Gabrielle de Montmollin     Interview with Tomas   

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Art is Hell.com

In the Spring of 2002 I received an email from Tomas Mrazauskas from Lithuania who explained that he was a member of a monthly pop culture magazine called ORE. He asked if he could interview me (by email) for an upcoming issue ... and this was the result.

do you remember your first push of a camera button? first photo?

I wish I did but I have to say I don’t. I know I had a camera as a child, my father let me use his Brownie camera. I remember spending time in the darkroom at my high school but when I became interested in photography again as an adult I couldn’t remember anything I had learnt before and none of the photos I took as a child have survived. So I don’t see my earliest experiences with photography as being very important.

My inspiration as a photographer often comes from painting and other visual arts and I think that learning about art when I was young was more important – my mother loved the arts and she used to take me around to art galleries on Saturday mornings, and I had a very good art teacher in high school who taught us that in order to draw you had to be able to see …

The first camera I bought (in 1985) was a Pentax K1000 and I still use it. I thought I would buy a simple camera and use it until I understood everything about it and then buy something more advanced, but I never have. I have turned out to be a very ‘low tech’ photographer, not interested in fancy equipment.


so, how did you become an artist? what was your way, your first steps? personal teachers, studies, universities etc?

It took me a long time to become an artist or to think of myself as an artist. First I became a photographer and even that didn’t happen until I was in my early 30s, so it was a complicated journey and it still is.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be an artist, but I think it was a kind of romantic dream and I didn’t really know what it meant. More than anything I wanted to go to art school but I didn’t have an obvious talent for art, I couldn’t draw well or paint or sculpt and I didn’t have enough passion or the knowledge that you need passion in life to do what you want. So I did other things – I worked as a secretary and then in a factory, I studied political science, I wanted to be a journalist, I got a job in television and began making short films with a group of friends … and slowly I realized that what I desired was to create something but also I wanted to work by myself, not with a group of people, so I moved from film, which I found fascinating, to photography.

Although I didn’t plan it that way. I started taking courses in photography because I thought it would help me as a filmmaker but then I got caught up in making photographs and I never made films again. I didn’t really know anything about photography when I started, especially about the history of it as an art and what other people have done. I have had to learn most of it myself. Apart from one summer when I took courses full time at the art college I didn’t go to university to learn photography so in a lot of ways I am self taught.


do you remember when you thought 'OK I'll be artist'? and were there any uncommon reactions from your parents or friends when you said 'I'm going to be an artist'?

From thinking of myself as a photographer to thinking of myself as an artist that happened after I started doing photography which wasn’t ‘straight’ photography, once I started using toys and dolls and making sets for them. And now that I have been drawing and painting on paper negatives … I know that I am an artist!

Most of my friends are people who are creative or artists themselves (my husband is an artist) so they don’t think it is unusual to be an artist but for my family it is harder to see me that way since I have been through so many changes but the word ‘artist’ isn’t so important, as long as I know who I am and what I am doing.


I've read the text in your site, your thoughts about the works, and I've found a lot of philosophy there, so your work description is: 1. Philosophy 2. expression? I mean, when you are taking the pictures you are more thinking or more feeling? how? why? and so on....

When I write something about my work like the statements on the web site I always do it after I have finished the work. Sometimes the statements are based on things that other people have said while looking at the work. I don’t write about my work easily and I hate to do it. So I am not thinking about ideas while I am making the photographs. I have tried to do that but it doesn’t work for me. I need to be able to let my imagination fly and trying to express specific ideas seems to tie it down. But of course I have thoughts about what I am doing but I never want those ideas to be too obvious, again I want my images to appeal to the imagination of the viewer and I find that if there is an obvious message then people never go any further than that. I don't want my photographs to be political or social commentary. That is also why I don't give my photographs titles, I want the viewer to find their own meaning in them and if there is a title then they only think about what my meaning is.

As to what I am thinking when I am taking the photographs ... even I don't really know! Mostly I am thinking about practical things, about lighting and the dynamic of the image (composition), about how peoples' eyes will move through the image, about where the eyes of the dolls are looking (very important) and how to create the illusion of movement. On the wall in my studio I have a reproduction of a Vermeer painting to remind me about depth and different picture planes and perspective. The other things I am thinking about are going on underneath this and I am not very aware of them except sometimes I laugh at what I am doing, either because it seems a bit ridiculous to be playing with dolls but mostly because I think the scenes I am creating are funny.


why 'art is hell'?

It was a joke, we were trying to think of a domain name and I said it should be "good art" or "art is good" as opposed to bad art which I thought there was a lot of on the internet and Tony said 'art is hell" and we thought that was fun. Also, it is easy to remember ...


could you tell me more about your husband?

Tony Calzetta (you can see his work on the other half of the Art is Hell web site), he is a wonderful artist, probably not known as well as he should be because he doesn't fit into any kind of grouping, his work is very unusual, very individualistic. We have been together for 10 years and we encourage each other as artists. Two artists together is a bad financial combination, we never have enough money, but it is wonderful to be with someone who understands the difficulties and the discouragements and the successes too. Of course the art we each do is very different from what the other does, we work in different media and I know nothing about colour and painting and Tony knows very little about photography, but we both allow our art to be funny at times and there aren't many artists who do that so that is a good bond between us.


about the reproduction on your studio wall, is it ‘Girl with Pearl Earring’? the look of girl is like the look of one doll in your photos. Am I right about that?

the Vermeer reproduction in my studio is "the Music Lesson" but you are right - I used the face from "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in one of the photos from the series "Carnevale at the Hotel of the Bridge of Sighs." [image]


and then Tomas asked me to write a description of what it would be like to come to my apartment and go into the studio and if there was a special object in my studio …

The street I live on in Toronto is called the Danforth and it is a very wide street with lots of traffic and shops. It is known as Greektown because there are many Greek restaurants on it. We live upstairs from a restaurant but it isn’t Greek, it’s an Irish American bar called Allen’s. In summer, people sit outside on the terrace and often they are people we know so we have a busy social life coming in and out of our door. Even though I live in a city I feel I am part of a village.

The apartment is on the 3rd floor American style, (2nd floor Europe style), two long straight flights of stairs up. When you come in the door, straight ahead is the bedroom, living room, dining room and kitchen, there are paintings and photographs hanging on every available inch of wall and also some wonderful African masks … but if you turn to the right you go down a long hall past the darkroom and the laundry to the studio. There are 16 of my newest photographs hanging on one wall like in a gallery, on the other side is a storage area, a big mess of paintings, filing cabinets, an old photocopy machine and a staircase up to the roof. The studios are in the front of the building with windows on the street. On Tony’s side there is a long wall where he can stretch large pieces of paper or canvas, in front of the window he has carts with pots of paint and boxes full of pastel and charcoal and other supplies that I like to ‘borrow’.

My studio is in the corner with a big table in the centre and bookcases on all sides. On the bookcases… books, of course, but also hundreds of small dolls and toys and boxes and boxes of things that I might use or need one day. It may look messy but it is really very organized, at least in my own mind. I don’t have much photo equipment - three 35 mm cameras, a few light stands and flashes … and a big box that our television came in that I painted white inside and use to shoot my ‘stories’ in. There is a radio and a CD player, and I have a beautiful old wooden chair that I inherited from my mother, it came from my great-grandmother’s house in Switzerland – it sits in the middle of the dirt and the mess, and the studio gets very messy when I am working, and outside my window there is the frantic, sometimes crazy, street life, but the chair always looks beautiful with its simple elegant lines and I love to be able to sit in it and think and work.