Surrey artist captures the strange within the ordinary

A photo from Sawatzky's Scatter Plots (2008-2009) series | Photo courtesy of Helma Sawatzky

A photo from Sawatzky’s Scatter Plots (2008-2009) series | Photo courtesy of Helma Sawatzky

A musician, graphic designer, photographer and academic, Helma Sawatzky proves that artistry thrives on versatility. The Dutch-born, Surrey-based artist recently won first place in the photography and new media category of the annual Art Council of Surrey Arts 2013 Juried Exhibition of Visual Art.

Reaching beyond the surface

The winning work, Trace Elements – untitled 2 (2013), exemplifies Sawatzky’s approach to photography, a medium she currently favours. She began by taking a conventional garden snapshot, and then worked on reducing the image to the point of a trace.

This reconfiguration of the original photograph allows viewers to discover new lines and textures within the piece, and to explore a newfound space within the image. Such an effect is well suited to an artist who isn’t interested in creating photographs with easily recognizable content.

“I am interested in how I can complicate this seamlessness, how I can introduce surface texture as it were or play with the idea of erosion or the notion of a trace,” she says.

Sawatzky is fascinated by how the contemporary hyper-accessibility of digital photography has made the act of taking and sharing photos a vital component of how we communicate and experience the world around us. However, she believes that the sheer excess of digital images results in an all too quick consumption of most photographs.

“I am interested in slowing down this process of image consumption by ‘making strange’ – inviting people to spend a little more time exploring an image, and discovering different ways of seeing and experiencing,” she says.

The medium is not necessarily the message

Though she has worked in other techniques such as oil painting and mixed media sculpture, Sawatzky has found photography the most suitable match for her conceptual method. It is also most responsive to the themes that captivate her, such as the relationship between the virtual and the real, representation and imagination.

She has found that unlike her oil painting, which seems to draw the viewers more to the details of technique, photography lures them beyond the surface and allows them to engage more with the ideas that emerge from the pictorial space.

This process is particularly evident in Sawatzky’s Scatter Plots (2008–2009) series, where photographs of trees were overlaid with a pattern of coarse pixelation in a colour similar to the leaves of the tree. From a distance, the image resembles a windswept tree, yet up close it appears as primarily a pixel grid.

Sawatzky believes that Scatter Plots invites us to question what is real and what constitutes representation. It invigorates our imagination by asking us to re-examine both the limits and the relevance of the very concept of reality.

Being bricolage

Sawatzky says that most of her work can be considered bricolage – the piecing together of various images, ideas and approaches. Her latest project, a coffee table-style book done for an academic assignment for her doctoral studies in communications at Simon Fraser University, illustrates this tendency.

It explores the relationship between humanity and technology by establishing a dialogue between the main body of text and a wide range of images, poems, quotations, illustrations and diagrams. Much like the rest of Sawatzky’s opus, it’s designed to challenge and reinvent established ways of seeing.

“Good art is like good poetry, or an amazing dish: it is a transformative experience of some kind,” she says.

To embark on the transformative journey that is Helma Sawatzky’s photography, check out the Arts 2013: A Juried Exhibition of Visual Art on display at the Surrey Art Gallery until August 31st, and visit the artist’s website at