A Make-Believe Girl
I met her for the first time in front of Toronto's Glossier popup on Queen Street last summer. The next day, she welcomed me into her room on the top floor of an old house in the Annex, where I was presented with a wide array of dresses. I put a yellow one on, then we strolled down Huron Street to some flower patches, where she started snapping pictures of me. To this day, they remain some of my favourite images of myself.
"For the most part, I'm too cheap to have favourite brands," she says. "Most of my clothes are bought used from Value Village and vintage stores. My favourite high fashion label is Valentino, but that's not really a thing that I'd be buying anytime soon." She is, however, fairly loyal to Nalgene water bottles.
In the fall, I saw her again at a party. Glitter had been meticulously applied to her eyebrows so she literally shone. She's not above using Pinterest to collect design inspiration. It's "completely divorced of context or authorship which is probably "bad," she admits, “but, sue me, it's a useful tool for seeing a lot of different work all in one place.”
She didn't have television or video games when she was growing up but she did have a lot of free time to self-entertain. "I spent my childhood making things," she reminisces. She once crafted a tiara out of fox jaw bones, a squirrel skull, and shark teeth. "It sounds disgusting and morbid, I know, it's really beautiful," she promises. Painting, sewing, cooking, jewelry-making … all of these activities gave her hand-eye coordination and patience.
Good craft is tantamount to success. Kids should be given access to art supplies that are "at least somewhat good," she pleads. She recalls how, in elementary school, all they got were "those crummy hockey pucks of watercolour, the frayed boar’s bristle brushes, the flakey tempera paint, and, worst of all, crayons.” I agree that it’s harder to develop any kind of skill when you don't have the right tools. “Also, we should probably stop asking kids what their painting is 'of,'” she tells me. “Let them just enjoy colour and texture and materiality first. Representation shouldn't be the only thing they're working on.”
"What psychs you out?" I ask her. "I get very unsettled thinking about all the different versions of my personality and identity that exist," she replies. "I mean, there's the version of myself that I believe myself to be, the person that my closest friends and family know, and then the person who interacts with acquaintances and strangers."
She confesses that she has a hard time being herself around new people and it "weirds her out" to think that a lot of people find her way more bubbly and happy-go-lucky than she actually is. It is of course most comfortable to believe that we are the ones that know ourselves best, "but we can also observe in others how they are unaware of the ways in which they can be harmful or unpleasant or annoying," she reminds me. "How are we to know what are own unperceived flaws are?"
Real talk. She wonders if she's an awful person deluding herself. "For dessert," she jokes, "I get freaked out because there probably isn't even such thing as an objectively perceived 'self.'" It seems like the comfort zone is not a place this artful girl prefers to dwell in. So who is she?
Her name is Hailey Asquin and she is twenty one years old. She grew up in Ottawa but lives in Toronto during the school year, where she studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). She is currently a bicycle tourism guide on the Canadian East Coast.
She swims in the ocean and otherwise tries to squeeze as much bliss as she can out of five minute coin showers. "I stayed at this one hostel where I found like five dead beetles in my sheets but their wifi was really fast and it was raining hard outside so I didn't even care," she shrugs. Her favourite author is Douglas Adams, which doesn't surprise me because she's presently thriving in an itinerant lifestyle.
To this day, she expresses an appreciation for the acquisition of knowledge. "Learning a new and useful word is a treasured thing for me," she smiles. And she loves playing pretend. "Adult regiments of how we must hang out are so strict and boring sometimes," she sighs. "I want to pretend I'm a sorceress and cast spells or something." She doesn't like acting as much because it's more about learning lines and following a set story. "It's more fun," she asserts, "when you become someone and make up your own story with other people." ///
RS: Who do you get along with?
HA: Most of the people I get along with are huge nerds. I like people who are passionate about things even when they're not necessarily cool.
RS: What do you mean by huge nerd?
HA: What I mean is I want to be around people who are exuberantly enthusiastic about the things they care about. Because at its core that is what nerdiness is about. One of my close friends studies AI and machine learning, and while I have no background in that, his passion for it is one of the things I love about him, and it’s been wonderful getting to learn about it.
RS: Who makes you laugh?
HA: I have a roommate who's a great storyteller with a really strange but clever sense of humour who always makes me laugh but he'd be so mad if I put his name down here. Oh, and Hannibal Buress, he's my favourite stand up comedian.
RS: You're also sort of amused by and enjoy situations where everything is going wrong.
HA: Yes, and at some point it just becomes funny. I was having a horrible day for mental health and loneliness on one of my first trips as a tour guide, and then I accidentally gave myself food poisoning and barfed while on the phone with my friend. When it was over all I could do was laugh because it meant that the day was just supposed to be stupid and terrible and there was nothing I could do about it.
RS: So your summer job this year is working for a bicycle tourism company in the maritimes as a guide.
HA: Yes. My life is very weird right now. I live and work on the road, sometimes out of a huge boat of a van, sometimes out of an extremely 90s Volvo, depending on what car the company has me using. I felt real pride the other day, when I was out riding with my guests - the sights I was seeing, the experiences I was having, that I had gotten myself there of my own gumption and volition.
RS: You need a lot of nature in your life, eh?
HA: That's been one of the hard things about living in downtown Toronto. I've balanced it out by taking jobs that get me outside a lot - last summer I worked as a cook in a remote wilderness lodge in the Rockies, this summer I'm out exploring the coasts of PEI and Nova Scotia.
RS: The fresh air sounds wonderful.
HA: I know it sounds like some tacky Lululemon nonsense but more and more I've been realizing how powerful exercise and fresh air is for getting me out of bad cyclical thinking and unhappy places. This is slightly annoying to me because it means my mother was 100% right.
RS: And you go to Tim Hortons a lot.
HA: I'm often in a new town each night, so the banality of a Tim Hortons is one comforting point of consistency in my life. I cook most of my meals on a camp stove, but I'm also running an experiment where I see how often I can eat Triscuits and hummus without dying.
RS: What do you do when campgrounds are expensive?
HA: I camp in the middle of nowhere if I want to save money, or sometimes I couch surf. Recently I just asked a random local if I could park my van in his driveway and sleep there for the night. He and his wife turned out to be incredibly kind and lovely and let me have a shower and gave me homemade wine and Paris travel tips. They had an immaculate vegetable garden so I figured they probably didn't have much time to be serial killers.
RS: Who are you befriending?
HA: After spending so much time in Toronto, striking up conversations with strangers feels so foreign and taboo, but I do it a lot now because otherwise I'd be so damn lonely. I've made a lot of friends with kindly trailer park senior citizens. I picked up a hitchhiker a couple weeks ago. He just told me to call him Sparkplug.
RS: What are you pet peeves about life on the road?
HA: If you drive at night and don’t switch down your high beams when you pass other cars, you’re a white-knuckled maniac who’s going to get us all killed. And know if you snore, but you still book a bed in a shared hostel room, then everyone else is wishing unspeakable things upon you at 1am.
RS: You shoot with which camera?
HA: I currently have a Nikon D750, which I shoot most of my digital photos with. I recently picked up a Mavic Pro drone, so now I’m some sort of terrible Drone Bro, but, damn, if it’s not incredibly cool to use.
RS: And for personal photos on film?
HA: Either disposable cameras or an old Pentax Spotmatic. I’m not trying to be one of those “death before digital” people, but I do enjoy the surprise of developing a roll of film and finding special moments that I’d forgotten about. It forces me to actually print things out. Also, when you take a photo with film, you can’t check it over and adjust the shot to be more flattering. That feels a little more genuine, as far as documenting memories goes.
RS: What do you like to look at?
HA: Sagmeister is one of my favourite designers, but that's not even original, everyone loves him. David Altmejd does these huge installations that are exuberant and playful but also very weird and kind of creepy? A lot of favourite movies are ones with really great soundtracks, like Pirate Radio, and Across the Universe. I also really enjoyed A Serious Man for letting its audience have a good laugh at the hell of life.
RS: What kind of art school boys should we look out for?
HA: All of them.
RS: What’s the most OCAD thing you’ve ever seen?
HA: In first year I was at a party with a bunch of OCAD kids, and there was this one guy sporting a 1700’s friar haircut. By that I mean he’d shaved the dome of his head and his undercut, but left a ring of hair all the way his crown. I asked him why he’d cut it like that, and his answer was “Well, friars were the most hypocritical people in history, and I’m also a huge hypocrite, so I have this haircut.”
RS: What about the aux cord thing?
HA: I’ve also learned that one of the most important roles of a successful party stewardship in Toronto is defending the aux cord from art bros. If they get it, they’re just going to play soundcloud rappers and fifteen minute YouTube trance remixes. They cannot be trusted to give people what they actually want on the dance floor. (The people have had a few, they want to hear Hey Ya!)
RS: What frustrates you about graphic design?
HA: A lot of the trendy work doesn’t seem very interested in actually being readable. Now I will hedge this with the fact that I’m somewhat more sensitive because I have dyslexia, and that makes reading a little bit more challenging to begin with, but there are some maniacs out here setting type in a 6 point serifed font.
RS: How can designers be more accessible?
HA: If designers do want to make things more accessible to people with dyslexia, poor vision, or just the tired reader, they should use strong colour contrasts (i.e. not yellow on white), at least 10pts or larger, and preferably a sans serif font. Also, if you are dyslexic, you should check out the “Dyslexie.” You can download it for free online, and it does a wonderful job of making the letters bottom heavy so they don’t visually flip around, and the letters are drawn so that none of them are mirror images. I use it as a working font when I have to write long things on my laptop.
RS: Is it hard for you to find the focus to pursue a project past the point of initial intrigue?
HA: I can't really say I've overcome this, but I'm working on choosing projects that I feel more passionately about as a way to create motivation.
RS: For a long time your creative work was pretty divorced from your political views.
HA: Oral and written communication were the main ways I communicated how I felt about politics and social issues, since [it seemed like] they were the tools best suited to the job. But I think using graphics, data visualization, aesthetically pleasing design, typographic hierarchies, visual systems, and design thinking as applied to writing (in terms of how you structure information) could go a long way to make these topics more engaging for readers.
RS: For someone who loves both politics and art you're pretty critical of political art.
HA: A lot of it feels incredibly navel-gazing, and a way of proving how "woke" you are, but only to a small group of insiders. From my design training I feel that a viewer should have all the information and resources they need to understand a piece. A work of art that can only be understood if you have a art degree and/or are willing to wade through unnecessarily verbose statements is worthless if you're trying to enact large scale change in public opinion or political action. Now of course this is not all-encompassing criticism; there are artists who are doing really evocative and powerful work that goes where language can't, but I think there should be a little more internal critique of gatekeeping in the art world.
RS: And what are you focusing on for your thesis project?
HA: How graphic design can be used to better communicate public policy and political platforms.
RS: So what can good design do?
HA: It can help answer the "Why should I care?" and "Do you really expect me to read all this?" questions that come up with other forms of written political communication.
RS: What have you already done?
HA: In a recent project, I created a informative booklet for municipal officials on how they can implement green strategies in their communities. I did a lot of research on financial incentives, policy changes, and rezoning initiatives different cities were using (and what was working), and then put that information into something that was pleasing to the eye, well organized, but straight-forward.
RS: What kinds of issues are you interested in communicating to other people (so they can learn/advocate)?
HA: Basic guaranteed income possibilities, electoral reform, carbon taxes and other strategies to help align corporate interests with social interests, tax reform, criminal justice reform, and how we can better provide affordable housing in Canada's major cities. And other things too. I’m interested in how governments can write policy that actually helps the lives of everyday people, especially people in vulnerable positions. For the past three years, I served on the board of directors for my student housing co-op. Governance positions like that are notoriously thankless, but there's something about how nerdy and wonky it is that I thrived off of, and I think similar projects will be in my future. It provided a lot of challenges and I had to grow up fast to deal with some of them, but on the whole I think it was a formative and positive experience.
RS: And let's not forget your most public form of activism - the youth vote!
HA: I have an almost manic fixation on getting out the youth vote. It's so incredibly important that people my age actually give a shit about who represents them in government lest we continue to be screwed by governments catering to mostly baby boomers. I mean it’s a reasonable calculation for politicians to make, since people over fifty turn out way more than other categories. But I really think we can do better. I do my best to educate people on important election issues, as well as just the actual process of voter registration. I’ve had a number of people tell me that the only reason they voted was because I seemed so dang enthusiastic and persistent about it, which was so heartwarming and special to hear (I wasn’t just shouting in to a void of youthful indifference.)
RS: Speaking of the void… do you have a life philosophy?
HA: I'm just working on enjoying myself and having a nice time, finding healthy and happy friendships and hopefully relationships, being a kind person as best I can, keeping my brain busy and challenged, and doing right by my community and the environment. I'm pretty sure if I just work on those things I'll have a meaningful and fulfilling life, free of some sort of devastating quest of an all encompassing answer to anything.