Front page interview in the Ottawa Citizen’s Weekend Edition Arts. Download PDF version here or scroll down to read.
Interviewer / Julie Beun
EEPMON Makes Art in the Digital Age
Computers are the tool digital artist uses to create artwork used in everything from computer games to parkas
As a kid growing up in Cumberland, east of Ottawa, in the ’80s, the digital artist known as eepmon wasn’t the cool kid.
It’s not that he wasn’t funny, smart or talented. He was all that — and then some. It’s just that he lacked the one thing that would ensure lasting popularity with his buddies in school: a good Internet connection.
It’s ironic, now, considering that eepmon, or Eric SzeLang Chan (according to his dad and mum) has made an international name for himself in everything from fashion and fine art to video games, based entirely on the magic he weaves with computers.
“Whoever had the best Internet connection was also the most popular kid when I was growing up,” he laughs. “I was still on dial up.”
Well, he’s up to speed now. These days, the 33-year-old splits his time between his base in Brooklyn, N.Y. with Toronto, Ottawa and Tokyo. He’s designed artwork for Microsoft Xbox 360, Mini Cooper and an Apple iOS game, Hidden Galaxies, developed by Ottawabased game publisher, Magmic.
His work has been acquired by the Canada Council Art Bank and can be seen on 26 street lamp posts (a collaboration with Lynda Cronin) on Hazeldean Road between Kanata and Stittsville. And in January, he’ll appear in the CBC’s latest series, Four Rooms, which pits four leading art and antique dealers against each other.
Anything else? Oh yeah. He taught design at Algonquin College just six years after graduating and currently counts multimillionaire Dani Reiss — of the iconic Canada Goose company — among his many friends.
In fact, it was that friendship that has led to Chan’s most recent collaboration, a wildly colourful and intricate design for the lining of 150 limitededition Canada Goose parkas that will sell for a sweet $950$1,200 Canadian at just 15 premium retailers worldwide, and only one Canadian outlet, NRML on Rideau Street. (GQ France recently nominated it to their Top 40 winter coats list.)
Already an admirer and collector of Chan’s art, Reiss agreed to collaborate with the artist when they met back in 2009. Recalls Chan: “I said, ‘listen, I really believe in you, what you’re doing. You’re a Canadian company, made in Canada and the details you go into … I’m the same way, but in the digital world.’”
Two years later, over lunch in New York, Chan showed Reiss stunning artwork he’d developed for the parka. From there, says Spencer Orr, Canada Goose’s vice president of design and merchandising, it was a matter of figuring out how to print the design, which features nine Canada geese, a maple leaf, a monkey and tempura shrimp, onto the lining. “We’ve learned so much about digital printing and dyeing,” he remarks. “Eric was really a unique opportunity. His art is intricate and the way he puts it together, the computer science behind it, just blows me away.”
He’s not alone. “He’s always evolving and doing something different and new, above and beyond. Yet he’s very down to earth and has no ego. Whenever we spend time together, I feel like I’m on this journey with him,” says John Criswick, who owns, among other things, Magmic and the Mercury Lounge in the ByWard Market, where he first hosted a vernissage for Chan 10 years ago. Now, with 40 to 50 pieces in his private collection — eepmon art ranges from $700 to $7000 — Criswick may be the largest collector worldwide. “Where will he go?” he muses. “He could go more commercial. He could design a smart car, architecture, interactive media, film. It seems to me that he’s just about to take off.”
High talk? Not after the trajectory Chan’s been on. After graduating from Canterbury High School’s arts program, he took computer science at Algonquin College. It was then, during a Corel coop placement, that he discovered their userexperience design team. He showed them his “doodles,” and by December 2003, he was back as a coop designer. “That was when I said to myself, ‘Eric, don’t you ever dare give up on your art.’ It was up to me to realize that.”
After an unhappy stint as an IT specialist at the Bank of Canada, in 2004 he enrolled at Carleton University’s Bachelor of Information Technology, interactive media and design program, and, daydreaming one afternoon, came up with “eepmon” as a “twisted name for ape man. Monkeys are very curious and playful. Life should be like that. So eepmon is a way of living.”
After winning “Best Canadian Student” at the annual Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity (FITC) conference’s Flash award in Toronto, he graduated from Carleton in 2008 and “went full steam ahead. I got gigs and more gigs internationally.”
These days, Chan’s creativity seems boundless. When working on a project, he gets up early — around 4 a.m. — to create art, using his photographs, paintings and drawings and “collaborating” with a computer program that allows for spontaneous creativity. Once an image is finished, it can be printed onto a multitude of media, or uploaded.
Yet as much as he relishes computers — “it’s just a tool, a paintbrush,” he says — there are drawbacks to the digital age in which anyone can claim almost anything online or in a blog, and it’s accepted without much critical thought.
“We’re in the primal stage of the digital age, where it’s all about immediacy. There’s quantity out there, but a lack of quality. Anyone can pick up a tablet and mouse and call themselves a graphic designer. People can declare themselves to be something without legitimacy; people take it on because of the immediacy.
“There are a lot of people with big talk, but you have to execute, you have to put in the extra mile and believe in it. I have to be serious about my craft, know the tools, the machine inside and out and be 100 per cent with it.”
So far, that approach seems to be working, as he continues to dream bigger, better and brighter. “For me, it would be an honour to be an ambassador for Canada in the digital creative space,” he says. “I want to contribute to Ottawa’s success. And I want eepmon to be internationally known and to work with the brightest and most talented people around.”