“Even though the camera captures the most exquisite detail, it’s still never going to be the same as my memory of these flowers.”
For many people, a garden is a place to escape reality, find peace, return to the roots. But Canadian artist TM Glass believes that life of the garden — that beauty — should be intertwined with our lives, shaping us and our environment.
“I think that the world is experiencing a time when they need something beautiful,” Glass says. “We are having so many problems with the environment and with politics, I think that they need to think about nature — the beauty of nature, and the nature of beauty.”
Glass is pioneering a new medium of art that blends photography with digital painting, using classical artistic perspectives that are moving away from the direction of contemporary art. “Over the last century, architects and artists believed that beauty should not be relevant in works of art,” the artist explains. But Glass, and many other artists today, believe it’s time to revive the traditional aesthetic of beauty — and Glass has chosen the perfect subject matter for art.
“Flowers are the most beautiful things on this planet,” Glass says. “For thousands of years, flowers have been a symbol of love and peace — people have recognized the beauty of flowers. As an artist, it’s what I can contribute to the world now.”
The artist’s love affair with flowers began at an early age, when visiting Grandmother’s house, a wonderful change from the suburb, with only “skinny trees on the front lawn.” But Glass’ grandmother’s garden, filled with roses, peonies, lilies, bleeding hearts, tulips, daffodils and fruit trees, “was like a little paradise,” the artist recalls. “She inspired me to think that one day I might have a garden like hers.”
As an art student, almost like a mother capturing the life of her newborn, Glass “started documenting the creation of my own garden with a little tiny point-and-shoot camera,” the artist says with a laugh, thinking back on that old rudimentary six-megapixel camera — a long way from the new 100-megapixel Glass has now. But this casual hobby turned into passion, into art, aligned with the perspective of William Morris, a leading designer from the international Arts and Crafts movement in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inspiring decorative arts to return to traditional craftsmanship and classical beauty.
“Machines were taking over and making things that were not so beautiful, but cheap,” Glass says. “William Morris created this movement to recapture the old ways and make sure they didn’t die out, for weavers and dyers of wool using the old natural dyes, people using ceramic tiles, using the old places and tapestry and wallpaper, block prints — he rescued those. We need people concerning themselves with perfection and the care that the old artisans used to pride themselves on.”
Some of Morris’ philosophies especially resonated with Glass while pioneering a new medium of digital painting and photography. “When you cut flowers, they are so beautiful, but you sense that they won’t last very long, so their beauty is heightened by the fact that they are cut in water instead of growing in the ground,” says the artist. “There is something very, very touching about that.”
But Glass’ protagonists would need proper homes, as coffee cups would no longer suffice.
“For many centuries, artists have been creating vessels for cut flowers — vases and even teapots — because people like to celebrate the beauty of flowers in their homes, and even where they work,” Glass says. “So now I’m on a quest for vases in the world that are the most beautiful that I can find.”
After photographing priceless vases from Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and Gardiner Museum, the Canadian artist will be heading to England to photograph vases from the collection of the Royal Family. While Glass spearheads this medium, digitally blending the perfect beauty of flowers with the world’s most rare vases, the approach is still rooted in ancient thought and technique.
A classic touch
“In the last 60 to 100 years of art history, modern artists moved away from thinking about depth of the illusion and the illusion of depth,” Glass says. “The pendulum went as far as it possibly could go in contemporary art painting, where the image became as flat as it could possibly be — it was merely paint on canvas.”
For Glass, that two-dimensional, lifeless perspective — and the medium of photography alone — weren’t going to do the beloved petalled friends justice. “My artistic intention is to capture the memories and the dreams about the flowers and the vases,” Glass says. “Cameras are just a machine, just a piece of equipment that is limited in the way it can see and capture the image. But the human mind captures the memory of an image quite differently. For my pictures, I work with light almost in the way that a sculptor does, finding a shape through light and shadow.”
In art school, Glass was fortunate to have studied with older teachers well-versed in classical art, history and technique, who understood the fundamentals of light, shade and composition, arguably the most essential element of beauty, which has been lost over the last several decades.
“When people look at beautiful things, they know it immediately, it’s an instinct to recognize something that’s beautiful,” says Glass. “For most people, if they are in contact with something in nature, that makes them feel physically, mentally, and emotionally serene and happy. You might look at a flower, a leaf, a bird or a tree, and feel a resonance. The reason for that is that nature creates all natural things with a mathematical proportion—the golden ratio. It was revived in the Renaissance, and artists and architects throughout the ages — ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks, for example — have always used this proportion of nature.”
Glass also uses a black background for all paintings, a technique used by 16th, 17th and 18th-century Dutch masters. “They painted flowers and still-life pictures and discovered that if they had a black background, then the flower’s colours would be very jewel-like,” Glass explains. “It’s a very enchanting way of presenting a colour.”
While Glass magically blends new technology with ancient art theory, one traditional concept particularly stands out — and sheds light on why these works of art are so special. For centuries, it’s the singular spirit of the artist or artisan, the unique perspective and soul, that finds its way into the work of art. Glass is no exception, pouring heart and soul into a single painting for two to three months at a time.
“Even though the camera captures the most exquisite detail, it’s still never going to be the same as my memory of these flowers,” Glass says. “So, when I’m working on putting the picture together, I’m able to use the digital technology that’s available to me to bring that picture into my memory and love for this memory, and so it becomes very personal. It’s my memory of the flowers that’s mixed in with the camera’s memory of the flowers.”