My latest ‘lemon squares’

Oil painting series ‘lemon squares’ by Daniela Herold (2016)

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“I thought of you in Paris”, my godchild Lilly wrote to me yesterday. “I saw Manet’s lemon – it’s beautiful!”

I couldn’t agree more. Manet’s oil painting of a single lemon from 1880 is ‘lovely’ – for lack of a better word.  For hundreds of years, painters have chosen lemons as objects in their art – for instance Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684), Luis Melendez, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) or Edouard Manet in the late 19th century, to name but a few.

But what is it about lemons that they are so often featured in still lifes? Is it their bold colour? Their unique shape and texture? Is it how they reflect light?

All of that is true – and they are simply great fun to paint! Here is my latest series of my ‘lemons squares’, enjoy 🙂

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Further lemons:

Check out Noah Layne’s website – he’s the master of lemons
http://www.noahlayne.com/Lemons,BaggedandBoxed.html

 

 

 

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Intuition, Experience and Blind Faith: Morley Myers and Clem Crosby collaborate for the first time to make sculpture

Being an artist can sometimes be an isolating experience. Even though some say that collaboration means giving up your individuality, I believe in the power of collaboration. Having a team of people united in one effort can bring about amazing results. “A partner’s different perspective is valuable’, Astronaut Ron Garan once said, ‘but the very fact that it is different means that it will require work, humility, time, and resources to incorporate that perspective. At times, this will require checking one’s pride at the door.”

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When I ran into sculptor Morley Myers a few weeks ago, he introduced me to his friend Clem Crosby. The London-based painter, whose art has been exhibited at the Tate Modern and the UC Berkeley Art Museum – to name but a few – is working at the radical center of a growing circle of painters who accept the accumulated legacy of art history and contemporary culture in their work, but ‘without any traces of the irony that characterized a generation of appropriation’. (1)

‘Are you working on a project together?’ I asked.

‘Yes, we’re working with raw emotions’, Morley said.

‘Rather than calling it ‘raw emotions’ I prefer to call it intuition’, Clem added.

Morley and Clem – who grew up on the same small base in Suffield, Alberta, where their fathers were posted with the Canadian Forces and British Forces in the Seventies – decided to spend 10 days focusing on a collaborative project at Myer’s home on Salt Spring Island after having talked about it for years.

‘Clem’s approach to creating art is very different to mine’, Morley Myers says, ‘which is why I was very interested in seeing this process at work.’ Clem, in turn, was very receptive to the idea of creating sculptures as he had done little 3D work up until this point.

Morley, can you tell us more about your artistic collaboration with Clem? 

Morley: Clem’s approach is much looser than mine. He is constantly looking to turn convention on its head. For instance I would be setting up a starting point – usually involving a recognizable figure – and then Clem would start to deconstruct the piece.

We used a lot of foam for the armatures and built upon that with plaster, cloth and sticks. It had a sense of fort building, the stuff I did when I was a boy. We basically used what we had on hand, and then let ‘it’ happen.

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Clem, you have never made sculpture before. Can you tell us more about your artistic collaboration with Morley? 

Clem: I have been painting for over 25 years so I guess it’s important to recognize the experience an artist accumulates from making something from nearly nothing. But let me start by saying that being on an island – Salt Spring Island – is both a blessing and a possible hindrance. The place is ridiculously beautiful so in my mind there is little point in trying to record nature through paint or otherwise – it already exists. Secondly, I was away from any distraction and overt criticism so I felt a certain liberty to fail, make mistakes and have fun making a mess with a good old pal and super artist Morley Myers.

We decided pretty much immediately that we would try and keep it loose, not get too technical – lucky for me! We literally grabbed some paper towels a couple of bags of quick drying plaster (important because less time to pontificate) from Morley’s studio and twigs and sticks from the yard.

The first pieces were modest in size, neither abstract nor representational although they did have an anthropomorphic quality. Morley would slap the plaster on an armature fashioned out of styrofoam and twigs then I would step in and do the same.

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Only when we decided to push the scale did Morley’s preference for the figure become apparent. He would start by carving in to the foam and i would do my best to undermine the emerging form by skewering the foam with sticks and having Morley’s outline disrupted only for him to then start again.

Sounds like the actual figure is not necessary for Clem?

Morley: That’s right. He is just interested in raw emotion and has a way of expressing that in the true abstract.

Clem: I prefer to call it both intuition and experience. I think ‘raw emotion’ makes the way I work sound like it’s coming from nowhere, I prefer to call it a mix of intuition and experience. Also, I wouldn’t say that my painting is truly abstract in the concrete sense of the term, for example, it’s not just about the materials I use.

I read that Clem Crosby works in relentless cycles of revision, corrective erasure, and overlay, ‘mixing topical concerns with reference to the past as seamlessly as he mixes colour and drawing’. The resulting paintings have been described as ‘at once emotional and yet rigorously intellectual, improvised and yet painstakingly considered’. What theme did you choose for your sculpting project and why? 

Morley: If there was a theme, then it was to disregard how we had been working up until this point. The project was mostly an exercise for both of us – an exercise for me to loosen up, and an introduction for Clem to sculpt with real hands on.

Clem: I think it helps if you know your collaborator because you have to be able to let go of preconceptions. In London, I never have anyone near my studio when I am painting so I knew this would be difficult enough.

The maddening thing about Morley is that he is so talented, he fixes old bikes and cars, he’s always known about nature and incredibly informed about almost anything, he’s the most self deprecating fellow I know and he makes amazing work. There is no doubt that if he were living in London he would be showing! And he’s as funny as hell so I knew it would be a great, creative atmosphere. At the very least if it didn’t work we could throw it all away and have some beers.

We added plaster, wrapped the paper around the styrofoam, pushed in the sticks, cut the foam, pulled out the sticks, added more plaster….and on it went, trying not to make ‘art’ but to go out there and make that ‘something else’ happen. Sometimes we talked a lot whilst working, sometimes we said very little. Then these wonderful, raw, immediate, unfussy, figurative/abstract sculptures emerged.

I think that the last piece we made is amazing, so too the are the first couple and i’m thrilled that we pulled something out of the experience. I learned a great deal about having an object sit in space, to make a convincing ‘thing’ that has volume and that one can believe in.

Then the beers did come out…….
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The history of art, music and literature is filled with many unusual partnerships, or at times stormy, passionate affairs between creative spirits – like Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Eighties. What did Clem and you accomplish together that you would not have been able to do alone?

Morley: The finished work – some of which is very good – would otherwise never have happened. I have the luxury of living with the fruits of our labour and have been enjoying their presence in my studio. There is a freedom in the way Clem works that I had the chance to experience and internalize.

IMG_2084What was the most inspiring moment during your collaboration?

Morley: I think some of our walks together. As Clem comes from London, I wanted him to experience my environment on Salt Spring Island. I wanted him to see what living in the pines is all about, and we talked about the importance of being healthy and connected to the earth through exercise and food. I have been dealing with cancer for a while and don’t know what my time line is, which brings an urgency to who we are and what we do as artists.

Morley Myers and Clem Crosby, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and insights with my readers.

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About Morley Myers

Morley Myers was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1956, and grew up primarily in the Medicine Hat region. A self taught sculptor, Morley has been working with stone since 1991 and has been involved in exhibits on the west coast and has displayed in galleries in New York, Vancouver, Victoria, Tofino, Salt Spring Island, Calgary, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat.

About Clem Crosby

Clem Crosby is a British painter living and working in London, UK and is represented by the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London

Crosby’s work is represented in the following Tate Archive, London, UC Berkeley Museum, USA, and the Microsoft Collection, USA amongst others.

He recently exhibited his paintings at the Armory, NY (2016) with Houldsworth and is being featured in an interview with the artist Ian Davenport in Turps Magazine (July, 2016)

Other collaborative projects in the art world

The history of art, music and literature is filled with many unusual and passionate partnerships, and at times stormy, love affairs between creative spirits.

– Painter Dalí and filmmaker Luis Buñuel were still relatively unknown in their fields when they created the classic surrealist short film “Un Chien Andalou” back in 1928.

– When in 1949, LIFE staff photographer Mili went to visit the Picasso at his studio in France, the painter became so fascinated with Mili’s light painting technique that he suggested to have pictures of him taken as he painted in the air.

– After meeting Warhol in 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat entered into a collaborative relationship with the artist that lasted until 1985 and created many products of the admired and refuted 1980s Pop art.

– Abstract expressionist Robert Rauschenberg contributed this “money thrower” to an installation for an exhibition of Tinguely’s work in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

Creative couple collaborations:

The following couples dared to mix business with pleasure, establishing compatible relationships on both a personal and professional level. Their professional collaboration often produced extraordinary results: the intellectual souls Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; the Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock – two of the best known American artists of the 20th century – and the poets and writer Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

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Recent work by M. Myers

 

 

There is always more to learn …

Marcus Aurelius

Last week, I  finished my cast drawing semester under the guidance of Noah Layne at the Realist Academy in Victoria, B.C. Working beside this amazing Canadian artist – who teaches dispassionately and without holding back  –  was a constant reminder to me that there is more to learn beyond whatever proficiency I might already have. And I recognized how little I really know compared with true masters of the arts.

Completing this second part of my apprenticeship with Noah meant fulfillment. Only by exposing myself to someone better than I have I been able to improve my skills and techniques. But technical knowledge alone is not enough: disciplined study can foster a student’s growth in many ways.

Noah has taught me to allow patience and stillness to take over when my impatience was starting to kick in while working on a sketch or a painting.

‘Do not rush’, he said. ‘If you manage to paint one square inch perfectly, you will also be able to perfectly paint a canvas the size of a skyscraper  – just take your time.’

Once I managed to calm my mind, I was able to patiently concentrate on finishing the smallest detail.

More information:
Noah Layne Academy of Realist Art / Victoria, B.C. Canada
www.noahlayne.com

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Charcoal ‘Marcus’ by Daniela Herold at the Noah Layne Academy of Realist Art in Victoria, B.C.

The need to belong

Series ‘be-longing’ by Daniela S. Herold at Cowichan Performing Arts Centre in Duncan

'Lemonisity' by D.S. Herold

‘Lemonisity’
Oil on board by D.S. Herold

In 1970, American psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out that belonging was an essential and prerequisite human need that had to be met before one could achieve a sense of self-worth. 

I immigrated to Canada in 2004 after having lived in different countries for the last 20 years. The theme of migration and identity has concerned me for years – I know what it is like to leave ‘home’ and move to a new place, where unfamiliar people become neighbours, colleagues and friends.  However, I have always moved by choice with a job, a loving partner or a place waiting for me. I was the fortunate one – unlike hundreds of thousands of refugees who know about displacement, having moved out of their native home and country due to civil wars, persecution or natural disasters.

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‘The essence’ by D.S. Herold

Today, my friend Rosemary and I finished hanging 35 paintings from my latest series titled ‘be-longing’ at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre in Duncan.  The show is close to my heart because it focuses on growing roots, being connected and belonging with others. The exhibition can be seen until the end of January 2016.

‘Humans have a natural need to belong with others.
To belong means to be connected.’

Why is the topic of belonging such a common theme in literature, music and the arts?

The need to belong is rooted in evolutionary history. Human beings are social animals who have always depended on having close connections in order to survive and reproduce. In our daily life, we seek out those who are most similar to us because we feel that we can relate to them and they can understand us.

As an immigrant, I wanted to belong and to grow roots here in Canada – I have been longing to be part of this culture while at the same time needing to stay close to my European roots.

Humans have a natural need to belong with others. To belong means to be connected. As for me, the word home is connected just as much to a place as it is connected to a person. In that sense I felt I could take the word ‘belonging’ apart (BE-LONGING) as in ‘I am longing’ for something that makes me whole.

'Camouflage’. Oil on board

‘Camouflage’. Oil on board by D.S. Herold

Every time you are taken out of your ‘heart community’, there is a void that yearns to be filled. For me, the alienation was caused by my move to another country. For many, the feeling can be the result of the scattering of their families, the break-down of traditional groups or the disappearance of a village familiarity where everyone knows everyone. Millions of people are taken out of their heart communities as I am writing these lines – the stories of their suffering during the current refugee and migrant crisis in Europe are enormous.

‘I am longing’ for something that makes me whole.’

A friend asked me whether ‘the artist and nationality’ are a central theme in my art. About a year ago, when I started the series ‘be-longing’, I was wondering how important nationality would (have to) be? At one point it confronted me with quite a dilemma: how could I – as a German-Canadian artist – portray ‘Germanness’ in general if all symbols of Germany are tainted by the past? The artist Anselm Kiefer already asked that existential question in the 1960s.

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‘As snug as a bug in a rug.’ Oil on board by D.S. Herold

When I was reflecting on my own sense of nationality and what it means for me as an artist, I came across a quote by Saltire Award winner Meaghan Delahunt that I really liked. She wrote in 2003: ‘It is not the responsibility of the artist to present a comfortable or ‘identifiable’ picture of the nation in which they were born or in which they live, and they should be free to write about whatever they see fit in whatever language they see fit.’  

This project left me with the interesting question: how important is my nationality in the context of belonging when I compare it to other staples of my life, e.g. my family, my friends, networks, groups, environment etc? As it turned out, nationality has been only one aspect of many.

Belonging has a lot to do with getting recognition and developing self-esteem. According to Maslow, we only develop self-esteem when we are anchored in community. At the end of the day it is the community that gives us the recognition for our achievements, and it is the community that respects us for our mastery in a certain field.

How we portray and express this human need of belonging, so deeply ingrained in our nature, is very individual – as is the artistic presentation of the topic around it. I want my viewers to create their very own story of my art – that is why my paintings leave a lot of room for imagination and assumptions.

Of course there is ‘my’ story behind every painting, but what would art be if it doesn’t reach out and touch your life? What makes me tick is when my paintings manage to hold your attention for a while, when they can inspire you or make you wonder.

Why art? Because.

Daniela S. Herold

 


Further information : Cowichan Performing Arts Centre

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‘In unison.’ Oil on board by D.S. Herold

 

 

Paintings/Photographs by D.S. Herold  / Copyright 2015

Morley Myers – Sculpting the shape of the human condition

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Morley Myers and ‘Blink of an Eye’

An interview with the B.C. artist by Daniela Herold

Morley Myers, as a self-taught sculptor, you have been working with stone since 1991. One of the most common purposes of sculpture in history was some form of association with religion, or an expression of politics. Why do you choose to create sculptures?

Morley Myers: I started sculpting as an unconscious attempt to explore my self. I hate to call it ‘art therapy’, but it does have that quality at times. What I do would be a combination of religion, and possibly gender politics as well as the broader form of community or national politics.

In your mid twenties, you were enrolled in the Humanities program working towards a degree in social studies.

Morley Myers: We all had to take classes in Ethics, Political Science, Sociology etc, and I chose to also do a class on Religion – is there a God or a proof of divine existence, that sort of thing. It all fed me well, giving me a lot of grist for what I have come to do later in life as an artist.

Over the years I have done bodies of work investigating my relationship with God or a spirit world. Another body was investigating the relationship of spirit and sexual identity, or the lack of. My ideas of what it means to be a man within the constraints of our culture, or my thoughts on this push to have our own children and what it might mean to be a woman or a man desiring to have children.

Human experiences as the basis of your work?

Morley Myers: Indeed. These explorations have helped me to get an understanding of some of the cultures that influenced me, for instance First Nations art from all around the world.

Do you find that the process of creating can be an end in itself?

Morley Myers: Absolutely. There is a joy that is difficult to explain, that you experience when you are in the groove. Once you have experienced this ‘bliss’, you tend to chase it. It is possibly one of the closest things to a spiritual experience I know. In a way, it has become an obsession for me – with the next piece being the cure.

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Male Torso as Armour

When I had the opportunity to visit your studio, I had the impression that your work evolves from a direct encounter with the material itself. You told me that you often start with the fault line or some other perceived defect when creating a sculpture from a raw block of stone. Why?

Morley Myers: Yes, it is a questionable approach to engage the faults and then move with the dialogue from there. This approach is something I tend to do when I am stuck, when the flow has stopped or when I am forcing my will and it all grinds to a halt. At times I have taken a piece of stone and saw large cuts in it creating a challenge that helps move beyond the impasse. Similarly our relationships with others often are deepened when we experience the imperfections of ourselves or others, creating new directions and understanding.

Do you prefer subtractive carving techniques – when removing material from an existing block of stone or wood – or rather modelling techniques to shape or build up your art from the material of your choice?

Morley Myers: When I started sculpting, it was to some extent a reaction to what I was doing as a builder. I had been working for years as a carpenter and found little to no outlet for my own expression as I was building other people’s dreams. I also wanted to get away from the noise of the power tools that I was using all day long, so I started working with hand tools on soft stone, moving slowly and quietly towards my own inner vision.

I worked subtractively for sometime, then slowly introducing power tools as i began to see the images quicker and wanted to speed up the process – ironic, isn’t it? It took me about 10 years before I was comfortable enough to move onto modeling or additive work. Starting with foam and plaster, then moving into steel assembly work.

Does additive work feel different to you?

Morley Myers: There is a wonderful freedom with additive work. You can continue to work and rework the image, adding and or subtracting at will. This is very different to stone work where you can also rework a piece, but it will get smaller and smaller until you end up with a pile of dust.

Both techniques work for me at this point and I find myself comfortably moving between them.

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Linear Thinking

For a sculptor, the classic materials with outstanding durability are usually metal, especially bronze, stone and pottery. What ways and materials do you seek to make art?

Morley Myers: I work in stone, foam, plaster, wood, steel and bronze. And as I mature, I see the possibilities of other materials or dimensions, having done a body of second work playing with colour and texture a few years ago. As an artist who is interested in exploring ideas you are not limited. We can go back to the likes of Picasso who did it all. He helped to set us free.

It has been said that ‘your work is meticulously composed, but open’. How would you describe your style?

Morley Myers: Interesting – I find this description both flattering and mildly confusing. I personally would describe my style as direct and strong, almost a 3D form of drawing.

What I do is definitely meticulous as I come from a line of perfectionists. So when we set ourselves to a task, we look closely at the details. I have a difficult time with ‘wishy-washy art’ – by that I mean art that doesn’t say anything or is too soft and round. I like sharp lines and clean intersecting planes.

As far as the statement goes that my work is trying to project – I like that to be clear, however this is where the “open” part might come into play. Since my statements tend to be about our human experience, each viewer will respond to it with mild to massive shades of difference.

When I travelled through the Netherlands last year, I visited the sculpture garden of the Kroeller-Mueller Museum in Otterlo, which opened in 1961, and has since become one of the most renowned in the world. Situated on carefully chosen spots on 25 hectares of woodland, sculptures ranging from work by Rodin to that of contemporary sculptors can be enjoyed by visitors. Where in North-America, do you think, come visual art, nature, architecture and garden design together in perfect harmony?

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Red Face

Morley Myers: I can’t come up with one place that is the ultimate, rather many possibilities. I am a country rat by nature and have never been overly comfortable in large cities, so my preference would be something in nature, preferably something here on the west coast.

I have seen wonderful sculpture ‘gardens’ in city landscapes as well in the country, above ground and below water. I do not think it has to be limited to one place or type of environment, be that urban or rural. But there needs to be an openness to the experience, to both the art and place.

Your career is long and eventful – what influenced your evolution as a sculptor?

Morley Myers: Living within a community of artists here on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, has had a large impact on what I do and who I have become as an artist.

– Firstly, when the mystery of being an artist was dissolved, closing the gap between artist and mortal.

– The opportunity to see things differently and to start engaging within the creative process with endless encouragement. From here the art world started to open to me and fearlessly I stumbled into it (and for the most part continue to).

– Meeting new artists who point me in different directions, giving me new views of the world and other voices to investigate.

Within this ‘one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-approach’ there have been satori moments, awakening moments. Like the ‘Aha-effect’ when something becomes clear. For instance when a friend invited me to watch a movie showing Picasso in motion and I was watching Picasso’s creative process flowing through many possibilities until there was this sense of completion. This is the moment of freedom I spoke of earlier.

“Our relationships with others are often deepened when we experience the imperfections of ourselves or others, creating new directions and understanding.” Morley Myers

Who of the following artists has inspired you and why? Barbara Hepworth, Picasso, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Marta Pan, Constantin Brâncuși or Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Morley Myers: Of these artists, my primary influences are Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Picasso and Constantine Brancusi.

It is hard for me to separate Hepworth and Moore as their work was very similar on many aspects, eg their explorations of space or void, or the same sense of flow and statement. Their work gave me an understanding of negative space or void.

Picasso demonstrates the freedom to explore dimensions and materials, the easy flow from 2D to 3D and back again, often within the same piece of work.

Brancusi is the start of the language all the moderns base their work on. His break from Rodin and access to the influences that were coming out of Africa at that time were the start of the language that my work is based on.

How do you see and understand public space and the role of art in public space?

Morley Myers: I think that public spaces can do many things. They can open our eyes to different ways of seeing the world and our place within it. Don’t they represent a chance to explore ourselves and others through many forms of art? As they provide a space for artists to realize their visions, they give space to their voices. Public spaces also create an opportunity for us to experience beauty for its own sake or give a visual voice to the injustices that surround us.

These parks can also reintroduce us to the natural world that we are apart of or re-frame our urban environments so that they are no longer just a place of survival or opportunities to merchandise. We can regain a sense of who we are as a species in relation to our environment. They can create an opportunity for profound change or simply function as a great place for family picnicking.

How do you deal with issues surrounding your art involving interior and exterior, solid and void, time and space, weight and weightlessness?

Morley Myers: I don’t give much conscious thought to these issues, I rather feel or intuit. It is similar to knowing when you are finished with a piece – there is a sense of completion, a feeling similar to a satori moment. A recognition from within.

What are you currently working on?

Morley Myers: At the moment I am looking at the next phase of my career as I am soon to be 60 years old and looking at who I am or becoming.

I am experiencing big life changes. My father, 90, is in the throws of Alzheimer’s and will soon be gone. This is a big moment in our lives, the loss of a parent, which forces deep reflection. It is in a way bringing me closer to my family, giving me a sense of continuity as I experience or visualize my father throughout the time frame that I have memories of him. I have been very unsettled by this experience as this last part is bringing my own demise well within view. I have a keen sense of how much time I have left, wondering what I will do with it.

I also have a much better understanding of my connection to all things at this point in my life. A wonderful place to be as it provides an endless realm of possibilities to create from.

Daniela Herold:  Morley Myers, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with my readers.

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ABOUT:

Morley Myers was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1956, and grew up primarily in the Medicine Hat region. A self taught sculptor, Morley has been working with stone since 1991 and has been involved in exhibits on the west coast and has displayed in galleries in New York, Vancouver, Victoria, Tofino, Salt Spring Island, Calgary, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat.

Artist website:
morleymyers.com

CONTACT:  Studio – Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.
128 Graham Drive, Salt Spring Island, Canada. V8K 1J5

Credits / photographs copyright: David Borrowman

Vancouver Island’s premier Summer Arts event – The Sooke Fine Arts Show

'Lumens' (oil on canvas, 2014) by Daniela Herold

‘Lumens’ (oil on canvas, 2014)
by Daniela Herold

I’m happy to report that my oil painting “Lumens” was selected to be part of the Annual SOOKE FINE ARTS SHOW.

The Sooke Fine Arts Show provides the opportunity for the finest artists from Vancouver Island and BC’s coastal islands to showcase and sell their work. The Show, coming into its 29th year, is Vancouver Island’s longest-running juried fine art show and the Island’s premier summer arts event. The 11-day art show and sale draws more than 8000 art lovers from Canada, the US and abroad. More than 375 works of original island art are on display in a stunning, 17,000-square-foot gallery at the SEAPARC complex on Sooke Harbour.

As I have had the wonderful opportunity to be working with Noah Layne, the founder of the Academy for Realistic Art here in Victoria, over the course of the last 2 years, I will be holding an artist’s talk about a topic close to my heart at the Sooke Fine Arts Show on Tuesday, July 28, 1-2 pm.

“Talent vs Technique – The importance of improving your skills to enhance your natural ability” 

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Noah Layne is an amazing painter and teacher who has inspired many of his students.
Here is a glimpse of my upcoming interview with Noah Layne this Fall.

Emile Zola once said: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” Would you agree?

Noah Layne: Absolutely.

In what way were you influenced by such painters as Sargent, Rembrandt or Wyeth?

Noah: I was influenced by these painters by the beauty of their work. The truthfulness of their work, both in technique and in how they followed their heart and soul in painting things that moved them.

You started painting by copying Rembrandt and Winslow Homer paintings when you are just 10 years old.  Did you get any guidance when you studied various painting techniques at such a young age and if so, by whom?

Noah: No, just looking and thinking myself.

Why do you believe in the importance of working from life?

Noah: When I am working directly from life I get to experience whatever I am painting first hand – not filtered by anything other than my eyes and brain.

For me, my art has always been focused around the ability and experience of sitting down, and drawing something and making it look like the thing I’m drawing. That magic of creating a realist image just with your hands, a pencil and your brain. I think it’s a pretty magical thing.

What is your advice to art students when it comes to practice?

Noah: My advice would be to figure out what moves you in art and then go about learning the techniques to make the art you want to make, much like playing music where to express yourself well, you have to learn to play your instrument well. In traditional art, learning technique allows you to then say what you want to say.

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About the Sooke Fine Arts Show

Show opens July 24 – Aug 3, open daily 10 am
closing time:  5pm Saturday July 25, Thursday July 30th, and Monday August 3rd. 7pm all other days

Greg Klassen: The sum of all the images of his past

peter print

Photographic exploration of personal identity formation

Greg Klassen has focussed his artistic attention and intention on the exploration of personal identity formation. This series of portraits in landscape form – “Who?” – is constructed from perceived fragments of identity through extensive dialogue with mostly fellow artists from Canada. The project interrogates not just how subjects see themselves, but how and if that sense of self-perception can be conveyed to an audience in the form of a non-linear narrative through photography. The complex constructions of a person’s self are built up from anywhere between 30 and 300 separate photographs.

Greg, you are a Marine Biogeographer and artist, who has been dealing with Asperger’s syndrome your whole life. Even though this diagnosis poses a daily challenge for you when it comes to social interaction – and we will talk about this later on – you are always looking for ‘new victims’ for your lifetime project, called ‘Who’. What direction do you take when trying to get to know them?

Greg: There are 2 important questions that meet at the centre of the project: ‘how is it done?’ and ‘why is it done?’ I always ask ‘why?’ when I approach any project. For me that question drives everything else, including the ‘how’.

So why ‘Who’?

Greg: My lifetime project centres on our very poor understanding of intentionality, of why the very notion of defining and projecting an identity separates self from other, and how we go about making that happen.

Your series focuses on interrogating identity. As identity has a personal and a social component, do you approach this topic from a philosophical as well as a psychological angle?

Greg: Absolutely. And I should point out that I have – simultaneously – both a very dispassionate philosophical and deeply personal interest in pursuing this interrogation. And both centre on what may be our time’s most pressing philosophical debate: the question of the relationship between mind and body and how various contemporary ‘answers’ affect how we relate to self and others, our “theory of mind.”

According to Descartes’ philosophy, mind and body are distinct. Descartes’ thesis – now called “mind-body dualism” – basically claims that mind and body are separate. His thesis is based on the notion that the mind consists of the spiritual essence whereas the body consists of the physical one. As a scientist, do you buy into the idea that both entities are completely separate?

Greg: Yes, Cartesian dualism – also know as substance dualism – has, for several centuries now, been at the heart of this debate surrounding the relationship between mind and body. But since Descartes most philosophies have rejected dualism in favour of Idealism (simplistically: all mind) or materialism (simplistically: all body). The notion of self, as I am exploring it, is caught squarely between these poles. You ask me where I stand on this debate “as a scientist”. But I am both scientist and artist – and many other things. I do believe that, both as scientist and artist, it is my responsibility to question. I believe that art, my art at any rate, needs to contribute to the debate in such a way as to challenge anything that may smack of entrenched perceptions. So, no, as a matter of philosophy, I do not ‘buy into’ Cartesian dualism, but neither do I accept, uncritically, its so called alternatives: I find myself in a philosophical in-between space.

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There has been a trend to reinterpret ‘identity’ to be synonymous with ‘cultural identity’. Why have you focused your artistic intention on the exploration of personal identity?

Greg: This claim – of identity being culturally derived – is at present most closely associated with post modernist ideologies but has roots that tie it strongly with the Idealist camp in the mind-body debate. Given what I said before, I am inherently sceptical of this proposition as a blanket statement. But I have also found myself at odds with the claims that identity is entirely, or even primarily, socially/culturally constructed for very personal reasons. Given that scepticism, it seemed a natural step for me to start my explorations of identity at first principles: with the individual.

You say that you are good talking to people, but not good talking with people – non-verbal cues go right over your head. Why is it difficult for you to read body language?

Greg: Well, that ties in with my personal reasons for wanting to research identity issues as an artist. I’ve known all my life that I was somehow different from the people around me. I was always missing things socially, misunderstanding people, having difficulty connecting with others. I had what one of my closest friends referred to as a serious case of “foot-in-mouth-disease”. It turns out – much to my relief – that I’m not simply some insensitive jerk who refuses to conform to social norms. Fairly late in life, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, also known as High Functioning Autism.

So what would be the main issue arising from this diagnosis that is relevant to our discussion?

Greg: We are dealing with a neurological condition that adversely affects the normal brain functioning that allows for the automatic, non-conscious recognition and response to typical nonverbal social cues.

Meaning that dealing with Asperger’s syndrome poses a daily challenge for you when it comes to social interaction. Tell us a bit more about the issues you are facing as an artist with Asperger’s.

Greg: Generally speaking, the most important issues relates directly to the notion of empathy, which for the purpose of this discussion is simply an expression of the ability to connect, non-consciously, through non-verbal communication with other individuals. People, like myself, with neurological conditions on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees of impairment when it comes to empathy. The main means of accessing this ability for someone like myself is consciously, much like learning a foreign language. And that is the first aspect of what I do when exploring the perceptions of my subjects regarding their personal identities through the “Who?” project: learn their individual language(s) of ‘self-construction’ through intensive dialogue.

Postmodernism often explores or celebrates a sense of cultural dislocation. What do you mean when you say that having a neurological makeup like Asperger’s means that there is no native culture, any social condition is – a priori -, one of dislocation?

Greg: I think the best way to answer that is through the ‘foreign language’ analogy I mentioned earlier. Most people grow up with one – native – language, one culture, and each new one added to our experience is measured against that first one – and is usually found lacking. In a sense, cultural dislocation derives from the failure of the new language/culture to integrate into our – already fully developed – sense of identity.

A new language, especially if learned late in life, almost never develops to the same level of fluency as that first language.

Greg: That is correct. In that sense each new culture is just like a new language to the average person. Part of that dislocation experience thus comes from the fact that empathy – the specific form non-verbal communication takes as we mature – is honed, and fixed, in that first cultural experience. Because of my distinctive neurological makeup that honing process apparently never fully took. In a very important sense, those such as myself don’t appear to develop a fixed, native language/culture against which to measure new cultural experiences, thus dislocation is perpetual.

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Has this lifetime project become a way for you to understand people better?

Greg: Yes and no. This is one of those situations that has led me to realize just how problematic the postmodernist perspective on identity is for the neurodistinct. The chief effect of the postmodern cultural construction of identity is that postmodernists have largely seen the ‘self’ as something completely pliable and thus moulded through society. In the postmodern view, identity, if it can be said to exist at all, becomes a matter of conscious choice. But we now understand much more clearly, thanks mainly to the recent efforts of neuroscientists, that for the neurologically distinct, there is no such choice. But postmodernist thinking cannot accommodate the genetically based innateness of neurological distinctness. Neurological conditions, such as Asperger’s not only severely restrict such freedom, they are philosophically – and empirically – incompatible with constructivist thinking.

What does that mean for your artistic research?

Greg: When I explore how my identity formation is constrained – by my neurological condition for example – I also provide a case study for the need to reinterpret the perspectival bias that postmodern ideology has imposed on our thinking for far too long. In that last sense my answer to your question can be a guarded and provisional yes: a new form of understanding others emerges from this project.

“In the postmodern view, identity, if it can be said to exist at all,  is a matter of choice…
For the neurologically distinct, there is not such choice.”

For you, the camera is secondary. You said that you never pick up the camera during the first phase as you photograph with your brain. And you pay particular attention to repetition during the interview. Why is that?

Greg: That’s actually two – though ultimately related – questions: my relationship to the camera and my relationship to the subject: Although procedurally the camera is definitely ‘secondary’ – I see the camera as a way to realize my vision not as a medium that constrains my process – photography, as concept, is a very active participant in my research. Photography, often seen as incapable of conveying narrative content, provides a direct analogue to the social ‘disability’ of a ‘neurodistinct’ person such as myself. The camera is not simply my tool of choice, it is an extension of my sensory system.

The question of repetition is strongly informed by the fact that I tend not to ‘think-in-words’. When people repeat certain specifics about themselves that tends to be a clear indication – usually non-conscious – that they consider that, whatever ‘that’ happens to be, to be of particular importance to their self-perception. To fully assimilate what people tell me, I must ‘translate’ from words, from language, to my personal symbology. Here repetition, especially with slight contextual modifications – served to refine the signal to noise ratio, to clarify my understanding of what is being communicated.

When looking at your work, the observer sees a whole of fragmentary images – the make up one human being after months, sometimes years, of getting to know them. As a scientist, you are gifted with a special pattern recognition for small details and the ability to put them together compositionally. Is this how you create order out of chaos in your science as well as in your art?

Greg: Yes, pattern recognition – especially spatial pattern recognition – seems to be a great strength of mine. According to all psychological tests I’ve been subjected to, I score off the charts on spatial tests. Apparently that is one of the silver linings in my Asperger’s cloud. But how that translates to me ‘as’ scientist or artist is less obvious. First, I would say that I don’t ‘create’ order out of chaos. If anything, I just see the patterns underlying some form(s) of order more clearly than others apparently do. But to me ‘as artist’ – I hate having to make these qualifications all the time – what is most intriguing is that – if we assume that the so-called fragments of an identity represent chaos – I seem to be able to sift out the pattern from that apparent chaos, but the ‘order’ – the empathic reaction to a perceived ‘whole’ that is the goal of the “Who?” series usually evades me and is brought to the table by my audience. In this way, my work becomes a social experiment.

Your pictures do not represent photography as we know it. Every picture is the result of sometimes excruciating collaboration between you and the person you portray, showing an amazing depth of subsequent layers to the surface characteristic. As not every person will open up to you in the same way, you must allow for a difference in depth of the story-telling of your photograph?

Greg: I could go on for hours about this issue of what photography is and is not, so for brevities sake let me just throw this back at you: why do you think that my work is not photography? There are clearly enough people out there who think that to make this question more than hypothetical. Perhaps when we see something that we can’t neatly put into preconceived boxes we should question the adequacy of the box not that which doesn’t seem to fit…

The layering – both literal and conceptual – in producing images for the “Who?” series is, in my mind, a direct reflection of how we see others in every day life. When we first meet someone we immediately form an initial, surface impression. Some aspect of that first impression is always present in the “Who?” series. As we get to know others better, additional layers are revealed. That again is reflected in the series with the addition of increasingly complex layers of relations between versions of the individual, their interactions with one another and the objects brought into the images.

How far, do you think, can we go toward a ‘true’ understanding of any other person?

Greg: I think that depends both on the efforts we are willing to put into the act – taking into account innate differences in, for instance, empathic abilities – and the willingness of that other to reveal themselves to us. The different depths of story-telling in different “Who?” images, as you put it, are simply a reflection of the reality that we do not get to know all people to the same degree or depth.

Some of your photographs contain up to 300 images. They usually range around 30 images. Storytelling is crucial to your art: as one cannot have a narrative without a movement from a to b, would you insist on 3 images as a minimum for your picture?

Greg: Ah, when you say 3 images you are referring to the number of versions/representations of the individual subjects. It seems that historically, regardless of individual photographic styles, portraits tended toward single images of a person. I wondered how one could access that person’s sense of identity from just one singular view of them – a question that has lead postmodernists to reject, wholesale, the notion of personal identity. I wanted to explore whether multiple views, multiple versions, of a person could collectively speak more coherently to this idea that we are never just one single, unitary thing and yet somehow form a coherent sense of self.

Unlike the postmodernists, have you been searching for a sense of collective whole?

Greg: Yes. This idea is at least partially influenced by what astro-physicists refer to as the “three body problem”. When you have two bodies – in their case, planetary bodies – you can easily calculate, and predict their relation to one another. The moment you add a third the problem becomes intractable. But at some point such systems become self-organizing – in a way that scientists understand but cannot predict to any certainty. That is order out of chaos, the idea of emergent organization. I believe that the mind, the self, and therefore our ‘sense’ of identity is such a self-organizing system. So, I tend to insist that at least three versions of a subject be used in the imagery as a way of exploring the idea that identities are emergent properties.

There is only so much you can bring to the image as a viewer. In your artist talks, however, the audience learns a lot about the photographs’ background story. How important is it that the photograph stands on its own?

Greg: At one level these photographs – any work of art for that matter – must be able to stand on their own, if only in the sense that they, hopefully, survive their creator. At another level no work ever does. Art can only exist, I would argue, because we are social animals. No work of art is a blank slate to which a viewer brings his/her unique perspective. When a visitor looks at one of these images, how does the narrative that I and my subject put into the image communicate and interact with the narrative that the audience constructs? In this way the series becomes a microcosm, a laboratory experiment, in the power of an image-as-mediator between personal and social narratives of identity. Telling the back-story to any specific image only takes on importance as a way to evaluate the level of connection between those two forms of narrative.

In the academic arts, there is no specific truth. You once said: ‘if there is no external truth, why bother with it?’ Is there an objective truth?

Greg: The idea of there being no truth, which as you said is closely tied with academic arts today, is most recently influenced by postmodernist ideology, which in turn can trace its beliefs to the Idealism of Continental Philosophy, and ultimately back to the Sophists of ancient Greece. But it is Descartes who introduced us to a crucial supporting argument that has been particularly damaging. He argued that since our senses can be fooled they cannot be trusted. Although no one would disagree with the premise of his argument his conclusion is at best faulty. Yes, our senses can be fooled but for the most part they are remarkably good at connecting us directly with a very real world. In fact, it is that sense of truth – that we all intuitively experience – that photography is so very good at revealing to us. And this relationship between our innate expectation of objective truth – of perceiving this external reality as it really is – and the unique ability of photography to undermine that expectation when it is seen to ‘fool’ us is at the heart of how the “Who?” images speak: on the one hand they feed into our expectations of objective reality, at the same time they represent a more subjective interpretation of that same reality. We are left with a paradox. Our solution can be to either simply damn the images as fakes, or to start going down a new path: that truth is neither simple nor solely external: understanding/unravelling truth(s) involves both the subjective and objective, is both external and internal simultaneously.

The different images in every single one of your photographs connect because ‘they underline what connects people’. Why do you – as an artist – try to find those connections?

Greg: This ‘why?’ is simultaneously the simplest and most complex and fundamental issue underlying all of my artistic research. The simple answer is this: I truly believe that these ‘connections’ are the root of what makes human beings human. The complexity comes in when one tries to unravel how that is so, how the artist in me can reveal/communicate that and, most importantly, what that has to do with personal and social identity formation and expression. During my time as an art student I became very much aware that current academic thinking on identity in the arts actively denies underlying universals, reviles the very notion of anything smacking of innateness.

Would you say that you now better understand the physiological and evolutionary basis of your neurological condition?

Greg: Indeed, I do. And I also better understand the profound paradox that my very existence creates for postmodernist thinking on identity. I am exploring these connections because I see them as a way out of the postmodernist paradox I, and those like me represent! I am searching for them as an artist because those influenced by postmodern thinking inherently mistrust scientific evidence. If I can make them real to my audience as an artist, I can perhaps provide a more palatable vehicle for renewed reflection on identity issues.

“There ought to be important overlaps of narrative that viewers make up for themselves with what the artist wants to say, regardless of cultural background.”

You do repeats over months. You assemble everything at the scene. You position your camera for hours in the same spot. Can you give us a quick summary regarding the technical set-up for a shoot?

Greg: I assume you are referring to the entire process not just the shoot. Making a “Who?” image is a three-step process, it involves: talking, shooting, and composing. The talking consists of a series of conversations with my subjects. In the process I start assembling a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in my mind made up of pieces without fixed shapes. This is where the notion of repetition becomes important. As my collaborators talk about themselves, the picture in my mind starts to coalesce, in a way analogous to the ‘order-out-of-chaos’ notion. At some point we come to the collective realization that we have a ‘picture’ that is a good representation of that person’s self-image – or at least as much as (s)he is willing to share.

Is this is the point when you prepare to shoot the picture that is fully formed in your head?

Greg: Correct. You might say this act of photographing becomes a way of embodying – and thus blending – a sense of subjective phenomenal experience with its objective counterpart. The actual process of photographing is usually the least of the three steps – one reason why we earlier discussed my sense that the camera is secondary. Shooting takes an average of 2-4 hours. I then proceed to the third step where I take all the photographic fragments and compose them on my computer in photoshop. In some ways this is my favourite part of the process. The final act of this step is to present this image back to my subject. The reaction at this stage is crucial to the survival of the image: if it works for my subject it gets added to the series, if it doesn’t work then we either move on or try again.

I was amazed to hear that you are colour-blind. For this particular series, you spend thousands of hours working with Photoshop. Tell us a bit more about how the mathematical representation of colours has helped you to work as an artist dealing with colour-blindness.

Greg: This could be a whole interview topic all its own. Being colour-blind, or chromatically challenged as I like to say, is similar to having Asperger’s in the sense that it is a genetically determined and thus innate aspect of who I am. My Asperger’s, and to a lesser extent my colour-blindness, have taught me that I cannot just ignore the very real limitations these condition place on me – both personally and socially – but they have also shown that “limitations” are not absolutes. I now believe that it is the very fact of Asperger’s that lets me see my social surroundings in a unique and revealing way. Similarly, I have found that although my colour sense makes it very difficult to ‘create’ colour and colour combinations from scratch, I can work with colour.

Ever since you were 14 years old, you used to work in a darkroom. In 2006, you went back to school after deciding to become a full-time artist. Participating in a workshop with the Canadian nature photographer Freeman Patterson has changed your creative direction forever. Why?

Greg: Freeman provided me with something I had been missing. Like most artists, I can cite numerous artists in my field who have influenced my work. For instance, in my teens Ansel Adams woke me up to the need for technical expertise both behind the camera and in the darkroom. Jerry Uelsmann showed me that photography was also capable of revealing the inner, phenomenal world, making it as ‘real’ as the strict representationalism of, say, an Adams. What Freeman brought to photography, to my conception of what photography can do, is a sense of humanity.

Daniela Herold:  Greg Klassen, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with my readers.

Greg: No, thank you, Daniela. This has been very stimulating for me not least because it has encouraged me to reevaluate many thoughts and ideas that have been influencing my work, in some cases nagging me at the edge of consciousness.

About Greg Klassen

abstracting greg

Artist website www.two-ravens-studio.ca