Stephen was gracious enough to allow Star Portraits into his studio for a second interview. We delve further into Stephen’s history... which involved fictional fraternities and societies.
SP: How did you become interested in art?
SA: I started becoming interested in [art] when I was a little kid, growing up in Toronto. When I was 9, I would hang out at Games Workshop on Queen Street, painting miniatures. I guess I wasn't into drawing at first--it was my sister who copied images out of comic books and adaptations of The Hobbit. I was so jealous. I could not believe that she could do that - and it kind of made me obsess with trying to be as good as my older sister.
SP: Is your older sister still involved in art?
SA: No, not at all, it was a passing thing - for me it became everything. I was a terrible student and didn't learn how to read until grade 3 or 4 because I was just not interested. By virtue of me being so bad at everything else, I became obsessed with being good at [art]. The only thing I was good at was penmanship; that’s where I would get good marks. Always got an “A” in penmanship, so, that was encouraging. You know when you are encouraged by something you just want to stick to it. I then went to a high school where they actually had a life drawing class. I was able to do classical life drawings in grade 10, and then I was like, “I will do this forever.”
SP: Did your high school have an emphasis on the arts?
SA: It was not an 'arts' high school by any means, it just happened to have a secret studio where you draw nudes.
SP: What happened after high school?
SA: After high school I went to Sheridan (College). That's where I met the guys from Team Macho. I wanted to go to Sheridan because I was afraid that if I went to OCAD it would be too “frou- frou, nilly-nilly” and no one would ever hold you up to a standard. I thought it was, “Do whatever and if it's expressive and you back it up with an essay, it's art.” I ran because I wanted to cultivate some hardcore draftsmanship; I wanted to be able to draw - I don't know why.
SP: Do you believe fundamental art skills are essential?
SA: For me, that's what I wanted and Sheridan had an incredible reputation and that's why I went there; however, it didn't live up to its reputation. I kind of went there with this huge expectation, with this wonderland of committed, dedicated, hardcore drawers and painters. It wasn't that at all and it made me feel more serious about it. I then met these guys Team Macho and we started hanging out. At some point, we started living together in Oakville as a social support group, and then we started a fraternity. We realized that we needed a sort of fake history and the ties that bind. We started making up all this mythology to support ourselves, drinking songs, and whatever we needed to stay engaged in such a hollow wasteland - culturally.
SP: Were your friends a big influence on you?
SA: Absolutely. I had nothing. I had no concrete notion of what I was going to do aesthetically or what I was interested in for more than a brief period of time. It was so fast (snapping fingers). What am I going to be? What is my style? What's my this? What's my that? Then we started hanging out, playing with everything. We didn't need a style, we just needed someone to banter to, to play off, to respond to, and to respond to us. It was beautiful - that's where Team Macho came from. We got out of the illustration school and it was like, "What's your style? How are you going to market yourself? How boring are you prepared to be in order to get work?" We (Team Macho) were like “What are we going to do?” Team Macho evolved from the fraternity we started. It became this secret base for whatever we wanted to do anonymously. We could draw this way, or that way, and no one could be like, “Oh you do this,” or “You do that,” because no one knew. We kept it ambiguous - still had time to grow, learn and play. We didn't have to accept that sort of attitude of, "You've got to be this as soon as you leave school,” so that was useful.
SP: Do you think going to school in Oakville helped you?
SA: For me, I definitely think it worked out. You had to do that stuff (fake fraternity), it was so mono-focused, and there was nothing to distract you. What are your options?... Pub night or hanging out with your close friends, making fun of each other and making up your own scene. It was very nerdy, it was not cool, but it was the best thing ever for us.
SP: Did making up your own methodology help with your art?
SA: It's huge for me right now, because I am so into mythologies - personal and societal mythologies that support culture. That's where mythology comes from and what we call Mythology now used to be a belief system. It's very important.
SP: What year did Team Macho start?
SA: Team Macho came about the last year we were in school - 2004. Before Team Macho, we were already working, collaborating together on zines and stuff like that. We didn’t want to make a mailer or business card. We wanted to make something else. Lauchy and I started writing stories, illustrating them, and selling them at small press book fairs. We would spend all night at Kinkos' making copies. This worked really well and we got it (zines) out around the city. People were buying it, loving it. This sounds really self-congratulatory, but it's true. At one point, our zine was the best selling book at Pages for a month. It was crazy...it was right on.
It was on the counter at Pages and called Mommy Concerns. Every week they (Pages) were like, “How many more copies do you have?” We would make them. Team Macho happened. Our zines were already in places like Magic Pony. Magic Pony was moving so their space was free and they asked us to throw up a show. This is before they (Magic Pony) were really ever considering themselves any kind of art gallery. They were just a toy store that had progressed from an online order/design objects kind of thing.
Love this stuff. It's so unintentional - form follows function.
SP: How important are zines to you?
Everything - they are everything. Zines are so important. I can trace everything back to them, our interests and even our attitudes. Then it was, "We've got to be different, we've got to cut our own paper...there has to be something aesthetically cohesive about it.” This is our thing now, too; the same concerns on a bigger level, a sustainable level. We needed to feel like we were doing something and we weren't excited about any of the options we were told about. Our options were mail-order or business cards – it was so exhaustingly boring. They are not wrong, but those are good options for an actual trackable career path; the kind of stuff I never see anyone do the same way twice. The most important thing was the perception it brought: "I can do it for myself, I don't have to wait for a publisher, I can publish something totally decent right now - with whomever - and control it,” which can also be bad. But, it's important to realize that you have that capacity.
Stephen's portrait of David Suzuki
Stephen Appleby-Barr is a painter and illustrator working in Toronto. He is a graduate of Sheridan College’s illustration program. Documenting fictional fraternities and societies, Appleby-Barr's work explores archiving and preservation.
Stephen Appleby-Barr is represented by Nicholas Metivier Gallery