She has a metal plate in her leg and four screws in her ankle-souvenirs from a hit-and-run. When an arsonist set fire to her apartment building and her alarm failed to go off, she escaped with little more than her pajamas and her cat after being roused by firefighters. As a teenager she was beaten up and nearly stabbed, but the cops showed up just in time. Despite all this, Vanessa Vaughan is the coolest high school science teacher ever, not for her near-death escapes, but for her art.
When she's not teaching teenagers how to tell an acid from a base, Vaughan is putting her energy towards painting, designing, drawing, shooting, editing or doing post-production on her latest video project.
"I'm a workaholic," she says over breakfast at Dusty's, a long-standing greasy spoon in Mile End. "I like to throw myself into things I really feel passionately about. If I need to do something, it doesn't matter how much time I have to do it-I'll do it. I'll probably get very stressed and I may not sleep, but it will get done."
She certainly has the energy-it's been a while since she's had an "incident." She's been building her reputation as a video artist who works well on tight deadlines, but a new exhibition of kitschy paintings at Zeke's Gallery shows her to be a talented painter and graphic designer as well. The show, entitled Fabricate (her first), will feature up to thirty canvases.
Blending graphic design and painting, Vaughan takes her images and text from 1960s art books and old dictionaries, sourced mostly from the Côte des Neiges library. One painting features a plate of chicken and rice with the words "Delicious and nutritious!" smeared above it. The top of the canvas reads: "This message is brought to you as a public service by the Rice Council of America. Switch from routine to rice!" The font suggests a time when one could believe that the Rice Council of America was simply a bunch of do-gooders who believed that rice was an unjustly under-represented side dish, instead of a lobby group or a commercial body pushing a product. Of course, times have changed and the images take on a comfortably ironic (but sweet) smirk. Backdrops of uneven washes and long drips of paint situate the re-contextualized images in a weathered no-place; an ideal compliment to messages that could exist only in a vacuum.
"What I really like is the fact that it's not perfect. I like the rawness and the mistakes and the fun kind of silliness of it," she says, noting that she also likes the process of laying out the images on the computer, printing them onto vellum and transferring them to the canvas using a thick gel medium. There is also the hours of waiting for the piece to set, and finally the pouring of boiling water on the work. "You get to work digitally but you still use your hands. I really need to get my hands dirty sometimes."
Most people know Vaughan for her video work, both as a solo artist and as part of the Gifted Program (www.gifted-program.com). She and her Gifted Partner-cohort Andrew Gene are known as the "crazy ones" by the staff at the Montreal offices of Ninja Tune, the pivotal electronic British music label. For Ninja's Endless Summer show at Club Soda last year, she and Gene created a total of eight hours of footage in just under two weeks, and even produced some Ninja Tune promos. The modular Bonobo video set included more than 1000 stills they had shot themselves.
She's also worked as an assistant director for a full-length video album. More than two years ago Ninja Tune held a worldwide competition to make a feature-length film to accompany the live show of the album Music by Cavelight by Ninja Tune producer Blockhead. Of an untold number of applicants, a group of Montreal artists-Vaughan among them-won the competition. The project came together during a two-month summer whirlwind. Of her many contributions to that film, her role in post-production was her favorite, having added textures and effects to the piece and given tips to others in order to give the finished product a uniform feel. It's one of her specialties.
"To me, footage can be like a canvas in a way because I get a lot of joy out of treating it and changing it and trying to make it look different than it originally was," she says. "I guess it's similar to music sampling and things like that. You go through and you take things from other sources but you change them and they become your own."
Growing up in Wallaceburg, a small Ontario town close to the Detroit border, Vaughan used painting, video and music to escape boredom and local violence (she went through a period in high school of getting beaten up pretty regularly). She took oil painting classes with a friend's grandmother until the woman passed away, and continued to paint afterwards. At age fifteen she completed her first video project with a group of friends, a Cure video that won a MuchMusic contest. Something of a science geek, she went to Trent at the egging-on of her parents, earned a science degree there and then picked up and went to Australia, where she fell in with an inspiring group of artists and took graphic design courses. She taught herself how to digitally edit video and returned to Canada where she took more graphic design classes, worked as a freelance commercial designer and got her Bachelor of Education. When her apartment burned down she took the opportunity to move to more-affordable Montreal, where she now teaches grades nine and ten.
Ever the creative thinker, Vanessa has found a way to combine her teaching and her art. She's in the middle of creating a media curriculum for her students (next year she adds grade eleven to the list), and continues with her artistic work. On top of establishing the media program, she's got at least two other video projects on the go; one which involves drawing by hand between 4000 and 5000 frames that will comprise about two minutes of a short film. The other is a video project with Big Dada artists Spank Rock.
"I'm turning thirty this year," she says. "I'm a little nervous because my parents keep calling me and saying, 'Oh, you're still trying to be an artist?'"
Trying? Succeeding is more like it.
The Fabricate vernissage at Zeke's Gallery (3955 St. Laurent) is on Friday, March 17. The show runs until April 16.