One Artist at a Time: Paul Elia

I have had the pleasure of working with Paul Elia, a super kind man with a beaming smile (if he smiles, you smile). Like many, I have admired his art work for years in local shops, galleries, and restaurants. It was my pleasure to meet him at his studio to chat, surrounded by his Hamilton-inspired streetscapes that highlight the beauty in our city’s reality.

Why Hamilton?
I was born in Toronto but I moved to Hamilton when I was three or four, so I grew up here. I went back to Toronto to go to the Ontario College of Art and Design. To be totally honest, the housing prices are what brought me back. I was in Toronto, sav- ing money, looking at houses and was totally discouraged by what you can get there. And I was totally blown away by what you can get here, just an hour away. I was a little familiar with Hamilton, but not too much. I went to high school on the mountain, and at that time it was the 90s, Hamilton had a really bad  reputation and I just couldn’t wait to get out. So I never thought I would come back. But, the housing prices lured me back, I got a beautiful Victorian house right downtown. I stumbled onto art crawl, which was still pretty new in 2007, and I just fell in love with the city.

How has Hamilton influenced your art?
Hamilton has completely inspired the work I’m doing now. When I first moved here I would go for walks around the city — especially the east end, because I was struck by the odd quality of industrial and residential together. I loved how the houses look like they were in a fight, with bruised eyes and broken teeth. I think I’m really drawn to the whole black sheep story and Hamilton’s got that in it. I’ve found it really inspiring how the built environment reflects the history of the city and the people here and the way people feel about the city. I’ve started working on a few American pieces of key pieces like New York, LA and Washington. It’s been a lot of fun, but I’m still really backed up with Hamilton stuff. It’s been amazing what’s going on here. The support from the community has been incredible — people here are amazing. For some reason, this art just really spoke to the community. I think it was the right time and the right place. Before moving to Hamilton my art never had buildings in them, it was all people. When I moved here, for the first time, I got really interested in buildings and streetscapes. It’s funny that’s what people respond to.

There’s a zombie apocalypse. Where in Hamilton do you go to survive?
If I could get access to them, those secret hidden bathrooms under Gore Park. I think there’s still access to them… It could be safe down there.

What’s your favourite outdoor space in the city?
It’s right behind my house — you can walk up the Dundurn stairs halfway to where the Bruce Trail runs along the escarpment, and then you can go down the James Street stairs or go down to John Street. I do that walk almost every day. I just think it’s such a dynamic trail. You go through urban environments and then you’re on the Bruce Trail with the rocks of the escarpment jutting out. And you end up at the top of the Claremont Access with a stunning view of the downtown skyline, and then a nice trail down John Street.

If you had to pick your favourite indoor space in the city, what would it be?
It might have to be the Lister Block restoration, and the way they did the offices on the second floor and kept a lot of elements. I think they did such a good job and I think it meant a lot to the city — it was a real tipping point.

If you weren’t an artist, what would your backup job be?
Does graphic design count?

No, that’s art!
I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist since as far back as I can remember… Oh, if I went to school, I’d be a psychiatrist.

If you were stranded on an island and could only bring three animals, what would you bring?
One would have to be a cat. I like cats. I love lions, I’m a leo…

I feel like a lion would eat you though.
Yeah, it’s not smart.
I’m a vegetarian, and the reason I’m a vegetarian is because I saw a turkey at a petting zoo and I thought it was so majestic. So I’d bring a turkey. Maybe a monkey? They’re good company. A cat, a turkey, and a monkey.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Reality TV. I get together with my parents once a week and we watch bad reality TV like Survivor or Big Brother. The ones I don’t like are the food ones. I love to cook, but I don’t like the food ones. And I don’t watch any of the singing ones. They’re usually singing songs I don’t like, and I find it’s not about just having a good voice. But apart from those, I love all of them. And British reality TV shows, too. They’re more clever and it’s more psychologi- cally manipulative.

I do believe reality TV is staged, but I still think you’re getting more of a genuine response than you ever see in something rehearsed. I like that about it.

What’s your favourite piece of art that you’ve done?
I always say that my favourite is the one I’m currently working on. You get obsessed with it while you’re working on it, and as soon as you’re done you can’t look at it the same way anymore.
There’s the first one I ever did, of Lloyd Street — it’s got the row of houses with the factory in the back. That piece kind of made my career and put me out there and it’s still one of the most popular prints. Maybe that one.

If you have the opportunity, check out his holiday open house on Saturday, Dec. 5, at the gallery. His email address is paul@paulelia.ca

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