The Storyteller: Artist Jason Carter works to bring joy and build community

Published on June 12, 2024

2024 Honorary Bachelor of Technology recipient

In 2011, Jason Carter (Graphic Communications '01) wasn’t exactly thinking about making a move to solidify his status as one of Alberta’s most prominent artists. But being open-minded, optimistic and, frankly, pretty gutsy, helped.

Late that year, he and partner Bridget Ryan were strolling through the Rocky mountain resort community of Canmore, near Banff, where the pair had been on a shoot with the Edmonton TV station they worked for. But Carter had been doing a lot of thinking.

His spare-time gig as a sculptor and painter was showing promise – he’d just landed a commission for murals at the Edmonton International Airport. At the same time, though, two galleries had just declined his work. He’d been considering art school, mainly to build a network. But then, on a street in downtown Canmore, there was a sign.

For Lease, it read.

The pair paused. Across the street was a candy store. If a candy store could pay the rent, they thought, why not a gallery of their own, one to showcase Carter’s work and even host a small stage for Ryan’s love of theatre? They called the number on the sign, and the momentum of impulsivity led to a one-year lease, with just a month’s expenses backing them come opening day that December.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Carter recalls thinking.

Who knows, because it didn’t. Today, the Carter-Ryan Gallery and Live Art Venue (with an additional location now opened in Banff) is the artistic headquarters where Carter has made his name creating, selling and shipping his distinctively bold and whimsical work worldwide, making sure it also supports organizations and communities throughout the province he calls home.

The “artrepreneur”

Asked to describe himself, Carter leans on “storyteller.” That term covers the work itself – including soapstone carvings, paintings, public installations and illustrations for a series of children’s books penned by Ryan – in which he focuses the “Indigenous lens” of his Cree heritage on landscapes and wildlife. But “storyteller” also covers his origins as an artist.

When Carter was finishing high school, where he earned honours in art, he attended a post-secondary recruitment fair. Among the booths was NAIT’s Graphic Communications program. “‘I can draw and I can talk – let’s do this,’” he recalls thinking. “It was the only program I applied for. It was meant to be.”

While NAIT didn’t teach him to carve or paint, it furnished him with the digital design and printing skills that would now underpin a business that, during the most recent holiday season, ballooned to 24 staff.

“Literally everything I do now I can trace back to my experiences at NAIT.”

Carter’s early interest in art would yield a somewhat eclectic career. After a few years as a designer, he took a role with the camera crew at that local station (where he met Ryan). In the midst of that, he tried carving, inspired by the work of his sister’s then-boyfriend, and took studio space at an Edmonton gallery, eventually amassing enough for a show there.

“The gallerist asked me what I wanted to hang on the walls for my sculpture show,” says Carter. He hadn’t thought of that. Maybe he could try painting versions of the sculptures?

In the month before opening, Carter committed to a marathon of painting that produced 36 canvases to complement 24 stone pieces. They were simple but exhibited the angularity, vibrancy and clean, hard lines that would come to define his work. Within a week, almost everything was sold.

“It was that moment that told me, a) I’d found something, and b) if I work hard I can be successful.”

Carter has maintained that drive and determination. He spends about 10 hours a day producing new work, partly just to meet demand of a thriving business that causes him to joke about being an “artrepreneur.” But those 10 hours daily are also about his desire to continue to improve. He references author Malcolm Gladwell’s suggestion that time – a lot of it – is essential to mastery.

“I want to do my 10,000 hours of being a visual artist,” says Carter.

A job well done

Along the way, Carter also wants to evoke happiness, whatever form that might take.

Maybe it’s a smile while driving past a painting of a somewhat smirking gopher Carter installed along Edmonton’s south LRT tracks. Or it’s a recent series of floor-to-ceiling panels in the emergency department at the Canmore General Hospital.

“If I can take that [patient] out of that moment for a second … then I’ve done my job,” says Carter.

He feels similarly about giving back – that it’s part of doing his job well. Each month, requests arrive for donations, and Carter and Ryan oblige most of them (such as those panels for the hospital).

In recent years, Carter has donated designs for Orange Shirt Day T-shirts for Spirit North, an organization that connects Indigenous youth to sport, play and the outdoors.

“Jason has been a great supporter of Spirit North and our efforts to support Indigenous youth,” says the group’s director of communications, Meredith Bratland. “[He] demonstrates community leadership characteristics that we think are shown, rather than told.”

Whether it’s for a T-Shirt commemorating an important event or for someone seeking to brighten a wall of their own home, Carter wants his stories, whatever form they take, to bring joy, even comfort. And he wants that to carry on well beyond the thousands of hours to come of putting knife to soapstone and brush to canvas in that gallery in Canmore.

“I try to create something that people want to have around them, that they feel good about, that changes their state of mind positively,” says Carter. “What I hope for the work is that it continues to do that long after I’m gone, and that people continue to enjoy its simplicity, whimsy, colour and optimism.”

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