Recall; the Muppets

It’s taken me five hours to find the inner stillness required to properly enjoy a pot of tea, damnit. Twitchy, grumpy and unsettled since Tuesday evening. Yesterday I went to bed at 7pm and rose at 1:30am of course, doing my best to find serenity* while writing and drinking coffee. At 6am I took myself back to bed.

*See Animal and James Coburn on the Muppet Show.

Then I dreamed that I called David Bowie for help while trying to sleep at Larry and Kate’s place after a party there. Except it wasn’t Larry and Kate’s place it was more like a sprawling tacked together old cottage near Balmy Beach, full to the brim with odd characters and bizarre but predictable inebriation.

Bowie came from the afterlife when I called, of course, because he and I are lovers. I have a million questions for him about how the afterlife and coming back to visit works but we are amorous first. Just before I wake up into the first day of our second covid lockdown in Ontario he looks at me from his brown eye and says ‘there’s something. A gift? I ask. No, something you own. Or owe..’ – to myself maybe? Hard to know, he’s fading out.

I get up and as I make coffee I do my best to seek more forensic internal questions (because I love and respect Bowie), but they evade me in my twitchiness.

I need Action. I’m determined to set up what I could gather from my studio yesterday (because of lockdown) in the dining room which will be my work space for the next month or so. As I work through this I can feel my blood boiling though I don’t understand why so I grit my teeth and persevere until I almost wreck a painting I like and hit my thumb with the hammer. Fred Flintstone comes to mind then which is a slap upside the head, then funny.

I stop. It dawns on me that I’ve been reliving the awful awful trauma of winter 2017 when I moved my beautiful huge old studio in the Circle Bar into a little bedroom in my dark rented house. Good lord that was a horrific time, forced on me by vindictive separation negotiations and in the midst of nasty litigation with my sister over – gah! – family property**. Oh my sad sad old self from that winter. I felt as though I was being dismantled piece by piece and completely utterly helpless to prevent it.

That feeling came back four years later to twitch me for 2.5 days then hit me in the thumb with a hammer, just to remind me that I got through it all just fine. I’m glad I experienced that time; I’m grateful to both my ex and my sister for the good, hard lessons; I’m glad it’s over.

Feels good to have broader perspective to observe now from. This three year self directed Hamilton residency looks a lot like a doughnut with 2020 as a hole, and oh can I stretch that metaphor. Into that hole has disappeared a brilliant (?!?) strategic career plan and an astonishing amount of savings money in studio/ apartment rent and living expenses (I did not qualify for CERB). Also my ego, my confidence, my community both here and in Owen Sound where I hail from and my foster cat, who died in my arms in November, damnit.

But, my dear Bowie, I do not feel dismantled now, I feel reconstructed. My coyote ego and I are friends, he trusts me to lead. My studio work is better, more interesting, more direct and honest. I am learning how to draw water – a thing I would never have attempted until this fall – more than halfway up that mountain of curiosity now. I’m submitting show and project proposals to galleries and funders I respect and building ways and means to offer the work online in a meaningful way – in full acknowledgement that we are all online-weary. I’m devising ways and means to make sure it’s not about the solo, but the connection.

Happily, I have not moved out of my beloved studio at the Cotton Factory – the new archaeology pieces wait, safely and patiently there, for my return. I finish the tuba triptych this month – the third of five commissions that have all been my good teachers. These pieces, and the tea ceremony ones are interesting and different; they are fun and light and edgy.

Thanks Bowie. I still have a million questions so you’ll need to come back again tonight. Thanks Larry and Kate for that weird party. And thanks, Animal. You will always be an inspiration.

Pot of tea is almost done, just one cup left. I’ll close this laptop to enjoy it as the skies turn to dusk above the trees.

You can watch Animal again.

Home to roost

A tradition when moving into a new space is to go to the closest Walmart and find something living in the plant section that I can rescue. This was the living green thing I found in a shoved together stack of ‘special buy’ tropicals in the middle of a box store aisle in March 2019. We share most mornings together – I with my coffee, the plant drinking in the light.

This one, tangled and happy on the garden trellis from my house in Owen Sound, was rescued in 2017 (also Walmart plant section) when I closed my Circle Bar studio and stuffed it all into a little room. I like to imagine that when I’m not working here they confer together about plant-related things.

Christmas books this year are all about eccentrics. George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, where the author and Kirt Vonnegut live and work while finding their own written selves. Leonora Carrington, who eschews establishment values and constraints to pursue a life anchored in art and discovery in Europe. A book of tales collected from elephants, tortoises, on trains that don’t stop and only travel in one direction, from a retired executioner by a Welsh journalist with a love for the quirky corners of Britain.

As I read La Fontaine’s fables aloud to my daughter I marvel that these elegant and bright little poems from the 1600s can resonate so across four centuries. I dip into a book about Paul Klee’s pictoral writing, thinking about my own archaeologies in the backdrop pieces that populate my studio and my awareness. I pause the book in my lap, stare at the lovely backyard locust tree to absorb the latest epiphany. It’s as though Klee, Rogers, Whitman and La Fontaine stare with me at their own backyard trees as they turn the next phrase just so.

What a singular and strange Christmas this is! I’ve developed a new taste for this particular shy flavour of delight and happiness, rare and quiet like a barely polished jewel, visible only in a certain light, at a certain time. I’m lucky to be here with both time and light, and just enough presence of mind to take notice; my heart is light like a feather.

We are in this same place of wonder and discernment from which Shakespeare wrote in London’s plague-filled streets. The same concoction of people and their motivations, animals, plants and trees as populated the high court of France, where La Fontaine created and offered his fables, as food for their thoughts. Stories still get drawn from the skies, from the eccentrics burrowed into the corners of bookstores and alleys, from the squirrels and the trees, from Walmart and Shakespeare and Co.

Masked people walk the streets, trees dance in the wind, waves crash on the shores. We learn differently perhaps, but we still learn and in this rare isolated Christmas we have time to engage with our own archaeologies, with the strata in our lives of memory and entanglement, loss and renewal, love.

There’s been little to no sunlight these past few weeks, and last night the wind and rain dissolved all the lovely white snow that fell on Christmas eve. I look up through the branches of the locust and the sky is like a theatre scrim lit from behind, glowing a splotchy grey.

But this is still light. It can be pulled through leaf into stem and down into roots, animating the process of photosynthesis. Just as the carbon dioxide expelled from my body gets pulled from the air in the room by my living green friends, and replaced with oxygen.

I pull the available light down into the strata of my memories, into my own private Lascaux where I find drawings and symbols on the walls, beautiful and rare. I know that only I can truly, respectfully decipher them. Visible only in a certain time, in a certain light, it is from here that I draw my awareness.

Can I just squish my ego?

I wonder. As this Hamilton residency approaches its third year in March I can see the times my ego has stepped forward to protect me – from change, from expansion, from my own decision to grow as an artist, evolve as a person. From connection.

I felt profound relief when we first began self-isolation. That was my ego, exhausted from the effort of keeping me safe from harm by exposure.

My room on MacNab from February to March 2019.
Third floor windows behind the tree on the left.

The times I presented myself as experienced in contexts I had little understanding of, and got slapped for it, understandably. Or ignored. Or projected upon by other egos. The times I built fantastic narratives in my head about my capacities as an artist – stories that never had a chance to put down roots and sprout for lack of time and stamina.

Roof of the wonderful Cotton Factory from the third floor, looking south toward the escarpment, winter 2019.
By then I’d signed a 3-year lease for my studio in the Storehouse Building.

I’ve also shielded my heart, quite understandably, considering the events of the past ten years or so. Funny thing is that this ego-shielding just attracted other egos, equally as ridiculous and entitled as my own, from whom I then had to try and negotiate a friendly release.

The heavy ego armour constricted my heart like a hover-mother constricts the breathing in her child. I really do just want to breathe, and laugh. To love; ridiculously vulnerable and full of courage.

Detail from work on a painting I reclaimed from out of a difficult 2014 commercial gallery story.

I don’t want to get into Jung or Freud or the murky world of psychoanalysis (which all smells suspiciously of egotism). Maybe a better image is Coyote. My egoic patterns are as predictable as the ACME bomb going off, as Wil E accordion-walking his smoking body back to the invention cave.

underdrawing for the reclaimed painting

In a patriarchal world, the Michael Snows and the Picassos ride their ego chariots to glory, carve up their inner feminine and chop off her head to uproarious applause and so win enduring fame. I look at early work from both these men and others from that world and prefer it. What might they have done if they’d surrendered their ego and their anger and chosen actual maturity? Like Braque, like Klee, like Kandinsky?

Perhaps we’d be minus the celebrity icons that still tour the big musems, but we’d also have been spared the misogynistic work they made and laid at the altar of the Patriarch.

With family at a Cirque du Soleil show. It was epic.

Forgive the aphorisms, but I feel a need to summarize. Maybe because I’ve been reading la Fontaine fables.

There’s a place and a time for fear, yes. It’s useful like a compass to safety as pain can be a guide, deeper into adulthood. When fear fuels ego though, things get mean.

Laughter keeps the pin in the grenade.

Teacup, 2014/2020. 30″x24″, acrylic, oil pastel, vine charcoal, ultraviolet mistyfuse and interference/ metallic liquid acrylic on canvas. I wanted to make a hologram using media that reflect light differently; it worked!

Coyote sits with me now on the couch every morning. He fidgets. He draws up elaborate, detailed maps and strategies for us that will solve our income issues and propel us to certain fame – the kind of world domination approach to being an artist that gets his tail wagging and his ears pricked:

SELL YOUR ART ONLINE!! ESTABLISH A SIDE BUSINESS!! APPLY TO A FINE ARTS MASTERS PROGRAM!! BUILD A HUGE INSTALLATION AND INVITE THE WORLD!! WORK WITH A DANCE COMPANY!! MAKE ART TUTORIAL VIDEOS!! He presents these to me, all panting and twitching in eagerness… Let’s do all of this! Can we? Today?

I don’t want to squish him; he’s the king of making me laugh. No, Coyote, but thanks.

Here, chew on this bone.

And hush, while I finish this piece. This one that naturally leads to that one I’m really enjoying. That piece and the ones beside it whispers in a way that nothing else ever has. Like a guide, taking me deeper in. Today I was clear and quiet enough to hear it…

*see below

Once, when we were Dragons, flying under the sun, I saw a flash on the water.

We circled our descent together, my love and I, and saw that the whales had come together in the centre of the sea. A great spiral of whales, stirring the ocean, singing the wind and the stories in, drawing us in too. We landed, vast in our wings and our bellies, in the centre of the spiral. We sang our love to each other while the whales and the waters stirred the world.

*Caption of the last image:
detail of a backdrop piece from my last studio (in progress, there’s more to be done).
8 years of drips from all the other painting I did there.
Is it John Lennon who said that life is what happens when you’re busy doing other things? That’s what this series of 4 large and six small backdrop pieces feels like to me. I’m working on a Hamilton and an online show with them in 2021 – will update.

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