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.”

Continue reading » » »

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.”

Continue reading » » »

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.

Continue reading » » »

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.

Canadian Visual Artists: Rob Croxford

Rob Croxford is a Toronto artist whose paintings and mixed-media works playfully combine elements of graphic design and vintage 1950’s aesthetics with thought-provoking messages.

The In Crowd by Rob CroxfordRob’s personality, like his art, projects such optimism, that the first question I ask when we meet up for coffee near his Queen East studio is about what helps him to stay so upbeat.

“I’m just grateful that I get to do this. I worked some terrible jobs over the years. I’ve got so much going for me already – I get to do what I love every single day. Even if things are not always as financially rewarding as I might like them to be, I get to do something that I’m passionate about and that’s amazing.

“It really helps when you love what you do. My paintings are really upbeat and positive, and I try to really be playful – and when you have that around you all day you can’t help but feel that way.”

But the consequences of the recent economic downturn can be disheartening for a professional artist, and focusing on the positives requires an occasional self-reminder, especially after a disappointing show:

Things 2 by Rob Croxford“I have to say to myself,  ‘It’s ok, Rob. People are really responsive to the work, and it’s really good work, and remember you love to do it. It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process.'”

Speaking of the process, how does he choose the phrases that make up are such an integral part of many of his works?

“I sit on some of them – there’s a few that I’ve been sitting on for some time, I can’t think of how to make them.  I don’t want to be too preachy, and I don’t want to be too ‘cat of the month calendar’ either.  So I sit on a lot of them until I find the right inspiration, the right imagery.”

One Answer by Rob Croxford

One Answer quotes Neil Gaiman:
“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Rob admires many of the authors of the clever, funny and thought-provoking quotes that accompany his paintings: “They come from people who are the person I would like to be […]  I’d like to have the knowledge and experience it takes to say those smart things.”

He says it’s very exciting and rewarding when all the pieces of an artwork finally come together.

“I’m just finishing one right now. I’d started it one way and thought, ‘It’s a bit preachy, but ok, I’ll try that.’ Then I thought, ‘It’s not nearly funny enough,’ so I went back to the drawing board and made it a little bit funnier, a little bit sillier.”

Wanting to make his work more humorous, to “turn up the heat a little bit” sometimes makes Rob doubt its marketability: “Every now and again I get that voice in my head, ‘Don’t say that, Rob. No one’s going to hang that up in their house.'”

Free&Easy by Rob CroxfordBut his main concerns about turning up the humour in his work are not commercial. He worries that because his paintings are fun, they are sometimes dismissed as not being Art.

Continue reading » » »