Courageous, Outrageous Cranston

Toller Cranston’s artistry shook up the figure skating world but the visual arts remain his lifelong passion. 

Never one to back away from controversy, Toller Cranston, artist and legendary Olympic medallist in figure skating (1976) has grudgingly agreed to be a judge on CBC TV’s wildly popular Battle of the Blades (aired on Nov. 7 and 8). His soul is somewhat soothed by the exhibition of his art at Artworld of Sherway, at Sherway Gardens in Toronto, that debuted with an invitation-only launch on Nov. 6, then runs until Dec. 31.

Recently, he spoke to Jayne MacAulay, a senior editor at Zoomer magazine, about his passion for painting, his inspiration, life in Mexico and Battle of the Blades. The 40-piece Artworld of Sherway exhibition, called Breaking the Ice, does indeed have a wintery feel, with brilliantly dressed figures under a winter-darkened sky, some dancing on snow and, yes, a few skating. Cranston’s work is distinctive, his subjects highly imaginative. They’re colourful, dream-like, with faces beautiful, if mysteriously expressionless.

On painting 10 or 12 hours a day:
That’s no big deal. For people that don’t, I guess it sounds either obsessive-compulsive or too disciplined. But I have skated and worked those schedules for my whole life and I would never stop doing it. I’m living in a smallish town [San Miguel de Allende, Mexico] and of course there are many things you can do, but that’s what I like doing and that’s what I do. It’s extremely uncomplicated living there — I can cross the garden path between my house and the studio, and the day just goes by. So it’s Olympic work ethics.

On inspiration:
Like a vacuum cleaner, an artist’s eyes are vacuuming up images and if the [the artist] doesn’t exactly use them consciously, it comes out through the subconscious. It is madness to think that you can’t be influenced. I’m 61 and have seen every major museum of the world — you become influenced by everything you see and important artists. I’ve been to Russia 20 times, first in 1971. But the Russian experience and cultural experience was a confirmation of something [I was doing] and I really liked that. I guess it’s a sort of Russian Mongolian [look] in a way.

On preparing for an exhibition:
I am irreverent to tradition and establishment yet am splendidly obedient in an artistic context. If you were the skating teacher and said do it again, I’d do it again and I would never say no. If you say, “Do an exhibition with 50 small paintings,” I’ll do it. And then the creativity is within the discipline. So these [40 paintings for Artworld of Sherway] were done alongside other enormous paintings [for exhibitions in Winnipeg and Calgary]. Many people are inaccurate if they say small paintings sell and big paintings don’t. That’s not true at all. My understanding of art is a good painting will sell regardless of the size.

On the painting process:
If it’s an extremely large painting, [working on more than one painting at a time] sort of fragments the train of thought. But if it’s small, you run out of room you can work on because it gets wet and then you can’t do any more; you have to go on to the next. Very often, with certain paintings, you can see a similarity in colour because they would have been done at the same time.

On creative foresight:
I can see [a painting] exactly. Artists, writers and occult people learn to employ the third eye, which is the ability to see things without seeing it — a conceptualization or visualization. I have known about this since I’ve been eight. That’s not really unusual. Many artists do that. William Blake would have done it; certainly Michelangelo would have done it with the Sistine Chapel. By being up close, you can’t actually see the painting — you have to see it way before you’re doing it.

I do not question inclination. When we’re younger, somebody might think — it could be me — gee, I’d like to follow in the steps of Vincent Van Gogh and so you deliberately go after particular kind of style or technical ability. I never think that. I do not question what I do. In fact, I don’t even think about what I do. Magritte, the French surrealist, said in an autobiography that I read recently, “People must not try and read inner meanings hidden in my paintings.” He said, “The only thing behind my paintings is the wall.” And that, in a way, is true of me, too.

On living in Mexico:
In a way, my work has absolutely nothing to do with being in Mexico, but how can it not have an impression? I have owned now in Mexico for 20 years and have lived there permanently for seven.

I’m like an ancient kindergarten student because I’m now forever exploring colonial Mexico. I sit in the front seat with a driver and a book about 100 of Mexico’s most interesting colonial towns in my lap. I’m on this sort of auto mission of trying to see them all. And I have never yet been disappointed by one. My mouth is always dropping open it’s so fantastic. Zacatecas is a mining town north of San Miguel, but its renown is because of incalculable amounts of gold [and silver] that came out of there. The [wealth] is reflected in the architecture. The elaborate facades of the buildings and all the buildings — almost all of them are in a kind of rose cantera or soft stone and madly carved.

On judging the Battle of the Blades:
I have been quite outspoken about it since I’ve been to Canada. Because, shall I say, it does not embrace anything that I formerly thought of as skating, which is a very serious sport-art form. I saw [the show] secretly a week ago and virtually gasped in horror because it’s really not me.

Ratings are about controversy, and controversy is false and invalid if it’s not fuelled by intelligence and experience — but I have it. I do not really subscribe to reality television. I don’t know if I can be nice for that long; I’m going to try. I don’t wish to be irreverent and mean for an act. On the other hand, I respect anyone in the world that tries hard.

Part of my philosophy in all things is that I would be remiss not to embrace every opportunity if I can. I think people that do that move ahead. Opportunities are good, unless it completely flies in the face of personal integrity, and this [judging] is not that.

On art and skating:
But because I am an artist and because I was a skater, I believe that people must also have partaken in it to truly understand a medium.

I do not really involve myself in painting skaters because I was a skater but rather because I can enjoy skating by literally skating in the paintings myself because I understand it, all of it.