|BRUCE MORTIMER: THE PRESENCE OF LANDSCAPES
I was web surfing one day and stumbled upon the website http://brucemortimer.co.nz/ of New Zealand artist Bruce Mortimer. Looking at his work, I knew I had to chat with him. He captures landscapes through photography and painting. He work is really a celebration of the beautiful New Zealand countryside. Here’s our cool chat.
MICHAEL: Hey Bruce! Love your work. You really like nature and landscapes. What is it about this that makes you want to re-create so much of it?
BRUCE: Hey Michael! Great to be having this chat with you mate. You noticed I like nature and landscape? And I tried to keep that fact so well hidden! Seriously though, we're surrounded by the beauty of landscape here in New Zealand and I think it would be hard not to be influenced by it if you were a plumber, let alone an artist. But my own interest in it goes way back - camping trips as a child in Southern Africa, hiking in the mountains - you know, the sort of things we all hope we are imparting on our kids as we speak. I'm lucky in that I can now spend my time not only immersed in the landscape, but also expressing my love of it through both my photography and my paintings. I try not to take that for granted and although I am constantly striving for better ways of communicating what I see, I am essentially happy with where I am at any particular time. I believe that is what love of landscape and nature is; it's liking where you are and being an artist is about being happy to shout out to the world how cool that is! I could rave about many places I've seen, hey even three weeks ago I was kayaking on a lake in Fiordland that we think no-one has ever kayaked on before, but in truth, wherever we are in the world, we have some form of landscape around us, and hopefully some influence of nature at least nearby.
MICHAEL: Wow. That one answer gives me three more questions. And so, it sounds to me like you travel and LIVE first and your painting and photography are secondary.
BRUCE: I guess it’s a bit like that. I'm not a nomad or anything, so the travel is fitted in around fairly ordinary (but pleasant) times at home, which I am lucky is in itself set in a portion of beautiful landscape, in a village perched above the sea with a view of an island, and on clear days we can see the highest mountain in the North Island which is 120 miles away. On most days, I reckon we can also see at least 1000 sheep on the hills, and we have a forest which we look over from the back of the house. So I'm really spoiled here, but I still love to travel outside of my comfort zone and do a bit of mild adventuring. Photography, perhaps more than traditional art, tends to accompany you with whatever you do, which in my case is enjoyment of being outdoors and exploring the landscape, so even when photography is actually the main reason for travelling, it might look from the outside as if the travel is more important. Having said that, you can't separate the two of course! Interestingly, I paint in the studio. This works for me because it is then that I am more likely to successfully express my love of landscapes whereas when I am actually in the landscape, I am almost too busy just absorbing it and enjoying the moment. Perhaps I could sum that thought up by saying that when I am travelling, the landscape is communicating with me, and then when I work on my photographs and paintings, and particularly when I show them to others, it's my turn to do the communicating. But even talking to you now, my mind is already planning to break that habit and get outside to put brush to canvas away from the security of my studio. I like that there are no rules.
MICHAEL: I don't really see an overt environmental message in our work, just the love of nature. However, is there an environmental component for you?
BRUCE: Definitely no overt message, no, but I'd have to say that messages, if they are important ones, have a way of finding ways to be conveyed, and sometimes find their way through people's work who didn't really intend there to be a message. I've always felt the need to paint and photograph positively and I must add that I greatly admire protest art and protest music for that matter, but my work, at this stage anyway, has no protest component to it. I tend to focus on what is right with the world and communicate that, perhaps subconsciously hoping it will influence others, make them aware of it and thereby help preserve that which is good. But there is no judgment element to my art. It is what it is and it reflects what I notice and find attractive in the world, that's all. These are great questions so far Michael! I like that they challenge me to think about these things more than I might otherwise do. It's easy to just do what you do without seeing where it fits in with one's community or the world as a whole. We all need to try and contribute with the tools that we have and be prepared to step outside who we think we are so that we can appreciate others and grow ourselves too. Oh no, I'm starting to sound really serious! I promise art really is fun.
MICHAEL: To me, light appears to be the strongest element in your work. Change the lighting and you can change an entire piece. How important is lighting?
BRUCE: It's almost everything. It's not just the works that change with different lighting, it's the entire landscape. As far as my photography is concerned, I am always on the lookout for low angle sunlight picking out landscape details in front of a dark background, for example. Then there is the warmth of lighting, which conveys the mood of any artistic interpretation and the three-dimensionality of objects when lit with the above lighting. It's actually an aspect of my paintings that disappoints me although I feel I am getting somewhere with this. However, they don't have the sense of light that I'm trying to convey. Recently, I painted a panoramic scene with a farmhouse and a gate, and not much else and I felt I achieved a warmth and a glow with fewer brushstrokes than normal, so for me, that's progress and exciting when it happens. I believe light to be more important than color, for example, but that is of course a simplification as any painting with presence will have the correct combination of whatever it needs! I use the term "presence" because I think that is what I look for in a painting, whether my own or someone else's. It's a term that's only vaguely definable, but I know it when I see it.
MICHAEL: Yes, light itself is a subject for you. Speaking of which, do you ever create human subjects? Also, I bet your cityscapes would be intriguing too.
BRUCE: Actually my first ever commissioned artwork was a charcoal sketch portrait. I was twelve years old and I think I was paid the equivalent of about one dollar! But over the years, I have certainly specialized in landscape, perhaps partly because that has inspired me the most, but with my background in geology, I guess I have an attachment to my subject that is so important when it comes to interpretation, whether its realism or something with a more abstract approach. And one of my favorite photographs, of the ones I've taken anyhow, is of a little boy standing in the tower at the centre of the city of Xi'an, in China. I shot it in black and white and it's not even in my typical panoramic format. So yes, people do feature in my art and in a significant way I can see that I might do that a bit more into the future. As I've already said, I think it is cool that art has no rules. It's a pity we sometimes create a whole set of rules in our heads as to what we are allowed or not allowed to paint or photograph, so the challenge is to break free from that and embrace any subject matter that stands up to be noticed!
MICHAEL: Isn't it amazing how art photography is now considered pretty much on par with painting as contemporary art? It seems so fresh now.
BRUCE: I think it has been growing as an art form for a while now. I've had the impression that the States has had an acceptance of art photography for quite a long time and I definitely experienced a shift in people's perception in Southern Africa when I was exhibiting there a lot from around 1996 to 2006. It used to be "oh I hadn't thought of putting a photograph on my wall, that's an interesting idea" and by the end it was "I've been looking for photography." Sounds like a subtle change, but it made all the difference. For many people, photography has become their art of choice, so that definitely places it on par. In New Zealand, I think we are still a little behind, and whilst photography is accepted as a decor item and something of interest to hang on a wall, I wouldn't say it has mainstream acceptance as an art form. For this reason, paintings still command that much more and so end up have a greater perceived value. Doing both, I tend to think that that comparison is justified and agree with paintings having more material worth, particularly as photographs are often part of an edition, and so by their very nature have lower value. In artistic terms, value will depend very much on the motives behind the artwork's creation, the execution of it and how it is presented. But there are paintings and there are paintings, and there is photography and there is photography, and we all know that some have more value than others! Each individual artist has the enormous task of pricing their work correctly so that it sells and continues to sell, and also increases in value, and that's a completely separate challenge to growing as an artist. It seems what we are faced with as professional artists is not an easy road!
MICHAEL: Back to your work for a moment. When you're capturing landscapes, I would imagine that the time of day really matters. How do you determine this?
BRUCE: It does matter, but only so far as it affects the scene in front of me. For example, early morning light is low angle, warm and often has an intense and saturated appearance. Early morning is often quite stable and has no wind so bodies of water, like lakes and rivers, are smooth and reflect the landscape behind them. Mist will lie around draped over trees and hills and there are less footprints on beaches. Black and white photography, although perhaps more difficult, is also more forgiving and the time of day is less critical. Having said that, in the middle of the day, when it's sunny, shadows look busy, mainly because there are more of them and they are all relatively small and concentrated areas which attract the eye, or rather detract the eye away from the intended focal point of the photograph. In contrast, no pun intended, early morning shadows, being long because of the low angle of light, become large and compositionally usable areas within a photograph. The aspects of light that make the morning so appealing are similar, but different in the evening. And just because it's getting dark is no reason to stop photographing. Some amazing landscapes can be captured well after the sun has set. My overall approach is to keep an open mind and obviously my eyes open wherever I am, and then without trying too hard, I just notice scenes unfold in front of me and I actually know beforehand that the photograph will be visually successful, even before I've chosen my exact composition. Sometimes I take quite a few, but usually the first composition that I decide on is the one that I keep. It's a quicker process at the time than most people realize.
MICHAEL: Have you seen any evidence of damage done to the environment while on shoots?
BRUCE: Um, er, like houses you mean? My own house? Roads? It's all damage if you want to be a purist, but I have to be pragmatic. I know we have to exist in a comfortable way and I am very accepting of it. And most forms of damage that are campaigned against are really just extensions of the lifestyle we live and we all own that damage because of it. But I do know what you mean - the type of damage that results from complete disregard and disrespect for the land. Yes, I see that, but it's often dominated by the landscape that remains, and which ultimately wins back against the efforts we make to destroy it. In New Zealand, we have a different thing we need to be aware of, and that is honest mistakes in the past which allowed the introduction of predators, which have all but wiped out endemic species of bird, and caused damage to endemic vegetation. Since two wrongs don't make a right, methods employed in reversing those mistakes are always controversial. So going back to a previous answer, I guess I believe in celebrating what is right, rather than actively noticing what isn't.
MICHAEL: Is New Zealand your main customer base? What's the art scene like there? Are everyday New Zealanders into contemporary art or does it struggle there too?
BRUCE: I sell the odd piece internationally, but New Zealanders are my main customer base, as you suspected. It can be a difficult sell, as art can be difficult to sell anywhere, but right now that's more a problem of economics than taste. New Zealand as a whole is a very practical society and art lies somewhere a bit off mainstream, but virtually everyone here has some relationship with landscape, a huge amount of pride in what their country looks like and so they can relate to landscape art in most forms. Although it's never far for anyone to travel to somewhere beautiful, that doesn't appear to stop us from putting photographs or paintings of those beautiful places on our walls. Luckily!
MICHAEL: How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
BRUCE: My dad has always been a competent sketcher and watercolorist, but only in an amateur capacity. His dad, who I never met, was involved in commercial art. I got interested in photography after my uncle bought me a book, he was a keen photographer in his youth and had a darkroom set up at home when he and my mum were growing up. My mum has become interested as she has got older and now enjoys expressing herself through her paintings, but like my dad only as a hobby. So I guess there is an influence that has come through both parents, although they are definitely not photographers! They've never had any interest at all, but were always appreciative and supportive of my own interest in it when I was growing up. My siblings, one brother and one sister, are not involved in art at all, but we've all turned out to be musical, which is certainly related. Strangely again, my parents have very little interest in music! So basically to answer your question, I turned a hobby into a profession, and then added painting later, which I had been able to do as an early teenager, but wasn't driven to pursue as a hobby then. And I always liked being outdoors, so the subject matter was obvious to me!
MICHAEL: Finally Bruce, what function do you think art plays in the world and what do you want folks to take away from you and your work? Hopes for the future?
BRUCE: Wow, where to start? Art is a voice for anyone bold enough to attempt it. It's a way of expressing oneself and finding things out about oneself that you didn't even know existed. It's a therapy and a meditation. It can be a protest, a statement or a celebration. If you want it to be, it can be a way of making a living. Art provides visual pleasure for viewers, engages them in a dialogue with the artist and with the world that the artist is depicting. It's a window into someone else's beliefs, culture, motivations or stimulations. And it can just look good too. There's nothing wrong with simplifying it all to that important point. For me, it really is my pleasure to produce the work. I only hope that other people get something out of what I do and that it inspires people in some way. With the future just being another version of today, my hope is really that I can continue to do what I do and find some ongoing growth in it too, both artistically and personally, as I have found in the past.
MICHAEL: Bruce, this has been fantastic. Great chatting with you. All the best.
BRUCE: It's been fun and a pleasure Michael, thanks so much for the opportunity to share!
Check out Bruce’s work at his website at http://brucemortimer.co.nz/.