Friday, March 22, 2019

Time and the Still Life

In the middle of Regina's brutal, relentless February--too cold and too cloudy--I had the good fortune to visit ceramicist Ruth Chambers in her studio at the University of Regina.  She had been creating bulbs out of porcelain she colours for that purpose, and walking into her space was like walking into promise.  Ruth explained that she's been thinking for a while about a connection between ceramics and the still life, making a variety of things like shrimps or pea pods, when her attention was captured by a pair of flower bulbs.  She says that these were not initially what she had in mind--as she worked them over, almost obsessively--when she had one of those aesthetic explosions that creative people so look forward to.  She began to model bulbs in the process of growing--keep in the refrigerator between "sittings" as it were.

The still life as a genre of painting already has a richly problematic relationship with time.  The finished painting, some argue, has the temporality of the mere seconds it takes the viewer to apprehend it.  (Others, of course, say that it takes time to appreciate all the detail and understand how the details coalesce in the final image.)  As a finished image, it purportedly represents a single moment that the painter has, over time, captured.  But if you look closely at many still lives, you will see the evidence of passing time:  a butterfly that has died and lies on a damask cloth, roses that have drooped, slight brown edges on a chrysanthemum.  Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painters of still life record the decay their bouquets undergo as they paint them.  Similarly, Ruth wants to make sculptures that are grounded in the careful, almost obsessive attention to the object itself.  As well, some of her sequences (unfortunately, these photographs didn't come out very well), which capture the bulb at various points in its flowering, make time part of what she is capturing.

But since I was in an artist's studio, I wanted to consider time in another way.  Or perhaps I should say I wanted to consider the timelessness of craftsmanship.  The mark of a true craftsman, one is reminded by this improbable capturing of something so tender and mutable in a medium as permanent as porcelain, is that the craftsman is willing to take whatever time is necessary to achieve the artist's vision.  Maybe that is one of the things that makes me nervous about our cellphone and Google immediacy:  are we still going to have the tender patience to create things like this?  Ruth talked about another experience of time when she is working on her bulbs:  time disappears as she is reduced to observing eyes and problem-solving hands that are trying to figure out how to sculpt the individual florets of a hyacinth.

 Ruth talked as well about engaging with the "metaphysics of the object"--the way a thing is more than itself, more than a thing.  I probably alluded to that above when I said that I felt like I'd entered promise when I walked into the studio:  an entirely different frame of mind than that I'd brought from the snowy outdoors.  There is also some way that these small sculptures emphasize the distinction between original and artwork:  is anything less like an almost transparent tulip petal than a medium as finally stiff as porcelain?

But there is another temporal quality that figures for me here.  On the wall beside Bill Reid's monumental sculpture "Raven and the First Men" at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, is a quotation from the maker.  In some ways, Reid's wood carving, which is so large it has its own rotunda, couldn't be less like Ruth's tenuous porcelain flowers.  In other ways, the similarity couldn't be clearer.  He writes "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."

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