By Anna Horsnell
In exclusive conversations with the artists from The Prow Gallery, Breaking the Surface delves deeper into the personalities and passion behind the artistry. Our sincere thanks go out to each artist for graciously sharing from the heart.
Your previous work as a biologist provided an insightful background for the artist you became. Was the creative instinct always a part of you? Has art influenced the scientist?
I can honestly say that it was my love of plants that inspired me to study them, their anatomy, physiology, and their relation to their environment and to other plants. I have always been a maker and it was a natural process for me to experiment with what I could make with plant fibre. I develop ideas about what I could make, and I look for the plant fibres that will support my idea
but sometimes a plant will inspire the process. Either way I am one with the plant.
The variety and scope of your work has evolved over time. Would you share a bit about that journey of growth and the major influences along the way?
I had made a few baskets previous to my attendance at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, simple weaving employing very basic techniques. I quickly got involved with the textile faculty at the college employing textiles, wool, linen, silk and leather in my basketry. I also visited the metal studio and began weaving rolled copper wire into my work. After graduation I travelled to Poland to study weaving with wicker, and later to Spain where I worked with artists from Spain, Ireland, and Norway learning more about weaving with wicker, and many new techniques like knotting, looping, and netting with grasses and other local plant fibres. Working with some pretty famous artists, I learned about weaving techniques from many parts of the world. Most important, I learned to develop my own voice and brand.
In your artist’s bio you explain, “I recognize a connection between humanity and the environment and I try to give voice to the simple, complex, vulnerable, strength of nature"; How do these contradicting qualities of nature speak to that connection with humanity?
I recognize these contradictory qualities in both plants and humans; we are not so different. I try to make work that speaks to those similarities and translate them through my work into a piece that people can relate to. I think people recognize themselves or something familiar to them in my work. I know that I recognize myself in my work.
There is a great deal of respect evident in your work from the use of traditional basketry to the sustainable methods you practice in gathering natural materials. Why is this important to you?
I am an environmentalist and a botanist. I love plant life, and I follow rules like do not take the first plant nor the last plant. I only harvest where the plants are plentiful, and I do not take the biggest nor the best specimens. I give thanks for what I harvest by taking the time to appreciate what I am harvesting and its relationship to the plants that surround it. I harvest in fields where I know the plants will be mowed, and under hydro-electric lines where the trees will be cut down every few years. I wait till the flowers have bloomed and the seeds have scattered before I take the plant, giving birds and bees the opportunity to harvest what they need. It is important to maintain the ecosystem as it is in support of environmental sustainability.
Your artwork combines a variety of natural fibres to create a new interpretation, while still echoing qualities of grace, order, and movement. What do you hope the viewer takes from this reimagining?
First let me thank you for your kind and thoughtful words. When I take up some plant fibre to work, I study the lines, the arc, the texture, the strength and I take my cue from the plants as to what to create. I like to listen to the plants and respect what they have to offer in terms of their aesthetic. I know their strengths and what may be possible so, if I have something particular in mind, I will search out the plants that will support my idea. I hope the viewer sees what I see, the calm and restful plant sculpture presenting comfort by just being together. I hope they experience the presence of the plants in my work and that it enriches the space they share.
How can art and artists make a difference in the crucial issue of climate change?
I work with a group of artists based in New Brunswick, but with connections across the country, who make art that promotes education around climate change issues. For the past three years I have been involved in making art to raise people’s awareness about detrimental environmental issues. The movement is called From Harm to Harmony and the number of artists in our group is growing. We organize activities in schools and in community, to involve especially children, to make art to promote the environment, art that illustrates things we can do to protect our forest and waterways. We are affiliated with the New Brunswick Conservation Council.
What brings you the most joy as an artist?
I find collaboration a great challenge and I love collaborating with other artists. I love to teach people to weave with plant fibre and that came as a surprise to me. I teach about the plant fibre, harvesting techniques, processing, drying, storage, how to weave, and how to make a basket. It is a way to get people involved in working with plants and recognizing their value.
Describe a great day in the field.
A great day in the field will involve my bicycle, my forage basket and a pair of garden shears. Most of my harvesting is done in the spring, some into summer, and a little in the fall. I have my favourites, but I am always on the look out for new species of plants that could work and that warrant exploration. I bike every day and I almost always have my basket and shears. There is always something to harvest and a great day might include the opportunity to harvest bark from a tree that is being cut down for some purpose. Or when someone invites you to their woodlot or property to explore plants, even garden plants like Siberian iris, day lily, or crocosmia. I also like to harvest plants from the river and marshes such as the soft rush, cattail, or some of the sedges. There are always opportunities to study plants and those chances make for great days!
What New Year’s resolutions or goals lie ahead for Ralph Simpson, the artist?
I am always looking for and applying for opportunities, so my list of goals is long. In 2023 my list includes getting juried into an exhibition outside the Maritimes, applying for a Canada Council Creation Grant, as well as a travel grant from Arts NB. I want to attend the National Basketry Organizations annual meetings and take a workshop with a famous basket maker. I am applying to Haystack Mountain Center for the Arts to study basketry, and I want to increase my following on Instagram to 1000. I have been accepted into the Stowe Mountain Basketry Festival in Stowe, Vermont and I have been accepted as a delegate to the 5 World Wide Wicker Festival in Poland in August. I also have a number of new baskets that I would like to make, and I hope to do ten workshops. The first one is in two weeks time in Saint John, NB.