Exclusive: Real Talk with Trevor Wheatley
Candy-colored sky reflect in the mirrored block letters, S-U-S, standing knee-high in a field of young corn, rural Prince Edward County, Ontario. Snitch is spelled out in bright red wooden letters planted in a river. Welcome to the world of Toronto-born artist Trevor Wheatley.
Trevor – or treverferever as he’s amicably called by admirers who sigh at the drop of his handle – is a 6’2” handsome, dark blond, graff-kid-turned-studio-artist. He is best known for his sculptural text pieces which he hauls out into the Canadian wilderness for photo shoots. His installations re-contextualize urban slang—dime, k true, nah—by turning the expressions into art and driving them out of the city.
“I don’t think I could ever go back to making paintings in my studio and showing them once a year, twice a year, having the career of a painter,” says Trevor. “The shooting days are the best days ever.”
On these days a trio of old friends pile into Trevor’s 2005 blue Toyota Corolla and head north. Jake Sherman is the resident photographer, Cosmo Dean silent partner and collaborator whose background in contracting has pushed the team to tackle more ambitious builds; occasionally Noah Bergschneider, arborist, is along for the ride (his ability to scale trees and rig suspension wires has been proven invaluable) and depending on the complexity of the setup and size of the piece, extra help following along in a pickup truck or Budget rental van.
After graduating from Montreal’s Concordia University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Trevor moved back to Toronto and fell into film. Doing interior design, he worked on a couple of Guillermo del Toro ventures back-to-back.
“The first few projects were pretty much free,” says Trevor, talking about his early text pieces. “At that time I was working on film sets so I would just take from the dumpsters.”
Influenced by his work in cinema, those initial installations were made “film grade,” meaning they weren’t fully realized objects, just false fronts.
“If you look closely you can see holes where I just hadn’t [made it] 3D because I didn’t think the camera from the angle would catch it,” says Trevor. Now he’s building finished pieces, not with galleries in mind, but so the photographer has more options: Jake can shoot 360 degrees instead of from a single POV. It also adds to the absurdity, says Trevor, making the typography appear almost shopped into the landscape. Lately, he’s been working with more expensive materials, mirrors and high-end woods like walnut.
Unlike other contemporaries creating text pieces, Trevor is not after truth, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, or producing epiphanies like Tracey Emin. He works with high school idioms and rap phrases whose meanings shift as the cultural landscape changes. Even Doug Aitken, whose aesthetic Trevor admires, focuses on rudimentary words: end, sex, now, sunset. Trevor made an Urban Dictionary series. He builds individual letters—out of wood, mirrors, ice, chicken wire and cotton batting—trudges into the wild with a photographer, suspends the letters in the trees or places in them in a creek, and then tears them down after the shoot.
After Trevor posted photos from a tongue-in-cheek series featuring large-scale logos in nature—including a Nike swoosh hanging in the woods—companies began approaching him for corporate commissions.
“It’s a blessing and a curse having our work lend itself so well to branding and design,” says Trevor. This past year he’s produced pieces for LinkedIn, Microsoft, New Balance and Stussy but says “it’s becoming increasingly difficult to work for brands,” admitting he got fired from Roots the day before.
“They pretty much want to buy projects that are already done with their name attached to them,” says Trevor. While the corporate paychecks are what have allowed him to focus on his art, it’s antithetical to his practice to reproduce old work albeit with different company logos. He’s figuring out how he can afford to stop accepting these assignments.
“Going to Cuba is a direct result of just being sick of all this,” says Trevor, who’s rented a studio there for five weeks at the end of February. Visiting the country on the cusp of corporate America getting in, he has a plan to produce a series of fake advertisements then buy out space in art publications.
“It’s all I can think about: big sculptures in really light-colored water with palm trees,” says Trevor.
“We leave a month today,” he texts, after booking his flight. “I’m stoked.”
Photos by Jake Sherman, Aaron Wynia, Trevor Wheatley.