Interview with CM14 Solo Exhibition Winner Cheryle St. Onge

An Image from Cheryle St. Onge’s series Natural Findings

Cheryle St. Onge won the Critical Mass Solo Exhibition Award in 2014. Her work was selected from among the 200 Critical Mass finalists by the Blue Sky Gallery Exhibition Committee. Natural Findings, her beautiful series about discovering the natural world, was exhibited at Blue Sky in April of this year. Photolucida’s Outreach Director Laura Valenti recently interviewed Cheryle about her work and process.

A quick reminder: Critical Mass is open for entries until July 28th. If you have a photography series you’d like to share with a wider audience of museum curators, photo book publishers, gallerists, festival directors, and collectors, take a look at the entry details for all the information.

Laura Valenti: How did you get started with photography? Tell us a little bit about your photo background and how you came to fall in love with the medium.

Cheryle St. Onge: It was the view camera that I fell hard for, the way it let me see things that I would otherwise miss. My mother is an artist, my father was a physicist, we had the classic academic life and it was heaven having what often felt like the run of the campus as a young kid living in a college town. Lots of reading, lots of sketching, swimming in the ocean, and horses. I was studying art in college and I took a course that offered the opportunity to use a 4 x 5 view camera and poof! It was the looking and slow watching and unfolding of the picture in front of you as you thought it through under that dark cloth – I loved it. I bought my first 4 x 5, an old all-aluminum Sinar, from my professor and I split wood to work off the purchase of it and a Polaroid back. I do use a digital camera for many of my architectural shoots, but these days I am most comfortable with an 8 x 10.

LV: Tell us about your subject. What drew you to create a body of work about the natural world? 

CSO: Natural Findings began as a way for me to make pictures and be outside with my then small children. We live in a rural seacoast town so they would find things on walks and swims and we would look them up in books and study the names and historical references. I started to haul my 8 x 10 camera along with us when my youngest child Isabelle was able to walk on her own. I started to feel like those forays with my kids were a wildlife déjà vu. It made me recall hiking with my own parents, looking through a microscope with my father, listening to an Emily Dickinson poem, and all of that was bouncing around in my head while right in front of us on the trail was a porcupine. The photos became the connection between what we innately know, what we have learned, and what we are seeing in front of us in nature.

Image: Cheryle St. Onge
LV: How did winning the Critical Mass Solo Exhibition Award impact your career? 
CSO: Photolucida’s [Portfolio Reviews] is such a fabulous event to attend. I met so many people who very immediately helped me get my work out and seen, helped me push my book idea forward, helped me remember that I love collaboration and that there is a whole community open and wanting to see and to help. Then, as if that was not enough, the Critical Mass competition and the resulting exhibition award at Blue Sky Gallery – oh my! The community support in Portland is amazing. Blue Sky Gallery is such a stunning space. Exhibitions Manager Zemie Barr jumped right in and helped me shape an exhibition of not just my Natural Findings prints but ten of my journals and some of my very new photographs that we showed as simple contact prints. Everyone from Laura Moya, to you, to Chris Rauschenberg encouraged me to share the process as much as the project.
LV: What drives you to create? What are you most passionate about with photography?
CSO: The drive is seeing what you made on film, because it really will be different than what you imagined or possibly witnessed – different than what you saw when it was unfolding during the making of the picture.
LV: I love that. It reminds me of Gary Winogrand’s wonderful quote, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
Image: Cheryle St. Onge

LV: I’d love to hear about your current projects. What are you working on now? 

CSO: Natural Findings is ongoing – I keep finding and discovering things, so by nature it’s a long, ongoing project. A few years ago I began a series called Offshore with N.O.A.A. (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). In the series, I’m exploring how data and technology shape my perception of the ocean. The work is a fun play of many opposites. I am making pictures on 4 x 5 sheet film while listening to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather updates broadcast into my boat. The wave speed, wind speed, pending weather, and wave height all come in through a weather radio, and that information impacts what I see when I pass by shorelines or islands. The film records the view in multiple exposures over a given wave interval. It is the same view we all see, but broken out to define aspects we might choose to ignore or only imagine as we set out into a huge body of water (in this case the Atlantic Ocean).

LV: What’s another interest of yours, outside of photography (something we might be surprised to learn about you)? 

CSO: I am a big runner! I had horses growing up. I was very aware of a horse’s physical power and strength. I started running when I was fourteen years old. Running, and sports in general, gave me confidence, shaped my body, and acted as a counterpoint to the rapid changes of adolescence. Now running is my meditation, it is an omnipresent, simple thing I can do anywhere to help me work through what’s what in my art and in my life.

LV: Do you have any advice for other artists? What has helped you to navigate life as an artist?
CSO: Two things are huge for me. First, have a posse of support. I have friends, family, colleagues that I share sometimes great and sometimes fledgling work with for feedback. Also, don’t overthink! Find that balance between thinking and planning and just jumping in. I love a good idea and a road map but sometimes the messiness of life is what makes the work sing. Making the work is the point – not thinking it to death. Thinking about a picture, talking about a picture, or now Instagramming one is all fine and great, but don’t let that be a stand-in for making the work. Easier said than done. I fail often, but sometimes I love those failures too.
LV: Thank you, Cheryle! 
Image: Cheryle St. Onge