The universality of art, its ability to breakdown barriers while challenging your worldview, is what makes art transcend most stigmas and labels. While many artists have struggled with poverty and mental health issues, we tend to centre the discussion around the art itself – the subject, particularly in classic works, is generally a paid commission leaving most creativity to the process and not the portrayal of the subject itself.
Emily Spanton (ES): I really liked where our conversation was going regarding the historical creation of busts and the privileged tenet we have for the subject. In their personal lives, many great patrons of the arts are politically conservatives but we don’t often see that reflected in policy – nor do we hear about the humanity of those who struggle with stable housing.
Mike Britton (MB): And that is where our conversation stemmed from. At first glance, one could be forgiven thinking these were ancient Roman busts, which is what interested me when I first saw advertising for the exhibit online. Of course the medium is the same – white marble statues – but the content: the beards and deeply worn expressions are reminiscent of the Roman Republic Era when it was considered ‘virtuous’ to show physical imperfections as an expression of their ‘hard life’ unconcerned with vanity.
ES: We now know Bevan Ramsay chose a Baroque style, often characterized by highly ornate and extravagant works, to portray real people who are experiencing homelessness. Do you think he achieved that dichotomy?
MB: The people portrayed interested me and it was not the similarity but the stark difference from ancient times that I noticed. In ancient times, only the most elites had busts. In fact, the first sculptures were of their gods. But this exhibit was of those who physically have the least – the homeless – and now they are immortalized in a way that typically was reserved for the elites. The Lesser Gods.
ES: Exactly! I honestly found the contrast between the subject and the medium to be highly effective at illustrating the disparities between our concept of what is “high art” and the current state of social injustice by transcending assumptions.
MB: You’re right, art does transcend most stigmas and labels. Most people who know my background know my main degree at university was Medical Science, but I also have a major in Classical Studies and took a few ancient art history courses as a part of that.
ES: Much of what we know about anatomy comes from the work of artists including Da Vinci; art and science aren’t antithesis. Just as there is a correlation between creativity and mental illness, creativity and drug use, and the maxim of the starving artist. For me, that is part of beauty of this installation – that an artist can be only one commission away from homelessness and perhaps these faces, these beautiful souls, reflect more of the artist than the obvious comment on humanity in modern society.
Do you see the work as an art exhibit or a forum for social justice?
MB: I came to see an art exhibit, but after talking with the artist and getting up close to the statues – looking in there eyes – it makes you think of a lot more than just art.
You can read Emily Spanton’s ongoing coverage of the opioid crisis here, and read Bart Gazzola’s conversation with Bevan Ramsay here. Mike Britton is the St. Catharines City Councillor for St. George’s Ward.