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Illuminating Individuals Perspectives: An Interview with Sean Alistair

Today, we have the privilege of delving deeper into Sean Alistair's artistic journey, gaining insight into the intersection of his personal experiences, mental health, and creative expression. Let us explore the profound narratives woven into his artwork and the impact it has on both himself and his audience.

6 July 2023

Joana Alarcão

Artist Statement

"The Rashomon effect is a storytelling and writing method in cinema in which an event is given contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved, thereby providing different perspectives and points of view of the same incident."

I am a pacifist with an extreme anxiety about war. I had no idea how sheltered I was living on the west coast of Canada to what the rest of the world must endure. I was aware of it through the news, however also so numb to what was actually happening. It was surreal to see buildings still in a state of ruin after WW2 and to live in a city with such a gruesome history. When the war on Ukraine started, I looked up and would see military planes flying over us which only intensified my anxiety. The questions I’m asking with this series are: Would anyone actually fight in battle if they didn’t have to? Why aren’t the ones who’ve decided to start the fight on the front line with their people? And lastly, if we didn’t have a lexicon for war of view as a solution would we ever have another one?

The Rashomon Effect Nr2 by Sean Alistair. Image courtesy of Sean Alistair

In today's interview, we delve into the work of Sean Alistair, a remarkable self-taught Canadian-born artist who currently resides in the beautiful Bavarian countryside of Germany. Sean's art serves as a visual journal, delving into the profound impact of seemingly ordinary or unassuming experiences on individuals who not only identify as queer but also navigate the challenges of bipolar disorder.

One of the most appealing features of Sean's art is his meticulous craftsmanship and dedication to each piece. The work displayed alongside the interview, The Rashomon Effect, is entirely sewn and meticulously created by hand, often requiring hundreds of hours to complete. Also, Sean's artistic process involves material exploration, incorporating found objects, and reworking old paintings to breathe new life into them.

The dynamic nature of his creations is truly captivating. Alistair prioritises the interplay of light, angle, and distance, believing that his artworks should live and evolve with the viewer's perspective. It is through this dynamic interaction that Sean's art takes on new dimensions and reveals its multifaceted beauty.

As a mixed media artist, could you share with us how you started your artistic journey, and the initial steps that set you on this current creative path? 


At one end of the creative binary is “technique” which is the ability to create something at a high level of skill and at the other end of the binary is “concept” which is the ability to take and express ideas. Every creative person sits somewhere on this binary, however, for me I was at the farthest possible edge towards concepts with little to no natural talent. Since I never felt like I excelled at any one particular art form, I never limited myself by style, technique or material which resulted in my love of mixed media works. As well because I grew up quite poor there were never always the possibilities to purchase or use the best materials, sometimes I had to use nail polish instead of paint. The first lesson I learned was that anything could be used for art.  


After years of working as a freelance photographer and as a visual merchandiser doing store and window display I decided it was now time to focus on becoming a professional artist. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by choices I simply got to work recreating every painting I had ever made which I used as a road map to guide me along my journey.


Although I tried multiple styles and techniques the one area that I kept on circling back to was mixed media because of how much freedom to express there was, however, there was always something missing from my work, enough texture. Until one day I remembered learning a few basic embroidery stitches which I then added onto a painting and it was from then on I started to dive deeper into material exploration and fiber art.


When looking at your practice, what are the underlying motivations that drive your creative process? What deeply moves and inspires you when you're engaged in the act of creation?


What motivates my work and my need to create firstly is pain. Whether that may be emotional or psychological pain that I am working through, or the physical pain I feel from sewing for hours on end during a manic episode; creating art is my form of catharsis. I never feel accomplished enough unless creating a piece was painful, for some reason if it was too easy it feels less valid to me. 


Secondly, I strive to give reason and purpose towards the experiences I have due to my mental illness. If I am able to create something beautiful, provocative or meaningful it feels like my daily challenges aren’t all for nothing.


The Rashomon Effect Nr1 by Sean Alistair. Image courtesy of Sean Alistair

Your practice creates a discourse surrounding the impact of seemingly mundane or innocuous experiences on individuals who identify as queer and also grapple with bipolar disorder. How do you implement these ideas into your work? 


Living with a disability such as bipolar is like trying to use a level to hang a painting on a boat whilst everyone else is doing the exact same tasks on land; you have all the tools necessary to do the job, but your environment is ever-changing and unstable. Because my mood is constantly fluctuating between manic and depressive I often find it extremely challenging to navigate between what is real and what isn’t. I can literally feel my mood shift and my brain forcing me to feel an emotion that isn’t there.


In addition to this, the act of existing for any queer person is extremely challenging to navigate. It is a life of constantly coming out, correcting offensive stereotypes or comments and dodging not only flat-out homophobia but also micro-aggressions. As an artist, I think it is my duty to contextualize these experiences and articulate them in a way to not only teach those who don’t have these challenges but for those who can relate to me. Every single one of my works starts with facing that in which gives me the greatest source of confusion or anxiety.


The dynamic nature of your works, where their appearance changes depending on the angle, light, and distance from which they are viewed, holds particular significance to you. Could you expand on the conceptual framework that underlies this intentional feature?


Like most of the world, at an early age, I was transfixed and mesmerized by fashion and how so much could be expressed through clothing. Actually one of the first jobs I dreamed of pursuing was as a fashion designer; this is why I went into store and window display as well as fashion photography. However, the issue that comes with fashion is that it is extremely exclusionary. Fashion and clothing push narratives that I am actively against, such as who is the right size or who has the correct body. But most importantly the construct of gender; the moment art comes off a body and onto a wall, it can be enjoyed by everyone and does not exclude.


So for each of my paintings, I want to create that same experience one has when seeing a beautiful garment move. The goal of my work is similar to the creation of a dance or of a movie; I want to create something that is impossible to understand at just one glance but takes time to see in its entirety. Through the use of textures and light-reflecting materials, I create work that demands attention, in order to captivate the viewer so the concepts and deeper meanings can take their time to unfold.

The Rashomon Effect Nr1 by Sean Alistair. Image courtesy of Sean Alistair


Your commitment to sewing and handcrafting your artwork results in extended periods of creation. Can you tell us the significance associated with this laborious act?


Although creating in such a tedious manner helps me navigate through my manic episodes, the techniques I use have now become a silent form of protest against the problematic machine that is AI-generated art. My goal within my craft is to be the antithesis of this art form whilst creating something that is impossible for machines or computers to imitate. Also, I always want to pay homage to those crafts people and masters who have come before me to which I often make direct references to.


Through the series of work submitted, you raise a line of questions around war and its implications. Could you elaborate on the line of thought behind these artworks and the inquiries they evoke?


Growing up in Canada I was always extremely sheltered to what the rest of the world is and has experienced, and in a way felt very numb to it. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I really started to understand what war is and the impact it has on not only the world, and the communities but also the individual lives.

My husband told me family stories from WW2, such as relatives who protected and hid those who would have been persecuted and so many acts of kindness; stories that are seldom told in the media because they do not perpetuate this narrative of good vs. bad.


This topic gives me so much anxiety because I ask myself what “would I do if I was in that situation”. Thus this is why I wanted to interrogate it. I think most people would like to think they would do the right thing, but every day I see relatively “good people” align themselves with leaders or ideals that could and have easily committed crimes seen during WW2. I wanted to look at war not from the perspective of “good” vs. “bad” because that does not exist but from the perspective of those who are used as tools and ammunition, regardless of what side they are on. This series is less about making statements but asking those challenging questions.


The Rashomon Effect Nr3 by Sean Alistair. Image courtesy of Sean Alistair

You mentioned being a pacifist with profound anxiety about war. Could you provide further insights into the significance of this statement and how it informs your artistic practice?


One of my earliest memories as a child when learning about war was deciding that I’d rather shoot myself in the foot instead of having to go to war and kill another person. My fear towards war only intensified after watching the World Trade Centers collapse on TV. Because I am such an empathetic person, seeing this much pain and destruction really affected me, I couldn’t understand how that was a solution to any problem.


In my opinion, the only antidote to war and fighting is talking with open calm and respectful communication; so how can I say I am anti-war unless I am part of the solution? I think it is important to not only make works of art for those who understand it and who are within your community but also attempt to be a liaison for those who are not within or from that world. We must give humanity to those who we don’t understand or fear because it would be a lot harder to hurt or kill someone if you truly knew them.


With all my work I try to express challenging topics in the simplest of ways with the deepest amount of empathy.


How did moving from Canada to Germany, a country with so much war history, influenced your perspective on art and your role as an artist?


History is written by the victors and America is obsessed with reliving the Second World War through media and movies. Whereas the people of Germany so badly want to move on from their terrible past and show that they are not like their ancestors. Although Canada is perceived as a very open and welcoming country, in fact, it is a country built upon systemic racism, genocide and colonialism; which the government continuously tries to ignore. Every country has a terrible past however living in a country that has taken full responsibility for its actions has shown me the areas in which Canada lacks.


Beyond the obvious visual reminders of war within the cities, it’s more so the people I have met that have inspired my work the most. Especially during my time in Berlin, I started to realize how far I could take my art and how intensely I could interrogate the world around me. I found whilst living in Vancouver that the only art that was shown and promoted by many galleries was that that was palatable and commercial.


The Rashomon Effect Nr3 by Sean Alistair. Image courtesy of Sean Alistair

From your perspective, how do you see art influencing political discourse? If possible, could you share an example or instance where art has effectively influenced or shaped political conversations?


Art is able to give context and nuance to the greater conversation as well as keep important stories or topics within the cultural zeitgeist. Unfortunately, generally speaking, humans are simple creatures who find it challenging to connect with stories in which we can’t relate to. The more there are stories told from different specific perspectives, the more opportunities there are for people to find something to understand and relate to.


A few weeks ago my husband and I traveled to Prague making sure to stop by and visit Lennon Wall which is where I learned how dealing with grief through art can create a movement that will never die. However, beyond what is famous and well-known, the most powerful form of art within the LGTBQIA+ community is the art of drag. I would not be married and starting the journey of having a child if it weren’t for those Drag Queens who fought for equal rights; Queen’s who were primarily Trans people of colour. We owe everything to them.


Lastly, what message would you like to leave to fellow artists who aspire to delve into similar themes as you do?


Be brave and interrogate what scares you. I always say we as individuals don’t matter; we are only a small grain of sand on this planet. However, profound things happen when a million pieces of sand get together, they create a beach.

Find more about the artist here.

Cover Image:

The Rashomon Effect Nr2 by Sean Alistair. Image courtesy of Sean Alistair

Sean Alistair is a queer self-taught Canadian born artist currently residing in the Bavarian countryside of Germany. His art is a visual journal where he discusses the intense impact of how seemingly mundane or innocuous experiences can be to someone who is not only queer but also bipolar. Each of Sean’s Mixed Media works are completely sewn and created by hand over hundreds of hours and focus on material exploration, found objects, recycling and reworking old paintings. Due to his mental illness Sean experiences prolonged periods of mania which he has learned to utilize as a way to keep his concentration in order to finish his works. What is most important to him is that his works live and change with the light, angle or distance they are viewed at.

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