Canadian abstract artist Callen Schaub plays by his own rules. He defies traditional art by painting with trapezes, pendulums and a homemade spin machine instead of brushes. Over the pandemic he stumbled into accidental internet success by posting videos of his unique painting process on various social media platforms. Before that, he ran a successful art gallery for five years but gave it up to follow his passion and dream of becoming a full time artist. The 10 year journey to success has not been an easy one, filled with self doubt and challenges. A journey that he says he’s still on, but despite the ups and downs he remains steadily optimistic. One of his biggest challenges has been dealing with online hate with critics branding his work as “not real art” among other hurtful things. Callen didn’t let it phase him and instead decided to turn the haters on their heads by creating a movement he’s called “Fake Art” that aims to inspire and empower others who are dealing with cyberbullying.
I spoke to Callen virtually from his office in Montreal, his bold tie dye coloured hair immediately caught my eye. Beautiful shades of yellow, purple, orange and blue swirled through each strand of hair and bore a striking resemblance to his own artwork. Throughout our conversation he would take little sips of iced coffee from a large wine glass. He looked eccentric to say the least. His big grin and warm laugh assured me that he was a friendly person. We talked about perfectionism, overcoming his dyslexia, and what his art means to himself and others.
The Curve: Did you grow up in a creative or artistic family?
Callen: Yeah, my family’s very creative and artistic! [laughs] My mother is a librarian and my Dad is an environmental energy consultant. We did crazy stuff growing up, like we had a rock climbing wall at our house, we didn’t have T.V, we all rode unicycles together. It was a very encouraging and creative atmosphere, like when you’re not watching TV, you have to use your own imagination and my mother was always encouraging me to embrace my creative side. I grew up and am still dyslexic, so going through school was always a challenge. My mother’s also dyslexic so I think she wanted to enhance my strengths which was the visual arts.
TC: Did art help you overcome your dyslexia- did it help you accept and adapt to it in any way?
C: I think with dyslexia you can get to the same destination as everyone else, but there might be a roadblock and so you have to think of non linear ways of learning that are sympathetic to your way of thinking. That divergent problem solving was something that I had to develop just for reading and writing but also that’s a great space to be in creatively. I think it’s a gift in disguise.
TC: Growing up, were you ever embarrassed to tell anyone that you were dyslexic?
C: Yeah, I think that my Mom did her best to try and destigmatize it for me and gave me the encouragement that I needed. But I definitely think that when you’re growing up there’s insecurities that you have to navigate. Now, as an adult I like to fully disclose my dyslexia because I realize that by doing that it can help further destigmatize it and bring more awareness to it. Personally it was a challenge for me as a kid but now I’ve just kind of embraced it by saying “hey, you know I struggle with language” but now I’ve made my own language, a language of colour and am trying to open that up and make it a universal language for as many people as I can.
TC: When you were in university or even before you decided to go to university, was there a specific moment that made you want to pursue art as a career?
C: Yeah, it was while I was at university. I had a mandatory painting class and I wasn’t really a painter before then, but during the class I discovered spin painting and was really enjoying it and my professor was like “everyone else did one piece and you did 10, I think you’re ready for a show.” At that time I didn’t work with galleries so I showed my work in a coffee shop and sold my first piece for only 800 CAD but that encouraged me and made me think “oh it’s all possible!” Selling that first painting, that was the moment that I realized I wanted to pursue a path as a full time artist but before that I didn’t necessarily believe in myself and thought I was going to become an art teacher.
TC: Do you think that’s what you would be doing if you hadn’t chosen to be a professional artist?
C: Yes [pauses] at least something in the Arts, like even out of university I ran an art gallery for five years with two other directors, selling other people’s art and doing exhibitions and that whole thing. I guess if it wasn’t going to be teaching it would be gallery work. Because before then I didn’t know that I could be an artist myself so that was a degree of belief in myself that I had to discover because selling my first painting was one thing but it was after running the gallery for many years that I became unhappy and finally said “you know what I need to do this full time and give it my best shot because I’ll always regret it if I don’t.” I just quit the gallery and shut it down, well actually my business partner Devan Patel continued it on, it’s still alive to this day. Originally it was called “Project Gallery” but now it’s called “Patel-Brown Gallery.” It’s gone through many stages, so by now it’s so far removed from my ego and ownership, I’m not involved at all, but it’s nice to see my original partner doing well.
TC: I know this next one is a tricky question for you but I’m going to ask it anyway- Who are your biggest artistic influences, do you have any favourite artists?
C: Yeah that’s a tough one for me! I guess as a child when I didn’t have an art education I was a big fan of Van Gogh [laughs] as cheesy as that is. But then when I learned about art history, I started liking more contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter who is phenomenal, he’s got such a wide range of skills, he does hyperrealistic paintings but then also does these amazing colourful abstract works. Again, as cliche as it is, one of my first influences when I was getting into art was Banksy and before I got into the whole spin painting and abstract art thing I was actually doing street art and graffiti illegally. I always like to mention artists I work with or went to school with for example, right now I’m working with Olivia Steele and she works with neon lights. It’s just an amazing collaboration. My partner Veronika Radolovich is a dancer and artist as well and we work together, that’s always really inspiring. I’ve also got a collaboration with a poet called Atticus, so those are some artists that inspire me and are also a part of my life.
I will always be looking to push myself further. I think that’s the role of an artist, to challenge yourself.
TC: As you previously mentioned, your first painting sold for $800 CAD around 10 years ago and now your most expensive painting is currently priced at $100,000 CAD- do you feel like you’ve made it in some sense when you think about it that way?
C: [pauses] well I mean what is making it? “Making it” is like being successful and what is success? It’s all a perception, what success is to one person might not be the same for anyone else, so it’s very much in the eye of the beholder. For me, I think success is really just being happy, of course there’s financial success but there’s also a lot of unhappy wealthy people so is that really success? I think happiness is the ultimate form of success and making it. This all a very long winded way of saying that I’m always striving for more so any level of being like “I made it” or putting a destination on it would be wrong, because it’s not about a destination, it’s a process. I’m a process artist so it’s more about “where am I going?” not necessarily where I am at the moment. At this moment I could agree with you and say “yeah I’ve made it!” but I think in reality I will always be looking to push myself further. I think that’s the role of an artist, to challenge yourself.
TC: There’s this cliche about artists never being happy with their own work, always being perfectionists- do you think this applies to you?
C: Well yes, I’m my own biggest troll/hater/critic secretly or maybe it’s just a degree of awareness that I have or maybe it’s not me and just other voices that people have put in my head but I definitely am very critical and hard on myself and that’s something I’m working on. Like I’m not saying I’m not happy, although there is a bit of a battle but it’s sharing the battle and the process with my viewers that’s what’s interesting about it. To be authentic about it, when I have a failure or something isn’t good enough, or when I’m trying to achieve something and haven’t gotten there. That’s the story to be told, because it’s not just like “oh hooray we’ve made it”, no matter how good a painting is for example as a benchmark for my career, it’s always about the trajectory and where I’m going. It’s not that I’m unhappy or in a fight or that it’s a negative thing, it’s just about what happens when a person dedicates their life to being an artist. You can’t look at in a moment and be like “oh this is when they made it, and this is when they fell off and this is when they were emerging” it’s a whole life story, and I’m just in that life story right now so I can’t really say I’ve made it yet because I’m still living it. [laughs]
TC: At the end of the day when it really comes down to it, would you still call yourself a perfectionist?
C: Yeah… I mean I’m in the pursuit of beauty and I think perfectionism is accepting the imperfect. Because nothing is perfect. Perfect is an ideal, Like in nature things just are, so when I paint it’s sort of like this natural phenomenon with these swoops and pendulums and rotation and all these things that are also found in nature and are they perfect? Well they’re perfect if you accept them for what they are. You know, when you look at a sunset, who’s to determine whether it’s perfect or not? It’s beautiful and so again perfection is just about accepting imperfection. That’s part of the challenge because in terms of motivation perfectionism can be a reason not to do something because if I say I’m a perfectionist it’s almost going to stagnate my motivation to do something, because then it’s gotta be perfect or not done at all. There is no perfect and I don’t want to do nothing at all, so it’s not going to be perfect, so accepting what it is, is going to be the closest version to perfection.
Perfection is just about accepting imperfection.
TC: How did you come up with the “Fake Art Movement”, and what made you decide to call it that?
C: Well it all began with finding viral success on social media, after my first viral video there was a lot of excitement but also when I read the comments, which I now know you’re not supposed to do [laughs] is when I first encountered haters and trolls. At first it was very stifling for me creatively, so my response was not to respond in the comments but to respond creatively. I started to print out some of these negative comments that said things like “a five year old could do it” “this isn’t art” and I would literally put a positive spin on it, where I would swirl some of my colours on to it, and just change the perception to it being let’s show love to the haters. I look at it as an educational opportunity, if there’s a hater and they’re saying “this isn’t art” or something like that, well maybe that person needs to do some art or see some more art, maybe they haven’t been exposed to colours in the same way that I have. That’s how I came up with the term “Fake Art” because that’s what people were calling my art so I took it on and wore it as armour. I had my debut exhibition in New York in 2018. It was called “Fake Art since 95’” because in 1995 I was five years old so that meant a five year old could do it [laughs]. I wanted to encourage people, can a five year old do my art? Yes they can, and they should! We should encourage five year olds to paint, activate your inner five year old, you know. Also there’s no secret to my art, all my process videos that I do online give away my techniques, they’re basically tutorials and if people want to do this they can and this is how. That’s how it became a movement because I’m not the only person experiencing online hate or negativity so other people have used the movement as a framework for responding to online hate in general, not directly to a specific hater. At first I created the movement to empower myself but then it was to also empower others, just like my art. My art was originally for my own mental health, if I didn’t make art I’d be unhappy, but then once I had a platform and established myself more, then it was about helping others.
TC: What would you say to others who love your work and feel like you’re giving the haters too much time and attention by responding to them, even if it isn’t directly?
C: A short way of saying it would be, silence is violence. For the people who love my work, that’s not my audience or who I’m trying to reach with the Fake Art movement. They already like my work and I’m grateful for all their positivity. It’s wonderful and encourages me but, when I focus on the negativity it’s not like I’m giving a stage or larger voice to negative energy. It’s about helping those that are currently or have been put down and they can see how they can be stronger or how to manage this negative energy when they encounter it. It’s not for the thousands and millions of fans that I have, it’s for that one person who’s been hated and sees that there’s a light and way to think about negativity online and manage it in a healthy way. For people who think that focusing on the negativity gives it more strength, I want them to know it’s not like negativity will go away by not talking about it, maybe it never goes away, because hate is just something that we live with everyday. If we just focus on love then we’re ignoring this other thing and it’s real and we need to deal with it, dealing with hate is just as important as dealing with love.
TC: What do you think attracts people to your artwork?
C: Well I can’t speak for other people, but I guess when I paint it’s an opportunity to share my authentic self and I think that people see that I unapologetically put my work out there and it’s very colourful and moving and it’s all a process. That’s why I love it, because it puts me into the present moment and the present moment is a place where people can find peace, so there’s a mental health component and I think people also tap into that. My most recent series, the “Colour Therapy Series” is about mental health and I think a lot of people connect with it. It could be the oddly satisfying ASMR factor, people like watching me paint before going to sleep or something like that [laughs]. It can also be inspiring to people because they can see and think “oh he’s just throwing his bucket and making such a mess” so it takes away creative barriers like where do I start? They can just let go, because my artwork is accessible to everyone and sometimes the artworld is not too accessible and I think that my work and the way I present it online is encouraging and a positive space and that’s really what I try to manifest when I’m making my art, so maybe that’s why people like it, but honestly I don’t know [laughs].
I think that my work and the way I present it online is encouraging and a positive space and that’s really what I try to manifest when I’m making my art.
TC: You currently have 713k followers on Instagram- what role has Instagram played in your career and success?
C: Now Instagram is part of my work, I don’t even see it as something separate but it wasn’t always that way. I film every single painting and share the process, the failures and successes, the paint overs, every part of it and that’s not something I always used to do. I’m a performance artist and the process is part of the art and so I was able to hone in on that component. There’s the end result which is the photo or static painting that hangs on the wall but that’s just a picture and there’s a whole experience which is the video. So I’ve really leaned into the video component and I think that’s where I’ve sort of found my success, was in authentically sharing my videos. Instagram did a feature on me two years ago now, they came to my studio for an interview and named me the “Hidden Gem of 2019” and that was really amazing, and of course when they did that Instagram’s account has the most followers on Instagram so when they featured me on there it gave me 300,000 followers overnight basically, it was a big boost. Before that I organically grew my first 200,000 followers by myself by relentlessly posting content and took a one day course with social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk on personal branding and that was very helpful. It’s not just Instagram it’s also Tik Tok, I’ve got just about 5 million followers on there and not necessarily about the social media platform it’s just the internet. I’ve lost a lot of followers too and I think that everyone who does still follow me is part of a community of artists and the comment section is about treating negativity with kindness, that’s something that all those followers and people share. It’s a wonderful community and I’m very grateful for everybody that’s there and that’s also my space because I’m not represented by a gallery. I guess I’m an instagram artist and that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing and I’m very grateful for it. I think that Instagram is a wonderful platform to express yourself and it’s my space.
TC: Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
C: The internet is where attention lives so your presence on the internet is very crucial so make sure your website is up to date, post on social media every day if you can or whatever degree you can that’s in sync with your mental health like don’t get crazy about it! [laughs] I would also say share your process, that’s how I found my success because people want to see how things are made and why you make them. The documentation is crucial to the storytelling and everyone loves a good story so if you can just document your process and put it online and don’t think too hard about if it’s good enough because you’re on a path. This is just a moment in time and if you decide to authentically put yourself out there and lead with your heart and whatever’s passionate to you no matter what art form it is, then your light will shine through. Don’t be your biggest hater, be your biggest supporter and encourage and have a good relationship with yourself and give yourself studio time. If you lose motivation, clean your studio or just do something! [laughs] Because you want to be sympathetic to making a positive space for yourself to create and I know that this world is a crazy place and sometimes you can get down so, create a nice atmosphere for yourself.
TC: What’s next for you Callen, do you have any new projects on the horizon or anything we should keep a lookout for?
C: You can look for me at Art Basel in Miami 2021. That’s pretty exciting because it’s my first live event since the pandemic began. I’m also emerging into the NFT Crypto art space so there’s some exciting projects that are coming up soon. I’ll also mention again that I’m excited for my collaboration with Olivia Steele and also with Atticus, those are going to be dropping soon. Lastly, I’m dropping a print series which is special because I don’t always have prints available, but there are two prints from the Colour Therapy Series that will be available on Friday, July 16th.