pretty cool’.
Living a life of festivals, off the beaten path isn’t without its challenges though, even in the art world. They’ve never bothered selling through galleries, and in fact most of their paintings are bought before they’re finished, or gifted back to the festival organisers. More than art, Tom explains that their primary function is in entertainment, “I’m making all this pop art, and it’s kind of funny because my academic artists friends, people my age and older, they don’t even know what to say. They never say, ‘Oh that’s good’, or ‘I like that’. They never know what to make of it because it’s not fitting into their paradigm. If art is fun then it’s not serious. It’s like they want to look, but it’s like they’re looking at pornography because it’s fun and colorful and poppy. I mean, it’s pop art, but we’re creating the stuff in front of people and showing them the process. That’s for everybody. Only one person can buy the painting in the end, but everybody gets to watch it being created. That’s why I say we’re entertainers really, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to make good art. I’m dedicated to making good paintings when I’m doing this. And it’s a definitely a different world, creating a decent painting in two or three or four hours, or even six or eight hours, than having all the time in the world in the studio to do whatever. There’s no going backwards; you live with whatever came out. It can be pretty humbling because you’re up there, making your art in front of people, and if you’re not happy with it, you can’t hide. It’s like playing a shitty set as a musician, only it’s recorded for all the world to see forever. It doesn’t disappear into the ether when the sets over. It’s still around. It’s been a lot of pressure. It’s been good. A challenge.”
“If your ideas are so far away from somebody else then you’re not really communicating with them, and art is about communication. Why would I paint just for artists, I want to paint for everybody. That’s always been my goal in my life. It’s kind of a gateway drug, to get people into it, to understand it. I love it when people come and talk to us and start asking us questions about what we’re doing. I never get really tired of it. You answer the same questions a lot, but that’s why we’re there. If I didn’t want to talk to these people, I’d just have my art on a gallery wall somewhere and nobody would ever know about the process.”
More of Tom and Kayleigh’s work can be found by checking out music festivals, or visiting their Facebook page.
“I’m not here to turn anybody off; I’m here to turn them on.”