Bio

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My Smooth-coated Collie, Laddie.
As in, about myself, and not the study of life sciences.
Carla Groen, a 40-something wife and mother from the Great White North. A total misnomer, by the way, the whole Great White North thing. Where I live is on the same latitude as northern California to the west, and Milan, Italy to the east. While it is -35 degrees celcius for several weeks in the winter, it is also 35+ degrees celcius for all of the summer which, if we’re unfortunate enough to skip spring and fall, can last from the end of May until mid-October. And it’s humid. Very, very humid. Hamilton is on the western-most tip of Lake Ontario. It’s a 45 minute drive east to Toronto (pronounced Trona north of the border), a 45 minute drive south to Niagara Falls, and a 2 hour drive westward to the Michigan border at either Port Huron or Detroit. 
There are three things about Hamilton I like: The bay, the steel, and the “mountain”. For those who view the Rockies out their front window, I apologize, as the mountain in Hamilton is actually an escarpment with an elevation of 300 feet. (Can you say, “fault line”?) Really, we just call it a mountain to more easily determine where one is located in the city.

 

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A photo I took from the east Hamilton mountain looking down towards the bay and Stelco Steel.

As the daughter of a Dutchman, living by water and sailing boats of all shapes and sizes is as normal as planting tulips and eating droppies (salted licorice, eaten kilos at a time). I have enjoyed sailing on the bay for the whole of my life. As for the steel, Hamilton is a steel town. My only employment before we started a family was in metal fabrication, so I’ll always have a place in my heart for all things iron and ore. I grew up in the factory, starting on the floor when I was 12, only stopping when I was 5 months pregnant at 23. Needless to say, I had a much different life experience growing up than the kids I went to school with.

Hamilton is the home of famous funny men Martin Short and Eugene Levy, both from west Hamilton (but not the mountain). Justin Bieber’s hometown is an hour away in Mennonite country, for those who care.

After my life of steel came a degree in Psychology, a Certificate of Teaching English as a Second Language, and many (many) years of volunteering in the areas of Palliative care and teaching ESL.

As for the creative side, free-lance writer, musician and photographer best describe me. I also enjoy linguistics, so besides English and Dutch (the language of my parents’ Motherland), learning Arabic and most recently, Korean, keeps my mind moving. My love of Arabic and Korean has less to do with wanting to speak the language and more to do with my insatiable desire to write, although speaking is a natural by-product of my studying. I find the Arabic script beautiful and very relaxing to write. As an ESL teacher, I’ve had exposure to so many different cultures and languages. Hamilton is a hub for new immigrants (they land in Toronto but it’s too expensive to stay there). And as my circle of friends include Syrians and Koreans, it makes sense to use this opportunity to broaden my linguistic endeavours. 

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In front of a real mountain, Pikes Peak, in Colorado Springs.

Everything I’ve laid out about myself in this post means nothing to me when compared to what means everything to me: faith and family. My faith defines who I am (or more accurately, Whose I am). And being a homemaker, surrounded by my husband and children, as well as my parents and siblings throughout the week over koffie en lekkers, fills my heart with so much joy. But every once in a while I find time to slip into my studio and take a hundred photos. (I must say, the digital camera is efficacious in this regard.) It’s all part of a day in the life of me.

 

 

 

The Show

I’ve been putting this post off for as long as possible, but it’s time. Why the hesitancy? Well, it’s just incredibly uncomfortable for me. Alas.

There have been three occasions when I made my photographic work public: Two articles and an art show. The articles were easy enough as I really do enjoy writing. But the show was another matter altogether.

The year was 2010. (Or maybe it wasn’t.) For one thing, it wasn’t my show. It was everyone-who-lives-in-the-Hamilton-vicinity’s show. The venue is large and bright and mostly conducive to artwork, except for the second-storey narrow hallways that don’t always give the viewer the necessary distance to fully appreciate larger pieces. As my entries came somewhere in the middle of my photographic journey, the images were still rather small at 5×7 inches, so those pinched passages weren’t going to be an issue for me.

Another ‘oy vey’ was due to the fact that I don’t do public gatherings very well. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not an agoraphobic (anymore). I’ve had years of practice in the areas of both public speaking and piano playing in front of audiences of several hundred, so there’s little to intimidate me there. But I’m more of a tete-a-tete kinda girl, and I found the whole stand-next-to-my-art-while-people-file-by-giving-it-the-who farted?-look rather uncomfortable. They didn’t know what they were looking at, and at that time, I wasn’t ready to divulge the answer. Hundreds of people pressed their way through the show to take in everyone’s work, but my work always seemed to be a question mark along an otherwise self-explanatory wall of acrylics, encaustics, and snapshots of hawks, dogs, lions and children (not in the same photo, of course). That’s when I began to question my inclination for secrecy. I was still holding on to both the kaleidoscopes and my aunt’s memory inappropriately back then.

Somewhat disenchanted by the night’s unfolding, I was ready to make my way home when an eight year old girl stopped in front of my photos. She studied the photos, looked at me, looked back at the photos and exclaimed, “That’s a kaleidoscope!” At first I wanted to shush her, but honestly, I was just relieved someone finally figured it out. Of course a child would understand. I was delighted.

And then there’s this: I have no desire to sell people on the idea of what I do or how I do it, but I have an ardent desire to invite others to lose themselves in my art work. To me, abstract art is a wonderful platform from which to transcend spiritually and emotionally because, not unlike a Rorschach ink blot, what you see all depends on who you are and what life experience you bring to the canvas (or photograph). The answer will be different for everyone, and that insight has the ability to reveal a lot about one’s self. Trust me, I know. (There’s my Psych degree finally paying it forward). But at that art show, the public’s lack of information became a stumbling block in their personal interpretation of the image before them, and that was unfortunate. I felt sorry, and responsible, really, that there weren’t enough cues to somehow give them the confidence to let their imagination run. Albeit, I was rather pleased that my work looked more like contemporary art and not the interior of a kaleidoscope. Thank you, precise mirror alignment.

I learned a lot from that evening, and after all these years, I’ve decided to submit some images for their consideration once again, only this time the photos will be much larger and will come with an explanation of both the medium and subject. I’ve come to understand that people’s fascination with my images is not necessarily due to the colour and compostition alone, but due to their disbelief that a widened aperture could capture something so grand through an opening so small.

The above kaleidoscopes from left to right: Carla Groen, David Kalish, Carla Groen. I’ll be sure to let you know how the next show goes when the time comes.

 

Let’s Have Some Fun

I made the choice several years ago to keep my photography as “true” as possible and not edit it in any way beyond its development. That doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t slid my files into Photoshop in order to play around with them from time to time. Every once in a while I come across an image that is well below the standard of what I’m looking for ‘as is’, but giving one command in Photoshop — in this case, replacing the colour black with grey — results in a completely different and incredibly unique image.

I’ve never hung these images on the walls in our home because I see them as counterfeit. They’ve been tampered with, computer generated (even if only in the slightest way), and therefore no longer a true representation of what I saw through my lens. It doesn’t mean that it ceases being art, or even pleasing art. But to me, it’s less photography and more modern pop art.

There was a time when I had a Facebook account (and Instagram, and Twitter, and…) and I would post photos of the edited images and the response was always positive. The public would always tell me what they see, and naturally they all had different interpretations. But when I bring my work to the gallery to be framed, the vote is always unanimous: the original photograph is strongest because the viewer immediately understands it isn’t computer generated, forcing them to wonder how on earth it was possible to produce.

I have a large collection of edited images now. Some of them are pretty surreal. The only thing I’ve changed is the colour of the background and in these examples, added a vignette. I haven’t used my mouse or a computer pen to paint or feather the colours and outline of the image.

I’ve included two of the more boring photos for your judgement. It gives you an idea of the fun I have when I decide not to play by my rules.

Can I Get that in X-Large?

borrowed 010_edited-1When I first started thinking about how best to present my photography, my mind always went “small”. The reason for this is simple. One has to squint to peer inside a pea-sized opening in order to see the array of colours withYin a kaleidoscope chamber. It’s an intimate viewing, seen only by the person holding the scope, and if the objects are in an oil cell, the cell’s precise beauty can never be experienced again because by the time the viewer passes the scope off to the person beside them, the objects have rearranged themselves. So when I first started framing my images, the presentation of my mandala images was with square 4″x 4″ frames. Once I started focusing on the full-frame images from three-mirrored scopes, I wanted to see what would happen if I went larger.

Again, garbage. Why? Because the larger one prints, the clearer the unrefined scope becomes. What is unrefined? Well, for starters, if the mirrors don’t line up perfectly (perfectly), it shows, and one immediately knows they are looking at a mirrored image. Get rid of the lines, and the viewer’s brain questions how the image was created; using a kaleidoscope is never their first guess. Secondly, the air bubbles in the cell look like tiny balloons on an enlarged print. Yes, I have been known to Photoshop them out, but again, I didn’t want to create art that needed editing. (I approach my photos the same way I approach my face in the morning: If it’s going to take more than 2.5 minutes to make it pretty, it’s not worth the effort.) Finally, the objects in the cell have to be special and not just odds and sods that a 5 year old child uses to skewer yarn through during craft time. So out came David Kalish’s scopes. Today, it is with my images of David’s work that I am able to frame photos 30 inches square and larger to hang on our walls as pieces of fine contemporary art.

[The above image of a homemade scope is a perfect example of unaligned mirrors.]

 

Trials and (so many) Errors

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Looking back on my journey, there’s a risk of diminishing the struggle. And by “struggle”, I mean the day-to-day challenges that required months-long brainstorming to overcome. It wasn’t like I had a go-to group of artists that I could bounce ideas off of. Although I come from a creative family with notable accomplishments in the arts, I was on my own with this one. The only person who would have really appreciated what I was doing with kaleidosocopes was my aunt Betty, but she was dead, and had she not died, I never would have considered whether or not photographing the interior of a kaleidoscope was even possible. So when questions arised, (What camera lens should I use? Is natural light best?  Should I shoot in my studio with artificial lighting? How do I get rid of glare? Why do cameras have to be so bloody heavy?) I was on my own. For all but the last question, trial and error was my answer.

I wasn’t a photographer before kaleidoscopes came into my life. Sure, I took photographs of our children and was told I have an eye for composition, but point-and-shoot was as complicated as I got. Now, I was having to take so many varibles into consideration, and they all had to align to create the perfect shot. So when people see my work and ask me how I do it, I always say the same thing: very carefully.

After I learned how to take a consistent shot using David Kalish’s scopes, I started asking different questions, starting with, “How do I get these photos really big?” In a word, RAW. And so began endless hours of YouTube videos understanding why I should only be photographing in RAW and what that means for developing the image and, most importantly, how I could print off gargantuan prints for our living room walls. I was enjoying sending family and friends note cards that showcased my work, but I wanted something more. I wanted to explore something I had earlier refused to consider, and that was gallery-worthy contemporary art work.

[Above photo taken from one of my scopes. It reminds me of a Jackson Pollock painting.]

 

 

Limitless Love

At one point, a few months after receiving the scopes and after I had begun cataloguing them, I became a bit possessive. That is, once I knew how costly the kaleidoscopes really were, I began to worry that something might happen to them; that someone might see them through our front window and decide to break into our home and steal them. In my defence, I had never had so many objects of both sentimental and monetary value, and for the first time ever I actually considered getting insurance just to cover the scopes should they ever be taken or damaged.

Absurd, I know. It was then that I decided that it was time to start giving them away. I was holding onto the kaleidoscopes far too tightly. I was holding onto the memory of Aunt Betty inappropriately. They were objects, easily replaced, and far less valuable than any time I had ever spent with my aunt. So, I took all the scopes out of the cabinet and began deciding which ones would be best suited for my cousins who had not yet received one from their aunt. I took as much time and care as I could, if for no other reason than I knew Betty would have done no less. I wrote out what I knew about the artist who designed the scope and carefully gift-wrapped it with a note that stated that the kaleidoscope was not from me but from Aunt Betty, with love.

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With love…That part gets me every time. I knew full well that the kaleidoscopes stored in the cabinet in the corner of our dining room didn’t belong to me. They belonged to my aunt. But she’s not here anymore, and yet I truly believe that the scopes have not ceased being hers. The kaleidoscopes were bestowed on me that I might have them for safekeeping until that time when I fascilitate their endowment to family and friends. So every time I chose a scope, wrapped it in tissue, wrote a note, and gifted it to someone, I did it with a sense of reverence because I was merely the intermediary between Aunt Betty and the receiver of her scope. I truly felt that it wasn’t about me, and as I continue to take photographs of the kaleidoscopes, I know it’s still not about me. It’s about limitless love; Betty’s limitless love. My aunt is dead, for sure, and one day I will be dead, too, and my photographs lost forever. But for now, there is a legacy that I feel a responsibility to nurture. The legacy isn’t one of things; of scope-collecting or photo-taking. It is a legacy of generosity. I understand now that one becomes richer having given all away. That’s an endowment worth leaving.

[“Still Life No.1” Photo I took of Carolyn Bennett’s Nadelstern scope.]

Suspended Indelibility

When my husband suggested that I start making my own kaleidoscopes, I was rather intimidated by the challenge. I never saw myself on the same plane as the creators of the kaleidoscopes in my aunt’s collection (because I’m not; not by a long shot). But after some consideration, I began poring over books on how kaleidoscopes work. In the end, I was relieved to discover that making kaleidoscopes proved easier than taking photographs of them.

Eventually I picked up my camera again and slowly began producing a consistently good shot, but it still wasn’t translating well onto paper. That hurdle was overcome with the purchase of a high-quality printer, generously given to me by my father. He believed in my vision from the beginning, (as a business man, endeavours and entrepreneurial success were a normal part of his everyday existence), and was happy to invest in its fruition. I bought the best photo paper I could afford, and before long, the walls and shelves of our home started displaying framed prints of my kaleidoscope photography. It took several years, but I had finally accomplished what I originally set out to do: preserve the interor images of my aunt’s kaleidoscopes. And to my amazement, the walls had photographs of kaleidoscopes I had made myself, as well. Who would have thought?

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The interior of one of my homemade scopes.

I could have chosen to hand the kaleidoscopes out to my cousins and never think twice about what they looked like inside or out. I could have not taken care to research the artists who created them, or not call the stores where she bought them to ask the owners if they remembered her patronage. (They always did, even several years after Aunt Betty died. I do remember your aunt and when she would come here to visit. She and her friend would come in to look at kaleidoscopes. I remember her as being very sweet and wearing a badanna in her last few visits. She always smiled. She bought alot of Wedding Scopes by David Kalish, probably as wedding gifts. They have a great story to them. A Wedding Scope has two ends, the idea being a couple can each look at the same cell and see different things…) 

But I did. I did do all those things. The answer as to why I did is simple. Kaleidoscopes mattered to my aunt Betty. Aunt Betty mattered to me. Therefore, Aunt Betty’s kaleidoscope collection mattered to me.

Now, for me, it is very rewarding to be able to widen the aperture of my camera to these scopes in order to capture the transient refractions occurring inside. It’s nothing short of suspended indelibility.