We don’t know who needs to hear this, but it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Just take it from Briony Douglas. The Toronto-based photographer, visual artist, and director—whose work has caught the attention of high-end fashion labels and sneaker brands alike with its eye-popping mix of surrealism and pop culture—says she only truly began pursuing art five years ago. Before that, she was working a less inspiring 9-to-5 job in sales.
“I feel like I’ve lived two lives,” she says. “The second I handed in my resignation to my very-not-nice boss was just the beginning of an entirely second life.”
Of course, Briony’s rebirth as a full-fledged artist didn’t exactly happen overnight. Her first few years charting the new career path saw her logging 18-hour days and making no money. But after spending enough time pushing her content out into the digital void, people—and companies—couldn’t help but take notice.
Today, Briony’s one of Canada’s most sought-after creatives. The key to her success, besides hard work, is in her uncompromising vision. From an elephant sculpture made out of 2,100 feet of rope to a sprawling collage crafted out of vintage collectibles from around the globe, her pieces resemble nothing else out there. Nostalgic and otherworldly at once, Briony’s visual fever dreams are so idiosyncratic they’re undeniable. “I feel more fulfilled as an artist creating weird things that people may not think to create,” she says. “But it’s not really with the intention to create differently than other people either. I just like to be different.”
Briony’s personal style happens to hit different too. A bona fide sneakerhead who frequently incorporates kicks into her work, she rocks the new adidas Ultraboost 21 with self-assurance and swagger in Complex Canada’s latest lookbook. The new shoe—featuring a thicker Boost midsole and reimagined torsion system allowing for a more responsive stride—sees the Three Stripes continue to innovate, much like the artist herself.
We sat down with Briony to chat about her anomalous career, mental health amid a pandemic, and the link between staying active and creativity.
You used to work in the sales department for a magazine. Then one day you decided to quit and pursue a career in art. Was there a particular moment that flipped that switch for you?
I was always doing art, but I had picked up the camera about six years ago, and I was published after, like, two months of shooting in a magazine over in Europe. I was really excited about it. My boss at the time always spoke down to me and I did not enjoy waking up and going into my job. I’ve always been the sort of person who works best in a sink-or-swim situation, so I knew if I just quit, I would have no option but to succeed.
Your art is incredibly unique. On Instagram, many artists tend to stick to a similar colour pattern or style that’s proven to get likes. How’ve you managed to find success while avoiding those trends?
I just do so many different things as an artist and that’s what stimulates me. But I mean, I definitely do have a bright aesthetic happening. That was something that I’ve developed. When I first started shooting, I thought that my stuff had to come from a place of sadness because we’re taught that the best artists create from their saddest time. So everything was really dark and grainy, but as I grew as a person and as I felt happier on the inside, I found that my work was brighter and happier and I got a better response to it. I enjoyed it more too. Sometimes I felt like I was pushing that sad artist narrative to get likes in the beginning, which wasn’t even the case. I don’t think it’s a healthy [notion] that you have to be sad to be successful as a musician or artist.
“I find that as I work on myself as a person, my art grows and becomes better.”
Did you experience any doubts when you started out?
Of course, there’s tons of doubts. I still doubt myself daily. I’ve gotten a lot better at that. I say a lot of mantras first thing in the morning. Imposter syndrome is a thing that I’ve really struggled with. There’s been opportunities where I sit there and think, Why would they choose me? I don’t get it. And that’s always been a big thing for me to get over. I don’t know how spiritual you are but I’m of the mindset that if you think of something so much then it’s going to end up happening. So it’s gotten to a point now where I focus on knowing that I’m worthy of opportunities. But it took time. I find that as I work on myself as a person, my art grows and becomes better.
You tend to use sneakers a lot in your work. How did kicks come to figure so prominently in your art?
I just have always viewed sneakers as pieces of art themselves. I find it so intriguing how so many shoes are designed or modeled off of something else. And the story of what goes behind it, I just think is really cool. They’re essentially just an extension of my art. And I have a lot of them, so that’s why I like to try and incorporate them. [Laughs.]
How does staying active benefit you? Would you say it impacts your creativity?
I have what I call high-functioning anxiety. So the anxiety is just always sitting there dormant. However, I find if I do take that time to work out, especially if I am really busy, it releases those endorphins and really allows me to be more in control of my emotions and feelings throughout the day, which makes me, in turn, be able to achieve more with my work.
“I just have always viewed sneakers as pieces of art themselves.”
That’s interesting. I always tend to put off working out when I get really busy.
I do that often too. And I catch myself and then I’ll work out once and be like, “Yeah see? I need to be doing this because it just makes me feel more productive.” My mental health is night and day when I’m working out and not working out. I don’t even really work out with the intention that I want to be jacked or super flexing down the road. I just want to be able to feel like I’m not going to struggle walking up the stairs.
How have you stayed physically and mentally active during the pandemic?
I used to bike a lot more, but [when] the pandemic hit I couldn’t bike very far because I couldn’t go to the bathroom—like, you weren’t allowed to go into places. So I was like, this is going to suck. [Laughs.]But now I’ve been using fitness apps because they give me a good variety of things; I just try to schedule in that time.
Mentally, I wasn’t really giving myself much of a balance at first, but I’ve started trying to give myself more of one. I think that to avoid being stressed out, I tend to dive a little bit too far into work and become a little too consumed by it. So I set limits for myself now; I actually will put in my calendar what hours I’m working and when I’m stopping, because if I don’t, I’ll just work straight through till I have to go to bed. You’d think your work would be better because you’re creating so much more, but when you’re creating at that level, it actually is hindered because you’re not giving yourself a chance to refresh. On Sundays, I play Animal Crossing for a couple of hours and I try to do things to have that balance in my life. I find that when I am giving myself that break, my art is that much better when I come back to it.
Talk about the importance of positive energy and funneling that into your creativity.
I mean, I myself am just a positive person. I’ve always been like that. I do, however, think that the whole “stay positive” motto that’s been going around isn’t really fair at a time like this. I think the best advice I ever got was from my stepdad when I was little: “Sometimes, you just need to put on a sad song and have a big cry.” And that’s so true. When you’re sad, you need to allow yourself to be sad. If we don’t acknowledge those things, they’re just going to stay underneath and affect us in the long run. So although I am positive, I try to allow myself the sadness that I may have every once in a while.
Lately, adidas has really gone all-in on sustainability—the Ultraboost 21s are made with Primeblue, a high-performance recycled material made in part with Parley Ocean Plastic. How important is that kinda thing to you when deciding whether to work with a brand?
Well, I like the environment and it’d be cool to keep it around. [Laughs.] But it’s always good when brands are conscious of that sort of thing, and it’s awesome to see a brand of that size making moves to help the environment. I try to be very aware of who I work with and what I wear, so knowing the history and who is behind each brand is super important to me.
Obviously, you’re very active on Instagram and it’s been instrumental to your career. But spending too much time on social media can have negative effects on one’s mental health. How do you deal with that?
I’m very careful. It took a long time of setting boundaries. My Instagram is a business tool for me, so it is an opportunity to showcase my art. I do share my opinion on there, but I try to keep it not too much one way or the other just because I want to provide a safe space where people can have a moment of levity as they’re scrolling through. But when I really believe in something, I will try and use my platform in an organic way to create art and get things talked about. I do set limits, though.
Something I get asked so much by students is, “How do you not get disappointed when you spend so much time on something and you don’t get a lot of likes?” And for the longest time I did [get disappointed]. But then I really just started teaching my audience how to treat me by pushing out what I wanted to do. So, you either like it or you don’t like it and don’t follow me. It’s cool. And then what happened was that brands saw me do something that maybe got no likes, but they still hired me for big jobs because it spoke to them. So I was like, OK, just post what you love and people will eventually hire you for that!
Photographer: Katherine Holland
Creative Director: Alex Narvaez
Producer: Mollie Rolfe
Stylist: Shirin Nadjafi
Makeup & Hair: Sherlyn Torres