“Just so magnificent. I love dipping in and out of these different, really quite intense worlds, which people have created within other worlds. It’s extraordinary to see how people adapt and live in these really quite extreme ways”.
~Christopher Bailey, former designer of Burberry, in Travel Almanac
Photography by Aviva Rowley (except credited otherwise)
A born and bred-Brooklynite, Aviva Rowley studied fine arts in Cooper Union during which she worked as a florist and continued to do so after graduation. Desiring something less temporal, Rowley turned to ceramics as a medium for holding flowers. She builds her vessels backwards, using her floristry background as an inspiration, and because her work is handmade, no piece is uniform and one of a kind. Texture and shape dictate her style while the matte black glaze unifies it. Please visit her site (www.avivarowley.com) or IG: @avivarowley.
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For someone whose taste tends towards macabre, your ease and preference with clay as an artistic medium seem worlds away because clay, once fired, does not project rigor mortis. Clay feels alive and vital within one’s hands, hence why did you elect to work with it?
I never really thought of myself as macabre necessarily. It’s funny because clay, while it is alive and vital in one’s hands while wet, once you fire it, it definitely does project rigor mortis. Frozen in time. A huge part of why I started to make ceramics was the experience of building these huge events as a florist, just to watch everything die within a day or two. I wanted to create something more permanent and unchanging as a vessel for things to grow, fade, eventually die…
My parents have been a huge inspiration to me throughout my life. My mom is a psychologist and self-taught ceramist as well. I grew up playing with clay, and water and plants and weeds and dirt, with the backdrop of the wild city skyline. My father is a brilliant painter and scholar, who definitely leans towards the darkness. They both have been an incredible influence in my life as a creator. I grew up in Brooklyn and my kiln is still at my parents’ house, in the house I grew up in, next to my mother’s wild overgrown flower garden.
Constance Spry, perhaps the fore runner of the wild untamed floral style popular now, worked closely with Fulham Pottery in London to design and develop a series of ceramics for floral work. How did your florist training shape your perception towards ceramics, and has it influenced the form you prefer to work with?
It has completely changed how I think of the “vessel,” I consider what goes in my vessels while I am building them. I like to create lips and shapes that will speak to flowers. Some of my favorite forms I’ve built dictate the way the flowers fall – the slit vase, for example, lets flowers fall in a really elegant mohawk.
There needs to be a conversation between the vessel and what you put in it. Our mutual friend Phil has been one of my biggest inspirations. He would hate that I’m saying this, but he’s really been my muse for the past few years. I make vessels thinking about how he would use them, I add snakes and handles and knobs and gaps for him to twist around. While my own floral work is very simple, when I build a vessel I imagine so many possibilities – yet I’m always surprised how different florists use them.
Many of my dearest friends are still florists, which is a fascinating resource. I am working on a collaboration with another of my floral friend Sophia Moreno-Bunge. She lives in California so we have been doing a snail mail back and forth. Making vessels with her in mind has been such a fun experiment, and I’m creating forms that I never would have imagined otherwise.
In addition, you have started a Keiki-Club “to create an open social community for friends and flora fanatics to come together and grow plants, share knowledge, and trade collections”. Does this exposure to different plants and individuals besotted with them inspire your work in interesting directions?
One of the first ceramic pieces I built was a hanging saucer because it was an answer to a plant problem that had not been answered before. Being a part of such a positive community, where people can get together and tell stories, and introduce one another to new things… I never thought of it as an inspiration to my pottery, but now that I think of it, it is. I tend to like older plants, ones that have a past, and have been growing and adapting to their environments. I like to imagine my vessels as homes.
Some ceramicists experiment regularly with glazes because they feel that the functionality, which underwrites the vessel form, is an artistic limitation. You have deliberately kept your glazes to a matte black or a weathered beige despite how varied you have manipulated the forms.
I’ve always created intentional limitations in my art. I chose the gun metal / matte black glaze because it really speaks to flowers, and definitely lets me experiment more wildly with my shapes. When you see my vessels in person, there are a lot of slight imperfections in glazes; I’ve actually been experimenting a lot with different textures while keeping the black as a basic language.
I like how they appear as silhouettes, and work well on their own… when you add plants or flowers it adds a whole other dimension which is generally out of my control.
If an Aviva Rowley ceramic was a plant or garden, what would it be?
I would be an undiscovered underwater ruin, left alone for so many years and enveloped in overgrowth. My partner said I’d be Psychotria elata… look it up!
** Her exhibit “T: Exploration & Experience of the Teabowl”- with Romy Northover (pictures featured here) goes until November 26 at FLOATING MOUNTAIN 239 W72nd St, New York NY 10023. Pieces are available for purchase and can be viewed at https://www.floating-mountain.com
` Photo Credit: Alana Wilson
Swimming brings one’s body with the water’s buoyancy, yet the process of molding and shaping clay is an anchoring force with hands. Where do you see the cross dialogue between the two activities?
Both are very meditative, predominantly done in solitude and combine physical movement and awareness of the body with a required mental acuity to work through a repetitive process. Both connect with a natural element – earth and water – which I find quite calming and humanly intrinsic. Over time, the wiring between brain and body becomes so ingrained that you can let your mind wander whilst the body is in automatic mode of a learnt technique. Both activities require a sense of technique, which is similarly soft, efficient, streamlined, responsive to the least amount of touch, and both techniques rely on a sense of flow and refining the surface resistance of the body against the elements.
Your work belies the exacting but unpredictable process of overlaying different substances and glazing. What do you find fascinating about the alchemy?
There are endless parallels between the ceramic surfaces and surfaces and textures that exist in nature. Of course, ceramic materials all exist and are derived from natural resources but the process of firing results in a more compacted environment with the kiln’s heat and the firing speed. Scientifically, all of these ceramic results exist somewhere in nature that have occurred through varying means and all natural surfaces and materials will depict a chemical story of creation and destruction, as do the ceramic pieces.
As a child I would get lost in observing rock pools full of geological and marine life, collecting seashells and interesting rocks to study. This childhood fixation has informed my interest in the minute details of elemental decay and natural observation. Over time I have come to recognize stronger analogies between the natural destructive process and environments comparative to those in the medium of ceramics.
Within the ceramic process there are numerous aspects left to chance and susceptible to variation. Different materials will have specific reactions within the firing – how it transforms through heat exposure, how fast it is heated, its melting point, vaporisation point, oxygen content in the material and the atmosphere and its reaction with the other glaze ingredients it is mixed with.
In its elemental form, the vessel projects functionality that people have difficulty divorcing when it comes to appreciating ceramics as an art equal to painting or sculpture. How do you hope to have someone see your piece beyond its basic purpose?
I used to look at this viewpoint as a hindrance, always trying to prove something with the vessel. There is an inherent conditioning when dealing with the vessel throughout anthropological, art, and social history. Functionality not only alludes to a use but also to a relationship to the human body and human life. I now embrace the steadfast connotative functionality of my work and prefer it over purely conceptual art (in terms of what I create myself, not necessarily as to what interests me as a viewer).
Having a pre-conditioned utilitarian context allows a certain scale of intimacy for the works to intersect the viewer’s perceptual / experiential process on a different level. Sociologically the viewer forms some sense of connection to it and hold it in a perceptual realm relative to their everyday life as opposed to a more conceptual work, in which they may feel separate from in terms of anthropological connection and conceptual understanding.
The difficult concept to divorce from the vessel is its ability to hold something, therefore an empty vessel is often perceived as incomplete. I seek to highlight the emptiness and twist the conception to depict the potential to be filled, within which there are various possibilities – both physical and conceptual ‘fillers’. The depiction of the unused or empty vessel allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on their individual conditioning. In a sense this conditioning (towards an utilitarian object such as a vessel) is on a different level to the conditioning to comprehend conceptual or abstract art.
Throughout this consistent questioning within my own work, I have looked at and questioned other forms of art, architecture, design etc and its relativity to humankind. I am interested in its ability to intersect with the everyday life of the everyday person, to not exist only in the vacuum of a white box gallery or as a material commodity, financial investment, or interior decoration. Within my work I aim to honor the history of the vessel and the different historical values – emotional, cultural / historical, technical, conceptual – that all correlate to the final result.
There is a consistent duality of logic vs reason, cultural vs individual; but in the sense of attempting to draw attention to the importance of humanity and humankind there is the critical requirement for communication, which is community. The viewer’s perception is a moment in time, yet can be long-lasting in terms of their recollection of reality and how it affects them. The majority of viewers would not be aware of their own perceptual process to this extent but I find the relationship between functionality, physicality, conceptual understanding and conditioning an extremely interesting area to observe and study in relation to my work, art and life in general.
Pot Plant, which was curated by John Tebbs for the Garden Edit, and Lilies of Forgiveness, placed your work in relation to ephemeral plant material. Did either exhibits re-center the focus on how florists utilize your ceramics?
As discussed in the above answer, I primarily look for highlighting an emptiness and the potential of completion based on societal conditioning towards and empty vessel. However, I love working with ephemeral plant material as it truly represents natural beauty and its decay, and takes away that sense of ownership or forever-ness that so many people crave. These ideas are constantly embedded within my work, so with the right people who appreciate these ideas I am always keen to collaborate. John Tebbs from The Garden Edit, Simone Gooch of Fjura, and Alia & Ezra from Regime des Fleurs all create beautiful work, utilizing nature as creator and transcending nature as decoration or pure product.
There is an old Chinese saying ‘滴水穿石’ which translates to ‘dripping water eats away the stone’. It alludes well to how your pieces bear the corrosive effect of water almost to the point of close disintegration. Is it a mediation on the transience of humankind and material goods?
Absolutely. More so an exploration of the innate impermanence of everything and attempting to break down the societal attachment to completed or beautiful things; to encourage an acceptance of the process of continuous transformation and inevitable decay, in all things – physical and otherwise.
The marine environment is unforgiving to terrestrial plant life, but what would be an Alana Wilson ceramic personified as a plant or garden look like?
This is an interesting question, and each ceramic piece has its own identity in a way … possibly a rockpool or reef, could that be classified as a garden?
Currently the ceramicist-in-residence at Saipua, Red Hook, Brooklyn, Simone Bodmer-Turner has been turning beautiful singular pieces in earthly tones and with natural imperfections. The irregularities of their shapes and textures give her ceramics an idiosyncratic feel not replicated in commercial, wheel-thrown pieces. Simone’s first forays into ceramics began with jewelry sold through independent boutiques, and her creative evolution into full-sized ceramics felt destined. Her local artist residencies have been based in Massachusetts and upstate New York. Simone has refined her skills in Onishi, Japan and Oaxaca, Mexico where the differing cultural perspectives towards ceramics has influenced her work, as well as the selection of clay and the process of shaping and firing. Simone’s work has a loyal following, and is found in private collections. Her recent show at Saipua, pictures of whom feature here, was successful, and several pieces sold out within the first hour. For more information, please visit her website(www.simonebodmerturner.com) or IG: @simonebodmerturner
Clay is a metamorphic medium that either can be generous or unforgiving under a creator’s hands. What is it about clay or the processing of shaping ceramics you appreciate over other media?
The romance of using a medium that is created by the intense pressure of the earth compressing rocks, minerals and decaying matter is an act I find endlessly poetic. It was a real kick in the gut to realize that most of the clay I’ve been using for years in city studios from ceramic supply stores are mixed as individual ingredients and are very distant from the original methods of digging and mixing clay. Getting closer to the original practices surrounding the medium is why I’ve traveled all over the world to study from communities who have less industrialized clay traditions.
As someone who moved very quickly to hand building after I was trained – as most who are interested in ceramics are in a city studio – on the wheel, clay really functions as a sculpture body for me. Learning the nuances of a clay body’s capabilities depending on its moisture level and physical composition is a never-ending endeavor to master. Though I feel that clay will certainly be part of my practice for my entire life, I’m itching to try different mediums like stone and concrete.
The dialogue between functionality and conceptual art seems to be a perennial conflict for ceramicists – the vessel in its elemental form exerts strong psychological hold on us humans as a receptacle for sustenance and seeing it as an art itself is harder to reconcile. At what point does your role as the artist becomes aligned with that as a craftsperson focused on functionality?
I fit into a strange niche in that I am drawn to historically functional forms – water vessels, wine and sake fermentation vessels, urns, ceremonial vessels – but I don’t work as a potter does, churning out functional ware, but preferably as an artist, creating one piece at a time, never to be exactly the same as the next and whenever inspiration strikes. Which luckily, is often. I’m well aware that this may well work to my detriment, but at the moment it works for me. That is not to say that I haven’t taken on projects or needed to set deadlines for myself which force me to work more like a production potter, but for the most part I work on my own time at multiple pieces at once as they dry in different intervals. Once you get a good groove going it’s a lot like cooking, and a body of work comes together bit by bit all together and each piece often winds up influencing each other in the way they might interact. Though at the moment, I’m making functional vessels, I am very interested in the sculptures of artists like Noguchi, Brancusi, and Calder and potters who have turned to sculpture like Peter Voulkos and Ruth Duckworth. I’d like to be incorporating more modern forms into the more traditional inspiration I’ve been working with.
The Dutch designer Hella Jongerius once said: “Colour is subjective, there is no truth in it. A colour by itself is nothing, and so it gets its character from the colours around it.” Your ceramic work takes on the muted earthly hues (i.e. ashen gray, white, rusty ochres), and they reflect the atmospheric light conditions from morning to evening. Although they are prized for their spare colors, Japanese and Mexican ceramics are well known for their brilliant colors. Was it a conscious decision to emphasize the form and texture over color for your work?
There’s two parts to the natural hues of my work. My base will always be a creamy, hyper-matte white. It doesn’t detract from the form, and keeps even the most Grecian inspired pieces feeling contemporary. I started using glazes in this spectrum as a stylistic choice but it has also acted as a placeholder while I test and experiment with recipes to get more texture and complexity onto the surface of my pots. After working in many collaborative spaces where the glazes are mixed for you by the staff and set out in buckets for you to essentially pick your color and put on a shelf to go into the kiln, I desperately wanted to understand the chemistry behind the muted creamy substances I was handing my artistic vision over to. Only in the last two years have I committed to mixing all of my own glazes and really understanding the naturally occurring, and, these days, many man-made, components of a glaze. I aspire to get to a point where a glazed piece can come out of the kiln and if I’m not happy with it I know what to tweak without having to scratch the whole batch. Matte white will always be my base, but I’m looking forward to seeing how all the test batches I’ve been working on come out.
Despite the preponderance of natural motifs in Japanese arts and culture, most people still view Japan as this country ensnared in futuristic, technology vise with little connection to the natural world while holding on its past relics. You have expressed surprise at the depth of the Japanese connection with nature. What were the few specific things that struck you during your time there?
I wouldn’t say that I was surprised to find how connected the Japanese people are to the natural world, as I tend to romanticize everything, but I would say that I was lucky to be in a place and with people where that connection is still deeply ingrained, rather than in a big city like Tokyo which I found very overwhelming commercially. The whole experience of firing the Anagama kiln up in the mountains was fantastic – in the magical sense of the word. We were up in the hills above Onishi amongst the cedars and the vines, staying in a cabin and taking turns stoking the fire through the night. I worked the 3am-9am shift with my dear friend who had flown over to help with the firing and travel around Japan with me. By 3 am most everyone had gone to sleep and it was just Elissa and I sitting in front of the fire telling stories often riddled with sleep deprived nonsensical humor, or often not talking, for hours listening to the deer call to each other through the forest. We would sip sake through the night and make coffee on the camp stove at the first sign of first light, and cook ourselves breakfast before the rest of camp had risen. When the other potters finally arrived to take over our shift, we would soak in the wood fired tub as the mist lifted out of the forest before taking a nap.
The Japanese community from the town and our friends who came to help with the firing just seemed comfortable and at ease living in the woods. Everyone moved confidently from cooking over gas to cooking over fire, foraging in the woods for the perfect stems and branches to decorate the communal table, having tea on a plank suspended from the trees rather than in a more traditional setting. It was an incredibly enchanting moment in time.
You were a fellow of the Pocoapoco, “a multi-disciplinary, research-based residency in Oaxaca, Mexico offering time for retreat, a platform for creative exploration and space for a collective intelligence”. This fellowship too molded your impressions on ceramics and its place there. What did you take away from Oaxaca that was different from Japan?
Though people imagine Japan is the place to go to train under a master, my work was more independent there, whereas Mexico was the place I worked under a master. Rufina and her sisters had been making pots since they were 6 years old and had learned their craft from their mothers and their grandmothers in Atztompa, a 30 minute drive outside of Oaxaca city center. They were incredibly skilled and had a profound knowledge and intimacy with the clay. Though the cultural experience in Japan was perhaps more formative for me – greatly in part to the fact that I was living there three months longer than I was in Mexico – my time in Oaxaca was incredibly formative stylistically and technically.
The pottery there, and generally in Central and South American, is still made the traditional way through various hand building techniques. Rather than being looked down on for my hand building tendencies, as I’ve experienced in many pottery communities in the developed world that favor the more perfect wheel thrown forms, my style was embraced in its familiarity. I learned many building and burnishing techniques from Rufina and her sisters, but what I really learned was not to be afraid of the clay, to handle it more forcefully in order to coerce it into the desired shape. I remember squirming while Rufina literally beat one side of my pot with her hand to get it symmetrical and took a machete to another pot to carve down imperfections. I took a bunch of jicaras home with me and have been carving and burnishing my pots with them to get a smoother surface than my earlier work. I’ve started working with sculpture body which has a lot of grog, which is similar to the clay bodies they dig and mix in Atzompa. The flexible strength of that clay has made me work less timidly.
How has becoming the ceramicist-in-residence at Saipua alter your perspective as the work will become complementary to cut flowers and plants?
Working with Sarah and her team of florists has been incredibly informative in terms of building vessels for specific arrangements of plants. Luckily, my work is heavy by default as I prefer to build with a thick coil and like the feel of something substantial which helps eliminate the problem of a pot falling over from the uneven weight of stems. Sarah’s arrangements are bountiful and wild, which often means putting stems in vessels in an nontraditional fashion, which she has been teaching me to build for. I am personally drawn to what can be done in a shallow vessel with a flower frog, and have been experimenting with building them into my pieces. It’s a constant learning and experimental process. Hand building lends itself to building interior walls and lips to assist the ill-balanced, but more interesting and poetic to accommodate the stem or branch. Just getting to handle the flowers and learn about them from Saipua has been incredible. Plus, the crew is some of the most hard working, deeply sweet, and insanely talented individuals I’ve met in any working environment. I’m very grateful to share space and artistic vision with them.
If a Simone Bodmer-Turner ceramic was transformed into a plant or garden, what would it be?
Hah I’m not sure if it’s exactly “me as a plant” but I am completely, undeniably in love with Pink Smoke Bush. The lightest shade. It’s the most ethereal plant with deep mauve-purple leaves that flowers into this frothy cloud of pinky purple feathers with mint green undertones. I never get tired of it. I want a whole yard full of them.
Ceramicists and gardeners are bonded by the same element: the earth they mold into vessels or cultivate for plants. The similarities end when the vessels, having been fired, are completed, but gardens continually develop until the gardener leaves or has relinquished control. Ceramics have a tactile warmth conspicuously missing from our digital lives we now inhabit. They permit us to access the fundamental and beautiful moments of life that evolve around eating and dining and growing. In all, they reference the humanistic touch not replicated online. There has been an increased popularity of ceramics not only as a craft, but also an art form. In this series over the next three weeks, we explore three ceramicists whose work reevaluate our perception of functionality and connect us tenuously to ephemera, especially cut flowers.
One outcome of the European colonization in South Africa was the establishment of botanic gardens and the affiliated research centers. Today Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden can trace its founding back to 1913 when a British expatriate Henry Harold Pearson, who had moved down in 1903 to chair the botany department at South African College (University of Cape Town), agreed to serve as its first director in spite of difficult beginnings. Botanists wasted no time in documenting the floral biodiversity of South Africa by publishing their finds and preserving specimens in herbaria like the Compton Herbarium. Books were published as people clamored to learn more about the exotic flora, some of which was then dispersed to other parts of the world (with some disastrous ecological consequences). These books followed the European tradition of commissioning skilled botanical illustrators to produce watercolor paintings and having botanists prepare the scientific descriptions.
A treasured plant monograph in my library is The Genus Dierama by O.M. Hilliard and B.L. Burtt, which I was fortunate to purchase from the RHS Wisley Bookshop despite being out of print! The watercolor renderings and pencil sketches of these photogenic iris relatives by Auriol Batten are among the best in the South African botanical illustration. Dierama, better known as Venus’s fishing rods, are best in mild maritime climates, such those of Ireland, northern California, and United Kingdom. They were in full glory when I interned in plant records at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and some were actually type plants from which Hilliard and Burtt described new species. Another plant monograph The Proteas of Southern Africa by John Rourke follows the same format with illustrations by Fay Anderson. I am often reminded of my days in Australia when I would buy cut protea flowers for floral arrangements. A local grower would arrive at the weekend market with buckets of different proteas to sell, and sometimes the temptation was too much to leave without them. Months later, I found myself transplanting Protea cynaroides, rightly called the king protea for its majestic large flowers, in a friend’s garden.
Kniphofias always drew snickers from my non-gardening friends who knew them as red hot pokers for they saw bawdry humor instead. However, I wasn’t always appreciative of what these South African natives had to offer. I first knew kniphofias as tritoma when I purchased plants from the bargain table, and watched them thrive in my modest garden plot. Unfortunately their lanky foliage always looked unkempt and became a liability as the flowers faded quickly in summer heat. Frustrated one day, I pulled out the plants to create space for more desirable perennials. Christopher Whitehouse’s horticultural monograph on Kniphofia, the first to be published in the RHS’s five year long horticultural taxonomy project, may change my perception for the genus. Christopher was the Keeper of Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium when he was one of my advisors on my M.S. project on putative Erica hybrids. I was aware of his life long affection for South Africa flora especially when he had worked on his doctorate on Cape roses (Cliffortia) in Cape Town. The Royal Horticultural Society Botany Department would not have found a more qualified person to study and publish the Kniphofia monograph, and the last authoritative reference was in the botanical journal Bothalia. Sorting out the species is already a monumental task, and adding the hybrids and various cultivars turns into a slippery path because Kniphofia interbreeds easily.
Whitehouse was able to draw from the RHS Plant Trial of kniphofias to sort out nomenclatural issues and confusion in the trade; the results compiled with the help of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee and RHS Botany Department resolved some contention over cultivars. He has had the good fortune and perspicuity to conduct field studies of the genus in the wild. Bringing together the cultivated plant nomenclature and field studies gave a better understanding of the polymorphic genus.
Throughout the book, one will find useful charts that categorize information, like the chronology of naming for various Kniphofia species, introduction of cultivars especially those raised by Maximilian Leichtlin, or the endemic species by geographic region. Gardeners will find the flowering period of the species and the color grouping of cultivars indispensable for planning their plantings.Most books on specific genera lack such charts that help readers make good decisions about plant selection.
The chapter on relatives helps elucidate the relationship of Kniphofia to similarly confused genera (i.e. Aloe and Bulbinella) in the same family Asphodelaceae. Whitehouse points out that traits separate Aloe from Kniphofia in the former’s succulent nature, absent keel in leaves, and upward orientation of the floral pedicels (stalks connecting the flowers to main stem). However, Aloe and Kniphofia show ecological convergence in their tubular flowers, which are adapted for pollination by sun birds, although competition is avoided by different flowering seasons (Aloe dominantly winter). An interesting note is that kniphofias with V-shaped leaves are less likely to flop than those with less pronounced V-shaped ones. It is a diagnostic feature worth remembering for anyone who has had the unpleasant task of cleaning slimy, cold damaged leaves in spring. One thing that surprised me was the medicinal use of Kniphofia for female ailments, although their use for twine and threaded talisman necklaces seem expected.
Cultivation is not shortchanged here as it would be in other monographs. Readers need to be aware that the perspective is that of UK rather than other regions which would experience either warmer summers or colder winters. Waterlogged soil during winter is usually the chief demise of kniphofias in northern climates, hence drainage is usually recommended. However, some moisture is needed if plants are to grow and produce good flowering.
The remaining 2/3 of the book is given over to species and cultivars. Whitehouse has mercifully pared down the diagnostic descriptions in floras to those important for identifying the species in an accessible manner. Each species is prefaced by color photographs that depict the flowerhead, the plant in full habit, and the habitat. Additional comments are reserved below the bullet list of traits. Whitehouse follows with the chapter on cultivars. Organized by color, cultivars are condensed with short descriptions with the breeder, date of introduction, and dimensions. A checklist of epithets helps with cross-referencing correct names and their earliest discovered sources. With several hundred varieties in existence, a gardener can find sorting out the names a time consuming ordeal. The checklist does much to straighten out the nomenclature affair.
Conclusions drawn in Kniphofia are not necessarily firm. A nurseryman friend who breeds kniphofias contends that Kniphofia thomsonii var. thomsonii ‘Stern’s Trip’ is not sterile, although it is not overly fertile. He has grown a few plants from its seed, despite the progeny not having any appreciable ornamental value. Another nurseryman has likewise raised seedlings, one of which is currently evaluated for its ornamental quality. However, no disagreement will and should dissuade gardeners from seeking out Kniphofia as a reference. It is rare for books to bridge the gap between horticulture and botany.
A seasoned traveler (it must be an Australian imperative to have a passport and see the world!), Claire has the enviable position of photographing beautiful places, namely gardens, throughout the world when she is not home in Victoria, Australia. I met her when she was in the East Coast US photographing gardens from New England to the Mid-Atlantic region.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m an Australian freelance garden photographer who travels 6-7 months of the year based out of England when not in Australia and to the US and Europe. I work mainly for magazines such as Gardens Illustrated and Garden Design and contribute to books.
The arts or horticulture?
It would have to be a fairly equal combination of both.
I studied art at school, with a keen interest in landscape painting and then completed a bachelor degree in Environmental Science.
I often see gardens as works of art and feel compelled to capture their beauty and I find light brings it all to life.
I have a great appreciation of nature and are always seeing plants I have never seen before. However, I am not driven by knowing all of the details of plant names etc. It’s more about the bigger picture and feelings that gardens evoke when skilfully planted and created by expert and passionate gardeners and garden designers.
How did you first become interested in photography, especially garden and landscape photography?
Upon completing my science degree, I left Australia with a one way ticket to London. This flight was the first time I really had freedom and time to explore the world and I became really interested in photography and constantly wanted to capture what I saw along my travels. I was often disappointed at how my images turned out when they came back from the lab, and really wanted to learn how to take better pictures that represented what I saw.
When I returned to Australia, I decided I wanted to do garden design or photography. Science was never really in the picture, but rather it was always a love of nature and wanting to work outdoors from the beginning.
I chose photography, and completed a two year full time course, beginning at 26. Initially I was really drawn to photographing landscapes and capturing light, which was about beauty in nature.
During the course, one of my projects resulted in photographing a garden, Cloudehill. Cloudehill is one of Australia’s best gardens by owner Jeremy Francis who inspired by the famous Arts and Crafts gardens of the UK. It just happened to be ten minutes down the road from where I’d grown up, but I’d never seen it until now. Francis’s garden reminded me of the great gardens I’d seen in the UK.
It was an absolute revelation having this garden all to myself at sunrise one morning and photographing it as I would for a landscape. There was just such beauty in this garden and I couldn’t believe how no one else was there capturing the moments. Cloudehill then became my initial inspiration for garden photography and the beginning of it all for me. It was the first garden I got published in Gardens Illustrated and it was the front cover image on the inaugural International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition, which I won in 2008.
Garden photography has been the focus for my life and travels ever since and it has taken me on such an interesting path to endless beautiful and amazing gardens and people throughout the world. I still love landscapes, but often I prefer just to enjoy them and concentrate my work on gardens. I find it’s so interesting to see what people at a really high level in horticulture are doing all around the world. I’m constantly surprised by the gardens I see. I too have a great love of gardening myself and I understand what it is to be totally swept away and consumed by gardening.
Some photographers prefer the morning light for producing the best images, others the evening light. The majority of your images appear to be taken during early morning when the first rays of light breaks apart the horizon or the mist. Has your experience naturally steered you towards mornings?
Yes, generally I much prefer morning light. My favorite morning is a cool morning which is a little misty and then the sun breaks through the mist. I love photographing in autumn and cool climates when the light is softer. In Australia our light is often so harsh that you have to be very quick to photograph before the window of nice light passes. I find the gardens quieter in the morning and I am fresher, which really allows me to focus on the photography only. Generally the light is more atmospheric in the mornings; however, it does depend on the garden’s orientation, as some gardens have nicer evening light and the time of year can change it as well. If possible, I generally try to get both sunrise and sunset lights in the garden.
At times, weather can be uncooperative for photography, necessitating repeat visits until it is optimal. Given scheduling constraints, how do you circumvent the frustration of inclement weather?
Weather is probably the most difficult thing I have to deal with. Almost everywhere I go, I seem to get unseasonal conditions, or so gardeners tell me. Climate seems to be noticeably changing around the world and affecting flowering times in gardens.
For some gardens, I just don’t seem to be lucky with the weather and I will have three or four goes at it. However, it really depends on where I am and how flexible the owners and I can be. Often I am working freelance, sourcing gardens myself and working with writers remotely, so I have to weigh up how long I can afford to wait. Sometimes I will have to work with the conditions as they are, such as having two shoots – an evening followed by a sunrise shoot, which may might give five minutes of nice light, but sometimes that is enough for a double page opener for a feature. More often than not, it’s not plausible to get the whole shoot with good light, which is frustrating. There are certain conditions though, such as dark grey clouds and high winds that make it impossible to get good shots. I have photographed for hours in the rain underneath an umbrella for a couple of gardens yet this patience has resulted in published features. My winning IGPOTY shot was photographed in snow underneath an umbrella.
Generally I keep an eye on the weather closer to the date and ask for a little flexibility with owners if possible. If I really feel a garden is worth capturing in good light and the weather is just not cooperative, I will go out of my way to return to a garden and shoot in good light. I have been know to get up at 2am and drive 3 hours for a fourth attempt at photographing the one garden. I often also have 14 + hour days when traveling in summer, with a shoot in the morning, some scouting during the day, driving and then another shoot at night. It can get pretty exhausting, but it’s worth it if the gardens and light are good.
Do you have a preliminary session or discussion with the garden owners as part of your ‘screening’ process? I have heard that understanding the owner(s)’ philosophy and approach towards gardening can help the photographer hone on specific details that reflect the garden’s personality.
Yes, if possible I always have a preliminary visit and walk around the garden with the owner or designer. It is important to have this time and get some understanding of the garden and the thought process and person behind it. There is much detail in gardens, thus it is helpful to have some special plants or specific garden areas pointed out. Then I like to take another walk around the garden by myself without my camera, look at it, and walk around it from different angles, so you can plan a bit mentally as to what you need to capture and some good spots to shoot from. I always make sure I know which direction the sun will be coming up and moving through the garden.
Any photographic tips you wish to share with your readers?
Light – this aspect is the most important thing apart from timing. It is crucial to time the photography for a peak time in the garden, whether that be spring flowering or autumn color if possible. Once you have the visit’s timing right, light then is critical because it completely changes the mood or feeling of the images and captures the beauty of the garden. I like to follow the light around the garden as it moves throughout the morning or evening. It essentially dictates the shots I take. When the light is at its best early in the mornings, I focus on the wider landscape shots. As it then moves around the garden, I use it to highlight certain parts or plants on the garden for closer, more detailed shots. Finally once it is too bright, you often can’t achieve those overall shots without too much contrast between shadows and highlights.
Composition – good light is great, but you need to pair it with good composition. Look for a shot that is balanced, and for the wider shots to have detail in the foreground, mid ground and distance.
Tripod – As personal preference, I still always use a tripod with a shutter release for low light conditions to ensure my pictures are sharp and I find it helpful for careful framing of images.
Ladder – lately I’ve been really enjoying the perspective of gardens while shooting from ladders. Particularly with gardens with tall perennials it really helps to capture the scene.
Shoot into the light – if you position the camera so it is protected from direct flare (although sometimes this tactic can work) either behind a tree or plants in the frame and shoot into the light, you can get some nice lighting effects when the light is low.
Please pick at least 5 of your favorite or best images and explain why they appeal to you the most.
Kenrokuen, Japan.Winner of inaugural IGPOTY 2008
This is probably my most favorite image. One that I don’t tire of looking at. It feels timeless and a beautiful/magical moment captured. Reminds me of a painting. I saw this shot and framed it with the bridge, but then the couple crossing at the perfect moment definitely made the shot, for which I was very grateful.
Cloudehill, Victoria, Australia.
This garden is very special to me. My initial inspiration. I love the symmetry of this image. The beautiful planting and the soft light at sunrise. Your eye is really led to the seat in the distance and the path draws you into the scene.
Windcliff, Indianola, Washington State, USA (Dan Hinkley).
Hard to imagine a more spectacular backdrop for a garden. I love the soft light at sunrise and the beautiful plants in Dan’s garden and how he frames the view of Mount Rainier. I love how the sunrise is capturing the tops of the trees on the top right of the image. I find it is a peaceful image, completely still and almost surreal.
Gravetye Manor, West Sussex, United Kingdom.
I loved this garden and its setting. The planting by head gardener Tom Coward was spectacular. I find this image has a lot of depth to it as I tried to capture the many layers and paths in the garden and then the soft mist in the distance at sunrise. There is a lot going on in this garden, but with a beautiful subtlety that I tried to capture it here.
Blair garden, New Zealand.
I really loved this garden and its location. This was taken on the fourth consecutive day that I’d visited the garden and walked up the hill multiple times to get some nice light there, to show the setting of the garden surrounded by the majestic mountain backdrop. I waited until the light highlighted the grass in the foreground, which then leads your eye to the owners house and garden and then the distant landscape.