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Kent Monkman, one of Canada’s most prolific painters, is standing before a group of models, trying to coax out their best B-horror movie impressions.

“Let’s see fear! You’re afraid these guys are going to beat the shit out of you. You’re afraid!” he says, vibrating with the energy of an overzealous drama teacher.

This group is clustered in one end of Monkman’s painting studio, a 3,000-square-foot space with soaring ceilings in Toronto’s west end. All the platforms, canvases, tables and brushes have been pushed to the perimeters of the room for the day.

The models, a group of Indigenous actors and amateurs, are stiff: too newly acquainted to give their all, to potentially embarrass themselves with the melodramatic expressions they’ve been assigned. They’re modelling for a painting reference, which is like acting on stage: Everything needs to be dialled up.

Monkman is asking them for screams – ugly screams. Some of the models take his advice. The camera shutter clicks.

“Next? Rage!” Monkman instructs, his tobacco-coloured eyes wide and wild. “Like, ‘Get out of here, motherfuckers!’” He sticks two middle fingers up at them.

A few more shutter clicks.

The models fan themselves and dab at the sweat on their brows. A powerful light has been mounted, at a high angle, a few feet from the ceiling. It’s meant to mimic the sun and creates hard shadows and strong highlights. “Painter’s light,” Monkman calls it.

He will shoot photos of this group for a few hours, give them a cheque for $80, and send them on their way. And one day their sneering likenesses will be immortalized in acrylic on canvas, perhaps hanging on the wall at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Art, or in the private residence of one of Canada’s top art collectors, maybe part of a travelling exhibition with stops in Paris and Denver.

Months before he becomes Kent Monkman the painter, he is Kent Monkman the director: overseeing a full-day photoshoot with 32 actors.

Months before he becomes Kent Monkman the painter, he is Kent Monkman the director: overseeing a full-day photoshoot with 32 actors. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In the prime of his career, Monkman is about as famous as a living painter can be in this country. He is separated by a few centuries from the Old Masters but everything about his practice suggests he could have been their peer. His inspiration, his technique and the way he operates his studio are that of a Renaissance painter at the top of his game; only, Monkman uses modern technology to bring his work into the 21st century.

At 52, he’s got the lean and toned build of a triathlete, radiant skin and haircut of an undergrad, and lives in a summer uniform of a black fitted tee, grey shorts and trendy Adidas kicks. The only sign of his age and the gruelling schedule he keeps are the bags under his eyes.

The Cree artist grew up in Winnipeg but has spent much of his career in Toronto. His catalogue of acrylics on canvas serves as a crash course in both Western art history and Indigenous studies. He’s not the first artist to flip the narrative of popular history, giving Indigenous players agency, but he’s certainly the most successful, with his signature mix of candour and irreverence. His travelling series Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience created so much buzz that during its final weekend in Toronto, the line to enter the gallery snaked out the door and wound along multiple flights of stairs.

Behind each of Monkman’s paintings, some of which have sold at auction for nearly $90,000, is an elaborate multistage process involving investment well beyond the cost of paint and brushes. For the first time, the Cree painter has lifted the curtain on his practice, offering The Globe and Mail access to his studio for three months to see how a painting goes from concept to completion. His point of view is unique, but so is his process: Monkman has styled his studio after the Old Masters, using classical, sometimes controversial, techniques and new technology to create art that casts Indigenous people – his people – in a different light.

“As I looked at these, I noticed there were certain similarities compositionally,” said Monkman. His inspiration for this series drew from art history references and photojournalism from protests.

“As I looked at these, I noticed there were certain similarities compositionally,” said Monkman. His inspiration for this series drew from art history references and photojournalism from protests. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Stage one

The artist’s concept

In 2016, Monkman was watching the news coming out of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota in quiet rage. Hundreds of protesters, most of them Indigenous, had been arrested protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It would cut through the Missouri River, endangering their water supply, they argued.

As he studied the images coming out of the protests, that rage was coupled with another feeling: familiarity. He’d seen these scenes before: Indigenous people staring down police clad in riot gear, land protectors tending to one another’s wounds, paramilitary officers violently arresting unarmed protesters. There were teepees and plumes of tear gas in the background. This was Standing Rock, but it was also Oka, Wounded Knee and Kent State University. This was news, but it would eventually be history, too. Much of his previous work had been inspired by trips to art museums or reading history books, but this time, he could feel an entire series bursting forth from something that was happening in the here and now.

In March, 2017, around the time Shame and Prejudice was wrapping up its exhibition in Toronto, Monkman started talking to Brad Tinmouth, his 29-year-old studio manager, about what would become known as “the protectors series”: a set of paintings based on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, told from the point of view of the water protectors.

Though Tinmouth is responsible for the daily function of the studio – creating a schedule for the studio assistants, arranging speaking engagements and travel for Monkman, reviewing requests for commissions, sorting out delivery of pieces at galleries and museums around the world – he has also become his boss’s creative collaborator. With a video-production background, he has been schooled in art history by Monkman over the past six years. The pair has travelled to Paris three times: spending mornings touring the Louvre and discussing what they saw, what excited them, what might be a good launch point for a series of their own. They can look at a Seurat painting and be inspired by the same forms; discuss the emotive qualities of an arm held just so in a baroque painting; laugh at Giacometti’s famous figure sculptures and then fixate on how to recreate them in the studio.

Tinmouth and Monkman mounted a pair of corkboards in the studio: On one, they put up a grid of iconic images from Standing Rock and historically significant standoffs of a similar nature, printed onto letter-sized sheets of paper; on the other, they tacked up another set of printouts – an art-history survey of battle scenes, most American Revolutionary art and paintings from the French Romantic period.

“I really wanted to make the contemporary feel historic and the historic feel contemporary,” Monkman explained.

Over six months, while juggling other projects, Tinmouth kept adding to the collection. The corkboards were pushed around the studio so staff could properly navigate the space as they switched between different canvasses to meet other deadlines. While the paintings are the bread and butter of the practice, Monkman’s studio dabbles in other media and it’s common for different projects to be in progress simultaneously. One afternoon, two assistants were building an installation in the wood shop, another was on a computer working on a virtual-reality project and three studio painters worked on canvases destined for three separate destinations.

At the start of August, one of Monkman’s employees, 26-year-old Jamie Chirico, who does everything from producing Monkman’s photo shoots to glad-handing art collectors at gallery openings, had posted two casting calls on Monkman’s Facebook page and on an acting website. One sought “Indigenous activists, models and actors” for a painting reference photo shoot about water protectors and Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. She put up another for “Caucasian male actors and models ages 25-40.” On the second, a man commented, “to be the fascist oppressors? I support the arts but I will pass.” Still, she received about 20 responses and cast six men in those roles.

A collaborative approach is taken at all stages of production at Kent Monkman Studio. On photoshoot day, his assistants helped set up lighting, style models and arrange shots.

A collaborative approach is taken at all stages of production at Kent Monkman Studio. On photoshoot day, his assistants helped set up lighting, style models and arrange shots. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Stage two

The artist’s subjects

If the idea of one of Canada’s most renowned artists basing his paintings on photographs gives you pause, know that Monkman himself had the same concerns. He thought it was cheating. “It was my own purist thing of what being a painter is,” he says.

Now he’s certain all the Old Masters would’ve embraced photography if it had been available to them. In fact, there were some, such as 19th-century French Romantic Eugène Delacroix, who did use photos for reference. They needn’t be thought of as a crutch, Monkman realized, but a tool that could help him sharpen his own skills.

“When you have the structure of your source material really nailed in your photograph, it really liberates and give you freedom to express with paint,” he says.

With photo shoots, he can experiment with adding movement to fabric, play with light to create dramatic shadows. He can merge photos to create more elaborate scenes than the ones he could stage live.

Years ago, when he did all his work on his own, Monkman usually planned what he wanted a painting to look like with a sketch or a smaller painting – an “image study.” Keeping that at his side for reference, he’d then move to a bigger canvas, filling in gaps with his imagination, improvising along the way. That system doesn’t work now that he has a team of painting assistants, so photo shoots have become a crucial step in his process. A sketched torso might look fine when it’s two inches long, but anatomical discrepancies become glaringly obvious blown up on a seven-foot canvas.

He’s not going for photorealism in his work, and in fact despises painters who strive for that. His practice is classified as contemporary art only because of the period in which he’s creating it – in many ways, Monkman seems like a soul with classical leanings who was simply born in the wrong century. He and Tinmouth often snark about what they don’t like in contemporary art, and the studio even designed a whole performance piece, Casualties of Modernity, in which Miss Chief, styled as a nurse, visits ailing art movements in hospital. The piece poked fun at performance art, Jeff Koons’s mass-produced mirrored sculptures and huge canvases covered in nothing but black paint.

Monkman’s casting call drew a mix of professional actors and amateurs. Many wanted to participate because they saw Monkman as a celebrity.

Monkman’s casting call drew a mix of professional actors and amateurs. Many wanted to participate because they saw Monkman as a celebrity. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

On the day of the shoot, the painters have time off. As the models filter in to the room, many pause to study a massive canvas. It’s a work in progress, a 12-by-24-foot painting called Miss Chief’s Wet Dream, which Monkman and his team have been working on for two years.

There’s a giddiness among the Indigenous participants, who are a mix of professional models and Monkman fans. Many are trying to get a bit of face time with the painter, asking for selfies, gushing that they really, really love his work. One of them, 56-year-old Nicole Tanguay, reminds him they crossed paths in 1993, when one of his early paintings ran in her niche magazine. He doesn’t remember, but is warm and familiar with her anyway, learning her name quickly as well as those of everyone else in the room.

He first assesses the costumes of the water protectors. His eyes widen with delight when one woman shows him a pair of red suede tassel earrings she’s brought (they look like an accessory borrowed from the jewellery box of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s two-spirited alter-ego who is a recurring character in his work). When another woman asks where she can go to apply makeup, he points her in the direction of the bathroom, but warns her not to put on too much – heavy eyeliner makes it hard to see the shape of the eyes when he’s painting.

Before the shoot begins, a racial divide has been established. The Indigenous models are talking to one another, trading compliments over cute mukluks or a beaded accessory. The white men cast as cops stand on their own in their street clothes, shuffling their feet, staring at the ground, pulling open a book to read.

A week before the shoot, Chirico and Tinmouth made a trip to Movie Armaments Group, a massive costume and prop warehouse in Toronto’s east-end film district. They had a long list: police uniforms, tactical vests, rifles, helmets, pepper spray canisters, riot sticks. An employee said he’d send them an estimate but hinted it would be expensive. As the white men file in, Chirico greets them and shows them what they’ll be wearing. Once they’ve put their uniforms on, they look even more unapproachable.

In a single composition, models were arranged and rearranged again and again. “We were being very watchful of where hands were placed, the directions of people’s gaze, or how their face received the light,” Monkman said. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

At about 9:30 a.m., everyone is in costume and ready to begin posing for photos that will become the basis of a series of six to eight paintings. Monkman is carefully studying his iPad, where he’s loaded up the John Trumbull painting The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, one of the paintings on the corkboard. In it, the general has been hit, has fallen back and is tended to by the anguished soldiers around him. A single Indigenous soldier stands in the background.

With the confidence of a seasoned director, Monkman tells 11 models where to stand, how to drape their arms, always looking back at the iPad to ensure the shape of the group works. Instead of the general, a young Indigenous woman is the fallen soldier, and she’s tended to by other protesters in a chaotic huddle.

The shoot carries on like this: Tinmouth calls out a number, which is assigned to a particular painting tacked to the corkboard (and loaded in a folder on Monkman’s iPad), and models are loosely arranged to mimic some element of it. Next is arrangement three, inspired by Charles de Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers, and later they do another, loosely based on Joseph Nicolas Robert Fleury’s Scene of Saint Barthelemy. When it comes to the emotional punch, Monkman and Tinmouth turn to the other corkboard with the photos of real protests and standoffs on it for inspiration: faces contorted in primal screams, others stoically returning the gaze of soldiers.

It becomes clear as the morning wears on that the two models who are best at emoting in the group are Annie Akavak, an Inuk woman with achingly sad eyes, and Justin Sudar, with the long brown hair and carefree scruff of an indie rocker. Monkman makes them the central players in a series of shots, including one based on a Standing Rock photo of a protester who’s been pepper-sprayed, getting his eyes rinsed out with water.

As instructed, Akavak tilts a bottle of water to an angle so the liquid slowly trickles down into Sudar’s eyes. He squints and scrunches his face in pain. Monkman tells her to pour higher, on Sudar’s temple, so that bottle’s shadow doesn’t cross over his face. She does this a few times while the front of Sudar’s shirt gets soaked.

The casting call said, “Preference given to those with acting experience.” During the photoshoot, Monkman hoped to draw out dramatic expressions like the ones Caravaggio captured in his paintings. The casting call said, “Preference given to those with acting experience.” During the photoshoot, Monkman hoped to draw out dramatic expressions like the ones Caravaggio captured in his paintings. The casting call said, “Preference given to those with acting experience.” During the photoshoot, Monkman hoped to draw out dramatic expressions like the ones Caravaggio captured in his paintings. The casting call said, “Preference given to those with acting experience.” During the photoshoot, Monkman hoped to draw out dramatic expressions like the ones Caravaggio captured in his paintings.

The casting call said, “Preference given to those with acting experience.” During the photoshoot, Monkman hoped to draw out dramatic expressions like the ones Caravaggio captured in his paintings. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Throughout the shoot, Tinmouth repeats the word “lamentation” to Monkman. It’s code, a reminder of a different source of inspiration that doesn’t even need to be tacked to a corkboard: The Lamentation of Christ. The depiction of Jesus being mourned right after his body is removed from the cross was a popular subject in western art history from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period. It’s a strong undercurrent in nearly every group shot taken this day.

A monitor is connected to the camera and Tinmouth studies the photos as they display instantly in front of him. He marvels at one in particular, where Sudar is giving off a particularly Jesus-y vibe. “That could be its own painting” he says, in awe.

On a break, Tanguay tells me some of the scenes she’s stood in for – being roughed up by police, getting arrested – have been a little traumatic. They’ve stirred up memories of protests she’s attended. At one point, after a particularly violent scene, one of the Indigenous models burns sage to cleanse the space.

Monkman has been easygoing and professional with the white models playing the cops but shows extra warmth and familiarity around the Indigenous models. Maybe he’s trying to put them at ease, since many of them aren’t professionals, or perhaps he feels greater kinship. At this point the two groups have mixed a little – in some of the more violent scenes, the cop models whisper genuine apologies between shots.

Using a projector, studio painter Laura St. Amant begins the multi-day task of tracing outlines onto canvas for another painting in the protectors series.

Using a projector, studio painter Laura St. Amant begins the multi-day task of tracing outlines onto canvas for another painting in the ‘protectors series’. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Stage three

The artist’s apprentices

Monkman is best known for his bait-and-switch paintings, such as 2013’s History is Painted by the Victors. The unassuming gallery visitor approaching this piece would at first see a gleaming lake with a mountain behind it. The visitor might take a few steps closer to admire the palette of the sky and the snow-covered mountains done in the style of American landscape artist Albert Bierstadt, but then the action in the foreground would come into focus: Miss Chief standing at an easel in nothing but thigh-high red stiletto boots, painting large groups of naked white men frolicking and lounging. A close look at the canvas on Miss Chief’s easel reveals she’s recreating the Battle of the Little Bighorn as done by a Lakota Sioux warrior. This is classic Monkman in trickster mode.

But this new series veers from that tradition. It’s darker and moodier.

“There is a seriousness in these paintings that needs to be accounted for,” Tinmouth says. “Miss Chief doesn’t really need to live in those paintings because there isn’t really a place for humour in this series.”

Monkman has turned especially to Caravaggio for inspiration, to figure out “how sadness could be portrayed in the body, how fear could be communicated in the expression of a human limb or the twist of a neck.”

After the shoot, studio manager Brad Tinmouth reviewed the 3,000 photos and began merging some to create composites that could then become ‘image studies’ for paintings.

After the shoot, studio manager Brad Tinmouth reviewed the 3,000 photos and began merging some to create composites that could then become “image studies” for paintings. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A few weeks after the shoot, Tinmouth reviewed more than 3,000 snapshots and sat down with Monkman to show him the handful he’d put aside (this was actually an efficient exercise – another series, Rendezvous, produced 15,000 images). With his boss’s input, Tinmouth then used Photoshop to flip, crop, rearrange and combine the photos into image studies for the series’ paintings. Some composites started with a photo of just a few people and Tinmouth populated the background with more. The first digital mock-up he completes is a clash between two unarmed Indigenous women and three police officers in tactical gear. The officers are brandishing rifles and riot sticks and they sport helmets that hang low over the eyes. The women are on the ground, terrified, bracing themselves for blows.

The studio team sets up an opaque curtain creating a little cove in which Laura St. Amant, one of Monkman’s painting assistants, can use a projector. She’s of mixed heritage: Métis, Anishinaabe and European with the black wardrobe and carefully applied makeup of a serious arts student. She turns the projector on, and Tinmouth’s Photoshopped image appears on a prepared canvas. St. Amant is using the projection to trace the lines of the painting onto the canvas and to fill in silhouette of the bodies with a base layer of paint.

Monkman insists on investing the time to properly project and trace outlines and block out figures on all his large canvasses. Inaccurate proportions on an 11-foot-wide painting are hard to ignore.

Monkman insists on investing the time to properly project and trace outlines and block out figures on all his large canvasses. Inaccurate proportions on an 11-foot-wide painting are hard to ignore. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

She begins this process the way she always does: by blocking out the characters in Naples yellow, the perfect base on which to paint skin of any hue. It’s a warm, buttery shade, one of the oldest synthetic colours, originally made by heating lead and antimony together. The Babylonians used it on bricks 2,500 years ago; in Monkman’s studio, it’s usually the first shade put on the canvas.

St. Amant is the newest and youngest of Monkman’s three painting assistants. The 23-year-old trained at OCAD University to become an oil painter, followed Monkman’s work on Instagram and then, upon finding the accounts of his staff, followed them as well. This got Tinmouth’s attention. He was impressed with the work St. Amant posted and, in an Instagram direct message, asked her to come in for an interview.

Monkman runs his studio like a Renaissance atelier, where the master is assisted by a team of apprentices. When works were commissioned by Rubens and Rembrandt, their pupils would often take up the lion’s share of the task – perhaps leaving the difficult details of hands or faces to their masters. Today, the practice continues, though not all take well to it.

At one of his shows at the Royal Academy, the British painter David Hockney put up a sign that said, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally,” which he later admitted was a direct jab at Damien Hirst who, like Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei and Kehinde Wiley, employs a team of assistants.

The work of three hands is in this painting, but when the canvas is finished, Monkman’s hope is the viewer won’t be able to tell where one painter finished and another began. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Monkman’s coterie of seven assistants is large in Canada, where most artists work solo, but impressively small when one considers the volume of work they put out. It was necessary to hire a crew: Much of his days were eaten up with administrative tasks, such as supply runs, leaving little time for painting. Five years ago, when he did much of the painting on his own, he was only producing 10 to 12 pieces a year, but with help, Monkman has completed 20 paintings already in 2017, as well as installations, live shows and other projects.

He says having assistants doesn’t mean he’s checked out of production, but rather that he’s grown extra sets of hands. If a viewer can’t detect which parts of a painting he’s completed and which his assistants have, that’s a sign the system works. His goal has always been to disappear in his work. When the Old Masters made copies of one another’s paintings, he explains, that was their intention as well. “The ego wasn’t in your brushstroke. Your work wasn’t so readily identifiable on the surface but in the much larger vision and body of work.”

After two days, St. Amant is finished with the underpainting and can begin the real work on the canvas. She paints in parts of the characters’ bodies and builds up their darkly coloured clothing with several layers. Before joining the studio, she’d worked primarily with oils and went through rigorous training on the job, learning the specific technique Monkman liked to load paint on the brush, the types of detailed strokes used to achieve particular textures, the way he mixed gloss medium into the paint to create a luminosity that is normally difficult to achieve with acrylics.

They don’t have their names associated with paintings when they’re completed, but plenty of young painters covet a spot on Monkman’s team simply because it’s a paid, full-time position. Many have honed their skills in his studio and then moved on to create their own practices.

They don’t have their names associated with paintings when they’re completed, but plenty of young painters covet a spot on Monkman’s team simply because it’s a paid, full-time position. Many have honed their skills in his studio and then moved on to create their own practices. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

After several days of work, the painting is then handed off to Cindy Esteves. She’s a thin and graceful 28-year-old who runs her own studio, where she works with oils. After a long day of painting, she’ll sometimes sit in front of her own canvas but find herself still in Monkman mode: employing the specific techniques she must use on the job.

Another one of Monkman’s painters had referred her, but told her what to expect: An assistant might spend several days painting a house and then Monkman would decide it wasn’t working there and ask her to take it out. When I was there, I saw one character in Miss Chief’s Wet Dream – the huge 12-by-24-foot piece – being repainted for the fourth time.

“Because it’s not mine, I shouldn’t have that attachment to it,” Esteves says. “But it’s so hard to produce something and produce it well if you’re not putting yourself into it.”

Megan Stiver, the third painting assistant, was recruited by Tinmouth at a low point after graduating from Sheridan College: She couldn’t even get hired by Tim Hortons and had moved to Port Perry, Ont., to find work. Now she has what many of her fellow art-school graduates would consider a plum gig: a full-time paid position as a studio painter.

But she points out another reason not to get too attached to the work: “We’re so proud of what we’ve created but we don’t get to stand in front of a crowd and be like, ‘This is what we’ve created.’ And we give up that in exchange for this opportunity to learn and create and be here in the city.”

Even when deadlines change or shows fall through, there is never any idle time at the studio. New work is tackled, old canvasses are brought out of storage to finish and ongoing projects – like the 12-by-24 foot painting <em>Miss Chief’s Wet Dream</em> – are revisited.

Even when deadlines change or shows fall through, there is never any idle time at the studio. New work is tackled, old canvasses are brought out of storage to finish and ongoing projects – like the 12-by-24 foot painting Miss Chief’s Wet Dream – are revisited. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Stage four

The artist

To the untrained eye, the protectors painting, They Are Warriors, looks close to finished. Esteves has finished her work on it and passed it on to Monkman. The protectors’ clothes are vibrant, every tiny pocket on the officers’ tactical vests is detailed. Sure, the rocks in the foreground need to be filled in and two of the characters are missing hair, but once those little tasks are completed, what’s left, really?

A lot, actually. This is Monkman’s favourite stage. This is the firing of a ceramic mug, the colour grading on a feature film, the mastering of an LP.

In a quiet orderly manner, Monkman raises the height of the easel, attaches an iPad to a custom-built wooden arm on it and loads the reference photo. He squirts a blob of brown paint from a tube and with a palette knife mixes it with red and green to create a rich chestnut. When he’s painting, he transforms: his face elongates, cheekbones sharpen, eyes harden in concentration.

Working on hair, he paints the narrowest wisps first with a tiny brush, building up colour and texture slowly and purposefully, then uses a bigger, flatter one in quick, confident strokes to create wide, glossy sections. His assistants almost always leave this part of the painting for him. “It’s one of those things that they’re not at that level yet,” he says. “Sometimes they’re good at it, sometimes they’re not and I like all the hair to look the way I want it to look, so I tell them to leave it.”

Even when Esteves feels she has advanced a particular section of a painting pretty far, she knows Monkman’s understanding of highlights and shadows will transform it once he puts his brush to canvas. This isn’t always easy: Sometimes a photo will have flat lighting, so Monkman has to create dimension using his intuition. “He’ll be pushing and pulling with lights and darks a lot. He’ll understand how to add in shadows or reflections,” she says.

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Explore an annotated version of the final painting

They Are Warriors final painting with annotations

A week before the photo shoot, Kent Monkman’s studio manager, Brad Tinmouth, and photo-shoot producer Jamie Chirico went to Movie Armaments Group in Toronto’s east end, a warehouse of replica weapons, accessories and police and military outfits commonly used by film and TV studios. Their shopping list included uniforms, plastic handcuffs, guns, clubs and pepper spray.

Each painting begins with research. Kent Monkman and studio manager Brad Tinmouth devour news reports about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and pin iconic protest photos to a mood board. On another, they pin art history inspiration: battle scenes from the French Romantic period.

Kent Monkman’s assistants can spend months carefully building up a painting to an almost-finished state but, where a character’s hair should be, they will usually leave just a base layer of Naples yellow. Hair is one of the more difficult things to paint with quick-drying acrylics, so to achieve a consistent look in texture and sheen, Monkman prefers to paint it in himself.

During a full-day photoshoot, Kent Monkman and Brad Tinmouth direct 32 models – some playing water protectors, others cops – in a range of tense scenes inspired by their mood boards. At the day’s end, they have 3,000 images to use as references for a series of paintings.

Unlike many of his previous works, which have featured mountain landscapes or the gritty streets of North End Winnipeg, Kent Monkman wanted a more neutral background in these pictures so the audience would focus on the action between the police and protesters.

“I was borrowing a lot of influence from Caravaggio in this series,” he said. “Much darker backgrounds, less detail in the background areas. It was a choice to create a bit of a shift and really pull the focus to the emotion of the figures, the expression of the human faces and the action of the figures and the violence that’s going on in each scene.”

Kent Monkman has found a way to fake the luminosity of oils: using several translucent layers of acrylic paint mixed with gloss medium. Laura St. Amant, one of Monkman’s assistants, painted 20 layers to build up the grey in this hoodie. When Monkman took over, he added yellow highlights and final layers of gloss.

When models arrived on set, Kent Monkman personally assessed their clothing. Busy patterns were rejected (they’re a nightmare to paint), but accessories that were a nod to Indigenous heritage — such as mukluks, moccasins and feather earrings — were embraced.

They Are Warriors
72” x 48” - 2017
Acrylic on canvas KENT MONKMAN STUDIO

As Monkman finishes this painting, he’s juggling a few other tasks. After years of searching for a new studio, he has found one. This one is five kilometres away and more than twice the size of the current one he rents. Before the big move, the team is racing to finish Miss Chief’s Wet Dream. Its mammoth size makes it a tough sell in a niche market, but there’s a growing appetite for Indigenous art, and especially Monkman’s work, south of the border. Two series are on display at Peters Projects, a massive commercial gallery in Santa Fe, and several of his paintings – including The Scream, the centerpiece of Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice show – were purchased by a pair of collectors in Denver and donated to the Denver Art Museum.

Ruth Phillips, an art historian at Ottawa’s Carleton University, said she was horrified to learn The Scream, which depicts Mounties, nuns and priests violently rounding up Indigenous children to send them to residential schools, was sold across the border. To Phillips, a fan of Monkman’s work, this depiction of a very painful and essential moment in the country’s history belongs in a domestic museum. Tinmouth gets her point but is blunt about the fact that at the end of the day, Kent Monkman Studio is a business. “It would be great to have it at a museum in Canada but they’re not buying work. No museums have budgets. We can’t hold a piece back for cultural reasons. We’re a studio that has to produce,” he says.

Monkman’s work sells at a high price for a Canadian painter who’s still alive. Two paintings for sale at a gallery in Victoria – Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain and The Allegory of Painting – are listed for $75,000 and $45,000 respectively. But with the 50/50 split between gallery and artist that is standard in the industry, the returns on a painting aren’t as much as one would think. Monkman lives a life of little luxury, Tinmouth says, and prefers to reinvest what he makes from sales back into the studio: for staff salaries, supplies, bills.

With success comes the expectation that Monkman be much more than an artist. The studio fields three to four weekly requests for him to speak, to be on a panel or do yet another interview. Sometimes they offer a small fee, or nothing at all. He says no, often. Taking even 30 requests a year would mean 30 days of lost productivity or, even worse, cutting back on what he calls “County time.” Monkman owns a property in Prince Edward County, a few hours east of Toronto, which functions as his haven. It’s where he reads and researches and paints anything that’s on a canvas small enough to fit into his minivan.

Monkman’s work fetches good prices, but Tinmouth says much of the artist’s earnings are reinvested in his practice: on Herman Miller chairs, to buy the best supplies for his painters, to hire staff.

Monkman’s work fetches good prices, but Tinmouth says much of the artist’s earnings are reinvested in his practice: on Herman Miller chairs, to buy the best supplies for his painters, to hire staff. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

On a Friday afternoon in mid-November, after several days of work, Monkman is putting the final touches on the painting, every inch of which has been transformed in some small way. He’s added a reflective quality and light scratches to the plastic face shields on the officers’ helmets, a glossiness to their guns. He’s filled in the foreground with rocks and a few scattered plants and added a braid of sweetgrass to a water protector’s hand. He’s contoured faces, using highlights and shadows to elevate expressions from concerned to terrified.

Monkman says he always knows when a painting is done – it’s just a feeling he gets when looking at it. But after he’s put down his brush, Tinmouth will give it a proper once-over and use bits of green painter’s tape to mark spots he thinks need a bit more work.

Monkman’s eyes sweep over the whole painting, from the top corner and down. As he’s doing this, Tinmouth comes by and studies it himself.

“How about this?” Tinmouth asks, pointing to a small triangle of background on the painting between a water protector’s thigh and calf. “Maybe put a little wiggle in there.”

“Oh, that gap there? Yeah, that’s true,” Monkman says. Then his eyes start wandering to other parts of the painting, looking to catch anything else that’s left before Tinmouth can.

“See, I don’t like when the green-tape guy comes in too soon because I’m not done yet!” he says. “Brad goes to the Louvre and puts green tape on things.”

Tinmouth, laughing, takes that as his cue to keep walking.

Monkman leans back in his chair and scrutinizes the painting with a furrowed brow. He loads a bit more paint on his brush and takes it again to the canvas. He’s almost there.