Behind the Canvas: Iris May

Moving to Calgary changed the journey of Scottish artist looking for inspiration

ART JOURNEY: Iris May paints herself on the mirror in her art-filled studio at AUArts. (Photo by Abhilakshdeep Singh/The Press)

When faced with adversity and tribulations, a person experiences a magnificent metamorphosis in which their path of struggle culminates in the discovery of unflinching optimism.

Iris May, an British artist who lived in Scotland, embarked on an inspiring journey of creativity when she moved to Calgary to study at the Alberta University of Art. Her story is one of financial struggle, innovation, and unwavering determination in the pursuit of her artistic dreams.

“I grew up in Brighton, south coast then moved to a small town in Derbyshire known as Matlock, after that when I was 16, I did my schooling in Nottinghamshire for one year,” said May.

May then went to Glasgow for her art school, where she spent another year and finally all the way she chose Calgary to find her art inspiration.

“I had never heard of Calgary before AUArts, but after doing some research, I was astounded by the city’s splendour, the pure, sharp light, and the feeling of a much higher sky,” said May.

May’s most significant challenge lay in managing her finances. Securing a part-time job proved to be a formidable obstacle as she sought employment to cover her expenses during her four-month course. Despite her efforts, finding a job for such a short duration proved to be a daunting task.

“Finance was something I was struggling with,” she said. “It was something which pushed me to sell my artwork.

May sold a lot of her artwork and made a good amount from it.

“Most recently I sold my painting for $400 but I expected to get more out of it,” she said. “I would rather sell fewer paintings at a high rate because it maintains my value.”

Iris found a big difference in the art market from what she experienced in Glasgow.

COMPLETE FOCUS: Scottish painter Iris May paints in her studio at AUArts.(Photo by Abhilakshdeep Singh/The Press)

“The art market definitely seems to be geared towards an entirely different market,” said May. “I see a focus on aspects such as show and sale in my education as opposed to a sole focus on the degree show itself.”

She said these environments cater to different audiences.

“One opening I went to feature the work in half a gallery space, half showroom for furniture, it turned the entire process into blatant commodification,” said May. “Some of the work was fantastic but I found it hard to focus on it as an artwork and not as something you might pair with a red lounge chair.”

Iris finds her inspiration in the moments of culture shock and becomes more and more grounded in her body the more she travels the world. She sees in reflection that her paintings have begun to incorporate this new visual language.

“I’m inspired by my own culture shock such as live fish in tanks at the supermarket and the tone of people’s voice seeming sarcastic to me as a Brit,” she said. “The new architectural lines of the cityscape are so far removed from the aged, rounder shapes of the small Derbyshire town where I spent my summer.”

The artist has painted thousands of paintings but said that her not being able to afford things for her art is what made her more creative.

“I’m currently broke and exchange is an expensive privilege, so, most of my painting evolution comes from innovation driven by simply not being able to afford what I might usually work with — anything that can be painted on, or with, or construct a frame,” said May.

Iris wouldn’t call herself a sculptor, but sculptures have begun to emerge from these disparate times for her.

“I am interested in the deconstruction of paintings, fitting elements together like a puzzle,” she said. “Being able to flatten, reshape and fold work is also an economical solution to the problem of travel, what on earth am I going to do with the stacks of paintings I’ve already made, who knows?”

In her journey of finding inspiration in Calgary, she met Mark Mullin, a painter who has been teaching at AUArts since 2003 and has all walks of experience in painting.

PROUD INSTRUCTOR: Mark Mullin, AUArts instructor, is surrounded by his students’ paintings in the hallway. (Photo by Abhilakshdeep Singh/The Press)

“I did my undergraduate in Edmonton and then went to Germany for pursuing print making for a year then did master’s degree in painting from Concordia University in Montréal, then back to Alberta for teaching at AUArts,” said Mullin.

Mullin appreciates Iris’s work and the fact that she is exploring the world.

“To develop more ideas and built more opportunities, an artist has to welcome more prospective which often comes from travelling, which is what Iris is doing right now and I appreciate that,” he said.

May talks about the dilemma of being an artist.

“It is hard when you are an artist because you are wondering what the value of your time is, because you can’t make good art without experience, but you also can’t make good art without those dedicated studio hours.”

Mullin shares the benefits to all the students — especially international — about being a part of AUArts.

“Art is about freedom, freedom comes from the opportunity to explore variety of angles and for international students, they can benefit from here by being at some place different and to work with a faculty which is in its own is very diverse,” he said.

Being an instructor as helped Mullin to become a better artist.

“Teaching has been credibly rewarding also it has helped my own art by looking at the artworks of the students who are constantly changing and developing and growing,” he said.

With 20 years of experience, Mullin encourages everyone who is hustling on their art journey to keep going.

“The ones who made it and became successful are those who stuck with it and never gave up,” he said. “Persistence, believing in what you love, staying at it, not expecting to be famous and rich within the first few years after the school is what makes a person successful.

“It is always a great feeling to have people live with your work.”

May shares her views about the closure of many small art galleries after the pandemic.

“Because of lack of art schools and galleries I wish I could do anything with my practice other than being a painter, if I had money, I would love to open an art centre,” she said.

I want something to exist on the earth longer than I do

“I want to help people to paint what they want to paint and make them feel that their art is rich.”

May dreams of an art school where there is no limitation of making art.

“An art school where no one would be tensed about explaining their art and everybody would sit on sofas instead of solid block, and no walls would be white but painted with people’s emotions and thoughts,” she said.

“I know many paint schools claims to be one of those, but they are not really what they say.”

May shares her future plans.

“When I go back, I am going to graduate in Glasgow and apply for residencies, organize exhibitions, get my work out there,” she said.

May is feeling really positive after meeting some artists and hopes of a lifetime of creativity with them.

“I met lovely owners of Rumble House and am interested in collaborating with Creative Conscience Squared.”

The painter wishes for more cultural exchange between the UK and Canada’s people as there is a gaping disconnect between lineage and identity.

“There’s a lack of cultural export in regard to painting when it comes to Canada,” she said. I’d love to see more channels of artistic exchange opening up here.

There’s a quote May says inspires her to continue making art during times when she feels down.

“Nobody will take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously,” said May.

May wishes of becoming someone who would be known for her art after she is gone.

“When I die, I want to have left things on the earth, I want to leave paintings, in a selfish way I want something to exist on the earth longer than I do,” she said.

May’s artistic journey, marked by challenges and financial constraints, fuels her innovation and commitment. She envisions a future where her art transcends boundaries, inspiring others in a world where creativity knows no limits.

About Abhilakshdeep Singh 5 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Abhilakshdeep Singh is working as a writer for The Press in 2023.