Photographer Polly Borland has shot portraits of luminaries such as the Queen, Cate Blanchett and Michael Hutchence. She has also made a name for herself in the art world, with photographs of models disguised in bizarre costumes and bodystockings, and others of soft fleshy sculptures featuring lots of pantyhose.
All the while the Melbourne-born artist's younger sister, Emma, has been quietly carving out her own artistic career in glass.
The pair are exhibiting together for the first time in a show the curator, Canberra Glassworks' artistic director, Magda Keaney, says is "quite different" for the gallery and studio.
Polly hasn't lived in Australia for 28 years, but speaking over the phone from her Los Angeles home, her Australian accent remains broad and is almost indistinguishable from her younger sister's. It's not their only similarity; it's in their art, too, despite the different mediums.
"Thematically and emotionally, there's definitely similarities," Polly says.
"The way Emma uses glass is very different and unusual; it comes from a very internal, emotional, spiritual place with Emma, and I'd like to think possibly it's coming from those places in me.
"We're both interested in people and what it's like to be alive and how difficult that can be sometimes.
"We're both interested in outsider art and in a way we're both humanists, which is what I think my father was; as an architect he was a modernist and a humanist."
Emma juggles her art with work as an "emergency" schoolteacher, teaching "everything", she says, and it's becoming part of her art practice.
The feeling of fear when constantly walking into different classrooms in different schools helps her empathise with her pupils.
"I'm in the same boat these kids are in," she says. "I wasn't a good learner at school. I went to university really late in life and I know that everyone deserves a chance in life, so I'm combining the two."
Her interest in students with special needs and the difficulties they have in the education system is the inspiration for an ongoing project to make 100 glass panels, 12 of which feature in the Glassworks show.
"It captures that feeling of bewilderment everyone has in every new situation," she says of the project with husband and technical assistant Mark Ammermann.
"I'm really looking at the studies of emotional responses of fear or joy inherent in the human condition; that's where my work has crossovers with Polly's work."
Polly says Emma's almost two-dimensional wall-hangings, constructed from sheets of glass fused together like collages, have an illusory quality similar to a photograph.
Her own 12 photos appearing at the Glassworks are from three series she made between 2010 and 2013 – Smudge, Pupae and Wonky – in which she photographed people dressed in her own homemade costumes and later abstracted figurative forms she made using lots of stockings.
Emma's work is dated 2014/15, but Polly says the early results she saw while working on Smudge fed into her photographic series.
"I was definitely influenced by what she was doing," Polly says. "We've got similar influences and that stems back to our upbringing."
The pair say they grew up in an artistic environment and the instinct to work creatively was fostered by their architect father and art-loving mother.
Polly went straight from high school into photography at Prahran College and it was on her urging that Emma followed suit, completing a foundation art year seven years later.
"She was always drawing from a teenager, but she just didn't pursue it as rigorously as I did until she discovered art," Polly says.
It was while living in England that Emma discovered stained glass, igniting her passion in the medium.
In the meantime Polly was making a name for herself as a portrait photographer.
The pair were together for a time when they were both based in Britain, but Polly says they weren't creating work in the same way they are now.
Both hope the Glassworks show encourages people to see contemporary glass art in a new light.
It's a sentiment shared by Keaney, who was told of Emma's proposal for the show when she first became artistic director. She had worked with Polly while she was a junior curator at the National Portrait Gallery, and later found out the two were sisters from the trio's mutual friend, Sicily-based Australian painter Tony Clark.
"As soon as he told me I thought that's a fantastic idea for a show," she says.
"They are both such incredible artists … their practices are at the top level of glass and photography and putting them together enables us to do something which I'm very interested in at Glassworks, which is to talk about glass in a broader framework of contemporary art and culture."
While the two artists have yet to seriously consider collaborating on work, Polly says at least one of Emma's pieces is in direct response to hers and vice-versa, and she hopes in future they will work on pieces together for a show.
Keaney says looking at the two artists' works it is as though they have unwittingly traded characteristics of each other's practice – Emma's pictorial glass panels fuse together as if she has created photographs with glass.
Some of Emma's glass triptychs remind Keaney of photographic negatives and proof sheets, while as a photographer Polly starts with soft sculptural practice – creating rather than simply recording her subjects.
But she admits the artists' career trajectories are difficult to compare.
"Polly has photographed the Queen – there isn't an equivalent for that within glass – but Emma is a very highly regarded artist," Keaney says.
"When one photographs, say, Cate Blanchett or the Queen … your work is published in magazines and seen in a very [different] context than a studio glass artist, and that is an exciting aspect of putting them together."
Borland + Borland is on at the Canberra Glassworks from December 2 to February 7. Polly and Emma Borland will be in conversation with curator Magda Keaney at the Glassworks at 5pm on Friday, December 4. Emma Borland will run a workshop for adults at the Glassworks on Saturday, December 5 from 9:30am to 4pm for $250 a person. She will also host a school holiday workshop for children aged eight years and above on January 13 and 14 from 9:30am to 4pm for $245 a student. For more information or to book, call 6260 7005, or email email@example.com.
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