In this special series, The Globe and Mail partners with award-winning platform Wondereur to explore the diversity of contemporary art from a completely new perspective. The Globe and Wondereur will approach radically different minds engaged in culture across the country and around the world. Each month, we will ask them to share with us the work of a contemporary Canadian artist who deeply touches them. This month, Globe Arts editor Jared Bland talks to designer Bruce Mau about his childhood, enterprise design and the work of one of two artists he's selected for this project, Angela Leach.
Was there art in your home while you grew up?
No. I grew up on a farm outside of Sudbury, in the forest. We had the last farm on the road. And it wasn’t until years later that I looked on Google and realized, “Wow, I can see Russia from my porch!” There was nothing behind us for like 200 miles till you hit another road. Which is quite wonderful, as a place to grow up. But there’s not a lot of art there.
Not even religious art or folk art?
Not that I can recall. I mean, I made stuff.
Documenting the future of the art world, Wondereur is a ground-breaking cultural platform capturing the creative process of the most inspiring artists worldwide and providing exclusive access to their work. To learn more about Bruce Mau's pick in contemporary art, continue to Wondereur’s photo documentary on Angela Leach.
How young were you when you started making things?
Pretty young. I mean, all kids do it in school. And then I just got into it, I just loved it. And it became a passion to the exclusion of everything else. Photography, drawing, painting. When I was quite young my sisters did paint-by-number, and I could never do it – I just didn’t have the attention to do it. And I always thought, “Oh my God, I’ll never do that.” And I still can’t do paint-by-numbers.
I became a designer quite by accident. I didn’t really intend to. I loved words and images. And I loved putting them together. And I had an incredible teacher in high school – the last year of high school, I had a teacher named Jack Smith, and Jack, Mr. Smith, taught me, because I couldn’t get into art school. In high school I really didn’t take art classes. I just loved doing it. But I was studying math and sciences and I was going to be a scientist. And kind of at the last minute I decided I really want to be an artist. I went to the guidance office and said, “Could you, you know, how do you go to art school?” And they said, “It’s too late, you should’ve gone to art classes. You took the absolute minimum, how are you going to go to art school?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m 16 years old, it can’t be too late. How can it be too late? I’m just starting.” I said there must be other people like me. And they said “Yes, there is a program in the city. If you go there you could be in this program and you’d have to stay another year in high school and you would just do art.” And so that’s what I did. And Jack Smith was the father I didn’t have.
What made him so special?
He was an incredible teacher. He taught photography, offset printing, colour separations, printmaking, ceramics. He taught across all the different disciplines. And so I stayed a year, just doing everything that I could think of. Like, if I thought of it, I did it. And it was like, “Oh my God, this is the best year I ever had.” It was like, I just discovered this possibility and it was like magic. And so I would stay in school. The school bus left at 3:30, I think it was, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to go. And so I would work until the school closed at 10 and then hitchhike home, most often having to walk the last five miles. So that became my pattern: I go off in the morning on the bus and come back at midnight. And it was just a magical year and I discovered all these different possibilities. I was doing full-colour printing on a Heidelberg press that I refurbished myself for my own colour photography and that I was doing my own colour separations for.
When you were 17.
Yeah. I had a kind of experience with the material of printing. Not just the idea of printing but actually like very different when you’re mixing the ink and laying it down yourself, than studying it on a computer. I realize looking back that one thing really stuck out for me: Basically, I’ve been rebuilding my high school for the past 30 years. All that was a discovery for me, and it’s been one long life of discovery. I was just named as the chief design officer at Freeman Company, in Dallas. Freeman does half of all the live experiences, live events and conventions and trade shows in America.
Those could use a design boost.
Yeah, that’s right. Huge opportunity for design. And so we’re applying design to the whole enterprise, not just to the product. So we’re really working to apply design thinking to the way we purchase things and the way we produce things, and the way we design our processes and our meetings and everything about what we do, you know, we’re applying design thinking to those processes, and doing what we call “enterprise design.”
How would you define enterprise design?
It’s really looking at the whole enterprise as a design project. And that enterprise might be a government, it might be an organization, it might be a business, might be a product, you know, might be a company that makes a product. But the kind of principles of massive change, and massive change design, applied to the enterprise, produce a kind of new world view. You know, it’s a new way of seeing the world and seeing our place in the world. Because that is changing so rapidly, I mean the accumulation of scientific knowledge today is revolutionary on a scale that, you know, really hasn’t happened since the Copernican Revolution. We haven’t had the kind of world-changing perspectival shift since, as big as this one, since we realized we are not the centre of the universe.
What is the intersection of artistic endeavour with those new possibilities?
Well I think, and one of the principles of massive change design is “compete with beauty.” And if you look at, you know, for instance, this is on a very basic level, design-driven companies outperform the market by about 224 per cent over a decade.
Can you give me an example?
Coca-Cola. Herman Miller. GE. Apple. These are companies that are, they’re not thinking about design after the business is done. They think design is a business. Right? So they think, “Design is the business we do. And that’s how we produce the value that we create. And if we use design, and we use beauty to compete, we out compete everyone.” I mean the most valuable company in the history of mankind is the best application of design we’ve ever seen. It’s Apple. Apple understands that, you know, the technology doesn’t do it. The technology doesn’t give me a good experience. The technology facilitates my experience. But the design gives me the good experience. And in our business, at Freeman, we have a business of live experience. So if we design it using beauty, we will win.
How many people attend a Freeman event in a year?
Roughly half of America.
That’s incredible. And you will change that company so that everything is design-first?
Yes. That’s the mandate.
Tell me about Angela Leach, one of the two artists you’ve selected for this project. [The other, Micah Lexier, will be featured on Wondereur’s website next month.] How did you discover her work?
I was introduced to her by my friend James Lahey. James has a piece of her work, or maybe more than one. And I think that’s how I first saw it. James is such a brilliant artist, and really a pretty important collector, as well. He has an amazing collection. And that’s sort of how I first saw it and I really got interested in it and I kind of have been following her for a long time, and I just love what she can do. I mean it’s stunning. What she’s able to do with the plane of the image, you know, it obviously connects back to Bridget Riley, to Op art. Riley really did a lot of things that hadn’t been done before. It was really amazing work. And Angela kind of fits into a lineage with her. She’s like the 21st-century Bridget Riley, you know, kind of picking up where that left off but definitely taking it to a place where we’ve never been before. And working with colour and the kind of transformation of perception in a way that’s really quite profound.