Arts and Entertainment

When a flower isn’t just a flower

Steve Stolee and two of his “Flower Portraits,” a tulip and an azalea bud. The photographer, filmmaker, thespian and all-around island Renaissance guy, who’s been shooting flowers for the past four or five years, has recently compiled a show at Madoka Restaurant on Winslow Way.   -
Steve Stolee and two of his “Flower Portraits,” a tulip and an azalea bud. The photographer, filmmaker, thespian and all-around island Renaissance guy, who’s been shooting flowers for the past four or five years, has recently compiled a show at Madoka Restaurant on Winslow Way.
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In Steve Stolee’s estimation, every flower he photographs has an identity and a face. And each one is propelled by a human construct: ambition.

“They are so urgently striving to be noticed, to become part of the greater world,” he said. “And they just exude this stuff seemingly for our pleasure, asking absolutely nothing in return.”

The compilation of photos he calls “Flower Portraits,” on display now at Madoka on Winslow Way, represents four or five years of serious photographic regard. While homing in on the aggressive, vain visages of a wide variety of botanics, he’s also used their full-color head shots as a launching point for the bigger questions about beauty, aesthetics and even our own reason for being.

Take the orange-red amaryllis; the calla lily that looks carved in alabaster against its backdrop of riotous buds; the sassy blue forget-me-nots; the glowing purple iris.

“They have this exotic, almost erotic line,” he said. “It’s such a lovely analogy, without getting specific, about humanity, procreation and the nature of the universe.”

Most of the series, particularly those in Madoka’s main dining room downstairs, are shot in tight close-up. A few show groupings of flowers and foliage. And a particular few, which Stolee says perhaps possess more “male energy,” show a single tulip set against the backdrop of a building or telephone wires, offering a glimpse of the natural world’s relationship to technology and industry.

And then there’s the simple rose lying on a white tablecloth. The patterns, the sculpture, the “thousand reds” and the chiaroscuro have, as he points out, a mandala-like quality that points to the infinite by inviting “a sense of the mystery...what lies beyond our normal field of experience.”

All of the prints are squares, the photographer having made a conscious decision to veer away from the classical “golden rectangle” so often used in visual arts as the baseline for pleasing proportion.

On the surface level, the symmetry simply looks nice; Stolee points to an Asian sensibility that works well in the venue. Go deeper, and he’s asking viewers to work a bit harder, to stop and make a more concerted effort to really see these faces.

“The square has a symmetry that puts it into another frame of reference,” he said.

Stolee shoots and processes his images digitally and acknowledges that digital technology can sometimes be a drag, at times even taking the artist a step away from the thing he’s trying to creatively, transformatively, depict.

What, after all, could be less creative than endlessly fiddling with the feathering tool in Adobe Photoshop?

On the other hand, Stolee points out, creativity encompasses problem-solving, too. Not to mention that from its very inception, photography has been a medium dependent on science and technology. Learning how to produce images that resonate at an emotional level has always involved an understanding of, and a willingness to experiment with, science and technology. The software package of today was the developing fluid of decades past. Thus, the leap from film to digital technology is practical, not conceptual.

And at the end of it all, beauty hangs on the walls. Stolee has absolutely no problem with people calling the images “pretty,” or leaving the restaurant on a warm spring evening feeling lovely about the world.

“(Flowers are) a signal,” he said. “A big signal saying, ‘Hey, we’re coming into good things.’”

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