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Creative Mornings: Julian Garner on “Unconventional Creativity”

By Jared Davidson on August 7, 2012

Last month, Creative Mornings brought their blend of pre-lunch intellectualism and coffee to the Ottawa School of Art with a talk hosted by Chef Matthew Carmichael, the man behind Mello’s Pop Up Kitchen. This month, the topic of discussion has shifted from the edible to visual art, with discussion featuring Julian Garner.

Long a notable figure in Ottawa’s visual art scene, Garner is one of the men behind Five Cents Tattoo, a parlour located off Parkdale that emphasizes the art in the creative act of tattooing. The venue doubles as a gallery called The Grey Area which exhibits Garner’s canvas work. His art is striking—blending the natural and the unnatural. His use of colour and flowing style gives his creations a unique and personal feel, whether painted or tattooed.

Garner’s talk for creative mornings is titled “Unconventional Creativity in the City”. Like many a good discussion, this one will be had over breakfast. He’ll be speaking at 8 Locks Flat, a restaurant and patio whose motivation is to create a menu populated by local foods. The force behind the restaurant, Colin Goodfellow, told us that the Chef will be putting together something special for the event. “Lots of fresh fruit,” he says. “It’s what’s in season, and of course it will be local.” Delicious.

Goodfellow sees his restaurant as a perfect fit for the topic. “In Ottawa, a totally off-grid restaurant and beach in the heart of the city along the canal is pretty unconventional,” he says.

The event will take place on the 17th of August (rain date the 24th) at 8:30am and tickets will be available on Creative Mornings’ Eventbrite closer to the date.

Of course, we couldn’t wait that long. Instead, we asked Julian Garner to sit down with us and talk life, Ottawa and art.

“I’m just about what I do. I’m an artist. I also tattoo,” Garner says. His words have a way of sounding like poetry. Garner began his art career as an animator, but found it not to his liking. He describes his dislike of the corporate side of the business, noting that he spent much of it “watching non-creative people making creative decisions.” “It just got to me,” Garner says. “I’d had enough of it.”

And so, Garner followed his passion. Throughout his animation career, he had been painting. But it wasn’t until after he got out of animation that he began to tattoo. “The opportunity to start tattooing came up through a friend of mine who was opening a shop here in town,” he remembers. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

For him, it seems like a natural progression from painting to tattooing. “I don’t really see a separation between the two,” he says, “other than it being a different canvas.” He describes a close relationship between the art of the tattoo and the art of the canvas: “There’s always been a marriage between tattooing and painting.” He explains that most tattoo designs are painted first, before they end up on someone’s body. Still, he says it was a difficult experience at first. “It’s very intimidating. I mean, you can’t make a mistake.”

It sounds pretty nerve-racking. “The way to learn to tattoo is just to tattoo,” Garner says. Thus, he began with live subjects. No practice beforehand! “It’s like doing anything. You can’t really prepare yourself for something that there is no comparison to unless you do it.”

This “go do it” attitude permeates everything Garner does, be it art or skateboarding, a sport he has engaged in for the past twenty-five years.  “Skateboarders aren’t afraid of failure. And that’s what’s really spoken to me about it,” he says. He is a life-long “dooer”, pushing every project he creates until it becomes what he wants it to be. “It’s the way I run my business; it’s the way I view tattooing; it’s the way I view my life. You have to constantly keep trying to improve what you’re doing. Otherwise, to me anyway, there’s no point.”

This attitude will no doubt be apparent when Garner speaks next Friday. Also apparent will be Garner’s consideration of and worry for the city in which he works. “I want people in Ottawa right now to be very aware and careful about how the city moves forward,” Garner says. He explains that Ottawa, like most of North America, has something of a gentrification problem. “Areas that have lower income are usually what attract artists,” he says. “They’ll move in and set up studio space in those areas, usually because the rent is affordable.”

And that would be fine, he says, except that these places are fleeting, like drying oases in a desert. “These neighborhoods become very special,” he explains. “The people are very involved and you have a real sense of community.” But then it all disappears. “The condos, developers, everyone moves in. And it gets destroyed.”

Furthermore, he says that Ottawa’s bylaws are typically unfriendly to artists. “The way I look at Ottawa is that it’s a city that wants to appear as if no one actually lives here. That seems to be the way the government handles things.”

So, how can artists persevere? “I think you just need to keep doing what you do and don’t ask questions—just do it. Don’t go through those bureaucratic channels where you’ll just get lost or told that it’s not feasible.” And while he’s not against development, Garner believes that unregulated development will cause problems:  “If some big developer is going to go in and build these expensive condos, they should be also supplying some studio space at a lower rent so that the reason that this community was so attractive in the first place can live on.” He continues, “You can have more people living in that community by developing it, but you have to keep the roots there. You have to keep the art and culture there.”

For more Julian Garner, check out this short documentary by Brian McNally.



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