Jon Claytor

The Artist In The Bear Suit: The Watercolours of Jon Claytor

As an occasional lecturer at Mount Allison University, co-founder of SappyFest and a devoted father and artist, Jon Claytor is a regular feature of Sackville, New Brunswick. His work ranges from watercolours and traditional paintings to filmmaking and all fits into a uniquely Claytor narrative. His most recent project, ‘Take My Breath Away,’ is a collection of watercolours, bringing in characters from Sackville in a unique book; it’s a hybrid of visual ethnography, philosophy, music and humour. At the core of it is a family album exploring the intricate nature of love. So why does the artist appear throughout the book wearing a bear suit?

“The subjects are people I know, from photos old and new and things that strike my fancy. Everything I paint has a personal connection, although they become characters and I don’t think of them as portraits.”

‘I Wanna Dance With Someone by Whiney Houston’ by Jon Claytor
‘*remix’ by Jon Claytor

The book feels as though it has been organized like a musical album, with each piece standing on its own as a single. However, the piece is more deeply understood in the context of the entire album.

“The collection is meant to be an artwork in its whole”, say Claytor. “[It] plays with musical forms. This time it is pop songs and pop records and the looseness of lyrics to poetry. It is also a lighthearted look at how deeply lyrics and their attached melodies embed in our psyche and our emotional inner mythology of our lives. And some images and word combinations just made me laugh a little.”

In leafing through the book, one stops at a single figure—perhaps the self portrait of Claytor wearing a bear suit in ‘The Understudy’s Dedicated to Optimism,’ and you begin to wander more deeply into a back story and what brought him to connect with the bear. As the viewer continues to flip through the book they begin to gain a deeper understanding that it is the quality of relationships and the social landscape within the book that defines the man in the bear suit.

Claytor is a very genuine and emotionally intelligent individual, which is made clear immediately in his promo video for the book’s Indiegogo campaign. The first line he utters is “this is going to be way harder than I thought.” His eyes avoid making contact with the camera, betraying themselves only as he tells you what the work is really about: the relationships in his life. When describing each piece, he always makes it about his family and friends. Speaking with him about his work is like visiting an old friend and having them share with you their family album. His stories go in sequence, sounding like lyrics of a song:

“This one is of my youngest son Sonny (Solomon) as a stand-in
for myself in the 80s, making hand drawn t-shirts in Moncton, NB and dreaming of escape.

This is of Sonny and his wonderful mother, Tori Weldon, a quiet moment of love, support and safety. This would be the answer to the question, “Is that all there is?” The words are from a Paul Simon song and was always playing in the background of my childhood.

My daughter Rose and I listen to a lot of Destiny’s Child and this is a neighbourhood cat asking its shadow for affirmation.

Ben Fell off a chair and broke his arm 15 years ago and the image has never left my mind and I have painted or remixed it many times.

This bear is listening to Pavement.

Our dog Olive looked like a wolf and lived to be 12. She’s very missed.”

‘Elevate Me Later’ by Jon Claytor
‘Two Charlottes Floating’ by Jon Claytor

Like bears caring for their cubs, Claytor’s identity as a father is integral to his artistic process:

“As to being a father, it is a part, the biggest part, of being an artist for me. My youngest kids come home to my house/studio after school. They are around when I build stretchers, stretch canvas, prime, and when I paint. They work on their own projects or play outside while I paint. They give me ideas and pointers and always share their opinions. I don’t separate being a parent from being an artist and I realize just how lucky I am to not need to separate time at home with family from work. The kids are both subject, audience and critics for the work and they are very grounding, funny and super cute. My two oldest have moved out and my three youngest still live at home, and although we are a split family, everyone sees each other and spends time together everyday.”

Claytor’s work is not purely sentimental or nostalgic. His watercolours bring to mind the visual brevity and ephemeral poetics of Asian ink paintings. Not only are they each like “poems or short stories,” as Claytor states, but they also utilize the void of white space: “The negative space tells the emotional state of the subject. The way they inhabit that space is the story. The empty spaces are the most important parts of the image.”

In each of the pieces ‘I Wanna Dance with Someone by Whitney Houston,’ ‘Elevate Me Later,’ and ‘*remix,’ the white void carries a weight, adding to the mass of the subconscious emotions delicately depicted in the figures. The contrasting qualities bring to mind psychoanalytical inkblots. Within the precisely considered marks and white vastness there is a deep analysis of emotions that lie beyond the surface of face value. It is as if Claytor is investigating what researcher Paul Ekman terms “micro-expressions:” each of the subjects faces reveal the subtle emotions that may go unnoticed by the average person. With “micro-emotions” researchers can identify elements such as contempt or sadness, even when the person might appear calm or serene. It appears as though Claytor is also featuring these “micro-expressions” to get at the unsaid aspects of the human experience.

When you look deeply into his friend Milosh’s face with the floral crown in ‘I Wanna Dance with Someone by Whitney Houston,’ there is a sense of embarrassment as well as enjoyment or even exhibitionism. The same can be said for ‘*remix,’ which features his son Ben after having fallen off a chair breaking his arm. Again, there is a contrast of emotions: a sort of acceptance of the predicament he is in, having broken his arm, while also standing with some sort of pride as if he has passed some sort of “rite of passage.”

There are also philosophical references to the nature of reality in many of the pieces. ‘Is that All there is’ features an image of Claytor contemplating his own shadows and ‘One of us Cannot be wrong’ portrays a cat trying to make sense of a mysterious shadow with no obvious source. Both are clearly references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, although Claytor offers a slightly different opinion about the validity of the shadows:

“I tend to think shadows and reflections are closer to the truth in many ways than the actual subject…I am drawn to the truth in darkness, the reality of imagination, the honesty of artifice, the sincerity of a costume or mask and the ways in which we reveal more truth by what we try to hide from the world than what we try to show the world.”

‘Dynamite With A Laserbeam’ by Jon Claytor
‘One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong’ by Jon Claytor

In asking for more specifics, Claytor can become as enigmatic as the book is. In response to questions about the deep connection or inner meaning to the bear, which  reappears not only in the book several times but also in his larger oil paintings, he states: “It is important to me that the bears speak for themselves and remain open to interpretation.”

When asking about the reasoning in having some of the phrases crossed out in the book he responds: “I make a lot of mistakes. In spelling and life.”

‘Take my Breath Away’ is an embrace of the entirety of the human experience; it’s a celebration of love with all its cracks and bruises.

Many of the originals from the book were featured in the art exhibition The Smallest Of Dreams at Ingrid Mueller Art and Concepts on February 17th, 2017. The launch of the book for ‘Take My Breath Away’ will be happening in Sackville, New Brunswick sometime in December 2017. The book can also be purchased online at jonclaytor.com

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