Shawna Lemay Reflects on Still Life, Marriage and Death
A prolific Edmonton author launches her latest book
By Jesse Cole | January 31, 2024
What comes to mind when you hear the term “still life”? You probably think of a painter, like Matisse or Van Gogh. Or maybe the term conjures up a bowl on a table filled with fruit, or a baroque skull and quill?
What probably doesn’t come to mind is Edmonton. But this city fascinates Alberta-based author and still life photographer Shawna Lemay, who focused on Edmonton (and its inhabitants) the last several years to create her new work, Apples on a Windowsill, which launches at Audreys Books this week.
Lemay, who first came to prominence with her 1999 offering, All the God-Sized Fruit, says her newest book — a collection of essays — is a meditation on the artist’s life, beauty, marriage and the practice of still life photography.
“They’re unconnected essays,” she says. “They’re not just about still life, they’re about the artist’s life and what it’s like to live life with an artist — what it’s like to make art in Edmonton at this time.”
Lemay first began seriously practicing photography in the 2010s but found herself increasingly drawn to the medium over the course of the pandemic.
“It’s a very grounding practice, just putting objects on a table, moving them around, adjusting them, pushing them into the light. At the time, that felt like a very profound practice,” Lemay says. “It was like our lives. Everything was in disarray, chaos, but you can put things on a table and rearrange them and we can rearrange our lives.”
A writer by trade, working with a different medium allowed Lemay to reflect on the relationship between the written and unspoken words.
“The possibility of saying things without words … is very interesting to me, and then how if you layer some words on top of that, how does that change the scene,” Lemay says. “My whole life I’ve been very interested in that interaction between pictures and text.”
Initially, Lemay focused the book primarily on still life as an art form — a more straightforward approach to the craft. Throughout the writing process, however, she found herself delving into an assortment of other themes and topics, in particular her marriage to a still-life painter.
“I set out to write the book about still life and then other things just kept arising and my life sort of kept persisting in the narrative and that happens to be someone who is married to a still life painter,” Lemay says. “It was just going back and forth in terms of how my still life art comes out of his still life art and how we inspire each other.”
For Lemay, that relationship plays heavily on the themes of the book.
“It’s a pretty important part of the book because neither of us really exist in the same way without each other,” she says. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”
But there are also darker, more primordial themes present in Lemay’s dissection of the art form, including death and how we think about our own mortality.
“I’ve always been interested in the theme of memento mori, which is remembering death, which sounds really morbid. But it’s a very big sub-genre of still life. You see it with painters in the baroque era and during the pandemic the theme of memento mori became this very vivid and real sort of thing that you’re not just philosophizing about from afar. That theme was very visceral at that moment and I explored that a lot.”
Philosophize from up close with the author herself (including a reading, question-and-answer period and book signing), Feb. 1 at Audreys Books.