The Mural Man Cometh
Most people's idea of a good time is not to hang out under a busy overpass at night watching construction workers go about their work. But that's exactly what Canadian artist Richard Tetrault has been doing with his time here in Bangkok. With the traffic raging by and construction dust swirling around his head he sketches and then he sketches some more.
Richard sees images we don't see in the West: laborers (many of them women) toiling without hardhats, construction boots, gloves or any sort of ear, eye or mouth protection. You see organized labor is an oxymoron in this country where most people are just so happy to have a job that they are not about to fight for their rights.
He is probably best known for his murals, which adorn Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. But he does have a fine collection of paintings and prints as well and they all explore humanity within the urban landscape.
Richard calls his work being displayed in Bangkok "urban excavation" because, similar to a photographer or writer, he goes through the city and finds things that hold his attention. This series began when upon his arrival in Thailand he started to fill his sketchbooks with drawings, which is how he originally becomes familiar with a place.
What he likes about Bangkok is that it is such an interesting city to walk around in. "It has so many different layers to it," he says, "the way it has evolved as a modern city. Just by walking through different districts you can see an area that is two hundred years old, temples that are even older, and you can also see high-rises and overpasses that were built yesterday.
"All of this jumbled together is overwhelming initially, so my way of getting beyond being overwhelmed is just to draw anything that catches my attention, putting it down in sketch form and then re-examining it back in my makeshift studio at a friend's apartment in the downtown core. Then I start to think about how to put the sketches into composition: what is it that I really want to say about Thailand?
"In order to achieve this I usually take sketches from several different places and put them together to make an interesting composition. For example, when I was drawing overpasses, I got into the habit of going down and sketching construction crews at a number of different sites at nighttime and I really found that fascinating.
"Just all the dramatic figures and equipment that goes into building highway overpasses, or Bangkok's LRT system. There is such a sense of dramatic extremism. A lot of my sketches focus on working people, it's a constant theme of my work."
In his work entitled Bangkok Night Shift, Richard says he was trying to capture the "primordial activity (of the construction workers) almost as if they were building the pyramids of Egypt or the temples of Angkor." He was successful, as he has done a masterful job capturing the dignity of the laborers, which is no small feat.
Another piece, entitled Bangkok Transformations, sees a head of a reclining Buddha set amidst numerous buildings and flyovers in various stages of construction. A brilliant mix of the old and new world, it could easily be labeled Contemplation of Chaos.
His work, Station 1, can be interpreted in many different ways but this painting capturing the angst and depression of displaced people will linger with you long after you have moved on to other pieces.
If you have lived in Bangkok for a long time, you will be very familiar with the people who sweep the city's streets, sidewalks and buildings. The simple images in his painting Bangkok Sweeper will have you believe you are standing right next to one of them.
Another of Richard's favorite subjects is monks, who very early every morning make their centuries' old walk for alms, and he captures this ancient tradition set against the chaos of modern Bangkok.
How does Richard hope people will perceive his work? "I hope what people will see is someone who has sifted through their personal experience and tried to crystallize it into images, and I hope that in some way or another I've been successful in doing that."
Nicola Cresswell, a gallery owner, who displayed his work in Thailand, says she was initially struck by the strength of his lines, and the boldness of his stroke: "It's neo-romantic, it's what's in-your-face when you are living here. He paints very livable pieces, there is no great hidden meaning."
Richard's advice for budding artists? "It's all in your vision and don't take no for an answer. It's also important for artists to form together in groups, and I see there are some Thai groups, like Cobalt Blue, that are doing just that. That really helped me enormously and gave me strength as a muralist, painter and printmaker.
Early influence? Richard cites Vincent Van Gogh as at age 18 he visited his museum in Amsterdam. "The coherence, the passion, the commitment to his vision. He stayed with me for well over a decade because of his humanism, which is unmistakable. The whole focus of his work was on his insight and his profoundly empathetic vision of the working people in their working environment and their daily struggle. I was pretty overwhelmed by it and how he could get it across visually. He had a martyrdom aspect to him - not many artists would make the degree of self-sacrifice that he did."
When you meet Richard, he seems so calm and composed, yet his paintings are so full of passion. So where does it come from? The canvas is a battleground for him, because if there isn't some kind of struggle going on for the spirit of his work, then he isn't going deep enough, he's just skimming the surface, and the painting won't radiate the energy he wants it to. In deciding whether or not a painting is ready, he says he may not know exactly when it's finished, but he does knows when it isn't.
Back to his murals, having spent a lot of time Mexico, that country's muralists heavily influenced him: Siqueiros, Orozco and Riviera, who painted miles and miles of frescoes and murals.
Although murals are treated as national monuments in Mexico, Richard has not always been welcomed with opened arms in Canada as many people see murals as a precursor to graffiti.
His first mural was dubbed "the peace mural" and he painted it for Simon Fraser University back in the summer of 1977. He went on to do so many more and today they can be seen in Vancouver at the Carnegie, Strathcona, Ray Cam and Britannia Community Centers as well as in the courtyard of the Firehall Theatre and at the Four Sister's Housing Co-operative.
Back in 1988, he also worked on a large collaborative mural dealing with issues of racism at the Four Corner Savings Bank at Main and Hastings for the "Fear of Others/Art Against Racism" exhibition.
A group, spearheaded by Richard, called "Arts in Action" evolved from the "Fear of Others" exhibition, and it was established to address issues of public interest through the use of art by setting up multimedia art exhibits, public art presentations, educational seminars, workshops, poetry readings and music.
Continuing with his community work, he coordinated an international traveling mural for peace through the Richmond Arts Center. Called "Kid's Guernica," the mural brought together more than seventy teens and youth to paint a portable mural the size of Picasso's "Guernica," and was exhibited at the Vancouver International Airport.
He also worked on a project called "Walls of Change" which was a series of murals created in collaboration with a group of twenty artists, ten different organizations and hundreds of residents in Vancouver's downtown Eastside who took part in 140 workshops in three months. The intention of the project was to actively alter the look and energy of the area's streets. The result was a dynamic statement from a community that is more known for its daily tragedies than for the
Richard's volume of work is enormous. He churns out paintings like Gretzky did goals, but he maintains a high standard of quality for each of his works. He feels ill at ease if he's not drawing, sketching or painting - he needs to have graphite pencil in hand. He is one of those lucky few people who are doing exactly what he wants to do on this earth. He was given a gift and he's putting it to work. His next goal is to beautify some of Bangkok's ugly concrete with a mural campaign.