A number of Agora Gallery‘s artists work in unusual studios, many of which have an impact on the way they create art. You can read about some of them in Studio Spaces, a frequent feature in our contemporary art magazine ARTisSpectrum. Bernice Sorge‘s studio is perhaps especially unusual, though – she works in what was an abandoned church, located in the middle of a field, which she found entirely by accident!
Tell us about your studio!
How did you find it? What made you realize it could be a great place to use as a studio?
I found the church just after I moved from Montreal to the Eastern Townships of Quebec during one of those mass emigrations of young people back to the country in the late 70’s. While traveling across back-country roads on my way to a meeting I was forced to ask my friend who was driving to stop the car immediately. To my left was an old graveyard and to my right hidden among the trees was an old abandoned church, I knew right away that I would have this building one day. I knew it was mine. I had an immediate connection to the wild state that it was in: the old apple trees, the berry bushes, the fancy wood ceiling and the arched windows falling apart.
It evoked something otherworldly and took me back to the childhood experience of going out into the wild to ‘find.’ My mother used to send me into the fields to gather wild foods for our table, partly out of necessity. This experience of gathering edibles from the mass of grasses and weeds was one of the most remarkable of my childhood. It gave me a sense of power and conquest. Nature became a mystical companion that offered an unconditional source of nourishment connecting me and my mother to a secret cache that was only visible to me and her. This knowledge given to me by my mother opened a door for me, a door with endless possibilities and hope and the belief that something can always be made out of nothing.
Thus the old church hidden among the overgrown trees conjured up a memory of the childhood experiences of finding the good weeds among the inedible ones. I felt that it was waiting for me, abandoned by everyone and just waiting. I fell in love and imagined myself working in the tower of this precarious structure that had a lean of about 20% due to the large foundation stones slowly sinking into the ground, the roof peeling off, the windows broken, empty and falling apart.
I found a way to get inside and stood in awe on the main floor with the light coming through the large windows dancing on the walls, playing with the stains and cracks of the thick plaster. I wondered, “Was this to be the four walls of my new freedom” (Merton)? I had no money, no job, three little boys and a husband who was a teacher working 100 km away in Montreal. But I knew I would find a way. I fell back on my education – by then I had two degrees, one in Science and one in Education – and within a week I found a job teaching college part-time.
Do you think the atmosphere or anything else about your unusual studio has had an impact on
The building definitely had an impact on my work and I had an impact on it! It became a safe place to express the things that were important to me as an artist and mother. It was a perfect fit for my idealistic views of the world, for my desire to make the world a better place for my children. I taught workshops to children in drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking. It was also a place for women to come together and work as artists. At one point I founded and ran a printmaking co-op on the bottom floor of the church.
The building was a very active center for the arts mixed with the politics of feminism. Over the years I developed a painting course called Painting from Within © Sorge which brings together nature, meaning, spirit and art. The environmental activism was expressed by organizing special exhibits in the church studio. One, for example, was the Quebec wing of the ”International Shadow Project” where artists came together to paint the streets and sidewalks with shadows in memory of the people who died at the moment the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.
At times I feel as if the church found me. I was in search for a spiritual life but not through religion. My constant preoccupation is to bring nature and art together in a spiritual wholeness. Perhaps that’s why I went back to university and took my Master’s Degree in Art Therapy. In this wonderful healing process I take my clients out into nature and they bring fragments back into the church studio to explore the existential meaning of their suffering. It is important to say that I am not religious at all. I stopped going to church when I was eleven years old as a protest over the hypocrisy that I saw and experienced.
The church studio with its high windows and the light flickering through the trees, the quietness, this place out of time resonates with the memories of ceremony: birth, death, baptism and marriage rituals. People who were once members of this special chapel constructed in the middle of a farmer’s field have often dropped in or have spoken to me from the edge of the road telling me they are afraid to come in because the story is that it is haunted, or that their parents were married here. I honour their comments and understand what it means to them.
My studio still looks like a church except that the steeple was taken down and the large cast-iron bell is sitting in a farmer’s field. I have added a stained glass window above the double arched doors to replace the one taken by looters while the church was abandoned. The theme of the window is what surrounds me: birds, horses, plants, and acid rain…
It is hard to say if I am influenced by the history of my studio as a place of worship but my creative process is about renewal, despair and hope, destruction and re-creation. Through this and nature that surrounds me I am able to go on, to explore further and take on challenges. My paintings never seem to have an end – even if a painting is against the wall, seemingly finished, I might pick it up and re-paint it or tear it up and collage with it. Painting is a continual process of renewal. It is only when a work is taken away that there is no further possibility of transformation.
Do you ever work outside your studio? If so, does this have an impact on your work?
When I have travelled and worked in other places or studios I often bring the attachment with me. It often demands to be integrated into the new place. Two years ago I was rewarded a two month residency working in the city of Montreal. The morning I was leaving I had the car all packed and took a last stroll around my studio. I saw my shadow on the compost pile and could not resist taking photos. These photos combined with photos taken spontaneously on my walks in the city became the basis of a new series of digital prints. My solo show at the end of the residency was entitled “Where is here?” on the theme of transformation with the shadow of the body as a symbol of the human in relationship to the soil; it was called, “Body and Soil-Body and Oil.”
Surrounding the studio is a large field and a little wood. I work in the field a few times a week, sometimes with the help of friends, on a long-term project to change it into an edible forest garden (permaculture). Everything is being done by hand except for the use of a small rototiller. I guess I am a part-time farmer. Often after a half day of working with the soil I feel renewed and more creative and open. So I go inside and paint or prepare a new wild printing plate. The outside work is important in that it nourishes what I do inside. My energy is heightened and I am ready to take on anything, even a painting that needs to be taken apart, painted over or destroyed.
You have a background in science and biology, which clearly feeds into your botanical prints.
Could you tell us what sort of an impact it has?
The idea for the botanical prints of large leaves taken from wild plants (some domesticated perennials) happened one day when I was once again taking burdocks out of my dog’s fur and my childrens’ hair. I asked myself how I could get rid of some of these giant plants without using poisons or destroying the whole balance within the little ecosystem where they grew. I wondered if I could use some of them to make prints. I took one to my studio to experiment. It was quite frustrating because the leaf squished out its juices onto the paper and the press!
After weeks of trying I got a reasonable looking print and eventually developed a formula for preparing the leaves so that I was able to make a mould and print them to perfection. From then on I began a project of collecting the leaves of wild plants, making printing plates, recording their names in Latin, French and English, etc. and researching to find out if they were edible of course. I have kept the DNA of each plant so that when wild plants are eventually transformed by genetic modification I will have the original matter for the future when farmers will need old varieties for the survival of domestic plants.
All of this is the scientist in me. I do not see a disconnect between science and art. Both use the steps of the creative process from the first decision around the quest to the exploration and the recording of the results. For me the original prints are the data, and the source of that data, the land and environment around my special studio.
You can find out more about Bernice Sorge and view more of her artwork, produced in and around her special studio, on her website.