In The Mind of Ray Caesar

One of the most celebrated digital artists of our time is also the mind behind some of the most disturbing surrealist art. Ray Caesar is a Toronto-based artist whose works have been in high demand over the last decade.

Caesar makes no apologies for being a digital artist in an art world that still has a sense of taboo around using the computer for the fine-art creation process.

Caesar's portraits generally involve disfigurement and whimsy set against the backdrop of darkness and sexual innuendos. His works are deliberate enigmas that engage some and turn others away.

Caesar's pieces often have an anthropomorphic attribute to the already surreal scenery. Beyond a talented dream-weaver, Caesar is unquestionably one of the most influential surrealist artists of our day.

We got an opportunity to pick his brain:

Before you were a full-time artist, what did you do for a living?

I worked for 17 years at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. I worked in the art and photography dept back in the early 1980s and it was our job to document any suspected child abuse, surgical reconstruction, animal research, I worked on things like the animated removal of brain tumors with cryogenic tools, Board games for children with brain damage, I would often do vast flow diagrams of all the equipment surrounding premature infants as a teaching tool for nursing staff. It was in many ways an unpleasant job for me but it also became the foundation of the work I now do.

I also worked in the film industry for several years doing 3d modelling and animation on silicon graphics workstations for film and TV. Strange as I originally studied Architecture now I think about it and I don't know how I ended up doing what I am doing now ... it just evolved that way.

How did you sell your first piece of art?

I didn't even have a piece of work at the time. I sold my first piece by posting an image of it online with a gallery in Philadelphia ... I had a digital image of a piece called "Silent Partner" but it wasn't a thing you could touch or put in a frame at that point..it was just a pretty email.

I quickly had to find a print house back in 2003 and even though I lived in Toronto I had several pieces printed on an Iris printer in California. When they first came in a huge crate I was astonished as I had only ever seen them on a tiny old computer screen.

I worked in massive resolution so even I wasn't aware of all the detail that could be seen in a print.

Silent Partner 1 of 10 sold to a very nice guy in LA who ran a furniture store and he told me I would do very well with all this ...I didn't believe him and thought it was just a one-time thing.

Describe the digital process of creating your work.

Well ...the first thing is I don't think of it as either "digital" or as a "process" or as "work". I think of it as a state of mind much more similar to "play" and I begin by automatic drawing which is basically just letting your hand do first what your mind hasn't thought about. This evolves and I begin modeling in a 3D software called Maya pretty much the same way. I set the digital figure up for animation and I can move each finger and have a wide range of facial expressions, I do dynamic simulations of cloth and begin using curves to style hair.

Lights and textures and 3D environments and referencing older models I built years ago come into the virtual space. I love that I can hide old letters and photographs in lockets and tuck them away into drawers that are closed.

I know they are there and that seems important to me and I love that sometimes I forget they are there.

In many ways working in a virtual environment is like being in a dissociative fugue or very deep daydream or in your very own playroom...you can get lost in there very easily.

Somehow the piece just evolves into what it wants to be ...it's hard to explain but I do feel it is like filling an empty space that has been there forever just waiting for you to come along and plant it and it seems to grow in front as your very eyes.

Many artists push away from digital artwork as they believe it 'cheapens' the creation process. What would you say to that?

I don't think about it at all and I don't think about these other artists beliefs. I don't even think of my work as "digital" ...Ha! I don't even think of my work as "Art". I get up each morning and do what I Love ..I make what I want to see. A great deal of art is made with basically cheap materials and it's the soul of the creator that turns those everyday materials into something that is embedded with love ...and that's where the true value comes. I am 54 years old and worked almost every method and the medium I use is my Mind. That connection to the work through the human mind is where the magic happens in any creative process.

The passion and desire and the love and pain are the true tools of any worthwhile endeavor. Paint is a wonderful medium but it isn't the be all and end all to everything ... Film, Photography, Music and Sound, Sculpture,..Today these endeavors all use some aspect of what is called "Digital".

I am interested in a specific type of imagery that I see in my own mind that has to do with my own past and is an expression of my own emotions and feelings.

I work toward an end of what I want to see and do it with whatever tool I want to use...

it's absolutely and quintessentially a self indulgent process...because that's the best way for me to create what I see in my heart and the best way for me to communicate that to another person.

Do you supplement your creative process with music?

No. I love music as much as the next person but I generally work in silence or with very calm music. Sometimes silence can be very creative environment especially for imagery as sound can influence that imagery of mind very easily.

I do sometimes find myself playing the music of Eric Satie over and over as I work ...for some reason the sound of certain pieces does evoke a mood that has a rhythm in my own mind.

Chopin and certain pieces of Opera but all in all silence is better.

I live in a very busy area of downtown Toronto and every few weeks I need to go the country to my sisters place ...I love the sounds of nature and its then that I realize how important it is to have quiet in a modern life.

Is there a religious aspect to your work?

No, I am not a religious person but there is a spiritual foundation to my work which is deeply embedded. I feel religion by its very word is divisive as it separates our spiritual journey into sects and different orders based on rigid beliefs...but spirituality brings us together without a specific "belief" because its really just a feeling we all may or may not have at some point in our life. I see my work as much more of a spiritual endeavor before I even see it as Art.

I create images of the archetype of the divine child within each and every one of us. For me this is a way of dealing with my own troubled childhood and a reminder to myself of spiritual growth.

It is also a way for me to mentally handle the things I witnessed working at the Children's hospital as pictures are the communication of the subconscious mind the conscious.

I don't have any specific "beliefs" myself ...I tend to avoid Belief or Disbelief and prefer to stay in that other little place called "Wonder".

Does your work play off of the often dis-figured human form of pre-20th century? Or do you look at your process as purely imaginary?

Disfigurement of the body and mind has played a large part of my life and I grew up in a very troubled old home in South London that had gas lights and old built in cupboards and ancient wallpaper and was pretty much the same as it was in the 1890s. It was a strange and difficult childhood and in some ways it felt as if I grew up before the 20th century.

My Father had a severe disfigurement of his feet from untreated childhood arthritis and the twisted nature of his toes could almost be called Hoven..I can remember him coming home from work in severe pain and I would gently unlace his hard black shoes and very carefully remove his socks and bring a bowl from the kitchen to soak his feet ...it was a process where one learns empathy and to realize we all might not be what we seem underneath and that is true of not just clothing but of our mind.

I suspect this and the years at the children's Hospital had some influence on my work.

I don't see my work as entirely imaginary ...I see it as a way to express emotions I don't have words for ...so I use pictures.

Onlookers have described your work as both grotesque and beautiful at the same time. How would you respond to that?

I think that's a good way of describing it. It's also a good way of describing the human species and our short history on this little blue world.. "both grotesque and beautiful".

Perhaps we can't really see one without noticing the qualities of the other. I work hard to put many elements into my work though and would not want those two to be the only ones at my disposal.

I try to use ingredients like a perfumer uses to make small vials of odor.

Kindness, horror, sweetness, humor, sensuality, sexuality, taboo, pain, happiness, joy, mystery, putridity and clarity...these are all the little things I put into my pictures and all I ask is that you have a sniff.

If you could live in any other time in history when/where would it be?

In the future! ... lets see ...I am 54 ...I think I would like to see the next 45 years at least as that would be good for a start.

Ray Caesar is represented by Gallery House