Art photographer Emma Bass was the only New Zealander invited to exhibit at last year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Although her floral portraits have won many fans both here and overseas, Emma didn’t always follow such a painterly path. She was a cardiothoracic nurse before she discovered the joy of photography. But, as she tells writer Claire McCall, she can see parallels between these two professions
Tell us more about your childhood.
I was born in Liberia, West Africa, because my parents had relocated there when my father was studying tropical medicine. I don’t remember much about it but to this day I love African music – it must be a primal thing! My father, Nigel Bass, was a cardiologist who had graduated from Oxford University so after two years in West Africa, we returned to England and then came to NZ when I was six. We came to NZ for my father’s work, as at that time Greenlane Hospital was the finest place in the world to specialise in cardiology, under Sir Brian Barrett-Boyes. Mainly I grew up in Epsom, while Dad worked as a cardiology consultant and mum as a radiographer at Greenlane and Auckland hospitals.
Where did you study?
I went to school at St Cuthbert’s then studied nursing in Auckland. Dad was devoted to medicine; as a child I can remember him showing me jars of hearts preserved in formalin. I was fascinated. But I was also always passionate about photography. I saw the world through a lens, taking loads of pictures at family gatherings. During a stint nursing in London, I took a short course in photography and found that others thought I had a “good eye”. When I returned home I studied photography at Unitec.
Why floral portraits - what began this inspiration?
I see flowers as one of the most universal forms of beauty. Every culture celebrates them in some way – from the East where they are meditative offerings, to the West, where in the time of the Dutch Masters, they were symbols of wealth and status. They are also tokens of love and a natural expression of the environment. During difficult times, they are a reprieve. Some, like peonies, are impossibly beautiful. But because they bloom and fade so quickly, they are also metaphors of life and death.
You explore the nature of beauty in the works - how has this exploration evolved?
Embellish is a body of work that progressed from my previous series, Imperfect, some examples of which can be seen at Parnell Gallery. In this series, I explore how we tend to build facades in our life. We create them to enhance our beauty or conceal realities, and I ask whether that compromises our authenticity? I am interested in the paradox of embellishment versus being true to ourselves, as we move through life and take on different roles within our family and the wider world. These new floral arrangements are augmented with a range of enhancements, which include paint, objects, artificial flowers and complementary lighting.
What do you like to do when you’re not making art?
Spend time with my children – Olive who is 16 and attends Diocesan and George, 8. I have also started learning to paint and am reinterpreting old Dutch Bosschaert floral artworks. I long for more time to develop this! Oh, and knitting: I’ve just finished a multi-coloured alpaca wool scarf.
Where do you get the flowers that feature in your works?
From everywhere — friends, neighbours, markets, even the side of the road. I often pop in for a cup of tea to my mother’s place in Remuera. She has a lovely English-style garden with roses, nasturtiums, lavender, magnolias, Japanese anemones and star jasmine creeper. Sometimes we go for walks up Mt Hobson — I especially love the spring time when the slopes are covered in jonquils and daffodils.
What has art brought to your world – and the world of others?
It has filled me with a sense of purpose. Making my floral ‘portraits’ feels like a calling; I’ve always wanted to fulfill the artist within me, and this is the perfect medium. I feel privileged that my work brings beauty and joy into the world since there’s far too much ugliness around us. As an ex-nurse, I think art has an important place in hospitals because something beautiful can make a difference to someone’s day especially when they are feeling vulnerable. I am proud that 12 of my portraits are in scattered in different places around Auckland Hospital. While flowers inspire different responses in people, I would like to think that my work is healing.