When I found out that Chantal Khoury had visited basketmaker Ralph Simpson’s studio I emailed her right away and asked “Did you take any photos??” I’ve been wanting to visit Ralph for awhile now, and thankfully Chantal agreed to share about her visit with us. Ralph currently has work on display at the UNB Arts Centre as part of the Beneath the Surface residency show. He also wrote an article in Issue #5 of CH magazine about aboriginal artist Tim Hogan. Here is a peek into Ralph’s temporary studio in Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrew’s. Enjoy! -MH
In the studio with with basketmaker Ralph Simpson
Words and photos by artist Chantal Khoury
I have always been fascinated by artists who find their practice later in life. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Henri Rousseau, to name a few. My partner, in fact, left a law firm working as a tax lawyer to do a BFA at Concordia University. It is more common today to either change careers or start new ones after retirement. There are layers of conceptual richness to the work of an artist who has been informed by a previous profession or experience. This is especially true for hand weaver and biologist Ralph Simpson.
I was recently in St Andrews with my parents attending the Sunbury Shores Arts and Nature Centre’s art auction: Making Waves: Art On the Island, which my father and I took part in. After this enriching event, we took the opportunity to visit Ralph Simpson in his temporary studio at the ‘Kingsbrae International Residence For The Arts’. We wanted to keep the magical visual experience going:
I entered Ralph’s studio in awe. He spoke with my parents about his upcoming group exposition with artists attending the Beneath the Surface residency while I immediately began to wander. I couldn’t help but be pulled in several enthralling directions around each corner of the room. Although I am a painter, I am consistently intrigued by what motivates artists who use materials other than my own. It never ceases to baffle me of how tidy others can be during their work process. Ralph’s love for nature was beautifully apparent in the way he stocked his raw materials. Each element occupied its place with such care.
As I admired the details of his earthly elements, I overheard a fraction of a conversation he was having with my parents. Ralph was explaining that he is very conscious of the issue of appropriation and that he tries hard to be mindful of not crossing this line. Although he studies Aboriginal hand weaving and traditional basketry, he often collaborates with the aboriginal community.
The delicacy of his work shows his evident passion in biodiversity and nature. Ralph is also a biologist with a concentration on botany. I realized his comprehensive knowledge of native plants was unmistakeable as I observed the way he handled his work during the creation process. Sitting in the middle of his work table was a hovering branch (I wish I had asked which kind) propped up vertically like a tiny monument. It stood like a tripod on three legs and had two other branches protruding out to the side. These two were carefully pulled together into the organic shape of a giant leaf. What looked like canvas string was carefully entwined over corners and ends to hold the branches into place. To see his work at this stage was a testament to his love for the materials he uses. I was intrigued by the beginning stages of this piece, so I asked him about his process. He alluded to the idea of letting the natural shapes and characteristics of the raw material inform his final work. This didn’t surprise me in the least because what I find most interesting while examining Ralph’s approach to sculpture is his personal relationship to his materials.
Wood bark, root elements, clean and coiled vines in stacked piles, and wispy materials I can’t even name, all had their place. It was as if he had organized the forest right there in his studio. Baskets within baskets lined the walls and the subtle transitions in colour variety of freshly harvested materials stood out as they hung against the stark white walls.
Ralph’s creativity even trickled out onto the exterior corners of his studio cabin where geraniums grew and foreign plants were carefully resting in trays (some of which he had brought back from his travels through Croatia). I left the visit not only feeling the palpable fragility of nature, but also the limitless ways in which nature can inform us if we let it. – CK