Torrie Groening’s studio is an extraordinary place with a storied history. Located in a converted church at the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown, the studio occupies the top floor of the building, with her family’s residence on the main floor below.
Built in 1910 by architect Frederick Mellish, the building originally housed the Norwegian Lutheran Church. Mellish was a well-known local architect from Ontario who moved to Vancouver in 1908 and went on to build a number of homes, churches, and warehouses. Subsequently occupied by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Cry in the Wilderness Church, and lastly, the Basel Hakka Lutheran Church, the building was decommissioned as a church in 2008 and became a private residence. Her family’s ongoing work on the building has included a set of altar windows that echo the Gothic archway of the interior stage and exterior brickwork that was sourced from neighbourhood tear-downs.
I met Torrie at her studio on a postcard-worthy day, saturated in sunshine. I rang the buzzer at the tall wood gate and was swiftly greeted by the artist along with her sociable pug, Stella. Warm, engaging, and with pale rose-pink hair reminiscent of vintage chintz, Torrie toured me around the studio, pausing at projects in various states of progress.
At 1700 square feet, the studio sprawls under an uncommonly high ceiling and is encircled with tall, broad windows that drench the room with natural light. Worktables are oriented around the room. An array of paints, pastels, coloured pencils, pigments, and brushes occupy drawers and containers. Tripods with lights and a medium format camera gather around the constructed set of a developing photo series. Cubbies overflow with small ornamental glass vessels in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of colours.
A giant inkjet printer looms large in one corner, easy chairs surrounded by shelves of art books create a lounge area under a massive monitor, and surfaces are strewn with test prints.
“I work in two linked methods: I draw, paint, or make prints of objects — these pieces exist independently and later may appear in new-collaged compositions and be used as props in photo-based work,” she explains.
One quickly discovers Torrie’s métier: collections. “I started collecting bits of nature when I was a kid — rocks and things on the beach,” she says. Torrie now photographs her found and collected objects and, by employing a process of cut and paste, creates large-scale collage artworks. “The creative part is building the sets, researching, finding objects, composing, and assembling,” she muses. “I work on the still life images like stage sets: the objects, the actors, and myself, the director. Objects are chosen for their evocative sense and may take on new understanding when linked by proximity to another. These new works include objects from nature and from those shelves where we stow the things that are not treasures but objects kept for their particular allure. With the collection and arrangement of the still life scene, I create unlikely but not impossible situations. In this fluid state, the collages are added to and economized until the composition is established. Several objects have recurring roles in new works, often transformed for their new setting.”
Seated in the lounge/library, we entered into a wide-ranging discussion on the local arts community, our mutual acquaintances, books on artist’s lives, (Josef Sudek, Georgia O’Keeffe), her upcoming book- making workshop in Italy, and her creative ethos (namely, “high intention, high production, and an elegant manifestation of a good idea”).
After two decades of working in traditional printmaking and collage, in Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto, Torrie shifted towards a hybrid practice of digital photography and collage after a move to San Francisco in 2001. “It was an exciting time to be in California with new technology in digital photography and printing. Artists were now creating mixed media works that embraced this creative freedom. I saw artists, Deborah Orapollo and William Wiley, using digital photography adventurously, like artists do...and was heartened the museum community was now accepting these works. As well as home to many of Adobe’s top Photoshop masters and instructors, San Francisco had the benefit for me, of having an art community that was enthusiastic about works on paper.” It was a life-changing experience that catapulted her into a new phase of artistic practice, after many years working as a stone lithographer.
Torrie’s recent successes include an exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massachusetts; participation in Houston’s Fotofest 2018 with a solo show at Foto Relevance Gallery. She completed two public commissions that were featured in Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival in 2018. One Festival project was a commission from the philanthropic Leong family to provide a public art installation at the new Segal Family Health Centre at Vancouver General Hospital. Occupying five stories, “Colour Seekers, The Colour Collector’s Way” is printed on transparent vinyl affixed to the windows of each floor, making it visible from both the street to passersby and inside to patients of the facility.
In what she describes as “the most charming alley in Vancouver” Torrie’s photo-collage took on an unusual venue in Gastown for a Capture Photography Festival commission. “Alley View Bouquet, a Delivery for Mrs. Deighton” celebrated an unsung heroine of our local history.
Currently, Torrie is tackling a new approach of merging her photography with 3D sculpture.
While no longer a house of worship, this photographer’s studio is doubtlessly divine.
By Peppa Martin for PhotoEd Magazine Winter 2018 Edition.