Winter boosts the power of Ruth Chambers’ porcelain flowers

Art by Gregory Beatty

Ruth Chambers: Tend
Art Gallery of Regina
Until April 11

When I saw Ruth Chambers’ installation Tend at Art Gallery of Regina, the city had just emerged from that brutal two-week deep-freeze we’re all still trying to forget. It was Sunday, Feb. 21, and snow and ice were everywhere. Temperatures were on the rise, but for me the recent extreme cold heightened the exhibition’s intensity.

Tend has more than 60 delicate porcelain details of flowers at different stages of life, from sprouting and budding to blooming and going to seed. Hollyhocks, gladiolas, irises and narcissuses are the main plants represented.

But if visions of brilliantly coloured blooms and luscious stems and leaves are dancing in your heads, think again. Oh, the leaves, stems and blooms are there — along with less glamorous floral parts such as bulbs and seed pods. But consistent with being porcelain, they’re ghostly white, with only hints of pastel greens, pinks, blues and yellows.

Far from serving as a defiant antidote to late winter drudgery, Tend gains emotional heft from the season.

The Toronto-born Chambers moved to Regina in 1993 for her MFA in ceramics at the University of Regina. She didn’t originally intend to stay, but shortly after she graduated Vic Cicansky retired from his faculty position and Chambers was hired to replace him.

The origin of Tend, she said in a recent phone interview, came from a residency in Denmark.

“I went there to work on a still-life project with the intention of making compositions,” says Chambers. “It was February, and there were bulbs everywhere as people were forcing them to create an early spring.”

Seeing the bulbs, Chambers decided to start her project with them.

“I took some iris bulbs out of their pots and put them in a jar with water to grow while I studied them,” she says. “The intention was to make them part of still-life compositions. I ended up getting stuck on the subject matter, so I ordered other types of bulbs from plant suppliers. I also garden pretty passionately, and the hollyhocks are from my garden.”

While still life didn’t end up being the focus of Chambers’ project, the tradition is referenced in Tend through an oval table in the dimly-lit gallery’s back corner that’s covered with long-stemmed flowers, buds and greenery. There’s no vase but the implication of a florist gathering the cuttings they need to make a bouquet is there. And floral arrangements are a popular still-life subject.

But that work aside, Tend is structured more like a scientific exhibit or collection. That reflects a long-standing interest for Chambers, who in 1997 co-founded the art/science collective Petri’s Quadrille with Michael Toppings (text artist), Jen Hamilton (visual artist) and Steve Kirkland (mathematician).

“We all recognized how in many ways the scientific method, with discovery, curiosity and investigation, was aligned with what artists do,” says Chambers. “There is this method of trial and error in science that is akin to what artists do.”

When Chambers creates new work, she starts with a commercial clay body, then modifies it by mixing in fibres to give the clay extra strength. She also experiments with different oxides and minerals in small test firings to get the colours she wants.

Through Petri’s Quadrille, Chambers learned about a group of unsung female illustrators who had worked to document plant samples during the early years of botanical research in the 16th and 17th centuries.

If women weren’t outright prohibited from being scientists, they were definitely discouraged from pursuing field and lab work, so they weren’t on the frontlines of collecting and classifying plant species. But with photography still two centuries away, their precision illustrations played a key role in documenting and transmitting scientific knowledge.

Through 13 wall-mounted works and three wooden display cases, Chambers evokes their memory and the vital contribution they made to science.

The wall pieces consist of snippets of hollyhock stems and bulbs in various stages of growth and decay. In their detailed presentation, they embody the idea of botanical illustration.

That’s not the only scientific allusion. Each stem and bulb is attached to the wall by a thin metal rod. That has the benefit of granting us a three-dimensional view, but the resemblance to the (somewhat macabre) entomological practice of “pinning” insects is unmistakable.

Chambers’ hollyhocks aren’t illustrations, of course. They’re solid objects. But even that finds an echo in special types of documentation. In an accompanying essay for Tend, art historian Julia Krueger mentions a German collection where botanical samples were replicated three-dimensionally in glass.

For Chambers, a woman named Mary Delaney is a source of fascination.

“She was privileged enough to be trained in material skills, so when she was in her 70s she lived in homes of acquaintances and dedicated her life to inventing this paper-cutting method of illustrating botanical material,” Chambers says. “She would dye the paper and cut it, then put it on black backgrounds.”

Chambers uses the same strategy in her three display cases, essentially presenting what amounts to an inventory of porcelain plant parts (including one bulb in cross-section) on jet black felt.

Overall, the look is clinical. With the hollyhocks, in contrast, Chambers has hung the stems at eye-level — which is where they would be if they were growing in real-life. But with only light pastel tinting, they are a literal shadow of what they would look like live.

Still, they invite contemplation. Where buds are present on the stems, or bulbs are showing roots and shoots, there is the promise of new life to come. But that’s counterbalanced by other stems where blooms are wilting and even shriveled after a killing frost.

If you think back to Chambers’ original intention with her project, the latter works recall the still-life traditions of vanitas and mememto mori, whichsymbolize the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and the sad reality of death, aging and loss.

With the cold snap fresh in my mind, Tend was a sombre show to see. Still, spring is coming.