Artist Interview: Valerie Arntzen

A goal I’ve been meaning to do since the previous year was to put together a series of artist interviews for my blog. I figured it would be a great way to connect with and showcase the work of other artists. Much over-thinking and procrastination later, I drafted up questions and pinged the first interview subject, who thankfully said yes. And so an interview series was born…

I’m pleased to be kicking off this series of artist interviews with assemblage artist (and good friend), Valerie Arntzen. I hope you find her as inspiring as I do.

Valerie Arntzen

Valerie in her studio (Photo by Wendy D)

Tell us about yourself:
For starters I am female and going to be sixty this year. I love those milestone birthdays as they kind of knock on your door of memories and aspirations. You take stock of where you have been and where you are going. I have been a worker all my life from draftsperson, treeplanter to buyer in the film industry and artist. My life started in Toronto, Ontario but when I was 19 I moved to Vancouver. I am married to an artist, Arnt Arntzen who is a designer/builder of modern furniture. He makes every piece himself. We both collect things but his found objects are large. He is also my technical director when I need a problem solved. We have been together for 33 years.

How long have you been an artist and how did you become one?
I have been a self taught artist for over 20 years. My first show was in 1990 and since then I have tried to be in at least one show a year while I did my money job in theatre and film.

I like to work and use my hands and head. My mother says I was always working on at least two things at the same time. As a kid I received a brownie camera (which I still have) as an Xmas present and took photos and created photo albums. I still carry a camera and take a lot of photos which I often use in my pieces. I started my art career as a painter of found objects in which I would do these crazy patterns all over vases, furniture and other objects.

I am now an assemblage artist. Assemblage is an artistic process in which a three-dimensional artistic composition is made from putting together found objects.

Do you work full time or part time as an artist? If part-time, what do you do to support yourself?
Retirement from my money job happened about 8 years ago and I have been a full time artist since then. I was also a founding director of the Eastside Culture Crawl and the executive director for 11 years. Retirement from that position happened 2 years ago. The amount of money I have been earning from my art practice has been going up every year. I would not have been able to support myself on those earnings in the past but now my studio is paid for and my husband works full time in his art practice and is very successful.

Record History by Valerie Arntzen

Record History detail

Record History (detail) by Valerie Arntzen

What are some of your favorite materials to work with?
I LOVE JUNK! Being an assemblage artist is a fun job. I get to collect, re-use, recycle and give new life to discarded objects, wood and metal. The found objects I collect can vary from a souvenir Statue of Liberty from New York to a complete set of sun dried animal vertebrae found on the beach in Mexico. I collect when I am out for a walk or traveling different parts of the world.

Tell us a bit about the process you go through to create your work:
I almost always have my camera with me. I use my photos in lots of different ways: in my assemblages, cover them with bees wax, collage them or make books. My files of photographs are categorized under themes such as fences, rust, texture, chairs.

My studio is a visual feast piled high with labeled boxes and drawers stuffed chock o’ block on shelves holding my collections of junk and treasures. Getting out my treasures and creating an assemblage in a favorite box takes me back to a memory of a special trip, person or event. I like to work in series mostly due to the fact that I collect in multiples but I also find my thought process needs more than one piece to be complete. One assemblage piece seems to complete the other.

Shamans Closet

Shamans Closet by Valerie Arntzen

Shamans Closet

Shamans Closet (detail) by Valerie Arntzen

Where do you find inspiration for your work, and what keeps you motivated?
My travels definitely inspire me. I collect stories, treasures and photos from my trips. I can start a piece with a found object, box or photo and then it just develops from there. I think I have about 10 years of assemblages worth of stuff in my studio. If I think I have artist block I try to challenge and inspire myself by taking a class, collaborating with another artist, attending art shows, artist talks or going through my library of art books. My biggest motivation at the moment is moving to Amsterdam later this year for six months. I have a show in October there and will be making the art locally as well.

Is there a favorite project or piece of artwork you’ve created? Tell us about it:
One of my favourite pieces I have made is called “Bullets to Buddhas”. It started with a printer spacer box that a friend gave me from his old building in North Vancouver. The spacer box was used to store pieces of wood that you would put between the laid out type (yes one letter at a time!) to create space around each article. I filled the box with bullets I had made by a props person in the film industry and small metal Buddhas I bought at a temple supply store. On the back I carved text from the bible Isaiah 2:4 that talks about turning your swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. My thoughts behind the piece, is that thousands of years later we are still using weapons (bullets) and they should be turned into something peaceful (metal Buddhas). Peace not War!

Bullets to Buddha

Bullets to Buddha by Valerie Arntzen

Bullets to Buddha detail

Bullets to Buddha (detail) by Val Arntzen

Tell us about other artists who have inspired you:
I look at Joseph Cornell‘s work a lot. He was an American self taught artist and sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. I love Frida Khalo‘s story and work…against all odds and lots of pain she stayed true to herself as an artist.

Artists that are alive and I admire, show with and talk with are Ken Gerberick (Vancouver) and Bill Thomson (Burnaby). They are both assemblage artists and they both paint as well.

Other than art, what are you particularly excited about right now?
I guess my trip to Europe is what I am most excited about as it won’t all be about art. My husband and I will be learning so much about living in another culture as we usually only travel to places, and not spend so much time there. There will be lots of new adventures and new people in our lives.

What are some of the biggest challenges you feel artists face today?
I am one of the lucky ones who has a studio that I own. Studio space is disappearing or getting too expensive. It is affecting all types of artists from every medium. For those who go the gallery route we are also losing our galleries as they close up for various reasons.

What is special about the arts community where you live? What’s one thing you would change?
I live in a part of Vancouver that has always housed and supported artists. Translation: rent was cheap and places are in the area of mixed use – industrial and residential. Our community supports each other by collaborating, sharing, coming to each others shows. The artists here give back to our community whether it is through teaching children, helping raise money for a project or just generally making our neighbourhood beautiful with their art.

Our biggest hurdle is rentals that are reasonable whether it is a studio, home or live/work studio. As people purchase and renovate and save the old houses the extra space becomes too expensive for artists to rent. We are also getting too many cars in this neighbourhood as more people move here.

Where can people find you both online and offline:
I have an open studio date on the First Saturday of the month. The next ones are February 4th and March 3rd.

Contact: 604-817-9130 or

2 thoughts on “Artist Interview: Valerie Arntzen

  1. Bill Thomson says:

    Val Thanks so much for the name reference of other local artists you know, who work in assemblage sculpture!

    I found the interview insightful and thought it provided the reader with a good, personal backgrounder to your ongoing commitment to the arts at the community level. I feel your art works speak for themselves, and I am inspired by their uniqueness of design and quality of craftsmanship.
    Thanks for being a friend and sharing your creative talents with others. Regards Bill

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