Thursday, February 21, 2008

Houses of All Sorts

Since 1986, the artist Robert Amos has written a weekly art column for the Times Colonist of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. During that time, he has interviewed many of the leading artists of Western Canada in their homes and studios, taking pictures that he later incorporated into his own works of art. In his new book collecting his memories of those visits, Artists in Their Studios: Where Art Is Born, Amos combines his artistic insights with his fascinating photos, some of which he has turned into photomontages such as that of the attic of Emily Carr’s attic studio (above) in the home she called “The House of All Sorts.” “My style of photomontage involves a mosaic of photographed images, pasted onto cardboard and worked over with paint,” Amos explains. Amos’ book brings you into the houses of all sorts of artists, revealing the uniqueness of each imaginative soul as much as the passion to create that they all share in common.

Carr, who passed away in 1945, is the only case in which Amos never met the artist personally. He retains a sense of intimacy, however, by recounting his feelings while entering that attic with the native North American Indian motifs on the ceiling, which Carr used for inspiration. Many of the other artists Amos profiles have died since he first met them, giving much of the book an elegiac feel. Fortunately, the creative energy of those who remain and populate the photographs as electrically as their artworks more than makes up for those who have passed away.

Amos speaks with great reverence for the major figures of Canadian art, especially Carr and E.J. Hughes (in another collage by Amos above). Writing of the deceased Hughes work, Amos is at his most lyrical: “The paintings are utterly representational and speak of something beyond photography. There is memory and experience encoded in every brush stroke, heart and soul in every carefully considered wave crest and tree limb. There is no haste or shortcut. Without irony or anxiety, he fully conveyed the innocent joy he felt in a perching seagull or a flag blowing in the breeze.” Amos connects with many of these artists on a deep, deep level. When writing of the portraitist Myfanwy Pavelic, Amos captures her very private nature not just in words but also in his pictures of her working in her studio, showing her far in the distance, like a delicate bird not to be disturbed.

Each encounter is as unique as the artist encountered. “To visit [Jerry] Pethick and sit at their picnic table under the apple tree was an unforgettable experience,” Amos writes, “like sharing home-brew and speculative philosophy with Confucius or Socrates.” Pethick’s straw-bale studio, warmed by water-filled propane tanks stacked against the back wall to capture solar heat, becomes a modern-day Thoreau’s cabin in a Canadian Walden. The gallery-store-garden-home-studio of artist couple Grant Leier and Nixie Barton is just one example of these exuberantly living spaces of art. Amos even includes his own studio, which he shares with his artist wife Sarah and calls “the epitome of ordinariness,” which is, of course, the epitome of false modesty.

Canada’s diverse ethnic makeup comes into play in Amos’ selection of artists. Some come to Canada to escape oppression, such as Martin Honisch, who fled Hungary in 1957 under the threat of Russian invasion. Photographs of artist Wayne Ngan’s lily pond outside his ceramic studio seamlessly transplant elements of the Far East to the Canadian West. Zhang Bu (whose Water Village Under the Rosy Color appears above) tells his story of working as an electrician in his native China until one day knocking at the door of a prestigious art school and asking for admission, launching a career that would later see him emigrate to Canada.

Readers should come away with a great sense of place and its role in art from Artists in Their Studios—not only the enclosed space of the studio but also the natural beauty of the western region of Canada. Works such as E.J. Hughes’ Taylor Bay, Gabriola Island (above) hint at the spectacle of nature surrounding these artists and its power to inspire them. “If I lived in New York, I’d be trying to keep away from people and I’d probably paint abstracts,” Ted Harrison tells Amos in his interview. “But I think the world needs more humanism.” Artists in Their Studios gives the art world the humanism it needs, reaching into the places where art is literally born and lifting the shroud of mystery often hanging between the general public and the individual artist. “Meeting these artists has been a gift,” Amos says in his introduction. Through his writing and expressive photomontages, Amos passes that gift on to us.

[Many thanks to TouchWood Editions for providing me with a review copy of Robert Amos’ Artists in Their Studios: Where Art Is Born and for the images above from the book.]

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