The Beauty of Life

A solo exhibition of new works by Elaine Waisglass

There’s nothing new under the sun, as Shakespeare reminds us in his sonnet, to take a backward look, some 500 years, to rediscover the teachings of the old world.

This photography series, The Beauty of Life, takes a backward look through centuries of art history and finds thematic  resonance in the forgotten concepts,  theories and techniques long since abandoned. The essential themes of this body of work include the inherent beauty within the geometry of nature and the use of natural proportion.

Among the artists who inspired this work is Claude Monet, whose water lily paintings celebrate the beauty of the flowers that grew in his garden. Monet’s paintings inspired me to consider taking a profound look at the flowers growing in my own garden - their complex geometrical structure,  their energy vibration that all living things share.

Other outstanding figures from art history with a strong influence on The Beauty of Life include 19th century art critic John Ruskin and the philosophic leader of the PreRaphaelite Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris.  Ruskin wrote “The most beautiful lines derive from nature, and he urged artists to create paintings that recall photographic detail, and photographs that recall paintings.  Meanwhile, Morris promoted the movement’s central theme: a quest for beauty, quickened by a sense of approaching death.”  Morris and Ruskin’s influence  is apparent.  My photographs are painterly and each of the still life pictures features a vase with cut flowers,  implying a literary reference to the movement’s central theme,  as the very act of cutting beautiful flowers begins their inevitable death. These flowers come from a garden I designed within the Arts and Crafts philosophy of landscape, as set out in William Robinson’s book, The Wild Garden, published in 1860.

This garden changes from week to week,  as the seasons unfold, and the resulting photographs follow the blooms as they arrive.  For example, at winter’s end, it’s time to brush aside the melting snow to find the Helleborus flowers.  By April, Narcissus and Magnolia buds are opening. In May, it’s time to plant vegetables and herbs in the kitchen  garden and there are blossoms on the cherry and apple trees. Meanwhile Bluebells, Clematis, Redbud, and Tulips begin to open. In June, the rose garden is in full flush and the peony border comes alive with a week of gloriousburgundy, pink and white  flowers. July brings the Lilies, followed by Hibiscus in August with Japanese Anemone following in September. In October the main event is the kitchen garden harvest.  In November, it’s time to rake colorful leaves that fall from the oak trees as winter approaches. It’s the proverbial circle of life which gives hope to winter’s end, signaled by the return of Helleborus peeking out from under the snow.

Each photograph begins with a walk through the garden, scissors and a vase in hand, in search of the most  beautiful blooms. Photographing often takes place outdoors in natural light, and if the weather cooperates, with  the sky acting as the best possible reflector of light. My intention is to capture the light that defines the shape and textures of the flowers.

So as not to leave the impression that The Beauty of Life is all about art history lessons, it should be mentioned that the photographs also embrace contemporary high tech. I do my own printing, working with digital computer-generated print equipment. Controlling the flow of ink and the colors is an important part of the creation of these photographs, giving them a more painterly aspect. The pigment, ink, and Arches watercolor paper are archival and acid free.  Each of the works is a limited edition of 12 prints.

Elaine Waisglass, March 13, 2014, Toronto


A Year in My Arts & Crafts Garden

A book and series of photographs and videos by Elaine Waisglass

The book and photographic series A Year in My Arts & Crafts Garden began seventeen years ago with the rescue of an unwanted, century-old Toronto house in dire need of restoration from development demolition.  The celebrated architect was Eden Smith (1859-1949), a British follower of William Morris (1834 –1896), international leader of the Arts and Crafts movement.  I quickly learned that the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement required a unity of design for house and garden.  Further research showed that Eden Smith had designed the house with unity in mind.  That settled it.  I decided to become the garden designer for this 3-acre lot and to work within the limits of Arts and Crafts principles.  It was an artistic challenge equivalent to what a poet faces while writing a sonnet.  I had to keep within the rules while creating an original work of art.

As I worked I grew completely enchanted with the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement and I fully embraced those rules as laid out by William Morris and landscape architects William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and art critic John Ruskin.

To document my progress I took photographs.  Over time I upgraded the quality of my camera, lenses and printer until I was producing prints that were works of art on archival paper with archival inks. 

William Robinson wrote in his prescriptive and detailed book The Wild Garden, that a garden should be wild at the perimeter and formal at the house.  Inside the perimeter the space should be divided into garden rooms (including a kitchen garden to feed the household and a perennial garden to fill flower vases ).   William Morris published books through  Kelmscott Press which promoted the defining concern of the Arts and Crafts movement: the mutable moment arising from the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death.  Morris joined Ruskin in saying that the greatest creator of beauty is nature and a central characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement is a quest for natural beauty. 

Their quest for beauty became my own in both the garden design and photographs.  Noticing the beauty of the rhythm of the year’s cycle became the dominant theme of my work.  Within the garden’s design I sought to create memorable garden events that would show up each year.  Each March, for example, there would be the glorious sight of 10,000 daffodils naturalized in the lawn.  Each April magnolia trees would blossom along the length of my driveway.  May would bring lilacs.   June would feature hundreds of peonies.  Every year the kitchen garden would feed the household from the first spear of asparagus in April to the last sprig of parsley in January. 

I take photographs at all times of the year to capture this passage of time.  Throughout spring and summer I gather flowers, place them in vases and bring them into the house to create still life images.  I don’t arrange the flowers much.  I just cut the stems to one length and let the flowers fall where they want to be.

My photographs are painterly and before I shoot I have in mind the light and colors I want.  I set the vase on a window sill or on a table near a window.  The window is my main source of light.  I also make use of whatever ambient light is provided by the room’s chandeliers or table lights.  If the sun goes behind a cloud and if there isn’t enough light to capture an image I will add a light.

A most compelling reason for creating these photographs is winter.  When the garden is covered by snow and I’m longing to see flowers again I bring out the photographs and start checking the seed catalogues to plan what to plant next.

The accompanying book - artist-printed and artesan-bound - explains the Arts and Crafts principles and how the garden was designed.  There are even recipes that I created for the food harvested in the garden plus a bibliography for anyone who wants to read further.

Elaine Waisglass, November 27, 2011, Toronto