“I tend not to like galleries,” Isaac Canady confesses. But he’s created one anyway. His exhibition space, not to mention the art studio where he draws and creates his singular and spiritual pen-and-ink works, is the sidewalks and coffee shops of New Haven.
Canady’s a familiar face to countless downtown pedestrians. Now he’s also attracting attention while on breaks from his job at Elm City Market in the 360 State Street complex, where he works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the bakery section. During those breaks, Canady finds a seat in the dining section over by the market’s hot bar and salad bar.
Elm City Market marks the first steady job Canady has had in years. “I don’t like structure. I don’t like the regimented day,” he says, but finds Elm City Market a positive, uplifting and community-spirited place to work. “I can’t say enough good things about them.” The Market has even purchased and hung several of his artworks.
A New Haven native who was raised on Kensington Street and attended the Dwight, Troup and Hillhouse schools, Canady attributes his artistic career to a period of “self-evaluation, a lot of growth and change.” He’d been homeless and “an angry, resentful person.” His creative outlet brought him stability while he “worked on myself.”
“When I was 31 or 32, my daughter was born, and I started playing around with a pencil. So since 1992 or ’93, I’ve been doing visual art. I developed an original style of my own, one that worked for me.”
That style begins with one of the most basic of all drawing tools—the ballpoint pen. Canady starts sketching shapes, often without any outline or idea of where the drawing will take him. He never draws from life. “I have to recreate in my head.”
Lines swell into circles, faces (often in profile, with full jutting lips) or plants. Canady calls these swirls of styles and symbols “cultural fusion,” and draws particularly from African-American and Native American influences. Then he colors in the results with pastels, crayons, charcoal pencils, “whatever it needs. I love the basic pen and ink, but a lot of people are attracted to the colors.”
One thing you won’t find in that mélange of colors, textures and styles: “I don’t like symmetry. You don’t see a lot of symmetry in my work. I also like negative space. I very seldom take over the whole page.”
Thanks to all the Yale students and other transients who’ve purchased his work, “my art is all over the world,” Canady gushes. He’s been invited to do book covers and illustrations for local poets and essayists, and he’s taught art classes. He isn’t possessive about his creations, and prefers to set them free, never making prints or copies or holding onto his favorites for himself. “Some artists have a problem separating from their art. I never had that problem. I’ve done hundreds of pieces, and everything I’ve ever drawn has been sold.”
Isaac Canady, who insists that he loves “my time alone” and also describes himself as “a people person, not reclusive,” has no trouble marketing himself. He’s most comfortable creating and selling his art on street corners. For years he was found outside of Starbucks at the corner of Chapel and High streets, but now you’re more likely to find him in the Broadway shopping district.
There, his work is an impulse buy for passers-by, and also a place where his regular followers can find him. A frequent buyer of Canady’s art recently commissioned him to put down his ballpoint pens and try his hand at acrylics. “I’m glad she pushed me. I really enjoyed it. I’m not afraid to experiment.”
“I’m very comfortable with the work process and very comfortable with people. It’s about the relationship, about socialization. If I ever had an exhibition, I would like it to be just a small group of people at the opening, so I could talk to everybody.”
“I’m a very, very spiritual person. I’m very passionate about the earth,” Isaac Canady says, “about the presentation of the earth and the universe.” So it’s only fitting that you can find him at street level, growing his art.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.