Good Peo­ple

How this flo­ral artist and pho­tog­ra­pher’s works pro­voke crit­i­cal think­ing on so­ci­etal ideals and taboos.

Good - - HOME - Words Natalie Cyra. Pho­tog­ra­phy Emma Bass

Pho­tog­ra­pher Emma Bass on her work’s pur­pose

It im­me­di­ately be­comes clear af­ter step­ping into artist Emma Bass’ home that this is a woman who is be­sot­ted with flow­ers. There are flo­ral spec­ta­cles adorn­ing ev­ery man­tel­piece, ta­ble and cab­i­net in sight. I find Bass in her stu­dio busily mul­ti­task­ing, snapping shots and re­ar­rang­ing a hibis­cus flower as part of the vi­brant mas­ter­piece she is creating. Her at­ten­tion to de­tail is re­mark­able. “Isn’t it just mag­nif­i­cent,” she says, re­ar­rang­ing the shot, then run­ning out to her gar­den to scav­enge for a hy­drangea flower.

Flow­ers have been the pri­mary sub­ject of Bass’ work for more than six years, but she seems to fall in love with them even more by the minute. I asked her about the mes­sages in her work and why it brings her a re­sound­ing sense of pur­pose.

Your ca­reer has lasted 25 years, how has it evolved?

I’ve al­ways seen the world in a com­po­si­tional way and through a lens. It all started while I was work­ing as a nurse in Lon­don dur­ing the late 1980s. I did a pho­tog­ra­phy course in Le­ices­ter Square and I was com­pletely hooked. I came back to New Zealand where I prop­erly trained for two years and started my ca­reer with ed­i­to­rial and com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy, mostly con­cen­trat­ing on peo­ple.

How did you get into flo­ral com­po­si­tion and pho­tog­ra­phy?

I was shoot­ing a cover for a mag­a­zine and we were pho­tograph­ing a per­son but we needed some­thing to fill in the back­ground. So I sug­gested some flow­ers. There were some mag­no­lia trees on the

road­side which I grabbed, and threw to­gether in one of my white vases. They had marks all over them be­cause there had been a hail­storm, but I knew the flow­ers weren’t go­ing to be in fo­cus, so I over­looked their im­per­fec­tions. Af­ter­wards, when every­one had left, I couldn’t help but pho­to­graph them. My neigh­bour saw this and wanted a print for her wall. It was be­cause they were imperfect that she found them so beau­ti­ful. I started ex­plor­ing the whole idea of im­per­fec­tion and how in our so­ci­ety there’s a drive to be per­fect. Try­ing to achieve per­fec­tion will drive you in­sane and I am a self-con­fessed per­fec­tion­ist, so it was great go­ing down the road of be­ing imperfect, look­ing for things that weren’t per­fect to bring to light. I had an ex­hi­bi­tion [called Imperfect] and haven’t looked back. I think peo­ple find the im­ages re­as­sur­ing.

Na­ture and flow­ers are a big in­spi­ra­tion for your work. Why?

Flow­ers have been em­ployed to rep­re­sent our ideas and emo­tions as far back as we can trace our artis­tic her­itage. East­ern or West­ern. Flow­ers are one of the most univer­sal forms of beauty, to­kens of love, a nat­u­ral ex­pres­sion of the en­vi­ron­ment. It speaks to the uni­ver­sal­ity of beauty. Ev­ery­where in the world, flow­ers are cher­ished in some form. Na­ture is the most pure, beau­ti­ful thing. Our world has be­come very de­tached from na­ture, so my work is a lovely way to have na­ture in your en­vi­ron­ment and in your home. I am med­i­ta­tive when I cre­ate the work and it’s my way of con­nect­ing with, and study­ing, na­ture. Noth­ing is per­fect in life but there’s still a beauty in it all. Death is a taboo sub­ject that I am in­ter­ested in be­cause, be­ing an ex-nurse, some of my most re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ences were nurs­ing dying peo­ple. We know the flow­ers are go­ing to die at some point but they are beau­ti­ful in their de­cay. We are all head­ing to­wards demise and I am in­ter­ested in de­mys­ti­fy­ing the whole idea of death. In dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances we can still meet beauty. I am very in­ter­ested in get­ting my work into places of healing.

What is your most re­cent se­ries, Em­bel­lish about?

Imperfect led to Em­bel­lish, my new body of work. Our world is em­bel­lished, our lives are em­bel­lished, the news is em­bel­lished, we in­creas­ingly em­bel­lish our­selves ... you don’t know what’s real any­more. Hav­ing pho­tographed a lot of well-known peo­ple over the years, I’ve ob­served women ob­sessed with the way they look. We all self-em­bel­lish in dif­fer­ent ways. For ex­am­ple, I some­times feel naked with­out a good lip­stick on. The bou­quets have all been em­bel­lished in some way, fake flow­ers com­bined with real flow­ers, some are painted, some are em­bel­lished with ob­jects. I am in­ter­ested in the idea of, if you know if some­thing is false, is it any less beau­ti­ful be­cause it is ‘in­au­then­tic’? How do you de­fine beauty? Does some­thing have to be ‘real’ for it to be beau­ti­ful?

You also in­cor­po­rate the Ja­pa­nese art of re­pair­ing bro­ken pot­tery, kintsugi, into some of your works.

I love the phi­los­o­phy of kintsugi, which is the art of re­pair­ing bro­ken pot­tery with gold. The ob­ject be­comes more beau­ti­ful once it’s ac­tu­ally bro­ken and re­paired. It re­ally resonated with me – so with my bro­ken vases (they some­times ar­rive in more than one piece, and some­times they have been ca­su­al­ties of my chil­dren’s play) I taught my­self how to kintsugi. There’s the infamous Leonard Co­hen lyric: “For­get your per­fect of­fer­ing, there is a crack in ev­ery­thing, that’s how the light gets in.”

Which artists in­spire you?

I have a house filled with flo­ral art, in­clud­ing a mas­sive flower sculp­ture by Ge­off Thomp­son. I like to be sur­rounded by all flower forms. I love the work of English artist Ann Car­ring­ton who makes in­cred­i­ble sculp­tures of flower ar­range­ments out of English sil­ver cut­lery. Karl Bloss­feldt did beau­ti­ful botan­i­cal stud­ies in the early 1900s, and I love the Dutch Mas­ters, which I’ve found in­spi­ra­tional for my Em­bel­lish work. In 2016, I had a work ac­cepted into the Royal Academy Sum­mer Ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don and while there I vis­ited a Dutch flower still life ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery. To see these ex­quis­ite mas­ter­pieces up close in the flesh was quite a piv­otal mo­ment.

What are your plans for the rest of 2018?

Two works from my Em­bel­lish se­ries will be go­ing to an ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don at the Daniel Raphael Gallery. It’s a col­lab­o­ra­tive show of con­tem­po­rary artists show­ing flo­ral work. I am also work­ing on two brand new bod­ies of work at the mo­ment. I’m very ex­cited to see how they de­velop as I get more in­volved with them. Of course, it’s all quite a jug­gle with two won­der­ful chil­dren to look af­ter, but I have be­come a mas­ter of mul­ti­task­ing.

“Noth­ing is per­fect in life, but there’s still a beauty in it all.”

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