Canadian Visual Artists: Horst Herget

Tintype portrait by Horst Herget

Portrait of me © Horst Herget

Horst Herget is a Toronto-based photographer whose tintype portraits are created on metal plates using 150-year-old chemical recipes and photographic techniques. He hosts portrait sessions in his home studio off the Danforth, and on location at outdoor art shows.

I interviewed Horst while sitting for a tintype portrait. As all his sessions do, this one included detailed explanations of the process and even access to the darkroom during the plate preparation and development stages.

“Tintype is a wet-plate process, which means that the plate is light-sensitive as long as it stays wet. When it comes up from the dark room, it’s going to stay wet for about 8 minutes.

“That’s why when I start a portrait session, I like to get people positioned first, so that there is only a little bit of focusing and moving around [after the plate is prepared] — so that we can get right to it rather than risk the plate drying out.

Horst's studio setup including large-format camera, strobe light, canvas background

Horst’s home studio set up: large-format camera, strobe light, canvas background. Photo © Susan Brown

“The process takes a lot of light. The film speed is very slow. It’s about an ISO of 1. So it’s going to be a strobe exposure. Because it’s just too darn cold to be outside.”

While Horst sets up the shot, I ask him how he got interested in tintype.

“Really by chance. I had been a photographer — I’d gone to school in Savannah, Georgia for photography, then came back and worked as an assistant for many years on commercial and corporate photography, then done that on my own since ’99. And about three years ago I had this deep urge to do something outside of my own field of speciality. And I randomly picked this course offered at Gallery 44. I didn’t even know what tintype was.

Tintype portraits from the Cabbagetown Arts & Crafts Fair by Horst Herget

Portraits from the Cabbagetown Arts & Crafts Fair © Horst Herget

Tintype portrait of a family by Horst Herget

Portrait of a family © Horst Herget

 

“And what I really liked about it was that it didn’t involve computers or Photoshop, which seems to be the default way of treating all images now. Everything is Photoshopped — whether you know it or not — minor blemishes, hair sticking out… So I was really attracted to a medium that didn’t involve that kind of manipulation. From an artistic point of view I was unfortunately becoming reliant on it, as opposed to focusing on the image and finding the connection with people.

“I find that digital photography is too efficient. You can be photographing any time, anyhow. The ISOs are so high, you can sharpen it, you can do anything. But you don’t really talk to people anymore.

“And with this process, you take about 2-3 tins an hour, and I find that there’s more of a connection made between the person I’m photographing and myself. And that transcends into the image.”

Horst's purpose-built dark room: chemicals, development trays, drying rack , extra ventilation to deal with the strong chemical smel

Horst’s purpose-built dark room: chemicals, development trays, drying rack, extra ventilation to deal with the strong chemical smell.
Photo by N. Jubb CC BY-NC

Downstairs in the darkroom — which is well-lit, except when dealing with photo-sensitive chemicals — Horst explains the origin of tintype and its name.

“Back in the day, they used to use iron plates. It’s called “tintype”, but they never used tin. They used to call it “ferrotype” or “melanotype” and then they just decided on “tin” because it sounded cheap. And that’s the biggest thing about tintype photography and why it took off.

“Before then there was something called “daguerreotype”. These were made on glass and they were very expensive and you could only afford it if you were the upper 1%. So when tintype photography came out, in a few short years it was accessible to everybody. You could get a portrait for a couple of pennies. It was the democratization of photography.”

I ask how difficult the metal plates and chemicals are to get these days, almost a century after tintype was supplanted by more modern photographic techniques.

Horst Herget pouring collodion on the plate

Horst pouring collodion emulsion on a trophy aluminium plate.
Photo by N. Jubb CC BY-NC

“Trophy aluminium is very common — it’s what they use on plaques. It’s not specific, we just appropriated it. I have to drive out to Burlington to buy it, but still — it’s inexpensive and accessible.

“The rest of the stuff all gets more and more obscure.”

The first thing Horst pours onto the plate — under a vent that takes away some of its harsh chemical smell — is called collodion.

“It sticks to the plate and acts as a substrate in which the silver nitrate embeds itself. Collodion is cadmium bromide and ammonium iodide salts dissolved in nitrocellulose, ether and alcohol. And those salts change into silver iodide and silver bromide in the silver nitrate bath, and make the plate light-sensitive.”

After the plate had been immersed in silver nitrate for 3 minutes, the lights in the darkroom are shut off, leaving it illuminated by a dim red bulb, and the plate is put into a holder which will be inserted into the large-format camera.

Ambrotype of a reclining nude by Horst Herget

Horst ventured into ambrotype shortly after this interview. This image, inspired by Ingres’ 1814 painting La Grande Odalisque, is made on a plate of black glass. Black cracks formed where the emulsion did not adhere well to the slippery glass surface. © Horst Herget

“This is a piece of film that we’re making right now.”

The same chemicals that are used to prepare an aluminium plate can also be used to make an image on glass:

“Then it’s called an “ambrotype”.  It ends up being a negative and then you can use it as a glass negative to print an image, or you can put black behind it and use it as a positive-negative, which looks beautiful and it’s something I’d like to do. Glass is more slippery, so it’s trickier.”

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In progress: Feathers

Feathers mosaic on Wedi in process, left side

Mosaic sketch on Wedi board

Full sheet of Wedi board (3’x5′) with the sketch in chalk. Vertical lines represent the position of struts in the wall, where the mosaic will be anchored

This is my first mosaic project on Wedi board, which is a foam-core cement board that’s waterproof and much lighter than plywood. Wedi is a German company with few Canadian retailers, but enough of us Toronto mosaicists blathered on about it to the lovely couple that owns GlassMosaicCanada that they started carrying it a few months ago. So I can now buy it close to home.

It was important to find a lightweight substrate for this mosaic because of the size of the project. Even on Wedi, the weight of all the faux-marble, glass and mortar is considerable, so I designed the piece in two parts to be more manageable in handling and hanging. The curvilinear shape is also made possible mainly thanks to Wedi, which can be easily cut using just a utility knife.

Wall for mosaic

The colour is actually a lot more insane intense than this picture makes it seem

Feathers is a gift for my mother’s 50th birthday, intended to add much more va-va-voom to this crazy-coloured accent wall in my parents’ house than its current assortment of paintings imparts.

The design went through a few iterations (below), following requests that the two shapes fly apart rather than curve around each other, then flip open towards the top, then basically be made more like feathers. So hence the final design and title.

The materials used are all salvaged tile (mostly from the same scrap tile haul that supplied the materials for our backsplash), with the exception of the lime-green tesserae I bought to match the wall. This time I opted not to use the wet saw but to smash or nip the tiles into irregular chunks.

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Canadian Visual Artists: A. Shay Hahn

A. Shay Hahn is a Toronto-based figurative painter whose distinctive style incorporates elements of pop and propaganda art. I interviewed him at The Cameron House, which will feature an exhibition of his new work during the month of November.

The Woman Who Loved to Read II by A. Shay Hahn

The Woman Who Loved to Read II

Shay sold his first drawing in Grade 1 to a classmate: “If you drew the best dinosaurs, you always had something going.”

Now that he makes his living painting, Shay seeks to demystify the process of buying and selling art:

“A lot of people think buying art is a mystery. They don’t know how to go about it.”

“People want art. They want to buy art. They want art in their homes. The just have no idea how to get it. You have to do so much to get people to see and buy art, it’s ridiculous. Why do they give away booze at art shows? To facilitate the sale of art.”

One of Shay’s strategies for selling his work is to make personal connections with the visitors when exhibiting at local venues like the Cameron.

For Hank Williams

For Hank Williams

“A lot of people show artwork in bars but they don’t make themselves a part of the place. If you have the space for a month, take advantage of it. Go and hang out there.

“I make sure to be here if my work is on the wall. If I see someone looking at it, I approach them and I talk to them.

“I think I’ve been lucky. Often, when someone is buying art for the first time, they’re buying one of my pieces. Because they see it, and they get it, and they relate to it. And they say, ‘I’ve never bought art before.’ I hear that from so many people.”

The Cameron also commissioned Shay to paint two murals in the front room this summer.  Though the original plan had been to paint over the murals in the fall when it was time to hang art work on the walls again, the overwhelmingly positive response to them led the owners to reconsider. The murals will stay covered by a drape when the wall space is needed for exhibitions.

Cameron House mural by A. Shay Hahn

The Cameron House mural, west wall

The Last Gorilla on the Moon by A. Shay Hahn

The Last Gorilla on the Moon is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to make the viewer consider the plight of gorillas on Earth

“The space really looks complete with them. These are big walls. Doing shows here, you really need to fill them up or the place looks empty.”

I comment on how colourful the Cameron murals are compared to his paintings.

“It’s a bar, it gets dark. So the best way to fight it is to put in oranges and reds and to really blow it up.

“But for my work, I think I only use six colours, really. I hate green, but I’m using it this year. Can’t stand green. It was a big move – I started using Windsor blue this year, that took a long time to get around to. I’m a Prussian blue guy.”

The capitulation to green may be due to Shay’s newfound love of gardening, which inspired the Victory Garden series of paintings.

Victory Garden by A. Shay Hahn

Victory Garden

“I don’t know if it was getting married or what, but I want to grow our own food. It’s like this impetus – I want to provide. Once we started pickling stuff and making jam, I thought, ‘Let’s start a vegetable garden.’ But we don’t have the room. Unless we tear out half the garden we already have.”

A. Shay Hahn’s paintings often feature strong women reminiscent of Soviet athlete or worker sculptures. He admits to enjoying propaganda art – “Because I like impact pictures” – but it’s not what informs his female figures:

“I think there’s a body type that I naturally tend to. The average woman is actually very strong-looking woman, not a skinny model type. What I try to do with a lot of work is something universal. Something where you can put yourself into the picture. And that’s why so many of them are turned around – you can put yourself into the body of the person.”

Girl with an Axe by A. Shay Hahn

Girl with an Axe

Several years ago, the first in a series of paintings of women with axes helped Shay solidify his artistic style:

“It was just this idea – this strong female standing there with an axe on her shoulder, looking at something in the distance, like ‘If something was coming towards me, I can take it on. I’m not afraid.’

“I’ve probably done thirty of them since then. People are crazy for them.

“That was 2009, and that changed everything I did. That’s when I became the painter that I am now. That’s when I found my style, my solid concept of what I’m doing.”

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Canadian Visual Artists: Gosia

Gosia is a Toronto-based artist who trained as an illustrator but is now transitioning from creating original paintings and small sculptural works to larger fine art sculpture.

Shape of Her Eyes by Gosia

A plaster edition of Shape of Her Eyes next to its unfired clay original.

“I say that the original gets destroyed – as you can see it destroys itself as it dries.”

I visited Gosia in her east end studio where she was putting the finishing touches on several new sculptures in preparation for an exhibition opening this week at Latitude 44 gallery.

How did the shift into sculpture come about for her after years of painting and illustration work?

“When I left school, you had to do a lot of cold-calling for illustration and I didn’t really have it in me.

“I had my website up, and I was getting a lot of requests to buy original illustrations, so I started doing more painting, and doing tiny local shows like the Gladstone – selling prints and some originals. And then the One of a Kind found me at one of those shows, and they asked me to apply, and I did and I got in. They wouldn’t let me sell prints, and I couldn’t just paint a million paintings, so I started making little Sculpey faces.”

Over the course of a couple of years, Gosia’s exploration of whimsical polymer clay faces, dolls, shadow boxes and elfish busts, eventually led her to attempt larger sculptural works:

Eva by Gosia

Eva, one of the three large busts Gosia exhibited at TAP last winter. Photo © Gosia

“After a few years of that, I wanted to make big sculptures. I could feel it – I had this urge. Plus, I got skilled enough with my hands that I knew I could do it.”

Gosia exhibited her first three big pieces at The Artist Project last February:

“I had a really good response, so I’m trying to do more of that. Transitioning from craft into fine art – which is something that I always wanted to do. “

I ask her to tell me a little bit more about her process, which involves making a mold of the original sculpture and elaborating on some of the resulting casts with additional materials:

“I sculpt the original out of clay and I make a silicone mold. I can do whatever I want with it after I have the mold – I can use fabric or different types of clays and come up with new characters, different atmospheres.”

The original sculpture for Eva (pictured above) was bald, personalized with hair & headdress after the cast was made. Two other busts from the same mold – Luna and Pearl – were each made unique with their own additions.

Evening Glow by Gosia, in process

In the process of creating Evening Glow – another bust from the same mold as Eva – with the addition of cedar branches

Gosia is making a small number of editions of her latest sculpture, Shape of Her Eyes (also called the Penny bust, after the model who inspired it), without additional elaboration:

“The new stage is creating a sculpture that can stand on its own. [Penny] has hair, she is finished. But she’s still simple enough that I can add to it as well.

“And it’s fun – because I can have the edition and be proud of the piece I sculpted, but then I can also make new ones and explore, and have fun with it.”

Though her illustrations and smaller sculpted faces had a strong touch of the fantastic, the newer work is steering away from fairy tale motifs:

“I wanted to go a little bit more classic at this point. I was doing little elves and fairies and things like that for the last three years, and I feel like I explored that enough for now. I thought I’d go back and learn to do the human form without those elements. I find that more of a challenge right now.”

Elfish face by Gosia

Why was the fantastic element so strong in her earlier work?

“I grew up in Poland, with a lot of stories about woodland creatures. There’s always something living in the woods – in cartoons and children’s books. So that stuff obviously influenced me and stuck in my head and whenever I was doing any kind of drawing – before I thought this would ever become a career – it was always those sorts of creatures and those sorts of ideas.”

Gosia is now focusing completely on sculpture and leaving the illustration work aside – and off her new website.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t like the old work that I was doing; I just had something else inside of me – this is going to sound cheesy – that had to come out. And without a clean break, I don’t feel that you get the chance to move on.

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Sneaky Dee’s bathroom graffiti mosaic

Yes, it’s more than a little crazy, I agree. But isn’t it also illustriously grungy?

This is the first completed mosaic in the bathroom graffiti series I’ve started. This one represents the unholy mess at Sneaky Dee’s.

(More info & original photo I was working from in an earlier post: here.)
Sneaky Dees graffiti mosaic
The whole bottom part of this is a mirror – which of course a joy to photograph – hence the artsy contorted photo shoot. Here is the same thing with the sky reflected:

Sneaky Dees graffiti

There is stained glass, pieces of mirror, and four colours of grout in this thing but what I’m particularly proud of is how the “STEAL! records” sticker turned out.

If you want to see this insanity in person, come out to the Art Walk North this Friday or Saturday. It’ll be there. Messing with people’s minds.

Oval dragonfly mirror

A friend of mine commissioned this mirror for her hallway. Years ago, I painted a really trippy elephant for her, and by a strange dint of association she decided that the elephant needed some dragonflies to go with it. This kind of surreal logic appeals to me.

full mirror web

Oval Mirror sketch

My friend asked for brown, blue and a bit of yellow, so this was the original sketch – with the curlicues to be figured out later

On the other hand, the request for an oval-shaped mirror didn’t appeal to me at all. Not after the mysterious trouble that plagued my last attempt to have a circle mirror cut to size, when the glass-cutting place had to redo it three times because there was always a tiny chip in the edge. I figured if circles were that troublesome, then ovals will surely be worse.

But since this is my very old friend and she asked very nicely, I relented after I found a frameless IKEA mirror of about the right size, which meant I could buy the mirror pre-made and just have to cut the plywood for the frame. This I could do myself with a jigsaw.

But you know what? Ovals are troublesome regardless of the material out of which you’re trying to cut them. Next time I’m asked to make an oval-shaped something, I will run away. (No, I won’t, I’ll just take the plywood to a laser-cutting place.)

edges in progress

And tiling the edges of an oval? It has to be balanced on its side and rotated in sections as the glue dries so that tiles don’t slide off. I rigged this up for the job.

To draw an oval of a specific size by hand, you use two pushpins and a piece of string. Pretty cool in terms of math, but pretty lousy in terms of precision drafting.

And then to center the smaller oval of the mirror inside the larger oval of the frame, a ruler’s no help at all. The only hope is to break out the pushpins and piece of string again. And let me tell you: IKEA has trouble with their ovals too. Their mirror wasn’t totally symmetrical either.

Fuck ovals.

On the other hand, the dragonflies I’m quite happy with.

progress 1 web
detail
taping off detail

If you’re wondering what’s required to make a thin curvy line of light-colored grout while everything else is grouted in dark brown: an obsessive tendency towards precision and a boatload of painter’s tape

Canadian Visual Artists: Laura Stitzel

Laura Stitzel is a layout designer for an animation studio, and an exhibiting artist specializing in pen-and-ink illustration and hand-lettered vintage-style posters. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she is now living in Toronto.

Acrobadger ink transfer on woodI chatted with Laura over a pint in a pub in the Annex – the neighbourhood which is about to host one of Toronto’s more unconventional outdoor exhibits, where she’ll be showing her new series of works on wood.

In the Annex Patio Art Show, art is displayed on the outside of storefronts and restaurant windows along Bloor St. West while artists hang out on the sidewalk. It’s an unusual setup, but Laura enjoyed the experience of exhibiting there last year:

“I really liked it. It’s strange because you can’t sell the work there, but I actually got a lot of publicity out of it, a lot of people contacting me after the show. It’s good because people are just walking around and they’re not expecting to see art, so it takes them by surprise and you get to see really honest reactions.

Mer-pig ink transfer on wood“And it’s a nice neighbourhood – the kind of people who like my art.”

Laura’s latest series of works on wood, created using an ink transfer process that gives them a weathered vintage look, was inspired by classic circus posters.

“It’s taking an existing style of poster – the circus poster – and putting a twist on in, which is that it’s animals as circus freaks, and they have personalities.

“Because I really like animals, they are in my work all the time. I’m really fascinated by how animals fit into our day-to-day life.

A Day in the Park

A Day in the Park
Illustration for this 24″ x 36″ print was drawn in ink on paper, then painted in Photoshop.

Ducks

A print from Fear the Birds series

“My Fear the Birds series was about how birds are around everywhere and they’re wild animals but they live in the city among people and it’s really interesting and it’s something that we don’t really take notice of.”

Laura’s technique is to do all the line work on paper first, using a fine tip pen or pen and ink. Only the colorful illustrations (like A Day in the Park, above) are painted digitally. The lettering on her posters is also drawn by hand, assisted by nothing more advanced than a ruler.

“I like to try to find a balance between wonky lines, things that are a little bit off and not computerized-looking, and also having it really neat.

“It’s very time-consuming. I love doing it though – it’s very meticulous and I just have the right kind of personality to not get sick of doing that.”

Hand-lettering in progress

Hand-lettering in progress

“The way I got into doing hand-lettering is I did an illustration course in New York a couple of summers ago and we were asked to bring a draft of something we were going to work on. I did just pencil and paper, and the lettering I copied by hand off the computer, fairly roughly. I brought it to class and the teacher loved it. Then I went to do the final draft, and I did the lettering on the computer, because I thought, “This is the good one now”. And when I brought in the final draft, she said, “What are you doing? Your lettering was so nice. You should just do it by hand.”

“I didn’t know that lettering was a thing – which I guess it is. And I really enjoy doing it. That summer has shaped my life quite a bit. It’s one of those little mistakes.”

Very Cheeky Monster series by Laura Stitzel

A print from the Very Cheeky Monster series

For someone with obvious drawing talent and eye for design, Laura arrived at her current profession in a curiously roundabout way:

“I used to be a dancer and a choreographer, and I started playing around with projections for dance shows. I started playing with Flash – this is when the animation stuff was pretty new – and I was using it as a tool to create almost specific lighting for dance shows. But then as I was playing with the software, I found that I really liked it, and I enjoyed drawing. So then I went to university to study animation to help with the dance side of things. But once I began to study it, I really loved it and started working in it straight away.

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A. Shay Hahn’s murals at the Cameron House

If you’re in Toronto, do yourself a favour and visit the Cameron House at least once this summer to check out A. Shay Hahn‘s gorgeous murals in the front room. They are only there till October.

Cameron House mural by A. Shay Hahn Cameron House mural by A. Shay Hahn

That stunning lady surrounded by records is The Royal Ant Mother, by the way. You’re welcome.

Photos are © A. Shay Hahn. There are also a bunch of great in-process pictures of the murals on his blog.

Fragments of books: Infinite Jest

Inifinte JestIf you enjoy books that run to over a thousand pages of mind-boggling literary showmanship, then there comes a day when someone recommends David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to you as the great 1990s equivalent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or something similarly dense and critically acclaimed. Heed these people.

Let me clear the room first: this novel is rambling and circuitous and there are plotlines that start and don’t go anywhere, and it could do with a lot more editing. I can make a case for why all these qualities are integral to the themes of the book, but I won’t. There are some conventional cliffhanger-type storytelling moments near the beginning that lure you in with the promise of a plot, but if plot is something that matters to you above all else in a book – run away from this one.

There’s also the matter of the slightly surreal projected-near-future setting, in which corporate sponsors get to name calendar years (so most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), Organization of North American Nations has turned most of southeastern Canada and northeastern US into a toxic waste dump (with all the associated birth defects, feral packs of mutant animals, and large-scale weather pattern disruptions) and there’s a far-reaching Quebecois-separatist organization of ruthless wheelchair-bound assassins. All these things are peripheral and – disappointingly, to a Sci-Fi fan – only meagerly fleshed out.

Mainly, this book is about addiction. Also depression, despair, disillusionment and tennis.

Most of the action takes place in a tennis academy and in an addicts’ halfway house in Boston, where seemingly disparate and unrelated characters and storylines come together.

And if, like me, you start reading this book, you go, “It’s very literary and well written and there’s the whole Hamlet allusion thing going on, but does it all have to be so terribly depressing, and I really can’t empathise with this miserable lot of junkies and I just don’t give a rat’s ass about tennis,” – stick with it a bit longer. There’s some genuinely funny parts coming up. New neural connections – along pathways twisted and dark – will be mapped for all your future tennis associations. As for the junkies – you do begin to Identify with them.

Some of my favorite passages in the novel deal with the Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and twelve-step recovery program. There are wonderful scenes in which newly recovering addicts incredulously realize that the program works. Despite their intellectual objections to its corny platitudes, and their atheistic objections to its daily prayer requirements, and their overall feeling that it’s all a load of BS – as long as they stick with it and go through the required motions, it works. No one can explain how it works, but after months of barely hanging in, they wake up to find that they no longer crave the Substance.

Like the AA program, Infinite Jest – if you stick with it – works. If you hang in despite its jarring nature, it draws you in and takes hold of you and shows you insightful and non-trivial things about the world. I can’t explain how it does this, but it does.

On the other hand, I have been reading this book for nearly three frigging months, so this might just be Stockholm Syndrome talking.