Moving Forward

A note written by my Aunt Betty when she gifted my husband and me with a Henry Bergeson scope on the occasion of our wedding 22 years ago.

So, I have a job. All of my education and decades of volunteering has been geared towards chaplaincy and teaching English, but today I, ahem, walk dogs. Not just any dogs, mind you. I walk two beautiful (and very large) Bernese Mountain dogs for two hours every day on their owner’s property which happens to include their home nestled in 200 acres of woods. To say I love my new pastime would be an understatement.

Although I grew up accustomed to cottages, woods and water, I was never really a ‘mountain’ girl, so to speak. Ticks, black flies, mosquitos; Lyme disease? West Nile? No, thank you. We also have our share of bears up here in Canada, even in Southern Ontario, so I’ve never been one to venture into back fortys too often. I really like it that the dogs I walk are huge, one being 150 lbs. I’m 5′ 11″ and when he goes on his back legs, his front paws are on my shoulders and we are eye to eye with each other. The dogs are also very protective of me which is helpful, of course. Hawks, bald eagles, coons, fox, coyotes, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys are all found in the woods where I walk. Thankfully no bears, so far. 

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Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

While hiking through Cheyenne Mountain with my husband a few years ago, I decided that I could easily become a mountain girl. That was new for me as I’ve always insisted that wherever we live, it must be on or overlooking water. But our trip to Colorado had a profound affect on my life in many ways. Hiking along trails surrounded by mountain ranges (a different kind of nature than what’s found on the waterways back home) overwhelmed me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And yet, I knew I’d want more of that in my life moving forward.

Walking dogs (I bring my own dog along too, so there are four of us) on a beautiful wooded estate is nothing I ever expected to do. Far from it, actually. I always thought counselling and teaching, writing and creating would be my life. I suppose it is and always has been, but it’s never been a means to earn a living. I suppose the saying, “never do for money what you would do for love” rings true for me. Regardless, with the money I’m now earning, getting new pieces of art work on our walls could finally be within reach. 

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An image from one of my scopes, deconstructed.

The Problem with Hobbies

22I don’t have a job. I have hobbies. The good news is that I’m always busy. The bad news is that I don’t make money. Take my piano playing, for example. I have played since I was seven years old. Most recently, I was using my love for making music during Communion services in our church. I loved it. We had to leave that church, however, and the church we attend now uses professional musicians, so I just play for my dog at home these days.

And then there’s writing. I love to write. I take every opportunity to write, whether short stories, letters to friends, or blogging. I’ve been published several times (magazines) but nothing really noteworthy. I just like to write. I don’t write to be read. I write to write.

Sailing. I love sailing. But my father, at the age of 82, decided it was time for the boat to go. Buying a boat isn’t in my future (I don’t make money, remember), so my sailing days are most likely over, although I will be able to remain in, on and by the water through other means.

Art. I love art, in almost all its forms. I’ve enjoyed my camera and overcoming the many challenges of fine art photography as it relates to kaleidoscopes, but I’ve hit a bit of a ceiling. It took me some time to be able to master what I do, and now that I can do it, jadedness is setting in and I’m so ready for the next thing. The problem is, it’s just a hobby, and in order to break the ceiling on my work, it’s going to take more time. More patience. More money (I don’t make money, remember).

I’ve taken my work to several galleries in my city over the years. Even though Hamilton is known for being a steel town, there’s been a shift, and the downtown area has become a serious hub for artists. I remember one gallery I handed my portfolio to. I was well acquainted with the owner and curator as I frequented their opening nights. The conversation went like this:

“So?”

“I will never show your work in my gallery.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because your work is shit.”

“I don’t understand. My work is unique. It’s never been done.”

“Someone can shit on a plate and nail it to the wall because it’s never been done before, but that doesn’t make it good art.”

Right.

Needless to say, I’ve had a lot of doors closed on me. The owner of the gallery responsible for framing my work said my photos are “magnificent”, but he’ll never show them because he doesn’t do photography.

Got it.

Two weeks ago I went to a highly respected artist who owns a local printing studio to show him what I do and inquire how he would take the photos to the next level. He strongly encouraged me to leave the negative space behind and work with the subject itself, transforming it into something completely new and different. In other words, when I’m done with it, nothing of what makes it a scope image will remain.

Ok.

I suppose I’m at an impasse. I can continue doing the same old same old but that’s not me. And going in a completely different direction is a huge commitment for someone who only dabbles in photography in her spare time. And in the end, the only person I’m really doing this for is me. My aunt’s still dead. So if I’m going to go through with exploring the next thing in kaleidoscope photography, It’s going to be so I can have original art on the walls in our home.

Time for me to get a job.

Yes.

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“The Green Monster”. Scope by David Kalish.

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.

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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.]