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Clint Neufeld: The Difference Engines

Over the past five years, the ceramic engine sculptures of Saskatchewan artist Clint Neufeld have won increasing recognition in the Canadian art world.

In addition to being featured in MASS MoCA’s upcoming “Oh, Canada” show this spring, Neufeld has had solo exhibitions at public art galleries across the country and was first runner-up for the 2011 Winifred Shantz Award for Ceramics.

Now, with a solo show opening at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon on March 30, Neufeld talks with Leah Sandals about his military start, farm heritage and more.

Leah Sandals: You started your work life in the military and firefighting sectors. How did you become an artist?

Clint Neufeld: When I finished high school, I didn’t know what to do with my life. And I didn’t do that well in high school academically.

I’d been in the Reserves for summer work, so when I graduated they phoned me and said, “We need guys to go to Yugoslavia. Are you interested?” And I thought, yeah this might be a good career choice for me. I trained with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in Calgary for six months and then did a six-month tour in Yugoslavia. When I came home, I sort of decided that wasn’t a good career choice for me. There’s just a lot of things that I had a hard time swallowing after my tour.

So I decided to leave the military. But there were aspects of the military that I did like; I liked that I didn’t have to decide what to wear in the morning, and I actually liked the work. It was just the institution that I wasn’t that happy with.

I thought firefighting could be a good option. I found a college in Brandon that trains people as firefighters, so I applied there and did a six-month program—got my EMT and different firefighting skills.

When I finished there, I started looking for work as a firefighter and I went to competitions all over Western Canada trying to get a job. But they kept telling me, “We like the skill set that you have, but we feel that you’re too young for this kind of work right now.” I think I was only 21 at the time, and they were looking for people that were a little more mature and stable in their lives.

The firefighting people said, “Come back in 5 years.” And I thought, “What am I going to do for 5 years?”

I had lots of friends who were going to university and everyone seemed to be having a really good time, so I thought, I’ll go to university. But as a result of my poor academic choices in high school, I didn’t have a lot of options.

So I thought, I’ll go into art, because I always enjoyed drawing when I was younger. And that’s where it sort of started. I did my first year at the University of Manitoba and didn’t feel I was going to pursue art as a career. I did a year off and travelled around the world.

When I came back I decided I should at least finish off my degree. So I finished my BFA at the University of Saskatchewan. And then, when I finished my BFA, I thought, “What do you do with a BFA?”

So I decided to apply for master’s. And I think that once I finished my master’s program at Concordia, that was the point at which I decided that this is what I was going to do for a career.

LS: And you didn’t just take up art, but a specific genre of art—ceramics. How did you get into that?

CN: Well, I’m not a ceramist by trade. Like, I never took any ceramics or pottery classes while I was in university. I was always more interested in ideas.

But I’ve always been someone who’s worked with my hands, whether it’s been fixing machinery on the family farm or doing renovations. So I always used materials and always felt that materials weren’t really neutral. They had a history and a context.

When I started the kind of work I’m doing now, the thought process was just that I really wanted to make a beautiful engine. Because I feel there’s these things that people neglect or don’t see, and they’re often greasy and dirty. But there’s certain amount of beauty that I see in them.

So when I decided that I wanted to make a beautiful engine, I started thinking about what materials would work best for that, and that’s how I came to the ceramics.

LS: Because your engine pieces are often positioned on chairs and couches, I end up feeling like they’re portraits of some kind—that they stand in for figures. How do you respond to that interpretation?

CN: I can respond a few ways.

One way I’d respond is that, you know, I’ve never really liked to be too specific about what my intentions are or what I want people to get out of my art. I think that’s sort of the beauty of art objects, is that they’re really open to all kinds of interpretations.

Part of the reason I went with the furniture was I’ve never really liked the pedestal. It’s never been my favourite display mechanism. And I had these fancy, ornate objects; I thought, What works for displaying these?

I think that the furniture aesthetic or end-table sort of thing that I mashed with them comes from my grandmother, who was an immigrant from England after the war. Being a sort of proper British lady, she had her shelves of trinkets displayed very nicely on doilies or on fancy tables and these kind of things. And for me, that kind of furniture seemed to be a good fit for the objects that I was dealing with.

There’s another thing I like about using the furniture: the engines that I work with tend to be older—they’re mechanical and somewhat obsolete in today’s automotive industry. So I like this idea that they’re sort of lounging or relaxing. And I think you’re right, it certainly lends itself to some kind of personal stand-in. The idea of a portrait is a nice way of looking at it.

LS: You mentioned your grandmother just now, while the title of one of your past exhibitions references your grandfather. Can you speak a bit about him too?

CN: Well, my grandfather was a Second World War vet, so growing up he was a really quiet sort of person. I didn’t really talk with him a whole lot when I was a child, but I lived just a few doors down from him and my grandmother.

During the summers, he would often call me over to help him paint the fence or mow the lawn or change the oil in the car. This would have been in the early 80s, and he grew up in the 30s with a really different sensibility about how things are done. I remember that when we would finish, we’d have solvents or oils or whatever on our hands, so he would get out this jerry can of gasoline—I just remember cupping my hands, and he’d pour my hands full of gasoline, and then he’d rub them. It was really the only time I remember my grandfather being sort of physically kind—he wasn’t a huggy kind of person, so for me it really sort of spoke to this way in which men interact.

This gesture of rubbing your grandson’s hands with gasoline is, on the one hand, a harsh thing to do—most people wouldn’t wash small children with gasoline these days! But on the other hand, it was a really sort of intimate moment. To me, it indicates the the way that men communicate: it’s not always through words, or even kind gestures, but there was a real kindness in that act.

The title of that show you’re talking about—“Grandpa used to wash my hands with Gasoline”—I like the title in relation to the work because it creates a context in which the work can be viewed while not sort of being direct about it.

LS: Thanks for speaking to that. I see a kind of tribute in your work to these older engines, these older pieces of furniture and these older ways of doing things. At the same time, you mention on your website that you hated driving a grain truck and that you actually don’t enjoy the process of putting real engines back together. How much is your practice an opportunity to pay homage to a way of life without having to live that way of life?

CN: I think that’s a good way of looking at it too, because people often have this assumption that I’m a car guy or I’m really mechanically inclined. And the reality is that I’m not. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, because these are things that guys are supposed to be good at.

So in a certain way, these artworks are kind of like redemptive objects. People are impressed by them—especially car people. And I feel like I don’t have to be good at fixing my own car, because I can make these things.

LS: What do you mean when you say “car people”?

CN: Like, gearheads or people who go to car shows. Most of the engines and car parts that I’m dealing with have very specific histories within the automotive industry.

The ones shown at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in 2010 were 1950s engines—some of the first large, powerful engines on the market. A lot of guys in the 1950s were dropping them into racing cars, so they have this whole history of people tinkering with them and making them perform better.

There’s a really rich history with some of these objects. So they’re really easy to recognize for people who are in that world. Which I kind of like. I like the fact that people who may not go into an art gallery or spend a lot of time with art know what these objects are. I like that they can exist in the realm of the gallery, but also in car culture as well.

LS: You mentioned earlier about wanting to make a beautiful engine. What makes an engine beautiful? Are there engines you find really ugly? Or are they all beautiful to you?

CN: No, they’re not all beautiful!

I’m particularly interested in older engines. Today, with most car engines, there’s some element of computerization—you know, fuel injection and these kinds of things.

Pre-1970s, everything was mechanical. And I like engines with that quality, because they lend themselves to someone fixing them in their own garage. Whereas now you have to take your car into a shop and they plug it into a computer to tell you what’s wrong with it. So I like the labour quality of the older engines, the fact that you would actually do it yourself.

In a certain way, I think it’s hard to get away from the fact that these are sort of nostalgic objects. But my interest is not in reliving the 1950s or moving back to that time. I think my practice is maybe more a way of figuring out where we are now.

“Clint Neufeld: Gasoline Alley and Other Sunday Dreams” opens March 30 at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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