Anna Frlan's artwork

#CouncilSpotlight – Anna Frlan

Jenna Brown

The Ottawa Arts Council supports artists and arts organizations through leadership, guidance and the provision of opportunities to advance our local creative potential.

Our series #CouncilSpotlight presents stories and experiences of Arts Council members and art award recipients.

Anna Frlan received the 2016 Corel Endowment Fund for the Arts Award.

Anna Frlan helps run Studio Space Ottawa, a not-for-profit initiative seeking to create “working spaces for working artists”. See our recent article about Studio Space Ottawa to learn more, and to find out how you can help provide Ottawa artists with the studio space they need to keep creating.

Close up image of a gas tank created for Anna's Instruments of War seriesWhere are you from?

I was born in Ottawa to parents who immigrated to Canada from post WWII Croatia. This taught me that you can change your life path at any time. My father initially worked on a dairy farm in Manotick, and then walked to Ottawa to learn carpentry and build houses. My parents wanted me to have a secure future, a job with benefits, and a pension, so I worked for the government until I ended my job to follow my dream of being an artist.

How did you get involved in the Ottawa arts community?

To follow my dream, I enrolled in Fine Arts at the University of Ottawa. I didn’t know that I’d become a sculptor until I was introduced to three-dimensional form. One of the professors, Roland Poulin, encouraged the students to make large sculptures, and assigned each student to one of the workshops located in the sculpture studio. And so, by chance, I was sent to the welding shop. Welding was magical, a way to instantly bond two pieces of steel permanently. I knew that I wanted to set up a studio practice with a welding machine and plasma cutter when I graduated. I started creating and exhibiting, always curious about what form the next sculpture would take.

Close up image of a gas mask created for Anna's Instruments of War seriesHow would you describe your artistic practice/discipline? 

Vision and imagination plus research and creation drive my practice. I’m dedicated to working with steel which to me is a malleable, feminine, and natural material of the earth. So many possibilities exist and I want to discover them all, yet the possibilities are inexhaustible. I’ve discovered that steel can be transformed into flowers, bombs, stoves, dishes, trees, nests, and bones. Research underpins the concept of each sculpture. I read, searching for knowledge, unusual elements, and new perspectives. I work to reveal the history of steel, which has greatly impacted our lives, both positively and negatively, since the Industrial Revolution. Steel retains a history because it is such a highly recycled material. When new sheets and rods of steel are delivered to my studio, I wonder what they were in previous incarnations, maybe cars, tanks, refrigerators, or train tracks?

What impact has your involvement with the arts/the Ottawa arts community had on your life?

Running an art practice focussed on steel had led me to discover the industrial neighbourhoods of Ottawa. I see immigrants setting up small businesses fixing cars, and this inspires me to believe that maybe I too can somehow survive in my chosen field. The assistance of the personnel and the programs run by the City of Ottawa have helped me to recognize that a support Instruments of War sculpturestructure exists in Ottawa, through opportunities like grants, gallery spaces, the direct purchase program, and the 1% program for commissions. Participating on juries for some of these programs made me realize how fair and respectful the process is. Experience and the supportive network of friends and fellow artists has been inspirational during the highs and lows of my artistic career.

Is there a specific moment/situation in your art career that you remember fondly?

I was thrilled to be selected as the Dienfenbunker Museum’s artist-in-residence in 2016. The personnel were welcoming and allowed me access to the archives, library, machine room, and all of the spaces in the bunker. It was strange to freely walk through rooms that were once so top secret, that the military personnel stationed at the bunker did not have access to all the spaces. Creating site-specific sculptures for the bunker was an enriching experience. I was honoured that Ambassador Marica Matkovic from the Embassy of the Republic of Croatia spoke at the vernissage of my exhibition at the bunker. I was equally thrilled to be invited to participate in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Windsor in 2017, with sculptures from my Kitchen Anatomy series. As soon as I took my pieces out of the shipping crates, people at the gallery started asking questions. They were surprised that I plasma-cut steel with a hand-held torch and not with computer-aided/robotic technology. Maybe it has something to do with Windsor’s history of being a city with a manufacturing base, but my work resonated there. The Art Gallery of Windsor even purchased one of my sculptures for their collection. Wow!

Dishwasher sculpted by AnnaDo you have any advice for artists in the Ottawa community or artists in general?

Spend as much time as you can researching and creating, and always push the boundaries of your work. Don’t get comfortable. Challenge yourself. Self-critique your work. Be ruthless in clearing away any blocks. Don’t buy into the starving artist syndrome. Help one another. In the spirit of helping, I am working on a project led by Studio Space Ottawa to create affordable studio spaces in Ottawa. I don’t want to see artists giving up because they can’t find studios to create their work. Witnessing potential dissipate is disheartening.

What are you currently working on?

 I am creating a new series, Instruments of War: Steel and Sound. I’m researching the history of music and war, and learning how music has been used as a psychological weapon and propaganda tool. Steel has musical qualities depending upon how it’s shaped. Sometimes when I grind steel, I hear it “singing.” I’m creating sculptures that will be playable by professional improvising musicians, and my goal is to create a performance where the musicians will integrate the sounds of my sculptures with their own music. Together, we’ll share our ideas about music and war.

Inside Anna's workshopWhat was it like to receive an award from the Ottawa Arts Council? How has it impacted your career?

I received the Corel Endowment for the Arts Award at exactly the right time, when I needed to buy steel to create sculptures during my artist residency at the Diefenbunker Museum. I felt free to follow my vision and break through boundaries, allowing myself to create large-scale works that encompassed entire rooms. I had enough steel to create a series of eleven record players entitled Drop the Needle, in response to the 11 Steps to Survival booklet published by Emergency Planning Canada. I was so engaged about my time at the bunker that I wrote an article about it and the Ottawa Arts Council posted it on their website. This led to an article for Canadian Art online which positively impacted my career. I was fortunate to have received the funding and I thank the jury members for awarding it to me.