Aimée van Drimmelen is an artist based in Canada. Her circular drum paintings have been exhibited in Montréal, Vancouver and San Francisco, and featured on numerous art and design blogs. In her latest series LOOKING OUTWARD / LOOKING INWARD Aimée focuses in on the circular form and explores ideas of rhythm and interconnection through the use of geometric shapes and folk art motifs.
Each drum painting, with it's own unique energy, is meant to act as an object for meditation and creative contemplation. It has been carefully designed and rendered by hand using archival paints and inks on synthetic drum heads, like what you'd find on a bass or snare drum. Once completed it isframed in a custom-made baltic birch frame, or maple drum hoop. Sometimes it is mounted on an actual drum that is illuminated from within.
Laurie White: As an artist, illustrator, and also as a musician, your creative practice spans a range of media. In the drum skin paintings I see you engaging with the materiality of music making. The drum skin is a surface that can be activated in different ways. Older skins show the history of their use. They are also made from different materials, synthetic or natural, which have their own qualities. Can you talk about how you came to use drum skins at the ground for your paintings? What is the significance of them for you? Where do you source them?
Aimée van Drimmelen: I first saw a painted drumhead at my partner's recording studio in Montreal, on a beautiful marching band drum from the 30s. It had a painting of a person's silhouette standing in front of an ocean sunset, playing a pipe. It came with a lightbulb inside, which lit up the image also to warmed up the calfskin to improve tone. I remember being instantly so attracted to this idea, the shape, the drum itself...
At the time I had recently finished an undergrad in Anthropology and my artist side was rearing its head. I was doing a lot of experimenting and having lots of existential crises. This discovery happened at the perfect time. A couple of drummer friends gave me their used bass drum heads to paint on and it was a breakthrough; in fact this was how I discovered the technique and style that I use to this day in most of my illustration and animation work. I sought out a medium that was permanent and could adhere to the skins without being so heavy that it dampened the tone, and that was acrylic ink. The fluidity, the layering of colours, the mix of detail and abstraction, all started there on the surface of those skins.
This process has captivated me for a long time. I love the connection to music, and to the most ancient of instruments. Most of the skins I paint have been used — some have visible dents and gouges from years of getting hit — and I’m able to give an them a second life. I like to think that some rhythmic energy still remains in them. Right now I have a pretty large stock pile of blank skins and old drums that have come from a variety of places across North America. I hit up craigslist, musicians, shops, conservatories. It's a nice way to connect with the community.
LW: The forms in your newest series of paintings are reminiscent of Ukrainian pysanky egg paintings and traditional quilt patterns. From the eggs, I also see a link to the way you layer colours to create a glowing, kaleidoscope effect. How did these forms start entering into your work? How has the circular shape influenced your designs and even your thinking?
AVD: For this new series I wanted to intentionally design imagery that complimented the circular shape of the canvas. As I started sketching, these patterns began to emerge that were reminiscent of some of the folk art I had become interested in a few years back when I discovered my grandmother’s collection of Ukrainian easter eggs. I was immediately struck by their designs — the intricacy and precision, the delicate lines, the motifs and colours that were used. I sat at her table and tried to copy some of them and it was so hard! I've always been intrigued about the Eastern European side of my family, and discovering these objects that had a cultural connection was an important moment. When the time was right I gave myself permission to learn more about them and try to figure out how they worked.
LW: There is a formal contrast between the geometric and the curly lines in pysanky and quilters also use this when they sew curly patterns over the coloured blocks. In your work, this contrast invokes natural elements like feathers and vines but the geometric forms also seem to relate to natural phenomena like comets and stars.
AVD: I picture these paintings like multi dimensional images that are sort of alive, or coming to life. Their various layers evoke depth and motion, as though the shapes are radiating outwards from some sort of cosmic centre. I find that the organic forms, decorative lines, feathers, water drops bring a spontaneous energy to the pieces and help balance against the geometry. Another element that brings the pieces to life for me is adding the eyes. They just appeared in my early sketches and gave the pieces a sense of completion. The title of the series "Looking Outward / Looking Inward" references these eyes, and the interplay between painting and viewer. I like to think of it as an exchange, perhaps even a conversation. And it's meant to be playful too.
LW: There seems to be a tension between intuition and experimentation in the structure of the art forms you are researching yet you describe your process as intuitive, contemplative, experimental. How do you create the space and freedom to experiment? Can you describe the stages you go through in this process? Do you leave a piece and come back to it after time.
AVD: I have yet to finish a painting that was exactly like my initial sketches. Once I have a rough idea of design and colour worked out on paper I’ll start mapping it out on a skin. I use various techniques to recreate the design “by eye,” avoiding precise measurements or using pencil, which allows for in-the-moment decision making. The media I use, ink and water, is themselves unpredictable. Because the surface of the drumskins is synthetic it won't absorb the liquid like paper would, so I have to wait for each layer to air dry. You can see the water element doing it's thing in every painting, the pigments settle and pool making the evaporation process visible. The edges may appear sharp, but up close they ripple. This gives further life and movement to the pieces.
Often when I'm stumped I'll take a quick photo and use the (crappy) draw tool on my phone to try out a bunch of different scenarios digitally before I decide what to do next. While I shy away from digital technology when I'm working, this relationship with my phone is quite useful and fun. Ironically I’m often inspired by the confident, gestural, yet childlike lines I achieve by sketching on my phone.
LW: You are drawing from a specific cultural heritage, and it is your own Ukrainian heritage, but viewers are unavoidably going to infer other things – Tibetan Mandalas and Navajo weavings spring to mind – that you don’t pretend to have any claim to. What do you think about this issue?
AVD: I don't find it surprising. When I started sharing images from this series some people drew comparisons to art traditions that weren't my own and at first it made me uncomfortable (especially because they didn't seem to find any problem with it). I really enjoy discovering parallels in designs and motifs that span disparate cultures — and there are many — but I also take cultural appropriation very seriously. By turning to research I am able to feel confident in where I am coming from, and make sure that the end results of my own process aren't ending up too much like something else.
The fact that I'm painting on drums is also something that people tend to connect with Indigenous art. Victoria BC, where I live, was built on the unceded land of the Lekwungen (Songhees & Esquimalt) First Nations. There is a strong tradition of circular shaped art motifs here that stemmed from carved spindle-whorls used by weavers, and in more recent times decorated round drums. I have been fortunate enough to see some beautiful painted drums since moving to the west coast. I came across this quote from Coast Salish artist Doug Horne that says, “We are all born to the beat of a drum, it is within us. Our drum beat is what leads us to find our own path through our journey in life.” I like the universality of that statement. The practice of decorating these important instruments exists in practically every culture that used a drum, including rock & roll culture where I guess I'm partly coming from.
LW: You are drawing on folk traditions in more than a visual way. What is it about these practices that informs your work? Is it about preserving a tradition, or learning from it? What’s the importance of analogue methods for you?
AVD: The practice of egg painting dates back to the neolithic period, and the Triptillian-Cucuteni people who inhabited large parts of what is today Eastern Europe. Everything from the motifs and colours to the eggs themselves have meaning. The eight pointed star is a common motif in pysanky and symbolizes the sun. For me this shape symbolizes interconnection. I am very interested right now in ideas of interconnection and communication at a time when we are simultaneously so connected and so disconnected. Connected in a virtual sense, in a curated cultural sense where we rarely see beyond our own bubbles, but at the same time not necessarily knowing our neighbours, being alienated from each other in the streets or the grocery store.
In a way I'm starting to crave or seek out these greater connections both externally and internally. Maybe one way is this going back to analog roots: craft, folk arts. Simple expressions made with care and love, like a quilt. Stitching, sewing, holding together, taking time. The connection of hands, eyes, heart, mind. Allowing space to meditate, process, search for beauty and hope. Maybe some of this invisible energy also filters out into the world and connects with a viewer or a passer by on a deeper level. There's no way of knowing, but I like the idea.
LW: What does it mean to be an artist at this time? You mentioned how it can sometimes feel meaningless to be requiring people’s attention for your art when there is so much crazy stuff happening in the world. Is there a flipside to this feeling? In my view, being an artist is a radical act because you consciously situate yourself against dominant channels of production and consumption. The criticality and open questioning mode of the artist is an essential antagonising force for society. Perhaps you struggle with this because you make work that is quite visually accessible and that is about creating supportive, inspirational environments, rather than work that is about negation or disruption? Having said that, I think the values in your work do disrupt certain aspects of contemporary life because they appeal to an aesthetic sensibility based on care, patience, tradition. Having known you for a while now, I would say you have a very thoughtful existence that practices the values you are exploring in your work and research. To return to the question then, how do you see yourself as an artist within the various circles and communities in which you operate?
AVD: The people I most enjoy spending time with are the ones who buck against the status quo, who live intentional and alternative lifestyles, and care deeply about what's going on in the world and bringing about positive change in these times. My goal is not to pretend everything is ok in order to have business as usual. My goal is to engage within and beyond my community and to continuously question my role as an artist, my privilege. Yes, I want to create supportive inspirational environments, that is very accurate. I want my paintings to have a place of prominence in someone's home and bring joy and positive energy every day. That has meaning for me. But I also live in a place where I see homeless people on the streets every day. A place where the cost of living is so high that most artists and working class people can't stay here, and those who try are struggling. So I ask myself, who gets to benefit from these spaces I strive to create? How can I work to help improve the situation, in all its complexity, instead of just “being an artist” and ignoring these realities. How can I extend my reach beyond those who can afford to buy art, and further than that, beyond the art & design world and into the real world where real help is needed? I've realized that I'm not comfortable doing one without doing the other, and that I have to do more.
These days the people around me are having conversations and sharing information and seeking solutions, and refreshingly it's happening in realtime. I have been learning the importance of taking breaks from social media, my devices, and the "online" life in order to give myself time and space to really contemplate these issues, as opposed to being completely overwhelmed and paralyzed by them alone in the dark with a screen in my face. It feels right, right now, to exist more in the present and be the curator of my own information and experiences on my own terms. Having these real, meaningful conversations and opportunities to connect feels important to me and if that is being an artist or just being a human I don't care, it just seems like the right thing to be doing right now. ✸
Laurie White is a curator and art historian based in Vancouver. Photo by Ingrid Mesquita.