Claire Milbrath is a Canadian artist, writer, and editor known for her contributions to contemporary art and her role in the creative industry. As the founding editor-in-chief of "The Editorial Magazine," a publication focused on art, fashion, and culture, Milbrath has played a significant role in providing a platform for emerging artists and creatives. Her artistic endeavours often explore themes of intimacy, femininity, and personal narratives through various mediums such as painting, drawing, and writing.
I wanna start by asking you about taste. I feel like it might be a good entrance to talk about your work with Editorial Magazine and as an artist. I was talking with an art director recently and they mentioned one of the most important aspects of art direction was having taste, good or bad. I’m wondering what that word means to you?
It’s hard to articulate taste, because I feel like it’s an intuitive feeling. For me, I’m really visual so I see something and it immediately clicks with me or it doesn’t. Editorial has always been hard to articulate in that way. I’m drawn to the things I’m drawn to. The editors and I are all really close friends so it helps having a group sharing the same interests. Like, when I see those boxes checked in interviews with artists, I get an excited feeling. Then curating a project, there are some parts that are a little more mechanical. Like, I want to have a little more music mixed in, for example. If it was just a magazine for me, I’d do all visual art and then some interesting essays, but I feel like I want to have a platform for fashion and music as well. So, that part’s a little more mechanical.
What do you mean by mechanical? Are you referring to the process of curation, or is it more like you’re servicing something, like a mechanic?
My taste for art feels intuitive and almost abstract. I can’t really explain it, it just feels right or wrong. I guess I have to use more logic for music and fashion, like get the background on the artist, and take a temperature test on our editors if they're into it.
You mention intuition when it comes to your taste in art, and that might be difficult to explain, but do you find yourself drawn to art that is similar to what you would make? Or are you drawn to it because there is something there you want to discover?
It’s interesting because my art feels really separate from Editorial. I have a different body of work that I’m looking at when I’m creating my work. I don’t know why I keep them so separate. I guess I feel like I want to stay loyal to the original vision I had for Editorial. I guess I would define that as youth culture and things that are a little bit weird, and have a sense of humour. For my own painting I’m drawn to traditional art history, which doesn’t feel as interesting for Editorial. I always think it’s funny I have two wells of inspiration: my private one that is mostly artists from a hundred years ago, and then Editorial which is very current and a lot more edgy.
Although they are separate, do you draw energy from one and feed it into the other?
I definitely think there is some kind of tension or relationship between the two. In a way, I use my two projects to motivate the other. I kind of like antagonizing one of them. If I work on Editorial for a couple weeks, I’m kind of dying to paint and go back to my private world, and vice versa. Painting is very solitary, and more of an interior landscape, like in my head. Then I crave the community of Editorial and talking to artists and having them be able to respond and stuff.
I want to ask more about your original vision for Editorial Magazine, and wonder if you can provide a bit of background for how it started and what you intended for it?
I started it probably twelve years ago, and I think it’s that kind of blessing of having a beginner’s mind. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had no concept or anything written down. I just had a community of artists in Montreal and I just thought that none of us are being published anywhere, so I was just like ‘why don’t we all contribute to a new magazine.’ I’m glad I didn’t know anything about publishing or curating, because maybe I wouldn’t have done it. Maybe it would have been too daunting. The first few issues came together just like that, and kind of set a slight precedent for working with artists that haven’t been published before. That’s my favourite kind of story for Editorial, like discovering new artists. Since the magazine has grown I tried to bridge that with more established artists. I love having that mix, a bunch of lesser known artists and a few heavy hitters because it elevates the under-represented artists.
Early on when you started it and there was a natural cadence and momentum, what was it that kept you motivated to keep growing it?
I think there was a lot of warmth around the project. There were a lot of people that doubted it, or questioned it, but among the majority of readers and contributors there was a really warm feeling and it just grew really fast. It was exhilarating. The first issue I only made like seventy copies or something, and it just kept jumping up and it was really exciting.
Did you feel at any point that it was becoming more demanding for you?
I kind of feel like I kind of created a monster. I wanted to create the publication also to launch my own painting career and then when that started to happen it was hard to navigate having both jobs. Editorial was originally there to support my own painting, but then it switched to where painting was my main focus and Editorial was a bit more of a job. It’s been interesting because I don’t need Editorial anymore, but I still want it. It kind of clarified that it is a passion project for me still, even though it’s a lot of work.
Twelve years is a long time to maintain any project, let alone a regular publication. Was there a point where you made the switch to nurturing your painting career and handed over some of the responsibilities to others?
It’s been very slow. I’m really reluctant to give up parts of that project. It took me a long time to just hand off the logistical stuff, like shipping. I just wanted to do that myself. I think in the last couple years I moved back to Victoria, and I just find that living closer to nature keeps me in tune with my creativity and I definitely pumped the breaks on Editorial since moving. It’s just quieter and slower here. I’m grateful for my editor who works with me on the magazine. She always says we should only do it if we enjoy it, so we made a lot of decisions based on that. We don’t have any investors that we need to appease, so we don’t need to be accountable to anyone like that. The magazine can just continue to be what we want it to be. I joke sometimes about how when I get older I’ll transform it into a magazine about sewing or something.
So you’re currently located in Victoria?
I lived in Montreal for eleven years, but I’m from Victoria and I was always just slightly homesick. I’m obsessed with the ocean, and it kind of hurts me to be away from it for too long. I moved back in 2020.
Was that a decision made because of the pandemic?
I had wanted to go for a few years, and then I think COVID really broke my experience in Montreal.
Did you find a new reservoir of inspiration when you moved back to Victoria? How did the setting you’re in inform your practice?
There’s a lot of noise living in the city that numbs out my emotions. Coming to a quieter place, my emotions felt more raw. Painting has always been an expression of that, so I think my art really changed when I moved. Being in nature, it’s impossible to ignore the impermanence of things. I kind of felt a lot of grief when I first moved, and being closer to the cycles of nature, and that gave me a lot of inspiration for art and made my work feel deeper in a way.
What kind of grief were you feeling?
Just processing change. I had a couple breakups in a row. Just kind of understanding that nothing lasts. But it was also a really beautiful feeling.
Do you find that the emotions find their way into the work, or do you find that making the work allows you to sink into the emotions more?
I think it’s in the process. My paintings are pretty happy and have been described as decorative art. I’ve always loved that irony because decorative art is usually pretty and joyful, but for me the process of painting is a way to externalize my emotions. I’ve gotten really into doing repeated patterns, like detailed textiles and wallpaper, and it’s just so meditative. I see it as taking the noise in my head and putting it on the canvas. I think it works. It’s a good tool for me to have.
The work I’ve seen is more figurative or representational, so do you feel like the repetitive themes might take over in a serial kind of way, like Agnes Martin for example?
That’s funny, I’m reading Agnes Martin’s writing about painting. My friend lent it to me, because it’s so hard to find. I don’t love some of the things she talks about. She kind of thinks artists should be solitary and suffering. At one point, she says you shouldn’t have pets or companions. It’s a little extreme. But I love the parts she talks about perfection, and how that’s an impossible task. If you can get a shred of perfection in a piece that’s like a miracle. I’ve always put that more experimental part of my work into the figurative containers. Like, making the wild pattern a piece of fabric in a larger narrative scene. Only in the last couple months am I trying to make work that brings that to the forefront. I wrote an essay about Hilma af Klimt for the last issue of Editorial and I loved how she made paintings for the future. That’s kind of what I’m doing. If I suddenly pivoted to making Agnes Martin abstract work, I think my collectors and galleries would have whiplash, so I’m making a new body of work to show in the future when I’m old.
You’re making work, and then stowing it away to live with it for a long time?
It’s interesting making abstract art because it can be really fast. It’s been challenging my ideas about art making. Do I think I need to spend a long time on a painting to make it worthwhile? I made a couple abstract paintings that took like, an hour [Laughs] and then just kind of stopped.
[Laughs] Like, now what? When a work comes quickly, what does that mean for you?
I was suspicious at first, but I’m warming up to it. I try to take that lesson in the studio to my personal life too. Hard work doesn’t necessarily mean value. It’s kind of a tangent, but I’m kind of obsessed with learning about the Protestant Reformation, just the ideas that the Protestants brought over to North America as colonizers. To know that we’ll be saved, and that we’re going to heaven, that we need to work really hard, and that we need to be hyper vigilant about our actions and stuff. Learning more about that has been really interesting, so I’m just trying to let that mentality go. Like, I can be “saved” without doing all this work, unless it’s enjoyable.
What sparked your interest in the Protestant Reformation?
Well, I’m really obsessed with tulips, and I’ve been painting tulips for a few years. Then last year, Editorial had a launch in London and I went to Holland after that to see the tulip festival and I just started researching tulips, like what they symbolize and the history of them. They are the official flower of the Protestant Reformation. I kind of went down a rabbit hole learning about that.
Why are they such an important symbol?
Well, there’s a lot of reasons. Calvinism, which is a sect of Protestantism, was really popular in Holland, and the tulip is the national flower there, and at the time it was the most popular thing. Everyone was obsessed with tulips. Also, the Protestants removed iconography, because they didn’t think people should worship paintings of saints and Jesus. They ripped out all that and destroyed the stained glass, and I think people still wanted some kind of image. It just became very unpopular to have religious imagery in your house so people started commissioning paintings of tulips instead. I think it was kind of a shortcut to honouring something beautiful, God’s creation.
A devotional object, but changing its focus. Was it some kind of redirection towards nature, or just a shift from saints and martyrs to flowers?
It might have just been a coincidence. Calvinism uses tulip as an acronym to describe the five pillars of their religion. I’ve gotten so deep! [Laughs]
It’s funny how we latch onto these obsessions.
My next couple exhibitions are focused on tulips. I sent my thoughts to the galleries and I feel they’re like ‘this is too much information.’ Like, do we have to talk about Calvinism?
What is the feeling you have when you find a subject and become obsessed with it?
I don’t know if everyone feels this way, or if it’s just me or certain people, but I feel like I have to have an obsession at all times. I feel like obsession can be a euphemism for addiction. It’s like a more socially acceptable form of addiction. In the past I’ve struggled with love addiction and fantasy addiction. As a way to sublimate that I become focused on an inanimate object like tulips and I want to find everything there is to know about something. It’s all-consuming and exciting, and hopefully, it dies down and I find a new obsession.
Is each new bit of information or history a moment of revelation? Is that what keeps you coming back to the well?
Ya, it’s exciting. I kind of think of myself as a detective on a murder case. It’s exhilarating to find a new clue and connect more things on an imaginary bulletin board.
I feel like it’s so innately human to want to map the bigger picture. We focus on the granular elements to comprehend the whole.
It’s kind of touching we like to do that, because it's so futile. It just feels like an attempt to create a sense of order.
Like you’re saying, in nature there’s so much chaos and impermanence. Things don’t always add up in ways we completely understand.
Which is kind of a Protestant behavior. They had a lot of anxiety because they didn’t know how to get to heaven or who would go. Apparently the way we write in journals and keep a diary is a Protestant invention. The common person would keep a diary to piece together any evidence of being either damned or saved.
That’s so interesting. I want to ask about your thoughts on the spiritual element in art?
Art for me is definitely spiritual. I think anything that draws me out of myself in a positive way is operating as “God” in that moment. I think beauty is so seductive to bring me out of myself and notice God. Making art feels like it honors that. There’s humility in trying to depict God’s beauty. I feel weird saying God, since it’s so different for everyone.
It’s an analog for the intangible spiritual element.
That element is in Editorial too. Interviewing artists and getting into someone else’s practice feels like such a good way to get out of myself and enter into someone else’s world. Any opportunity to leave my ego feels spiritual. I’m also interested in Carl Jung. I read a lot of his books, especially his dream analysis, where he says that everything in a dream is the dreamer. I feel like that about painting. All my figures are alter egos for myself. The landscapes and the interiors are symbolic stand-ins for my mental landscape. If I feel like I’m missing an energy in my psyche, I’ll try and paint it to manifest it. In the past I was really interested in painting men with muscles because I wanted to embody that more in my psyche. So, I think it can be helpful with that.
When you mention getting outside of yourself and dissolving your ego, is it a kind of disembodiment or is it rooted in your body when you have the experience of looking into other artistic practices either through Editorial or as a painter?
I think working with other artists and talking with artists just makes me feel really connected to other people, and that’s a spiritual act. Trying to make my own art feels spiritual in a different way. There’s moments in painting that are brief where I’m guided by intuition, which for me is God’s voice. When painting is really good I’ll get lost in it, and that can feel really good.
Is that like a flow state for you?
When it’s going well, but that’s only a small percentage of my time in my studio. There’s a lot of struggle. I know it’s not going well if I have to put a podcast on or something.
It reminds me of an anecdote from the poet Ruth Stone when she talks about capturing the wind of inspiration as it went through her, and if she wasn’t ready to receive it, it would fly on to another waiting poet.
I have kind of the opposite problem, where I’ve been a bit too disciplined. I used to be a workaholic with rigid routines and over-working, and I missed the wind of inspiration. When I’m going slower I’m more in tune with my body. I used to paint when I was sick and fighting through it, and it felt like fighting reality. Now I try to have a bit more balance. I still try to have an amount of discipline, or else I’d never get anything done.
I’m curious about the role of writing in your work. I know you write for Editorial, but do you write as a form of art making too?
I read The Artist’s Way book, so I do my morning pages and I feel like it’s helped with my painting. I’m not very confident in my writing, but it feels like a good challenge to try and articulate things. I’m so grateful I get to interview artists. They open new paths in my brain to hear the things they’re interested in. I find it very helpful.
Does that inform the content of your work?
That’s interesting to think about. It’s kind of abstract how writing connects to painting. I do believe the artist and the thinker need to be separate. If I’m painting in one room, I have to put the editor in a different room. I don’t want to be intellectualizing my work as I’m doing it, judging it, and trying to find a context for it. I try to keep them separate, but usually after I finish a painting I write about it. They are coming from ideas, but I wasn’t aware of them while I was painting. Writing about spirituality also helps me with my painting. Back to the Protestant thing and thinking about what I can get away with in a painting: since I’m a self-taught artist, I feel like I have to do my best at depicting the scene as realistically as possible, because I’m a bit doubtful of my abilities. I’m not a realist painter. Writing in the last couple years has made me realize I can get away with a lot more and leave things a little unfinished, because that can be interesting too. Looking at other artists and writing about them gives me a lot of ideas too. I used to hate abstract art. Like, it made me angry. [Laughs]
I’ve recently started unpacking why it makes me angry. I think I realized I’m just jealous. Those kinds of painters are so bold. They have so much confidence and faith in themselves. I realized I wanted to try and bring that kind of energy into the studio.
What kind of abstract painters are you referring too?
What I really struggled with was American abstract art.
Like Barnett Newman?
Exactly. I had just been judging his work like, I hate this. How can this be valued if it took him two minutes to make it? But I watched him in an interview and he talked about the first time he made one of those zip paintings, and he was like he made this painting and sat with it for eight months, just looking at it. He just couldn’t believe what he had done. I realized there’s a lot of depth in those works, and it was probably a really scary thing for him to do. It made me think about how the painting itself didn’t take long to do, but sitting with it for that long was really interesting.
Especially if as an artist you’re indoctrinated to see art as a certain thing, and then to defy that in some way with an impulse, and I guess you have to wrestle with that.
I have a tendency towards literal painting. I like when a painting makes sense. Like, a clear narrative figurative painting. I’m finally opening my mind to painting that doesn’t make sense to me on first view and sitting with it longer.
Is that work you aspire to make?
Maybe. I like how bold those painters are, and I’d like to be like that in the future. It kind of reminds me of buying a new piece of clothing that isn’t quite your style. You think you can’t wear it outside of the house, and then in a couple years it’s something you wear every day.
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