In conversation: Jon Shaw and Transfigurement

I first met Jon Shaw at a past Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations. Since then we’ve spoken frequently about his work, especially the body of work that he’s been focusing on this past year. His images of the demolition of the St. Catharines Hospital have been engaging, and I’ve also visited the site with him on one occasion. When he told me that he’d be showing several of these works in a show titled Tranfigurement at the Niagara Artists Centre, I suggested we meet in the space and talk about the images and ideas that have informed this project, or more exactly, this first iteration of what may be an ongoing series of images of what is – and has been – a contested site of social and local history, for many, here in Niagara. 

His statement about the work is as follows: ‘Jon Shaw’s current work documents the devolution of the former General Hospital on Queenston Street. Comprised of illustrative ink and acrylic paintings on wood, based on photographs captured every week since January, these pieces memorialize the ongoing transformations both inside and out. Documenting the hospital’s external metamorphosis is incredibly time-sensitive. Unique arrangements of intertwined detritus, sitting eerily still at the end of each day, reside as temporary additions to the urban landscape. They are present one day but gone the next. Memorializing the ever-changing visage is essential. As excavators peel back layers of crumbly brick and sinewy metal, an internal ecosystem is also revealed to street-level pedestrians. Graffiti, mangled equipment and re-purposed interiors are the result of years of abandonment. Hidden from public view, rooms and hallways were transformed by looters and uninvited guests, the results of which are only now discovered as the structure is slowly torn apart.’

This is an edited transcript of our conversation. My gratitude to Jon for making the time to speak with me about his art work.  

Jon Shaw, Endoderm, 2019.

Bart Gazzola: So, tell me a little bit about when you started the whole process. I know you’d driven by it [the Hospital demolition site] a number of times, and you’re always on the look out for interesting urban spaces. But at what point – or was there actually a cognitive point or was it more organic – where you decided you had to visit repeatedly, and this is something that could turn into an entire series? 

Jon Shaw: Well, in terms of what I was doing before, with my ‘West Coast’ work, I was interested in cool, busy, cluttered urban environments but they were based around how that flows into my daily routine. For example, my studio was in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver surrounded by those gritty alley ways that became the information for those works because I’d be passing through it, or working in that environment. And so what happened was, that with the whole ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ routine that happened with my returning to St. Catharines and where I was going, everyday, this [the Hospital demolition] was along that daily route. So it was very observational on an almost daily basis, so I didn’t necessarily go looking for it. It kind of presented itself. Which seemed – no so much universal, but….

BG: Well, it’s just so much more immediate. 

JS: Hard to ignore, a very obvious sort of thing. 

BG: There’s also that intuitive element, as well. That’s interesting, because the way you work formally also has an intuitive nature. That makes sense when you’re talking about how you respond to your immediate world and experiences. It’s something we’ve discussed before, about being responsive to the environment around you. 

JS: Aesthetically too, there’s that kind of crumbly decay look that I’m always after, that you can see in the alley works, too. But I also quickly realized that there’s going to be a progression of the site: that got me thinking about how it’s going to be going on for months, and you can actually document a change. So that really flared up and presented itself, with the Hospital. 

BG: The Hospital is also one of those places and spaces, in terms of a metaphor, in responding to a wider space, that’s a wider relevant space with intersecting stories in the city of St. Catharines. It’s very prevalent right now: you can’t not see images of the demolition, either in the social media sphere or even in print, but I feel that a lot of them have come to it late compared to what you’re doing. They’ve also come to it superficially. In terms of your show, what you’re displaying here at NAC: people will recognize it if they’re familiar with it, but you’re not using the obvious ‘gate’ image which has been done to death – no pun intended. This allows your images to exist in a ‘larger’ way. 

You and I have talked about our shared experience of leaving St. Catharines and then coming back to St. Catharines for familial reasons: that’s an aspect of your show that is interesting for a personal narrative too.  

JS: Yeah, exactly. The notion of medical concerns, and how that relates to my purpose in returning to St. Catharines, with family mental health issues, so it becomes metaphorical on a personal level. Visuals and aesthetics are one thing and that more personal stance of what this represents, that notion of where I’m going when I drive past it every day to visit my mother and how that brought me back here to Niagara is a subtext, or perhaps more, for sure.  

Jon Shaw, Cavity, 2019.

BG: It becomes a personal metaphor. Seeing this work, I’m reminded how – not so much anymore, since my father’s passing this past year  – I was really quite familiar with some medical services in Niagara because of that, over the last few years. You see things or knows thing that you might not, otherwise, and see things in different ways because of that experience. It’s always that sense of intersecting narratives: and that makes sense for the Hospital. You were born there, yeah?

JS: Yes. 

BG: That’s also where it becomes a memento mori. It seems like the demolition was a long process but it also seems to have just stopped. Never mind the arch, which is still there, but even the last bit of building is still there, so people can come and visit it. People have been visiting it constantly, day and night, since they began tearing it down. 

JS: Like a memorial site. 

BG: Yeah, like a graveyard. It’s one of those things with Hospitals, in that we think of people being born there, and many people have shared that online or in reminiscing, but of course many people died there, as well. But that’s something else. 

JS: It’s a space of death and rebirth and regeneration.

BG: Is anything going to happen with the site, when the demolition is done? 

JS: So far as I know, it’s just going to be residential. I think that’s what will happen to that archway door  that is being preserved right now. It’s going to be incorporated into new housing.

BG: Oh, they’re going to build there, not just relocate that detail?

JS: I’m not sure; everyone keeps saying its going to be integrated into the new building, and they might have to relocate it somehow anyway, even if they’re building there. But I don’t really know what the plan is, right now. 

BG: So much seems up in the air, right now, or isn’t clear about that space. There was even some confusion about the demolition and the delay and a sense of people not really knowing what was going on. With such a symbolic space, people do get concerned about that….tell me a little bit about your process in making these works, from the moment of taking the photo. You were visiting the space constantly, I know – I came along with you on one occasion, I remember.

JS: I still am, actually. I should note that this is ongoing: even though these works are finished, this is just one part, or even the first part, in a way. So, the project started nearly a year ago, in January: I began visiting once a week – which I continue to do – and I’ve gone roughly forty times so far. I do a photo shoot, usually spending about twenty minutes on site: all documentation or reference. Taking as many as I can, from various angles while walking around the property, sometimes shooting some from the street too, from the back, some from the sides. As the buildings change and evolve you get some that are more interesting on certain days, and others that are looking flat and stagnant, and that really dictates where your shots are coming from, which is neat. It’s very responsive, and I’ve found you have to take the shot then, as when demolition was ongoing, it might all be gone the next day. 

So, sifting through photographs is next, you edit them, you pick out your favourite ones and then I begin with an ink drawing to start the painted works. It’s almost a technical drawing, very realistic and very much holds the representation of the scene. Then the painting process is where the spontaneity comes in: there’s no overt planning, no predetermined colour scheme. I begin with one colour in a flat wash, and then one colour informs the next which informs new line work and that new line work then informs new paint marks. It’s a back and forth, like a conversation between layers: one layer can’t exist without the previous and it needs to be present to inform the next. In that regard, you have this blend of a very representational style drawing with loose, spontaneous painting which then all pulls together in the end with connective layering. 

Some parts become very generous, with just puddles of liquid paint and others are little tiny details picked out here and there. I[m building it up until I feel like it’s complete. The final additions are the little graffiti marks. This is such an important component because this building was abandoned for six years before demolition actually began. There was all this activity happening inside that people didn’t see, and that most people probably didn’t know about – I mean, it was suspected [that there were squatters in the structure]. But you’re really just ripping open this environment – its almost like an ecosystem itself – you’re seeing these interior structures and then they begin to interact with the exterior. So, you see that remnant of human presence whether in destructive spaces or graffiti on the walls and how that interacts with what the excavators are doing outside. So, you have this engagement between interior and exterior and how that intertwines becomes really fascinating in that aesthetic. That often informs the cropping and editing of the original source photo that then manifests in the painting. 

Jon Shaw, Ligament, 2019.

BG: When you and I have talked about the photos and the paintings before, there’s an autopsy, or a cadaverous flavour to it, where you engaged with showing the inner workings – like showing the innards. Several of the images are very detailed and much more varied in colour and are like seeing the intestines, the guts. Then you’ll have moments in these painted scenes where there’s calmer visual space. Some of the graffiti – like where it says ‘dead end’ here or ‘don’t go down’ or the tiny teddy bears you’ve included, that were actually there, not an artistic embellishment – is very humanizing. 

But there’s also an allusion to medical illustration in what you’re presenting here at NAC. You’re exposing things, here, and these buildings have been gutted and we’re seeing that depicted, but there’s other spaces where it’s less visually active, and less is happening. But when we’ve chatted about your work, I also must admit that I’ve been making suggestions for titles that are very bodily, or just responded to some (in progress) with words like ‘abscess’ or ‘lungs.’ The manner in which certain components in the image hang and the way certain elements are presented in your paintings is very bodily, very corporeal.

 A hospital is something that is very important to a community – in its history but also as a place that is essential. In some ways ripping it open is a level of exposure than is almost disrespectful or disconcerting, like how we think about exposing the dead, or other bodily parts, too.  

When you were talking about the graffiti and people living within the abandoned space, it’s a form of social history. It’s a variation on people saying that they were born there, or this or that happened there. The social history of the toys – the teddy bears that were left and you found at the site when you visited – is also about less formal, or less official social histories of the Hospital. 

JS: I want to go back to the body metaphor, which I think is pretty appropriate when you’re talking about the Hospital: I think of surgeries, or the morgue and larger issues of life and death. But when you compare that concept of the body to these images you can break it down into things such as how these hanging rebars are like veins, or another image hints at a bare skeleton, or another has shapes that mimic musculature. It reminds me of those X Rays of the body or cross sections that go from the outer layer of skin to the muscular structure to the nervous system, veins, all these various layers. These paintings really kind of pull in and have us looking at that, as another visual metaphor at play. Some of it’s very specific, such as how this one part looks like connective tissue – which is why this piece is titled “Ligament” – whereas this piece, titled “Cavity” is torn open, splayed out, so you’re seeing what’s exposed, almost violently. Like it’s nudity. 

BG: This piece – “Cavity” – has less space for the eye to rest, to me, so it is – as you say – as though someone has opened up a chest cavity. There’s other subtle elements as well. Some of the paint reads as stains, on other paintings, or read as a bodily fluid with their running drips and liquid looseness. 

Even some of them, in terms of their colour: the yellow and the red in “Ectoderm” is, to me, all about blood and plasma. Some of the other images, when they’re cooler, in terms of colour read as more distant and cold in a more diagnostic manner. But even then you see these subtle things that do mimic, or reference, bodily forms and have that allusion, that play, back and forth. On a totally different topic, the mark making and the industrial ruins remind me of some of Ted McKeever’s artwork, especially from his series Industrial Gothic. The way he rendered things with minimal line comes to mind, here. 

JS: I like, when I’m looking closely at some of these, that the duct and the air pipes are like an internal, intestinal structure. These are arteries, or symbolic of arteries. Part of the inner workings of the systems that now are just broken down and torn open, exposed and revealed. 

Jon Shaw, Ectoderm, 2019.

BG: If you continue the metaphor of the Hospital as cadaver, or corpse, or a dissected body – as in the piece you’ve titled “Ligament” but that it could also be excised lungs, too – or another that is more immediate, more vibrantly or violently colourful, with the way the reds and blues collide, this piece makes me think of tumours. With many of these, that is definitely there: even several, with colder greens or purples, bring to mind medical images when something has been removed, or cut out of the body. Many organs lose that red we assume is ‘natural’ bodily colour, and are more purple or blue when the blood is drained in an autopsy. 

JS: It’s like rigour mortis, especially this very orange piece, “Dead End” – that’s from an image much earlier than the others, a few months earlier – which shows a different transition of the demolition, but is also like a further decomposition. 

BG: You do get that sense of it, and with some of them – where you’re doing details, so we’re up close to it, as opposed to a more landscape composition – you’re being shown something more specific or more important, more vital, even, like a vital organ. One of the works being titled “Lesion” is interesting, too, as that’s something that applies to nearly all the works on display here, formally in colour and composition. But this is also an allusion to the bodily history of the Hospital. 

JS: Some of the earlier works are named more so in terms of place, but just like how the progression of the Hospital demolition changed what I’m doing, some ideas became more obvious, like the body references, as the work progressed, too. 

BG: Even some of the very warm, theoretically welcoming colours, still just make the demolished portraits of the Hospital seem like medical slides, or illustrations. Perhaps, with some of the works – like the one with a strong yellow tone – there’s that idea of jaundice or cirrhosis that is insinuated. 

Because of the nature of the subject, in the Hospital, and its multifaceted relevance in the social history of St. Catharines, or in general, it allows for a lot of interpolation or interpretation of the works along different lines. 

JS: When you’re talking about the yellow, I’m reminded of images I’ve seen of human fat, that is similar to the tones and colours here. Lumpy, yellowish, sort of tissue. 

BG: Even in the older works of yours I’ve seen, in the alley ways, there’s a very organic aspect. Influences we talked about then, from Studio Ghibli or Anime where the lines are almost in-motion, and almost alive, are still present here. With those, it was more about the life and the activity, within the spaces, it was the form fitting the concept, with very active line making. 

Here, with the detail and the colour these works are portraits of the Hospital. But they’re also posthumous portraits, and again, memento mori. Further these are buildings or spaces that are not there anymore (except maybe that gate that’s so prevalent and will be relocated, perhaps, and become something else to someone else). 

The original buildings will cease to exist, or are already gone, and paintings are even more treacherous in terms of memory than photographs. You’re doing a much more rigorous examination of the site that will live on in painted form long after its only memory.  

Jon Shaw, Lesion, 2019.

JS: The smaller prints, that are separate from the larger paintings, are also there to fill in the gaps, as there’s so many images and so many potential renderings of the Hospital. These smaller ones [all installed on one wall, all much smaller than the painted works] offer a few more views and experiences of the Hospital. I could literally keep doing this for five years and not run out of material, so this is adding a little more to that story, of different angles and how the site sometimes changed from day to day. It offers a wider experience of what was happening at the Hospital. This one is very recent, from two months ago, whereas this one is from nine months ago. I did include one of the gate, which is a subtle nod to something that I think is going to become an icon in local history, if not so already. It’s a neat way to have it here, but the larger works are deeper, and the smaller images are still somewhat surface level in their execution. 

BG: Sometimes, when we talk about icons – as we’ve seen with the Burgoyne Bridge – they begin as positive ones, and then events change that interpretation, and it’s no longer such a positive icon, but more of a warning. Some people have spoken, online in social media spaces, that its an icon of how St. Catharines loses a Hospital, something of massive historical and social relevance, and perhaps all that will be there is more moneyed, or exclusive housing. With how you’re designating these smaller pieces as filling in a space, with the idea of a visual portrait of the Hospital, the larger works offer more detail, and thus can be layered or offer more impressions. Through these smaller images you explore and decide what scenes need more examination and more consideration and need to be rendered in a more intense way. So, again, if you speak of this as documenting your day to day experience or environment,  your interactions indicate that some scenes, some shots, require different formats. Different level of attention or different levels of appreciation are needed. 

Jon Shaw, Caution Up Ahead, 2019.

JS: These smaller pieces do function as studies for the larger work. As well, these smaller works can be taken away as locus points for memory, more so than the bricks you could take from the site, that can be remembrances for people for whom the site was important. 

BG: I always come back to how painting is the creation of a moment, more so than how photography is the capturing of one. The smaller pieces are also a bit less disturbing, or a bit less macabre.

JS: Recently, you used the term delicate versus, I don’t know –  maybe raw?

BG: I want to say raw. These are like delicate little mementos, a little more comfortable to remember the Hospital with, than the larger pieces. But the larger works definitely take on that autopsy element, and would dominate a room very strongly, in colour and size. A little more present, a little more emotional, a little more raw. 

JS: Definitely more environmental with the full scope and scale, and without the negative space from the smaller ones. They’re like delicate little vignettes whereas the larger works are more in your face and more dominating. The larger works are more in tune with what being at the demolition site was actually like, in a physical way. 

BG: The larger images are more about ruination and the smaller ones are more about memory, or nostalgia. 

Jon Shaw, Encroach, 2019.

JS: They’re more like snapshots, too, whereas the size and the angles of the compositions, the paintings are more monumental. Both the perspective and the positioning of the viewer, with an upward gaze, also is a stronger, maybe more demanding, view. 

BG: To go back to our talk about portraiture, the tiny ones are more snapshots, as you say, more a snapped positive memory of a moment whereas the larger have more intensity to your examination, so you see all the warts. The teddy bears in the one larger piece are like that, as they are both morose and sad and also become a little too real in what they allude to, in children and illness or death. Those tiny toy bears depress me greatly. 

But you’ve also said that this project will have many iterations, as its ongoing, both in terms of your plethora of images to work from, but also because the emotional and social space is so deep, for so many viewers. 

It’s also relevant, maybe in ending, that you and I are talking about this site of major historical significance, as both of us are from here, but left and then came back. In your doing these painted fragments of immediate civic history, and me talking to you about them – as we’ve talked about them pretty much since you started them – that we both have an element of being the outsider, looking in at a situation. But simultaneously we aren’t really outsiders, as we’re ‘back’ here now. There’s a familiarity but also a distance. 

Installation shot, Jon Shaw, Transfigurement, at NAC.

Jon Shaw‘s exhibition Transfigurement is on display at Niagara Artists Centre at 354 St. Paul Street, and the opening reception is November 29th, at 7 PM. You can see more of Shaw’s art practice online, at his instagram (@jonnieredbeard), and he currently has a piece from the Hospital series in the 2019 St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibition at City Hall in downtown St. Catharines. All images are copyright of the artist, and the header image is Abscess, 2019.