Usman Khan is a singer-songwriter, dancer, actor, performing artist, producer and videographer. His ultimate goal is to have a lasting positive impact on this world —mainly through his creative lens. You can connect (like actually connect) with him on all social media @UsmanKhanTV.
Recently Usman spoke with Ty, SKETCH’s Performance Arts Associate, for a conversation about their arts practice and creative journey as it relates to curiosity and connection.
PH:AIZ is a series of SKETCH artist interviews. Artists from different disciplines are sharing their experiences in the SKETCH art studios, ranging from the Movement studio, Culinary Arts Kitchen, Project Studio Screen Printing and Music Studio. The interviews, led by Associate Artists Ty Sloane and Jess De Vitt, hope to explore the different relationship artists have to the space and community at 180 Shaw Street.
These interviews exist in text as well as in a downloadable Zine that can be printed from home or viewed digitally!
Artist Photo: Usman Khan (any pronouns). Photography: Ty Sloane
Ty: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to SKETCH Working Arts?
Usman: Okay, so I joined previous theatre groups in the city, specifically in Buddies and Bad Times Theatre, where we were involved in workshops in the SKETCH building, or the Artscape building, and from there I met other SKETCH facilitators such as yourself who’ve introduced the space to me. So, through other groups that I was personally interested in, for example acting groups or theatre workshops, I met actual SKETCH facilitators from there whom introduced SKETCH.
Ty: Can you tell us about your first time, or first couple of times, coming to SKETCH? What did that feel like?
Usman: Of course. I think it was early 2018 or very late 2017. The first time I came to SKETCH I was shocked. I’m like woah, there’s free food and programs for people who want to learn and grow and figure things out and try new things – without paying like $500 a week to do it.
And there’s people who are like minded you can meet there as well too. During my first couple days, I don’t know exactly who was there specifically, but there were facilitators who were very approachable and friendly so it was just like a nice experience. I felt like I already belonged when I came to SKETCH on the first day. It felt like I could just hop into any program very easily, whatever was going on that day.
There weren’t any expectations so it was all a very easy process in the first couple of days to figure out the space and see what SKETCH offers. It was very well presented in that sense.
Ty: Awesome! And then, now let’s focus on your art practice. So what is your art practice and what tools do you love to use in your art practice?
Usman: I’m mainly a musician, singer-songwriter, producer, and performance artist in general. So in my arts practice I use piano software on computers for music production, such as LogicPro. Microphones, guitars, any instrument that you can think of, I would be inclined to use it. Those are the tools I use, and that’s kind of what SKETCH provides as well too. There was a keyboard there for music production, there were computers there, pianos, electronic keyboards, guitars- there were so many different instruments available at SKETCH. Even though I didn’t fully know how they worked at that time, I could still learn just by playing around with them. But yeah, as a performing artist, as a musician, the tools that I use are instruments and various software.
Ty: And then can you name or describe any artistic inspirations or muses that you have?
Usman: I mean, I feel like the whole world is my inspiration. The people in it, how people interact, how people love, how people fight, how people are friends, that kind of stuff. Like everything that’s part of this world I’ve started to process more in a way where I can incorporate that into my music practice. I am still in training. I always will be in my life. Learning never stops. Currently, I’m working on my very first EP. So in that sense, you need a lot of inspiration as an artist and SKETCH itself provides inspiration.
As soon as you walk through the door, there’s like 10 different types of people you can meet and get inspired from. Whether it’s a visual art aspect, whether it’s photography, whether it’s dance, like these are real people with real stories and that’s basically what inspires me. Real people with real stories.
And, of course, there’s legends such as Freddie Mercury or Prince. There’s a bunch of different people that have kind of inspired me, from people in my life to musicians such as Freddie Mercury, Prince all the way to like Demi Lovato. A very broad range.
SKETCH Open Studio Performance. Photography: Morcia Monique
Ty: What sort of art have you made at SKETCH now more broadly, you can name projects or events?
Usman: Yes, I was part of the SKETCH Band, which is a group of four or five individuals that create, record, produce and perform music all within the season of SKETCH. And SKETCH provides that opportunity to do that where we’re learning from each other. SKETCH provides the studio space, the equipment and everything you could need, all you need to bring is curiosity. SKETCH band is mostly musicians coming together to create a band and make music so that’s one of the projects I worked on from SKETCH itself.
There were also specific programs from Ty Sloane which is, It’s All Drag, and from there I actually got to perform at Pride. So with SKETCH and with my training at SKETCH I got to be involved in very enormous projects such as performing at Pride for the first time. That’s what SKETCH allowed me to do. While getting involved in SKETCH, I had the opportunity to train, learn, collaborate and then perform at venues that are outside of SKETCH such as Pride Toronto and Nuit Blanche. There was a musical theatre performance I did back in 2018 where they used the SKETCH project studio even though they weren’t affiliated with SKETCH itself, we used SKETCH’s space to do our final performance. And I only heard about that opportunity and audition through SKETCH. So SKETCH not only helps and trains you, but they also provide you with real paid opportunities that are out there in the GTA.
Rehearsals for Pride Performance. Photography: Ty Sloane
Ty: Fantastic! Can you describe moments where you’ve been featured in the SKETCH Band? Like has the SKETCH Band been featured at events or anything like that?
Usman: Yeah SKETCH band has. We’ve played mostly for SKETCH programs and SKETCH outreach. And from the SKETCH Band, I met two of my current bandmates from our band, RedNailsOne.
So from the SKETCH band I got to find two other musicians who I could actually create another band with. And with that we are creating songs to put on an EP with the help of SKETCH recording studios. We are hoping to perform at live venues in the future. I wouldn’t have met the musicians in my current band if it weren’t for SKETCH.
Ty: That’s incredible! Having heard the bands myself they’re brilliant so I can’t wait to see RedNailsOne! How has the arts space at SKETCH helped you in your art practice?
Usman: When I first came to SKETCH I was very curious, which is one thing that can really help you. I know sometimes it can be tricky to be fully curious and let your guard down, but with SKETCH studios, they provide such an easy and open atmosphere and environment so there’s not much pressure and expectations for any participant to showcase something or prove themselves.
As for SKETCH, I started off with curiosity and then with that curiosity – I built my confidence. The way I built my confidence at SKETCH was being involved in these specific programs, learning from the facilitators, whether it’s music, whether it’s dance, whether it’s culinary arts, whether it’s learning how to paint, whether it’s learning how to cook something, whether it’s learning how to do a four step count, whether it’s learning the guitar. All that kind of stuff is available at SKETCH and so much more, you can say I learned A LOT with SKETCH.
It’s all from my curiosity and jumping into different programs. SKETCH makes it easy to just pop into a program without any expectations or pressure. You don’t even have to be interested in a program but they are so fun to participate in! No one’s really going to ask why you’re here, SKETCH is just glad that you are.
Ty: I’m glad that we can provide that space for you. So you speak a lot about music and you’ve just briefly mentioned visual arts and culinary so I’m wondering, what studio do you love to work in that’s not normally a space you occupy and can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to that space?
Usman: I spend most of my time in the music studio for SKETCH band, jamming out with instruments and singing classes or just collaborating with other artists. I also visit the Movement studio for dance class and the kitchen space where I’m learning how to cook. The culinary arts experience at SKETCH has been very helpful in understanding how to actually cook in a way that’s very healthy for me. They work with all diet restrictions.
I also spend a lot of time in the project studio. The project visual art studio is the first thing you see when you walk into SKETCH, so you’re already drawn to that space. That’s like an open space where all types of artists hang out, whether it’s visual, musical, screenprinting, any kind of artist that you want to see would be in that space. I also eat the delicious lunch and dinner there that SKETCH provides. So my experience in the project studio is that whenever I need to take a break from working in the music studio, I go to the project studio to either paint, practice guitar, talk to other friends, to meet new friends, or to eat lunch there.
I love to dance so I love going into the movement studio. It’s beautifully designed and it’s very welcoming. The movement studio has been so necessary for my projects. For example, I used the dance studio space to choreograph, train and create my performances for my Pride stages.
Ty: That’s incredible! What do you want folks to notice or be curious about when digesting your work?
Usman: So, for me, I’m mainly a musician, a singer-songwriter but I do love to dance and film. I do love to create all different types of artwork. And I really don’t think that someone should be limited with one specific type and that’s kind of what SKETCH showcases. Like you don’t have to do one thing and the way they showcase that is by allowing participants to just hop into these programs that are happening throughout the day and figure out something new, or try something new. From there you can discover different parts about yourself and create anything that means something to you.
For example if I’m working with music I would hop into a photography class and learn about photography and with photography I can learn to promote my music as well. So everything at SKETCH ties in together to help participants discover and possibly showcase their talents if they want to.
In terms of digesting my work, I would say I hope that someone feels a connection to my work. Any kind of human connection with my piece of work, whether it’s my song, whether it’s my dance piece, whether it’s my performance, any way that someone can connect with it is something I strive for. Even if the person can connect with me in some aspect or relate my work to their life in some aspect. There’s so many different types of arts to digest and especially with social media there’s so many different ways to consume all kinds of artwork which is so beautiful.
Nuit Blanche Performance. Photography: Jeremy Sale
Ty: So, if that’s about the here and now, let’s talk about when you’re dead! And here’s what I mean by that. So when you’re an ancestor, maybe 10, 20, 30 years down the road, after you’ve passed on, what do you want your descendants to know?
Usman: It’s great that you ask this question, ‘cause this is kind of the question that keeps me going throughout my life – the idea of being an ancestor one day.
I want my descendants to know and I want everyone to know that it’s okay to try new things and it’s okay to explore. You don’t need to know everything, you just need to explore and try to open your mind in a way where it’s easier for you to not be discouraged, to try new things and figure out what you like and what you don’t like. It’s hard to live your life based on someone telling you that you shouldn’t do something. If you think that you want to try something, try it out. Don’t let fear or someone else’s discouragement prevent you from exploring different parts of yourself. I know it’s easier said than done especially with the hardships thrown at us, but I really do think the idea of exploring is necessary for most aspects of life.
Ty: Brilliant. On the topic actually of discovery and exploration, for the folks who may never know who you are in an interpersonal or familial way, where will your art exist after your time on Earth?
Usman: I personally think it’s kind of selfish to think that your work will be there forever because the world is gonna continue with or without you. It’s kind of like a power trip to say ‘my work will live on forever and people will remember me forever’ when that might not be the case.
However, I do hope that some of my art will exist for a time period where I can have a positive impact on someone. That’s what matters to me. I know anything I post online will exist “forever” in the digital world and that’s something beautiful. So in that sense, it’s going to exist in the digital space but yeah, I don’t really think my artwork is going to live on “forever”.
Ty: That’s a very humble and modest answer and a very real answer. I guess the last question that I have is just more of a general question. Is there anything else that you want to offer about your arts practice or about your relationship with the SKETCH studio space?
Usman: So as I was mentioning before, as a future ancestor I would want my descendants to explore and figure out what they like. I really do think SKETCH is a space to do that. As I’ve said many times before in this interview, SKETCH provides participants with the opportunity to explore, to learn, to make mistakes. And it’s hard to do that sometimes because when we spend our hard earned money on classes, personally I think I need to use up that time to my best extent, where I can’t make any mistakes and that’s the environment I’ve experienced. For example, you pay like $500 for a singing class you feel like you can’t make a mistake and if you did you would be wasting time and money so you need to learn quick which adds onto that whole pressure. But SKETCH takes away that pressure. You’re there for whatever you want to be there for, and SKETCH is totally okay with that. I really think that SKETCH needs to be a place like all over the world in a way where people can just go there and explore, because that’s how we can truly figure out ourselves, if we explore ourselves and if we have people who are there to encourage us.
Pride Toronto Performance. Photography: Ty Sloane
Ty: I love that. While we don’t get to be in SKETCH studio spaces together, can you describe your relationship to the programming that’s existed virtually?
Usman: Of course. In the pandemic, when there was a lot of uncertainty, especially for artists as we rely on collaboration and face-to-face collaboration especially. So when the pandemic hit I’m sure everyone was like “okay how do we go on from here?”, but SKETCH has dealt with the pandemic in a very effective manner where they would host online classes where, for example vocal revolution online where participants can sing together and learn together.
Not only would they host online classes for the participants, they would have facilitators checking in with specific people. For myself, Michael [SKETCH music facilitator] checked-in with me individually, one-on-one, and also with our band, RedNailsOne. SKETCH is still providing the same support to artists online. Even though there’s so many different programs happening online during the pandemic, SKETCH facilitators still took the time to check in one-on-one with the participants and that’s what matters the most. If anything, that would help people feel less alone during the pandemic and SKETCH does an excellent job with not only teaching, but keeping that relationship with participants whether we’re in a pandemic or not.
Ty: I hope that we get to see you continue to thrive and explore your music work as well as your work with dancing or culinary or visual arts. I’m going to end it off by saying thank you for having this interview with me!
This series has been put together under Project Home.
Project Home is SKETCH’s capital campaign to purchase its legacy space in the Queen West neighbourhood. By helping SKETCH secure its studios, you ensure that young artists have continued access to space and free-programming to develop their practice and explore their creativity. Learn more about how you can support here.