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Holly Archer, In Conversation With Quest Art School + Gallery

After much anticipation, Holly Archer's solo exhibition, "A Cultured Diet," will open at Quest Art School + Gallery on Friday, January 19th. In honour of this exciting event, Quest connected with Holly to delve into the inspirations and intricacies behind her captivating body of work. As we eagerly await the unveiling of Archer's latest creations, this Q+A feature offers a sneak peek into the mind of the artist herself, exploring the themes, techniques, and personal reflections that have fueled the development of this exceptional collection.

"A Cultured Diet" will run at Quest Art School + Gallery from January 19th to March 2nd, 2024, in the main Gallery on the second floor of the Midland Cultural Centre at 333 King Street in Midland, Ontario.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the arts.

I remember standing in my grandparent’s house, staring up at one of my grandfather's oil paintings; it was a log cabin from Labrador City, Newfoundland. Looking at the texture of the paint, I thought, "When I grow up, I will paint as much as I want. I will paint all the time."

I grew up, and I paint all the time.

Painting started it all.

My first job was at a toy store (Minds Alive) that offered art classes in the back. It was magic. I worked at the shop and instructed the courses well into university. I have continued to teach art to adults and kids since this time.

Art education is a core priority for me. I take multiple courses and workshops a year, learning from as many artists as I can. Courses provided by OCAD, Haliburton School for the Arts, McLaren and Quest stand out as particular highlights. The independent mentorship provided by other artists is also invaluable and helps me work through technical challenges and ideas. I attribute much of the success in my career to the invaluable conversations and lessons with artists who have shared their knowledge, beginning with my Grandfather and my Dad.

Thanks to this early introduction to painting and art, more broadly, I enjoy a life of creating art. Drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting, and creating art in public spaces are ongoing components of my life as an artist.

I have been fortunate to exhibit internationally, create large-scale public artworks, be featured in publications, and teach other artists. However, the greatest joy has been to create and share a lifelong love of art with my family.

Looking forward, it is my intention to keep painting all the time.


What was the inspiration behind your current exhibition and the themes that you explored in your artwork?

I have been ruminating on my current exhibit, A Cultured Diet, for a number of years. I love figurative work and wanted to create a series that focused on people. Figurative work, by nature, emphasizes the way a body looks. I wanted to create a collection that uses images of the human form to draw into question the value or worth of a body. Why do we place such value on the aesthetics of our bodies when it is the function of our bodies that helps us to make connections and experience life?

Diet culture is a belief system that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue” (Anti-Diet, Harrison, 2018). We are inundated with diet culture. This ever-present influence erodes our sense of worth and draws our focus away from people and experiences. Diet culture is so ingrained in Western society that we often overlook it and the harm it causes.

Now that I have children, I loathe the idea of them wasting their enthusiasm, curiosity, passion, joy, energy and intelligence on the ideals of diet culture. With personal experience and familial ties to Eating Disorders, I have searched for a way to unpack the topics of diet culture and Eating Disorders. My approach is steeped in my own experience and bias, but it is my hope that through this limited lens, I can add another crack in the veneer of diet culture.


How do you approach the creative process when developing a body of work for an exhibition?

When starting something new, I lean into what feels good. I grab my inks or charcoal, pull out my folding table, throw on an audiobook, and start drawing/painting without purpose.

Once I feel excited about a few ideas, I terrify my family by staring vacantly and thinking– while lying on the couch, sitting in the car in the driveway, or standing in the middle of the room. The daydreaming portion of the process traverses walks to work, chores, workouts, showers and, most productively, the moments before I go to sleep.  

After exploring a number of completely impractical ideas and before moving ahead with the decent ideas, I do two things: (1) discuss the ideas ad nauseam with my family until they reach a semi-conscious state, and (2) procrastinate to build a little suspense.  

I would not necessarily advise this exact approach, but it has become routine.


Are there any specific techniques or mediums you employed in this exhibition, and how do they contribute to the overall artistic expression?

For this exhibition, I used mediums traditionally intended for paper but on canvas. The main reason for this was to increase the scale without having to worry about warping paper.  I applied multiple coats of an absorbent acrylic ground or pastel ground to the canvas to alter the surface. With this application, I was able to mimic–to a certain extent– the way these mediums behave on paper.

The style used is a nod to fashion illustration, drawing a comparison between the dominant editorial images we are exposed to and images of the incredible, everyday moments our bodies enable us to experience.


Are there any recurring motifs or symbols in your artwork that hold personal significance to you, and if so, how do they manifest in this exhibition?

Pears have been used for years to illustrate a ‘body type’ category, usually by the diet and wellness industry. I use pears in the show as a visual representation of diet culture. The presence of pears in the show is also a reference to my own experience with an eating disorder.

When I was sick, at the height of my illness, I used to cut up a pear and put it in a bowl with skim milk and artificial sweetener. I could go without eating longer when I ate something crunchy with a bit of protein, always focused on the lowest calorie option. This assemblage of food was my “treat”. There were days when this would be the only thing I consumed. It shocks me to think about it now.


How did you navigate the balance between artistic freedom and conveying a specific message or narrative in your work for this exhibition?

The jury is out on this one. I hope I have found that balance. The way I attempt to do this is by creating many things, exploring lots of good and bad ideas, and then editing aggressively. I also brainstorm concepts for months or years, compiling extensive lists of ideas that I keep and refer back to at different times.


Were there any challenges you faced during the creation of this exhibition, and how did you overcome them?

I found the creation of this exhibition more challenging than expected. I have thought about this show at many points in my life and mapped out countless versions of it, and now that it is here, I hope that the selected edit resonates.

I was surprised by the emotions this show extracted from me. There were things I thought I had dealt with that came back as I was building this collection. It was frustrating to realize that I am not, in fact, the evolved human I was hoping I had become.

Beyond the emotional weight of this exhibition, there have been other challenges. I have two kids and a full-time job. Making my art a priority is only possible because of the encouragement of my family, particularly my husband, mom, and dad. Without the significant support of my family, none of this would be possible. I cannot emphasize enough their role in all of this.


In what ways do you hope your audience will engage with and interpret your artwork within the context of this exhibition?

I hope this exhibition encourages the audience to pause and consider the elements of their lives that matter most. Let’s not throw these moments away. I am not under the illusion that one show can dismantle diet culture, but I hope it can chip away a piece.


Can you share any memorable moments or experiences from the process of bringing this exhibition to life?

I work at night, almost exclusively. Towards the end of one very productive night, I dropped a bowl of masking fluid, and it splashed into my hair. For those who have not worked with masking fluid, it is a fast-drying latex-based liquid that repels moisture and prevents watercolours, inks and gouache from being absorbed. The masking fluid started to solidify in my hair almost immediately. Masking fluid ruins paint brushes after one use, matting the bristles together. Deciding not to apply paint thinner to my hair, I spent nearly 2 hours with various oils, cleaning products and fine tooth combs painstakingly removing the solidified latex from my hair–wouldn’t recommend.


Are there particular artists, movements, or historical influences that have informed your creative approach for this exhibition?

I spend a considerable amount of time looking at the work of contemporary and past artists across many disciplines. I do this daily, even when I am not working on an exhibition. It is amazing where inspiration can be drawn and lessons learned. For this show, I looked at fashion illustrations, traditional figurative work, photography, sculpture, film, and more. I also reflected on iconic figurative imagery that impacted me in my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

What does Quest Art School + Gallery mean to you?

Quest has provided me with a community of artists and arts professionals. This community has helped me to grow as an artist and find my way into an industry that has multiple points of entry, which is difficult to navigate. Creating art can be a solitary pursuit and sometimes needs to be. Quest enriches this process with opportunities to connect with others and learn. I am grateful to be able to live in the community I love and continue my career as an artist with access to such a vital arts organization.


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