LA BOTANICA: When I saw your work for the first time, I thought you were one of the best florists of our time, but it turned out in the conversation that your priority is art photography. How did this merger happen?
EMMA BASS: Thank you! I’m not a florist at all, but a fine art photographer. I started out my life as a nurse, then followed my passion for photography and became a commercial photographer/art director for over 20 years within New Zealand. People are surprised when I say I’m not a florist, but I do my own flower arranging. I have a natural eye for composition, which I transfer to composing in real-time with the flowers. I like to create harmony with my compositions. Rather than calling these bouquets, I like to think of these as ‘floral constructions,’ and when I create these, I get into a very meditative state, and they just seem to flow out of me. It’s when I am most happy!
LB: How did you come to photography in your life, and why did flowers become your main characters?
EB: I started photographing flowers as a way of coping during a very challenging time in my life about eight years ago. To me, flowers are the epitome of beauty and joy, so I surrounded myself with them to add happiness, healing, and peace to my life. People responded to this and seemed to want them on their walls, so I’ve carried on and am continually developing new ways of seeing the blooms. I have found my language and voice.
LB: From what images, memories, experiences was born the style of your floral artworks?
EB: This is a new collection and direction for me called ‘A Little Garden’ - quite different from my earlier featured work. It is inspired by both a passion and obsession for the 17th Century Dutch Flower paintings, and also the Matisse cutouts (which I encountered in New York as a 20 year old). I was taken with the idea that Matisse made these cutouts when he was over 80 and incapacitated - creating anything through adversity really resonated with me. I love the pure simple form of these shapes contrasted with the meticulous detail of the Dutch flower paintings. The title of the series is called ‘A Little Garden’ because that is what Matisse wanted to create with his cutouts in the room that he could not leave due to being in a wheelchair. These are appropriated recontextualised still lives; a mix of photography and collage. I have rephotographed a reproduction of a Dutch flower painting, superimposing other elements onto the print. Then I rework the image adding the Matisse cut out shapes which are gilded in 24k gold. So I’ve created a new still life borrowing from two other historical art movements which I am paying homage to. Picasso is known for saying ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal,’ so I’m not sure if I’ve borrowed or stolen, but eventually, I’ve created something new.
LB: What trends in floristry could you highlight?
EB: I have some wonderful floral artists I follow who inspire me. I’ve been lucky enough to befriend some of them when I’ve exhibited in London in recent years. (Instagram is a great way to make like-minded connections.) These are true artists who work with flowers - Manu Torres and Sophie Parker in the USA, Yan Skates, and Harriet Parry in London, Brandy Kraft in Sweden… They are all using flowers in the most innovative ways, thinking outside the square, painting on them, using unexpected combinations/colors, being avant-garde. I love seeing something original and something that makes me feel.
B: In your previous arrangements, there are several heroes of the second plan: in the first place, they are vases of the most unusual form. How did your collection appear, and how many vases do you have?
EB: In my previous earlier works I used a great variety of vases which became an integral part of the work. I am a collector and also an aficionado of vases. I have over 200 of them. The vases are an important part of my work as they are vessels. Vessels are containers that hold something… in this case the flowers. I sometimes see them as metaphors for us and our bodies, with the flowers symbolising the life that goes on around us. I have an instinctive, exacting eye for collecting the vases. I collect vases that I respond to from an aesthetic perspective… It’s a very intuitive thing. I search for interesting pieces worldwide. I love the process of searching online as there is such a vast sea of vases all over the world. I collect the vases as I find them, and I’m very interested in the sense of history as well as enthusiastic about the huge range of shapes. I love the fact that these vases have all had an unknown life, and often wonder what sorts of owners and homes they’ve had. They will all have stories to tell. I don’t have hugely detailed knowledge about the vases, but I am learning as I collect from different eras and parts of the world.
LB: Thirdly, unexpected characters, and gold. How do they influence your work?
EB: I am adding a touch of whimsy to these images by playing on the fact that the Dutch Painters added so many insects and creatures into their works. So I’ve also added more that I’ve come across in my everyday travels such as bees, butterflies, caterpillars, shells, etc. I have also added some plastic creatures that are in my son’s toy collection. He, too, is a collector (obviously inherited) and has many species. I liked the idea of adding a flamingo to a Bosschaert, and a cat to a Van Aelst … there is lots to discover in these works! I have gilded the Matisse shapes with 24k gold as it is the most precious metal worthy of this work.
LB: What part of the work is the most attractive to you?
EB: I love the process of bringing it all together to make a whole new work. The combination of those separate parts unites to make a new experience. They shimmer, which is a joyful experience.
LB: How long does it take to create one composition?
EB: It is hard to put a time on this… I think a long time in my head before I choose which work I am going to use, and what I’m going to add to it. Then I photograph it, which takes a day, and the next part is the assemblage, which can take days or weeks as I often let it sit and then return to it with new thoughts and ideas. The final part is applying the 24k gold leaf, which adds a whole new dimension to the work.
LB: Why should a person surround himself with things that we associate with Botanica?
EB: Because flowers are one of the most universal forms of beauty. Flowers have been employed to represent our ideas and emotions as far back as we can trace our artistic heritage. Eastern or Western. They are tokens of love, a natural expression of the environment. Everywhere in the world, flowers are cherished in some form. To work with and speak about these metaphors of life, death, reality, and illusion via the medium of the floral arrangement is a huge joy and privilege for me. I would like my artworks to help to make the world a better place
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