a leading line...

From my art history studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, I’ve found it useful to break down my own artwork following a set of elements Dr. Dorothy Barenscott teaches her students to do, not only with the artworks they are studying, but with their own artwork as well, where, “…at the most basic and fundamental level art historians routinely study the intersection of three key elements of visual art: FORM, CONTENT, and CONTEXT” (Barenscott).

a leading line (1/5)

Formally, a leading line is an environmental earthwork art installation created on November 14, 2018, consisting of leaves that were arranged to lay flat on the surface of the side of the first flight of stairs, forming a straight line, approximately five to six inches wide, alongside the wall from the bottom of the first stairwell located in the newest part of the Fir Building, up to the top of it. The leaves in and of themselves served as the primary symbol of the artwork and were applied to the flat cement surface of the stairwell while they were still wet. While the leaves remained wet, they appeared as a flat, unified whole, as though they were painted directly onto the stairwell itself.

As the leaves dried, they lifted from the surface and the different rough textures of each individual leaves became apparent. The leaves remained installed in this location from Wednesday, November 14 until Tuesday, November 20 when they were most likely removed by the University’s cleaning staff. Many environmental earthwork art pieces are usually temporary and are not meant to last. To this end, had the piece been installed on an outdoor stairwell, and if it had rained during its placement their, the piece would have likely lasted longer as it would not have dried up as easily. The timing of when this specific project was made also helped as it was only possible to do this specific project when the leaves were falling from the trees. Had I attempted to create this project even a week later, there might not have been any leaves left to gather and use in a work like this.

Furthermore, the placement of the line was such that it didn’t necessarily stand out to those going up and down the stairwell, rather it was meant to exist within the periphery of their observation. The lighting of the stairwell, as dependant upon whether it was sunny or cloudy out, as well as on the time of day, helped to also play a role in how the leaves stood out to individuals walking up and down the stairwell. Bright, sunny daylight coming into the space from the windows of the stairwell seemed to help hide the installation, as the interior space became somewhat darker and the piece almost seemed backlit by the outside light. The effect of the daylight on the artwork cast the piece in a kind of silhouette – like how a subject being photographed can appear as a silhouette when the lighting behind a subject is too bright. When it got cloudy outside, or when it became nighttime, where the daylight coming into the space was replaced by the darkness, this allowed the line to stand out a lot more easily as it was illuminated by the artificial, fluorescent lighting of the building’s stairwell.

Traditionally, environmental earthwork art pieces are created in outdoor locations using natural materials (such as, but not limited to: rocks, stones, leaves, grasses, sand, dirt and clays) that are found nearby. With this piece however, I specifically chose an indoor location to serve as the place where the work would live, in order to facilitate my desire to bring the outside nature into an inside space, thereby softening and bringing life to that space. As such, since the piece is installed inside, this earthwork acts as an intervention of sorts for those who notice it – an installation that helps breakup the banal, cold, drab, mundane, and rather stale confines of the enclosed institutional concrete stairwell.

Finally, the colour of the piece was created by using the natural colours of the leaves collected from the ground, which had already changed colours from their original natural shades of green that they held during the spring and summer. The leaves had fallen from the trees that lined the small grassy area between east end of the Fir Building on the Surrey Campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the campus’s parking lot, as seen outlined by the red rectangle in the following photograph:

kpu-map.jpg

The found leaves were various shades of browns, reds, dark maroons, and a few yellows. Had this project been done a few weeks earlier, I might have been able to utilize a wider range of colour. Nevertheless, I was able to create a slight gradation between the colours from light to dark and back again from dark to light was formed and provided a bit of variety in the movement of the piece overall as the line moved up each step.

On the power of an awkward silence...

On July 11, 2018, I took part in a presentation on comedy and we started our presentation with a two-minute silence, which created an awkwardness to everything and a lot of nervous laughter. Following the presentation, I decided to craft this journal post as a brief overview of some of the best examples of how silence has been used in comedy and comedic performances.

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Nature's Layered Geometry

This past week I spent time at a small part of Elgin Creek, which winds its way through South Surrey, British Columbia. This specific area is actually near my Mom's house, which wasn't far from where I spent most of my time as a teenager often walking or biking through different paths that line the creek. Over the weekend I spent time clearing blackberry bushes and other weeds from the roadside near this part of the creek. It used to be clear when I was a teenager, but over the years became so overgrown that last week you couldn't even see the street sign that identified 31a Avenue turning into Northcrest Drive. It also provided a good cover for youth to drink and homeless to camp in the creek bed. And finally, the mess of bush also became a spot for people walking on the sidewalk to deposit trash, treating the bushes as nature's garbage receptacle which just isn't cool. As I peeled back the layers of the brush, I found many plastic candy wrappers, lids for coffee cups, some compact discs, a bicycle wheel and many plastic doggy poop bags, as partly seen here in this photo from Saturday, June 9, 2018: 

Debris found in the bushes

Debris found in the bushes

I didn't plan on the order in which the garbage fell, it just sort of ended up splayed around the discarded bicycle tire. I spent about two days clearing the area, and this stuff was stuff I found on the first day. In an odd sense it feels like an artwork in and of itself, hailing to the traditions in sculpture and painting where found objects can become art objects. It also harkens back to the old saying of how one man's trash can be another man's treasure. In Andy Goldsworthy's new film, Leaning Into The Wind, Goldsworthy describes this idea as representing "...two different ways of looking at the world," which Goldsworthy describes as being "...the beauty of art that makes you step aside off of the normal way of walking or looking."

With the area cleared, the side of the road now looks a lot cleaner and you can now see down into the creek bed easily.  I did this not just for a cleaner visual aesthetic but to also When I took breaks during the work, I kept looking down at the creek, listening to its flowing water, birds chirping and the leaves rustling. I remembered hanging out and exploring the creek bed as a teenager, including one time when I walked it from 32nd Avenue up to 24th Avenue. And it's this mix odd mix of remembering and reminiscing that made me decide to venture into the creek bed when my work was done, to spend time there reflecting and building my small project.

I loved how Goldsworthy is able to spend a lot of time in a few specific places, both within the urban and rural landscapes that surrounds him in his local community. The film documents his time spent in these places and also revisits places he spent time at in the past and I enjoyed watching this interplay between the actions of the present with memories of the past. As I walked into the bed from the roadside, over the branches and leaves I'd cleared and spread out over the ground to decompose, I was amazed at the landscape, how the creek undulated and flowed unencumbered through a layered mess of geometry - curves, rocks, fallen and decomposing trees. I was amazed at how similar it was to the places Goldsworthy explores half a world away.

One spot in particular appeared to be a wall of wood, but still the creek had found a way under that diversion and kept on flowing. The mess of branches and the large tree that had fallen and likely once blocked the creek, causing it to alter its path and dig under it amazed me. In many ways it felt as though the mess could represent the challenges we face in life, and in particular the challenges I've been facing as well. We each chose how we deal with these challenges and we can either let them bury us under or we can find ways in which to bury under them and push through them to the other side.

For awhile, I simply walked around this area until I decided to start picking up some of the branches that lay all around me. At first, I only touched branches that were already there, a little further away from the ones I had added to the area on the weekend. Some of these were in varying states of decay. Some were strong but many were weak. Some had moss or other moulds and fungus growing on them. At times I was a bit afraid to touch them, but after awhile I just instinctively started to grab them without any kind of forethought. In the moment, I had let go. So I simply piled them on top of each other, on top of the main log and on top of the side of the creek bed closest to me. It felt natural to do this. Eventually the shape of an isosceles triangle started to suggest itself, and as I thought about the triangle, I thought about the natural strength inherent in it. The shape mirrored the flow of the creek, which flowed from a wider area to a more narrow area, mimicking the shape of a triangle or an arrow as it pushed under the debris. In some ways the creek was leaning into the wind by its very act of pushing through. Just like how Goldsworthy has done and just like we do in our lives. My layered geometric shape lay above the creek but as I created my Earthwork I also found myself placing the larger sticks I found right into the water and allowed them to enter into the top of the triangle, while not quite reaching the other side of it, as illustrated here:

A photo of my in progress Earthwork...

A photo of my in progress Earthwork...

I didn't want it to connect, I wanted it to give the suggestion of connecting, of reaching towards each other but also providing a space for escape. I also found myself subconsciously wanting to mimic how the water flowed and passed through a seemingly immovable object:

My Earthwork - finished - for now...

My Earthwork - finished - for now...

I was also attracted to the idea of layering an ordered stack of sticks onto layers of unordered stacks of wood, sticks and debris that had built up in the area over time. There are so many layers to everything we do in life, and there's so many layers to what can be found in nature and in our man made environments. And I also liked how the finished object pointed towards the direction the creek was going in, and just how far the creek continued in the distance (which I'm not sure I was able to capture very well in my photographs):

My Earthwork - finished, for now...

My Earthwork - finished, for now...

I also like how Goldsworthy is able to document his work both photographically and through a visual medium such as film or video. To this end, I shot my own short video, which I think helps provide a better context and feel for the area I played in, including all of its various sounds from the water flowing to the birds chirping, frogs croaking and even to the sounds of my own footsteps crunching the leaves and twigs on the ground below me as well as of a plane flying somewhere high overhead:

Finally, as I left the space, back through the way I came into it, I stopped and turned around and found I could see it through the leaves from the road. Here's my attempt of photographing what I saw, and I apologize for it being a bit blurry as it was getting late and the light was darker and shooting through the trees made it difficult to focus in on my Earthwork in the low light:

My Earthwork as seen from the roadside...

My Earthwork as seen from the roadside...

I do like how it's not completely visible from the road, you can only catch glimpses of it through the brush and the Earthwork is not totally visible in its whole from any particular spot on the road. I'd like to revisit it and perhaps add to it, build it up more and layer it more to make it seem a bit more imposing or even noticeable from the road. Finally, I like the idea of how this could be there for awhile, at least until some teenager comes and kicks it aside or in the winter or spring, when the creek water is higher, it simply washes away like one of Goldsworthy's pieces. What will become of it is ultimately a mystery, and I've found that creating Earthworks teaches an artist how to let go. This can certainly be seen in LEANING INTO THE WIND as there is no way any artist can control an Earthwork once you leave it (or even when making it), and I've found that can be both terrifying and liberating at the same time. 

Ron Long and the art of flower photography

Tonight I attended the first Thursday Night Artist Talk of 2018, as hosted by held the Surrey Art Gallery Association at the Surrey Art Gallery. These talks take place on the first Thursday of each month, and the Association’s website describes the events as being a:

...monthly program of illustrated talks and demonstrations by local and regional artists. The talks provide an opportunity for artists to expose their work and ideas to the public, and offer the public a chance to see work in a variety of media by artists in their communities.

February's featured artist was Ron Long, whose discussion was titled: The Art, Technique and Challenge of Flower Photography. The description of the artist talk read:

It takes more than a pretty flower to take a good flower picture. Join professional wildlife photographer Ron Long for an illustrated talk to learn tips to improve your own pictures, whether you've been snapping away for years or are just starting out.

The presentation took place in a small conference room of the Surrey Art Gallery. About 35-40 people were in attendance, seated in comfy black stackable chairs facing a large white screen onto which Long's images were projected.

On Photography...

Long began his talk with a brief introduction to himself. He had been a photographer with the Simon Fraser University Biology Department for over thirty-six years before he retired in 2004. And during this time, Long developed his passion for photographing flowers, something he started doing in the 1970s, first with flowers you might find around the house and shortly thereafter with wild flowers.

Long finds that one's photography skills improve as one takes more photographs. "My objective is to make the best pretty pictures of wild flowers that I can." His experience has led him to always want to "...find the best option, as the best shot might not always be obvious. Take the time until you get the shot." For Long, this is particularly important with rare, hard to find flowers:

The more rare the plant, the more time you need to take in photographing it. Take lots and lots of photos. Ask yourself, how can it be better? Always look for different options... explore all the way around a flower, from every angle you can think of. Keep photographing until you can't think what might make a better photo.

For Long, the most interesting compositions are ones where:

  • time is taken to find the best shot;
  • the flower fills the frame, eliminating most empty space; and
  • the most interesting part of the plant is isolated.

In terms of dealing with the composition of a photograph's background, Long discussed how he works to ensure that:

  • any distracting elements in the background are removed;
  • the background is blurred in order to make the flowers look sharper; but
  • allowance is made to let some background details pop (as you don't always want to go for a completely black background).

Throughout his talk, Long emphasized again and again how a photographer should always ask how a plant can be photographed from more interesting angles and viewpoints.

Camera Settings...

A correct combination of exposure settings – shutter speed, lens aperture, and ISO sensitivity – will give bright, contrasting pictures. Long noted how he likes to primarily use an 85mm macro lens, although he does use other lenses from time to time. Long never uses a polarizer on flowers but does use them when photographing other subjects. Finally, Long noted that he never uses vibration reduction as he finds it doesn't work well with macro lenses. 

Long noted that he uses shutter priority as "...a proper shutter speed will give you the beautiful photos you desire." In terms of lighting, Long revealed how he tries to keep this consideration as simple as possible. Long doesn't use any reflectors or any other lighting devices as they are difficult to deal with when you're by yourself out in the field. Long sometimes uses a built in flash to help make the flower visually pop, but noted that it must be balanced with the available ambient light. Sometimes he will turn the camera upside down to help aim the camera's built in flash to the areas where he wants it. Long never uses a ring flash as it can produce a ring of white light on his subjects. Long also described how he never uses exposure compensation, choosing instead to expose for the lightest, brightest petal in the photo frame to ensure he captures a detail throughout the image.

Long generally sets his ISO at 400, but if it's nice and bright he select an ISO of 100 as he never uses auto ISO. "With today's cameras you can go up to ISO 9000 or higher and still get good results." 

Calochortus howellii

Research...

Before heading out to an area to photograph, Long noted that he will research what kind of flowers might be found in an area he is visiting  so he will know what to look for, especially when it comes to searching for rare flowers. He always knows the names of the kinds of flowers he might encounter as he's found that helps dictate the kind of compositions he will create (his examples included flowers known as a steer's head, and another known as a monkey orchid). For Long, over time similar types of plants from different parts of the world make for an interesting series that he's always looking to expand.

Delphinium nudicaule

On Computers...

Long approaches his photography in such a way as to produce images that require little to no post processing, "...so I don't have to do anything on the computer... on a recent trip to Africa I shot over 10,000 photos but none needed any post processing as I made sure I had what I needed in camera, especially making sure I had a uniform exposure throughout, as you must have something you can work with."

When Long does use the computer he only does so to crop any distractions that may be taking away from the main subject. He also crops to create a panorama that again helps to provide more focus for the main subject. But when cropping, Long noted that he only crops to either the top or bottom of a photograph or to the sides, but never to both. Nevertheless, Long continued to emphasize that life is much easier if you can do all of this in camera.

Finally, Long discussed how he has adopted photo stitching techniques to combine, for example, four rows of ten exposures from a telephoto lens in order to make a large photograph of certain scenes. 

Closing thoughts...

Long encouraged his audience to always have fun. "Enjoy every second of it. Stay with it and keep exploring a flower until you can't think of anything that can be done. The longer you spend increases the possibility of producing interesting photographs." Long ended his talk with a brief question and answer period, which allowed the audience to ask him questions on a range of topics from technical to creative considerations, from appropriate clothing in the field to dealing with changing weather conditions. Finally, Long noted that he also photographs landscapes in addition to florals.

Overall, it was a very interesting artist's talk that had a strong focus on a very specific subject matter. I personally haven't photographed many flowers but I do try to photograph the various things I plant in my own yard, so his talk definitely gave me new ideas for how I approach that. His thoughts on composition will also be helpful as I have taken photos of flowers in the pttast with the intent of drawing or painting them later in my studio, using my photos as a reference. If I can ultimately produce more interesting compositions in camera, it should translate to more interesting compositions for my drawing and painting. Long’s enthusiastic passion for flower and wildlife photography as well as with travelling was contagious and I found I wanted to start photographing again right away. And I would love to hear him talk again!