My first memory of Meredith Lyman is of a striking young woman sporting Hello Kitty knee socks and a flared mini skirt, her jet-black hair tied up in two Princess Leia inspired styled buns. It’s Gay Pride parade in Ottawa, Canada in 1999, and Meredith is leading the pack of us through the side streets of downtown, skipping and smiling her way through the colourful crowd. The memory may be a bit blurry, but Meredith’s amiable appeal has not dimmed in the two decades I’ve known her. After years of being the struggling artist, Meredith’s art is getting the recognition it well deserves on the walls of various galleries and restaurants. Her images will wake you up. And possibly make you feel some discomfort. Her sensitivity to colour is what’s most compelling and defines her artistic style.
At what age did you begin to paint? Can you remember your first piece?
I started painting intensely at 15 or 16 years old. I used to dig through old boxes in the basement looking for old treasures when I was bored. One day, while playing in a trunk, I found a box of old gouache paint. I grabbed some paper from the printer and just started painting very close up faces — most of them anguished because I was going through that angst-ridden teen phase. In my early work and to this day, I tend to repeat the theme of faces and human figures. Later, I moved on to acrylic paint, which is the medium I continue to work in. I carried a little black sketchbook everywhere with me in which I would sketch in pen and ink, pencil, pastels, charcoal, markers or whatever I could get my hands on.
Where did you train?
I taught myself at first. I would carry a sketchbook everywhere and practice obsessively, because I was painfully shy and art was a place where I could always bury my head while in public. After high school, I attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I studied painting, drawing and printmaking.
How would you describe your art?
My images are intended to grab your attention and provoke. I hope they have an affect on the room they are hung in. Pop imagery inspires me. I’ve always been fascinated by the human face and its expression. More recently, I’ve started a series of birds as well.
What inspires you?
Colour. I can say so many things on the canvas that I cannot put into words. The range of all emotions, from joy to despair, inspires me, and I try to express them as best I can. I find solace in creating a visual conversation that I find hard to have in real life. It’s the emotional backlog of things I have a hard time saying that spills out into great big colourful displays that even I sometimes find terribly embarrassing. It’s like emotional vomit, and sometimes hitting that nerve in the viewer and making someone else relate to my work in turn fuels my emotions and can be a powerful way to relate to others.
Your work is quite sensual.
It goes back to my Italian-Irish Catholic upbringing. Sex is viewed as something bad and dirty that isn’t talked about. Good girls don’t do it. I was raised to look away from sex, which frankly made me more fascinated by it. Anyone who is raised like that can feel an undercurrent of shame. I chose to express myself in art with glee at poking fun at sex, and I enjoy provoking sexuality in my art and examining it close up. Sex doesn’t have to be serious.
You’re also a makeup artist; this seems like a natural extension of your painting. How do the two complement one another?
After art school, I needed a way to support myself. I was interested in makeup artistry before art school. After I returned from art school, I met a friend that was a successful makeup artist and decided to take a course and started working in television. It wasn’t a stretch to go from studying and painting the human face to painting on (actual) faces. I get inspired about makeup while I’m painting and vice versa. It’s a blessing that I can make a living doing both now. When I’m not on set surrounded by people, I really relish my downtime working from my home studio, while also having the flexibility of picking up a gig at the drop of a hat.
Was being a makeup artist initially a means to support the artist lifestyle?
Yes it was, and for a while, it kind of took over. Art took a backseat for years, as I never expected to make a living from it. People liked my work, but in the Ottawa market (where I live and which tends to be conservative), it was too provocative or too dark. No one wanted to hang it. I think over the years, and the fact that I am now in my thirties and not as full of aggression and mellowing out slightly, it has translated into more palatable art while still having a bit of an edge. Being self-employed as a successful makeup artist for the last ten years has made me more business-minded and I have been able to transfer those skills to promote my art. Now that my art has taken off, I have a lot of drive to treat my art as a job and stick to a schedule to deliver work on time because I’m so grateful to make money doing what I love.
You’ve shared in the past about how “art has always been an important outlet” and “that art saved my life several times.”
As a teenager, around the time I started painting, I was going through a period of depression. Art remains to be a way to quiet my mind and get my feelings out of my head and onto a canvas. I still use art as a form of meditation. It calms me when I’m upset or feeling down. I always feel like I know exactly what I’m doing when I’m painting. When I paint is the only time I’m ever really sure of myself without any self doubt about what I’m doing. When life gets chaotic, I find solace in my art. I love that I can turn feelings of grief into feelings of pride after pouring it all out into a piece.
How did you persevere and push forward as an artist during the darker times?
There were a lot of stretches when I didn’t paint. It’s not always easy to have the time and space to work. There were times where it just didn’t come to me as easily. The urge to paint is always there, though. It’s something I always come back to. A year ago, I hit a rough patch and was working a job I hated and was dead broke. I had the time and space to work, so I decided to throw myself into my art and set up half of my apartment as a studio. I was grinding out the pieces, whether people were responding or not. Once I started posting my art on social media, I started getting more responses and sold ten pieces to a restaurant in Aylmer, Québec. After that, there was a huge response, and if had a deadline, I had to push through to get the work done. Art became my work and I became disciplined.
Who are your biggest emotional supporters and motivators?
Several people close to me cheer me on and I receive a lot of praise and support on social media from friends and acquaintances after posting works in progress. It’s really encouraging to be followed by other artists whom I admire. I would have to say I’m my biggest motivator because I always want to be better and do more. Being told again and again I’d never make it or that I should quit and refusing to give in is my biggest motivator. Now to succeed is the cherry on top.
Top image: Meredith Lyman in the studio. All images courtesy Meredith Lyman.
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