Bearing Your Soul: Toronto-Based Artist Hayley Axelrad on Inspiration, Painting in the Pandemic, and Breaking with Tradition

Bearing Your Soul: Toronto-Based Artist Hayley Axelrad on Inspiration, Painting in the Pandemic, and Breaking with Tradition

Written by Mariah Lamont-Lennox

Haley Axelrad is a self-taught visual artist from Toronto. She spent several years living in Montreal where she attended university, later working in the fashion industry while developing her artistic practice. Recently, Axelrad returned to Toronto where she continues to pursue art, specifically working in acrylic painting and pencil drawing. Axelrad’s painting has a dynamic and contemporary quality, combining a high level of realism with an exciting, contemporary use of colour. She often flattens certain elements of the subject, and sometimes superimposes her subjects over text. Her drawings are also defined by razor-sharp realism, but possess a delicate quality which present her subjects with accuracy and emotion. Inspired by Impressionism and artists such as Henri Matisse, David Hockney and Chloe Wise, Axelrad explores ideas from popular culture and nature, focusing specifically on floral still life and the female body. 

Mariah Lennox: What is your artistic background? 

Hayley Axelrad: I’ve always made art, since I was really little. I always wanted to be an artist. I came from a very close-minded, very traditional Jewish community that was very much like “get your education, be a doctor, be a lawyer.” So, I never ended up doing any real artistic training in university or anything like that even though I really wanted to. I felt societal pressure and pressure from my parents to just do something a little more general and then keep my options open for the future even though I felt like I knew what I wanted to do. I am self-taught. I took art class in high school but that’s basically it. 

Grief, acrylic on newsprint, 2020. 8 x 10". $300.
ML: Where are you from, and where are you living and working now? 

HA: I’m from Toronto originally. At McGill, I realized I wanted to pursue fashion, so I did a bunch of internships throughout undergrad and then afterwards I got a job in Montreal at Garage Clothing. I was going to look for a new job but then Covid happened. During quarantine I thought I was going to be so into working on my art, but it just didn’t end up being such a creative period for me. I was dealing with some mental health stuff and I couldn’t really focus on my art. Now I’m hoping to make art more consistently. 

ML: What are some of your biggest artistic influences? 

HA: The first artistic movement I was introduced to was Impressionism. My mom was really into art, she would take us to museums and show us art books. I really got into the impressionists and I feel like I’ve always stayed true to that style in my own work. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate other artists. My favorite artists right now are Matisse and David Hockney, and more contemporary ones are like Chloe Wise and Mark Tennant. I’m really inspired by pop culture, movies, and nature. 

Hayley Axelrad, Cornflower Blue
Cornflower Blue, acrylic on watercolour paper. 9 x 12”. Limited edition prints available, price upon request.

ML: What is the most challenging part of your artistic practice? 

HA: Definitely self-doubt. Not believing in myself enough and questioning things too much. I get in my own way a lot of the time. It’s really hard when you’re being so vulnerable, and people don’t really know how much of yourself goes into it. It’s scary to bare your soul like this. 

ML: What do you find to be the most satisfying aspect of your artistic practice?

HA: Being able to have a vision of what you want to create and then creating that and seeing how people react to it. Seeing if people feel a certain way, if they take it seriously. My whole life I feel like I was surrounded by people who didn’t really take my art seriously, so having positive reactions feels good.


Mariah Lamont-Lennox is an artist and writer living in Toronto. She holds a BA in Art History from McGill University. 
Find Hayley Axelrad on Instagram at @hayleyaxelrad and @smol_treasures.