Interview: Where Are They Now?
Updated: Jan 28
Featuring: Ahmri Vandeborne and Abby Nowakowski, owners of Otherwise Studios, written by Laura Vautour.
Otherwise Studios, a community building and art-making space, is run by two Studio Art alumni, Abby Nowakowski and Ahmri Vandeborne. Located in Guelph, Ontario, the space offers diverse opportunities for collaborating, teaching, innovating, and mess-making. Shortly after their graduation in 2019, Abby and Ahmri launched Otherwise Studios furthering their passion for the arts and community. Throughout their degree, they held various roles within the Fine Arts Network and were huge proponents for a successful studio art community on campus.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself entering your first year of a studio art degree?
AN: Oh! Good question! Maybe I’d give myself a map of all the best treasure spots - there are lots of really great dumpsters that were always full of brightly coloured and oddly shaped surfaces. Also, maybe don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re learning, so let yourself make meaningful mistakes.
AV: I would tell myself to try out more mediums, sooner and to not exclude anything right at the beginning. I excluded tech-based projects from my work until late in my degree because I'm terrible with technology but it turns out, I LOVE using Adobe... So, don't be afraid of things you think you're bad at! School is the time to take advantage of the professionals and peers who can teach you those things.
What was the best piece of advice you received from a studio art professor at Guelph, and how has it impacted your creative practice?
AN: There are SO many things that are fluttering around right now, but something that I think about often when I’m making anything and everything now is to be brave. Daniel Hutchinson was my Painting II prof and even though I wouldn’t consider myself “a painter” now I would say I think a lot like a painter. He once told me that it’s okay for your work to have moments and for your work to not be about those moments. Might seem simple but that lesson has a soft place in the back of my head.
AV: I think like Abby, the piece of advice that sticks with me the most is simple but it floats around as a thought to chew on at all times. Stu Oxley once said in one of my Print classes, that we talk about the final product of the artwork, we talk about the concepts and the process of how we get to the final product, but we don't often talk about the moment when we pick up the pencil and just disappear. I don't even think he meant for it to be advice, but it has really become a big part of my practice and reminds me that art is a place to escape. Sure, there are concepts and thought processes and history to back it up, but at the end of the day it's about those "lost" hours in between an idea and a finished artwork that keep me engaged in making work.
What has been the most insightful lesson you have learned regarding a career in the art field since your graduation?
AN + AV: Without a doubt, the only way to learn is to try. Don't wait for someone to tell you to do it; just try! Also, don't be afraid to ask for help and trust your gut. Don't be afraid to say 'no' to things that just don't feel right.
How long has it been since you graduated? Tell us a little about your own individual practices? How has your practice grown since launching Otherwise?
AN: Ahmri and I graduated together! In 2019 we graduated University, started a community-driven art space and became real-time business owners all in the same year. We were surrounded by such a loving and community-centric cohort that it felt like a natural transition.
AV: I work with shadow and natural imagery to explore conflicts between what exists, what was destroyed or obstructed, and the remnants of what's left behind when specific interactions occur between natural and artificial things in our everyday lives. My work often takes form through video projection, line drawing, painting, printmaking and installation.
AN: In my personal practice I use labour through printmaking, installation and illustration to address the psychological process of thought suppression. Basically, I like to tap into human tendencies of failure and awkwardness. I think a lot about what shame looks like.
AN + AV: Both our practices overlap into what we do at Otherwise Studios though. They extend into a range of collaborations that feed into both our work and our work feeds into what we teach and bring into the space. So having said that, the way we think about our practices has definitely grown since launching Otherwise, because we're continuously surrounded by passionate people who fuel our creative energy and inspire us to continue working both in our personal and business practices.
Tell us the story of how Otherwise came into being? Can you tell us any future plans for Otherwise?
AN: Well, we actually first met in Painting III (our third year) class, and even though we barely knew each other...we decided to collaborate on a large-scale installation called Double Take.
AV: This actually launched our practice as a collaborative team!
AN: It’s true! That was the start of AHMRI + ABBY, and I think also made us realize how well we worked together.
AV: Definitely. I'm not sure if we really knew what the collaborative practice would turn into, but we knew we wanted to keep working and making art together. We continued to collaborate through third and fourth year, and then in our fourth year ran JAS at U of G, which, even though we didn't know we would be co-running a business after that, kind of prepared us for a lot of different aspects of owning a business together!
AN: Our mentors, Kiel and Amanda Wilson-Ciocci, who make the collaborative art duo, KIAM, had a studio in the ward and were moving to Collingwood. They asked if we could meet up one night for drinks, and honestly, we thought they were going to ask us if we could babysit their kids or something - we had no idea what was in store! When we met and caught up, they then asked us if we would want to take over the lease of that space when they moved, to continue creating community opportunities and filling the space with creative juice. We couldn't say no!
AV: Yeah, I think we told them we'd think about it and get back to them, but then we had fully decided 'yes' before we even finished driving home! After that, we started brainstorming what we would want to do with the space, because we knew we wanted it to be more than just a studio to make our own art in. After months of dreaming and planning, we launched Otherwise! We have tons of things in the works for Otherwise in the new year, including virtual learning, take-home kits, community print studio, and some pretty awesome collaborations with some stellar local organizations that we are pretty pumped about but don't want to give away too much just yet!
Community is a very important pillar in how both of you individually and as a collective work, what would be your advice to someone hesitant in joining an arts community?
AN + AV: Community is a must. Everything feels richer when you have people to share it with and there is so much more possible when you collaborate with others. Making a safe space for creating, making mistakes and being vulnerable to learning has always been important to us, so we knew we had to reach out and find what that looked like. Not just to us, but what a brave space looked like to the local community. We are still learning ourselves, so we would advise you to reach out to your community leaders and let them know the barriers you personally face that might be making you hesitate. Chances are they’re open to finding unique ways to make you feel included and welcome. There’s space for everyone.
Do you have any other nuggets of wisdom or encouragement for studio art students, especially during this time of COVID-19 and restricted access to studios?
AN + AV: First, be nice to yourself! If you do something rad, be proud. Second, don't undersell your kitchen table or bedroom corner studio. A space to make art is a space to make art, no matter how big or small! The important thing is that you're creating and doing what makes you feel best in your creative process. Maybe you're struggling to be creative during this time, which is also okay! Reach out to your community, talk about the struggles, the triumphs, the fails, the successes. If there's one thing we've learned over the years, it's that surrounding yourself with other creative thinkers, community leaders, and just generally passionate humans will leave you wildly inspired, every time. Finally, and maybe most importantly, fail and fail often. If you’re failing it means you’re trying, and if you’re trying, it means you're heading somewhere.
Thank you, Abby Nowakowski and Ahmri Vandeborne, for sharing your experience in the Studio Art program and what you have been up to with Otherwise Studios.
Head to their website www.otherwisestudios.com to see more of what they do and email them at firstname.lastname@example.org for any inquiries. Follow Otherwise Studios on Instagram and Facebook to see what they are up to in the community. Follow Ahmri on Instagram at @artbyahmri and Abby on Instagram at @poorthingdesigns and Abby's work can be found at www.abbynowakowski.com and www.poorthingdesigns.com
Laura Vautour is in her fourth year of the Studio Art program with an English minor. When she isn’t writing or creating art, she loves to take care of her plants. Through the interview series Where Are They Now? Laura’s goal is to inspire current students by showcasing Studio Art alumni who work in the arts.
If you are an alumnus from the College of Arts at the University of Guelph and are interested in sharing where you are at today, please email Laura at email@example.com to be interviewed.