Aaron creates intricate multi-layered stencil pieces under the moniker Noraa Canoe for his studio The Dark Canoe Arts. In addition his stencil pieces, Aaron is also an accomplished poet & photographer with a passion for winemaking and brewing beer.
We first met when I joined Instagram at the end of 2012 and I quickly became a fan of his work. One of my favorite things about his art is you never know what expect next from him. Aaron is a prolific artist, often managing multiple pieces/projects simultaneously.
The process he employs to create his work is often as fascinating at the final result. In my opinion, the diversity of mediums/techniques that he utilizes to create his pieces highlights not only the value of a consistent workflow but also celebrates the pure joy of creation.
In our conversation, he discusses the role and importance of the artist in society, life as an artist in a rural area, and how his attitude towards the creative process has evolved over time. Aaron was kind enough to participate in the following conversation:
Who are you and what do you do? My name is Aaron and I work under the pseudonym Noraa Canoe and I create art in a small town in western North Dakota.
How do you work? It depends on what I’m working on, but basically, everything starts with an idea coupled with a strong urge to bring that idea to life in some way.
Currently, most of my focus is on creating mixed media pieces with acrylic, spray paint, and hand cut stencils. Often with those, I start out with an idea for a subject to create a stencil of, a portrait, an animal, etc. I can spend anywhere from a week to 3 months creating and cutting a stencil, depending on the size and number of layers.
I’ve worked up to 10 layer stencils, but I’d love to push it to 15 next. The stencil part of the piece is very controlled and thought out, whereas the backgrounds are more abstract and experimental. That’s what I love about doing these pieces, you get the control and the chaos in the same piece.
In between the bigger mixed media pieces, I do what I call ”artistic palate cleansers” which are just random pen or pencil drawings or sketches that give me a mental and physical break after months of tedious and meticulous stencil cutting.
Lately, I’ve been exploring sculpting and other forms of 3-dimensional art because I’ve been having some pretty intense ideas that I think would translate best in that medium, but also it would give my hand a break.
I don’t foresee myself ever stopping with creating stencils, l love working with them, but my hand is starting to really feel all the hours of using the Xacto blade. I’ve probably doomed myself to getting arthritis early, but I’ll cut for as long as l can.
Maybe down the road I’ll invest in a laser cutter and start cutting my stencils that way.
What role does the artist have in society? I think to challenge it and attempt to improve it.
It seems like society as a whole has an innate tendency to enter a sleepy complacency, with a desire to keep things as they already are, because it makes them feel safe. But artists play a pivotal role in tearing through that stagnation and forcing society to accept that change can be good.
For instance, many of the advancements in technology are generally inspired by artists and creative types.
One example that comes to mind is space exploration. In 1865 Jules Verne writes From the Earth to the Moon which helped inspire one of the first sci-fi films, A Trip to the Moon, in the early 1900’s.
There is no question that Verne’s novel and Méliès film inspired others later to bring actual space travel to fruition. A lot of it begins with someone exploring an idea that seems completely off the wall.
How has your practice changed over time? I’ve been drawing ever since I was a little kid, but I think it was in my early teens that I’d say I began to focus on it a lot more. And at that point in my artistic endeavors, I think I was plagued by a toxic combination of impatience, uncertainty, as well as a fear of failure.
On top of that, I didn’t have any real instruction. I lived in a small rural town in North Dakota, there wasn’t really any kind of art class in school, so I was trying to figure it out on my own.
So I would have an idea in my head, and instead of starting out with say, a rough sketch, or breaking things down to basic shapes, I’d jump right into trying to draw the finished detail. Of course, it came out far from what I envisioned, I’d get frustrated, and then be reluctant to start another piece later because if I couldn’t make it right, why bother doing it.
Because of this, for a time I focused less on that form of creativity and instead gravitated toward other things, mainly learning guitar, making home movies with friends, and skateboarding. That’s what most of my teenage years involved.
Finally, in my mid 20’s I began to once again focus on drawing, and even painting, oils primarily. I still had some of the hang-ups as before, but this time I got myself some How-to books, and down the road, YouTube came along. That instruction, along with practice, helped build my confidence in my artistic abilities. It was also around this time that I came across a few artists that changed my attitude toward art.
I was reading a copy of Juxtapoz that had an article on Shepard Fairey the street/mixed media artist before he’d become really well known. Along with him, I came across other street artists like Banksy, Invader, D*Face, etc.
There was something so intriguing to me about the concept of putting work into creating a piece of work, just to have it painted over, or removed by an anti-graffiti unit. It began to sink in that it wasn’t about the finished piece, but more about the process of creating it, as well as the impact it would have on those seeing it, even if only for a short time.
I was also introduced to the work of Andy Goldsworthy, an artist who creates sculptures and structures out of things found in nature, like icicles, rocks, leaves, twigs, and sand. These pieces would eventually disappear as they succumbed to decay and the elements. Again it seemed to be about letting go of things and reveling in the moment of their creation.
Third, David Lynch’s outlook on the artistic process was eye-opening for me. My interpretation of it is this; give yourself over to your ideas and the process of giving life to those ideas. Instead of overthinking it, and trying to take too much control of it, let intuition lead the way, stay true to the original idea, and the final outcome will be genuine and generally one you are happy with.
And just like that, any fear and uncertainty I had struggled with evaporated. I came to realize, and this is completely cliche but completely true in this case, it is more about the journey than the final destination.
The last 10 years, I have experienced euphoria in just the stage of experimenting with a piece and I’m generally satisfied with the final outcome. Even if the finished piece isn’t exactly what I had in mind, the time spent bringing it to completion is not wasted.
What’s your strongest memory of your childhood? Off the top of my head, I’d say it might be an event that took place when I was 11-12 years old.
My parents, sister and I were driving home one night after spending a weekend in Minot, a town a few hours north of Hebron. So we are heading down a highway, only about 40 miles from home, when about a dozen deer start running across the road a little way in front of us.
My dad immediately slows down, all the deer cross and he starts speeding up again. Just as he’s starting to pick up speed he notices something else in the road about 100 yards ahead, so naturally, he starts slowing down again. He’s thinking it’s an animal, perhaps another deer crossing a little further down.
As we draw closer, we can clearly make out that it’s a woman kneeling right in the middle of the two lanes of the highway, with her head bowed.
My dad slowly pulls up beside her and rolls his window down, and asks “Hey, are you ok? Do you need some help?”
I will never forget the pleading desperation in her voice as she replied, “Please sir, turn around, come back, and hit me with your car.”
In complete disbelief, my dad simply goes, “What?”
“I want you to run me over with your car.” She let those words out half screaming, half sobbing.
At this point, my dad pulls over to the side of the road and gets out to try and get this woman off the road. After he gets out we notice another car was already pulled over on the opposite side of the road, and this guy is just leaning against it with his arms crossed, and he says, “ She does this kind of stuff all the time.”
The whole thing was pretty crazy, and at that age left an impression on me. In the end, my dad was able to talk her off the road and her and her boyfriend got in their car and drove off, but I played the whole thing over and over in my head for quite some time afterward.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist? Oh man…. a lot. I’ll talk about a couple of my more interesting jobs. When I was 15 my dad got into a business where we picked up and processed dead animals, primarily cattle.
I’m not talking about a slaughterhouse, these animals were not fit for human consumption. Farmers would have cows die from a disease, complications during birth, old age, we’d have the occasional one hit by a train, and ones that would get struck by lightning (those always sucked because their insides were cooked).
Quite often these animals would be dead for days before we got out there to pick them up, so they were pretty ripe when we’d start processing them. The whole building always smelled of rotting flesh, and when we’d open up one of the lightning strikes, it smelled like rotting burned flesh.
The summers were far worse than the winters. We worked in a big metal building that completely lacked a cooling system so the stench was a lot more putrid. The only way we cooled down was by keeping a large bay door open, which allowed the air to flow through.
During the summer we also had maggots everywhere, crawling on the blood-soaked floor, crawling on the butcher tables, crawling on the door, and there would be hordes of them writhing inside the metal barrels we’d place bones and scraps. It looked like something straight out of a horror film.
People always asked how we coped with the smell, but it’s like anything unpleasant, you do it repeatedly and just get used to it. After working there for a month, I didn’t even notice the smell anymore and got used to the tickle of a maggot crawling up the back of my arm on occasion.
So we’d skin the cow, and lay the hide out flat, cover it with salt to preserve it, and after having a pile of those build-up, sell them off to a local tannery. The meat, if fresh enough, was packed in 50lb. tubs, frozen and then sold off to a zoo, circus, and dog breeders. Eventually, with the mad cow disease scare that erupted in the 90’s, regulations changed regarding using those type of animals as food for other animals, which pretty much shut the place down.
It was at the end of the 90’s, fresh out of high school, that I moved from North Dakota out to Seattle with a friend. I got a job at Rescue Rooter, a plumbing/drain cleaning service.
Through that job, I was able to expand my internal treasure trove of life experience which I feel can be tapped into for creative inspiration. Being invited into various peoples homes afforded the opportunity to see some crazy stuff, and gave an eye-opening glimpse into how different people, in different situations, process and react to things.
I had the guys basement I was working in that was suspiciously set up like a dungeon. Another job where while I was working, upstairs a drug deal was taking place and going south fast.
There was a job I took on Mercer Island, this guy lived in a mansion, had a Jaguar in the driveway, and as he showed me around his place, bragged about how much money he had. He then threw a full-on tantrum when I told him it was going to cost around a hundred dollars to clear his line. I’d quote the same price to someone who made far less money, and they’d just tell you to go for it.
I came away from those situations, never judging anyone, just finding them interesting.
What food, drink, song inspires you? I don’t know about a specific song, but there is definitely a plethora of music that inspires me artistically.
The band Devo is on my top 5 list of favorite bands, so they are on frequently while I’m in my studio. Same with Pixies. I’m also a huge fan of experimental music, so a lot of Swans and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Les Savy Fav… honestly the list could go on and on.
I’m also a huge fan of Hans Zimmer, so I listen to a good number of the soundtracks he’s done. There is one song in particular on the Dunkirk soundtrack called The Oil, that blows me away every time I listen to it. It’s six minutes of slow, steady buildup that is thick with an underlying tension throughout. I absolutely love it.
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it? I believe it certainly can be. I think I’m like most artists in that I spend a lot of time working on my projects, usually locked away in my studio. Also by nature, I’m a shy, reticent person so I have to constantly battle with that.
I counteract it by striving to reach out to fellow artists, especially those within my proximity. At times that is through social media, offering encouragement, or admiration for someones work, perhaps even an interchange of ideas. But I also try to attend as many events as possible, gallery shows, exhibit openings, etc. Which obviously gives me the opportunity to meet local artists that I admire, and who inspire me with their creative process.
What makes you angry? How much time do you have? But seriously I do try to be a pretty positive person, so l don’t let a lot get to me. Even so, I feel anger is just as important and valid of an emotion like any other, and there are things that really get under my skin.
Just like anyone else who is a decent human being, I’m angered at seeing acts of prejudice, injustice, and racism.
But perhaps a little more specific toward the topic of art. I do find myself miffed by the lack of support that the arts and artists get in my area of rural North Dakota.
For instance, it’s not uncommon to go into a business and see that they’ve decorated the establishment with generic art prints from a large chain art supply store. I mean they will spend hundreds of dollars getting a common art print matted and framed when they could have bought from a local artist, and for around the same price.
This would give them a unique art piece that no one else has, and at the same time support a local artist. It just seems that a common attitude in this area is that art is nothing more than ”a cute little hobby”. It’s often viewed as a luxury and not as it really is, an important catalyst for the growth and development of a society.
I also have a problem with people who look at art that is out of their comfort zone, what they consider strange, and they will demonize it. Rather than use their intellectual faculties in an attempt to understand the meaning behind something, and to grow, they shut down and simply label it as weird, and therefore bad. The worst, in my opinion, is when this is done toward children.
I think children are the truest artists. They create, unadulterated by motives like making money, gaining notoriety, or attracting a romantic interest. And let’s be honest, kids can create some art that is pretty strange.
Rather than view it as a beautiful, unique form of expression from their child, some parents will chastise them, or make them feel as if there is something wrong with them. ”Uh-oh, Rachel drew a picture of a monster eating her brother… better send her to counseling.”
Those kinds of reactions stunt and atrophy open creative expression, which I feel is especially damaging for young ones.
What is your dream project? I’d love to do a big mural, like a big wall. I’ve never done anything like that before. I think it would be a new challenge that would definitely be exciting.
I’m also a huge comic book/graphic novel geek. I’d love to do one sometime because I enjoy writing stories, but I really suck at drawing human anatomy properly, especially in motion. It is a goal of mine to improve, I really just need to practice a lot more, but currently, I’m focused on other things artistically.