By Jane Litchfield

Garth Laidlaw’s new business cards say simply: “illustration | animation | teaching” but it’s tough to capture this young Guelph artist in so few words.

Like many creative workers, he has crafted a sort of career-collage. On the afternoon we sat down, he had spent the day at his Necessary Arts studio creating an animated video for a client, and was on his way home to work on illustrations for a children’s book that evening. Another night might fine him updating his web comic, or teaching his weekly figure drawing course. He’s also currently turning out some pithy art posters, and he visits schools for workshops, readings, or talks on working as an artist, among other things.

While some creative workers struggle with patching together an income from multiple ventures, Laidlaw says he likes it this way. As a graduate of Sheridan College’s Bachelor of Animation program, he could have sought a full-time gig with a big commercial animation studio, but that’s not his style.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that when Laidlaw won the Guelph Arts Council’s 2016 Jane Graham Memorial Award, he used the funds to challenge himself. He attended a conference hosted by the Canadian Society of Children’s Book Authors, Illustrators and Performers in Toronto, where he took part in workshops and panels by established writers and illustrators, and also decided to take the plunge and sign up for a portfolio review.

“Portfolio review scares most artists, but I decided to do something I wouldn’t normally do, because I had this award. It turned out to be the best part of the conference.” Laidlaw says the reviewer, an art director from House of Anansi Press, encouraged him to have fun with the medium of paper – to be a little more stylized and less realistic in his illustrations. “In some ways, it’s easier: realistic takes forever and sometimes simpler is better.”

The Jane Graham Memorial Award is offered annually for a visual artist to pursue professional development opportunities that will contribute to their artistic growth. Laidlaw shared the 2016 award with Christina Kingsbury. Applications are now open for the 2017 award. Apply here by Oct. 13.

Laidlaw admits to being “a bit of a Luddite,” and he now realizes he has a thing for paper. Of course, paper comes in handy in his illustration work, but it’s more than that.

“I’m becoming increasingly wary of the internet,” Laidlaw says. “At first I thought it’s this great way to use free knowledge. The problem is what people end up doing with it. Even though it has great capabilities, people don’t take advantage of it.”

Laidlaw says freedom of speech is more important than ever today, when people and organizations are trying to control language. “I fear the day Google has a complete database for each person, with all the information customized. These top-heavy organizations are able to manipulate who sees what.” He points out that paper eliminates that problem. “Paper is freeing. Once something is printed, you can’t change it. You can’t manipulate it.”

Perhaps it’s a little ironic then, that Laidlaw addresses those fears about technology in an online web comic. “Paperless” is a dystopian science-fiction story about a state that has achieved totalitarian control of its inhabitants by slowly phasing out paper, while providing all members an ultimate device called the Mentibus. It’s a world that is almost entirely digitized and monitored.

Clearly not a total Luddite, Laidlaw also teaches animation online and currently has a student in Hawaii and one in Romania. “Teaching animation is actually more effective online. I don’t have to worry about drawing over what they have created on paper.”

He also runs a summer animation camp – more like a boot camp – that attracts young people who want to get into post-secondary animation programs, like the one he attended.

Laidlaw says his job as a freelance animator didn’t exist when he was in school. There were no business courses in his program because it was assumed graduates would go to work for a big studio. Laidlaw, however, landed his first freelance gig for a relative in his third year and he hasn’t looked back. His main difficulty as a freelancer is finding other freelancers for back-up when his workload gets too heavy.

Animation remains his bread and butter, and the art that’s closest to him. He especially likes creating videos for social justice organizations. Laidlaw says animation is the “mother of all art forms” because it uses so many forms — storyboard, voice, camera work, background painting — but it is more homogenized now that artists no longer draw each frame. “It’s more like manipulating a puppet.” 

He says digital animation is more technical and mathematical, but to him it still feels like art, and he strives to make his brand of animation look as hand-drawn as possible.

Laidlaw’s work as a children’s author came out of a revelation he had while volunteering at a camp in Tanzania in 2015, when he went a month and half with no internet. Drawing was always his go-to, but he suddenly had time for reading and writing as well, and he found himself immersed in Tanzanian folk proverbs. “That’s when I decided that I’m actually a storyteller, whether it’s in my animation, illustration or writing.”

He wrote 30 stories In Tanzania and published his favourite when he got home. He says being a self-published author means he doesn’t need permission to write what he wants. Fittingly, his children’s book “Sayni and the Windowjet Brothers” is about the importance of finding your own individual path regardless of the pressures to conform to a straightforward, mainstream route through life. (Such as going to work for a big animation studio.)

Laidlaw says he feels a bias in our current art environment toward a contemporary and post-modern ideal of art where “everyone is trying to push buttons and everything should challenge or be obscure. Sometimes I have a hankering for something real, something that makes me think about the world.”

Laidlaw is a proponent of a basic annual income as a way to free artists to be themselves. “It would be a gamechanger for creative people who are always thinking ‘who’s going to like this?’ It should be exploration, curiosity, and wonder that determines what they create.”

To that end, Laidlaw joined Patreon, the platform designed to give artists a steady income, but he says he hasn’t put much energy into it. He’s too busy with his many projects. “I have more ideas than I know what to do with.”

Meanwhile, he is taking some English literature and philosophy classes at U of G to improve his writing: “I want to make something great.” We’ll keep an eye on him.

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