Embarking on a canvas of creativity and advocacy, Willo Downie, an artist whose journey weaves a tapestry of personal experience, inspiration, familial influence, and a commitment to social change, opens up the profound chapters of her artistic odyssey. From the tranquil landscapes of her upbringing to the transformative moments during the pandemic, Downie shares the pivotal turning points that led her to embrace art as a full-time pursuit. Beyond the canvas, Downie's commitment to social causes becomes a vibrant palette, touching on issues ranging from environmental conservation to Indigenous rights.
Can you take us back to the beginning of your artistic journey? What initially inspired you to pursue a career in art and advocacy?
Willo: In large part, it has a lot to do with how I was raised and the encouragement I got from my parents. My dad was creative as well, so to be able to feed that example set for myself and my siblings was an amazing thing. I think I always knew that I wanted to be an artist.
It just sort of took a little bit to understand how that would come to be and how that would actualize. I've always been doing art. I had stints of selling it here and there, but the decision to go into it full-time came around during the pandemic at a pivotal moment in my life, and I haven't looked back since.
How has your art specifically allowed you to express yourself and communicate your thoughts and feelings to the rest of the world?
Willo: Painting, to me, is an opportunity to just turn off the brain and the inner noise and just experience peace in my day. It's been a huge outlet for me my whole life in terms of mental health and remaining true to myself.
So painting, especially large-scale abstract painting, is very peaceful to me. It's very tactile and involves a lot of movement and body movement. To me, it's an opportunity to tap into that inner joy, peace, and movement to calm down the inner thoughts.
Can you describe a moment or project in your artistic career that you consider a turning point or breakthrough in your artistic development?
Willo: It would probably have to have been during the pandemic about three years ago. I had moved to a little town just north of Kingston and was living on the lake. I was going through a big life change and was trying to figure it out.
I was surrounded by nature and had a studio, which I was lucky enough to have at my disposal. With that all combined, I was able to take a moment of peace and turn it into what I consider to be my career now.
Throughout your artistic career, how have you seen your style and creative process evolve, and what were some key milestones in that evolution?
Willo: There's been a lot of change in my artistic practice, and I'm constantly trying new things. I took up embroidery a couple of years ago, knitting, and crocheting. So there's that, but specifically in terms of painting, I used to sell, years ago, small watercolour florals.
I was really into botany, gardening, and flowers, and that was my initial sort of medium for selling my artwork. Then, at a certain point, it felt kind of constrictive to me, artistically and creatively, and I think from there, I was just craving more freedom in my work, hence the very large abstract pieces that came out of it.
Being part of Scotiabank Arena's permanent art collection is a remarkable achievement. How did this opportunity come about, and what does it mean to you as an artist?
Willo: It's such an honour. It's still so inspiring. I think I can speak for a lot of the artists who are a part of it. It's just an incredible opportunity.
The way it came about was at the gallery that I show at in Picton, Ontario. Jim, the owner, has friends, Kelly and Sonia, at Acacia Art Projects here in Toronto. They're a Cabbagetown framing company, and they're amazing; he introduced my work to them, and they were doing all the framing for the permanent collection at Scotiabank.
So they introduced me to Tracie at Sports and the Arts. That's how it came about. I couldn't be more grateful. It's been surreal.
Are there any specific challenges or breakthroughs you encountered while preparing for this exhibition, and how did they impact your artistic approach?
Willo: I'd say the biggest challenge for this was the mental aspect. I don't want to speak for all artists, but I'd be safe in saying a lot of artists experience imposter syndrome, right?
This project felt really important and, again, such an honour. I think going into it, I just had to give myself a bit of a pep talk and remind myself to focus on the act of painting and the act of creation. Also maintaining that sense of peace that I always have while painting and just sort of removing the noise and the internal chatter around the self-perceived pressure project.
You mentioned having deep, joyful memories associated with the Scotiabank Arena in the press release. How does it feel to have your artwork now be a permanent part of a place with such significance in your life?
Willo: I could come at that from two different perspectives. There's the perspective of being a Torontonian, being born and raised in this city, and just attaching fond memories to that space. I feel like so many exciting things happen there. Our sports teams are there; amazing concerts; just formative memories made there. So, to be able to have a piece displayed in that space from the perspective of Torontonians is incredible.
But then also, my father was a musician, and so that was also his place of work. So, I grew up being able to witness him in a creative field, working in that space. It feels very full circle and very connective with my dad—to have my creative work now displayed in the same building. It's very meaningful.
In what ways do you hope this art and your work in general will resonate with visitors to the Scotiabank Arena and the larger community in Toronto?
Willo: I think my greatest hope with my art, in general, is that it provides the viewer with a moment of peace, calmness, and reflection.
Scotiabank is inherently a stimulating place. A lot is going on. The events are incredible and have very high energy. So, in my mind, my greatest hope is that when a person's walking down the hall and stumbles across my piece, maybe they're stopping to look at it, and it gives them a moment to sort of reflect on the event itself that they're attending or just gratitude to be ingesting culture at all times.
Your commitment to supporting and advocating for different social issues is commendable. Can you share the story behind your passion for giving back and how you choose the causes you support?
Willo: I think when I had that moment when I was deciding to go full-time with this, I had the opportunity to sit down and sort of create a business plan of sorts.
I can fully appreciate that. In a lot of ways, being able to paint for your job, even though it's hard work a lot of the time, is a privilege to be able to do that. So, in my mind, if my paintings were going to hopefully bring peace, calm, and healing to the viewer, why would they just stop at the canvas itself?
So my greatest hope in starting my business would be that it wouldn't just be about me and my paintings; it would positively impact the lives of so many others, whether that be the consumer, the viewer, my clients, or people who are benefiting from the organizations and foundations that I work with.
I wanted it to be bigger than just me and my paintbrush.
Swim Drink Fish (formerly The Waterkeepers) Art Auction is one of the organizations that you are involved with. Can you tell us more about your involvement with this?
Willo: Growing up, we grew up on a body of water, one of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario. My dad had a certain amount of reverence for that particular lake and passed it on to us. He worked for a long time with Waterkeepers Swim Drink Fish as an ambassador, and just seeing him filled with such joy and passion for protecting the places where we live—the places where we swim, engage with, and enjoy the water—is important.
I think more than anything, doing this piece for Waterkeepers just felt like a natural extension of my involvement with them from before, from watching my dad as a child do this work with them to volunteering myself at this very gala and auction that used to happen every year, looking at the artists on stage and thinking, 'Wow, how amazing would that be to have a piece up there and make a difference?'
So, to have the opportunity to work with them this past year was just incredible. It felt again like a very full-circle moment. They do incredible work, and it's not just in Lake Ontario; they protect bodies of water all over the world.
How do you, as an artist, and your art intersect with your passion for environmental preservation?
Willo: Everything that I do and every single piece that I create is inspired in part by my surroundings. Our surroundings are our planet, right? These colour palettes come from places I've seen and experienced in my travels or in my day-to-day life. To be able to create work inspired by the planet, I think it's also just sort of a very natural extension of ‘why wouldn't I protect that beauty as well'—to appreciate it and protect it in the same vein?
You are also a huge advocate for Indigenous issues and rights; can you tell us about your involvement in that?
Willo: I think it's so important, as people, that we understand the place that we call home. The entire history that goes into that place and how it came about, and to serve as witnesses to that and learn as much as possible about that. Then, eventually, take action to correct it. Such as a place like Canada that was built on a painful history and injustice towards Indigenous people.
My main goal in advocating, I suppose, would just be to, again, listen, learn, and then provide my platform as an opportunity to connect people with knowledge from the sources themselves.
How do you address social issues in your work, and what kind of challenges as an artist have you encountered along the way?
Willo: Honestly, I haven't encountered many challenges, and I think that's in large part due to the people that I interact with on my platforms. It's a small but very meaningful community to me where we're all, for the most part, like-minded people who want to continue to learn, grow as people, evolve as people, educate ourselves, and help wherever possible.
So I've been very lucky in the way that the people who have found my work and found what I do also agree with those aspects of my work as well.
Do you have any personal favourite works that hold special meaning to you? If so, could you tell us the story behind them?
Willo: It’s like choosing a favourite kid.
I think, honestly, it would probably have to be the very first piece or print that I offered through my business. It was with the help of a friend that we put together this print called Clarity, and it was entirely for donation. So 100 percent of everything made went towards UNYA (Urban Native Youth Association), and they work to empower and support Indigenous youth. It's very near and dear to my heart because it also sold out, which I think goes to prove the community that has rallied around this.
It felt very special and unifying to connect with my clients for the first time through an active service—a mutual active service. It felt very collaborative.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned during your artistic journey that you'd like to share with emerging artists and creative entrepreneurs?
Willo: Protect your peace at all costs. Keep going, but keep it fresh.
As creative people, it's our natural tendency to continue to create and create new things and new ideas and explore those new ideas. When art becomes your job, it's very easy to end up bottle-necking yourself down to a certain medium or what have you. So, protect your peace by keeping things fresh.
What are your aspirations for your career and yourself as an artist?
Willo: My greatest goal is to continue to be a student, to continue learning, growing, and getting involved.
That goes for my artistic practice and my involvement in the arts community in general. Also just the human community, like continuing to pursue a greater form of being and contributing to our planet and the people who live on it.