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.

 

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.

The Leaded Lights of Chesnik Scopes

There were more questions that needed to be answered concerning my endeavours surrounding kaleidoscopes. What, pray tell, was I going to do with the photographs? In the beginning, I had no vision of enlarging and framing them as works of contemporary art on my living room walls. I’m a writer first, and although I have yet to become a member of the IAMPETH Master Penman Society, I am of a dying breed of folk who still value longhand written notes and letters with cursive embellishments. So, it seemed like a natural first step to create art cards with the photos.

I had seen art cards in quaint shops before. Some opted for fastened photos onto card stock, and others had the image printed directly onto the paper. I prefered the latter, searched out a local printing shop, gave them some image files, and waited. The results were less than desireable. They didn’t do anything I didn’t ask them to, but I knew what the image was supposed to look like and it never transpired onto the paper so I shut the door on that idea for a while. It’s not that I didn’t think it could be done well, but I wasn’t willing to invest the time and money necessary until I found a company I trusted to execute my vision for the end product. More than that, I knew I hadn’t reached my potential as a photographer and that my work needed improving. All of these things would take time.

Meanwhile, I kept experimenting with the scopes in my aunt’s collection and invested in a beautiful pedestal scope she purchased that was created by Janice and Ray Chesnik. I bought additional wheels from Janice’s son, Jon Greene, and therefore chose not to include this scope with those I gave away as per my aunt’s dying wish.

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My favourite image I took of the Chesnik pedestal scope doesn’t come close to capturing its true beauty.

Jon was very helpful and encouraging as I shared with him what I was doing with my camera. The Chesnik scope is an exquisite example of leaded mosaics of stained glass, and as hard as I tried, I was never able to capture the beauty as well as I had hoped. This isn’t a reflection of Chesnik’s craftmanship, but rather, my own limitations and inability to do the kaleidoscope the justice it truly deserved. How does one capture on film the wonderment to be found in a cathedral’s rose window? It’s simply not possible, and is best enjoyed by one’s naked eye. I have since upgraded my equipment and could try again, but I am loath to compromise the integrity of Jon’s craft. Some things are best left well enough alone, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I ever change my mind. Either way, I strongly encourage you to purchase your own Chesnik scope and experience the leaded lights for yourself.

Time to Talk About Carolyn

Carolyn who? Carolyn Bennett.

Carolyn Bennett is a kaleidoscope artist who I got in contact with very early in my photography days. There were two of her scopes in my aunt’s collection, and I ordered another, Nadelstern, aptly named after Paula Nadelstern, the incredibly talented artist behind exquisitely designed quilts that are serious works of art. Carolyn’s scope certainly didn’t disappoint. Another of her scopes in the collection had all cream and brown stones and created bouquet images which was very pleasing to the eye.

So, why am I writing about Carolyn Bennett? It is important for me to include her in this story of my journey because it was her scope with earth-toned stones that marked my kairotic moment as a contemporary artist. I looked through my viewfinder, and when I saw the stones in the cell, I didn’t see fractal images suspended in oil. I saw composition; I saw still life. It was at that moment that my eye sharpened to “the shot”. I took it and stopped, not unlike a fashion photographer who hands the camera to her assistant and confidently walks off the set because she knows she just got the cover page.

Am I saying that the photo is up there with Annie Leibovitz’s work? Absolutely not. That’s not the point. The point is that this photo of Carolyn Bennett’s kaleidoscope was the first step on a long road in establishing a relationship I never thought possible between a camera and a kaleidoscope, all in an effort to produce contemporary art photography as I’ve never seen it before. Was I excited? You bet I was. The image itself isn’t necessarily outstanding, but the drive it created inside me was beyond outstanding, and it’s a drive that continues to this day, pushing me to produce photographs of the interior of kaleidoscopes at a calibre beyond what anyone had done or thought possible.

Oh, and I insisted that if I was going to go forward with this, the final product had to be achieved without the use of digital editing programs.

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My photograph of Carolyn Bennett’s scope that changed everything for me.

Getting it Right

Some of the challenges of photographing the interior of my acquired kaleidoscopes included having to learn how to only capture the interior (and not the surrounding floor and couch), as well as learning how to avoid air bubbles, which, as it turns out, are very noticeable in some scopes cells, and not noticeable at all in others. I also had to learn how to get the entire mandala into the viewfinder.

It was impossible to get it right with my existing camera.

My birthday was coming up. I had been looking forward to my birthday because it was not only accompanied by the promise of wisdom which comes with age, but with cards stuffed with birthday money. And I knew what I was going to spend said money on: a new camera.

Now is as good of a time as any to explain the two types of mirror systems the scopes in my bequeathed collection contained. Most used a two-mirror system. When you look into a two-mirror scope, the image is that of a complete circle, or mandala. When you look into a scope that uses a three-mirror system, the image is infinite. This, of course, is a very elementary description. There is alot information on the web if you want to understand the science behind the art of kaleidoscope making.

Personally, I have come to prefer the three-mirrored scopes. Well, my eye does, anyway. Mandalas are more static. Ok, that’s not entirely true. If the objects in the cell are immersed in oil, they are always moving and therefore not static. But it’s harder to create movement in a photograph with the uniformity that comes with a mandala image. Movement or not, the photo has no shortage of colour and complexities. As a photographer who’s eye is always looking for “the shot”, however, I need more visual inconsistencies to work with in order to have good composition. The most useful lesson I learned from taking photographs of two-mirror scopes is the strength negative space gives the subject. I wanted my walls to have a few mandalas on them, so I worked at it and quickly found success. With the right tools, it became very easy.

 

I made every effort to find out who made this kaleidoscope. I sent photos of the exterior to other members of the BKS, but no one could tell me. I have since given the kaleidoscope away, but it certainly did make for some exquisite photos which now adorn my living room walls.

It’s What’s Inside that Counts

I remember visiting my grandmother’s home where Betty lived the last ten years of her life. I followed the sound of voices down a set of stairs into the basement and found my mama and aunts going through her belongings. The cabinet that encased her kaleidoscope collection was at the back of the room. Grabbing a handful of newspapers that was stacked on the floor, I made my way to the cabinet and lifted the hook latch to unlock the glass pane doors of my aunt’s cabinet. Slowly, I began to remove the scopes from the shelves, carefully wrapping each scope as I went, and gently placed them in a large carboard box. I had never opened the doors to my aunt’s collection without her being with me. It felt like an invasion; a violation of her privacy and property. But Betty was gone, and now they were my property. There were so many of them; large scopes, tiny scopes, fragile scopes, and scopes that could easily double as a truncheon. Some were made of wood, some were made of stain glass, others were made of brass, and one of my favourites was encased in marble (or was it soap stone?). But despite the variety of the scopes, they all had two things in common: They had been hand-picked by my aunt, and they were beautiful.

Eventually, after finding her cabinet of scopes a permanent spot in our dining room, I spent my spare time researching the history of the kaleidoscopes. Some of the scopes had identifying markings on them so they were easy to catalogue. Others were more difficult to trace. I quickly learned, however, that kaleidoscope collecting is taken very seriously in the United States, and Aunt Betty’s collection had many of the best scopes American artists had to offer. When I found out that there was a society for makers and collectors of kaleidoscopes (Brewster Kaleidoscope Society), I joined with the hope that I would find additional information on the artists behind some of the more magnificent looking scopes.

Over time, my eye became discriminating. Within a second of looking into the eye cap of a scope, I could see the level of craftmanship, or lack thereof. It’s not the just quality of the mirrors. The angle of the mirrors (they must be seamless), the amount of light the chamber allows in, the objects in the cells, and clarity of the glass all impact the final product.

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One of my favourite images from a kaleidoscope I made. A bit seasonal, but the colours are complimentary.

One lesson I learned when comparing the different kaleidoscopes is to never judge a scope from its exterior. Very cliche, I know, but true nonetheless. The collection had exquisite examples of creative genius in regard to exterior aesthetic beauty, and yet once you peer inside the chamber, it takes only a brief moment to realize that an equal amount of time and care has not been invested into the integrity of the interior. Of course, the opposite is true, as well. One humble looking scope has a tarnished brass chamber and is only the length of my pinky, and yet peek inside the teeny-tiny opening and one’s eye is met with the most illustrious array of red, blue, pink, orange, yellow, and green stones, all perfectly aligned and clear as can be. Finding cohesion between the interior and exterior of the kaleidoscope has been achieved in less than 15 of the 60 scopes in my aunt’s collection. They are also the most expensive.

Pain in the Offering

There was never a quick word with my aunt, Elizabeth (Betty) Spoelstra. This, of course, was on account of her being a master at engaging. When I was with her, I felt like I was the most intelligent and gifted woman — she brought out the best of everyone she was with — and I never wanted our visits together to end. She was eccentric, engaging, and full of life even when she was full of death; her body inwardly decaying from cancer. Aunt Betty left behind a legacy of faith and joy and music, among other things, when she died 12 years ago. One of the things she left me in particular was a cabinet overflowing with kaleidoscopes. I had always admired her scopes when I visited her. I would take them out of her cabinet (there were over 60 of them) and go through them one by one, competely enraptured by the vision of light and colour that would scroll by in front of my peeping eye.

Shortly before she died, she told me she would bequeath the scopes to me with the instruction that I was to give them all away. So, one by one, I have been doing as she requested and gifting cousins on their wedding day, teachers on their retirement, and friends transitioning into new homes with kaleidoscopes from my aunt’s collection. One by one I have watched various scopes pass from my hand to the grateful receiever; scopes by Bennett, Chesnik, Karadimos, Knox, Paretti, Weeks, Van Cort, and many others.

Honestly, there is pain in the offering. But I know that’s a good thing. Gifts should cost us something if they are to be a true gift. And in case you’re wondering, the pain is not in parting with such costly collectibles. The pain is when I must take the scope in one hand and a cloth in the other, and carefully rub all of my aunt’s fingerprints off the scope before wrapping it in tissue and gently laying it into a giftbox. I’m not losing money or beautiful artistry. I’m losing another piece of that which remains of my aunt.

Today, only a few kaleidoscopes remain in the wood and glass display cabinet that Aunt Betty gave me, and I will continue to give them away as she requested. And as I hold her scopes in my hand and rub away the smudges and prints, I will remind myself of the gift I received that’s worth far more than her collection: The memory of a woman whose love and life shone brighter and more beautifully than any person I have ever had the privilege of knowing.cabinet