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How a ‘weird little hobby’ by artist Beth Frey went viral

Fans of the Concordia grad’s AI-generated art include Sam Smith, Cat Power and Darren Aronofsky
August 25, 2023
By Lindsay Lafreniere, GrDip 10

An AI-generated image of a woman with short brown hair looking at a life-size fluffy yellow figure that has big eyes, a red nose and red mouth Beth Frey's Untitled (2022), was created with AI tool DALL-E 2.

When Beth Frey, GrDip 09, MFA 15, started experimenting with AI art and posting it on Instagram, she thought of it as just a “weird little hobby.”

“But about two months in, it went viral,” says Frey. “It started getting attention from all sorts of people, including in the film and music industries.”

The British Columbia native divides her time between Montreal and Mexico City, where she rents out a studio in a high school. Frey is a visual artist who works primarily with watercolour and in video performance. But her multidisciplinary practice found a new tool when she discovered an older AI image generator called VQGAN+CLIP.

“I like to have new toys and tools to play with,” says Frey, who earned a Graduate Diploma in Communication Studies and MFA in Studio Arts at Concordia. 

Image of a woman with short blonde hair wears a grean shirt and green pants. She is in a studio surrounded by stuffed toys in front of a white wall and green curtain Visual artist and Concordia grad Beth Frey in her Mexico City studio

“I was kind of jealous of the AI at first,” she admits. “It’s doing this thing that we want to do as painters. But I was really amazed at how it created images that were a mix of figurative and abstract.”

Frey soon created a second Instagram account, called @sentientmuppetfactory, devoted to new works enabled by AI tools like DALL-E 2. The account quickly ballooned to more than 100,000 followers, with Sam Smith, Cat Power, Darren Aronofsky, Noel Fielding, actress-comedian Patti Harrison and fellow artists like Daniel Popper and Ketnipz among them.

“It's been surreal gaining the attention of artists and musicians I respect,” says Frey. “As a working artist, that's sort of a dream, but when it’s for a side project that I started on a lark, it's a bit strange. I’ve enjoyed the attention, but I did feel a bit of a pressure to keep going with it rather than commit to the practice I’d been focusing on for years.”

‘Wanting to toe this line between the beautiful and grotesque’

Body distortion, her own included, is an important part of Frey’s work (she refers to it as “light body horror”). When a friend asked if her watercolour and video images were self-portraits, it was revelatory.

“Even if they’re not literally depicting me, there’s a lot of myself in them, and this sense of awkwardness of having a body in society,” Frey observes. “A lot of my work is wanting to toe this line between the beautiful and grotesque.”

Singer-songwriter Róisín Murphy's Hit Parade album cover art was created by Beth Frey.

With AI, Frey can experiment with imaginary concepts — like, for example, a woman dressed as an inflatable nostril. She then further manipulates the image with prompts.

While useful, working with AI can also be stressful and not without concerns, says Frey.

“Just because I play with AI in my art, it doesn’t mean I’m 100 per cent behind AI doing everything. There’s a lot that I’m really terrified of.”

Frey recently completed a residency at Stewart Hall Art Gallery in Pointe-Claire, Montreal. An installation of her watercolours and video work is part of a group exhibition, called Offstage, that examines the relationship between theatre and visual art. 

The challenge of how to incorporate and work with AI continues to be a part of her creative practice. She finds AI commissions difficult, because some of her best results come from randomness and unpredictability. But she is open to working on future projects that are creatively stimulating and that she can add her voice to.

“I'm still trying to figure out what my relationship is to AI,” she says. “It’s advanced a lot and the internet seems to be saturated with AI-generated imagery, and I’m not sure if it's the thing I want to attach myself to as an artistic identity. That said, as long as it offers an interesting tool to work with creatively, I'm happy to continue exploring it.”

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