Sitting in Starbucks with Mark Preston, it’s hard to shake the feeling of being in the artist’s own studio.
Not only do the walls of the downtown café display several of his works, but Preston has a small laptop open in front of him, as he frequently does here, working on a new design.
But don’t be fooled by the computer’s size. It’s capable of producing mega-sized designs for an artist who likes to work big.
The elegant, 8-ft diameter moon window in the new Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, for example, came from a design he created on this very machine.
Preston’s love affair with computerized design dates back almost a decade, to when he was invited to be the first artist in residence at the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat at Crag Lake.
At the time, the building wasn’t yet ready to accommodate the wood sculptures he had proposed.
“So my neighbours actually lent me a computer with this program, Corel Draw, in it,” he says.
“I spent three and a half months learning how to do computer graphics, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s basically the foundation of all my design work.”
While purists might object to a process that takes the artist’s hand farther away from the finished product, Preston considers the computer as just a tool to help convey his ideas.
“In the end, you’re trying to tell a story. How you achieve that is not that important,” he says.
“To some people, it might be, but I’m not going to hold back my future because somebody else’s ideas are going to limit me. I have to move forward with what is available to me.”
Preston says his extensive early work with traditional Tlingit painting and sculpture changed his perception of two-dimensional objects.
“One day the two-dimensional turned into three dimensional for me. I could literally draw it and see it in 3D form,” he says
“My mind was so connected that way now, it wasn’t just flat. You might not have exercised your mind that way, and all you see is a 2D drawing, but for me I’m actually experiencing it in 3D.”
The computer, he says, simply makes it more tangible.
“I work with a 3D program and I create buildings, I create sculpture. It just goes on and on what I create with this little thing, sitting in Starbucks.”
Technology, he adds, “actually allows us to go into our minds much more readily than before.”
The ideal of manipulating pixilated images echoed an experience Preston had as a teenager, when he saw a painting done with dots at the Farrago Music Festival in Faro.
“And I thought at the time, ‘I bet if the guy put the dots closer, they would look like a photograph.'”
A trip to the local library introduced him to the work of Georges Seuart, who popularized the painting technique known as pointillism.
“I started exploring that. My first portrait was of Wigwam Harry, from a Yukon News photograph,” he recalls.
Later, at 17, he did a stint painting gold pans under the tutelage of Edith Jerome in Dawson City.
“So I started painting with dots, but after a couple of years, I realized that nobody around here could afford my dots,” he laughs.
“It was about a penny a dot, and there were lots of dots.”
The Dawson-born artist is largely self-taught, except for a three-month introductory course at the Victoria School of Art.
An old Tlingit man. Photo courtesy of Mark Preston
“What I discovered there was that I didn’t need to go to school. I already had the basic instincts, all I had to do was hone my skills, but I had to focus on something,” he says.
What he chose to focus on was the traditional art forms from the Tlingit side of his mixed First Nation/Irish heritage.
“At least since the age of 20, I’ve been doing this traditional art form, so that’s over 30 years now. I cannot say I’m a master of it, because I’m always learning, I’m always exploring.”
Part of that exploration involves expanding into furniture design and taking a new, “very minimalistic, very bold, understated” approach to traditional Tlingit art objects such as house posts.
He compares this use of “very subtle lines” to the simplicity of Japanese haiku-writing.
“They simplified. And if you have any imagination, or if you have any strong intellect from living your life and from exploring and hearing and listening and reading, you don’t need to be told the whole thing,” he says.
After several years in Vancouver, coming back to Yukon for part of each year, Preston returned to the territory full-time four years ago. But he’s leaving again at the end of September.
“I have to go someplace where there are bigger walls. As an artist, I need to explore other marketplaces, and I figure Europe is probably the best place,” he says.
“The market base in Canada is three to four good months at best, and the bulk of the winter I’m spending my time doing small, trinkety, touristy kinds of things just to survive,” he adds.
“I’m at an age now that I need to expand my horizons past just surviving.”
Before he leaves, Preston will mount an exhibit of “anywhere up to 50 pieces” starting this Saturday, September 15 in the recently-opened Rah Rah Gallery at 6th Avenue and Strickland Street.
But even in the larger marketplace, the tech-savvy artist will carry several Yukon reference points from his fondly-remembered childhood on the trapline with his great-great uncle, Taylor McGundy.
He still calls his art route a “trapline” and his heavy art paper “pelts”.