Cover Artist Gallery: Mathieu Lavoie

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s April 2011 cover
April 2011

SubjectOn the Margins of Freedom” by Atif Rafay
Artist ’s blogMathieu Lavoie

1Less is more” is probably the work of Philip Johnson, not Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to whom it is commonly attributed. “Ornament is crime” is a liberal paraphrasing of Adolf Loos, who actually wrote: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use” (“Ornament and Crime,” 1908). Finally, Louis Sullivan’s extended statement on form and function (“The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” 1896) reads, in part:

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple blossom, the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies in a twinkling.”

2 Every stroke can imply something, and type itself is famously not neutral. A sign saying “This door is broken” implies slightly different meanings if it’s set in Template Gothic (no-nonsense urgency) or Times New Roman (nowadays, laziness, although there was a time when this type suggested certain cultural pretensions).

3 With that said, Mathieu explored several alternatives, and one of his excellent, lyrical ideas became the illustration that accompanies the article. Here are a few more of his ideas mocked up as potential covers:

Mathieu Lavoie

Mathieu Lavoie

Mathieu Lavoie

Mathieu Lavoie

Mathieu Lavoie

“Less is more.” “Ornament is crime.” “Form follows function.” These aphorisms — a holy, if clichéd, trinity of a sort of design — have a muddy history1, but their long-lasting impact points to the effectiveness of the minimalist approach. They also demonstrate the power of words in the abstract. They’re provocative, and the conceptual tools they imply really do work.

In graphic design, minimalism can best be channelled into directness, since there is almost no way to boil off the complexities of style2. Mathieu Lavoie’s cover illustration for Atif Rafay’s essay shows the virtues of the direct approach, for in this case, words were enough. “This magazine contains an essay on freedom...” cannot be bested; the statement is shocking and intriguing enough to stand on its own3.

But if style cannot be dismissed, it can be used and finessed. One of the joys of working with Mathieu, a Montreal-based illustrator and art director, is that he aims at the goal, and will take any path to reach it. What sometimes seems like bluntness in his work is actually conceptually well-considered; a well-turned exclamation point. Here, scrawly handwriting implied writing in a notebook, or writing on a wall, as well as a certain newsy-ness (think of the headlines that used to be scrawled on newsagents’ display boards here, a practice that endures in the UK). The foreground was a little Christopher Wool or Jean-Michel Basquiat; the orange background was a heightened version of the prisoner’s uniform. The result stands out from metres away: unmissable in its content and message.

Brian Morgan: After we spoke about this commission, what were your initial thoughts about the story?

Mathieu Lavoie: I felt quite lucky when you contacted me to do this. This is a very serious and important case. You can feel the urgency to communicate through Mr. Rafay’s words, and the feeling seriously called to me. Whether or not he has committed those horrible crimes, the questions he raises about the way we (as a society) choose to deal with the convicted in the penal system are of the utmost importance.

Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this assignment?

Mathieu Lavoie: As I read the text, I underlined parts of it (words, sentences, paragraphs) that I felt could be good visual starting points. When I was done and had a better understanding of the main idea, I went back to those underlined parts, and kept the ones that best represented the text in its entirety. From there, I started brainstorming with words. Rough images slowly started appearing. In the end it got very messy, with words and sketches all over the place.

Then you told me that the editors had come up with a very strong caption for the cover. That news directed a second draft of ideas, and eventually led to my proposing — as you and I discussed, when we met in a very nice café here in Montreal — getting rid of everything illustrated except the words themselves. In respect to the seriousness of the issues discussed by Mr. Rafay, and to grab the potential reader’s attention, I thought that plain text on a solid-coloured background (orange, as in the inmate’s prison suit) would do the job, without leaving too much room for fancy drawings, or a romanticized interpretation of a heavy subject that can hardly be rendered, but only lived and endured. I used roughly rendered type to reflect the feeling of urgency and restlessness that one can experience in prison, as expressed by Mr. Rafay.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?

Mathieu Lavoie: My sketching is done the very traditional way with pen or pencil. If I want to depict something in a more realistic way, I will usually sketch it first on paper, either from my head or a photograph, then draw on the computer from the sketch. All final work is done in Photoshop. From time to time, I might scan some textures or bring in vector elements done in [Adobe] Illustrator. But I generally do everything in Photoshop with a traditional mouse, not a tablet. Drawing with the mouse reminds me of when I am drawing or painting on an easel. The arm does more work than the wrist. I’ve always preferred that.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?

Mathieu Lavoie: I studied and practiced drawing and painting in college, then I studied graphic design and photography in university. I’m definitely a product of my generation, always jumping from one medium to another. I like artists from various fields: Tomi Ungerer, Henryk Tomaszewski, Ed Ruscha, Lewis Trondheim, Tadanori Yokoo, Christian Boltanski, Gunter Rambow, Piotr Mlodozeniec, to name a few. Pushpin was a great discovery when I was in university; I really liked how those guys could jump from one style to another. Plus they did graphic design as well. I love the photography work of Jörg Sasse, a former student of the Bechers at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. I recently came accross the work of Gorilla, the Dutch design collective, and was very impressed with the communicative quality of it. Then there’s a guy like Jonathan Meese, who paints in such a brutal and straightforward way, and makes such bold and striking figures, that it literally blows my mind. And also his predecessors, guys like Büttner, Oehlen, Baselitz, et cetera. I’m very fond of the creativity found in children books’ illustration. I like playfulness in all art forms. I like simplicity. I like humour. I like colours. I especially like naive gestures.

Brian Morgan: In illustration, there is some pressure to have a tightly defined style — like a personal brand. With your work, however, it feels like you are always experimenting. Is this the product of your design work influencing your illustration? Do you accept the idea of “brand,” or are you on a restless quest for the ideal solution?

Mathieu Lavoie: Bull’s eye! I would love to say that I reject branding, but then I would sound like every other artist who says the same but is clearly wrong. My branding might not be clear to a lot of people, but smart art directors can see beyond that. Although I think there are obviously various styles within my body of work, I also think that they connect with each other. I like to keep the options open, to be able to extend the possibilities through technique. But my design work definitely influences the way I approach a subject. It is hard for me not to see an illustration job with my art director’s eye, therefore making sure the style suits the communication and can be tweaked or sacrificed in order to do so.

Brian Morgan: Yes, I’m with you on that! So, what was your inspiration for this final image?

Mathieu Lavoie: I was thinking more about graphic design than illustration. It’s straightforward communication.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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