Denise Gadd April 21, 2012
Criss Canning. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
POPPIES are artist Criss Canning's favourite flowers. Exuberant, fragile yet strong, with striking colour variations and centres like miniature works of art.
The way the flowers swirl and the petals crinkle like tutus makes her want to dance, evoking another life 48 years ago when she was an up-and-coming ballet dancer with the National Theatre.
Canning had won a scholarship but then she met art teacher Max Middleton and her ambition of taking centre stage en pointe took second place to artistic passions.
By day she designed embroidery for fashion houses and, after work, she studied portraiture, still life and, when old enough to get her licence, landscaping at Dandenong.
Not surprisingly, her latest exhibition, which opens in Armadale on April 30, is called Poppies and Other Miracles. The poppies and many of these other miracles are grown at Canning's and husband David Glenn's specialist nursery at Ascot.
Lambley Nursery is host to a nirvana of perennials that create swaths of colour and movement throughout a spectacular dry garden. Hedges and olive trees provide the architectural structure at Lambley evoking an English terroir but with the ethos of Australia's wide brown land and the Mediterranean as the defining horticultural palettes for this amazing landscape.
It is from this lush garden that the inspiration is drawn for her sumptuous still life oil paintings that range from vases of sunflowers and tulips with bowls of lemons to soft pastel-coloured floral arrangements, intimate vignettes of ''Burnside'' where she and Glenn live, exotic Oriental-type paintings in deep lacquer reds and others evocative of the art deco period.
She held her first solo exhibition in May 1982 at Freeways Galleries in Kalorama and was described in the press as a ''rising star''. Middleton said in the catalogue introduction: ''Some people want to walk before they can crawl. Criss Canning has been wise enough to understand the need to draw and do it well.''
Canning says she does have high expectations of herself to the point that other artists shake their heads and think her odd for such exacting standards.
''Most painters would approach a canvas and paint an overall picture. [But] I draw it out, then I paint the flowers and complete each one as I go, then go to the leaves, working and completing every section as I go,'' she says. ''It's almost like making a mosaic.''
She admires American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Vincent van Gogh. ''I still pay homage to van Gogh's work and his vision,'' she says.
''More than anyone, though, I personally think Rothko had the ability to convey emotions through colours.''
Her biggest inspiration though comes from nature and she only works with live materials. ''I have such a reverence for what is around us. At our feet we have daily miracles in the form of these beautiful flowers and specimens. Nature is amazing. The way that the colours are put together, colours that shouldn't work because they are discordant a lot of the time but they're so finely tuned that they sing. If I can achieve a tiny bit of that, I'll die happy.''
The symbiotic relationship between Canning's paintings and the garden at Lambley stem from her first meeting with Glenn. After a friend suggested they meet, they set up a time and he brought flowers. She painted them, he went to the studio to see the finished artwork and the rest is history.
''It's funny though, when we first met he would give me romantic, pale-coloured flowers and now he gives me bold, strong colours.''
Canning has had 23 solo exhibitions with each taking 18 months to two years to complete. Flowers have always featured in her art either in landscapes, riotous bunches of colour or a single, elegant stem in an opulent vase.
When she's not painting, Canning helps her husband in the garden. ''I look at the garden very much as my paintings, which are structured and so are most gardens. Plants have these wonderful vertical strengths so it's like constructing a painting. The difficulty is that Mother Nature doesn't always obey what I have in mind. David keeps saying, 'Criss, it's not a painting.'''
Canning has embarked on a new artistic adventure using shells, corals and sponges as the background then adding plants that look as if they've come from the sea. ''After 48 years to find something totally new is fabulous,'' she says.
■Poppies and Other Miracles, Metro Gallery, 1214 High Street, Armadale, April 30-May 19.