by Samantha Mehra
This article appears as part of the Visual People, a Q&A series devoted to profiling visually in-tune folks who work in a diversity of industries. Keep up to date by subscribing, or following along on Instagram. #visualpeople
Sitting across from me at The Oxley Public House, a dimly-lit yet sonically-vibrant spot in Toronto’s shiny Yorkville neighbourhood, Veronica Zaretski pushes aside her coffee cup, looks me squarely in the eyes and says, “Honestly, just stop me if I’m saying too much.” But from my position across the table, she cannot say enough: I’m transfixed by the story of her ever-growing minimalist yet nuclear-powerful drawing portfolio. We’re in a similar spot in our drawing journeys, truth be told, taking our illustration hobbies more seriously in 2018, both slightly terrified to share our creations in the oft cynical, critical, cacophonous social media solar system.
Zaretski’s style is Vonnegut-like in its earth-shattering simplicity. With minimal strokes of black ink on white paper, she zones in, hawk-eyed, on the provocative details of our daily selves: hands clutched together in solidarity or beholding a curious object; anonymous people in supportive embraces; a pair of lips parted while painted with lipstick; and bodies dancing in moments of freedom. Even her doodle of a piece of pizza, with powerful words as its toppings, stirs feeling. And somehow, in the thick of this newfound dedication to creation, the corners of Zaretski’s sketchbook have also found themselves becoming quiet champions of Toronto’s indie music scene, and beyond.
Over the course of several hours, we talk Toronto’s glittering music culture, the power of pen-on-paper minimalism, and urban exploration (among other things).
SM: So, Veronica, this ‘drawing thing’ is currently a side-gig. Who are you in your professional day-to-day?
VZ: I work as an editor and writer in university communications.
SM: I (happily) follow your drawing adventures on Instagram and I’ve noticed you’ve recently begun spotlighting indie music artists in Toronto and beyond. Why them, and why now?
VZ: There’s something special happening in Toronto – a lot of the music coming out of here is subtle, experimental and thoughtful. Those qualities permeate music in this city of all genres – whether it’s hip hop, R&B, chillwave, alt rock, or anything else. The project (which I at first called #notDrakeortheWeeknd) came out of wanting to celebrate all that talent, and through the process get a better sense of that Toronto magic, where we have artists like Tika Simone, a l l i e, and Charlotte Day Wilson making music and telling their stories. Artists in this city are also putting Toronto on the map. Art gives soul to a place the way few other things can, so we owe them some love and gratitude for that. Undeniably, the project has also been therapeutic for me – it’s been a way to get back into illustrating, which I associate with experiencing a child-like joy. I have been really hesitant to share anything I do with others, but the project has been a way of finding motivation to create and share.
SM: How is the city of Toronto (as a creative place) an inspiration for you?
VZ: Moving to Toronto years ago marked a big transition in my life – and I credit a lot of my self-development (as painful and rapid as self-growth can be sometimes) to this city. I might not live here forever, but it will always be a place that I’ll associate with my formative years. That move reminds me how change is constant and necessary – cities reflect that sentiment every day because change is inherent to any large city. Toronto is no different. Having travelled to other large North American cities bustling with creatives over the last few years, I know that Toronto has something to offer that no other city does. I can’t quite put it into words – it’s not something you can neatly summarize with a few adjectives; it’s something to experience. You could say that I like to explore that Toronto magic through visuals – illustrations and photography.
SM: A creative take on ‘urban exploration’.
VZ: Every so often I’ll have a moment of walking down Spadina, or on Bloor, or down University, or so many other streets and corners, and I’ll be moved by the daily sights all around me. I also love that I can be a bit spontaneous and anonymous here. Oh – and the food is amazing.
SM: I cannot disagree with you on that! I’d like to circle back to the #notDrakeorTheWeeknd series for a moment: What in general are you trying to capture about these artists?
VZ: Their own magic and inherent beauty. But I’ll settle to get a likeness and a vibe that gives you a bit of a sense of their music – using as few lines and colour as possible.
SM: How have your drawings been received by these artists?
VZ: Knock on wood: It’s been received well so far. I try to be thoughtful about who I’m featuring – is the artist changing how we talk about music and culture? About community? I’m not too interested in illustrating artists who are on every Billboard or Top 40 list. I think it would be cool if someone who lives in Nashville, Berlin, or Seoul or anywhere else, who knows the local music scene there inside and out, gets to know more about Toronto-centric artists.
SM: I have to say, some of the artists you have drawn are new to me. How do you keep your fingers on the pulse of the local music scene? How do you continuously discover?
VZ: I go on a lot of walks through the city and I make note of concert listings and posters. I go to shows. I read a lot about local music – in NOW, Exclaim, and Noisey, of course. I talk to people who work in the music industry. Most of the time I rummage SoundCloud. And I know there’s still a ton I don’t know about the local music scene – but that’s what motivates me to learn about it!
SM: Why 2018, why now, for this project, and this pursuit of drawing like never before?
VZ: It’s hard to say exactly why now – I think I’ve had a lot of thoughts and ideas brewing over the last few years. Some of them I executed. Others I’ve let wilt. I think I just got a little fed up with myself and never making time for things that bring me a sense of contentment, and for not breathing life into some ideas that kept swimming in my head, sometimes for years. And I felt a really weird, inexplicable burst of energy around the end of 2017. It needed an outlet.
SM: I hear that. I think it’s the case for many creators to have intense waves of creativity, followed by a slow drip. Speaking of ‘artistic types’, who or what are your artistic influences?
VZ: Growing up I really loved the Pre-Raphaelites like artist Christina Rossetti. I’m also a huge fan of Georgia O’Keefe and Marc Chagall. More recently others like Betsey Johnson, Zaha Hadid and Yayoi Kusama shaped the way I think about creativity.
SM: Do these artists influence your aesthetic?
VZ: That’s hard to say – perhaps at times. I end up gravitating towards depicting a sense of dreaminess, or bluntness or a sense of whimsy, and in that way these artists and others have influenced the work for sure. But really, there are too many people to admire and appreciate. And it’s not just artists. Jane Jacobs changed my vocabulary about cities, and in turn the way I interact with my city. James Baldwin made me fall in love with literature all over again every time I felt disillusioned or let down by it. For all of us, whether you enjoy producing any kind of creative work, there are people, alive or dead, who have permanently changed the way we see the world.
SM: What does drawing do for you? How is it therapeutic, or meaningful? What does it add to your day-to-day?
VZ: Giving myself time to be creative became an anchor and a form of self-preservation. That might change in the future, but right now it’s been hugely helpful. It’s a way of feeling centred. It’s also an important reminder that it’s okay to fail. Some days are good drawing days, and other days are bad (or really bad) drawing days, but I remind myself that I love the process and the learning curve more than anything else. And, you know, it’s okay to step away from something and come back to it weeks, months or even years later.
SM: We’ve talked a bit about social media as an intimidating venue to share our learning processes. Why Instagram, above any others, to showcase your work?
VZ: It’s a way to connect and a way to push myself to do what was somewhat terrifying before: sharing my work. Anytime you share something that you create, there’s an element of exposure that’s mildly scary. You can do it on Instagram with a sense of humour and some ease, and without taking yourself too seriously. That last part is really important: I have zero interest in wasting time thinking of myself as some sort of deep artiste – having a sense of humour is very important to me. Connecting with other people is also important. I would feel like I did something right if anything I created might make someone feel less alone in the world.
SM: We’re at a similar stage in our drawing journeys – admittedly, I’m self-taught. Are you? Also: What role has drawing played in the grand scheme of your life, and how did you get started?
VZ: I’m self-taught in the sense that I never had someone take me through the ABCs of illustration or drawing. But I always took art courses throughout high school and the start of my undergrad degree. A teacher in my undergrad was especially helpful in getting me to think about my own style and the power of negative space (I’m still working on it). One of my most powerful memories is drawing a fairy as a four year-old. I remember somehow so clearly how much I enjoyed drawing that fairy (the drawing did not scream “child prodigy” – but it brought me a lot of joy). It seems to have always been a form of self-care, a way to express and connect with others.
SM: Before I forget: What pens/materials are you using to do this capturing?
VZ: It’s been really simple so far – pen, pencil and plain old paper. I’ll add the signature layer of violet with Photoshop or a simple mobile photo-editing app.
SM: Why the pen on paper?
VZ: The simplicity is appealing – and it’s really nurturing to take a few moments day to day to do something that’s so tactile and contemplative. Something about the blunt line of the ink against the background is also extremely satisfying.
SM: Are there other mediums you are dying to explore?
VZ: I’m working on a number of mixed media pieces – mixing ink, paint and at times cutouts for collage on wood panels and canvas. One day I’d love to do a series of very short films that capture a mood or a series of short powerful moments.
SM: You do some other doodles which are minimalist but have a larger message. I love the pizza, the hand drawings, and the women hugging, among many others! Why/how is minimalism a way of illustrating that speaks to you?
VZ: It goes back to that sense of joy, satisfaction and ultimately self-preservation: Attempting to distil something complicated into something that’s easy to digest (I hope). There’s something deeply cathartic about that.
SM: For the grand finale question, let’s talk ‘bucket list’: Do you see yourself having a show in the future? Is there a cohesive project where you can bring all these pieces together?
VZ: Hmm, a show! I don’t know. Maybe! That could be a lot of fun. There are some really cool galleries in Toronto that are doing good work – like Hashtag or Loop, or cultural hubs like the Daniels Spectrum – that build community while building up emerging artists. But mostly, and perhaps this is for a near-future bucket list, I would be really interested in joining a few other artists and maybe doing our own pop-up show around one theme. I’m drawn to projects that are ephemeral and collaborative.
Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Yes? Good. Want to report an error? Fantastic. Just tell us about it.
*This conversation has been adapted in order to get to the nitty gritty of the interviewee’s life, work, and creative process(es). A gigantic Thank-You to Veronica Zaretski for donating her time, talent, and stories, and giving her permission to use her images for the purposes of this article.