Monday, October 22, 2012

THIS SERIES HAS MADE ME (EVEN MORE) AWARE OF HOW MANY SPECIAL PEOPLE I AM LUCKY TO CALL FRIEND. Kris Knight is an artist. He's a sweet and funny man, who, at first glance, seems intense and too talented to approach. But he's easy and has the face of an 80s-era cartoon superboy. We met through the small town that is Toronto more than a decade ago and have been friends since. He too grew up in the rural heartland of Ontario, so we share much in common; we understand each other on a deep, formative level.

Kris has been a successful working artist since he finished school in 2003; he's never had a full-time job. Since the age of 13 he worked in restaurants, and only two years after graduating from OCAD, Kris secured an art dealer and began to rely on painting to support himself. "I always had to work hard," he says, "I was raised to be a workaholic. My family went back and forth between small towns and working farms. All my aunts and uncles and grandparents are all farmers. I had chores after school, and, after I turned 12, anything besides socks and underwear was up to me to buy." 

He has been propelled by this expectation. "I'm not a Boho," he insists, "I don't like the idea of smoking and drinking and living in a dump. The whole romantic artist doesn't exist in this time. If you want to make a business out of it you have to be a business person. I can hold contracts, I have three art dealers, I can spend half a day doing admin."

"Creative people need to be restrained. If you give artists too much freedom, it stops working. If I didn't have deadlines, I don't know," he trails off, "I think I'd be a bit of a mess. I'd have lots of self-doubt, and I wouldn't see things through to the end. I need people telling me things are due. And that's a kind of restraint. I don't have endless time to make a show. I have to be very thoughtful about what turns into a painting." 

He knows that self-reliance and the freedom to work for himself is a privilege. "Being able to do this all day long, and the fear of someone taking it away - I mean me, by messing it up to the point that I'd have to go work for someone else - is the motivation. This is a gift. In Canada, you can start off really strong as an emerging artist, but it's really hard to maintain a mid-career. And lots of artists plummet then. So for me it's fear of losing this; I work really hard. I would hate not doing this every day."

Art has been part of Kris' life since a very young age. "When my parents figured out I could colour within the lines, I got crayons. All my gifts were paints and pencil crayons. Paper. I started painting in high school. Always people. I do one landscape per show, now, but I treat it as a person. A thing, a place, something that means something to me. Memory-based. And it has to work with the figures." His parents were always supportive, but he says, as the years have passed, that his art work has meant a lot to them. "I was a quiet kid. A quiet, angry teenager. I think my parents learn more about me through my artwork." 

He always starts with a narrative idea, rather than a visual direction. He says he's not a sketchbook kinda guy. "Every image is mapped-out in my head and lives there until I start to put it down." He'll write down titles, and the images in his mind are linked to those words. "I don't forget them." He also points out his desk, covered in brown paper, with notes scrawled all over it, "Song lyrics, notes, words that relate to the work." 

Right now he's preparing for a show in Miami, where his paintings will stand alongside ceramic pieces by another artist. "I like softer stuff right now. Pastels. Porcelain. These will be about gay guys who are afraid of sex, in terms of disease. They'll have a very virginal look. So I'm experimenting with a fleeting, fragile thing lately." 

Only a couple days into painting the new series, Kris says it'll only take a week or two to be surrounded by new work. "I'll do a layer on one painting, put it down, grab another and do layer. I work in a circle, several paintings at a time. Rather than toil at something. Without that deadline, I'd work on one thing for three months. Overwork it."

We talk about the china-faced boy on the wall now, part of the porcelain series. "That's two hours' work." To my untrained eye, it's beautiful and near-complete, though he says it's a tiny fraction of the way there; layer upon layer to go. I suggest a time-lapse video, showing his progress, "But then you'd see the temper tantrum in the middle," he laughs, "Like, 'Where'd the painting go?'" 

I'm surprised to hear that he lashes out at his work, sometimes even tearing something into a garbage-can full of pieces. He says he started out even angrier, "At the beginning of my career, everything was very dark, tonally. Angry. I was a little ball of gay rage. But if I have a bad day and rip up a bunch of paintings, the next day I'm always really eager to start over again. Everything is released." 

And while, in the early days, his palette and emotions were "angry", he says the work now just seems vulnerable, "I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back I see that my early paintings were really sad. Not so much angry." 

While he's learned a lot, he says there are still things to remember. "I don't have a lot of work on my walls at home. But I do have a commission that's gone wrong. I keep it as a warning, a reminder to be less polite and get payment up-front." He is, after all, a business man

His commitment has made him an extremely successful emerging artist, though now he's made the shift into a new part of his career: the Mid-Career Artist. I ask what's next, "Established. And then dead." But he says his sweet spot would be cult status. "You know when you love someone so much you don't want to share their work with anyone? I'd be happy there." The worst place, though: "Forgotten," his eyes seem to glass over, "No artist wants that."

(Pirate illustration done by Kris several years ago for a series. It sits proudly in my home. Kris shot on location in his studio on October 18, 2012.)


Kris said he's been listening to L.A. musician Chelsea Wolfe lately. I dug her up and have to agree - She's neat. Spooky and moody and perfect for the end of October. Here's one from her and a handful of songs inspiring him now.


1. Oh Yeah - Bat for Lashes
2. Something Good - Alt J
3. Kill My Blues - Corin Tucker Band 
4. The Blue Dress - Wild Nothing
5. Flatlands - Chelsea Wolfe

Check out Kris' work.


  1. I love these little mini-playlists attached to your stories. I am addicted to spotify and create playlists in there and rock out to them in my office at work. Kris also looks like a very talented artist, and a good friend.

  2. I *just* came across Chris' work last week and LOVED it upon first sight! So, imagine coming across this? Fantastic! Two talented gents who have been friends for ages? Doubly brilliant.

    Great post, Jason!