Meet Sam Johnstone

Sam Johnstone first caught our attention with his featured work at a Toronto exhibit titled, bbblue. His simplistic and heart wrenching sketches and work with type at the exhibit dealt with a variety of difficult and mundane human conditions from sleeping to denial, to heartbreak. A Toronto artist who tackles everything from deeply emotive and minimalist figure drawings to working with huge Canadian corporate campaigns, this self made graphic designer, illustrator and art director is definitely one to watch. His clean and quirky design aesthetic is undeniably recognizable through his branding campaigns for like minded artists and personal work of vulnerable black and white sketches. Below is a Q &A with the talented Sam Johnstone.

Did you always want to pursue a career in the arts? I made the decision pretty early on to put all my eggs in the visual arts basket, I think as early as 13 or 14 years old. It’s something I always knew was important to me, and I tried to ignore any self-doubt when it came to the idea of career prospects. I went to a high school that offered a lot of  interesting and varied arts classes, so I took as many of those as possible and by the time I graduated I felt I had done a pretty good job of steering myself irreversibly onto that path.

What was the first piece of art (embarassing or not) you can remember that you felt the most proud of? When I was 8 years old there was a drawing of a girl holding a bird that I worked on for days. It was the first thing I made that I remember feeling really connected with. I wish I had kept it, I definitely would have it framed now, though I’ll never forget what it looked like.

Where do you seek inspiration? I can always find inspiration when I go back to the works that got me into visual art & design to begin with. Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl comics, Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, the posters of Doublenaut, and David Shrigley’s paintings are really potent reminders of where I want to take my work, and act like a bucket of cold water when I need to get moving.

Your illustrations are hauntingly beautiful and minimalist. What are some common artistic/ non-artistic themes you find yourself re-visting in your work?There are a few things that I always return to. Loneliness is the big one for me. It’s been the driver for most of my artistic career, and I feel like it’s something I am always in dialogue with. It’s always going to be a part of my work. It’s the thing I most identify with, and it’s the part of myself that I feel like most people can connect with.

Who would be invited to your ultimate dead or alive dinner party? This is a really tough question. I want to list some great historical figures, but instead I think I’d just invite the people I most admire the work of today, and try to absorb their talent by osmosis. People like Malika Favre, Lotta Nieminen, Anne Benjamin and James Jean. And Shia LaBeouf too, to liven things up.
Who would be your dream collaborator to work with? I think it’d have to be a musician. Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie makes music that’s quiet in the same way I feel my illustration tends to be, and I spent a lot of time as a teenager drawing while listening to his music.
You have worked with some huge brands, like Tim Hortons and Air Canada, what was it like working for such reputable corporations? I was swept into that world right out of school, and at the time I had so many preconceptions about how they operate. It was surprising and refreshing to find out that the people working on these brands have strong, positive intentions, and are open to some pretty weird ideas. The size of the company can sometimes get in the way, and at times there are so many people involved in a project that all of the fun edges get sanded off, but it isn’t always the case. Little wins end up feeling like big victories, and you learn to push the boundaries you are given. I learned a lot about how to articulate my work, and how to frame my ideas. There were still a lot of times where I would think “there’s no way the client is going to go for this”, and been totally surprised.

How important has social media been in promoting yourself? It took me a long time to accept this, but it’s probably the most important tool for anyone who wants to share their work with the public. It gives anyone the chance to shape the way they want the world to see them, and to promote the side of themselves they might not have an avenue for in their personal or work lives. More than anything, it’s given me the chance to view myself through external eyes. To be able to look back at my public-facing self and see patterns that have emerged over time that I wouldn’t be able to see if I weren’t publishing something daily. It’s kind of double edged that way though, I find myself leaning more towards certain subjects and certain styles based on how well they are received rather than how I feel about them—I’m always trying to be mindful of that.

But beyond self-promotion, it’s really valuable in collaboration and community. I’ve met a lot of people through social media who never would have connected with me without it, and been able to work on some really interesting projects because of that.

What are you currently working on and what is next? I’m working on a project right now called “Bonfires” that I’m really close to finishing up. It’s a reflection on new cultural aesthetics that I’m working on with a few models who have been terrific. It’s a print series focused on the idea of beauty and I’m excited to get it out in the world. After that, I’m going to be working on projects that are a little more narrative, and hopefully spend time this year on more sculptural work.

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Photos modelled by Lee Nguyen and Justine Houseley, and shot by Pam Lau.