Stalking the Unnoticed Layers in Nature

Stalking the Unnoticed Layers in Nature
Published: Sep 26, 2021
We've featured Rick/Simon's remarkable collages twice before in these pages, and this new batch of work shows his extraordinary eye for the visual intricacies of wild culture undiminished. In this interview with Whitney Smith he hones in on the details of an artistic process built from foraging.

Fish Poison Tree Effect, Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Fish Poison Tree Effect (inset). 2021


WHITNEY SMITH   How did you get started on this particular way of working?

RICK/SIMON   In the late 60s I was working at the Coach House Press in Toronto when it was a collaborative workshop for writers and graphic artists to publicly share their work in print. I was scanning lots of flat things, and the influence for that came from observing people photocopying their faces or throwing their keys on the Xerox machine. I didn't have a Xerox but I did have a scanner, so I started by putting objects on the glass, sometimes using it as a magnifier.

SMITH   Meaning that you would digitize one object at 50% and another at 500%?

R/S   Yes. As that continued to evolve, I became engaged more in the wild culture aspect of the process. I found a dead owl and lay the wing down on the outer side, scanned it, flip it over, and then get the inside of the wing. All these parts were then collaged together to make the final piece.


 DryPines+GreenS_Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Nest of Maple Keys. 2020.


SMITH   Can you tell us how you went about creating Nest of Maples Keys?

R/S   I gathered parts of a pine tree in my yard that had dried up and fallen off, then flattened them on the scanner, changed the size, though pretty well keeping the original colour. A few of them I spherized. Then I added the maple keys — which were at a nascent stage before they’re fully formed — and placed the yellow-green flowers in the centre.

SMITH   What is spherizing?

R/S   It's a Photoshop tool that mathematically transforms the picture. In this case making a straight thing into a rounded thing.



FirstPoplarS_Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Calypso Dancer. 2012.


R/S   The two arms, which sort of look like Cuban dancing sleeves, are made from the first stuff that comes down out of the poplar tree next to my house. The head, which is sort of exploding, is actually a flower that was in a neighbour’s garden that I sliced in half to make it flat to lay on the scanner.



Dragon Fly, by Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Dragonfly Mandela. 2021.


R/S  This is composed of a single dragonfly scanned, multiplied, and manipulated into different sizes and proportions. In the centre I added a full moon and a tree bud that looks somewhat like a spiky COVID-19 fuzz-ball.

SMITH   When I first saw it I thought it was eagle feathers, not unlike the ceremonial headdress of an Indigenous chief.

R/S   Some of my first collages of this type were inspired by the way Indigenous cultures use natural elements. They're taking things they find beautiful or significant and assembling them into a decorative piece — things they wear, things they use in ceremony, things that are totemized, if that’s the right way of describing it. Of course this happens all over the place, not just in Canada. I have worn a large woven version of my hawk collage as a stilt costume.

SMITH   How do you get the black background?

R/S   The reason that many of them have a black background is because when I’m laying any physical object on the scanner I also leave the scanner door scanner open. This means that the only things sending light back to the scanner’s sensor are the surfaces of the object. This means that the light moving toward the area around the object disappears into the room, not back to the sensor; as a consequence it appears as negative (black) space on the scanned image.




ScapeS_Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Garlic Scape. 2019.


R/S   I took a white garlic scape with a looping green stem, scanned and multiplied it so I had four copies, flipped them over, made an overlay, and wove them into a circle. In the centre is a milkweed flower.



WireS_Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Wire Sagebrush. 2021.


R/S   This was a little piece of copper wire I found that had acquired a patina through the reaction of copper oxide. I just went nuts scanning and multiplying it, and after doing all of that I made a new layer of it with one of the Photoshop tools called polar transform. We're familiar with this effect from looking at maps, where the image on the globe of the world is turned into a flat image, which changes the proportions of everything.

What I did was spherize the wire then flatten it, {which is the reverse of what I did with the straight pine needles that I spherized.} Turning something spherical into a flat thing also makes it look bigger than it actually is. {If you look closely behind the foreground wire, there is a bunch of wires, there's a spherical one, and then there's the flat one made out of the spherical one.



MadeUpBrush&WillowS_Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Willow Whisk (from the 'Brush With' series). 2012.


R/S   This is possibly the first of the ‘Brush With’ series where I used brushes of all kinds as a key element. In this one I used my daughter's makeup brush. Again, I pushed it down on the scanner to flatten it, changed its colour and saturation and then started adding willow catkins. I'm often making arrangements out of the various pieces I have then changing them through the various tools on the computer.

SMITH   And you’ve coloured the willow catkins red and gold.

R/S   And saturated them to really bring up the colour, as you can see with the very bright red. The violet in the middle is actually pretty close to the actual colour of the violet I picked.




FishXflowerNervousRainS_Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. Fish Poison Tree Effect. 2020.


R/S   When I was in the Bahamas I found this fabulous white flower, the one you see about a third of the way from the top, above the larger circular piece with the dark patch with the tiny flower in the centre. These flowers were hanging from a tree, and some of them had fallen down. I took one and photographed it because I didn’t have my scanner with me. As you can see, I’ve taken the original image of the flower and done my spherizing and flattening and flattening of the spherizing, and so on, then changed the colour and done more mathematical transformation using the tools to make those things in the background. But if you look at the background, it's just a colour shift of the actual stamens of the original flower itself.

SMITH   I find this piece very visually exciting, partly because that the background has such beautiful and dynamic painterly effects, somewhat like wet watercolour or splashed oils or acrylics thrown at the canvas.

R/S   Except for the image using the copper wire, the source object are or were living things. The mathematical software twists in the background of that picture is just waving the image a little bit to add that extra painterly look to it.

SMITH   You have a story about this white flower that's more personal.

R/S   Yes. As I said, I was in the Bahamas and walking with a friend and we saw this tree with amazing flowers lying on the ground, so I picked one up and started touching and playing with it and saying, "Wow, look at this! I’ve got to photograph it." Fifteen minutes later, after I made the photograph and left this thing lying on the ground where it was, I was violently ill. And I’m thinking, what the hell's going on! Suddenly I had a huge fever, I was sweating and had an upset stomach to the point of vomiting. Soon after that I was fine. Later on I looked up this tree, and the name of it is fish poison tree (Barringtonia asiatica), because various native island groups take the pod off the tree, grind it up and throw it in the water and to paralyze the fish. Not so good me either.



Tulip Spin, by Rick Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. 2LipSpin. 2021.


R/S   On Toronto Island, where I live, I found this beautiful tulip, just at the end of its tulip-ness, and one of the petals was just barely hanging off. I took that petal, scanned and multiplied it through a process called ‘step and repeat.’ This is a function that's found in layout programs, where you instruct the software to make whatever you want to be larger, to rotate or move a certain amount. So there's the front of the petal, and the back of the petal laid on itself, over and over, using the layering tool.

SMITH   And the stretchiness?

R/S   It's essentially doodling.

SMITH   That's how you see it?

R/S   Yes. I have these digital tools to doodle with. What interests me is all these things in nature that we might walk past a 100 times and not see or appreciate. Like the flower on a milkweed that is so incredibly detailed — and there's hundreds of them in each milkweed pod. I'm not talking about the fluffy parts, I'm talking about the flower that happens before the milkweed pod has the fluffy parts. Some of this is what I’d call ‘remote sensing’ because each one of these little things that I pick up and expand or magnify using the scanner, each one of those things I'd never see the detail of without a microscope.

SMITH   The scanner is your extra set of eyes.

R/S  Yes. So often, these things are just the beauty of nature re-presented as doodles so people can see the actual thing in a different way.



Rick/Simon fills out


1   What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?

Falling into the fire: dreams of premature birth. My dreams now are populated by places and people I only recognize from previous dreams. Living by a lake for 50 years has cooled the fire.

2   Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?

Stan Bevington, Victor Coleman, Deanne Taylor, Gerry and Leida Englar, Brad Harley, Greg Curnoe, Peter Minshall, Frederick Hibbert.

3   Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?

Grandparents home . . . sunroom and garden with dappled sunlight through hickory trees. Magic carpet rides.

4   If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one art book, one fiction or poetry, one non-fiction, one theory or criticism  — what would they be?

William Blake and Albrecht Dürer; In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje; More Than an Island: A History of the Toronto Island by Sally Gibson; All and Everything by George Gurdjieff.

5   What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?

Horse riding and the beautiful woman whose animals they were. Then at camp where I first experienced a darkroom.

6   At what point did you discover your ability with graphic design?

Early letters to my grandmother with pasted-in pictures where I didn’t know the words.

7   Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?

Sight specific . . . and my community.

8   If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?

Most important pieces of equipment are your brain and eyes.

9   Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?

Seeing the overlooked. After this, what?

10   What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?

Culture is everything around us, naturally, and that is so wild.

11   If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?

What was the question?



RICK/SIMON is a graphic designer, photographer, collage artist and stilt dancer. He has worked off and on at the Coach House Press in Toronto since 1968 and lived in the Toronto Island community since then as well. Contact address for ordering Rick/Simon digital prints:


R/S sign, Rick/Simon, journal of wild culture ©2021

Simon, Rick/. R/S Sign.





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