SPAO: Up a tree with Whitney Lewis-Smith

Whitney Lewis-Smith.

“I am at Pink Lake very far in the woods right now collecting things for my photographs.”

With that, an interview with the photographer Whitney Lewis-Smith got started. She was up a tree at the time and descended to sit on a nearby stump and explain herself.

“I build every image from natural things,” said the young but rising photographer. You caught me out looking for stuff to shoot for a show opening at the end of November / early December at the Galerie St. Laurent + Hill.

Lewis-Smith composes her images carefully. She uses natural materials and builds what she calls a set.

For the show later in the fall “I wanted some Canadian specimens so I am looking for those today to use as markers of environmental change.

One of Whitney Lewis-Smith’s heliogravures.

“My sets aren’t just pretty things. I have to think about how I am going to curate this so I can talk about what I want to talk about.”

The set building takes her a lot of time.

Once they are made she makes her own plates using glass.

“I shoot them in the studio when I am ready. That gives the final image a dream-like quality. It allows me to dive into this dream world. It’s a place I want people to visit I want them to feel like they are going to a different place. I want the viewer to gain that fascination that children have for nature but I don’t want to do that in a dark way. I want it to be something you can become enthralled with.”

Lewis-Smith’s work is in many prominent private and public collections, including the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the City of Ottawa Art Collection and the private collection of Sophie and Justin Trudeau.

You can see another aspect of her work more immediately. Starting Friday, the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa will feature her in a show called Ontogeny. The show opens at a reception from five p.m. to 11 p.m. at the SPAO Centre, 77 Pamilla St.) as part of the school’s annual open house.

Ontogeny is part of SPAO’s annual Lineage exhibition which showcases work by members of the staff of the school and alumni.  Lewis-Smith is both a former student and a current teacher.

This show will feature heliogravure printing which is a process that sees a photographic images turned into copper plate etchings.

During a recent residency in Mexico City, she says she believes she has made what could be the largest heliogravure ever.

Making a heliogravure is a printing process. The plate is coated with a light sensitive material. The image is printed on the plate and then it goes into an acid bath and is etched. At 45 inches tall, they are impressive.

“It’s a lot of work. For example you have to put the plate in an acid bath so it is very even. It took a team of us to do three plates working 15 hours a day. Then you print the plates in editions of 10. Normally printers wouldn’t sell the plate but I think it’s the most beautiful part for me.”

She’s been to Mexico a few times and has connected with artists there who wanted to work with her. Out of those connection came a chance to work with an established printer.

“We wanted to see what we could do. We pushed ourselves and it panned out. He learned a lot. And I’m really grateful he used me as a guinea pig.”

Lewis-Smith is always investigating new ways of doing things and new ways of presenting her art which is usually environmental.

“I grew up just down the street from Pink Lake in Chelsea, Quebec. The environment and nature has always been more like home to me. I think I still look at nature with those eyes that I am trying to show the rest of the world.

Her path to photography is an unusual one.

“I love set building. It is a way for me to do that and sculpture. I studied sculpture at Concordia University. I am also a scuba diving instructor and I once had a job documenting coral in the ocean. I started taking photos of the coral and that became more and more creative. I decided wanted to study photography.

When she found she could make my own negatives “it all became very tactile and wonderful. It’s everything. I use what I like and I go forward with that.”

She likes to get her hands working in the process.

These days she’s testing out natural pigments made from plants and insects. The dyes have been used by traditional artisans but “I want to apply them to my prints.”

With that she needed to head back into the woods.

Ontogeny featuring work by Whitney Lewis-Smith is on view at SPAO until Dec. 21. For more information: The annual SPAO open house starts at 5 p.m. Friday at 77 Pamilla St. near Preston.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.