Before the Plumber

5am mid February, 1.25 hours from the Canadian-US border. Early early pre-dawn sky looks like a dull ultramarine red, slightly warmer and washed out along the eastern horizon. At the corresponding time in the evening – post sunset, the sky is deep intense indigo, flecked with the one or two stars strong enough to shine through the light and air polluted atmosphere. Three hours north of here is a window that looks onto the eastern sky resplendent with a firmament as old as time.

We’ll be testing the new fire alarm today and tomorrow. An amazing opportunity to showcase your work! $25 for each piece entered, online exhibition begins in a month. I can tell none of you are healers. Shall I drive to California? Scotland calls still; Skara Brae in spring 2022, then perhaps another space in the highlands for a month – I’d like to see the part that is being reforested. Our ancestors require us to heal the trauma they could not, which is partly why things can feel heavy at times. Lockdown is lifted but we’re still in the red zone, mutated virus is here.

I pick things up, unaware, as I suspect most people do. Visible things like dust, or the hair of a dog on a black coat, but also emotional things, psychological. As though we walk every day through a field of unclaimed, un anchored emotions and gather them like seeds on our clothes. Ah, burrs, drat. Which we then pull off and leave on the ground. They become compost – or if the conditions are right, put down roots in the spring. What happens with the unclaimed emotions we pick up I wonder. Washed off in the shower and down the drain.

Sam the Plumber looks like a tall, bookish PhD student, soft spoken and gentle. I suspect he has a quirky nervous half-smile, though I’ll never know because it’s hidden behind his blue and white printed mask. The bathroom is small and so he will need to move the toilet to get to the tub drain he’s been hired to fix. It’s just what it is, he says.

I leave him to it and go to work in my studio – the first day since lockdown kept us home again almost a month ago. Why do I feel nervous? Why did this lockdown feel more like three months than 3.5 weeks? I bring commission work home from the studio but can’t see it properly in the smaller space. It’s just what it is.

Instead I start a new project that I can continue at home, should lockdown be required again. This project is a conversation over tea, with people I know and others I don’t. A connectedness despite and also because of the isolation.

The central images are drawings of an old Czechoslovakian tea set that somehow traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and ended up, via a rural auction house, in my kitchen. Six saucers, five cups, a creamer, sugar bowl, a very elegant tea pot, and a matching tray to carry it all to table. So loved and well used that the gilding has worn off in places. I have a collection of stamps and chinese cookie fortunes that may also make their way into each of the 22 (or more) pieces, which will be available for purchase after the show has gone public.

still in progress, this photo is taken in the morning sunlight. Every piece changes with the available light, I’m quite enchanted with them.

The grounds for these drawings are torn from a large sheet of printing paper onto which I’ve spilled and scratched out all the emotional and psychological impressions I’ve gathered each day, consciously or not. OIl pastel, silver ink, fluorescent chalk, acrylic paint, pencil crayon. The grounds are holographic, designed to shift and change with the light, just like our world does at the moment. Illusion and insight.

This week I begin to gather the accompanying conversations from people I know and don’t know. If you are interested in knowing more about this, and being part of these conversations, please let me know at keira@keiramcarthur.ca.

Your story and impressions, your insights and curiosities in these rather pivotal moments of right now are important for others to hear, I believe, since we are in this together. If you want to share and would prefer to remain anonymous, that is not a problem. Everyone who shares gets a preview before the project ‘drops’ this spring.

The ‘talking wall’ opposite my desk, where I watch for adjustments that need to be made with each piece. Also thinking about framing options.

it’s 5am again, and this pre-dawn sky is full of snowflakes. It’s the day after Sam the Plumber arrived and fixed the problem with the tub. I’ve been up since 3:30am after tossing around for eight hours, sorting through the stray unanchored stuff I picked up in the previous twelve. Some of it quite shocking, with guillotines and incarcerated women from the French Revolution (A book), first degree face burns and time-space loops (a briefly glimpsed TV series). The painting that was patiently awaiting my return to the studio…

Are they kelpies?

I shall soak these off in the tub and listen, with gratitude to Sam, as they spiral down the drain he fixed with his gentle half-smile.

Crows in the waving tree

Roni Horn and Michel Leiris are my companions through this second lockdown. They deepen and widen my curious.

“In any encounter with her art the feeling that what one is seeing is not necessarily what one thinks one is seeing leads to a heightened sensory experience and turns into a discovery, an adventure.” Exhibition magazine, 2016, Introduction, by Sam Keller, Director and Theodora Vischer, Senior Curator at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel, Switzerland

I like that she has a piece called “We are the Weather”. That she works across all media and explores through drawing. She plays in language, which is also like weather, seems to me.

The crows have moved on to play elsewhere with the snow-laden wind; the trees still wave. Every once in a while a flock of pigeons sweep by in perfect curving formation, dancing the snowflakes behind them. I will go out and climb through the escarpment trees later, lie on my back in the big open Gage Park field.

With Leiris (1901 – 1990) I dive into the internal felt world that artists inhabit and pull their work from – the place where he focuses his intention and curiosity as both artist and ethnographer. Close friends with Miro, Giacciometi, Lam, Francis Bacon, collaborator with Sartre and de Beauvoir (among others), and for decades the director of the Department of Sub Saharan Africa at the Musee de l’Homme, he was deeply critical of colonialism, capitalism. Also a lover of Opera.

An interesting heart-mind, who “wanted to unfold speech that would be a live fabric, patient and revealing, of those very things that are true to the one who lives them, feels them and refuses to name them in an ideal conclusion.” (Hand, 2002).

I like that he lived and wrote at the heart of the ‘isms’ I’ve studied but developed a singular voice that informed all of them. I like that he played in language and loved Giacommetti and Bacon, whose work I also love.

I would not have met either of them save for this lockdown.

Now the snow is thick and the wind more visible. Birds have stopped playing in it – there’s enough in the air that it would be difficult to see; they’d be flying blind. From this side of the window it’s beautiful – winter magic I cherish.

This second lockdown has been tough for me, like blind solo flight through intense psychological weather. I feel a creeping worry that what I’m making is not relevant in the world, either because I’ve changed or because the world is now unrecognizable. Good days are me forgetting all of that and just enjoying the work that has come out of my little home studio but wow, I miss music, I miss human connections. Laughter, smiles. I miss interwoven stories at dinner tables, intense board games, post-prandial walks. I’m pretty sure we all have a version of this.

Also after eleven months of pandemic I’m having trouble imagining the world we re-emerge into, how this works, whether I’ll remember how to have a decent conversation, make new friends. It’s complex; Leiris and Horn are helping.

Andrew Simonet, who believes as I do that it will be artists who figure out ingenious new ways to bring laughter back upon re-emergence offers some suggestions in his Artist U blog (selection here):

WHY AM I NOT ECSTATIC? Collect stories and moments of the discomfort of getting back together. Wrap my arms around the complexity of lockdown’s end, the difference between what we should feel and what we do feel.

10 STEPS BACK TOGETHER. An incremental series of tasks/practices/rituals to readjust to in-person life. Baby steps.
1) Have lunch with one friend. Hug at the end.
2) Go to a public event (a concert, a talk, a game) and stay for 15 minutes.

The trees still wave, as do I.

Time for a walk.

Overhaul

What would you choose? Opinions like these can be written onto a piece of paper and stuffed into a bottle for tossing into the ocean, or

yelled through a global-sized megaphone of a social media account or

transmuted into art or music or a story about people and their mad maneuverings for influence,

…then dissolved back into the neutral, ancient wind-blown air. Which doesn’t care one whit for our opinions.

There are other options too, but I believe without any doubt that these intensities, these fear reactions and angry judgements, these revenge and punishment stories should never ever be shoved down into the darkest places and locked away. That’s where they fester and grow toxic. That’s where they get fed by pressure. We KNOW what happens when we do this – the methane eventually escapes and destroys everything we love.

Biden/ Harris Inauguration is tomorrow. I’ve caught myself holding my breath more than once today for no apparent reason. I’m Canadian, but even so I’ve caught myself in an urge to design poster memes that say FORGIVE!! SEEK ACCOUNTABILITY!! DON’T THROW STONES!! HIDE UNDER THE BED!! STAY HOME!!! in big letters. wtf, and honestly Keira, says my eternal self. Breathe.

So instead I paint my website white and delete half of the content I’ve built over the last year. I challenge myself to work on bristol board with sharpies, highlighters and whatever else is within reach. To read Bruce Chatwin again.

Feels good. Like a clean slate.