Words: Chelsea Parkinson / Photos: Janine Kropla
Here, see a room sitting high up above the street, filled up with bright northern light. See it hung with canvases - stacked with them. See the canvases’ colour palettes, bright like your childhood board games and spilling out onto the room’s white floors in specks and splatters.
Hear the rumbles and shouts of the city’s heart down below.
Here, is Kenneth Lavallee, sitting in that way he has: legs crossed, arms resting, head cocked, listening, seeing.
Hear what he has to say - about his city and his art, about his dream to cover the former with the latter.
Muddy Water: How did you become an artist, Kenneth?
Kenneth Lavallee: (Laughs) I don’t know, man. It’s in my genes, I guess. My mom is artistic. She came from a small town, country town, family of six kids, and she was creative. There were all these sheds out there and as a teenager she used to steal my grandpa’s shoe polish and draw on the sides of these structures - peacocks, and a guy hunting a bunch of bison, and all kinds of things. She didn’t have any paintbrushes, either. Those are still up there, so I’ve grown up seeing those all my life.
MW: It’s no wonder, then, that you make murals, as well…
KL: Yeah. That’s becoming all I want to do.
MW: What do you love about doing murals?
KL: I don’t know…these are feeling too small (gestures towards canvases climbing up the wall beside us). Everything I used to do was small, but now I can’t seem to do those anymore.
MW: Would you call your mom an influence on you, artistically?
KL: Yeah, growing up with those murals was influential. And I’m an only child, and she’s a single parent, so that had an impact.
MW: Describe your dream mural project.
KL: There’s a span of buildings on Main Street that I want to mural-ize, and in which I’d like to get the community of Point Douglas involved. I made a mock-up for how I’d like it to look, and I’m trying to figure out how to make it happen.
MW: What would it look like?
KL: I’ve drawn up a star blanket pattern that I’d like to do. It grew from this other project, which was a call to make a monument to the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. I made this concept of a star blanket sculpture for that, which didn’t go through, but I’m hanging onto it. Star blankets are so, so beautiful, and I think it would be incredible to see a giant one across all these buildings; just a bunch of colour. Right now, that block is a bit of a depressing stretch. It’s the part of Main that’s right across from Neechi Commons, and I used to work there and get glimpses out the window at these shitty-looking buildings and wish there was something to look at.
MW: I see what you mean…any bit of colour has likely been there for fifty years, all faded and peeling.
KL: Yeah. And it’s like that all over the city. I want to put a fresh coat of paint everywhere.
MW: How do you plan to implement your vision?
KL: Well, you know, Brian [Bowman] is on Instagram a lot (laughs), and I keep tagging him and commenting at him about it. No luck yet.
MW: What is his Instagram account like?
KL: He loves selfies.
MW: That smile…
KL: Exactly. Getting a project like this off the ground will take some time and effort, but I think it’s important - especially the community aspect of it. I was inspired by a project that happened in Philadelphia three or four years ago, where these Dutch guys painted all these buildings - tons of them - with really vibrant colours. There’s a website, called phillypainting.org, that serves as a good model for I’d like to see happen here. There was this derelict street with all these boarded-up storefronts, and they partnered up with the city, got a crew of thirty people, and employed them for the summer, painting a mile-long stretch. No more grey, everything covered in paint, and it looks so good! You get all of this community pride when the people who live there get to take back their community and make an effort to make it their own. It’s so great, and I think that it should happen everywhere.
MW: It sounds wonderful…I imagine that all that colour on old buildings can be one of those things towards which people might be resistant before it happens, but then it happens and they love it.
KL: That’s how it was when we painted that parking lot wall of deer + almond. The landlord, she’s very cool, she loved it right away, but she was doubtful about some other people who have interests in that place being down with the mural. There was this older guy who came down and looked at our mock-up and was like, ‘Ahh, it’s fine as it is, we don’t need that’. Wanted to keep just this plain cinderblock wall. In the Exchange District, it’s like you get four colours to choose from that they “approve” of: brown, green, another brown, and another green. But luckily we got to do it and now there’s this wonderful pop of colour there that people seem to really like.
MW: For that project, who approached whom?
KL: I approached them. Mandel is a friend of mine and it was the first big year of Nuit Blanche here, and we were like, let’s do something, let’s make a party and I’ll paint a wall. And he said, ‘Yeah, man, let’s do it!’ He was excited in the way he gets excited -which is very (laughs). It was the easiest thing to make happen, so now maybe I’m kind of spoiled. Sometimes I wish Mandel was running the city. Or Nils.
MW: Mandel would probably make the entire city wear fully-sequined body suits at all times, and pretend we’re cheetahs on Tuesdays.
KL: Lasers everywhere.
MW: So that was your last big mural, and that one is a few years old now. It’s definitely time for another.
KL: Yeah, when was that…2012, 2013, somewhere in there. I’m ready for another one. I had lots of help with that one, and I really want that to be a part of my next one, too. Make it a community-driven thing. For that one, I didn't just do it under cover of night and then it popped up there by sunrise the next day. People joined in, people who live around here, in the Bate and whatnot, were like, ‘Oh, I’ll grab a brush and be right back’. And everyone is so happy! Everyone is saying, ‘I love this!’ Colour. Painting. Community. It’s great.
MW: You seem to have a fondness for North Main. Have you spent a lot of time in Point Douglas?
KL: Yeah. I spent that time working at Neechi Commons, as well as with the Graffiti Gallery doing some satellite outreach programs there, doing after school art programs with young people out there. And I also worked at Tallest Poppy when it was down there, back in the day. Yeah, I feel like I know that hood. I love that hood.
MW: Would you care to talk about your experience in art school?
KL: After high school I wanted to be a graphic designer. I took a couple of years off [school] to work and save up money and whatever. But I always wanted to go to school for graphic design at Red River [College]. I got my portfolio together, missed the deadline by, like, a day, was like, ‘Aw, shit’. Had to wait another year. By the time I was ready the second time around I was starting to change my mind, thinking that it didn’t feel like it was meant to be. So, I tried art school at the U of M…and kind of hated it. No, I didn't quite hate it, that’s not true. For me, the best part about it was the electives. I took a bunch of filmmaking courses and those blew my mind. The actual art school part - I didn’t get a ton out of it. I thought I would. I learned how to hold a brush, you know? I was also about four years older than everyone else, which shouldn't matter, but I felt like this grouchy old man.
MW: Are you glad that you finished?
KL: Yeah (shrugs). Having a degree never really seems to come up. I never mention it. No one really cares. If I had more grant-writing it would probably look good on there.
MW: Did you find that they helped you with the logistics of being an artist? How to make it into a living?
KL: No, no. And that seems like one of the most important things they could be teaching. Like, day one, how to actually be an artist. Not just how to make art.
MW: Management, self-promotion, all of that stuff…
KL: Yeah, none of that when I was there, really. Maybe they do it now. And I am the worst at that stuff. Terrible at it. Yeah, they need a class for that. Even when I sell things I’m like, I don’t know…twenty bucks? I get all nervous. I wish I had learned how to be better at that.
MW: Do you have a dealer, some sort of middle person between yourself and buyers?
KL: No, I mostly do that on my own, and it’s going alright. Word of mouth here is a great thing. I got some paintings in deer + almond, that kind of thing, that’s all good exposure.
MW: Are people approaching you for commissions, and do you enjoy doing them?
KL: Yeah, there are people asking…and doing them can be hard. For the past year or so I’ve been working on the biggest commission I’ve had, which is the biggest painting on canvas that I’ve done, for the most money…all of that. So, I’ve been staring at this massive thing for an entire year. Painting it so slowly. And after a while you just get tired of looking at it. You get burned out on it. You change as a person, and start to ask yourself, what am I painting this for? It took so long to get that thing out of here - it only just left, like a month ago. The initial feeling was, I…don’t want to do that again. I would like to just work on my own shit. Build up a body of work, so that when people say, ‘Hey man, I want a piece of yours’, I have something they can choose from, without having to say, ‘Okay, I’ll make you something’. Because that can get weird, it’s too much pressure. I’d like to have a whole collection, like a vinyl collection but of paintings, that people can come and flip through and say, ‘Oh, I like this, I’ll take it’.
MW: I imagine it can be nice to move on from something as soon as possible after you’ve started it. I know that for myself, with writing long works, and knowing people working on big projects, like albums, the initial spark can fade astonishingly quickly. You can change so much in that amount of time, and if you’re a sort of ‘typical artist,’ you feel like you’re only as good as your most recent work, and you find yourself working on something that you loved two years ago, but in which you can barely find that original focus, that kernel of inspiration.
KL: It can be so awful. Yeah. Right now I’m finishing up an album cover for a band, and same thing - they’ve had these songs for, I think something like two years, and it’s been such a process to get it going. And it’s like, when you started these songs - it’s exactly like you said - you were different people, at a different point in your life, when you just had to get it out. And now you’re staring at it, trying to remember how you felt then. That’s how I felt with this big piece.
MW: How big are we talking with that piece?
KL: About seven feet by five feet.
MW: For a home?
KL: A condo, right above the Peasant Cookery. Yeah, this guy was at deer + almond and was like, I want one of these, pointing at the paintings up on the wall that I’d done. But the one he wanted had just sold, so I said, ‘I’ll make you something instead’…and then a year later he gets it (laughs).
MW: Did you get to see it up on the wall?
KL: When we went to drop it off I saw where it would of [gone]. I haven’t seen it up, because they had to [use] anchors and things, but I’ll get to go there to finish up the sale and everything and see it up, so that will be nice. I haven’t seen it in a while now - maybe I’ll like it again.
MW: Is it strange, not to get to see where pieces end up?
KL: I often forget where pieces go to, and then I’ll go into someone’s house and it’s like, ‘Whaaaat? How is this here, how did you get this?’ Sometimes things get passed around, as gifts and whatever else, and that’s always a nice surprise.
MW: You do some graphic design work, for posters and albums and the like. Are you happy to get to return to the kind of work you had originally thought would be your main focus?
KL: It is nice. It’s nice to fill that niche. It’s good to do both at once - art as well as design.
MW: Are you mostly self-taught in that area?
KL: Yeah. I buy old graphic design books from the 70s and look at things. Here, this is probably my favourite book ever, this book of American trademarks. Very graphic, timeless stuff like that I love. Clean design.
MW: It seems a bit obvious, with you, to talk about colour, but…how do you feel about colour, Kenneth?
KL: (Laughs) Yeah, I seem to be getting brighter and brighter as I go. When I started, in my art school days, when I was pretty young and impressionable, I think a lot of my stuff was a little less…vibrant. I think a lot of my stuff was pretty Art-Lodge-y.
MW: What does that mean?
KL: The Royal Art Lodge. It was a group of Winnipeg artists - Marcel Dzama and Drue Langlois were in there - and it involved doing lots of little weird drawings, with earth tones and nothing too crazy, and I was really into that. Now, ten years later, everything of mine keeps getting bigger and brighter and louder. It might be that I’m getting more comfortable. I’m a big fan of colour. You can see what I mean in that mock up for the Main Street buildings that I was talking about. It’s like I want to burn everyone’s eyes out as they head to work.
MW: Burnt-out eyes might be nice…then we could blur out all that grey and brown our city is peppered with. Do you have favourite murals in the city?
KL: The one on The Walker by Winston Leathers. And there’s one on Selkirk Avenue by Jackson Beardy. It’s this colourful guy smoking a pipe, and it was the first mural in the city that was big for me. I believe it was down in ’84, which is when I was born, so it’s been there forever for me, and for lots of people. I remember taking the bus down there and being pretty young, but thinking, ‘Whoa, that is so cool’. And it’s still up there all these years later. That probably planted a seed. My mom used to work down there.
MW: Do you and your mom talk about art?
KL: Mmm, no. Not really.
MW: You seem to recognize the heritage of it - of her working on those murals at your grandparents’ home.
KL: Yeah, I do. I don’t know if I’ve ever explicitly told her that. Like, ‘You’re my art hero’. But I think she must know.
MW: Do you have any art heroes? Local, non-local, alive, non-alive?
KL: Those two, for sure - Winston Leathers and Jackson Beardy, I mean. Tony Tascona. But I don’t think about other artists too much, really. I follow a lot of artists on the Internet…
MW: But you’re not exactly taking notes.
KL: No. And I’m terrible with names, too. But I see images and I remember them.
MW: The natural world figures pretty heavily in your work. deer + almond’s wall is the Solar System, right?
KL: It’s supposed to be, yeah. Pluto is in there, cause, you know - gotta include Pluto.
MW: Yeah. Poor Pluto. Where do you go when you want to be in ‘nature’?
KL: My family comes from a place called St. Laurent. It’s right by a lake. I spent about half my childhood out there in the woods, often by myself. Laying on a picnic table looking at the stars with my grandmother. That’s my spot, for sure.
You can find Kenneth and his work on Instagram, @kennethlavallee, via email, email@example.com, in the parking lot of deer + almond, and eventually, if you’re very lucky, on the wall of a building near you.
P.S. Are you craving deer + almond yet?