Words: Chelsea Parkinson / Photos: Janine Kropla

She spins our heads round and round—here, in her home, there is so much to see. 

There on the wall is the character she calls Worm Man, his portrait demurely observing the newcomers to the house. Here in the corner is her workspace: two desks making a big “L” shape, with the children born of her relationship with paper, paint, and pen layered on top and strung on the walls around. There is the happy-coloured chair we all coveted. Here is Greg, the only member of our group with a tail and whiskers, and who, in the end, won the prized seat. 

Each turn brings a different delight. 

Gillian Toothill is a visual artist. You will see that she works in mixed media, her hand shifting often; markers, acrylics, watercolours, and collage all pique her creative interest. She dreams in faces, in mustard-yellows and maroons. Fall is her best-loved season. Do you see that in her work? Her favourite movie character is Seymour from Ghost World. Do you see that, too? 

Come, take a spin through her work with us, and see what you see.

Muddy Water: Looking at your work, it’s mostly portraits—but certainly not in the most traditional sense of the word. Why do faces inspire you so?

Gillian Toothill: It’s kind of a way of journaling the people I meet and the experiences I have. Lots of them are people that I actually know, but a lot are also people I just see in passing whose faces stick, somehow. I often draw people who stand out to me in crowds. Or faces that I dream about, who I don’t actually know. 

MW: Do you think a person becomes an artist? Was there a defining moment for you?

GT: For me, it was pretty gradual. I started actually getting into art when I was about fifteen or sixteen, started taking it seriously. But I really got into it through street art as a teenager. Got really interested in that world for a while.

MW: What did that entail for you?

GT: I never really did a standard tag, or what people would think of when they hear the word graffiti. What I liked, what I wanted to do most, was to see if people could recognize my art without seeing my name attached to it. 

MW: Was that practice helpful in defining your style?

GT: Totally. Street art, for me, was about putting something in a respectful place, where a creative eye would see it. Somewhere out of the way, that you have to be thinking in an open way to notice. Somewhere out of the ordinary. Way up high, or in a little nook or cranny. 

MW: Not too showy, or destructive, or in your face.

GT: Exactly. Subtle, and a bit hidden. That, to me, is more exciting. It was all a really exciting experience, including the more risky aspects of it. And it’s a very strong culture. Very strong. Very tight-knit—[to her cat] sorry, Greg, I know I’m in your chair—but, yeah, it was a tight crew. And it really did help me develop as an artist.


MW: Did you ever take more formal lessons?

GT: Just high school art. I actually dropped out of my grade twelve art class. 

MW: Did something happen?

GT: Yeah, my relationship with the teacher turned pretty sour. Originally it was great and she gave me quite a bit of freedom to do what I wanted, and I would spend my lunch hours in the art room, and stuff like that, throughout the first three years. So I had a good relationship with her. But then it came to grade twelve and she started trying to push things onto me. Specific mediums. A different style. She was just kind of discouraging about what I wanted to do. We got into fights, and I ended up feeling put down, and ended up dropping out.

MW: I’m glad you shared that, because I think a lot of artists go through similar experiences, and it can be so damaging. 

GT: Yeah, I think it’s a big part of why I haven’t gone to art school. I got off to a bad start with art teachers. 

MW: A teacher can have so much power over a person’s creative trajectory, can’t they. They can shape you so positively, or so negatively. It’s a very sensitive thing, to be nurturing a budding artist’s spirit. Luckily you found other ways to learn, to be stimulated.

GT: Yeah, and it didn’t stop me from making art. It could have turned out very differently.

MW: Do you ever experience creative blocks? 

GT: Oh, yeah. All the time. And there’s no real way to get yourself out of that except to push yourself out of it. Just sit there, with a pen in your hand, randomly scribbling or doodling. But it’s so hard. I’ll go for walks, drink huge amounts of coffee, try different music. Sometimes nothing works.

MW: That’s probably the scariest thing about being an artist. You never know when inspiration will just leave you. There’s always the fear that your latest great idea could be your last great idea. 

GT: Yeah. You just have to demand it of yourself, though. I know that I’m capable of it and I just have to get back there. 

MW: That’s pretty wonderful, that you get inspiration from yourself, from what you’ve already done. Does music help, as well?

GT: Definitely. Youth Lagoon is big for me. Grizzly Bear. The Suburbs. The best is if I put big headphones on and grab a marker. Get all absorbed. And then nothing else matters.

MW: Closed off to the outside world. Almost like a return to the womb…

GT: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s like, “Time to climb back into the creative womb! Away we go!”

And away we go…

Dive into Gillian’s world through her Instagram handle, @tinybeanz, and keep an eye on her upcoming shows on the Muddy Water Mag Events page.