Because this volume of She Said Notes is anchored by a photograph, I knew that at some point throughout the series I wanted to interview my friend Renée Munn. We became friends because our two-year-olds are park-based soulmates—and when Renée told me about her art I knew I needed to really sit down and pick her brain about more than her (fabulous) raw dessert recipes! It took some serious planning for us to orchestrate a time to chat, but when it did what she shared with me fit perfectly with this issue’s title and theme: Blurred—Embracing the direction found in the midst of chaos!
How would you describe your art?
I guess I would frame my work as thematically connected around memory—fragments of memory. Every day, with our different intentions, we will magnify or colour our memories… that’s what my photography is about.
Do you have a favourite piece of your own?
Yes! I definitely have a favourite piece—it’s Ophelia… and it’s one I have a love/hate relationship with. It was my very first piece and I did it at Ryerson in my third year. It was something I just did. Followed my instincts—created from a bunch of mistakes, from a lack of things, for example I made a mistake in my lighting and some of my images didn’t turn out so I had to completely recreate them in the dark room using camera-less photography techniques such as photograms. For example, Ophelia’s dress is mostly created in the darkroom using photograms.
And this is a piece that has now been purchased, yes?
Yes, it’s received a few international awards and has been purchased for a permanent collection in Paris… and at Ryerson… and it’s been sold to a few private collectors… and led to me receiving a bursary before leaving Ryerson. It was something that just happened—I hadn’t grown into that creative process… so I actually had this work that I felt I hadn’t really created.
Renée Munn, Ophelia (2011) | Ophelia (2010)
So everyone wanted an Ophelia piece after that… and it paralyzed my creative process. In a way, I had to work backwards to analyze why it was successful. It has in-camera techniques. And camera-less techniques. It’s a collage of many negatives of the same image—not just one thing to pinpoint—it made my thesis… what was a continuation of it… more like a work-in-progress as I kept trying to figure out what my creative process was. It was really only after leaving university and I did my first solo show where I was really able to start grappling with what this piece has meant. I’ve not yet created a piece that is as powerful as [Ophelia].
I would say confidently for myself but also for my peers and for professionals… it’s always Ophelia first.
Oh that would be a good title for this interview!
Well it’s the fear of being a one-hit wonder—she’s my nemesis… though I love her… she’s definitely my nemesis.
So as we sit here talking about your creative process and its shift over the years—sitting here in this park as our children play together in an empty wading pool—recognizing that this interview could get stopped at any point when one of them comes over needing something…
(Laughing) For some ridiculous reason!
Yes! Would you say your artistic process has been impacted by your motherhood experience?
So… I don’t know if my artistic process has been shaped by [my son] Atlas… but watching him has definitely taught me some things, ironically, about Ophelia… that have helped me. Like the act of playing. Opening up the imagination and just doing. Both my art friends and husband have told me to just go into the dark room and play… and when I think back some of my best work has come about when I’ve just played! And the other thing he’s taught me has been the ability to learn. That not everything needs to be a success. I think, like Atlas does with Lego or what have you, I become very creative when I experience a lack of something… like when I don’t have all of the tools in front of me—he’ll create something of Lego that I would never have thought of, like how I did with all of my “mistakes” in the dark room with Ophelia. So I see something of my artistic mindset in his play.
Thinking of what you photograph now, you just had your friend visit this weekend and you photographed her, yes?
Yes, I photograph women and my pieces are usually largescale collage portraits, composed of a few different perspectives. A few different photographs of the same image. Different tones with the images, magnifying parts…
And I remember you telling me that these women are naked!
(Laughs) Not always! But something that has always interested me has been this unveiling of perspective and memory and just the different dimensions of self—I’ll move fabric over them (so in the end they’re actually clothed).
Renée Munn, Diaphanous (2013)
I was teasing you a little but I do remember you telling me that there is a feeling of partnership in your photographing of Mia because of the vulnerable work with body…
Yes. This was really the first time I’ve photographed since Atlas was born and he’s now almost three. Years ago Mia was my very first subject. We worked at the same restaurant and when we weren’t working, I would photograph her for hours and hours… and she was comfortable not having her clothes on—and I’d always found something very romantic about the female form. It was interesting photographing her this past weekend because life has so shifted since we last worked together! She was so interested in my process—I now shoot with a 4x5 large format camera. I only took six shots (because it’s expensive!) and each one was a long exposure… and because she was so fascinated by the experience it made me think more about my own experience with my art.
It needed to be someone you trusted.
Yes, I mean when she told me she was coming for a visit I felt instantly that I needed to take a photograph.
Like it was always in your blood!
Ya, (laughing) but really just sitting there… and that’s been disheartening! For the longest time I’ve not talked about it with anyone. Then, very recently, I started to be more honest with myself…because I think when you’re honest with yourself you get the answers you need. Lately when other artists ask if I’ve been making work I will actually say “no”—something you don’t necessarily want to admit—but then, recently, I spoke to an artist who I know has children now in their twenties. She asked me Atlas’ age. When I said he’s two and a half she was like “That is completely normal! You’re probably not feeling inspired at all!” and I was like “yes, yes, yes!”
So she was naming all of these truths for you…
Yes, she was naming what I thought had been unique to me—feeling that perhaps I was giving up on being an artist (not something you want to admit)—and she made me feel better. I’ve recently had the same experience with a gallery that represents me. I had been avoiding them for the longest time but when they called me I was just honest about not having new work. The man who runs it is a father and he was like “this is completely normal!” Keeping [my feelings about art production] inside me was giving me a version of writer’s block I guess. And being honest has allowed me now to feel other things—and that makes me want to create! Plus, I have a husband who is so supportive. As an engineer working in construction Luc had the skills to build me my dark room! With temperature control and the right ventilation! He’s been telling me, since Atlas was born, to get back into the dark room.
So interesting to me that when I asked the question about partnership I was thinking about Mia, your subjects in front of the camera. I hadn’t thought of Luc.
Definitely, at certain stages, I would call him almost a collaborator. Because some of my work has been so mixed media he has been the one to sit down with me and work out technically how to pull things off. (Laughing) Like when we lived in a really tiny apartment and I had decided that I wanted to pour hot wax all over my largescale pieces he said, “Oh that’s easy! We just need a bathtub!” And then he built me a bathtub!
We have been talking on a park bench, over the noise of passing trains and Luc’s valiant efforts to keep our children on the other side of the wading pool. But our moment has passed and it is now time to mediate the exchange of toy cars. I press pause on my recorder, excited to continue this conversation during future park exchanges. I feel like I’ve been privy to a pre-show of sorts. The anticipated emergence of something new from an inspiring artist whose work is as much about the beauty of process as it is about the final product.