Toronto artist’s digitally enhanced images of flowers from her garden are on display at Roberts Gallery until April 24
It was a painting by Claude Monet that changed the life of Elaine Waisglass, the Toronto photography artist whose stunning exhibition, The Beauty of Life, opens Thursday at the Roberts Gallery.
She saw it in 1998 when the Art Gallery of Ontario featured an exhibition of Impressionist masterpieces from London’s Courtauld Collection.
“It was such a simple painting: a vase of flowers, done with simple brush strokes,” she explained the other day, “but it was the most breathtaking image I had ever seen and it stayed with me for a long time.”
In the Monet tradition, Waisglass was already obsessed with gardens, especially since the mid-1990s, when she and her husband — film animation mogul Michael Hirsh — bought and moved into a large house in Wychwood Park surrounded by a garden.
Both the house and the garden. neglected for some years, needed to be reinvented. Waisglass approached the challenge under the influence of Britain’s 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement.
She had started as a visual artist, trained at OCAD, majoring in sculpture and fine arts. But then, as a young mother with two children, Waisglass spent years working in radio, TV and film as a writer and producer. Still, she always knew she wanted to go back to being a visual artist.
“It was restoring this Arts and Crafts house that brought me back to that place in my heart,” she says.
In working on both the house and the garden, Waisglass was influenced by William Morris and his ideas. So was Eden Smith, the architect who designed the rambling 1910 house Waisglass and Hirsh call home.
One guiding principle: house and garden should be integrated. Another: the garden should not be ornate or artificial but should look as if nature could have planned it.
After developing a beautiful garden, Waisglass set about photographing her favourite flowers, after marrying them to vases she loved collecting.
The vases provide a sculptural element. But perhaps what gives her images their special glowing quality is the way Waisglass combines photography, sculpture, design theory, gardening and art history with the latest miracles of technology: enhancing the images with an array of digital tools that occupy her studio on the second floor of the house.
When she started photographing her garden, her goal was simply to document the history of the property. But after dipping into the works of Victorian philosopher John Ruskin (who had an influence on the Arts and Crafts movement), she recalls, “I began to think of ways to make photos painterly.”
A eureka moment came with the discovery of the idea that the quest for beauty is quickened by a sense of impending death.
“If you photograph flowers, you should realize that the minute you cut the stems, you are hastening their death,” she explains. “They are at the height of their beauty. When you capture it, you know it won’t be there forever.”
So before cutting those flowers, she would have her camera all set up and fresh water in the vase she had chosen. Then, for about 15 minutes, “I would shoot like crazy, taking maybe 100 pictures of each flower.”
Next came the process of enhancing the images with the latest digital tricks, only recently available to artists, using digital brushes and digital paint to express her thoughts, emotions and impressions.
The result: 12 exquisite images on view for the next few weeks at the Roberts Gallery and then transferring in May to First Canadian Place as part of the Contact photography festival.
“Some people like to soup up a car,” quips Waisglass. “I do it with my computer. I’m sort of a geek. I’m good at pushing the limits.”
Elaine Waisglass: The Beauty of Life is at Roberts Gallery, 641 Yonge St., through April 24 and at First Canadian Place April 28 to June 20.
Martha Uniacke Breen, Special to National Post June 21, 2012
Photographer Elaine Waisglass’s rambling garden is a delightfully informal escape from the pressures of modern urban life.
Set in the leafy heart of Wychwood Park, one of the city’s most picturesque and architecturally consistent neighbourhoods, photographer Elaine Waisglass’s rambling garden is both a delightfully informal escape from the pressures of modern urban life, and a faithful representation of the principles of Arts & Crafts design — one entirely suited to the historical context of the neighbourhood.
Still Life: Gorgeous peonies!
An exhibition of Ms. Waisglass’s photographs of her garden taken at various times of year, on display till July 25 at the Edward Day Gallery on Queen Street West, captures a series of still-lifes and garden views that are deceptively simple in their composition. One of the most engaging is not a photograph at all, but a video projection of tree peonies in a vase on a windowsill that appears at first to be a single image — until one begins to detect the slight fluttering of a petal, the shadow of someone passing in the street outside, and in a corner of the window frame, a tiny spider constructing a web.
Though she majored in sculpture at OCAD, Ms. Waisglass’s avocation as a photographer grew out of a desire to document the progress of life in the garden, and to guide her and her landscape gardener, Cynthia McCarthy of McCarthy and McCarthy Fine Gardens, in making plans for each successive season. But quickly, she began to realize not only the enormous pleasure to be derived, on grey mid-winter days, from lush pictures of the garden at its height — but also that there was a clear connection between sculpture and photography. “In both cases, you’re working with light — bending and shaping it to create effects,” Ms. Waisglass observes. “Light creates shape, and as a photographer you’re constantly aware of where the light is falling.”
Still Life: Hydrangeas from the garden.
The garden has several features that make it eminently suitable to faithful reproduction of the ideas of landscape designer William Robinson — who, through his book, The Wild Garden, was to the English country garden what Arts & Crafts founder William Morris was to houses and interiors. The first is that, at three acres, the garden has the elbow room needed to create an authentic English country garden. The other feature was Ms. Waisglass herself, who with her husband Michael Hirsh, had the patience and care needed to rescue the house and garden, the oldest in the neighbourhood and perhaps the most historic, from the brink of neglect.
“The house had stood empty for over three years, and had fallen almost into neglect when we took it over,” Ms. Waisglass recalls over lemonade on the verandah one recent hot afternoon. “At first, we didn’t know very much about Arts & Crafts, so we did a lot of research into the movement, and into Eden Smith, who designed the house and garden. And at the same time, I began to look into Arts & Crafts gardens and discovered Robinson’s book; it became the Bible of this garden.”
The layout of the Arts & Crafts garden, Ms.Waisglass explains, starts with a semi-wild hedgerow at the perimeter — so that from the road outside, someone walking along should feel they are strolling in a forest, rather than a suburban neighbourhood. “Then as you get closer to the house,” she says, “it gradually becomes more formal, with a series of garden ‘rooms,’ each with a certain theme, a time of year when it’s at its height, and a sense of progression through the seasons of the year.”
Still Life: Japanese anemones in an Etruscan vase.
William Morris’s famous dictum, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not believe to be both beautiful and useful,” applies equally to the garden as well: Along with a well-stocked kitchen garden, cutting gardens should furnish a steady supply of blooms for the house, and the garden should bloom in waves that continue from first thaw to last frost. In keeping with this harmony between house and landscape, both should be designed to work together; thus, windows in an Arts & Crafts house are placed for maximum enjoyment of the garden and the garden in turn should provide a series of lovely views and “pictures.”
The garden is also completely self-sustaining and organic. Sometimes this can lead to some interesting discoveries, such as the time several of the stately old oaks down at the foot of the garden came down with a fungal disease. “The tree specialist told us he didn’t really have any alternative but to use a chemical spray to get rid of the fungus. But I wanted to at least try to find an alternative. So I went to the health food store and asked if they had any natural remedies for fungal infections in people, and they did: grapefruit seed extract. So we ordered several gallons of it and tried spraying it on the trees. It worked perfectly!”
Like all dedicated gardeners, as we stroll through the garden, Ms. Waisglass apologizes modestly for what’s not quite in bloom yet or just finished blooming, but there’s plenty of colour somewhere in the garden throughout the growing season (the Holy Grail of the English country garden).
“One of the central ideas of the Arts & Crafts movement is the connection between beauty and death, the idea that everything fades and is reborn. So I continually try to incorporate that idea of fragility and the circle of life, both here in the garden and in my photographs.”