Whales, bloodhounds, eagles, snakes, Hourglass Dolphins, Red River hogs. In Paul Morstad’s art, animals reign, even when they are paired with interesting historical figures like Joseph Campbell, Johann Strauss, Jacques Cousteau or Claude Monet. The animals in Morstad’s paintings dwarf their neighbour humans in size, action or group purpose.
Marc Chagall and the Sight Hounds grew out of one of Morstad’s daydreams. “I saw Marc Chagall flying above a pack of pursuant hounds. I had been looking at his works and wondering about his theme of everyday characters flying or rising above the difficulties of their lives. It is not clear whether Chagall is fleeing or leading this speedy entourage.”
“My works are populated with animal and human characters,” says Morstad, ”sometimes supernatural and sometimes prosaic, usually woven into some kind of archetypal narrative.” Morstad’s art brings together the natural sciences, history and magic realism. “I like to mix the banal with the otherworldly to create a sense of tension.”
Morstad has been making art since he was a child. “Near the end of my high school years, I realized I had better pursue a career in Fine Arts as I wasn’t really that great at anything else..haha!”
He relished his classes in visual art and animation at Emily Carr. “My time there was so lovely and freeing as it allowed me to focus on art-making and nothing else. I guess that is what university is for, but it made me realize the amount of time and dedication it took for a life in the Arts. I was mentored by so many great artist educators there, like Carol Moiseiwitsch, Ed Pien, Martin Rose and Gary Bowden.”
Morstad spent ten years of his working life at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal. It was “a great, educational journey.” An impressive array of mentors helped him to develop his style.
While at the NFB, Morstad made short animated films, including Moon Man. “I used the Stompin’ Tom Connors song, Moon Man Newfie, as the soundtrack and story driver for a 3D, stereoscopic IMAX film.” The song is based on the mythical story of Codfish Dan who “dreams the creatures of the sea into existence through a series of wishes.”
But, after a decade in Montreal, Morstad was ready to come home to Vancouver. “The call of the Pacific Northwest was too strong and I returned to pursue painting again, fulltime.”
To compliment his visual artwork, Morstad plays banjo and fiddle in an old time string band. “It’s a great distraction from my long days in the studio. My hobbies are very important for my happiness and inform my art on many levels.”
Morstad is also an avid birder. “Bird watching keeps me interested in my surroundings and attuned to the multitude of other life-forms around us.” He brings together his birding and his artist’s perspective in a painting of Surrealist and Dada painter Max Ernst Evaporating Spirits.
“We see Mr. Ernst either collecting or distributing vaporous bottles, which seem to be propagating a flock of swallows. Here, the vapors and the swallows represent the fleeting ideas artists try to capture and express, but inevitably most of them escape or are forgotten.”
As an artist, Morstad finds great joy in being able to work daily on projects that challenge him and engage his curiosity. On the flip side, he has had to weather low cash periods, particularly early in his career. “Contract work, art sales and the sporadic lack of regular, steady paycheques makes it necessary to have strategies for maneuvering these difficult times. I recommend keeping a clean credit rating and insuring yourself with a line of credit.”
What other advice does Morstad have for aspiring artists?
1. Dig in
Be prepared to work hard. Overtime is common and sometimes unpaid.
2. Educate yourself
Get a good art education if you can, and seek out mentors whose work and attitude inspire you.
3. Get Paid
Try not to work for free or less than your worth. You may have to do some pro bono work from time to time, but don’t make a habit of it. Remember: you can’t put ‘exposure’ in the bank.
4. Consider your Medium
Stick with the mediums and genres you love the most. Create work about the things you know the best. At the same time, don’t forget to try new things.
Written by Elizabeth Newton