Quest for Beauty

Inspired by the timelessness of an Arts and Crafts-style garden, Toronto’s T.M. Glass uses modern technology to create jaw-dropping imagery that excites the eyes and soothes the soul. Lifestyle Editor Jeanne Beker sat down with the artist to find out more about these extraordinary digital paintings that are a 21st century ode to nature and romance.

We live in dangerous times: Environmentally, the planet is in peril and our obsession with technology and preoccupation with artifice has never been more pronounced. Nature’s profoundly simple beauty is at risk of being overshadowed and even destroyed. That’s why the world needs more T.M. Glass. A one-time student of sculpture at the Ontario College of Art and Design, this Toronto artist originally worked as a radio, TV, and film producer before honing in on the pursuit of beauty. Today, Glass’s over-sized, digitally painted photographs are arresting examples of why we all need to take more time to not only smell, but truly see the flowers.

The artist’s love affair with flora began a couple of decades back, after purchasing a century-old Toronto home, designed by renowned British-born, Arts and Crafts architect Eden Smith. While researching how the dilapidated house might be restored to its original glory, Glass came upon an old interview with Smith in which he talked about how his designs were linked to the landscape around the property, and that gardens were especially important to his work. “I knew nothing about gardens,” explains Glass, “so I had to learn. And I also had to learn about the period gardens. I found an 1860 book by William Robinson called “The Wild Garden”, and it was very prescriptive about how to make an Arts and Crafts movement garden. I followed it to create my garden.”

This was at a time when digital cameras first came out, and Glass, who automatically felt comfortable with these new fangled apparatus, began documenting the exhilarating journey with a 4 megapixel camera, and stored the files. “ Then every new camera that came out with more and more megapixels became more and more interesting to me. I felt that this was an artistic medium that I could use and that some of the things I learned as an art student could somehow be joined to this new medium.”

But there wasn’t much Glass felt could be done with these pictures, because early printers weren’t sophisticated enough, and inks would change colour. Eventually, manufacturers created ink that was stable and printers that could print on specially coated papers. “I began to find ways to make the printer my paintbrush and to explore the software,” recalls Glass, who was also interested in going against the decades old notion that contemporary art should be flat, with no illusion of space or depth. There was also the feeling in the contemporary art world that a conscious quest for beauty was somehow wrong and “old fashioned”, and that contemporary artists should work with abstract, rather than representational, imagery. “So while I was figuring out what I’d do with the digital medium, I made a decision to move away from any of the things that we recognized as contemporary and start to discover how I could marry my ideas with cutting edge technological equipment.”

Glass began utilizing a stylus to digitally paint on a Wacom tablet screen, designing a variety of brushes, and controlling the flow and thickness of the digital paint. The resulting clarity and crispness of the brushstrokes became a big part of the imagery’s appeal. “I also wanted to explore how to create the illusion of depth in a picture,” says Glass. “Ultimately, I wanted my work to be a quest for beauty. I felt this was a door opening for me, moving into something that hadn’t really been in vogue for the past 60 years.”

Beyond the glorious flowers, the vases and vessels that Glass uses are also remarkable, many of which come out of the collections of revered cultural institutions like the Royal Ontario Museum and the Gardiner Museum. Of course, the cut flowers are never actually put into any of these rare vessels—Glass’s pictures are digitally composited collages. But why is Glass insistent on always showing flowers in vases? “One of the central principles of the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement was a quest for beauty, quickened by a sense of approaching death. And when a sense of approaching death is combined with this quest for beauty, it heightens the appreciation of the beauty,” the artist explains. “Cut flowers in a vase are very beautiful but don’t live very long, so simultaneously, there’s a sense of their approaching death. I did do some photographing of flowers right in the garden, but I found that when I cut the flowers and put them in a vase, it got closer to what I was aiming for.”

But besides Glass’s romance with flowers and gorgeous vessels, it’s the artist’s fascination with digital technology that truly drives the work.  “As digital cameras become more and more sophisticated, they reach a level that is beyond what the human eye can see. I’m just changing from a 100 megapixel camera to a 150 megapixel camera now. The images I shoot are imported into my computer as raw pictures. I have to decide what the colours and colour intensity will look like. There are thousands of decisions I have to make about the images. Then I get to work with my digital paint to really bring the picture to life,” says Glass. “What you end up looking at is a picture that comes from my mind my memory, my dreams—how I remember the flowers in that vase at the time that I took the picture, and what I want you to see. So when you look at one of my pictures, you’re looking at it through my eyes…. Yes it’s a photograph, and yes it’s a painting. But it’s also something that didn’t exist before.” One thing I can personally attest to: The more you look at the exquisite imagery of T.M. Glass, the more you see. Like the artist’s own spectacular garden, the beauty simply grows.