Maine Artists at Home: Joyce Tenneson, Finding Sanctuary

Spontaneous self-portrait from Joyce Tenneson, at home in West Palm Beach, Florida, Easter weekend, 2020.

JOYCE TENNESON: Finding Sanctuary 

Lauded as one of the leading photographers of her generation, Joyce Tenneson’s work has been published in books and major magazines, and exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. A part-time resident of Maine, she was awarded the Farnsworth Art Museum’s Maine in America Award in 2016 for her role in celebrating Maine’s role in American art. She divides her time between Rockport, Maine, and West Palm Beach, Florida. She is represented in New England by Dowling Walsh Gallery.

ANNELI SKAAR: You shared with me that you were photographing flowers…in your home! 

JOYCE TENNESON: I’m on my veranda right now in West Palm Beach and the street below is usually teeming with people and traffic, and now you can hear the birds. But I have flowers on my balcony and indoors. I have flowers everywhere.

AS:  Tell me about what you are doing during this time.

JT: The most important thing for me growing up was reading. I lived near the woods and always loved trees. Down here in Florida I spend most of my time, when I’m not in this apartment, at the Four Arts Botanical Garden, because I love sanctuaries. Growing up in a not-so-happy family you survive, and I think that nature and flowers and trees and water became a source of strength for me. That’s one reason why I love Maine so much.

AS: I love the idea of nature as your sanctuary. As your church.

JT: It is! Absolutely! I went to the Four Arts Botanical Garden yesterday, walked over there even though I know it’s closed, thinking maybe I could sneak in. I thought, maybe there’s an opening in the fence? I just want to go in and sit! The stone benches in the Asian garden are so beautiful. They have a plaque there, it’s very short. It basically is the Chinese philosophy that…unless a person knows a garden, that quiet and that sanctuary, you can’t really survive. The idea is—and I’m just using shorthand here—that you don’t have to have a physical garden. If you’ve experienced a garden and understand and have a sense of what sanctuary is you can access it even if you’re confined to an apartment during a pandemic. If you have a place in your mind of a sanctuary that gardens in particular evoke, life is expanded. When I’m in a difficult situation I always think about water, or the waves coming in, or that garden. I go to that place in my mind, and that gives me peace.

Sign from within the Society of the Four Arts Botanical Garden in Palm Beach, Florida

AS: That’s such a beautiful resource for how we can deal with what we’re dealing with today, being confined indoors.

JT: I think so. So even if I can’t go to the Four Arts garden, I see it in my mind. I just have to close my eyes and I have a garden around me. Indoors here in the apartment  I have my favorite, gardenias. I have them right in front of my computer. It’s my heaven.

AS: Especially in the South where you are now—so many people are wanting and needing to go to their place of worship and there’s a lot of frustration around that. But you’re saying that if you can go back to that sanctuary in your mind–-be it the sanctuary of a synagogue, a church, or a garden, that is such a rich resource if you have to be at home. 

JT: Right.

AS: For many, sanctuary is YOUR art. Some people are reading books, some are watching films, some are listening to music; we’re enjoying art. How did you start photographing flowers?

JT: In the early 2000s I had done eight back-to-back photo books, all with people. I needed a break. What would be a fabulous way to spend some time? I didn’t want to stop doing portraits of people, but I was feeling so burned out and I needed a sanctuary in a way. I thought, I am going to photograph flowers! It was right after I did the Wise Women book, featuring women 66-100, and I thought now that I’m done I’m going to do a body of work for fun, just for the enjoyment of it.

I was interviewed by Ann Curry on The Today Show about the Wise Women book, which had become a best seller. They had decorated the set with all these beautiful flowers, all in neutral tones, blush tones. It was Curry’s idea to bring the Wise Women theme on the show. Up until then the theme of women over 65 had not been explored visually; women were only celebrated in portraits when they were young and at the height of bloom. 

Ann said, do you want to take these flowers home? We just have to throw them away after the show. So I had all of these flowers loaded into my New York cab with me, beautiful huge bouquets, all in my favorite colors, and I thought: “I AM STARTING THE FLOWERS TOMORROW.” And because I had just finished Wise Women, I wasn’t satisfied doing just a flower at one point in time, I wanted to do the whole life cycle. (So for the next year I followed multiple kinds of flowers, their whole cycle.) So my next book, Flower Portraits: The Life Cycle of Beauty, focused not just on flowers in bloom, but more importantly, I showed flowers in all their dramatic stages of life—from bud to bloom to the very end of their relatively short life cycle. I found great beauty in each stage. 

AS: What were your favorite flower subjects? Were any of them your favorite, visually?

JT: I love all the flowers. That’s what I learned. I would photograph the flower’s structure, and I would photograph them together—like couples. I might photograph two or three together, like people. They were not a specimen; to me they were like people. I wanted to capture the entire lifespan. 

AS: I love this photo of you that you sent, from your apartment, in the joyful, raucous company of a group of yellow tulips. 

JT: It was taken this past Easter weekend, spontaneously. I think it was meant to be. A simple pleasure is to have that simple bouquet of flowers on my table and to watch them transform and do their magical dance of life right in front of me. Flowers tell their own brief but unique story, and they bring endless joy to the world—and to me. 

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