In The Studio With Andy Dixon

Prior to my interview with Andy Dixon, I am kind of nervous. Not that there’s any reason to be. From what I know, the Vancouver-based musician and artist has the reputation of being extremely humble. In the last few years, Dixon, who’s performed in several bands and recorded solo works since age 12, has made the shift to focus solely on his art. His paintings, mainly inspired by aristocratic and renaissance times, and his consistent use of bright, punchy colours are extraordinary (to say the least). 

Moments after I walk up to his Mount Pleasant studio, I am warmly welcomed and we sit down as he chats about making a commitment to his art, daily rituals, living in Vancouver and his much-deserved success.

Photos by Alison Page

You were a musician for many years before becoming a full-time artist, and I read in an article that it was partly inspired by a conversation with your father. Can you elaborate?

"I had kind of an existential crisis one year where I felt really lost in music and didn’t know what to do. I had this conversation with my dad, saying, ‘I’ve always been more of a musician,’ and he was like, ‘Really? I would have always described you as an artist first who makes music sometimes.’ It was totally surprising."

"But it wasn’t just my dad, I have a very good crew of people that I bounce ideas off of and they all said the same thing. I’ve played a million shows and it’s very clear that at my openings there’s a much greater amount of joy that I’m experiencing – everyone said that was pretty obvious."

In your paintings, how to you conceive an idea from start to finish? What is your process?

"I like to paint how a kid paints, before we all hit 12 and learnt how to draw in class, the oval with the eyes in the middle, you know. You kind of lose this magic, the thing you did before where you just started and just did it. That’s my process."

"A lot of the work I do is illusions to older renaissance and impressionist work, so in a lot of ways I have the luxury of having the composition already. I roll out a color – each of my pieces you can see has an initial colour that sort of becomes the background theme."

Do you ever fear criticism of your work? How do you deal with it?

"I guess everyone fears getting a bad review; I don’t even know if fear is the right word, I definitely get anxiety about it. But when you’ve been making things for so long - nothing really matters and as a creative person, it’s absurd to think that what one does could possibly appeal to every person on the planet. I don’t expect everyone who comes into the studio to like each of these paintings or even any of them. But I don’t necessarily see that as a strike against the work, it’s just not a good fit."

As a creative person, how do you stay focused and keep doing the work?

"There’s something about painting versus graphic design that feels more just like I’m going to work every day, maybe because there is a certain amount of physical work involved. As soon as I walk in this door I just put on my painting clothes and get to work. Partly because I’m excited, maybe because there’s nothing else to do [in my studio]. As I get older I think I’m becoming more disciplined. But also I just don’t have anything else to do in the day, what else am I going to do? This is it."

Can you describe a typical day for you?

"I just come in and do it. I come in and concentrate as soon as that door’s closed, and quickly get into painting clothes. It sounds silly but it’s a physical state change, the second I get my paint-covered sweatshirt on, I’m ready to go. The days when I decide I’m going to check my emails before I get those clothes on, like today, I never actually picked up a paintbrush."

Were there ever moments when you felt financially stressed, once you decided to solely make art for a living?

"To answer that you’d first have to understand that for 10 years of my life as a musician I was financially stressed (laughs). I’ve been very poor for a very long time. I was so used to the lifestyle of living off nothing that I was like, well I’ll live off nothing doing this instead. It took more investment of course, but it was miraculous how it all went down. It was the most absurd choice I could have made and at the time it didn’t make any sense to do it."

"I feel very blessed to have all of this work out. It’s insane to me to retrace the steps of the last five years of my life how it all went down. I can’t explain it. It feels amazing not to be struggling as much. Not that I’m buying a house or anything or even a car, but I’m paying my rent now (laughs)."

Do you see Vancouver as a supportive city for the arts? 

"Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful to my Vancouver patrons and friends that support me but from what I have understood in watching my other friends struggle in this city, it’s not an easy city to be a painter in. There are some people doing some great work here but for the most part it’s via other cities. But I like that too, that sense of anonymity in your hometown and you can just hang out with friends and go to Brassneck for a beer and then be in London for an opening."

What advice would you give someone wishing to pursue a creative field full time?

"What happened with me was so miraculous and random I don’t know how I did it. And I don’t know how I could ever do it again. What happened just all came from making the choice and just doing it. Realizing that each painting you’re going to do or each song you write or whatever – is going to be better and some are going to be a hit and some are not and just make more and more and more. And do it every day."

While Vancouver is your home base, you spend a lot of time in other cities. What other places inspire you? 

"Paris and the south of France – the history of impressionism there is just unreal. It’s where Matisse lived and did most of his work. I’m a sucker for the heat and all the ferns and stuff like that so the south of France is like Hawaii but with less oversized shitty t-shirts and flip-flops, you know?"

Have you had any strange or ridiculous requests for commissions?

"I had this one woman contact me from California. I don’t really like doing commissions generally. She described this full scene: ‘I want a topless woman sitting on a stool that’s floating on a pond. I want three flamingos on the right and a lemur perched on her shoulder, and I want these-coloured hibiscus flowers.’ I never replied, I was like, I’m not touching this. It’s not what I do."

 What are your plans for the future as a painter? Do you have any goals or projects?

"I’m fighting against the natural tendency that creative people have to move too fast. I see it with a lot of my painter friends where they’re manic about their direction. Remember that Matisse did his nudes for 15 years and that’s all he did. Some people paint the same thing for a month and are like, ‘I’m bored.’ Just do it for a little while longer, it’s just going to get better."

"I think having the discipline to stick with something is important. Despite me trying not to have things evolve too quickly, they’re evolving anyway. When I look at a painting I’m doing now compared to what I did last year, they look quite different. So the idea is to keep the themes the same. I’m still really interested in the aristocratic life, a call out to painting expensive objects by thereby poignantly making expensive objects is really fascinating to me. So I’m just going to keep going with that, for 15 years (laughs)."

Do you miss making music? Is there anything you were doing before that you’re not fulfilling in your art?

"I’m definitely not regretful of it. Everything I’ve learned about painting I could relate back to a lesson I learned in music. I don’t regret anything but I don’t miss it. It took me about 15 years of performing to realize that I’m just not a performer.  When you’re a teenager and you’re playing songs you wrote in front of your friends and they all clap, of course there’s an immediate ego boost. That kept me going for a long time. I liked being on stage I liked doing these things, but now I realize I actually don’t. I like the satisfaction of doing something. I don’t like using my body to do something in front of somebody else, I find it kind of embarrassing."

What’s different about working as an artist versus working as a musician?

"It’s just different. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of it. I like making a tangible object, that’s something new to me. When I was in music, the day your record would come, you get to hold the 12-inch, that’s a similar feeling to when I make a painting and the frame comes and I see it hanging on a wall in a gallery. It’s very satisfying."