Memory and Place: In Conversation with Michelle Paterok

Michelle Paterok. Night Snow, oil on panel, 9×12″, 2021.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Michelle Paterok’s paintings are hauntingly arresting, depicting everyday landscapes and portraits of those surrounding her using deep hues of violet, cerulean blue, and pale pinks. In her painting untitled (snow) (2021), footprints in the snow lead over the scene as if walking over the horizon at the end of the earth, depicting a solemn landscape. Almost as if viewing the surrounding environment in a nightscape, the imagery in her work looks like it’s been pulled from a dream, like emotive snapshots of everyday life.

In the painting Spring Ends (2019), leaves are suspended in space, falling from mid-air amongst the obscured background. Although they take a familiar shape, the leaves seem uncanny like another dimension exists within them. The overlapping imagery is reminiscent of the difficulty in remembering life moments as they replay in our heads repeatedly, each variation straying from the next like an altered reel.

Paterok often uses photography from her travels abroad and everyday life as a starting point in her work, allowing for interpretation in the rendering of the images to embody memory and lived experience. Through this, she is interested in capturing the “poetic infrastructures” of everyday and exploring the subjective nature of memory and how it relates to place. Michelle Paterok is currently pursuing her Master’s in Fine Arts at Western University. She speaks more about her practice in the following interview.

Michelle Paterok. Night on Earth, oil on linen, 14×18″, 2021.

Can you further explain your interest in place and how you address the poetics of everyday life through your work? Can you speak to your interest in travel as well?

When I was an art student in my undergraduate years, I had the opportunity to travel abroad to complete a research project. Something about being in a completely different environment and country made me consider my immediate surroundings more closely than when I was here in Canada. For that project, I had a specific research interest, but the idea of a fascination with my (often mundane) immediate surroundings has persisted, and I have redirected that lens to my local environment here. I’ve found that if I pay everyday scenes enough attention, they often transform into unexpectedly beautiful, interesting things. In a way, it’s also destabilizing: looking at something seemingly familiar long enough, it starts to become unfamiliar. The practice of closely at things I may have otherwise taken for granted or not noticed—examining and reflecting on the things I encounter in everyday life with more consideration—is part of what sustains my interest in making art. When I sit and I paint a landscape, I have to contemplate what it meant to be in that place as I record it on a canvas. That exercise is fascinating to me.

I’ve noticed that in your work too. The paintings are of everyday scenes but the way you approach them is other-worldly, it reminds me of dreamscapes.

I like that idea of the dreamscape. When I was first learning how to paint, I aimed to represent things as realistically as possible—but once I felt I had a good handle of the medium, representing reality became much less interesting to me. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about how I can convey a precise emotional atmosphere in my work. What interests me the most currently is representing subjective experience and a sense of mood. The recent work has drawn just as much on imagination and memory as it has on references from life or photos.

I’ve found that if I pay everyday scenes enough attention, they often transform into unexpectedly beautiful, interesting things. 

You have a strong sense of layered imagery in your work, almost like double exposure photography. Can you describe your process of using photography as reference in your paintings? How does this tie into the broader themes of your work?

Working in layers started by accident. It was a way to reuse old canvases that I had deemed unsuccessful and left in the corner of the studio, hoping for a solution to materialize. After a few weeks (sometimes months or years), I lose my attachment to these images and feel less precious about them. Usually, rather than trying to complete the painting, I paint something new on top of the old image. Through this process, incidental narratives are created, and later I embraced them. I like the idea of material memories embedded in the layers of the paintings.

The relationship between painting and photography has a long history—the invention of photography fundamentally changed the medium of painting. Painting has existed in dialogue with photography ever since. In my own work, I think about painting’s affordances—what can paintings do that photos might not be able to? One of these is the kind of emotional atmosphere I mentioned previously. Representing subjective experiences, like perception, memory or dreams, is one of the affordances I think painting has. I often use photos as a kind of foundation for some of the work’s formal aspects, but reinterpret light, colour and composition through the process of painting. I’ve recently tried to challenge this working process, as it’s become something like a habit for me over the years. These days I’m more often working from observation or memory—the latter of which has really changed the direction of the work.

Michelle Paterok. Spring Ends, oil on wood, 10×16″, 2019.

In your work Spring Ends, you use a sense of obscurification that provides a snapshot glimpse into a landscape from the outline of falling leaves which I was intrigued by. I was wondering if you could speak more about this piece and your use of both opaqueness and fragmentation?

At the time I painted it, I was living in rural Japan and making work about my experiences there. I initially painted a landscape. Where I was living, the landscape was full of rice paddies, which farmers flood in the spring. I tried to capture the reflection of the sky in the flooded fields, but (as often happens when I try to paint a scene that’s already too beautiful) the painting wouldn’t work—it gets dangerously close to hyper-sentimental territory.

The painting sat unfinished for a while. A few months later, in the fall, the ginkgo tree near my workplace shed its leaves, which covered the ground in a huge yellow and green blanket. I thought the silhouette of the leaves might speak to the landscape I had painted previously. Both scenes—the flooded rice field and the fallen leaves—indicate seasonal change and time’s passage. Using the silhouette of the leaves to reveal and obscure parts of the landscape, I was thinking about how time exists in our memories: some aspects of memories obscured and others clear, but both experiences of memory are mediated by the present moment.

It might also be important to mention that all of the images that I use in my work are based on sketches or photos I took. I don’t usually go on missions to find art photos or anything like that. Often, I’ll be going for a walk, or be on my way to work, and I’ll see things on the street that I think are interesting or poetic [so] I try to record them.

I’m also a walker. I love to walk, especially when I lived in Vancouver, and even here, I just walk around my neighbourhood. If you look you can find some interesting things. Even though they’re just part of everyday life, they can spark interest in different ways.

Yes! I’ve always gravitated towards walking as a means of collecting references. I used to be self-conscious of this way of working, especially among peers with more research-based practices. Although, I guess walking is its own form of research, a kind of local research. It reminds me of the flaneurs—the idea of wandering as a means of reflecting on contemporary life.

Michelle Paterok. Existing Among Others, oil on linen, 14×18″, 2021.

What has your process been working on larger paintings? How do you think scale affects your process?

When I was living in Japan, I converted my living room into a studio, and there wasn’t much space to make large work. The pandemic added more challenges, and the result was that I didn’t make any large work for about three years. It wasn’t until recently, when I started my MFA, that I had the space to work large scale again.

It might just be a result of working this way for such a long time, but small-scale comes more easily for me: I can approach the canvas intuitively, and if I need to make a big change, the stakes (cost of materials, time) are low. There is also something important to me in the small-scale work about the economy of the brushstrokes. When the work is scaled up, for me it requires more planning—sketches, colour studies—and being minimal in my mark-making becomes much more challenging. That said, it seems like the current work is asking to be big. I’m interested in creating work that’s more immersive. I’m trying to listen to the work more and let it go in the direction it suggests it wants to, rather than imposing my own restrictions on it.

Who are some artists that inspire you and your work?

Even though I’m mostly making paintings these days, print artists have been a really big influence. I saw a retrospective of Tetsuya Noda’s work at the British Museum a few years ago, and I was really moved. I still think about it often. Since the late 60s, he’s created a diary series that’s become his life’s work—he has a distinct process of photographing places, objects or people in his daily life, then screen printing them onto paper printed with a subtle woodblock texture. I think the woodblock is a nod to the tradition of ukiyo-e, but his works depart significantly from traditional Japanese printmaking due to his use of a camera. What I really love about his work is that it’s personal and specific, but at the same time, somehow highly universal. Compiling all these seemingly mundane moments from daily life, when done over such a long period of time and with such focus and craft, turns them into something that feels really meaningful.

Of course, I also love paintings! Vija Celmins is my current favourite. I’ve also been staring at Maja Ruznic’s work a lot. My friend also recently introduced me to Agnes Pelton’s work, those paintings are magical.

Michelle Paterok. Ghost Plant, oil on canvas, 24×24″, 2021.

There can be a lot of meaning in the everyday. I think that’s the biggest question with painting is “what do I paint?” And like you were saying, there’s so much you can do with colour—It’s so tied to emotions. I’m drawn to your work because of the way you use colour too.

Before I start a painting, I ask myself, “what kind of emotional climate do I want this to have?” like I mentioned before. Often reducing my variables in terms of my palette has been a lot more conducive to capturing what I’m after as opposed to working with a lot of colours. This has grown into working with more of a limited palette in a more intentional way than what I used to. 

I was looking at these historical palettes, limited palettes people used to use. I made a few paintings with the Zorn palette, which is traditionally white and only three other colours—but its namesake (Anders Zorn) was able to get almost a whole spectrum of hues with just these colours. Working often with fewer hues, but more intention, has been useful for me lately in addressing the question of “how do I want this painting to feel?” Colour can be so evocative, and it’s one of those things that artists can spend their whole lives trying to understand. There are almost endless combinations and colour relationships. As a painter, you can never get bored.

Do you have any plans or projects coming up in the future that you’d like to discuss? I will be part of a Western MFA show in the fall—date TBA. My work right now is all very much in development, and I’m spending most of my summer in the studio seeing how things progress. I love this stage of the process where things feel like they could go in any direction. I’m excited to be starting a new larger-scale body of work and I’ll share things as they develop.

You can view more of Michelle Paterok’s work on her website and Instagram.

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