A conversation with artist Hassan Laramée
Patience is a virtue. Nothing any of us haven’t heard before—usually from a parent or teacher while waiting in line to get our hands on a piece of pizza at our 2nd-grade pizza party. But the phrase takes on a new meaning when it comes to creating a piece of art, particularly one made entirely out of singular dots from an ink pen held between your teeth. This happens to be the technique used by artist and surfer Hassan Laramée to create his incredibly detailed drawings—a person who’s conquered a whole lot more in life than the disappointment of missing out on the last slice of pepperoni. We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Hassan about his creative process and his beginnings as an artist.
Tell us about how you got started as an artist.
Hassan Laramée: I used to be a great athlete. I played AA basketball in college, then fell in love with snowboarding, mountain biking and surfing. My whole life revolved around sports.
In 2007, my life changed when I had a mountain biking accident and I broke my neck, leaving me quadriplegic. From that moment, sports became inaccessible to me—my identity and what I loved about life were lost. I had always defined myself as an athlete and nothing else. I sought approval from others largely through sports. After my accident, I was only a shadow of myself. I tried different things to keep busy and attempted to find new interests but nothing brought me the satisfaction that I was missing.
Then a friend told me about people with disabilities who paint with their mouths and I thought ‘Why not?’ I had nothing to lose by trying it. After a few tries, I quickly realized that it really wasn’t for me. After a while I thought maybe drawing would be more appropriate since I had always loved drawing when I was a kid. So I took a sheet of paper and a pencil and started drawing. It felt like I had finally found a path where I could be myself and push my limits again. It started off as more of a hobby, but after some time it slowly turned into a passion, and honestly, a necessity. So I persisted because, like in sports, I was never one to do things halfway and I wanted to see how far I could develop my skills and see where it would take me.
Where do you find inspiration for your drawings?
HL: I like to draw my own interpretation of life and nature and I challenge myself to present it in a way that makes me feel free. My inspiration comes mainly from the nature that surrounds me, humans, society, sports like surfing and experiences from the past. Every dot, every detail is considered. My art is not only an image but a deep reflection of who I am, what I love and how I feel. I have always had great respect for the First Nations in Canada who have inspired me throughout my creative journey. Their legends, beliefs and observations are all elements that have greatly contributed to me becoming the artist I am today.
Describe the process you use when mouth drawing. How long does each piece take to create?
HL: I have a routine. My home is in the country near a forest and a river and I often go outside to spend time reflecting. It can take several weeks for inspiration to come to me and to determine the message I want to share through my art. Next comes the intense research of trying to find the right images with powerful meaning. It can sometimes take months for an image to come to me.
I never start a drawing until I am very excited and motivated, which can sometimes be a physical reaction, like getting chills or goose bumps throughout my body while thinking about an idea. Once I have that, I know I’m on the right track for my next piece.
After I develop an image in my mind, it takes two to three weeks to sketch the drawing with a lead pencil, sometimes more if I’m not satisfied with the first draft. Once the draft is complete with pencil, I introduce ink and use pens of different shapes and sizes to start creating layers of texture. I always listen to music when I draw. It increases my focus.
I can only work for about two to three hours a day because the repetitive movements give me jaw and neck pain. Each piece takes approximately four to six months to complete.
Every creation tells my version of life, my philosophy and sometimes a lesson learned during one of the many trials I have faced. I make it a point to honor and leave a part of myself in each of my pieces.
What draws you to pointillism as your technique of choice?
HL: I tried different drawing techniques, but it was hard to get the precision and depth I wanted. Pointillism is a technique that requires a lot of patience. It was very difficult at first, but I’m grateful I learned to do it with a variety of tools that allow me to put what I’ve imagined and want to share on paper. But I am still mastering my technique.
Favorite drawing you’ve ever done.
HL: It’s almost impossible to choose because every piece is like a child to me. I leave a part of myself in each and every dot I make. That said, the Eagle With the Surfer is certainly one of my favorites, probably because surfing is one of my biggest passions. It made me feel free, like I was flying. I think the eagle is the perfect symbol of freedom and liberty.
What are some of the parallels you noticed between the challenges you faced when you started surfing and the challenges you faced when you started drawing?
HL: Surfing and drawing are strangely alike. When you see someone doing either one, it seems effortless and easy. When you try it, it is difficult and challenging and many obstacles get in the way. You start to doubt yourself and become discouraged. They both require patience and practice and with that comes improvement and the need to push your limits a bit further. The feeling of freedom, the lightness of surfing a wave is the same feeling I have today when I draw. Success makes me want to do more, push myself further and improve my art. My art fills my thoughts and makes me dream. It makes me feel complete just like surfing.
An album you think everyone should listen to all the way through.
HL: That’s a tricky question. There are so many great albums that I have enjoyed. I’m into so many different styles of music, but if I have to choose just one it would be The Artist in the Ambulance by the band Thrice. The lyrics of every song in the album speak to me on a personal level. It’s accessible to every human being that needs to be moved.
The song “Stare at the Sun” literally saved my life. The night of my accident when I broke my neck, I was close to death—to the point where the doctors were discussing organ donation. My girlfriend put headphones on my ears and played the song on repeat all night. The lyrics describe exactly what I needed the most that night: a miracle. I used to play that song on my guitar and I sang it more than any other song.
Someone in your life that you look up to.
HL: First of all, I would say my parents. They taught and showed me to always give my best in everything I do and to always finish what I’ve started. I owe my perseverance to them and the support and love they give me every day.
Also, Kelly Slater is a big source of inspiration for me. He’s the perfect example of greatness and humility. He always finds ways to surpass his limits and improve the person he is. After my accident, my girlfriend at the time sent him a hat that he signed and sent back with a written letter and some other gifts. It made an incredible difference. The time he took to respond meant a lot during my rehabilitation because I admired him so much.