Discovered painting on a Toronto street, his work now hangs in high-end galleries
Malcolm Emilio is a familiar sight in Kensington Market. The self-taught artist reflects on his journey
I first met Malcolm Emilio years ago in Toronto's Kensington Market. He was floating by on a skateboard, decked out in paint-splattered pants with cowrie shells in his locs and an eager smile on his face. I kept encountering him there, perched on a curbside or hanging out behind a table stacked with his paintings. He'd frequently have fruit with him — but not just to eat. He'd use the rinds to move paint around the canvas.
His work pops with colour. The playfulness of his childlike imagery invites the viewer to consider the political undertones of his work. I often think of him as a magical figure, conjuring works with the same ingredients he'd use to make a vegan meal, and he often speaks passionately of crystals and a non-Western colour theory.
These days, Malcolm Emilio spends less time in the Market. He has traveled to Central and South America, the Caribbean and the United States in the last four years, and he is often commissioned to make large-scale murals for hospitals and community centres while abroad. But I met with him on the neighbourhood's outskirts last week as he was painting a sign for a recently-opened vintage store. We spoke about those experimental fruit-painting techniques, and the origins of his creative journey. And the self-taught painter shared the story of how he launched his career by painting in the street.
How did your connection with Liss Gallery happen?
Malcolm Emilio: Painting outside! So I'm painting, one of my first times going to Yorkville because I was always like, "I wonder what the vibes is over there?" And this gentleman comes out and he's like, "How much are you selling that painting for? 10,000, right?"
I looked at him and I was just like, "Well, you know if that's what it is then that's what it is." He gave me like a quick two-minute [talk] saying, "Hey, you gotta know where you are. If someone comes and talks to you, it's because they want that and not because they like it."
Within [a] couple of minutes of him opening that window, [another] gentleman walks up. "How much you want for that?" And I look up to him and I was just like, "$2,000?" He's like, "That it? Come hang that at my gallery when it's done." And I was like, "Your what?" So I finished up the painting and walked over there and sure enough, [he] put it up in the front window — and that was kind of the start.
You do a lot of travelling and leave your work in many places. Do you ever fear that when you're not there to explain it that your art is going to be misunderstood or misconstrued?
Thank you for asking that question, Amanda. I had my solo show with the gallery last year. So all my descriptions are up and [the gallery] is calling me like two hours before the show, like, "Malcolm. There's a word here in all of the descriptions and I don't know what it means. I don't know what it says." He's like "Meline… Melin… Mela… Melanine."
I'm like, "What's going on here? Melanin?"
He's like, "Yeah. What is that? I've Googled it. I can't find it on Google."
So I was like, "Listen, it's the colour in your eyes, it brings in the colour, the pigment, all of that."
He's like, "What does that mean? I don't want to be explaining this word to everybody at the show."
And with the humblest energy, I said, "You'll probably be the only one at that show that doesn't know what that word is." So when I'm in a place where I'm talking about my art and I'm asked to filter that, I've just had to gauge different levels of what that filtration meant — have an articulation that gives people better reference points of what you're saying.
Can you tell me the story of how you began creating?
I got kicked out of high school really young. First week of grade 11 they said I was a distraction to the other kids in the class. They said I talked too much. I was a class clown. Went to an adult school and they said I did the same thing. So I took a chance to start working and create my own brands, my own clothes — and the artwork became an expression.
What kind of clothes were you creating?
Literally I'd get t-shirts and just paint on them. Painting came from painting on my clothes, painting on the wall, painting things at home and then mom just asking me to paint on canvases. She saw that when I did get kicked out of school, if I wasn't playing soccer, I'd just be in my room creating and she was encouraging me from the beginning. But it wasn't till one day, I couldn't stop working on this piece. So I took it to the alternative school I went to just to get my GED and one of the teachers was like, "I want to buy that." I'd never thought of selling my art — I would just do these shaking techniques of the canvases and I would blow. That's when [I started using] the fruit peels. I would just try so many different things.
You were just trying techniques off the top of your head?
Yeah, that was the thing. I had never heard of Picasso or Basquiat or any of that stuff. Then when I moved back to Toronto, that's when I saw Basquiat and that's when I saw the AGO and that's when I was like, "Oh, there's a whole art world." I was clueless to art.
What about when you were going to school and you would have art class? Did you pick up anything from those spaces?
I never got to take art class. When I was grade 7, 8, they told my mom I had the craziest ADD, ADHD something. They even sent me to a psychiatrist. They tried to give me all of these pills: Ritalin, Strattera. When I got into high school I never got to pick classes. They put me in extra-help class — they even had me in ESL at one point. I didn't do too well because I didn't want to be in them. I guess all of those things stemmed into me being a creative person and getting deeper into knowing that I wasn't going to be a part of that system.
So you started experimenting and then one day you decided to use fruit peels?
I had cucumber skins, nuff watermelon, oranges and bananas. And then one day I just started using the peels to paint. I'd always used a piece of cardboard, which has the same effect as a palette knife, but I just had more control over it. So I would rip pieces [of cardboard] and just use them with my hand. But then I realized I could cut a cucumber and it could have the same effect, but then the moisture from the cucumber diluted the paint in a way that I'd never seen it before. So those mixes of blends that I have all came from these oils and acrylics being diluted and mixed with these chlorophylls and these juices from these fruits. My first five years of painting, those were all paintings done with the fruits and the vegetables. But to be honest, in the last four or five years I haven't really been using them.
What have you been using?
I went back to my little pieces of cardboard. I just went back to my original [method] — cutting up these papers and just using them because it feels like it's my hand on the paper. And now taking those same techniques and just using them on a bigger scale like on wall murals, on houses, on wood outside, on rocks. I've just been really expanding that style. I want to step away and learn some other techniques. I realized I haven't used the brush. When I was younger I would play with it but I never learned how to move the brush and not have brushstrokes. So I was like, maybe I should learn that. I am a painter!