Jonathan Hobin, Olivia Johnston, Whitney Lewis-Smith and Meryl McMaster are vibrant creatives that all share a prestigious connection to the School of the Photographic Arts Ottawa (SPAO), and are currently attracting attention on both the national and international stage for their breathtaking and thoughtful photographic artwork.
Jody Surette, Associate Director at Galerie St-Laurent + Hill, explains the increased appetite for photographic images that are unique and special. “Thanks to young artists that are doing new and interesting things with the medium of photography, moving it from the common snapshot to fine art photography, we have seen a steady growth of interest in the Ottawa market over the past ten years.”
Describing herself as a very imaginative and introverted child, Meryl McMaster first found herself in front of the camera out of necessity. “One of my assignments at the Ontario College of Art and Design was to take a portrait. I was too shy to ask someone, so I just took it of myself. Self-portraiture is a now signature of my images.”
Plains Cree from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan and a member of the Siksika First Nation in Alberta, Meryl’s work explores how one’s sense of self is formed through experience on the land, lineage, history and culture. “My own Indigenous and European heritage does inform the work, but also I look more broadly at issues like the environment and our human impact on the earth, animals and natural surroundings.”
One of Meryl’s projects, As Immense as the Sky, evolved from her interest in the passage of time and how her world views had been informed. “It was mind-boggling for me to think about how much history has gone by, will continue to go by, and the landscapes my ancestors had experienced.”
Asked what she would like her dreamlike, theatrical images to evoke in others, Meryl says, “My hope it that people will be able to use them as portals into their own conversations. Perhaps they could be a teaching tool for future generations, to discuss our own troubled Canadian history. A way of looking to the past, but also forward with hope.”
Meryl’s work will be part of an upcoming group exhibition, Inaabiwin/Movement of Light, in early October at the Ottawa Art Gallery.
Olivia Johnston draws upon her artistic talent and education in art history to explore themes such as beauty, gender and sexuality throughout her work. Each project tells a story to hopefully inspire open conversation on topics that might otherwise be difficult to broach. “As vulnerability is something that I often request of my subjects, I only feel it fair that I too share personal struggles with my audiences.”
In projects, like Trauma (Photo Booth) which documents Olivia’s battle with acne, and I May Be Crazy But Not that Crazy, based on her own experience with cyberbullying, she considers the interesting dichotomy between beauty and horror. “You can often make something beautiful out of a horrible experience.”
Using a wide variety of both simple and advanced cameras in her work, Olivia also employs digital post-production methods to manipulate the faces of her subjects. “I want to draw people’s attention to the fact that photographs can lie, and that identity is much more fluid than the way we look.”
Her current project, Saints and Madonnas, is being shown at Carleton University Art Gallery this fall. It features unconventional images of subjects, including Olivia’s mother, depicted as religious figures. Pondering whether the Madonna image can exist in a contemporary way, and what is required for the designation of holiness or saintliness in today’s world, the project also includes questions of gender as a large component.
With so many skills in her possession, Olivia’s warmth and compassion contribute to her success. “I like the idea of finding the magic in people around me and putting them in the studio; photographing them is my way of doing that.”
While living on a marine science base near the Maldives documenting the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean, Whitney Lewis-Smith began to explore further ways that her camera could be used creatively to photograph objects located beneath the surface.
Today, she uses a combination of historic and photographic processes to produce breathtaking images. They often feature natural elements which are no longer alive, to invite discussion on themes of consumerism, sustainability and globalization’s impact on the environment.
Educated in biology and greatly concerned about society’s treatment of the environment, Whitney frequently travels the globe to places like Mexico City and the cloud forests of Veracruz in search of the perfect specimens and objects needed to create each poignant image.
Embracing the concept of, Biophilia, meaning how humans possess an innate tendency to seek connection with nature and other forms of life, Whitney uses her art to play into the viewer’s childlike passion for nature. She wants her images to induce subtle visual connections to something innately loved, so audiences will feel the instinctive urge to protect it, while also feeling “connected and excited about the lushness of this world we live in and its creatures.”
This fall, Whitney’s latest work will be featured in a three-artist interactive group show titled TERRAMATTER at Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery.
Born in Ottawa and a graduate of Canterbury High School, Jonathan Hobin is perhaps best known for his major projects, Mother Goose, In the Playroom, Cry Babies and Little Lady/Little Man.
His first major project, Mother Goose, was conceived when a very young Jonathan began to detect a darker narrative in books of traditional Mother Goose rhymes. “As a kid, I always felt that childhood was a much darker experience than what is portrayed in pop culture.”
Witnessing the widespread impact of 9/11 while attending Ryerson University led to the creation of In the Playroom, which depicts images of children innocently playing out the details of contemporary news tragedies. “I remember thinking that these grand stories of the 24-hour news cycle were perhaps the modern fairy tales of our time,” says Jonathan. He adds that Playroom “is an extreme metaphor for the idea that it is a dark world, media is everywhere, and you can see echoes of that in kids’ behaviour.”
The project soon became the subject of public debate, resulting in an appearance on CNN. “That was a weird and rocky road. On one hand, my work was being hung in museums and featured in art books, but at the same time vilified and the subjected to harsh criticism.” Yet, he was also mindful for the Cry Babies project that, “The best work has to be true to myself.”
Using essential tools of a notebook and pencil, his images begin with drawings replicated with photography. He reworks images and rebuilds sets until everything is exactly right, noting that nothing is accidental. “Every detail in an image matters as every element is another opportunity to tell more of the story.”