Q&A: Toronto artist Jay Isaac on the state of art in the city

Jay Isaac

When life threw Jay Isaac a blank canvas and an eye for beautiful objects, the Toronto-based artist turned it into a successful art magazine, an antique business and a thriving art career. The magazine is called Hunter and Cook and is distributed around the world, the antique store is the hip and carefully curated Silver Falls store on Queen Street West and the career has yielded colourful canvases that have hung on gallery walls around the city.

Life didn’t exactly hand the New Brunswick native lemons, but Isaac is drinking pretty good lemonade (with chia seeds, to be precise) these days. Isaac and the team behind Hunter and Cook are celebrating the magazine’s ninth issue and he’s about to open a new space down the street from Silver Falls that will act as  the headquarters for Hunter and Cook as well as a gallery. Recently, OurFaves caught up with the Tom Cruise doppelganger over a glass of the aforementioned chia seed lemonade and talked art, the cynicism that often accompanies it and how Toronto’s art scene is changing for the better.

The most recent issue of Hunter and Cook

Why did you start Hunter and Cook?

To really sustain yourself as an artist in Canada, you need to do other things. There just isn’t that kind of market they have in Europe and the States. So that’s where the magazine was born. So basically, just finding sustainable things that sort of compliment the art practice but in a way are an extension of the art practice too.

Hunter and Cook is something I do with Tony Romano who’s been a friend of mine for a long time. He’s an artist as well. So we started this out as an artist project and over the last three years and ten issues has developed into an actual art magazine that’s distributed around the world. It’s still in the realm of an artist project because it’s made by two artists, but we’re interested in ideas of power dynamics, how print media is a very powerful thing and how once the artist sort of starts that up, how that sort of power shift changes a little bit.

Also, the idea that as artists, you’re always involved in this very self-obsessed activity. Studio practice. Those things. Your own shows. And we thought it would be nice to go out of that and present other artists. We don’t show ourselves in this magazine. We’re purely interested in showing and promoting other artists. So for the most part, Canadian artists, the art director community and some international. So the mandate is basically to bring these like-minded communities together, from our point-of-view what’s interesting with no kind of excuses about that and to promote it to an international audience. So basically to give Toronto art a bit more of an identity than it already has.

So what’s the story behind the magazine’s really spare layout?

We’re not designers. We’re foremost visual artists – Tony’s more into media, I’m more of a painter/sculptor – and we’re screwing with ideas of design a little bit. It’s conscious, but we’re not designers, so in a way, we benefit from our lack of knowledge and design. Some designers, when they see this are just appalled by what they see. The way that we do things, but I’d say it’s half intentional and half not. It lends a freshness to it. So it’s really a magazine by artists and figuring out as we go along.

What do you get out of it personally?

I get a healthy distraction from my own work and supporting others. It’s a business as well. So we are running it as a business and there is, hypothetically, money to be made. But the main thing is what I get out of it is making this Toronto art community stronger. So it came out of this cynicism and dissatisfaction with what was already out there. So realizing that we’re in a sort of cultural bubble in Toronto, we wanted to make something that could benefit us as well if we made this scene a little stronger, a little more visible.

Jay's art

Where did the name Hunter and Cook come from?

Tony came up with it. He had this idea that there’s two kinds of artists working, or each artist has two different kinds of ways of working. One who’s sort of a hunter, who’s good at going out and finding things – they’re not really good at refining things, they’re searchers and experiential. Cooks are better at refining things, presentation. So those two aspects in each artist’s practice, but also two different kinds of artists. We’re playing on that idea of bridging that gap.

How would you define the audience for a magazine like this?

It goes across the board from art student to senior curator/art collector. Fashion, music, design magazine enthusiasts, art enthusiasts. I would say probably 50% of our audience is other artists who are interested to see what’s going on.

What is your hope for the consumers of this magazine? What do you want them to get out of it?

We want people to see what’s happening in Canada and we want people to get excited about what’s happening in Canada. I want people to be proud of it. The other thing too is just being inspired by looking at a good-looking object that’s well-made. Looking at something and being interested in it.

How would you describe the art scene in Toronto right now?

I would describe it as somewhat conservative, a little bit conformist, a few years behind the time – these are the negative aspects, I’ll get to the positives in a minute – pretty safe and a little bit fearful in terms of experimentation.

The positive things are there’s a lot of really great artists working here. The other negative thing is there aren’t a lot of collectors here, so art, no matter what, is an economy and artists obviously have a hard time making money. So in art centres where there are people supporting the arts more and more, that helps. There’s a lot of novelty collectors here who buy one piece and don’t continue with the artist. The institutions like the AGO are really not stepping up to support the community. If you’re going to have a vital community, you need your institutions to be supportive. The MOCCA has been really good, the Power Plant has been alright, but the AGO really needs to step up. And the collectors need to step up and there needs to be more writers and more curating because there’s a ton of really great artists with really, no where to go.

Hunter and Cook Issue #7

Do you think that’s changing?

A tiny bit. I think what needs to change is this self satisfaction that’s been here for a long time. People are just satisfied with that Canadian mentality of breaking even and that being a sign of success. I think there needs to be a little bit more drive towards, for a lack of a better word, greatness. There’s a fear of failure here. I like seeing people go all out and do really well or fail miserably. At least they tried something…we need to start being a little more self-reliant.

What do you think will drive a change like that?

Things like this (Hunter and Cook). I’m not trying to be self-congratulatory, but I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think it was a possibility. So there’s definitely a need for more community-based stuff. There’s a real selfishness when it comes to artists, even to the point where if someone hears about a grant deadline, I know artists who won’t tell all their friends. There needs to be a sense that if everyone’s doing well, then you’re going to do well too.

What would you say to an artist just starting out in Toronto?

I would say spend your first few years not being afraid of making mistakes. Don’t settle on one idea or one style. Once you’re out of school, just forget what all your teachers told you and just start figuring out yourself. Make a lot of mistakes. And realize that you’re in this for the long run and for an artist, there’s no such thing as quick fame or quick money. You may get a little bit, but it will die out very quick. So go slow, learn your craft and do lots of stuff. Include your friends, open up spaces, make magazines and put on music shows and all that stuff. Don’t wait for people to do it for you.

You graduated from art school in 1997?

Yeah, I went to Emily Carr in Vancouver. I grew up in New Brunswick and left there as soon as possible, went to school for four years at Emily Carr and lived in England for a couple of years and came here in 1999.

And you’ve been here ever since?

I moved back to New Brunswick for a couple of years to re-learn how to paint again through traditional observation. I just took an easel outside and painted. It was pretty great.

What keeps you going as an artist?

Probably perversity and compulsion. I don’t want to sound like a martyr here, but me and Tony talk about this. It is easy, and I’ve thought about moving away from Toronto many times and I’ve tried it out a couple of times and I’ve come back because I like the city. I like my friends and how comfortable it is here. But it is difficult and what keeps me going is the idea that it could maybe…I think if everyone left, it would just be this ***hole. It would just be a whole bunch of mediocrity, so I think there needs to be people who stay and just decide to give Toronto a bit more of an identity. It’s been lacking in identity for a long time…and it hasn’t quite gotten what Vancouver has achieved or Winnipeg has achieved. Toronto is the centre but it’s just never really gotten that self-fulfilled identity. And I think it’s going to take a few people not moving to New York or Berlin, even though I’m tempted many times.

Jay's art

What is your bigger plan down the road?

I’m not so good with the plans, but we’re opening up a space (for the magazine and as an art studio). In the big scheme of things, I just want to keep going, make the magazine better, bigger, more colour, wider distribution. That’s about it. The idea of this masterplan just hasn’t really formulated in my head yet. You know when you’re really in something, you can’t project that far into the future? You’re just kind of in it. So that’s kind of what I’m doing, just going along with it and seeing how it goes. And when it stops having the energy that I think is necessary, then I’ll stop it. It’s as simple as that. So with the magazine, what’s nice about it, I don’t have that attachment to it like I do with my own practice. So in a way, this feels very easy. It feels very easy to promote, it’s easy to get people excited about it because it’s not going around telling people to get excited about me. There’s an arm’s length thing. That’s what’s nice about. It’s like an externalized product.

Where do you go to look at art in the city?

That’s a good question. There are commercial galleries, like Susan Hobbs is good, Diaz, Jessica Bradley, Paul Petro. There’s a slew. There’s a lot of commercial galleries here. The Powerplant is one of our biggest institutions that has a lot of good stuff. The Hart House. The Justina Barnicke, Oakville Gallery does some good programming. Blackwood Gallery in the University of Toronto. And there’s just a lot of smaller artist-run spaces. Mercer Union is good. YYZ. MKG up on Ossington. There’s definitely options. There’s always something going on.

People like art here, without a doubt. There’s an enthusiasm for it and a desire for it. So that’s one of the strengths here. There’s a lot of stuff going on.

Interview by Maria Cootauco. Images courtesy of Jay Isaac.

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