Before you know it, you’re lost. The pace of your pulse quickens and you’re caught, a bystander in a world darker than you’re used to. It’s wonderfully strange, you can’t help but anticipate what character you’ll meet next. The longer you wander, the more twisted it becomes. Enigmatic seductresses and doleful children are two of Ray Caesar‘s main subjects, however his work maintains a sense of unexpected mystery. The 56-year-old Toronto-based artist carefully brings each of his observers into a world that reflects the walls of his mind. Suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, one can see how Caesar’s work serves as an outlet for the differing emotions he may feel at any given moment.
Crafting questions for an artist like Ray Caesar is never an easy feat, as there are so many facets of his private life he has touched on with the public that are indisputable influences to his work. Illustrating scenes that look like they could be plucked from an even more nightmarish Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Caesar uses 3D modeling programs to create picturesque characters that have the ability to remain etched on the memory for weeks to come, simultaneously magnetic and chilling, frightening while echoing sentiments of empathy.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to expand on the artist’s experiences and musings recently – without further hesitation, allow me to introduce you to the mind of Ray Caesar.
LF: You debuted a new body of work titled, “A Tainted Virtue” this month. Can you explain the emotions behind this series of art for us? How do you feel the term “tainted virtue” applies to your own personal life?
RC: I think we all have some confusion when it comes to virtues and vices. My own difficult childhood and life have left me with several disorders with which cope as best I can. I try to be a virtuous person and live according to some expectation I have for myself – it isn’t always easy and sometimes a complete impossibility, but I try and I never give up. Each life is fraught with personal challenges with obstacles to overcome, and some obstacles can seem overwhelming. I suppose I am saying that I would rather live a life of tainted virtue than no virtue at all…to overcome what I can and strive against those I cannot.
LF: You worked at the Hospital for Sick Children for 17 years, an experience that has indisputably influenced your work. In what ways has your art acted as a response to spending a vast amount of time around sick and neglected children?
RC: I found early in life to draw and to paint pictures as a way to communicate emotions I had no verbal way of dealing with. As a child I also dissociated aspects of myself in a picture for safekeeping, as the landscape of my childhood was violent, dangerous and frightening. I found myself doing the same thing during the 17 years I worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. I would become overwhelmed at seeing some act of cruelty to a child. Coming from a similar childhood, I had a tainted emotional response to how to deal with overwhelming situations that made me angry at what the cruel and unkind can do to something defenseless. So, I made pictures as a way of dealing with those emotions. I felt that if I place a troubling memory into a picture and put that picture away in a very tidy closet, I could relax my mind and function. I once had to work with photographs of a child that had been burned with an iron, with the scorched mark of the iron on its flesh. For the next 3 or 4 years, I could paint and draw nothing but irons – they still occasionally show up in my work.
I remember seeing a child struggling with cancer and saw that same child comforting her mother when the mother broke down in grief in the cafeteria. All those years at the hospital, I had no particular ambition – I never thought of myself as an artist or even allowed myself the idea that I could have a better life. I was in a kind of fog for the first 40 years of my life trying to overcome something so damaged in my own childhood that I couldn’t see a path of what was happening. I just made pictures and my pictures contained my emotions in a form of visual representation. The strange thing is that after I actually started showing pictures in a gallery, I had to talk and communicate about them, and that’s when I went into therapy as my work literally contained many years of deep, hard emotions. In a way, my pictures of those children saved my life and it is not lost on me that I now must live my life for those that didn’t get a chance to live theirs.
LF: I learned that you pursued life as an artist after having a dream where your mother, who had passed away shortly before, pushed you towards an art career. Can you tell us a bit more about how your dreams have dictated the direction of your life, and more specifically, your artistic inclinations?
RC: I had no intentions of showing my work in galleries many years ago. I never even put my work up on a wall and generally left it in the basement of my house or in a closet. I had not seen anyone in my family for many years when I got the news that both my mother and sister were dying of cancer. Since my wife worked in oncology, this brought my family back into my life for a time. Upon their death I had a series of powerful waking dreams; a form of sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming in which I often see visions or experience a form of communication that I call voices. I have had this since childhood and always thought everyone had these voices, but after the death of my mother, these visitations during rigid sleep paralysis became profound. I had actually given up making art for a few years but in recurring visions, my mother, while taking the form as a child, took me through galleries of work that she said was mine or within me. Therapy prefers to explain this as a form of dissociative identity disorder, a byproduct of my difficult childhood that has other ramifications in my life other than the dreams, such as panic attacks, and a form of post traumatic stress disorder.
I sometimes allow myself to think the occurrences are possibly more mystical in nature, as my dreams are sometimes inexplicably precognitive and have the odd habit of coming true. My voices tell me that both interpretations are right and valid, and that there is a benefit to the challenge of a dissociation disorder, just as all challenges have a negative as well as a positive side to them. They say the subconscious is the doorway to what can only be termed the “superconscious”, and it seems that in my building of subconscious worlds in which I chose to live and take refuge, I stumbled upon that doorway. I seem to have found the ability to remember my dreams simply by speaking out loud one word or sentence from the dream as I wake. I believe this places the dream from the subconscious into another part of memory that is accessible to the conscious state of mind. Sometimes it need only be a single word but it must be spoken aloud upon waking.
I also go into a kind of dissociative fugue which is like a prolonged daydream that is very deep, in which several worlds of my own creation have been built and improved upon over many years…some since childhood. I believe some people call this a “paracosm” and unfortunately this paracosm can almost swallow me and take me out of this world, deep into another, so it’s a bit of a struggle. My wife can recognize when I have gone off into one of these subconscious journeys and spends a lot of time bringing me back into this world.
Therapy helps immensely and has provided a foundation in which I do not get lost in the fugues and deep daydreams of my own imaginary worlds. With the tools I have learned, I balance the spiritual and practical aspects of what life has handed to me. I have no particular belief or disbelief in the mystical aspect of what happens to me, and the voices agree that it’s more practical to live in a world of perpetual, open “wonder” than to be constrained by rigid belief or disbelief, as we all live in a vast, multi-universe of endless possibilities and multiple realities. My work, or my artistic inclinations, are simply windows into this other world of my subconscious, and a reflection of my soul and the other souls I find living in that world with me.
LF: Who/what are your top five influences?
RC: I am sitting here and can’t even imagine what doesn’t influence me. I can’t pick just five things or people, and although I can certainly be influenced by other artists, I can also be influenced by what I see in the dumpsters behind the building where I live – which I occasionally pick through as people throw out the strangest things. I am powerfully influenced by my wife, Jane, and she has shown me how to see a possibility in living a happy life, which is something I once thought impossible. I am influenced by any courageous act of kindness and seeing people stand together for a good cause. I am constantly influenced by the simple joy and love I see in animals. Dogs in particular influence me to embrace the gentleness and ferocity of life with their open expression of love….it’s all good! Everything on this planet is good and I am influenced by all of it…both good and bad!
LF: Your medium of work utilizes digital 3D modeling software. Could you expand on your creative process?
RC: Much like the worlds I have created in my head, the software I use helps me create a virtual visualization of that particular paracosm, or what might be called an imaginary world. I make a world inside the computer that has depth, width, height, and form. It’s the perfect tool for me as I can create objects with other objects inside them – this allows me to hide things inside other things just as the mind does. Even when I turn off the computer, I know the saved file remembers my worlds in numbers, and that my world still exists in a mathematical probability. When I turn the computer back on, the world is still there with its corresponding dimensions of width, height, length, and form. In this way, the world of virtual, digital reality is not that different from the world we live in now nor the world I am creating inside my head.
Although I think of this method as creating pictures, I am actually sculpting and making movable dolls, whose surface is wrapped with textures of my own skin and the skin of my wife. I use a software called Maya, and to me, it’s just like any other method I use to make pictures. It is a tool, but I actually think of my medium as ink on paper. The tool is just a method of getting the ink on the paper. At the end of the day, the main tool we all use for creativity is our mind and our hand, whether a brush or a pen or a computer is used, it’s just an extension of that mind.
LF: Your work is wrought with emotion – would you mind explaining how you view the ties between your personal emotions and the art you create?
RC: I think all forms of creativity are a way of expressing emotion. Even in science and engineering – why would we need to cure a disease or build a bridge if not for the overwhelming emotional desire to achieve something new in this world that did not exist yesterday? Emotions are the fuel that drives life. Art, music, dance and whatever form of creativity you choose to pursue is an expression of deep and personal emotions. I know that when the Wright brothers flew that little plane made of spruce and muslin at Kitty Hawk back in 1903, when that little construction left the ground and took flight, they cried tears of overwhelming joy. Creativity can be big or small but it is the thing that expresses our emotional desire of who we are and how we feel about the world we live in.
I have no other choice but to put my emotions and feelings into my work and that expression has saved me a thousand times over. Emotions are the root of all that’s good and bad in us and all that’s cruel and kind. We have to evolve and learn to live with them and use them to do amazing and astonishing things, and understand they are who and what we are. I do not think it is a good idea to control emotions…it can sometimes work to dissociate from them for a time, but they will always come back tenfold if you do this. It is best to learn to live with them and realize they are part of the fabric of who we are. Art helps me to understand my emotions by creating a form of reflection, and by understanding them and knowing them, I can feel them in an appropriate manner. We can all see this reflection of ourselves in any piece of art. Don’t ask yourself what it means, but ask yourself how it makes you feel.
LF: How do you believe your artistic direction has evolved over the span of your career?
RC: I don’t really think I have a career, I make pictures and it just happens those pictures are a window inside my soul. I have watched my work evolve, and at times, I think it is a very slow process since what I make can’t seem to keep up with my desire of what I want to make – but that’s fine. I will just keep plodding along making pictures of things I want to see and what I love, that way maybe someone else wants to see and love them too.
LF: How fast do you live?
RC: I live very slowly. I am all about taking my own sweet, precious time in everything I do as I am in no rush to reach the end of my life. I don’t even know how to drive a car, I rarely take public transportation and generally walk everywhere I need to go, and I don’t even do that fast. I don’t think it’s the speed of life but the direction you take, and sometimes that direction is off the beaten path. In this way, life doesn’t become a race, it becomes a journey of discovery. I know I will end up in a place I couldn’t even have ever imagined…in fact I am already there living a life that should not have been a possibility for the likes of me. No speed could have gotten me here any faster as I would have missed a few crucial turning points in my hurry to get to a place I didn’t even know existed and didn’t even know was possible.