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Artist Kristin Sjaarda

After winning an International Scholarship to the Colorado Institute of Art in 1992, Kristin Sjaarda (b. 1971, Canada) went on to work as a photographer for 10 years in the commercial and editorial fields, winning awards in both categories. Lately she has been focusing on fine art photography and ceramics.

Using the style of Dutch Golden Age painters as a jumping-off point, and objects passed down to her from her Dutch grandmother’s family, she photographs flowers grown in her downtown Toronto neighborhood alongside the fauna that live and thrive in an urban environment.

While working from a home studio she is dependent on the schedule of her young family to present opportunities to find the time to work. Both the presence and occasional absence of family enhances the idea of time passing quickly. Watching a flower slowly fade can be likened to watching children mature before our very eyes into adults. The ephemeral nature of her subject matter and her life as a parent are present as themes in her digital photography. In this way, art and life are seamless and integrated.

Kristin Sjaarda has lead workshops and given talks for FLAP Canada in such institutions such as the Ontario Science Centre about the intersection of art and biology. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her photographer husband and their three boys. She won the artist residence at Kingsbrae gardens for 2020 (postponed) Kristin is represented by Kahn Gallery in the UK and VanRensburg Gallery in Austrailia and Alison Milne Gallery in Toronto. Her work has been shown in Art Fairs and Galleries in Toronto, Hamburg, Miami, New York and London and are in private collections internationally.

"Motivated by a kind of eco-anxiety for the natural world, I photograph specimens of birds and insects, as well as local plants, as a kind of talisman against an unknown future.

This past season, inspired by the paintings of Rachel Ruysch (b. 1664, The Hague), I also began including local moss and mushrooms to evoke the forest floor in the tradition of "sottobosco" (understory) paintings. In contrast to the lush flowers in the arrangements, the lower section of the photographs feature pests, bug-eaten leaves, fungus and decomposing vegetation. This push-and-pull between opposites - - living and dying, light and dark, predator and prey - - is the conceptual framework and foundation for these still life photos.

In the spring, many songbirds migrate through my city and lose their lives when they collide with office buildings. I work closely with the head of the Royal Ontario Museum Ornithology Department, who researches and collects these songbirds. I have also worked with the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory in Kitchener, Ontario, who provide local butterfly and moth specimens. Using the most flamboyant varieties of flowers from my small, urban garden, I make my images using natural light from one small window in my home. My aim is to highlight the fragility of the flowers, the feathers of the fallen birds, and the delicate structures of the insects, in a manner consistent with Northern Renaissance painting from the 16th and 17th centuries.

While the historical artworks I use as inspiration were made in an era of expansion and exploitation, my images are modern in technique. Using a digital camera and only local flora and fauna, I strive to document and preserve what is now threatened by climate change.

The images are a reflection of both my Dutch heritage and the city that I live in, and are presented at a larger-than-life scale to render these fragile subjects in a manner that is powerful, provocative, and immersive."

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the arts.

I live in Toronto with my husband and three boys. I have a small garden where I grow a few flowers and some veggies. In the summer when I’m not shooting, I’m camping with the kids. We love to be near a lake when the weather gets hot. I took the long road to get here to this practice of still life photography. I’m a late bloomer but that’s ok! The flowers that bloom late in the year are beautiful too! I received and international scholarship for photography at The Colorado Institute of Art in Denver. From there I assisted and started shooting on my own in Vancouver, BC. Once I decided to establish myself as a commercial photographer I moved to Toronto. There I ran a commercial photography business for a few years. Then I quit to work in a yoga studio and did my teacher training. I was at home with my kids when they were very small and it was then that I got the itch to explore photography again. I reached for what was close at hand and that was the start of the still life's. Now I fill this out with flowers from other gardeners, antiques that I have found, bones and skulls I have bought and collected, insects both found and acquired. What kind of work are you currently making? I’m a photographer, but I feel like the material I really work in is flowers. I set up my still life in the studio and it’s often a kind of sculptural experience. I don’t stand behind the camera, I sit on a little wooden stool at eye level to my flowers. As I am arranging, I think about where these flowers have come from and what creatures would have lived among them before they were harvested. I think about the colours that I’m using and I see if I can find a feather or butterfly that echoes those colours. I’m creating a kind of fantastic environment for the camera. The last step is to actually push the shutter button and capture the scene as a digital file. What is a day like in the studio for you?

I like to get my flowers as local and fresh as I can so my process often starts with a visit to a field or garden where a flower farmer is working. i get the lowdown on rainfall, pest management and upcoming blooms. We often chat about our families. Then I get a bucket full of flowers and bring them home to my studio. My studio, as you can see from the video, is a corner of my bedroom. There I open my curtains, set up a table from 3 loose boards on my bedside table, hang my backdrop, sort my flowers by stem length and colour, choose the vessel and the nests, birds, feathers, eggs, skulls, moths or butterflies from my collection to add in. I often set up uno evening, allow the flowers to open over the next day and then I’m ready to shoot in the evening when the light from my window is best. I only use natural light. It is very important to me that the final image has loads of interesting detail in the shadows so I spend a lot of time moving little bits incrementally until it feels right. I have as much time as the flowers stay alive. Once they fade and die, it’s time to clean up. For some flowers this is many days, some only hours. My time in the studio needs to fit around what is happening with my kids but luckily for me, my husband is the cook in our house. What are you looking at right now and/or reading?

I have always read a lot of fiction. I’m reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler right now and I just finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Where can we find more of your work?

You can see my daily practice or keep up with what is blooming in my garden on my IG @ksjaar I also just started a ceramics page as I’ve been doing a lot of that @kjs_ceramics Once the art fairs are up and running again I’m represented by two galleries that show my work internationally, Kahn Gallery in the UK and VanRensburg Gallery in Australia. I have a few pieces showing right now at Gallery 133 in Toronto.

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