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CNAL 2019 -why jump on a plane?

Why travel away from studio and project – to build career? To provoke and push my smaller self who would so prefer to work away quietly in my studio, in my cabin among the trees?  To push the known boundaries of my awareness. To become apparent to unknown others, somewhere outside my comfort zone. To deepen cross-cultural fluency.

To shake things up a little. To listen for what I don’t know.


Could it be for opposing reasons at the same time, as an answer to moments of yawning, terrifying boredom, a flattening of purpose and passion. A rather expensive, but also expansive curiosity about what might resonate from ‘away’. A chance to observe both stranger and self in convergence, however awkward.


I remember thinking on the second morning that the CNAL conference felt like a folk festival, but without the music. Lots of quick connections after intense sessions, frustratingly truncated by a need to get to the next thing on the schedule. Lots of people without business cards, scribbling their names on torn bits of paper. Food in between that we absorbed too quicky because our brains were in high-speed processing mode.

Not nearly enough time to just sit down and just jam together.


Talk  – a lot of high talk about art and learning, education and research, social change and inequity, the potential for empowerment through the arts, why vulnerability is strength. I took pages and pages of notes – ‘squiggles on a page’, as Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair called them, while delivering the indigenous creation story for us.

He did so in a way that we could recognize our own role and significance, our value in the living world. I was moved by and grateful for that – significant that my notes turned into drawings during his Saturday morning keynote.


Youth were not present, and we talked about that too; how can we make space for young people’s voices, next time around? Figure it out, said Ben Cameron, Thursday’s spark of a keynote speaker. Make it possible for people who can’t afford to come, then be sure to listen to them when they do.

This is something that would dramatically change the content of the conference – if delegate and presenter space was held specifically for youth and for artists. Less talking, more doing.


There was a tiny taste of powerful performance to remind us why we were there, from SPIN El Poetica, Mik Maw  artist Jennifer Alicia, William Prince… who were given the kind of slots performers dread (15 minutes), but delivered honesty nevertheless. We the delegates found deeper connection each time. Recognized and shared our own vulnerable selves.

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We are global now, says UNESCO, who urges artists to inform their practice with seventeen sustainable development goals (SDG’s, since we need more acronyms); science and policy is clearly not working. To support the their call for the empathy and inspiration that artists provide, David Schimpky quotes Solzhenitsyn,

Who might succeed in transferring such an understanding beyond the limits of his own human experience? …Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof – all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our own world! That means is art. (Schimpky’s emphasis)

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Winnipeg, where I’d never been. Which is, in fact, at the centre of Turtle Island, and so also Human Rights, the Inuit Art Centre and the National centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

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…The carpet here is grey, the upholstery a naples yellow. Naples yellow in paintings of sky so big it dwarfs tree, thought and action, demands humility. The people are honest, open and without pretention. Not grey or green, but many-coloured.

I found something purple to wear at the museum, the young woman who passed me in the train station threw it a compliment; that dress is really pretty.

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Thanks! I said, over my shoulder. No eye contact, but warmth that I appreciated after absorbing 2.5 slow kilometres of fact, photo and artifact at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Most moving experience ever, in any museum, anywhere.

I was glad I came a day early, so I had time to sit with it, sift through the complexities.


…felt affronted when, in the midst of that gratitude I found the conference registration table had appeared in the lobby when I returned. Found myself guided into the line to be marked present and accounted for. Someone named Peter V arrived just then – an art educator from St. Catharines; we chatted & found friends in common, traded business cards, got our name tags.  I scuttled away to write before I lost what I’d found in the museum completely…. damned conferences, ugh.

(The next day Peter and I walked through the WAG together after hearing a very moving talk by Director Stephen Borys. He’s good people, as are many others I’d never imagined knowing, just a week ago.)

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Those who had the most impact came to the conference with detailed indignation, proactive proposals in answer to their frustration.

These few came without armour, save for self-awareness – you can’t demean someone who knows who she is, why he is strong, who and why they love.


The world is complex. Our work as artists is uncomfortable, difficult, obstructive to any person or policy that aims to keep us distracted and superficial, afraid and heavy with anxiety. The most amazing thing, though, about our work as artist / performers / educators / workers is the love of it, the connection of it. The joy and the fun, which are inevitable.

As Friday morning’s excellent keynote speaker Dr. Judith Marcuse says – there is magic in art, that can blink even the most entrenched, damaged souls into a world of imagination, possibility, support and healing. All it takes is a pause, an epiphany – a tug on the sleeve…


This reminds me of Paolo Friere:  a moment of real reflection is all you need in order to think differently about the world, about your active role in support of it. Art provokes us, into reflection.

I flew to Winnipeg, and I’m glad.


1 thought on “CNAL 2019 -why jump on a plane?

  1. Thank you for this reminder. Seems to have been an exhilarating conclave. I remember Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Barely. I attended my share of exhilarating such events as well as over two hundred festivals. I could easily spend a week at the Met everyday. I love art galleries /museums – big or small. Sounds like an intense agenda. The plane would have flown to Winnipeg without you.

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