By Celina Tran
SleepGarden is a Canadian artist who describes his illustrations as a gentle exploration of themes such as love, queer identity, and intense emotion.
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SleepGarden joins the call from the other side of the world. It’s 2.30 PM where the artist is based, so plenty of natural sunlight spills through from a window somewhere nearby. Against the light, he is a spitting image of his self-portrait, with a small smile and beautiful, brown curls spilling down his shoulders.
“Sorry, I’m very awkward and shy,” he says. “But I’ll do my best.”
He introduces himself as Gabriel, or as he goes by online, SleepGarden. He went to school for fashion design, and though he still likes it, he considers his main art form to be illustration and character design. After years of drawing, the pencil has become an extension of him.
“I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. It’s just natural, I suppose,” the artist says. “I can’t imagine not drawing, I don’t quite know why. It has become a habit, so I guess it just feels natural to me now. As soon as I feel inspired by something, the first thing I think is ‘How can I draw this?’”
SleepGarden’s relationship to his art appears to be almost symbiotic. He explains that despite always wanting to be an artist as a child, he didn’t take it seriously until he was in high school when the turbulent teens started to take a toll. Illustration became a way for him to explore his emotions and communicate to himself, and in turn, create art.
“When I was about 15-16, it became not only important to me, but I became dependent on it. I still am a decade later, maybe even more so than as a teenager.”
On Art and the Process
SleepGarden spent many years using his art and the creative process to work through his own emotions. He described it as a therapy session with himself. Whatever feeling was present before starting a piece, was the feeling that was charged into it.
“Strawberry Fields and a Soon Empty Basket is a piece about sexual guilt. I think a lot of queer people are made to feel guilty about how they’re attracted to people, and I suppose I did too when I created this. It was conflicting. In one way, I felt like I finally understood myself for the first time, like I was gorging on something sweet, hence the figurative strawberries. But at the same time, there was this guilt. The character in the illustration is similarly eating all these sweet strawberries in a field/strawberry patch they’re told they’re not allowed in,” he explains.
For a while now, SleepGarden has been on a hiatus and is only now coming back to drawing again. He says he went through something difficult last year, but now that he has returned to the drawing board, the process is different.
“I’m healing, so my inspirations are different, less emotionally charged. They’re no longer as inspired by feelings, but rather just things I see and like. For example, I’ve been really nostalgic about morning glories and spring lately, so that’s how Calling Spring was born.”
Calling Spring depicts two fairies surrounded by branches of blue morning glories and a blue frame. The artist describes his “simple” illustration as a love letter to spring.
“Strangely enough, some of my main inspirations are antique medical illustrations because they’re so delicate. I made Calling Spring after a period away from drawing, so its creation doubled as a body study. I couldn’t just have the morning glories, there needed to be a body somewhere,” he says, offering a shy laugh.
Over the years, the illustrations have become concentrated around line art and detailing. One glance at SleepGarden’s pieces and you’re instantly drawn into a world of fantastical illustrations, surrounded by bodies and old frames. He explains that he takes a lot of inspiration from vintage paintings, whether it’s their frames, the paintings themselves, or simply the name.
A vintage-inspired piece is Hades Carrying Eros to the Underworld, inspired by Richard Westall’s painting of the same name. Westall’s painting depicts the god of the underworld as a horned devil with baby Eros on his shoulders, Hades’ hands tightly gripped around the toddler’s ankles as he flails his arms and Cupid’s bow in the air. SleepGarden’s version, however, looks nothing alike.
“When I first saw the painting, I felt like the name had a lot of potential. I wanted to create something that showed how the title made me feel,” he says. “I started with just the centre, which was Hades pulling Eros by the back. It was just going to be that, but me being how chaotic I am, it started to spread into a frame, and I began to add muses and a bunch of other Greek pottery-inspired details.”
Left: Hades Carrying Eros to the Underworld by Richard Westall / Right: Hades Carrying Eros to the Underworld by SleepGarden
“One of my favourite details about the piece is the feather. Instead of Eros wings, as we see in Westall’s painting, I put a feather under his chest to signify a top scar,” he says.
Gabriel explains that he wanted to make his piece homoerotic, a love story between Hades and Eros, unlike Westall’s version. He beams as he describes his storyline.
“I struggled a lot with how to incorporate Eros’ arrow. He had struck Hades, which is why Hades was taking him to the underworld, but then I was hit by the idea that if Eros pricked himself too, their fates as lovers would be sealed. Now they’re inseparable.”
The artist describes himself as a slow worker, despite doing line work. He blames the endless layers for the long process and spends a lot of time and effort working on each section.
“I’m also a bit chaotic in my process.” He chuckles. “I know a lot of artists start on one part of the canvas and work their way out, but I sort of just work on one part until I’m bored, before jumping to a completely different one.”
“It’s hard to say when a piece is finished. Finishing sort of feels like a feeling of relief, perhaps peaceful. It almost is like letting out a sigh. I guess I get to a point where I just know,” he says.
The meaning of art
When asked what art means to him, the artist lets out a soft laugh. At first, he doesn’t say anything. Then, he begins to talk about our pre-historic ancestors and cave paintings.
“It’s the most solid thing we have from them, it’s our communication with them. Art is a historic form of communication. I love it because so many people from different times have looked at the same painting and felt what the artist tried to communicate,” he says.
“I also think art communicates in a way that words can’t. I don’t know if I can quite explain it, but here is something about the emotional connection between people and art that means a lot to me. In a way, art is just so human.”
He goes quiet for a moment, and his brows tighten into a frown, one you only see in people deep in thought. Then he shifts in his seat on the floor.
“It can be hard to make a living out of art, and I don’t even know if I necessarily have a concise goal with my illustrations. Personally, I just know I want to keep doing it for as long as it’s possible. That being said, it feels very fulfilling when people tell me how my art makes them feel. I have had people message me and say my art gives them gender euphoria, which makes me so happy. I suppose I like to share my art. I love that it makes people feel something.”
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