By Meghan Yuri Young
Photography by Max Power
Sculpting, photography, and illustration, Briony Douglas does it all while finding ways to advocate for meaningful causes through her work.
Briony (rhymes with “peony”) is the super cool big sister you’ve always wanted. You know, the one whose closet you want to raid; the one who knows all the best spots in the city; and the one who selflessly offers emotional support as you navigate this thing called life. Not to mention, Briony has the biggest imagination.
Her creativity and art are actually how she invites you in. Then, you end up sticking around because you see Briony cares — not only about you but also about the world around you. When she’s not making large-scale sculptures, shooting big studio productions, or lending her voice to important causes, she’s responding to you through online platforms, love notes scattered throughout the city, or personal projects inspired by her community.
Meghan Yuri Young: You, like your art, are a fixture in the city. Yet, having known you a few years, one thing has always stood out to me: You’ve never felt fixed to one spot. You’re ever-evolving. With that in mind, how would you best describe who you are and what you do to someone who is not familiar with you?
Briony Douglas: If someone were to ask me what I do, I usually say, I do all of the things! I don’t know where or why people started teaching us that you have to just stick to one thing. It’s not for me. I like to do everything that brings me joy and happiness. There’s a quote I saw, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none,” which is actually not the full quote, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” That really resonated with me because I felt like people judged me for not deciding to just do one thing or perhaps were like, “Well, she won’t be as good.”
I’ll see a photographer that only does photography and they kind of act like I’m not as good because I play with multiple mediums. But I think what’s important is to be authentic to yourself. You only live once and you should be doing the things that you love. Doing photography brings me a lot of happiness. Building large sculptures brings me happiness. Illustration brings me happiness. Why would I limit myself based on other people’s opinions of me?
MYY: Beyond being a fixture in Toronto, you have even more real estate on the Internet. Social media aside, I stumbled on countless articles about your art, sneaker collection, and not surprisingly, general raves from your fan base. Yet, it was only when I resorted to LinkedIn that I made the educated guess that you grew up in Toronto. Am I right?
BD: I did not grow up in Toronto.
MYY: My guess was wrong!
BD: In your defence, a Toronto Life article once published that I was here since I was 16, which was not right. I actually grew up in Woodstock, Ont. I went to school in Toronto, but then I moved to Barrie. I didn’t officially become a resident of Toronto until I would say 21, 22.
MYY: What made you come back to Toronto and stay?
BD: I love Toronto. I’ve had opportunities to move to other places, but being here is home. And as someone who has struggled to feel that for such a long time — my whole life, really, of not belonging — I really feel like I belong here. I’ve gotten to know such an incredible group of humans from all different walks of life.
MYY: Where do you feel most at home in Toronto?
BD: In Kensington Market. I live near there, and it’s just such an eclectic group of people. I fit right in! I mean, I’m lucky that I go to so many different events and places in the city, but I definitely do still have that moment of imposter syndrome before walking into certain rooms. I never feel that way in Kensington.
“I don’t know where or why people started teaching us that you have to just stick to one thing … I like to do everything that brings me joy and happiness.”
MYY: Some may find you having imposter syndrome surprising since it’s easy to peg you as that person who has achieved it all. Yet, would you say your work is what you’re most passionate about?
BD: Honestly, my overall happiness is something I’m probably most passionate about these days.
MYY: I love that. I feel like that’s something everyone should embrace. What do you do when you feel stuck? Where do you go?
BD: Okay, here’s the thing, I actually have too many ideas in my head. I literally have a list of things that I want to do and create, so I don’t often run into roadblocks unless there are deadlines for brands.
That said, [recently] I’ve been working on the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had in my entire life, and I had a whole week to get ideas drawn out. I spent, I kid you not, 40 to 60 hours just looking through other inspiration — Googling the main words, thinking of images that could represent the concept I was given — and it was really hard! That’s when I go for a walk. I take the dog out. I need to close my laptop and wake up with fresh eyes. I’ll scroll Pinterest or other things I’ve saved over time.
MYY: I am always in awe of how much you create, and I always feel like you’re producing it for yourself, first and foremost. What’s the project that stands out the most to you, your favourite piece?
BD: There’s different mediums, right? In terms of a sculpture, the 500 lbs., 5 ft. elephant I made out of knotted rope was a big one because of what it stood for: [working with Knot My Planet, Holt Renfrew, and others to bring awareness to securing a safe future for elephants]. It was also a turning point in my career. It was on such a big stage that many people took notice. That whole side of my career really blew up, and I got so many opportunities after that.
MYY: Someone once criticized your art and you got back at them by embracing their negative response! That piece resonated so much with me and with how I perceive you in general.
BD: Yeah, they called my art “macaroni art for adults.” It was actually just after my solo show, Homage, a few years ago. I had pulled items from all over the world for a year to put together in one piece to create a story. This person essentially mocked me with that comment. I’ve had [their comment], and this idea, in the back of my mind for a very long time, clearly. I just hadn’t had time to do it. I really wanted to create a piece out of macaroni art because, why not? So, I created a seven-by-five ft. Birth of Venus — completely out of pasta.
MYY: Your art is so tangible, even when it’s created for the Internet. You are also often the art, whether it’s parts of your body, like your hands and nails, or what you wear. What advice would you give a young artist when it comes to finding their style?
BD: Honestly, I think that comes with age. I still get awkward in front of the camera. The more I’ve built my photography career, the more I’m aware of everything my body could potentially be doing wrong while I’m shooting.
The other thing that’s come with age is just doing things for yourself. Things that make you happy, right? When I was younger and first started shooting, all my art was really dark, really sad. I, like, Googled sad girl captions for my sad stuff. I look back on my memories from six, seven years ago, and I’m like, “What was I thinking?” But I soon realized I wasn’t creating for myself. It was what I thought was trendy at that time.
It wasn’t until I also worked on my own mental health that my work became very bright and colourful and happy. I realized the narrative of being an artist meaning you have to be sad is silly. Why would you want to be sad?
So, my advice is to just be as authentic to yourself as possible. If I create something I love then I’m gonna post it and not think about how many likes I’m gonna get. Something may not get a lot of likes but someone that sees it might think, “Hey, we would love to work with you because of this.” So, having confidence in yourself is super important. Again, that comes with time and self work.
“As someone who has struggled to feel that for such a long time — my whole life, really, of not belonging — I really feel like I belong here.”
MYY: What places in Toronto make you happy?
BD: High Park definitely makes me happy. My dog, Gucci, and I try to go at least once a week and do the big off-leash walk. Kensington Market makes me happy. Yorkville makes me happy. Little Italy makes me very happy, especially in the wintertime. It’s so magical.
MYY: Do you have a favourite restaurant in Little Italy?
BD: Honestly, I love PG Clucks. The chicken sandwich is so good there. People are gonna be like, “Should you not have said an Italian restaurant?” but PG Clucks is top tier!
“…The things that are really important to me are advocating for women and for mental health. I’ve struggled with both my whole life, and I try to use my work as a spark to have those important conversations.”
MYY: It’s clear from your online presence that you use your art to advocate for issues close to your heart in ways that people can’t ignore. You also share your life in ways that inspire and make people feel less alone. What motivates you to be that strong community force?
BD: I don’t know why this is about to make me cry, but there have been so many times that I felt alone in the world and I don’t think anybody deserves to feel that way. So, the things that are really important to me are advocating for women and for mental health. I’ve struggled with both my whole life, and I try to use my work as a spark to have those important conversations.
MYY: What better way than art, which is such a powerful vehicle, to get those conversations going.
BD: Exactly. I’m such an emotional and empathetic person that if anybody’s struggling, I feel it. And I’m lucky to be in a place now that I can donate.
MYY: And you help with your art. You put love notes around the city, for instance.
BD: I like to see other people happy.
NOW YOU KNOW:
“…One thing people don’t know about me is that I’m actually quite introverted. So, even before I go to an event, I have a panicky feeling. But the second that I’m there, I’m like, ‘Oh, I love this.’”
MYY: I mentioned that you’re a fixture in this city, and many people probably already know who you are, but is there something we still don’t know about you?
BD: Growing up, I actually did want to be an artist, but my art teacher in Grade 10 or 11 was really mean to me. She critiqued everything. I remember her saying that my mouth wasn’t proportionate to my face when I was learning how to draw proportions.
MYY: Your mouth drawings weren’t proportionate?
BD: No, my actual mouth. She told me my mouth was too small for my face. Because of that, I felt I needed to go do something else. Keep in mind, growing up we didn’t have a lot of money. We struggled a lot, so the thought of doing anything with art already seemed out of reach for me.
I ended up studying journalism a little and then dropping out. I played poker to be able to pay my rent. There were points growing up, and even a large chunk of my 20s, that I was just trying to survive. But I also wouldn’t change anything about my life because I wouldn’t be where I am today without those lived experiences.
Until maybe [a few] years ago, I still was incredibly broke. When I made the decision to do photography full time, seven or eight years ago, I had quit a full-time job and was like, “I’m gonna figure this out.” So, I had to bartend and find different ways to make money as the years went by. There were days I couldn’t afford to eat and had eviction notices. I pinch myself every once in a while because I can’t believe I make arts and crafts and take photos for a living now.
MYY: You get paid to make amazing macaroni art!
BD: Yeah! Not only am I able to do that and, you know, pay my rent on time, but I’m able to give back to my community and support my friends. It’s very surreal. I do still struggle with imposter syndrome, but I don’t actually think that’s a terrible thing anymore. It keeps me humble. It makes me check myself. I want to thank everybody a gazillion times because I’m grateful for opportunities and to be in these rooms.
Toronto is full of diverse visual arts experiences and events. We’ve also curated a blog of ways to take in the art — and then explore five venues’ surrounding neighbourhoods.