French-Canadian artist Vincent Bernier tells Futurespace Magazine about his life so far as an artist and his ambitions to help people find new and accepted theories on religion and God through art, despite his strict religious upbringing where his family turned their backs on art.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you discovered art.
It’s far from an average story but my background has definitely influenced both my art and my outlook on life. I was brought up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and my parents discouraged my ambition of becoming an artist, as it would have required a number of years at university and uncertain employment prospects. They wanted me to become a graphic designer since it would take only few years at college and would lead to a secure job at the end. So I undertook a graphic design course at college. My parents’ idea was that at the end of my schooling, I would become a full time missionary somewhere in Russia or Africa, with the ability to return to Canada later to take a job as a graphic designer and continue my work with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was very religious at that time so I went along with it.
So art was in your blood but you had to channel your passion into other areas in your earlier years?
That’s right. My mother was an artist at heart and her whole family were painters – not professional ones, but they were taking their hobby to the next level, organising studio visits and workshops for nephews and nieces to see their work. My father was also an artist, but in a musical sense. This was before my parents became religious – I’d say we had a normal family life with a joint interest in the arts until then. My parents became religious and all these artistic ventures were cancelled all of sudden.
It seems incredible you still managed to pursue your artistic dreams despite such a strict and presumably confusing upbringing. What happened next?
I didn’t become a missionary but was more of a crazy kid backpacking around the world. I remember coming back to my parents when I first got back after working in London, where I learned English. I just loved shocking them! After rebelling against some of the core rules of my religion, I got disfellowshipped (excommunicated) and then shunned for my ‘wrongdoing’. I still managed to go to university and study studio arts after my experiences abroad, but I guess it’s never the same when you don’t get the seal of approval from your flesh and blood. That’s a feeling that used to affect me a lot, but I don’t carry that huge chip on my shoulder anymore. That said, I do hope they wake up and smell the coffee one day, as well as accept me for who I am – sinful perhaps, but not wicked!
Would you say you’ve used this quite extraordinary set of experiences you’ve had to define yourself as an artist in some way?
I would say that without my parents pushing me towards another path when I was younger, I may not have been introduced to graphic art. In addition, without that strict religious childhood and teenage years, I wouldn’t be the weirdo that I am now! So I am thankful to my parents for these reasons.
I’m not sure we’d agree you’re a weirdo! Where does the inspiration for your art come from?
My main sources of inspiration are still religious and I feel I have an added insight into religion having grown up the way I have, yet not considering myself religious anymore. The taboo interests me: everything that’s forbidden to think for someone who is religious intrigues me. I’m looking for a project that will help people change their theory on religions and God, without being tagged as demonic or the antichrist. Something that’s cool and beautiful, but also fresh and sharp. As well as this inspiration that’s rooted in religion, I’m also in touch with a friend in Montreal – Primessa Espiritu – who’s a poet. We write to each other via the old fashioned postal service and her poetry fuels my artistry – I just love it!
Can you talk us through your most recent work?
I work through series rather than on individual pieces and the last ones are a triptych on St. Paul’s Cathedral, with mauves and pinks and powder blues. I take the same view on the cathedral and repeat it three times. I don’t try to paint similarly on the three canvases; I love the small and bigger differences.
I am also working on a series of six typographic paintings, which is quite commercial and I’m finding them lighter and enjoyable to do. I think my clients on Etsy will love it.
So has your latest work taken a lighter tone than you’ve gone for in the past?
That’s right – my series last year for example was a little heavier and had a severe religious note. I started working on a Virgin Mary series, depicting an updated version of the mother of Christ. The project took another dimension when I had the idea of producing a triptych on the Virgin and her two lovers: Joseph and the angel Gabriel! I stopped myself after the last series on the Virgin, depicting the Jewish version of the Sacred Heart, which saw Mary without halo: a little bit like a New York rock chick from hell with the rock/devil hand sign. I wanted a different girl than the Caucasian type seen in traditional portraits about the subject. I love the retro look and even though the new Madonna with Child or the Virgin was updated, I kept a little Renaissance ‘je ne sais quoi’ in the four portraits, depicting the same position.
You mentioned you stopped yourself after your last series on the Virgin Mary – what was the reason for this?
I needed to stop going on about a subject that probably didn’t mean much to people where I live in the north west of England, where most are Protestants. I sold few pieces from that series, but I don’t think I can be 100% free to decide what I am going to paint just yet, as I have to be realistic and earn a living too! I would like to elaborate on religious grounds, perhaps in a more subtle manner – being a little cleverer about my study. Painting a different type of Virgin, or Madonna and Child, was a source of inspiration to me because my lost religion prevented members from having icons on their walls, both at church and at home. I want to study more universal subject matters that will touch a wider audience. After making a name for myself, I’ll be free to play around and do what I feel like more.
It seems like art is a way of life for you. Do you ever get bored or lose interest in art, even for a short time?
I absolutely and positively never get bored. I just don’t understand people who get bored – it’s beyond me. There just aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything I want to do. Some people might call me a workaholic, but I love to work. Actually, I’d love to never retire and work until I am old and crippled and die at work.
What are your ambitions?
I’d love to win the Turner Prize, but clearly just to get a studio in a hangar would be the start of a cool era.
What’s next for you?
I’m already working on my next project that involves wetness. My poet friend from Montreal gave me the seed of the idea for that one. I’m still working on the composition, though. I am taking my time. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’d like an exhibition in London sometime soon. My next series just needs to hit the mark because the bar has been set high for the city. My next series will have to be not only wet, but totally cool and different. I’m putting a lot of thought into it to get it right, so watch this space!