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Artspan Artist Sanjeev Sivarulrasa Shoots for the Stars

The lawyer-turned-photographer takes an in-depth look at the night sky.

Orion Nebula, Sanjeev Sivarulrasa
"Orion Nebula," aluminum print

Canadian Artspan artist Sanjeev Sivarulrasa is unafraid to be described as starry-eyed. Originally trained as a lawyer, Sivarulrasa worked for the Canadian Government for 14 years before his fascination with photographing night sky called him to pursue a full-time career as an artist. Traveling to remote locations with pristine night skies in Ontario and Quebec, the photographer works dusk to dawn, capturing galaxies and nebulae and bringing their glow to light-polluted city dwellers. Here, the photographer with his eye to the sky shares his process and inspiration.

What led to your interest in the night sky? Were you fascinated with the stars in your youth?

In high school, I excelled in mathematics and the sciences to the point where, in the school yearbook in my graduating year, I was named the guy most likely to become an astrophysicist. So I’ve had an interest in learning about the cosmos for a long time. But as life would have it, I went off to law school and eventually specialized in international tax law with the Canadian government. It was only as an adult, about 11 years ago, that I started using telescopes to observe the night sky.

What made your fascination with the night sky grow in the last eleven years? What inspired you to make the jump to a full-time career as an artist?

What fascinated me at first about the night sky were all the galaxies and nebulae I could see through my telescopes. But as I went through hundreds of observing sessions under dark skies, I realized that the real attraction for me was the serenity of the pristine night sky. I came to see the pristine night sky as a meditative space where the soul can soar. It’s a place that is far from not only the light pollution of cities, but also the mental clutter of modern life. I became especially interested in the role of the observer – how we perceive the world around us. I realized that the subjective reality experienced by each observer – the ability of each conscious mind to experience the Universe in its own unique way – held greater truths for me than the objective reality taught by science. And I could see that my process was that of an artist, so I decided to use the tools of science in the service of art. It seemed to me that the night sky, with its serenity and splendor, was a perfect milieu for this. I felt inspired by a long tradition of plein air artists who sought a direct experience of nature, except that my subject comes into view after the sun sets.


Island universe
"Island Universe," aluminum print

What inspired you to switch from observing, to photographing the night sky ?

I see photography as a tool. My interest in observing the night sky came first. I used telescopes and eyepieces to observe the sky visually for several years before starting to use cameras. Modern digital cameras, in particular cooled CCD cameras, become powerful tools to explore the night sky when coupled to lenses and telescopes and combined with long exposures – a type of photography commonly called astrophotography. I was attracted to cameras because they complement well my visual exploration of the night sky.

Would you be able to walk us through the process behind the development of your work?

In capturing the exposures, it is important for me to be present. This may seem obvious if you are an artist, but in astrophotography, the norm is to use observatories that are automated and/or remotely controlled. For me, that simply wouldn’t work, as what I am after is my own subjective experience of the night sky. I think urban dwellers are cut off from the sensory awareness of the night, an important part of the human experience, and that sensory awareness is central to my work. This means a lot of travel for me from my studio in the city to pristine dark sky locations, as well as setting up and taking down gear each night that I am shooting. For deep sky imaging, set up can take two hours after I’ve arrived at a site, as there is a lot of gear needed.

Milky Way Over Grand Lake, aluminum print
"Milky Way over Grand Lake," aluminum print

My images require anywhere from seconds to minutes to several hours of exposures, depending on how much or how little light is available. In the case of works such as “Milky Way Over Grand Lake”, I use a simple tripod and digital SLR – it is similar to landscape photography except with longer exposures. In the case of deep sky imaging, for example my works involving nebulae, I capture exposures with a monochrome CCD camera and up to five separate filters (luminance, H-alpha, red, green, blue), which I then combine digitally to create the final image. This is a standard technique in deep sky astrophotography, and is similar to the process used by the Hubble Space Telescope. But the key difference in my case is that I don’t assume there is one reality out there that will appear the same to every observer. That’s the assumption science makes and I don’t accept it. I think each observer sees through their own subjective filters – we each create our own world. In my creative process, I am interested in both the formal elements (composition, colour, etc.) as well as the context of the work (the relationship between the observer and the external world).

Did you always have a desire to be an artist? I find it fascinating and inspiring the way you switched careers to follow your passion. Would you mind telling us a little about what that was like and how it came about?

Becoming an artist was, for me, a process of self-discovery. I am a self-taught artist. In my youth and university days, art was not an option for me. At that time, my family was new to Canada and we were struggling to get established. I did well in my career in tax, it was an intellectually challenging field, but I wanted more – something for the soul, not just the brain. I knew of course that it would be hard to make a living as an artist. So I saved up and started working part-time and then eventually resigned fully from my day job. Although art is an arduous path to take in life, I feel energized every day and am very happy with my decision. I have been in full-time practice as an artist for two years now and I’m now represented by two commercial galleries here in Ontario. And the best part is that my next solo exhibition will be hosted by the City of Ottawa this spring – it will be my biggest show yet and I’m really looking forward to it.

Celestial Rose II, aluminum print
"Celestial Rose II," aluminum print

Could you tell us a little more about your upcoming solo exhibition at the Karsh-Masson gallery?

My solo exhibition at the Karsh-Masson Gallery is entitled “Night Light” and will be hosted by the City of Ottawa from March 15 to May 5, 2013. I’m delighted to have all two floors of this beautiful exhibition space in downtown Ottawa to myself for seven weeks. The show will feature about twenty-plus works of mine, all photographic works printed on large sheets of aluminum. I hope the exhibition will challenge assumptions people have about the night sky and the way we perceive the world around us.

Is there another subject you are interested in working with in the future?

I think my subject will remain the relationship between the observer and the night sky, as I see it as a theme worth a lifetime of effort, but what will change are the tools and media I use. I think that’s one of the best things about working as an artist – the freedom to use a variety of media to suit one’s purpose. I’ve already begun that process of moving beyond photography and hope to release some of that work in the near future.

 Seven Sisters, aluminum print
"Seven Sisters," aluminum print

 
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