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A Q&A With Crystal Artist, Designer and Photographer Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Raynes Roberts Illumination

In collaboration with the Gardiner Museum, artist Mark Raynes Roberts presents ILLUMINATION, an artistic celebration of Canadian Authors and their Literature through the prism of crystal art and portrait photography. In 2013, Raynes Roberts began a photography project capturing Canada’s established and emerging authors. It is an intimate exploration of their personality, places of inspiration, and creativity.

To complement the Portraits of Canadian Authors photographs, Raynes Roberts has conceived a 12-piece collection of engraved crystal sculpture, entitled Portraits of Canadian Literature. In collaboration with the Writers’ Trust of Canada, Raynes Roberts has selected books where themes using light illuminate the pages of some of Canada’s greatest Canadian literature both in fiction and nonfiction.

These sculptures will be shown in the Gardiner Museum Shop and Lobby Exhibition space from October 26 – November 11, 2015.

For more information about the exhibitions please visit

1. Where did the idea for ILLUMINATION come from?

In the Fall of 2013, my wife Sarah Hampson, (columnist for the Globe & Mail) and I were in London, England. I had an exhibition of my crystal art at the Plateaux Gallery in Mayfair, London, and Sarah was on a short work stint for The Globe, writing columns and features including an interview series with authors at home. As I had previously provided photography for several Globe & Mail Travel articles, I was asked if I would be willing to photograph Alexander McCall Smith, Rachel Joyce, Jim Crace, Isabel Greenberg and Mary Lawson for Sarah’s columns.

Although I have been a photographer since I was 15, I had always used my photography as a catalyst and tool for my crystal sculpture designs. However the enjoyable experience of photographing these authors in their home environments made me think about beginning to photograph Canadian authors when I was back home. My thought was that it might take me 4-5 years to reach 100 authors. So you can imagine my surprise to have now photographed 150 authors.

It’s important to note, that I had never imagined (nor was it my intention) that this would be a ‘best of’ collection, but rather an ‘inclusive’ selection of authors both emerging and established, from various genres, and whenever possible, to include authors from across the country. As this wasn’t a funded project, it meant I was reliant on the in kind support of the Writers Trust of Canada, publishers, agents and publicists in helping me reach out to the literary community.

Charles Foran was the first author I photographed for the project in Canada (even though I had photographed Mary Lawson, at her home in London.) and thanks to Charles, he kindly helped to introduce me to many of his author friends to get the ball rolling. The project was a ‘labour of love’ on my part, and it surprises me still to realize that I managed to travel over 20,000kms, and to have taken over 22,500 photographs. The photographs have been chosen by the authors themselves, my only request being that I could choose the final image from their three choices for the exhibition.

2. How come you opted for black and white portraits as opposed to portraits in colour?

As a crystal artist and engraver, I work constantly in engraving both positive and negative images, either dimensionally or through the 18th century technique known as stippling, similar to the mezzotint technique. I suppose I relate to black and white photography for the same reason, as it emphasizes the importance of light and dark in the same way. I prefer to shoot using only the available natural light, and making the experience of being photographed as natural as possible. For me, the process of portraiture is very much a ‘visual conversation’ between me, the photographer, and the author. And I strive to make the camera lens disappear from the equation.

Color photography can be equally beautiful, but I feel there is something timeless about the beauty and elegance of a black-and-white portrait photograph. Canada has a very rich past in black and white portrait photography, when you think of such great photographers such as William Notman, who had one of North America’s most successful portrait studios based in Montreal, in the late 19th century, as well as Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, who photographed many of the world’s most famous individuals over the 20th century.

3. What were the challenges of trying to arrange for 150 portraits of 150 different authors?

I know that if I had started out planning to photograph 150 authors, I would have been totally overwhelmed by the prospect, so in some ways I am thankful I started out with a certain naivety towards the project. It has developed with its own evolution, and I’m thankful to many of the authors who were so kind, generous and warm in their support of my vision. I flew under the radar for quite a while until I reached about 60-70 authors through my own efforts, at which point Amanda Hopkins and Mary Osborne, at the Writers’ Trust of Canada, were instrumental in helping connect me to more authors. It was Mary, in fact, who suggested I consider aiming to photograph 150 authors, on the basis that Canada will celebrate its 150th Anniversary in 2017.

That said, the greatest challenge has been in the coordination of also creating the 12-piece ILLUMINATION Crystal Collection, (based upon themes of LIGHT in Canadian literature). The invitation to exhibit at the Gardiner Museum from Kelvin Browne, Executive Director & CEO, meant the ILLUMINATION mixed-media and multi-disciplined project suddenly had a timeline to consider. As a result, it has required a great deal of extra planning and coordination to manage both art forms, while making the arrangements for photo shoots with the authors. Originally, I had thought to photograph all authors in their home environments, but I have captured an interesting range of locations including an ocean cottage, a Chateau, a sheep farm, a train station, an art gallery, a recording studio, a university, a zoo, riding stables, an ice hockey rink and two island cottages.

4. Are there any authors that you have been particularly proud of having had the opportunity to photograph?

It has been a great privilege to photograph all 150 authors as I know many authors don’t particularly like being photographed in the first place. I greatly appreciate their willingness to participate in the project and also, in many cases, to be invited into their home environments. Without their generosity of spirit and support, ILLUMINATION would not have been possible. It was naturally an honour to also meet and photograph many members of Canada’s internationally recognized literati. I found it fascinating to spend time during the photo shoots discussing the creative process of both writing and art. Two of the funniest situations included photographing Wayne Johnston in his clothes closest (due to great light) and having Kathleen Winter turn the tables on me by photographing me at the end of our shoot as a bargaining tool just in case she didn’t like my photographs!

5. What are some of your favourite portraits from the collection so far?

Each photo shoot was aunique experience in that wherever the photo shoot took place, I was responding not only to a new environment but also to whatever natural light was available. However, what I came to realize was how important it was to establish a good rapport with the author. Before any photographs were taken, I would usually spend as much time as I could conversing with the author to the point where I would eventually blend the photo session into what I refer to as a “visual conversation.” It’s important to mention this, because it became apparent to me after a while that the portraits I felt best captured the essence of the author were often due to investing time in this relaxed dialogue beforehand so the lens of the camera disappeared. Portraits I personally like often incorporate a darkened location, a simple composition, and if I was lucky, a magical stream of light which could make all the difference.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret AtwoodI have to admit to feeling quite awe-struck prior to meeting Margaret. It’s not often you get to meet one of the world’s great and famous writers. I had arranged to meet both Margaret and her husband, writer Graeme Gibson, at Hart House at the University of Toronto for what would become a most enjoyable afternoon photographing both of them individually. They had just returned from a busy trip abroad so it was very generous of them to meet with me, given their busy schedules and the fact they must have been quite tired with jet lag. Margaret was charming from the very beginning, which I appreciated as she put me at ease. I could concentrate on the job at hand. It was a beautiful sunny Spring afternoon, and we managed to photograph in several lovely architectural locations around the campus, enjoying some witty conversations about “twitching” (bird watching) and the Canadian literary scene past and present. I hope some of the portraits capture her sense of humour and curious engagement.

Graeme Gibson

Graeme GibsonThis was one of two photo shoots I undertook that involved married authors. (The other was with Lawrence and Miranda Hill.) While Margaret enjoyed a cup of tea in Sammy’s Café, Graeme and I wandered the halls of Hart House, until we decided upon an outside location in a darkened alcove. I like this close up portrait of Graeme as it captures the strong character in his face and the twinkle in his eyes. It was interesting to discuss Graeme’s work as Chairman of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. I had visited Point Pelee myself a few years ago and was fascinated by the number of species which pass through the area on their migration. We also talked about his travels in Britain, and where I grew up in Warwickshire close to Stratford upon Avon.

Karen Solie

Karen SolieI met Karen at the entrance to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was a beautiful spring day, so we decided to do the shoot outside. For some, I used the Henry Moore sculpture “Large Two Forms” as a backdrop and for others we went to The Grange where the blossoms were in full bloom. I knew Karen had won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2010 for Pidgeon, and it was fascinating to talk with her about life both as a poet and her childhood, growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan. We talked about beauty in poetry, art and in all its other forms and whether or not we value it as much as we should in society today as in the past. My hope with the portrait was to try and capture some of Karen’s poetic introspection and her gentle soul.

Kathleen Winter

Kathleen WinterAs Kathleen lives in Montreal, we had agreed to meet at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, when she was visiting. It was on a cold January morning. Later that day, she would be attending the RBC Taylor Prize gala. (Kathleen had been nominated for her book, Boundless.) Before starting the photography, I had suggested we have a pot of tea in the grand hotel where John and Yoko had held their infamous ‘love in.’ After chatting for a while and finishing up our tea, we found a few interesting location spots. After we had completed the shoot, Kathleen then turned the tables by bringing out her own camera to photograph me. She said she loved my newly acquired multi-colored winter scarf which I had worn throughout our conversation!

Noah Richler

Noah RichlerNoah had suggested meeting at his home to photograph him in his writing studio, and then concluding the session at the nearby Riverdale Zoo which was around the corner in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood. I had been looking forward to meeting Noah as I had an anecdote I wanted to share with him about his father. It turns out that Mordecai ‘s passion for snooker ( On Snooker was Moredecai Richler’s last published book in 2001) had started while he was living in England in the early 60’s and that the snooker hall where he enjoyed playing was the very same one I had spent time in during my youth many years later! We had some great conversations about living in England and the changing politics in both the U.K. and Canada. Noah was very generous with his time, and the shoot felt very relaxed, especially with his two beautiful Golden Retrievers at our feet most of the time. This portrait shows Noah in his writing environment just before we took his dogs to the park.

Zoe Whittall

Zoe WhittallI met Zoe around Halloween last year at her local west end coffee shop where she can often be found writing. I remember this because there were pumpkins being sold at the variety store next door. A few of the ILLUMINATION photo shoots had urban city locations as backdrops. I wanted to capture a portrait of Zoe standing in front of some of the great street graffiti on display in her Toronto neighbourhood.

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