A self-described “installation artist, drawer and wanderer,” born and raised in Gippsland, Victoria, twenty-seven-year-old Ryan McGennisken just completed his residency in Finland where he studied the mystical folklore of that region, and is now living in Berlin, Germany with his partner and fellow artist and co-wanderer, Hollie M. Kelley.
McGennisken says that through the mediums of watercolor and ink, he “channels a profound disconnect from the nine-to-five world or any traditional living requirements.”
Living out of a bag wherever he finds himself, McGennisken takes daily life, past experience and personal philosophy to create “earthy dreamscapes with dark undertones of death, destruction and melancholia.”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Ryan, your artwork fascinates. I am particularly drawn to your exploration of Finnish myths. I am inspired to myself delve more deeply into Finnish folklore.
Ryan McGennisken: Oh, absolutely. I wish I’d been able to stay in Finland longer. Was only there for a month in residency, but have been given the chance to return next year to the residency. Actually, think I’ll head back over there in the next few months. It’s incredible!
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You also are a street artist. Where is this painted and what inspired you to do this particular piece?
Ryan McGennisken: Yes, in an abandoned SS military base in Berlin I painted a sailboat and these are the little sailors.
Ryan McGennisken: Generally if I’m going to paint a wall, I have a vague idea of what I’d like to do. Maybe I’ll sketch something out before heading out to the location. The original sketch will usually be tossed aside and I’ll just kind of wing it, see what happens. I’m still only really learning how to use cans properly, so a lot of mistakes will usually help to the whole ‘winging-it’ aspect of the work.
I definitely prefer to work in an abandoned area though; it’s more relaxing to paint. We gather a group of people together, head out during the day time, build a fire, have a BBQ and a few drinks as well, really make a day of it.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Love this! So why this location? And why this particular image?
Ryan McGennisken: Berlin’s amazing for abandoned locations to explore and not be hassled so you can really just hang out there with your friends, have a few drinks around a BBQ fire and paint at your own pace, rather than try to rush in the middle of the night to get a piece up. Just a really nice relaxed environment. The sailboat I painted was the original image I wanted to create. Then once that was completed, I felt painting a little sailor fella would be a nice touch. With most of my work, there’ll be a narrative for the viewer to create their own ideas, which is nice, but there’s always a very dark undertone within the drawing as well. In this particular image: The 50/50, life and death of the sailor.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes, you do explore death in many of your artworks. Certainly also in your Finnish legends, and I see this in your “Repeating Cycles” pieces. What led to this focus?
Ryan McGennisken: Maybe it’s because I’ve been around a lot of death. Death is something that’s always been on my mind from a young age, ever since my grandfather died when I was seven. I’ve always been very aware that life is ending. I feel like I missed out on the “cooling off period” of a person’s life when it’s just sunshine and feeling completely alive and the only thing that matters is getting home in time for your favorite TV shows or just being able to live, without worry.
Ryan McGennisken: I’ve known so many people who have been close to me who have died and it’s something that worsened my ‘condition’ more and more each time. In particular when my best friend died from a bicycle accident a few years ago–that one really shook me up and really enforced that knowledge that you’re not only going to die one day…it could actually be today.
I think because of this I never did anything I felt like would be a waste of time in what is actually a very short life. In school it was a problem though for teachers to get me to do homework.
So, with all that said, my, I suppose ‘fear of death’ has kind of turned into somewhat of an obsession, and recently it’s coming out a lot more and my research is definitely getting deeper, exploring other cultures’ ways of dealing with death and life, for example, reincarnation.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So this brings us to two dominant themes that play out in your work: death and reincarnation; and the character that you embody of The Wanderer, yes? The Wanderer isn’t going to waste his time on the superficial stuff of life. He’s got exploring of a deeper kind to do.
Ryan McGennisken: Exactly. I’ve played with the idea of a post-apocalyptic scenario a lot when I draw, taking away everything that’s superficial, and leaving only what is real. I think the most honest I can possibly be with myself is when I’m lost in the forest or just completely detached from any form of technology or society. I feel like if everyone was to do this or in a post-apocalyptic state where they weren’t given a choice, there’d be a whole lot of soul-searching going on.
I think the idea of living off the land, ‘opting out’ and detaching yourself from society is what’s appealing to people and probably even to myself. But the reality is also that if everything was to end as we know it, there’d still be a culture, and with that, a society formed that you’d want to escape from. I think that the idea is the appeal, but that once you have it, it’s never as good as it was in your head. So I think the “Lord of the Flies’ situation is a definite; there’ll always be someone who wants to lead, and there will always be someone who wants to break away from the pack.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you think artists necessarily need to belong to the latter group? For the benefit of society? And if society needs artists to fulfill this role, should there be a compensation for artists? To enable them to do this? Or would this negate the very act of rebellion? Must artists by their very nature be struggling?
When did you know you wanted to be an artist, Ryan? Did you always have an affinity for drawing? Or was there someone in particular who inspired you?
Ryan McGennisken: I think the art world, if you want to call it that, as if it’s something separate from the world everyone else lives in, is divided into two categories: the artist who makes art to make money and considers it a job; and then there’s the artists who are the “strugglers” who may or may not make money in the long run, but it really doesn’t matter because they’re doing what they love and nothing else matters.
I remember being in high school art class and being told that being an artist today is impossible. The teachers, my friends, my friends’ parents would always say, “There’s no money in art, why would you bother?” I think in a way this pushed me into wanting to pursue it. I’ve always been drawing though, since I was a kid, I held on to that passion to make marks on paper. Once leaving home and moving to Melbourne, after working a bunch of s— jobs, I decided that I didn’t care about making money; I just had to draw. That was the only thing keeping me sane.
I’m a two-time art school drop-out. I did almost two years of graphic design, but I hated working to briefs, so I quit that. Then years later, last year actually, I began a degree in Illustration at NMIT in Melbourne, but exhibiting was picking up and taking over my time for schoolwork, so I deferred and haven’t looked back.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How did you get involved in studying in Finland, exploring Finnish myths and legends? Was there something that intrigued you about Finnish culture?
Ryan McGennisken: Scandinavia has always interested me, the animals and forests, etc… So when [my partner, Hollie M. Kelley] and I were chosen for the residency at Arteles in Hämeenkyrö, Finland, we packed our things and headed right over.
Ryan McGennisken: It was almost as if I had already been drawing from the Finnish mythology even before learning about it. It was such a natural thing to happen. Finland’s such an incredible place and for inspiration, it’s endless.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is it about Finnish folklore that most deeply speaks to you?
Ryan McGennisken: I was really drawn in particular to the Kalevala epic. It’s very dark, especially the part about Tuonela, the underworld where the dead go whether they’re good or evil. They travel there by a boat; a brave shaman could travel to Tuonela in a trance to ask for the forefathers’ guidance. The living had to trick the guards of Tuonela into believing that they were dead to gain entry.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: It’s written in poetic form, isn’t it?
Ryan McGennisken: Sure is!
Deanna Phoenix Selene: So in this dark underworld there is much wisdom to be gained, according to the Finnish legend. Death then is not so much to be feared?
Ryan McGennisken: Nothing is to be feared, only to be understood.
To view more of Ryan McGenisken’s artwork, visit his website at: RamblerCollective.com/artistsRyanMcGennisken