Picture perfect: The glory of life and its imperfections (+photos)

By Claire McCall

Photographer Emma Bass celebrates life and all its wonderful imperfections.

'The wabi-sabi ethos to find beauty in reality can be applied to our wider life - our bodies and the ageing process, even our homes.' - Emma Bass. Photo / Babiche Martens
'The wabi-sabi ethos to find beauty in reality can be applied to our wider life - our bodies and the ageing process, even our homes.' - Emma Bass. Photo / Babiche Martens

Walk into Emma Bass and Dave Watson's sunny 50s Mt Eden home and the first thing you see is art: paintings, prints, glasswork, ceramics and sculpture. No bare white walls. Sure, the front lawn needs a haircut, three-year-old George has left some toys on the porch, and there's no room to hang even one more jacket or scarf on the coat rack, but this house is not about immaculate surfaces where calm and order reigns. It's perfect for Emma and Dave in a completely different way. "I used to see weeds and worry about them, now I'm a lot more relaxed" she says.

For this mother-of-two who works as a freelance magazine photographer, learning to let go has been a long time coming. It is only recently that she has begun to explore the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi" - a philosophy that allows her to delight in the imperfect and unfinished.

This discovery came on a photographic assignment when Bass raced out into the street to look for some flowers to fill a gap in the background. "All I could find were some hail-damaged magnolias," she explains. When the shoot was over, Bass thought the blooms looked so beautiful sitting on the ledge of her stairwell that she photographed them again - just so, in their simplicity - and her love affair with the imperfect began.

"The wabi-sabi ethos to find beauty in reality can be applied to our wider life - our bodies and the ageing process, even our homes," she says.

It has been eight years since the couple moved to this weatherboard and brick property from a bungalow over the way.

"We just carried our furniture across the street," Bass recalls. Light floods through the floor-to-ceiling, timber-framed windows, making the living room the ideal environment to double as a "studio". Built in 1959, the house has two levels, a striking brick fireplace and a hidden garden oasis out back complete with swimming pool and a concrete seal which balances a ball.

Practicality aside, Bass says they bought here because the house is a happy place. "It has the feel of a swinging 50s pad, Mad Men-style but not quite as glam," says Bass.

Indeed, it was originally owned by a dance instructor and, neighbours recall, was something of a party palace. "There was a bar set up downstairs with a pie warmer; artists and musos such as jazz singer Tommy Adderley would croon here until the wee small hours."

With two young children, Olive (10) and George (3), the couple find it hard to continue the rollicking tradition, but they're creating their own history. The only room they have renovated is the bathroom, which was a personality-filled black and pink space when they arrived. "We opened it up and lightened it," says Bass.

They have big plans "one day" to effect more structural change but in the meantime are content to celebrate flaws, such as stiletto marks on the matai floors.

Instead, furniture, art and objects add the X factor. A Noguchi coffee table is the genuine article while the L-shaped red leather sofa that embraces it is not only practical but joyful, too. "Colour brings life into the world. Colourful lives are interesting lives."

A rug in front of the hearth that looks like a sunrise in double vision and an Egg chair from Uno, upholstered in red and yellow fabric, adds to the ebullient theme. "I've photographed a few famous people in that chair but it's also so comfy to sit in and read books to the kids, or knit."

The fire with its raised hearth has a guard that typifies kitsch 50s-era fun. It sports storks and palm trees and was a Trade Me find. "We've perfected the art of roasting marshmallows," says Bass. "It's also one of our cosiest little nooks in winter."

To one side of this room, the dining setting is an unusual design, part Art Deco, part Edwardian. Bass discovered it in a Christchurch shop, "The Den of Antiquity", while she was on a job and shipped it home. Made on an oval base, the table has a rewarewa veneer and is central to household happenings. "The kids have drawn on it; it certainly carries that patina of time."

Though no domestic goddess, Bass has the house well set up - "I do have a certain spot for things". But within the hurly burly of family-hood, it's hard to keep it completely under control. "It takes just half a day for it all to unravel."

She and her three siblings grew up in a lively old Auckland villa with a wild cottagey garden. Also a busy and art-filled house, tidiness was not a priority. All these years later, Bass is aware that the important thing was not neatness or the lack thereof, but the continuous flow of remarkable people who passed through her childhood home. "Perfection will drive you mad because it's unattainable. As Salvador Dali said: 'Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it'."

With this as a backdrop, she focuses on the good that comes of living in the moment. Bass finds happiness in her craft and in the creativity of others. She'd love to buy more art but there's a paucity of wall space ... one of the downsides of living in a house full of windows.

Her favourite works include a Pat Hanly entitled Bouquet to all Women, a vivid small Karl Maughan and a Reuben Paterson glitter print. A large Jeff Thomson 3D piece, an arrangement of native flowers in corrugated iron, takes centre stage in the living room.

"I was a bit cheeky in telling Jeff I was a frustrated florist and would he mind me arranging the flowers ... to which he surprisingly said okay, fine!"

This side of Bass has recently blossomed, so to speak. She has just completed a series of portraits of flowers gathered from friend's gardens and grassy verges. An exhibition is planned in May. They're not chocolate-box images, rather ones that frame the reality of petals past their prime, complete with the blemishes.

She's captured them displayed in her collection of Crown Lynn vessels. "Now that I have the vases on record, I may have a big auction of them," says Bass. A gatherer at heart, her challenge is to live in a more pared-back wabi-sabi way. "It's hard to let go of things but healthy because life does get complex. Besides, there's only so much you can fit into a house."

Her assembly of mid-century wall clocks may be next in line for sale. "We bought them all in an eBay frenzy," she explains. "We thought they'd look good grouped together but there's simply no wall to do it on."

Instead of bemoaning the fact, she's seeking out pleasures that are often overlooked. "I celebrate the human and attainable."

Whether that's spending time with Dave, the kids and their friends around the much-used original pool, cooking up a lamb rack with anchovy, garlic and rosemary - and not burning it - or photographing flowers amidst the after-school chaos, she's determined to enjoy it.

Imperfect by Emma Bass is at the Black Asterisk Gallery, 10 Ponsonby Rd, Auckland from May 4 to May 20.

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- NZ Herald

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