Luke Ramsey’s multidisciplinary art practice is all about collaboration—with other artists, and with viewers.
VICTORIA ARTIST LUKE RAMSEY creates pen-and-ink drawings that are whimsical, melancholy, eccentric, orderly, complex, straightforward, humorous, sober, hopeful, dark, friendly, and strange—sometimes all at once. As the eye follows his mark’s labyrinthine journey around the page, one finds unexpected motifs that give pause—guns worked into what looks like a peaceful forest scene, for instance. Other drawings are more loosely composed, but a wriggling, effusive energy remains. Meaning is elusive, but larger, overarching suggestions are implied, and personal interpretations invited. “The message is there for the people who are going to look for it, and find it, and have that ‘aha’ moment,” says Ramsey.
“Organized chaos” or a “tidy mess” is how he has described his work, whether it be ink on paper, or writ large on the side of a building. Alone and in collaboration with others, Ramsey has created public murals across Canada and in Europe, among them “Transition” with Josh Holinaty. Located on the John Howard Society building in Edmonton, the work won an award of excellence from the City and a National Urban Design Medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.
“Fuel and Empathy” is a recent local mural located on Cormorant Street between Blanshard and Quadra, a gathering place for addicts. Integrating the pre-existing graffiti into this bright, appealing landscape lends it a particular poignancy, acknowledging its past as it injects hope into this fraught public space. In his statement about it, he notes how the area was considered an eyesore, adding, “I wanted to look beyond the wall’s surface and consider the story behind it, to work with the texture and subtly preserve it.…To find beauty in its ugliness, to re-contextualize the graffiti like a collage into the work. This wall has a connection to people and place, and these are ingredients to beauty and colour.”
He admits he himself “dabbled in tags and stencils” in his youth, but realized it was “better to open doors by not tagging on them.” Still, street-art remains an important influence on all of his work. “A lot of it is influenced by growing up in the punk-rock community in Victoria, being in bands, going to shows.” Ramsey was inspired by the “do-it-yourself attitude” of that scene. “You want to put out a magazine, you just do it yourself. You want to start a band, you talk to your friends and you just do it.” While in high school, he was in the punk band Shrunken Heads, and still “messes around with music.”
Ramsey was born in High Wickham outside London in 1979, the oldest of four children. When he was about eight years old, his family moved to Toronto, then travelled around, finally settling in Victoria. “I know I got a lot of my entrepreneurial sensibilities from being around my dad,” he says, and gives credit to that influence for gaining him illustration and mural clients like Emily Carr University, Mountain Equipment CO-OP, Patagonia, The New York Times, WIRED, and The BC Children’s Hospital, among others.
He might have inherited the travelling bug from his father as well. Right after he graduated from high school in 1997, he hitchhiked across Canada. Sketchbook always at hand, he then travelled with his now-wife through the Mediterranean, Morocco and Turkey. Southeast Asia followed, where he taught English in Taiwan while travelling to nearby countries.
“My art education was going to museums and galleries in Europe and taking all that in, and then living in Taiwan really impacted my art in a huge way,” Ramsey reflects. “There is just an abundance of drawings and cartoons in the signage over there, and in pop culture and everyday life, so it got me thinking differently about art and pursuing a career in art.” His first mural is still on a toy store wall in Taiwan.
For the most part, Ramsey’s drawings begin intuitively. “I just go to the paper and see what happens,” he says. “I have a toolbox of shapes and lines that I pull from, but I don’t really have an idea of where it’s going to end up…and there are these surprises that happen.” With a drawing, Ramsey says, “I am making mistakes constantly, but that’s really good for me, because it forces me to accept that thing that I did, and make it work.” In an essay he wrote some years ago, Ramsey quoted Albert Camus as having said, “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.”
Painting, however, is “totally different, because I am stepping back and planning and taking my time,” he says. The medium is relatively new territory for Ramsey, having taken it up in just the last few years. He spent the spring working on a series for his upcoming exhibition at Madrona Gallery. The palette and imagery are similar to those of the Cormorant Street mural: Orca motifs are plentiful, and sloping islands bask under blue turquoise skies dappled with Calder-esque clouds.
In several paintings, forms (hills, orcas) are dissected to show a teeming energy within, a complexity beneath the simplicity of colour and form. “It’s alluding to this vibration, this core of the Earth; this beating heart that is the centre of the Earth, the centre of living things, the centre of us,” Ramsey explains.
“Us” is an important notion to Ramsey, and he encourages it in the exchange between work and viewer. When he published his illustrated book Intelligent Sentient? in 2015, he deliberately left out the narrative he had written for it. Though it was about his personal ideas, “I didn’t want people to get fixed on those words; I wanted people to create their own interpretation of it,” he says.
It’s this spirit of non-fixed interpretation that also feeds his desire and ability to join forces with other artists. He has engaged in collaborations from Hong Kong to Cape Dorset—over 100 of them so far—and given workshops for youth in Haida Gwaii, Powell River and Victoria.
Ever-shifting perceptions of the world, and everything in it, fuel Ramsey’s creativity. Turning a basic, familiar object on its head suddenly transforms it into something equally recognizeable, and yet totally different. Demonstrating this simple truth in his image-making carries a lot of meaning for him.
“I think that’s really important in life, to not just see things as one stuck way—even the simplest of things,” he offers. “That is the problem with war and hate… Sometimes you have to just step outside yourself and try to see the other person’s perspective in some way. Maybe not agree with it, but just try and see where they are coming from a little bit more.”
Ramsey is a natural fit for his current position as 2017’s Artist in Residence for the City of Victoria, where he will be working with various City departments, running workshops and collaborating with different groups. Ultimately, all this exchange will result in at least one original piece of public art for the City. Given Ramsey’s approach, it will likely engage the viewer in such a way that we also become partners in a collaborative process which urges us to think when we play, and play when we think.
Luke Ramsey’s exhibition of drawings and paintings will be at Madrona Gallery June 8 to 22. 606 View Street, 250-380-4660, www.madronagallery.com. Find out more about the City of Victoria Artist in Residence Program at www.victoria.ca and find Luke Ramsey online at www.lukeramseystudio.com.
Aaren Madden lives near the Trackside Gallery, where Luke Ramsey honed his street-art skills. She laments the deterioration of the programs there and vibrant, youth-created murals that once graced its exterior walls.
Now watch Luke Ramsey draw: