TORONTO NATIVE & OCAD STUDENT TAKES HIS ARTISTIC PASSION TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Story by Lauren Cooper
Photos provided by Alexander Browne
Alex Mathers is a student at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD), who has found his passion and separated himself from all of the other incredible and talented students at the school. Mathers created the brand, The Pidgin, from scratch, and after a lot of hard work has designed a silk screen clothing company that currently focuses on limited-run t-shirts, tank tops and prints. With hopes of expansion in the future, Mathers continues to develop new products in his downtown Toronto studio. He spoke to Plaid about starting his new line, and what the future holds.
How and when did you first become interested in art?
It’s hard to pinpoint something like that, but one of my earliest memories is asking my mom to draw me a picture of Woody from Toy Story shortly after the first movie came out. My mom was a landscape architect and could draw pretty well, and I just remember being so impressed with these mystical powers she had. I loved the idea of bridging the gap between my childhood imagination and making something tangible that I could hold on to. Paper and pens are great tools for a kid like that.
How difficult has it been for you to establish yourself as an artist? Can you tell me a little bit about your creative background?
I think it’s something that’s difficult for anybody, but it comes in stages; you don’t go from zero to internationally renowned with one great design. I went to a very traditional liberal arts high school, so it was easy to set myself apart from the future engineers and lawyers there. My 12th grade art class only had four students in a graduation class of nearly a hundred. I was one of the only kids to apply to an art college, let alone attend one.
I got my first bit recognition outside of my own bubble when I was working at the Everyguyed Network, a collection of men’s-oriented fashion websites. I did some illustration work for them that they promoted really well, and it got passed around the internet quite a bit. Eventually it was on the GQ and Urban Outfitters’ blogs, the front page of Reddit a couple times, and made its way into print in Vanity Fair and Sharpe.
I’m still trying to stand out from all the amazing talent at OCAD, but it comes slowly and from just putting out a ton of work.
What are the biggest influences behind your work?
Recently I’ve been learning about the comic book industry, and reading a lot of graphic novels. My process is similar to comic artists, where I’ll draw everything out in blue pencil and ink right over it with a brush. A lot of my work has really sharp contrast like you would find in a Frank Miller comic [Sin City]. As for subject matter, I really just draw whatever I’ve been obsessing about lately. Lots of pop culture references like Batman and The Breakfast Club characters, to things like old Scottish castles, decommissioned lighthouses, and wooden ships with fifty massive sails. If there’s something I really want but can’t own, I’ll draw it.
Are there any art movements that have shaped your work?
The resurgence of comic books and graphic novels has had a big impact on me, but what I really respect are Renaissance era painters. The subject matter isn’t always provocative or edgy, but the old masters had some sort of wizardry with paint. Their level of observation and depth of colour just makes your knees buckle if you ever see them in person. It’s a hard feeling to describe but it’s stuck with me.
Do you know when a piece of work is finished and complete or do you tend to go back and forth making multiple tweaks?
Most of it is a gut feeling. You just kind of know when a piece is done, but the whole process is constantly adjusting small details that most people will never notice. I start with an idea of a finished product, and then the whole time I’m drawing; I make adjustments between what I see on the page, and what I see in my head.
What tool or medium could you not live without?
Some sort of eraser; It’s really liberating to know that you can fix mistakes. If I’m worried about doing something perfectly the first time, I’ll tense up and do a horrible job. So whether it’s an eraser or several sheets of fresh paper, it’s always important to have a backup plan.
What is your absolute favorite print and why?
My favorite print that I own is a limited edition Olly Moss print of a Squirtle, It’s one of the only pieces of art in my studio that I actually paid money for, and it’s just awesome. I’m not sure if I could pick a favorite print of my own, but right now I’d say the whale design that’s currently on the Pidgin tees. I had just bought a new fancy brush (Kolinsky Sable), and everything just came together easily while I was drawing it.
Where did the name “Pidgin” come from? What does it mean?
I‘ve been using “Pidgin” for the name of a silly Tumblr page I started. A Pidgin is a language that develops between two groups of people that don’t have any language in common. I imagine it as a really bad game of charades but that’s not at all correct. The reason I attributed it to my blog is that I only posted pictures and drawings and not a lot of words, but I still felt like I was communicating with anybody that would look through it. There are lots of interesting languages that develop between people online and through social media, not just words but what and how they share things. The same goes for my clothing and design. I like to show people my work without a lot of subsequent explanation.
What made you decide to start your own company?
I started The Pidgin as an excuse to do some personal artwork. I’ve spent most of my university career pulling all nighters to finish illustrations that I didn’t feel invested in. The sad reality of a lot of design work is that you’re working to put somebody else’s ideas down on paper, and I just wanted to do something uninhibited that I could really enjoy and share with people.
What is the physical process of silkscreen printing?
My process involves doing some drawings, scanning them, and paying some nice people in Kensington Market to silk-screen them onto clothing. The actual process involves some pretty heavy magic; basically you print the design on transparency, cover a fine screen in emulsion, and develop it in a darkroom with the design and a very bright light. When you’re done, the emulsion will have hardened around the outside of the design, but wash off the inside, and then you can use a big squeegee to press ink through onto a t-shirt.
How is screen printing a different creative process from painting, drawing, or other mediums?
The only difference on my end is that I have to consciously limit and separate the number of colours I use. Every different colour requires another screen, and another layer of printing. The clothing I have out now is all black and white so it’s a simple setup, but the Fall/Winter line will have quite a few variations and layers. It’s just something you have to constantly have in the back of your mind while designing.
How would you describe your drawing style?
Loose? I really enjoy tight renderings and a lot of fanciful detail, but when I actually get down to drawing I try to keep a loose hand and let it all develop as I go. The work I do for The Pidgin is usually a contrast between intensely detailed illustrations and clean, minimalist design.
Do you have an ideal customer? Tell me about him or her.
My ideal customer would be a lavishly dressed cat, wearing a monocle. I’d like him to slink around the studio and purr at whatever he approves of.
What sort of feedback do you get from your customers?
“Do More.” The Pidgin is designed to be a limited-run clothing company, so we only sell a few of each item. When they’re gone, they’re gone forever. We also only have a few different clothing items in the store at a time, but that will be changing with the Fall/Winter line: lots of options, but still a very limited quantity of each.
What are you currently working on?
More drawings and designs for the Fall/Winter line, of course! Right now I’m inking out a lot of filigree and intense baroque patterns, maybe some octopi. I’m also tentatively setting up an open studio night in the next few months, where people can come to our spot downtown, eat our food, and buy some original artwork that wouldn’t normally be for sale.
What plans have you got for this year and moving forward?
The biggest plan is to expand our line. More clothing options, more women’s specific clothing, more prints available online, more colours, and of course, fresh designs.
Where can you buy Pidgin pieces?
Pidgin work can be purchased at thepidgin.bigcartel.com or by appointment at our studio in downtown Toronto. There are some retail opportunities in the future that I can’t really talk about, but we’ll keep everybody up to date with our Facebook page and website.