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Freeman Patterson, Magritte, Elisabethbaai, Namibia, 1996. Photograph on watercolour paper. Private Collection. Photo courtesy of Goose Lane Editions. © Freeman Patterson
Many wouldn’t look twice at a pile of leaves, grass and snow; however, the everyday scene prompted an almost out-of-body experience for New Brunswick photographer Freeman Patterson. “I became extremely fascinated with the leaves and the grasses and the snow in the field beside my house,” he told NGC Magazine in a recent interview. “I just lost myself, and I found that I was getting higher and higher as I photographed.” The experience was so intoxicating, that he recalls that he “had to sit down and say ‘okay what's going on here?’”
The fact that many would find such subject matter “extremely boring” does not elude Patterson. But approaching the natural world with a sense of wonder and reverence is second nature to the artist—as is evident in the 12 Patterson photographs in the National Gallery of Canada collection, as well as in the major retrospective Embracing Creation, on view at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick until 12 January.
Featuring photographs from 1966 to the present day, the exhibition, guest-curated by Tom Smart, presents lush topographies and sharply detailed closeups of the world around us, capturing moments on the brink of transition.
As Smart explains, the show “has been framed as a religious journey, seeking through photography a means and vocabulary for transcending the reality of the world by means of his unique imaginative iconography, intuition, and deeply probing sensibility.” Smart adds that, for Patterson, who has a Master’s degree in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, this “search for meaning has taken him to research many systems of learning, and form a richly textured ecology of thought.” Yet, while Patterson is on a clear quest for spiritual meaning, he also employs Surrealist processes, such as Automatism, allowing symbols to come to him organically, much as symbols come to dreamers as they sleep.
Patterson ultimately realized that, in observing the leaves, grasses and snow, a symbol had found him. "I see a very strong relationship between the symbols that various artists working in all different kinds of media use: symbols that they involve consciously and unconsciously in their work, and the same kind of symbols that we have in our dreams,” he told NGC Magazine. For Patterson, the organic matter that so transfixed him in the field by his home symbolized the concept of integration. "The more I looked at it, the more I realized that what fascinated me about the field was the texture. It was incredibly integrated. I think, as we get older, one of the great challenges of our lives is to pull all of our experiences together—in other words, to become more integrated persons. And as soon as I thought that, I had this 'Aha!' reaction.”
Rather than simply document the world around him, he allows its hidden symbols to surface, each photograph attaching itself to elements of his psyche and stirring emotions in the viewer. In My Mother’s Memory, included in the retrospective, features a translucent tangle of wilting hostas, their leaves slowly oxidizing and merging with the moist bed of soil below. The dying hostas “always remind me of my mother in the final days of her life,” writes Patterson of this piece on his website. “It may be the beauty of their pallid hues: white, creamy beiges, grays and hints of blue. It may be their weakness. It may be the leaf stalks reaching out like arms, the leaves resting like hands, waiting to be picked up and held.”
He explores a universal cycle of death and rebirth through his study of nature, and has long focused on the ephemeral elements of the world around us. A 1988 photograph of a dead bird lying, as if by accident in a sooty frying pan—shot in Patagonia and titled The End Delayed—presents darker portrait of the cycle of death, life and consumption. Whereas Memories—a 1966 work from his home in Shamper’s Bluff, depicting fallen autumn leaves in a dark wooden doorway—explores the way we cope with loss and flux by continuing to clutch at moments once they’ve passed. Both of these works are in the retrospective, showcasing not only his preoccupations with the circle of life, but also his virtuosity as a photographer.
Patterson’s intimate connection to the natural world is partly the result of an isolated childhood. "I'm rooted in this because I grew up in the country on a farm in southern New Brunswick. I was the only child of my age for several years when I was growing up in that community, and so my best friends were things like the trees and the birds and the plants and the sheer natural landscape of the lower Saint John River Valley. Of course it left a profound impression on me that's been with me all my life."
Though he may be rooted in New Brunswick, Patterson gives himself the freedom to travel the world, finding inspiration in alien and unfamiliar landscapes. In recent years, he has taken many trips to the Atlantic Coast of southern Africa, where he teaches photography workshops. “Unlike Canada’s Maritime provinces, where the earth is covered in a quilt of vegetation—a quilt of clouds—there, the earth in southern Africa and southwestern Africa, the earth is stripped bare,” says Patterson. “You can see the bones of the earth, and that's extremely compelling to me."
A series of photographs Patterson took in Kohlmanskop—a southern Namibia ghost town in the Namib Desert—which were exhibited in the 1996 exhibition Odysseys, as well as in this retrospective, stand in contrast to much of his work shot in the Maritimes, also featured in the retrospective. The Kohlmanskop photographs capture a surreal sense of timelessness and chart new psychological terrain. Unlike his photos of the Maritimes, his photos of the Namib Desert confront viewers with sand-filled and abandoned rooms that appear still and devoid of life. “When I go to southern Africa, I have a much greater sense of just time not passing—of eternity,” says Patterson. Yet the accumulated sand in the abandoned rooms does bear witness to a slow, unhurried passage of time: one that seems to reach far beyond our day-to-day lives.
Capturing this flux is integral to Patterson’s work: “Creativity absolutely depends on change. When things become too ordered, they become static and nothing happens,” he says. “The difference between what a leaf looked like yesterday, and what it looks like today, fascinates me."
Freeman Patterson: Embracing Creation is on view at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, until 12 January 2014. For more information click here. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition is a major book published by Goose Lane Editions and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.
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