Artist profile: Ruth Chambers
U of R professor combines traditional still-life and botanical illustration techniques
by brayden dovell, Contributor
University of Regina’s own ceramics professor Ruth Chambers debuted her solo exhibition titled Tend at The Art Gallery of Regina (AGR) on February 5. The exhibition culminates almost three years of work for Chambers, featuring more than sixty individual, intricately sculpted porcelain flowers and bulbs. The AGR describes the exhibition as coupling the “sensuality of art and the empirical observation of science,” bringing a “new meaning” to the genre of still life.
In combining the traditions of floral still-life painting and early botanical illustration, Chambers studies the intricacies of flowers and bulbs in every stage of life. She showcases her technical mastery in the life-size renderings carefully sculpted from lightly tinted porcelain – the resulting plants appearing frozen in time.
The still life genre is traditionally dominated by painting, but Chambers admits that ceramics lends itself to the process quite well: “It’s a medium that you can copy very carefully with […] It’s very flexible in terms of how you can sculpt with it. Then once it’s fired it’s completely frozen, it’s no longer plastic.”
“It’s the plasticity that’s inherent to ceramics […] and the detail that you can achieve with porcelain especially. It’s a way of sort of fixing and freezing these objects in a kind of alternative lifeform.”
Chambers speaks about how involved an artist can become in the observation process of still life, noting her exhibition’s roots in the historic tradition: “What has inspired me about this [is] the process of looking very carefully, with a lot of attention and a studying mentality, at life. That’s a process that is in line with the centuries old tradition of the still life.”
She speaks further, “What interested me about that [is] how involved one could become in very careful, very slow, very attentive observation […] That is really what underpins this project.”
Chambers’ inspiration behind Tend blossomed during an artist’s residency in Denmark. She recalls going to Denmark knowing that she was “interested in the traditions and conventions of still life,” but that “It was a time that [she] could dedicate to figuring out what [she] wanted to do with this body of work.”
Chambers reflects on her time in Denmark: “It was February there so late winter, and there were lots of these bulbs around that you could buy […] I thought, ‘Well I’m going to include some of these bulbs that are starting to sprout and flower in my still life compositions’” She describes becoming fascinated with the beauty of these bulbs, “I ended up just spending the entire time focused very closely on these bulbs. I’ve spent three years now looking at either bulbs and how they blossom or other plants.”
It is this fascination and close observation that Chambers says connects her work to the early field of botany. In speaking about the purpose behind her exhibition she says, “there is a connection to encouraging observation in the way we observed the world, and our science has observed the world, historically.” She notes Tend shares many parallels with “early scientific botanical studies where people were just fascinated with looking at these life forms.”
Chambers hopes this botanical connection will spark close observation from audiences: “I’m hoping that it will trigger some sort of connection to this fascination that I have, but also that botany has with these plants.” She also hopes the exhibition will induce reflection in audiences: “I’d like people to shift their mode of attention, and also look quite closely and slow down a bit to appreciate something that is in the living world, but also that is quite beautiful […] I’m also hoping that people will enter a reflective mode when they’re in the space.”
Considering Chambers’ vision behind Tend, AGR curator Sandee Moore tells audiences, “There’s so many interesting aspects of this project for people to connect to their experience.”
Moore states: “It’s interesting from so many perspectives. It’s a feminist project, looking at these pioneers of botanical illustration who played an important role but were often marginalized and uncredited […] It’s interesting in terms of our cultivated post-colonial environment and the history of colonial expansion; many of the plants she’s studying and representing have this history of travelling and adapting to different environments, and being commodities.”
She says, “That’s one of the things that is very important to me as a curator, is how people can create meaning using their own thoughts and experiences as a jumping off point to view and understand the artist’s work.”
Moore comments on the impact of Chambers’ exhibition Tend in the community: “I think the importance of beauty is not to be underestimated. Especially right now, sometimes for people to go out and see something that is a stunning technical achievement that is invitingly beautiful is important for people’s mental health.”
Despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AGR has found innovative ways to adapt their programming and continue showcasing the work of Saskatchewan artists like Ruth Chambers. Moore explains: “We know that people really want to connect to an artist, and to the artist’s vision and thoughts through their work. We’ve started doing audio tours with artists that people can access through their smartphone in the gallery, to have the artist guide them personally through the exhibition.”
Similarly, Chambers speaks about her experience as an artist during the COVID-19 pandemic. She describes no lack of inspiration, stating she has been inspired “maybe even more,” than prior to COVID-19. She says that the social isolation has been generally conducive to her creative process: “In a way the pandemic has not really changed things that much for me, it maybe even has given me a little bit more time to focus on the project.”
She continues, “It’s quite an inward, internal, reflective process that requires some quietude […] I would say that the pandemic actually has if anything supported this. It’s given me extra time to think reflectively, quietly, and carefully about this project.”
Tend can be viewed at the Art Gallery of Regina between 11:00 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The closing reception and artist-led walk through of the exhibition is on April 9 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and attendance must be confirmed in advance. Ruth Chambers is currently instructing all ceramics courses at the University of Regina, ranging from introduction to ceramics, to advanced ceramics at the graduate level.