Words by Marcel Dagenais
“I think we all have our sores and bruises from life and we carry scars both small and large that will be with us until the day we move into the next world.”-Ray Caesar
Looking at Ray Caesar’s paintings gives me an eery sense of a deeper tale behind the eyes of these beautiful, haunting characters. The Toronto-based artist was nice enough to give me some insight into his work and his internal day-to-day struggles with the world around him.
WC: What is a typical day like for you?
RC: It’s a routine that starts with getting up and forcing myself to step outside in the world. I am agoraphobic but each day I open the front door and go for a two hour walk in a crowded downtown, sometimes I have panic attacks being outside and in crowds and no one would know I am having one as I keep them to myself, but I force myself to deal with it. I find I draw and sketch better in public places and I do feel an energy in those places. I feel I can absorb that energy and use it in a way. I then go home and begin work.
WC: I first saw an exhibit of yours at the Jonathan Levine Gallery. How long have you been showing there?
RC: I have been showing with Jonathan since 2004, I think. Back when he was in Philly and had his gallery Tin Man Alley. I remember when he told me he wanted to open a gallery in New York I thought… uh oh! That’s really ambitious, but I was wrong. Jonathan is one of the movers and shakers of the art world and has a tremendous amount of energy and drive. He manages to do all this and still keep integrity and honesty and you always know where you stand with him. He will always be a good friend of mine as he is just one of those people that keep calm in the middle of a hurricane, mainly because he is the Hurricane.
WC: I’m a huge fan of your work. “The Messenger Study” was the first piece of art I ever bought. I had to have it. I feel like she is staring into my soul sometimes when I look at her hanging over my bed. I really feel a connection to her. Do you ever grow attached to any certain characters you create? If so, do you use them again and again in more work, or do they each stay in that one specific world?
RC: Well I sort of like using the same family of characters as to me they each have a familiarity and they change and modify and evolve. I name them and some are male and some are female and some are something in between. They each seem to have their own personality to me and it should be said that I do have a personality disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder of which I get a lot of therapy, and some of the nature of that shows up in my work. It’s sort of like multiple personality disorder but I am also hyper observant so in a way I know the various fragments of my personality and why and how it fractured and compartmentalized during my childhood. So my figures are a fragment of me in some ways and the worlds I create for them are in some ways all in the same place. I see it as a large hotel by the sea and each room has a permanent guest. The hotel is my mind and my subconscious and the residents are all part of me or sometimes a part of something else that seems to live with or visit me. Messenger was created after a series of vivid lucid dreams and periods of sleep paralysis after the death of my mother. Those dreams were instrumental in helping make the decision to start showing my work in galleries after 25 years of just keeping it all stuffed in a closet, so Messenger was one of the first pieces I actually started working on that I intended to show.
WC: What’s your creative process? From concept to the finished product, how long does it usually take you?
RC: I work intuitively and do something called automatic drawing in which my hand seems to move and after a few minutes there is a picture. In other words I work without pre-conception and just let the picture evolve in a way that the end result doesn’t concern me as I am doing it. I trust the process that it will find its way to completion. I model my figures and rooms on the computer in pretty much the same way. If I feel like modeling a typewriter or a chair or a certain kind of dress then I start making it and somehow those pieces come together to make a picture and in this way working in a virtual environment is perfect for me as there is no pre-planning and no commitment to a certain idea as all effort is valid and can be used at any time and place. I am not sure how long it takes and people often ask me. I usually say three weeks but to be honest I can work on about seven or eight pieces at once and I jump around from piece to piece and they all seem to get done somehow. I am not really sure how long it takes so let’s just say three weeks as it sounds nice.
WC: Any other medium you’re into?
RC: I am fifty-one and have been making art since I was old enough to draw, so I have tried most mediums over the years. I seem to come back to ink as it has played a big part of my life. Even as a child I delivered newspapers and it was all about ink and paper and I was often covered in ink from head to toe. I usually only draw in ink and never pencil and for many years I painted in inks and used them in an airbrush and painted sculptural things I constructed out of paper. I should explain as I don’t think of the computer as my medium but as my tool. My medium is still a pigment on a surface and the computers are just another way to get it there. For many years I used an airbrush and the work I produced was not that dissimilar from my current work. In fact the printers I use employ a series of thin sprays just like an airbrush and the texture and feel of the ink on paper feels very much like the airbrush works I used to do 25 years ago. Ink and paper seems to be a recurrent aspect of my life in many ways as I used to work in an architect’s office using rapidograph ink pens on vellum drawing detailed and accurate working drawings with a great many technical devices and I used similar tools when I worked in the medical profession.
WC: In a past interview you said “People think I paint pictures of children… I don’t! I paint pictures of the human soul… that alluring image of the hidden part of ourselves… some call them ghosts or spirits but I see them as the image of who we truly are, made manifest with all the objects and bruises that filled the story of each life.” I find at first glance of your work my perception was this beautiful image of this dream-like child in an old-world luxe setting, but the longer I looked the more sores and imperfections I found on some of the characters. Do you think that resonates from you working in a children’s hospital in the photographic department for 17 years documenting sick and abused kids?
RC: The 17 years working at the children’s hospital were so important to me. Not just for art and making pictures but to help put my own difficult childhood into perspective. My own childhood was in many ways quite frightening and the years at the hospital are a combination of things I experienced and things I observed. The pictures I make are a response to all that and a way of helping my mind place a memory or a subconscious feeling into a “compartment” as in that way I can handle it. It’s a survival mechanism and as a child it worked very well to compartmentalize! In the world I grew up in, rationality, anger, rage, fear, humiliation, pain were not emotions that I was allowed to deal with so I compartmentalized them into diverse parts of myself. I disassociated myself from them as it was easier to do that with emotions than feel them.
I developed panic disorder, agoraphobia , post traumatic stress syndrome and have had to deal with partial Dissociative Identity Disorder. It sounds bad but in truth it is all a coping mechanism and I am doing the necessary work to untangle a rather messy ball of wool that is in my head. Art helps so much and is the core of why I have always been able to function. This could have turned me into a monster but I truly believe that making art, making pictures and meeting my wife and her wonderful family saved me and my sanity. I had a place, a refuge or reservoir to place the emotion and feeling I couldn’t handle. Compartmentalization can still work well as an adult and enable you to do amazing things but it has its pitfalls and dangers and I have fallen into a few of those dangers. Making pictures is a form of communication that works better than words when one is dealing with the subconscious and it is the one place that all the various parts of me come together to work on the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Art is so hard that it requires the entire participation of the diverse parts of myself. I think we all have our sores and bruises from life and we carry scars both small and large that will be with us until the day we move into the next world. In each picture whether it is a picture about my own soul or something else that seems to talk through me, I just try to make a happy place and a calm place that those bruises and scars are not scary. But I don’t ignore them either and through pictures I let them speak to me.
WC: How did working in a children’s hospital come about?
RC: I studied architecture in college and was working at an architect’s office when the big recession came in 1980 and all building stopped. I took a job doing graphs and medical technical drawings, medical illustration and some photography at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. I hated the job and only intended to stay as long as I could find another job in architecture, but the nature of being confronted with abuse and pain and small defenseless children hit me hard. It took me back to my own childhood and I had to confront some very difficult things. I have no idea why I stayed at the job for 17 years but now it seems obvious to me. I really had no choice as it was just, necessary. On a subconscious level I knew that place held an answer but it took me 17 years to see it.
WC: If you could live in any specific time period, when and why?
RC: I would rather be a time traveler and go visit all the time periods and I would probably get confused in what time period I was in and would probably dress inappropriately. One day in the 14th century and another in the 23rd century. I imagine I would spend a lot of time in France during the 17th and 18th century hanging around Versailles or maybe in Japan during the Tokugawa reign and possibly Victorian London on Sundays. I am sure I would spend long weekends in ancient Rome or Greece. I think it would be fun to sip champagne as the band plays a melody on the sinking Titanic and fly around in a spitfire during World War II, as long as I could pop out to picnic with Lewis Carrol when things got too scary.
WC: Ever thought about living in New York City?
RC: I would love to live in New York! It might happen as it would be easier in a lot of ways. My wife Jane has worked in a Cancer hospital here in Toronto for 35 years doing Oncology so it would be tricky to leave. She does such important work and that’s what keeps us in this city. She retires soon so maybe we will live in other parts of the planet, or maybe on a small out of town planet.
WC: I read you and your wife have been together since you were fifteen years old. What do you think makes a relationship last?
RC: It’s been over 33 years married and five courting, so well over 40 years together. I honestly think that you just accept that relationships are hard work and that as long as there is a willingness to grow and learn from each other then its going to work. People are stronger and more resilient than they think they are and if there is an honest and sincere commitment to caring for each other I think people can overcome almost any obstacle. Relationships only work when the two people involved want to make them work. It has to be a shared commitment and they don’t work when only one is committed.
WC: Anything exciting you’re working on that you’d like to tell us about?
RC: With my work I keep things simple and just wake up each morning and begin to work. I never really feel like I am working on a different piece as they all seem connected to me from the very first time I drew a picture all the way up til now. I just create what I want to see and make a place, a kind of sanctuary for some troubled part of me.
To see more work by Ray Caesar click here.