I first saw Nina Garner's work at Contemporary Charleston 2011: Under the Radar, an exhibit presented by Piccolo Spoleto at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park during the summer of 2011. Layered upon the antique books lining the gallery walls were black-and-white photographs surrounded by butterflies, beetles, dried flowers, and hand-cut paper pennants—scavenged collections of memories. Each piece was incredibly detailed, precise, and quiet, yet they were warmly engaging, whispering to the viewer to venture nearer and explore their tiny world. I remember leaning in as close as I could without disrupting their yellowed pages, trying to dissect and absorb their gentle beauty. In short, Garner's work was mesmerizing.
This Sunday, December 7, Garner will be exhibiting her work as part of the Awe & Awe Art Show, presented by Show and Tell Art and Design, at the ARK in Awendaw from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. The exhibit will run until December 17. I was lucky enough to catch up with Nina this week and ask her a few questions.
Is this your first collaboration with Show and Tell Art and Design?
"Yes. Leila Ross, the soul behind Show and Tell, launched the website about a year ago and approached me to be the first artist featured. She's been a supporter of mine for quite some time. She bought one of my pieces from a show I did during Spoleto about four years ago. She's an amazing woman with a huge passion for the arts. I truly admire her and am honored to be featured with such amazing artists on the site and at the show happening December 7 at the Ark."
I love the use of found objects, both organic and man-made, in your work. What is it about the juxtaposition of the natural and synthetic that inspires you?
"I like using organic material because it can be so pure, straight from the earth. I'm drawn to the subdued colors and the romantic aspect it can give my work, but I also like the challenges it presents me. Organic material, like dried flowers or a preserved butterfly, can be difficult to handle and manipulate due to it's delicate nature. With synthetic material, I can be more experimental and manipulate in ways organic material won't allow. I'm also drawn to certain colors synthetic material can present. I'm really into neon colors right now and find myself drawn to certain plastics and such that add just that little punch of color I'm looking for to contrast the natural elements in my work."
It seems that you often incorporate your friends and family into your art. Can you recall any memorable responses that those close to you have had upon seeing themselves portrayed in your work?
"Most of the time, the people in my photographs don't see themselves within my work. It's almost like they have transformed into someone else from another time or place. So, responses can be varied. The biggest and most memorable responses I get are from strangers who connect with a piece or photograph as if they know the person in it. For instance, I made a piece with a photograph of my Japanese grandfather in his garden, and this couple really connected with it. It was like he was their grandfather. They couldn't live without it and bought it right away. It was so interesting to me that a stranger could have the same feelings that I do towards someone they don't know. I will never forget it."
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
"My process is pretty consistent. I try to photograph my subjects first so I have an image to work around. Right now, I alternate between 35mm and medium-format photography. Once I have an image, the print gets stained with coffee to give it an aged appearance. Once that's dried, I'll experiment with different materials until I feel confident enough to start gluing. Sometimes, it comes very easily; other times, days and or weeks will go by until it feels right."
How does Charleston influence your work?
"The Lowcountry in general is a big influence on my work. The landscape is unlike anything I've experienced. When I first moved here, I was quite taken aback by the marsh and the spanish moss. I had no idea what swamp town I was in. Now, after over a decade, I find the landscape very comforting. The smells and sounds are so unique to our area. We have so many beautiful natural parks and nature preserves filled with such life and history. I'm lucky if I'm able to capture just a fraction of that beauty."
Describe your perfect Charleston day.
"My perfect Charleston day would include a trip to the Ace Basin with my pups and camera in tow and end with all-you-can-eat oysters and beer on the water. Of course, Chaz (my husband) would be there, too. We can eat a lot of oysters, just so you know."