Danielle Hession is caught between the two worlds of an alluring past and a fast-advancing technological present. Inspired by undiscovered treasures and precious family relics, she collects personal histories and special memories to gather them into experimental collages. With a background in graphic design and a love for mixed media techniques, Danielle weaves one-of-a-kind work as each piece breathes a different, untold story. We went for coffee with her some time ago and had a fantastic conversation about prized possessions, the preservation of memory and finding inspiration in the little things in life.
When do you think art was introduced into your life?
I think it all started with a small rubber stamp set my mom gave me when I was about six or seven. I thought it was so cool. Making impressions, ripping paper up, layering it… I even had a little card business where I would make cards and sell them to my friends. I guess mixed media has always been something that I’ve loved; I kept a lot of journals throughout my childhood as well. I was very creative and I would always be given them as presents because what can you give a creative person? Journals. I still have so many of them filled with drawings, ticket stubs, magazines cutouts… Whatever I was going through at the moment.
What’s it like reading through them now?
I cringe sometimes. I guess looking back at them makes me realize how small my world really was. Looking through the drawings is so interesting: I had somewhat of a japanese influence and I think my way of learning was through imitation. Like everyone, I definitely went through funny stages. In my earliest journals I was obsessed with drawing everything in twos. Everything had to have a duplicate and I was in love with the idea of twins. I get so many memories flipping through them.
It’s always stimulating to relive the past through old diary entries. Was that an inspiration for the thesis you wrote on preservation of memory?
The thesis was called “Mine”. It was essentially about mining through your own history through the things that are most important to you. I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of people and their prized possessions. In our generation, if you ask someone what their most prized possession is, it’s usually their laptop. With me it’s similar, so much of my life’s work is on mine. But it you ask an older generation, the answer is totally different. I started asking people what their most prized possession was: first my grandmother, then her friends, then I went knocking around the neighbourhood… Someone had mentioned to me that there was an old man who had survived the Holocaust and I knew he had a story, so I visited him one day and it turns out he was more than happy to tell it to me. His most prized possession was this tiny initialed heart on a string in a little velvet box. His mom had been in a concentration camp and having only bread and toothpaste, she chewed both together to mold a little heart and carve initials on it with her nail. It’s the last thing they received from her before she died. He’s kept this with him ever since, along with a whole other collection of artifacts preserved over the years.
Do you think this custom of collecting special artifacts has been lost?
I guess you could say it’s getting lost but it’s not, it’s just changing. Ancient Native American cultures were very much about passing things along to preserve the legacy of their elders: stories, objects, knowledge. It’s the same if I have a question; I might ask my dad but I’ll also go read a million things on the internet. As much as I love getting lost in the simplicity of an older time, I like mixing it with technology and graphic design, playing around with the two ways of doing things. I’m always caught in the middle.
If someone asked you what your prized possession was, would you be able to answer then?
I think for me it’s the same as anybody else. I have so many files, all of my life’s work on my computer, photos of projects I’ve done, things I’m really tied to. It’s easy to pinpoint the possession down to one object, because it has so much content. I would have to say my collection of old journals as well. All this handmade stuff from my childhood really does represent an important part of my life.
What’s your favourite place to rummage through to find antiques and treasures?
I used to go to the St Lawrence Market every Sunday. It’s fun because I actually got to know the vendors and ask them about anything; essentially we’re all hoarders so I can relate to them. I actually have dreams of opening up drawers and cupboards and finding new little things. I’ve been to a couple of big antique fairs in the States that I absolutely loved as well. There’s just so many characters at these shows: crazy crafters, hobbyists, collectors… If you have the time you can get glimpses of their stories. I’m also lucky that my friends already know my obsessions and what I collect and they keep an eye out for me. I guess you can say I end up with a lot of people’s garbage, but for me it’s treasure.
So what’s the work process like when putting together your pieces?
I’ve always been into the more commercial side of art which I think is due to my background in graphic design. I’ve licensed my artwork, so I’m working with a company based out of London, as well with a couple of galleries which I love. The relationships I build with my clients make licensing a definite must for me, it’s art on such a big scale. The pieces I make are usually gifts or surprises, commissioned for the client’s family or a friend. I scan photographs or personal memories and make collages. One of the most recent custom pieces that I did was for a woman whose life was all about figure skating. They had so many amazing memories! Photos, badges, costumes she had designed, a little autograph book. We don’t really have those anymore. It was full of creative puns, really sweet messages and fun poems. There was one particular beautiful note from her mother that was really special. Her daughter that had commissioned this and I felt like I was watching her learn things about her mom right in front of me, having everything make sense to her through these discoveries.
It must be really special doing custom pieces and working with people’s prized possessions and memories.
Absolutely. What’s interesting and what I didn’t anticipate is that I would have the opportunity to repeat business. Sometimes someone gets a piece done and ends up wanting a collection after. I get to go back and work at their houses, play with their kids. It’s amazing how I have these friendships with all these people that I’d never have met if it wasn’t through this artwork that helps us keep in touch. There’s one woman whose life is travel and every time she goes on a trip I do a custom piece of it. She has a full wall of all of her travels, which is amazing. A lot of my pieces are given as surprises and I sometimes wish I could be a fly on the wall when it happens. It’s something completely unexpected and if people have been sneaky enough to take all the photos and elements then they really would have no idea. There’s been tears, I love it when people cry. (laughs)
What’s it like working from Toronto?
I love the city. As much as I can say that I’d love to work in other places, I will always want to come home to Toronto. I was born in Kingston, moved to Colorado when I was twelve and got here when I was 16 with my family. I’ve always been back and forth but I absolutely love Toronto. I am constantly inspired by the people around me.
How do you stay so inspired?
I think the most important thing is to push yourself and create something every day. Even if it’s just arranging things hanging around the house in a certain way; playing with that and documenting it is so important, to look back and see the progression. Being mentored by people and experimenting is extremely valuable as well, you never know what you’re going to get obsessed with or find a talent for and the only way of discovering that is by talking to people. Of course, there are some days I don’t have any ideas and I feel so unbelievably stuck and uninspired. If you’re not feeling creative, you have to allow yourself to take a break and have faith that it’s going to come back. You can’t feel guilty that it’s not coming to you, it’s never fun if you’re forcing it and it always has to be fun.