Originally hailing from Alberta Canada and now based out of Vancouver and Edmonton, Lacey and Layla are a creative female duo that has collaborated professionally in monumental public art for over a decade.
Interview with Lacey and Layla
How did your working relationship form?
We had met back in 2007 attending The fine art program at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. We bonded over our mutual work ethics, always the last people in the studios and would be painting until security would kick us out because the building was closed.
From there we spent a few years travelling internationally throughout Southeast Asia and Central America, living out of backpacks and exploring the world, which completely solidified our friendship. Travelling definitely helped spark an interest in mural art, as so many of the places we went to were so vibrant and full of colour, culture and life. After central America in 2010, we did our first two murals together in Creston, B.C. and really trialed-and-errored our way through the process. We started taking our street art practice quite seriously when we moved to Montreal and became immersed in a rich culture of graffiti and urban art and teamed up with the lovely lads at A’shop studio collective for most of our years there.
Based on your experience working, travelling, and creating murals together, what are the key ingredients to form a successful partnership?
Definitely a sense of humour! We are both pretty positive people, we love life and laughter, and honestly, not everything goes well. In fact, something almost always goes wrong, with every single project. We keep mental tabs on them and like to revisit those issues and make jokes about them. Knowing how to take criticism, learning (and relearning) from your mistakes and just accepting that working outside creating public art has so many variables and you just can’t control most of them. That kind of attitude just helps make for a happier life and happier partnership.
Trust for us is also huge, but that takes time to build. We are lucky that we come from such a similar background of interests and grew as artists together. It’s comforting knowing that what your partner is doing is going to turn out great. Trust in their instinct, skill and opinion and also checking your ego at the door. That’s the beauty of collaboration, you know that your combined efforts are going to create something bigger and better because of the cumulative creative skillset.
Can you describe your process of painting murals as a partnership?
Every step of our process is done in tandem. From the initial concept, the mock-up, administrative tasks, grant writing, and the execution of the final work. The glamorous and the gritty, we share every part of our practice. We also oscillate between each other during the painting process to get a fresh perspective on the work. We both have the same technical training, visual preferences and general painting experience so we tend to switch places as we complete a mural.
Often, if one of us grows weary with an area or feels stuck the other can jump in to complete it. That’s where that trust comes into play and the lack of ego. To be able to say, “Hey, I’m really not feeling the fine details right now, can we switch?” is really wonderful and takes any “chore” aspect out of our process. Some days you want to paint the complex colour areas, and some days you just want to hammer out the background with a spray gun. Being able to mix it up with each other makes things move along so much smoother. It makes it fun too. We tease each other, we can admit if something we painted looks bad and the other has to go save it. We can’t compare to too many other duo’s on this, but we feel that fluid fluctuation might be a rare quality.
This partnership also really takes the mundanity out of the work. We have been pretty much inseparable best friends for about 12 years now, we’ve been to 27 countries together, we have a pretty awesome relationship. I can’t believe we haven’t run out of things to talk about, but we are constantly yabbering away at each other, singing off-key, complaining about the weather, we carry on all sorts of conversation while sharing all the heavy lifting.
What do you do to avoid burnout during the mural painting season?
We have been known to stretch ourselves incredibly thin during murals by creating a tight schedule in the summer months. That is the nature of working in a northern climate, the summers are short and the work is seasonal. But we always make a point of camping during long cross-country road trips and take a moment to breathe. The glorious nature of being your own boss is that you can quit early for the day and go for a beer. Or take a day off to go to the park. Certainly, every artist has experienced those moments where things just are not going your way. We can recognize these unproductive times now and use that time to relax instead of banging our heads against the wall. The opposite applies as well, there are some days that everything is going splendidly and that’s when we stay late and take advantage of our most productive moments. Working sometimes 14-16 hours a day can be extra satisfying, and then leaves us with that luxury of a day at the beach. Or saves us when we get a heavy bout of rain.
What are some of the themes in your work?
Empathy and authenticity are a really big part of our work. We are realist painters, and we gravitate towards portraiture because images of others can say so much. Our urban spaces are chaotic and incredibly overstimulating, it’s difficult to remember to slow down and take time and care for one another. We decided long ago that we wanted to use our art to make monuments of regular people, from all backgrounds, to celebrate everyday individuals that often get overlooked or go unnoticed. We paint portraits of real community members on a monumental scale to celebrate their unique character, open conversations about challenging social issues, and try to encourage a little more compassion in our bustling urban lives. To look at strangers as people and not obstacles, that’s what we really care about. There’s a vibrancy to humans that is truly wonderful and we want to emphasize that.
Our other major working theme is nature, for many of the same reasons. Growing up in rural Alberta, we are both huge enthusiasts of the outdoors. Bringing that wild beauty back into our cities is really meaningful for us, to remind us as a society that we both belong to and are a part of nature, no matter how consumed you feel by the phone in your pocket, or the emails piling up. Nature cleanses us and we should reciprocate that care.
What are your main sources of inspiration when developing a project?
We love classical painting and have a deep appreciation for the realism of the 19th century, particularly for that celebration of authenticity that we strive for in our own work through our mural style differs greatly on execution and colour choices. But a main driving factor in our project development is site-specificity. Where we create the work, the history, the culture, the current socio-political standings, community demographics and points of local pride, these are all things we research and try to engage in when we develop a new project. Though we cannot address or even understand all of it, we really try to take in the social landscape when we begin developing our piece. It comes back to our desire for authenticity, when we create public art, we aren’t creating it for us, it isn’t for a gallery or a travelling show. It exists only in that place, for that local community, and will always be unique to that place. Murals have long been the bulletin board of the people, and that is a history we both love and recognize. Our inspiration comes from the community and we begin drawing that out in the way we know best, which is very organic and grassroots, meeting the people on the ground.
Can you describe one of your favourite mural painting experiences?
One of our most incredible mural experiences to date was our project in Hellissandur in the Snæfellsnes peninsula of Iceland (Jules Vernes’ “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”- that’s their glacier). This town is a tiny remote fishing village of only 150 people. This project took place in June which in Iceland means 24 hours straight every day of sunlight- a mural artist’s dream. And the setting couldn’t have been more exhilarating, from our lift we could see the ocean waves and hear seals barking and behind us was the incredible view of the Snæfellsjökull glacier. Our art has taken us to some wonderful places. For that project, we decided to celebrate the resilience of this tiny community by celebrating one of their most ubiquitous animals, the Icelandic Ram. That garnered such an intensely positive response, it was truly amazing. We remember going to buy snacks at the only store (the gas station) and the clerk translated for us as this sweet elderly man just raved about how meaningful the project was to him in Icelandic for such a long time, and we just wish we had the words to say how reciprocal this whole experience is for us. We get just as much, if not more than we give.
After we had left Hellissandur we were told that buses of tourists now stop in this town and visit our mural, it’s even labelled on google maps as “sheep mural”. It helped put them back on the map. Now that is meaningful beyond words, to be told that we have changed the economy of a town with our art.
How did the Covid19 Travel Restrictions influence your mural painting plans for 2020?
Covid definitely complicates travel plans, as we all know and we were unable to travel internationally and lost a few contracts. However, the pandemic really gave us an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the summer like we haven’t in the years since our partnership really took off. We took the time to camp and relax between the contracts that remained rather than rushing from one contract to the next. We are grateful that painting murals is a socially distanced process and we can be safe and still create our artwork. The pandemic has also really highlighted the value of public art. With galleries and cultural centres closing or being inaccessible, it has really brought to light that urban art is a safe space to engage.
What are your plans for the 2021 mural painting season?
We are mid “application season”, which is how we spend the winter months- applying to grants, projects and festivals for the summer season. Last year, we relocated back to Western Canada after 9 years in Montreal, Layla is working out of Edmonton and Lacey is obtaining her Master’s degree at Emily Carr in Vancouver. This year we are focusing our applications on projects in BC and Alberta only to keep travel at a minimum. Many of our past projects have been further east in Canada, but now that we are back in our home territory we really have an opportunity to say something about the land that raised us. We will miss the epic road trips across the country that we normally embark on, creating murals has allowed us to explore parts of this country we likely would have never stumbled upon. But Canada has so much to offer in every area and we are privileged to explore it.
Can you describe a dream mural project if anything and everything were possible?
All the places? We are travelers, we both want to see everywhere, and also revisit all of those wonderful places. Lisbon in Portugal is very high on our art bucket list, they have an incredible culture of street art and municipal support that really bolsters transforming their buildings into massive public artworks. When festivals become safe again we will be thrilled to rejoin that circuit, as there is such a vibrant culture and community that comes together for street art celebrations. We also truly love rural projects. They have always been so rewarding and are sometimes more meaningful since smaller communities are often overlooked when it comes to public art funding, and they are honestly some of the most enjoyable projects. So, yes, all the places!
What is the value of having a Mural Routes membership for you?
The value of a mural routes membership has been accessibility, to both other projects, other resources and other artists. Particularly during Covid, they have shared some really useful links and resources for artists during this time.
Check out more of Lacey and Layla’s work: