Canadian Literature and Authors: A Portrait


This October, artist Mark Raynes Roberts will bring his ILLUMINATION exhibit to Toronto. A twofold presentation, the show will feature hand-engraved crystal depictions of Canadian literary passages on light, as well as photographs of 150 Canadian authors. We asked Roberts a few questions about his artwork, his process and Canadian creativity.

For details on ILLUMINATION, click here.

Five questions with ILLUMINATION artist Mark Raynes Roberts

PEN Canada: You are best known for your hand-engraved crystal art, and we look forward to your interpretation of Canadian literary passages chosen by the Writers Trust Advisory Board. What prompted you to take on photography?

Mark Raynes Roberts: I’ve been a photographer longer than I’ve been a crystal artist (approx 40 years), but crystal has been my chosen professional art form as I have a deep connection to the refractive qualities of the material.

I have used photography as a conduit or catalyst for my crystal designs for over 35 years, taking images primarily of natural forms, patternizations and landscapes or whatever inspired me. These images provide a wealth of ideas for me to interpret into my creations, so I have always seen photography as a way to start my creative process.

PC: You have taken over 22,500 photographs of 150 Canadian authors. How difficult was it to track down authors for all of these portraits?

MRR: In the world of digital photography it isn’t hard to take that many images, especially when I had limited access to some of the authors I photographed. But thankfully many of the 150 authors I did shoot were incredibly generous with their time, and in fact I spent some fascinating photo shoots deep in conversation which meant photography almost became an afterthought. This happened by osmosis really, but I realized quite quickly that developing this “visual conversation” was actually the best way to make the situation comfortable.

I honestly thought it would take me five years to complete 100 portraits, so it has surprised me to reach 150 in two years.

When I started the project I was actually in London, England, exhibiting my crystal, but had been asked by the Globe & Mail, if I might photograph the British authors my wife, Sarah Hampson, was interviewing for a special ” authors at home” series. On my return to Canada, I contacted Charlie Foran, as Charles had won the Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Nonfiction which I created, and so he became my guinea pig. Thanks to Charles, the Writers Trust of Canada, I managed to photograph over 50 authors, but I also felt fortunate when Ellen Seligman, Louise Dennys and Samantha Haywood started to reach out for me along with many of the authors themselves. I honestly thought it would take me five years to complete 100 portraits, so it has surprised me to reach 150 in two years.

PC: When you shot these portraits you asked the authors why they write. Could you tell us about an answer that struck you?

I am delighted that the inaugural presentation of ILLUMINATION will be held at the Toronto Reference Library, prior to the Salman Rushdie interview and book event, as it’s an opportunity for the book loving public to read these wonderful quotes on why each author writes.

The idea came to me because, having met a few of the authors at this point, I realized how little the public knew about authors both in how they look but also what in inspires their writing. I wasn’t sure how the authors would react, and whether there might be a mass revolt, but thankfully again the generosity of spirit among the authors was wonderful.

I don’t like to pick out favorites as they all provide an insight to the authors mind, but I particularly liked Anne Michaels’ and Susan Glickman’s for their sense of humanity, Kathleen Winter’s and Guy Gavriel Kay’s for sense of humour, and Russell Smith’s for sheer honesty!

PC: Canadian literature is perpetually being charged with lacking a national voice. What, if anything, do you think is unique about the Canadian perspective?

MRR: Firstly I’m not in a position to answer a question like this about the Canadian literary community. My hope and desire for the ILLUMINATION project was to place a spotlight on the wealth of writers that we most certainly do have in our country.

It’s pretty obvious that Canada is teeming with talent in all the arts . . .

I started the project to create awareness of our authors and to hopefully create public awareness of the importance of hand craft. Whether it be through writing, music or art of any sort, it is important for our country to recognize that all creative people are hugely valuable to our Canadian society.

It’s pretty obvious that Canada is teeming with talent in all the arts, and it’s up to our government to recognize this seriously and to create more supportive programming funding the arts and the creative communities. Over the last ten years Canada has changed dramatically, and it’s time we returned to the country to where the rest of the world values us for our humanitarian outlook, and as a country who places significant value on the arts–recognizing the value it has on our internal culture as well as how it reflects globally.

PC: What Canadian author(s) are you reading?

MRR: I am too busy right now to read, but I have Lori Lansens’ book The Mountain Story ready to go once the exhibition is completed.