FEATURED ARTIST: Interview with Kristin Sjaarda
"Using the style of Dutch Golden Age painters as a jumping-off point, and objects passed down from my Dutch grandmother’s family, I photograph flowers grown in my downtown Toronto neighborhood alongside the seasonal wildlife that lives, thrives, and passes through my urban environment. While the 17th-century artworks were made in an era of expansion and exploitation, these images strive to reflect what is now threatened by climate change"
- Kristin Sjaarda
Kristin Sjaarda gave us an in depth look into her process as well as her current reflections on movements within the art world.
Q: Describe your art.
What is endlessly fascinating to me—what draws me back again and again to photograph flowers—is the light. I love the way the light from my home studio window illuminates the petals of the flowers in an arrangement. I also admire the places where the light doesn’t reach: those mysterious corners where darkness lurks.
The vase life of a flower is limited. I work against time and the failing light of the day in order to capture the exact moment when a flower passes its optimum point of beauty to fade into falling apart. Both the setting sun and the dying flowers compel me to work quickly and in the moment. The temporary luminosity and beauty of the petals is a hook I use to draw viewers in closer to look at these large-scale photographs. Up close, they may notice the less flattering items in the photograph: the shadows, the things with fangs, insects consuming the fallen petals, dead birds. I am constantly working to capture the ephemeral qualities of my subject matter.
Working from home, the presence of my 3 children compounds the constraint of time, bringing my awareness to how fast they grow up, and how the life of a flower or insect is a metaphor for our own short human lives.
Q: How do you structure a day of working on your art?
I work when I get a bucket of flowers from a grower or from my garden. As I only use locally grown flowers, I wait until gardening season in the Toronto area to make new still life photos. In anticipation of a certain flower coming into bloom, I will begin to collect insects or skulls or vessels to arrange around the flowers. Sometimes I only have a day's notice—that’s when I work!
Q: Do you find your practice to be a solitary one or a collaborative one? How?
Leading up to the photograph session my work is very collaborative: I work with local flower farmers to source interesting, unusual and beautiful local flowers; I work with scientist Mark Peck, Manager of the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity at the Royal Ontario Museum, to borrow birds eggs and bird specimens. Even my children participate: they have found cicadas, bees, and a beaver skull to add into my still life photos. After photographing, I also end up working closely with talented printer Jonathan Groeneweg at Smokestack Studios.
Arranging the subjects of my photographs is very solitary. I start by building my studio in my bedroom. I have a table that comes apart when I’m not using it, so I assemble the surface first. I place the many jars of flowers around me and start arranging them in the vase on my table. As the still life grows, I add in insects, skulls, mushrooms or birds. Details of the shadow side of the arrangement, the side opposite to the window, are carefully considered so that light is able to define them.
It often takes all day to put together a still life photo in my studio once I have acquired all the elements. While I work alone, I have to work quickly as each of the elements change as time passes until the arrangement is completely decayed.
Q: What unexpected supplies would you find in your work space?
A container of dead cicadas, wooden skewers, chicken wire, a jar of live snails, rocks, skulls of small animals, a silver jackknife from my grandfather, and my bed.
Q: What do you do to ensure you continue to grow and develop as an artist?
I go look at paintings. I study how the painters depict light hitting an object, shiny or textured, natural or manmade. I look into the shadows to see what colours are there, how a painter renders darkness that is not completely black.
Whenever I travel or go to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, I find still life paintings and stand in front of them, noting the details until they almost become abstract and separate from the narrative of the painting. When I was in Den Haag, Netherlands, recently, I sought out the paintings of Rachel Ruysch (Den Haag, NL, 3 June, 1664 – Amsterdam, NL, 12 October, 1750) who is especially inspiring to me, particularly her Sotobbosco (Italian for forest-floor still life) paintings. Ruysch was an avid botanist and studied plants closely. Her paintings often feature the bug bitten leaves, the slugs and snails that turn plant detritus into compost. She painted the most luminous flowers but also paid attention to the forest floor, using tiny brush strokes to detail where fallen petals land and become dirt.
Q: What sort of challenges do you encounter with your work?
It’s challenging that I can only create new work when the season dictates: when the flowers are blooming and the insects are buzzing around. But then, I think it is important for me as an artist to have a fallow season—time to compost, daydream, plan, research, and absorb new ideas. Constant production—something we are encouraged to do in this progress-obsessed society—is detrimental to the art process.
Q: What is your dream project?
I would love to work on a series that is a reflection of a specific location. The final photographs would be large scale prints displayed in this location, integrated into the natural setting.
I would live in this location and connect with local gardeners, botanists, traditional ceramicists, entomologists and historians to create environmental still life photos that reflected the natural and historical story of the place. As long as I am within arms reach of an abundance of flowers and their pollinators, I’m great. May I suggest a villa in Italy or a castle in France? No traveling? Ok, a yurt in the Ontario countryside with mushroom foraging will be fine!
Q: Which current art world trends are you following?
On social media I am closely watching how the Black Live Matter movement is influencing the art world—asking institutions what art they have been showing and promoting. While I will always visit the historical section of a gallery, I was blown away by the immersive experience of Mickalene Thomas’ Femmes Noires at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2018. I hope this proves to be more than a trend and institutions and galleries will work to seek out art by more women of colour.
Q: How are you critical of your own work?
I recently became aware that my work is very Eurocentric and that has grown more problematic for me. I draw on my own background as a child of Dutch immigrants to Canada and on art influences from museums and galleries. The tradition of taking nature inside to examine it more closely is the part of the tradition that I am trying to keep.
Practices of European painting go hand-in-hand with the terrible record of human exploitation and a disregard for nature. To bring balance into my own work, I have attempted to highlight the complexity and interconnectedness of my local flora and fauna to history. I have taken some of the ideas of the old masters, like the brevity of life in Momento Mori (Latin for: Remember you must die) paintings, and included in my photographs fragile, found birds to emphasize that concept.
The Dutch masters created their work in a time of progress and exploitation. With respect to this, my work seeks to counter Eurocentrism by shining a light on the darker side of unchecked production and the environmental impact of capitalism. Life continues to evolve and thrive despite the negative impact of pollution and urban sprawl.