How late night walks inspired a London artist after moving back from New York

After six years in New York, acclaimed artist returns home to London, ON. during the pandemic.

New work by Jason McLean touches on themes of home, aging

London, ON. artist Jason McLean's latest exhibit is titled 'Shoe Inn', at the Michael Gibson Gallery until November 28, 2020. (Supplied by Michael Gibson Gallery)

Jason McLean has decided to come home to London, ON.

The acclaimed visual artist had been living and working in New York City for the past six years, but moved his family back to the Forest City during the pandemic, and into his childhood neighbourhood of Old South.

The return home has sparked a series of new pieces for McLean, featured in the new exhibit titled Shoe Inn at the Michael Gibson Gallery. Many of the colourful and expressionistic drawings include recognizable landmarks and street names from around London.

Jason McLean spoke to CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive about the return home and the art it inspired. Here's part of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Chris dela Torre: Welcome home! I hope it's been going alright.

Jason McLean: Yeah, it's actually been really good. I've been really enjoying the time back in London. Lots of late night walks and leaf raking and just enjoying the old houses and front lawns and stuff.

You were telling me earlier that you haven't raked leaves or been on a bicycle in eight years.

Yes, it's a different way of life, but I've been enjoying it. People seem to have a little more time, with COVID on, to talk on the phone or for various neighborhood bump-ins.

You were living and working in Brooklyn for six years. What made you decide it was time to come home?

Basically, COVID hit and we weren't sure of what was going on. My kid's school closed down and there was the opportunity to come back and get our house back. Basically, we got a bit of a scare. We just thought it was a good time to reassess our life. And the plan is still to go back to New York, but we keep pushing that back.

When you say you had a scare, was there a COVID case in your family?

No, no. But our letter carrier and friend, his sister passed away. She already had some health issues. But it really hit us hard. So, in New York, we basically were just walking our dog and staying inside a lot, not taking the subway. Van Der Plas Gallery in New York, which shows my work, they basically shut down and were mainly by appointment. So it seemed like the right thing to do safety-wise, and to just to have a break and come back and reassess our life, because we'd been away for such a long time.

Recent work by Jason McLean, titled 'Home and Away'. One of several pieces featured in McLean's latest exhibit, 'Shoe Inn'. (Supplied by Michael Gibson Gallery)

Since you've been back, you've been taking some some walks around downtown London at night. What are your impressions of London's downtown core?

I've been walking around with my friend, and basically celebrating the city with some historical pop culture, the murals and the public art, like seeing the Greg Curnoe Tunnel or old locations of galleries. There are so many wonderful things in the city. It's almost like every night is an adventure. And then some of these things turn into my mapping pieces for my artwork. Even just walking around Wortley Village, where I live – there's, like, four generations of our family that have lived in the area. So, it's had me thinking about place and time.

That leads us to this new exhibit. As I understand it, it touches on the definition of "home," and what it means to age and for time to pass. Tell us a bit more about about those themes and how they came about in this work.

I mean, I'm almost 50 now. A friend's son said to me the other day that my haircut looks like I'm a 60-year-old but my face looks like a 30-year-old (laughs).

I was researching the history of artists in my neighbourhood, like how Norval Morriseau lived at the fringes of Wortley Village in the 60s with Selwyn Dewdney, who was tied in with the Curnoe family – just tying in different things with regionalism in the history of the neighborhood and having an appreciation for the things you walk by on a daily basis.

In talking about the history of visual art in London, Ontario and regionalism art movement, how closely do you feel akin to these these artists that you're talking about?

They're the basis of the way I was raised, back when I was going to go to South high school (London South Collegiate Institute) or Bealart here in London. I would learn about historic London locations and movements that happened. I loved reading about the local - then it's not just about looking toward the larger centres in world. It made us feel special to read about a local place or local thing. It just made it feel important, you know?

Shoe Inn by Jason McLean is at the Michael Gibson Gallery until November 28.

Visual artist Jason McLean has been living in New York City for the last six years, but a COVID-19 scare brought him back to his hometown of London, where late night walks around his old local haunts have reinvigorated his work. Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre speaks with him about how coming home has inspired his drawings. 7:42

About the Author

Chris dela Torre

Host of Afternoon Drive

Chris dela Torre is the host of Afternoon Drive on CBC Radio One in Southwestern Ontario. He's worked as a host, reporter and producer in several cities across Canada, and has hosted several CBC network programs, such as q, DNTO and The Story From Here.