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Artist’s alchemy finds mystery in the everyday

Run, don’t walk, to see Philomena Carroll’s new work at the Yukon Arts Centre Art Gallery.

Run, don’t walk, to see Philomena Carroll’s new work at the Yukon Arts Centre Art Gallery.

The Alchemist’s Jar features a series of 14 digital photographs that layer images and scanned objects into collage prints, reproduced on unframed, large-format paper.

With their autumnal terracottas, greys and blacks plus occasional splashes of colour, these evocative still lifes haunt the viewer by presenting images that hover at the edge of our vision — a fold of cloth, a tangle of dried grass, a woven rope.

At the same time the objects seem to shape-shift into each other, resisting identification so that the photographs become abstract compositions of shape and colour.

“A couple of weeks ago I was looking at still-life images from a contemporary photographer,” says Carroll when we chat at the gallery, “but it’s only now when you say that [they’re still lifes] that I’m making the connection with my own work.

“The difference for me would be that, in still life, many artists are attempting to represent exactly what is there, what is being seen. In my work, it’s as much about what is unseen, what is felt, that I’m trying to explore and pull out and give the viewer that opportunity too.”

Carroll started out as a painter, studying at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in her native Ireland.

“My history is riddled with inadvertent rebelliousness,” she laughs, saying that she’d had enough of institutions after completing her diploma there.

She first came to Canada in 1983, visiting relatives who lived near the Rockies and finding that “it felt like coming home.”

She emigrated in 1992 and has been in the Yukon ever since.   

Carroll explains that she’s always worked as an abstract artist.

“A lot of what you’re working with has to do with balance and structure. You’re looking for a sense of harmony to the whole thing, and once you start feeling that, you’ve got to be very careful because it doesn’t take too much to push it beyond that point.”

In 2000, driven by lack of studio space for painting, she bought a computer and a scanner.

“It didn’t take long to start putting a couple of objects on the scanner bed,” she says.

Then it dawned on her that computer technology offered her the opportunity to explore a long-time interest in photography, which she’d never pursued because of the cost.

She took a short course in Adobe Photoshop and soon discovered that “the only way to get my head into it as a visual artist was to throw a lot of the teaching out and just start working with it.”

Since then she’s been exploring digital photography through trial and error.

“This show is the final culmination of all that work,” she says.

One of the things she likes about Photoshop is that it’s very intuitive.

“You can spend a lot of time moving things around, bringing things in, sinking one layer into another. I’m an intuitive artist. I can’t always tell you exactly what I’m looking for when I’m working, but I know it when I get there.

“When you’re working in the studio you can always tell when work is finished because it begins to resonate, it’s starting to breathe on its own.”

For The Alchemist’s Jar series, Carroll used scans of objects such as an old leather jacket, stones, feathers, and a coyote skull.

“A lot of the colour comes from interlacing layers, extracting certain elements from the original, first-scan layers, and then bringing them in as another layer, so it becomes a series of layers. Some of these images have upwards of 10 or 15 layers coming from different photographs.”

Carroll prints out her own work in the studio, but for the large-format works in the show she sent the images to Vancouver to have them printed.

One of the digital photographs — they’re all assigned numbers in the series rather than titles — resembles a slightly cloudy double window pane smeared with rust, the objects beyond it only dimly visible.

“Do you really want to know what that is?” Carroll says when I ask how she achieved the effect. “Some people don’t want to know. They want to keep the mystery.”

The double frame is actually an old book cover, and what looks like rust is actually tea stains on watercolour paper. “I tore the paper up after it had dried, and then played with the filters on Photoshop.”

Carroll thinks of her work as an exploration of landscape, though not in a traditional sense.

“A long time ago, when I was working with paint and moving more and more towards abstraction, I still saw the work as landscape, but it’s as much interior landscape as exterior.

“To a large extent that’s still how I see the work I’m doing now, even though I’ve changed medium.”

There’s no direct correlation to the Yukon, says Carroll, but “we’re living in the light and the atmosphere of the Yukon, and that is an integral part of the work.

At a molecular level, you take that in. You may not be able to point to something and say, ‘That represents the Yukon,’ but it’s there in the work.”

She sees her work as a form of dialogue, both with the work itself and with the viewer. “Your medium is a language that you’re trying to learn, and you spend most of your life trying to learn that language. You hope that you translate it well enough that the viewer can take it in as well and understand it.

“There is a spiritual journey there, a sense that you are working through something in yourself.”

As the accompanying text by the artist notes, “This work seeks to explore those intangible layers through a personal journey into what is beautiful, profound, sacred and yet everyday.”

These days Carroll lives in Carcross, where she finally has a studio and wants to spend the winter exploring painting again.

Meanwhile visitors to the gallery can experience these digital still lifes and their paradoxical use of everyday objects to capture the mysterious and elusive.

The Alchemist’s Jar runs until October 28.