Photography / Editorial / Print

From birth, infants possess rudimentary facial processing capacities and as young as two days of age, we are capable of mimicking the facial expressions of an adult. The recognition of a face and the storage of that image into ones memory is an important neurological and social mechanism that we use on a daily basis. Such themes of memory and communication are evident in Toronto-based sculptor, Jim Hake's work, permeated with a sense of nostalgia, with portrait assemblies made up of balls, cups, CDs and porcelain to name but a few of the materials used. There is an underlying sense of humour and joy, with the mosaic technique in some works, eliciting an immediate emotional response, as our brains try to recognise a face but on closer inspection it also speaks of interconnected lives, which we see in Face Of Toronto. In one of his most recent projects, Crystal, Hake created a radiating sculptural portrait constructed from upcycled CDs of a 60s singer, based on The Crystals. You can almost hear the music emanating from the piece as the light shimmers of the reflective surface... Da Do Ron Ron Ron, Da Do Ron Ron. We asked the artist a few questions about his background and work.

What made you decide to be a sculptor/artist? Did you ever experiment with making objects out of your explorations when young?

My mother was a secretary and my father a steelworker. I had a modest blue-collar upbringing. They had no background or interest in art but they always encouraged me. My mother was a very resourceful woman who always challenged me with materials. I learnt to sew. I made jewellery and sold it door to door. (My neighbours must have dreaded me). I would drag all kinds of materials into my room and lock the door and work for hours on my contraptions.
In grade school I was always getting out of class to make banners or props for school plays. I would paint away in a classroom by myself while everyone else sweated algebra. That was heaven.  
When I was twelve, I started taking formal drawing classes. During high school I developed an interest in advertising and graphics and I entered Maryland Institute College of Art as a design major. Sculpture was part of the foundation courses and after one sculpture class I was hooked. I had the most amazing, inspiring teacher, which always helps. Thank you Joan Brown. 

Tell us about your time in Italy, how did it impact your work?

I moved to Torino from the states to marry my Italian grad-school sweetheart. There, everything changed.  Life, love, language, space. Being an immigrant was a humbling and educational experience.  This also played into my work as I learnt how to better define my identity. I discovered contemporary Italian art. Cucchi, Palladino, Casorati, Vangi, Sironi. I was in awe of the architectural harmony and urban design. I drew inspiration from intricate patterns, the obsessive artisanal detail, and the medieval stylisation. The challenge was to interpret these inspirations and find a way to communicate to a new audience by developing a new visual language for myself. 

Where are you currently based? What is the arts scene like?

After 12 years in Italy, we moved to Toronto for work reasons. It’s been just over five years now.  Toronto is home to a vibrant and highly competitive art scene. There is a high concentration of very talented people in this city, which makes exploring the art scene very interesting. 

What fascinates you about ceramics and sculpting?

The process of giving three-dimensional form to ideas fascinates me. Because ideas are usually the starting point of my process, each concept requires its own material language. I fell into clay almost by chance and out of necessity. In the States, I was working with organic materials, wood, steel, resin - stinky, dusty, noisy processes. My first studio in Italy was in a cantina in the heart of Torino and I had very little money. Clay was inexpensive, odourless and quiet. It was also very easy to obtain and experiment with since many art stores in the city carried a very wide selection. Soon after, I began teaching and I found clay and the ceramic process to be an ideal didactic tool as well.  

Apart from ceramics, your work features a wide range of materials, what does each element bring?

Whether found or chosen, a material can have a specific meaning which becomes integral to the conceptual development of a piece.  It sounds cheesy, but I try to find the ‘voice’ of a material and bring that out through the concept and composition while pushing the limits of its physical and structural capabilities.

In the mosaic work that I began in 2006, porcelain embodies the dichotomous concepts of mass-production and individuality; identity and anonymity; multiplicity and uniqueness and lastly, fragility and strength.  The Friend Project mosaics attempt to find a balance between Wedgwood and kitsch. 

The Lost & Found series instead is made of the lost gloves of the streets of Toronto. For me, it’s a very meaningful and quintessentially ‘Canadian’ material. 

Where do you draw inspiration?

The people and events that shape my life are at the core of my inspiration.  Art history.  Architecture, patterns, pop culture. Literature - I am a big J.G. Ballard fan. Music. Funk saved my life.

Speaking of music, could you tell us about your recent work, the upcycled CD Doo-wop singer? Reminiscing? Can we look forward to more upcyled CD works?

I have always been a nostalgic sap.  When I was culling images for 1984, I was identifying personal icons from my teen years.  It got me thinking about my introduction to music when I was a child. I had free reign of my mother’s 45s collection. Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis Presley. I would play them over and over. I knew them all by heart.  I was mostly interested in the girl bands, though. I loved the harmonising and the background vocal arrangements. So when I tried to identify what it was that defined that period for me, I kept hearing “Da Do Ron Ron Ron, Da Do Ron Ron”. I wonder what it meant to be a black woman in the music business in the 60’s. They had to have been tough as nails. With the packaged look of matching outfits and those outrageous wigs, did they lose a bit of their individuality for the sake of the collective? I want to remember these musicians, most of whom have since disappeared from the limelight. While developing the CD technique, I worked up a maquette bust that was a conglomeration of the features of each group member. The first one, Crystal, is based on The Crystals. I have plans for portraits of The Shirelles, The Marvellettes and The Ronnettes. And then maybe I’ll tackle the boy bands. I still listen to the Jackson Five all the time.  

What's on your music player?

My musical tastes are pretty eclectic. I swing from Bach to The Butthole Surfers. Music is really important in the studio. Putting together a playlist is like choosing a material that speaks to an idea, music creates the climate.  Many of the processes that I incorporate can be tedious and monotonous. 

Music helps me to let loose and dance and get the body moving.  Funk is my go-to genre.  I have been discovering some great ‘CanCon’ bands lately. Metric and Beast come to mind. 

Could you share some thoughts and insight on One Warm Hand and what it represents?

That piece is the first of my Lost & Found series. I started collecting gloves found on the streets of Torino around 2000. I only collected a few. There weren't many. Torino’s winters weren't very cold. At the time I was working away from direct figurative representation, looking for new ways to metaphorically refer to the figure. I was just getting into slip casting and multiples and occasionally I would experiment with dipping gloves in the slip and firing them with curious and encouraging results. Text had already entered into my visual and conceptual vocabulary and the idea of using the gloves not only as gestural, figurative references but also as letters, words and phrases was very exciting. I continued to think through the idea and when I arrived in Toronto in January 2008 I knew instantly that it was time to take this idea off the shelf. Gloves were everywhere. I collected every one I came across. I would stop in traffic and pick them out of the slush and muck. In a short time I amassed hundreds. The gloves are sculpted and modelled into gestures that replicate ASL (American sign language) letters. The gloves are composed into brief phrases that that have to do with challenge and adversity. The phrases are specific to my experience of emigration and the beginning of a new life in Toronto. The series is about loss and its many nuances. What you have/need/want vs. what you don't have/need/want. There are so many ways to interpret this series and much of it has to do with the baggage you’re holding at the moment.

Favourite artists? 

Henri Matisse, Manolo Valdez, Georg Baselitz, Elie Nadelman, Louise Bourgeois, Mario Merz, Nicki de Saint Phalle, Chuck Close, Tony Cragg, Martin Puryear, El Anatsui. 

Farfalla sees you working with anodised aluminium, what challenges were there in working metal? What made you decide to use a vibrant colour?

When I moved to Italy, everyone wanted to teach me a favourite colloquialism. One of the more provocative and poetic phrases I learnt had to do with inviting a girl up to your room to see your “butterfly collection”. Some years later, while installing a show in Bologna a friend lent me his apartment and above the bed was the most marvellous butterfly collection.  
The challenge was to imbue a 3D butterfly with that sexual symbolism and still communicate that sense of delicacy. After experimenting with many different materials, I decided that aluminium was the way to go. I had a hard time in Italy trying to get industry to collaborate on this and other projects and basically shelved it. It took me a while to get my ceramic studio back in working order in Toronto so in the meantime, I defined the project and worked with an architect to plot the design for the laser cutting. The amazing fuchsia anodization was a stroke of luck. The anodizing company was doing a week long run of that colour for a motorcycle company and I went for it and I am glad I did.  The next in the edition will have to be a different colour. 

Do you have favourite piece from your body of work... personal, challenging or most memorable?

My favourite piece is always the one I am working on, but I would have to say Phaedrus is the most memorable. It was the cornerstone of my graduate thesis exhibition. It came out of a difficult period filled with major life challenges. It hangs in the living room and remains a reminder to stay focused and work hard. That piece also incorporated a similar technique to the one I am using for the doo-wop girls. So it’s as if I am closing a circle of sorts.  

You used porcelain in Fofo' Infinito?

Fofo’ Infinito was all about the process of porcelain casting.  I was casting hundreds of objects for my portrait assemblies and the colours and detail I was obtaining always amazed me, but even more fascinating was the physical transformation of the clay body. During the firing process, porcelain vitrifies and the silica and metallic elements are absorbed by the inert particles, resulting in a shrinkage rate of around 13 per cent. The idea was to take a form and cast it, fire it and repeat that process until I couldn't go any farther. 
The repetition of the detail of the human head was the plan. I wanted the original mould to be usable for the first porcelain casting so it needed to be very particular and would require some time. It’s not easy to find someone who is willing to shave their head and have their face lathered in plaster. I put the word out and eventually a friend stepped up. He was studying apnea and, for him, a half an hour under gesso sounded like fun. The big problem was the release agent. Normally for this kind of operation, I would use a petroleum-based product but since I wanted to use it for casting, the mould needed to be perfectly oil free. I experimented with every no-tears baby shampoo on the market. They all made me cry!  So I consulted with a pharmacist about my dilemma.  Italian pharmacists are the best. They really know their stuff. It took awhile to figure it out and after a lengthy discussion, we decided that a water-based sex lube was the best way go. A rather vocal line of elderly women formed behind me, not at all happy with our discussion topic. I am certain that Fellini would have had appreciated that scene.

I loved the Face of Toronto and Friend Project series, indeed there are several works that use individual elements to create a face. What does a face mean to you?

The Face of Toronto was a multimedia, interactive public project that I did at the Gardiner Museum during Nuit Blanche 2010. I had the help of 50 volunteers. We collected 3000 photographic portraits and members of the public press-moulded all of the forms. I then worked with images, coloured and cut them to pieces in order to create a broader pixel palette that would enable me to create what I considered a representation of the face of Toronto. I based my choices on census information. 
The Friend Project uses a similar mosaic technique. Here, instead, I made self-portraits using the photos from my friends’ Facebook pages. I found that the images that they posted collectively created a notion of my identity. I eventually moved toward making portraits of friends, focusing on the way they curate the images that they choose to represent themselves and also on the cultural and historical images that represented our relationship.
The face for me is a particular part of the human figure which is, in my opinion, the most accessible sculptural form. Everyone can relate to it because it is a reflection of ourselves. And with a face, once we find the eyes and fix a gaze, we connect and whether it be full or flat, there is always an emotional response. 

What plans do you have for the remainder of the year  and beyond?

In June I will be teaching ceramic sculpture for the University of Georgia, Athens for their studies abroad program in Cortona, Italy.  I hope to catch up with some friends and see the Venice Biennial while I'm in that neck of the woods.  When I return to Canada, I need to prepare work for the Toronto International Art Fair. Then I can get back to my CD project, focus on my solo show in October 2014 and teaching.

Nardip Singh

Images provided by artist 
Copyright © Jim Hake
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