Think “Denman Island Craft Fair” and you’re likely to think “tradition.” This 33-year-old event is a big, colourful celebration of craft genres and techniques that go back thousands of years. But the Fair also features a number of artists whose work combines ancient and modern in totally unique, even mindblowing, ways.
Hornby Island artist Stevi Kittleson is one of these. Both playful and profound, her work cheerfully collapses the gap between seemingly contradictory categories. She works on a computer, and yet all her material comes from the recycling depot. Her prints consist of pictures of cast-off junk, but are also depictions of nature. She uses a camera, but isn’t a photographer.
At first glance, many of Kittleson’s prints look a lot like classical botanical drawings. Others appear to be lighthearted renderings of anthropomorphised crows and ravens, often playing instruments. But look closer, and a multi-layered world unfolds. Those flowers don’t correspond to anything that grows on earth. Petals are made of repeated images of old typewriter keys, and the tangle of roots is actually a clump of wires. A beetle’s pincers are electrical plugs, its feet are drill bits. Hidden behind images that are themselves hidden behind images are lines of text, sometimes poetic, sometimes provocative, often punning.
For instance, the playfully-named Helianthus Steamerii is a flower made out of repeated images of vegetable steamer components. (Who knew that steamer blades make good stand-ins for petals?) At the bottom of the picture is a quotation: “There is nothing very normal about nature.”
Kittleson describes her work as digital collage. “It’s the same thing that anyone would be doing with glue and scissors, but I limit my pool entirely to photographs that I take at the Hornby Island Recycling Depot. The concept of recycling is critical to my work.”
Her style and content come from “spending so much time deking in and around the recycling depot,” says Kittleson. “I love the patina of rusting metal. I love what happens to things that are man-made when they skid down the road of abandonment. Broken glass, gutted appliances, crumbling tires, discarded dolls, odoriferous books aged maps…this sad sweet disintegration of once-utilized, much coveted and perhaps highly regarded stuff moves me to play re-creator. But it’s all ephemeral. You can’t save it. There’s no way to capture it except with a camera.”
Kittleson doesn’t see herself as a photographer; the junkyard photos are simply ways of gathering material. She sometimes takes actual pieces home to build sculptures, but there’s a practical limit on how much she can carry and store, and how much space she and her clients can allot to six-foot tall, rusting, molding, cobwebby sculptures. This led her to play with digital collage, working in Photoshop.
Kittleson loves the creative flexibility of working digitally. “I never thought I’d turn a computer on. But you can do things like make things transparent – in fact, you can render them anywhere on a scale from 0 to 100 degrees of opacity. You can alter the colour scale. You can layer things – even make a stack of 10 to 100 things if you want, and see right through all of them. And you keep your work mutable the entire time you’re working on it. For someone who’s worked in hard materials like metal, it’s amazing to be able to work on a vision you can sustain in a fluid state.”
Kittleson now has 100s of electronic files with thousands of images, all sorted by shape and material, which forms her palette. “The computer gives me a great toolbox, but I also still absolutely love to work with my hands, building sculpture, sketching and drawing. Ultimately, the only toolbox that matters is your mind,” says Kittleson.
Check out Stevi Kittleson along with close to 80 other artisans, all combining tradition and innovation in their own ways, at the Denman Island Christmas Craft Fair, Dec 6 & 7, 10:00 – 4:00, in the Denman downtown village.