Greg Charlton’s work focuses on industrial landscapes across parts of Eastern and Atlantic Canada. Raised in Belleville Ontario, he attended OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), and moved to New Brunswick in 1991. Starting in 2002 he began teaching night classes at NBCCD (New Brunswick College of Craft and Design), and has since gone on to teach there full time. From 1999 to 2014 Greg worked on display and installations for the Beaverbrook art gallery.
Austin Daigle: Tell me about your beginnings as an artist. What made you choose a profession in the arts?
Greg Charlton: I was always drawing and painting as a kid. My greatest skill set was with art, I applied to get into OCA after high school, but was not initially accepted. I went to Fort McMurray and worked in the Oil Sands for a bit. It wasn’t for me, so I enrolled into a graphic design program at St. Lawrence College, Cornwall. After a year of that, I was accepted into OCA. I was creating photographic constructions and paintings. When my studio practice began, I was making paintings, colliding urban landscapes with historical architectural references.
AD: Industrial landscapes seem to be a common theme in your work. Why do you feel these places are so important to revisit?
GC: Because past family members worked in those industries, and also because in the community I was raised, mining and manufacturing were important to how people made their living. I was tapping into some sort of personal history through industrial landscapes.
As I got into art school, I was revisiting places that I had visited when I was younger, or places where I had worked. I became interested in the notion of neo-romanticized industrial landscapes. I was channeling historical expressions, like paintings by Romantic European artists, while looking at the industrial landscapes around me. I’m interested in examining where I had worked: Oil Sands, railroad, or where my ancestors and community had worked; iron ore mining, cement production, and then reflecting on the ruined remains of these places. My subjects are personal and about my lived experiences.
AD: You did a lot of works in paint, as well as some drawing installation work. What brought about that shift?
GC: Twenty years ago, I did a site-specific installation in a rented house, called Attic. I wanted to leave my mark as a response to some life changes. I was tapping into what I would do as a kid—finding industrial ruins, taking charred sticks to the walls and making pictures. I was doing that in the early 2000s, and more recently I’ve been revisiting that and thinking about immediacy and working on harder surfaces, like MDF or plywood. Spontaneity is important to me. I don’t have to plan as much as with painting. I may return to painting, but I like the immediacy of drawing and being able to express myself quickly. Drawing represents the trace of my presence—it’s spontaneous and personal.
AD: What are your current interests, and what are you working on?
GC: My interests are related to family, community, and the passage of time. I have an idea that has to do with a site in Toronto where my maternal grandmother grew up. The place was originally called the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, located at 999 Queen St. West. My great grandfather was the groundskeeper. It was deconstructed in the 1970s, replaced by CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental health.
The asylum, built in the 1850s had a tall brick wall surrounding it. All that remains from the original site is a section of the brick wall. My great grandfather photographed a lot of the family in the grounds. I’m thinking about doing something with these photographs and calling it Figure Ground—separating the figures from the grounds digitally, and rearranging things. On the drawing end of things, I’m continuing with imagery from Ontario.
My ancestors came up from New York and New Jersey in 1784 following the first wave of Mohawk Loyalist refugees to this area. I’ve been taking pictures and doing drawings of local landscapes and also of artifacts I’m finding in local museums. I’m thinking about how the world has changed since 1784 and how things have evolved.
AD: Do you find that teaching and your time at the Beaverbrook had an impact on your artwork?
GC: At the Beaverbrook, I met and worked with many artists that kept me inspired. My painting Attic, presently on display at Gallery on Queen, was inspired by an artist who handed to me a 1950s booklet titled Collectors and Collecting, Art Treasures of the World, to aid me in a salon hang she wanted to do. I was inspired by the Panini painting on the booklet cover, and replicated a portion of it in my installation, Attic. I later learned that W.G. Constable, the author of the booklet and a Boston Art Museum curator, was instrumental in putting together the original Beaverbrook collection. My Attic painting was shown at the Beaverbrook in 2007, and that makes for an interesting connection.
AD: Earlier this year you had a book published on your works. Can you tell me a little about it?
GC: I was asked by William Forrestall, a professor at St. Thomas University, to produce an art book with his class. William, the students, and I worked collaboratively designing the narrative and the book. The title is Traces: Perspectives on the Past, The Art of Greg Charlton, published by Zeno-Optic.
AD: Where can your works be found?
GC: They can be found at Gallery on Queen, in Fredericton, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Canada Council Art Bank, the NB Art Bank, and the UNB art collection.