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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Little, Big

Some days I wake up into where I am as though I’ve never noticed before how truly lovely it is. At the moment it’s here where I come for first pre-dawn coffee, where I take note of the morning sky, the quality of first light. Here where the tone of my day is set.

morning room

This room is full of a hundred versions of red, all rich and glowing in sunlight. The christmas cactus blooms in apricot and peach, an aloe grows like a prayer – from their red and green pots they drink in the sun. A water glass flashes light from the old kist. It’s there for the cat to drink from, which she does with particular ceremony on sunlit mornings. I can see and hear the wind, and the starlings, the sparrows, gulls, crows.

studio in April 2020. I’m on my way there soon & will get a current photo for the penultimate day of November 2020

Every room in my apartment, every tree on my walk, every space in my studio has the capacity to take my breath away, when I’m awake & clear enough to actually see it. A particular, resonant view of the moment and place I’m in: Oh, this is beautiful.

As you read through the story Little, Big for the first time, it dawns upon you that one of the characters is the old house in which the Drinkwaters live. Rooms that should be perfectly ordinary, are not. In fact there are far more rooms inside than could possibly fit the available space described by its exterior. All is not what it seems; what appears to be just little is in fact marvelously, astonishingly, big.

Written by John Crowley in 1981, many editions out there. Give it to readers you love who appreciate a magical inner world. For the sake of Crowley’s story and your future delight I can’t tell you a whit more than I have. It’s a book I ration for myself as I did Tolkein, as a kid.

the aliveness of paintings while they’re still wet

What I’m learning to understand is that the illusion of smallness and insignificance applies everywhere; the inside of us is far, far bigger and more resonant than anything outside. Everything begins, and ends, in the internal way we perceive ourselves in and of the world.

We’ve been isolating inside our lives and houses this year, will continue so through the holidays. If 2020 were a character in our collective story, then there would be many many versions of possibility inside, waiting to be seen in a lit, resonant moment. Some look bleak indeed. Others, for certain, are breathtakingly beautiful.

If it’s a choice, and I think it is, I choose the latter.

So there is the tone for my day.

I believe there’s a lunar eclipse happening in the wee hours of tomorrow (November 30). Might mean a nap this afternoon, since I think I’d like to see that if possible, from the evening window.

and yet,

This rain’s falling hard, straight down. Even so, there’s a reassuring line of red sunfire on the horizon just now; the sun rises warm above bruised clouds. I’ve been sifting through headlines to check the people barometer, which reads just like the morning sky: heavy and bruised with some pockets of humour (a photoshopped Rudy Giulani giving a press conference in front of a wall of Ritz cracker boxes).

Some days are thicker than others. Dear Mister Trump is making sure we all stay awake and alert to the very real dangers of rampant ego, fear and delusion while he begs for donations to support his legal battles. We know now that he owes a great deal of money to a significant number of people, and crying foul at this point is a fantastic opportunity to rake it in, no doubt.

To Trump it makes perfect sense to fan the flames of discord and division; we’ve learned this about him by now. I do not waste one iota of energy in indignation; he will eventually be persuaded to leave.

Meanwhile we re-enter quarantine and self-isolation in a new pandemic surge, we tighten our budgets yet again, re-stock the pantry, trade our summer tires for snows. While the GTA hospitals fill up again and again staff is stretched beyond their limit, again long term care facilities are most vulnerable. Bankruptcy filings increase, still more storefront businesses close. Never has the difference between the stock market and the economy been so stark … or no, wait. We’ve been here before, haven’t we. Face palm.

I don’t waste energy on the Bezos or the Zuckerberg, either.

Collectively and personally we have taken heavy losses, yes. But good grief, Charlie Brown. We are still alive, we still laugh and eat, sleep, dream, read books, help each other, care for ourselves, and many are still gainfully employed. We can still crack jokes, even and especially at our own expense when, disoriented, we bump into walls, then recalibrate, reset, hit another obstacle then stop, laugh, rethink, try again. Social media is awash with memes of comically frazzled animals captioned: my mental state right now. It has NOT been easy, but we are, in fact, making our way through, despite an appalling lack of real support and direction from many (most?) of our political leaders.

My BS meter peaks all the time these days; I’ve stopped watching politicians and avoid mainstream news. I did watch Kamala Harris and wept happy tears, though, as The US turned a hugely important, historic corner.

Shakespeare’s life and career was concurrent with the bubonic plague. Thank the Universe, then, that despite the many theatre closures in London he continued to pour his energy into crafting story – stories we still consistently quote 420 years later, whether or not we’ve seen or read the play. Take note, that his stories did not focus on the plague, but on people – how they show themselves, how and what they choose. In a New Yorker article from this past May (2020) Steven Greenblatt observes that in fact the plague plays a subtle but central role in the deaths of Juliet and Romeo, “The plague, which is hardly represented in the play, does not cause their deaths, but the profound social disruption it brings in its wake—conveyed in the rush of seemingly irrelevant details—plays an oddly significant role. The ill-timed quarantine is an agent of the star-crossed lovers’ tragic fate.

For Shakespeare, the quarantine and theatre closures were an effect. People – kings and princes, moneylenders, daughters, wives, friends, soldiers and besotted fools were far more interesting: the myriad, fascinating ways people chose to respond to life, in times of adversity.

I sign a new petition, write new letters to elected politicians every three days or so – against wetland development, human displacement to make room for pointless corporate projects, demanding clean water for first nations NOW, universal basic income for all….the list goes on. Thank you to the people who are on those front lines, investigating, advocating, watching the shady government deals that are happening under covid-cover. I’m aware that these issues are shared and visible because of choices made by people, while in isolation, to change a broken system.

We do figure things out. Every day I work with practicalities, weave in new skills to bring what I do into alignment with how we are now. Learning through the inevitable first batch that will never see publication, now seeing a glimmer of the stories I love and want to tell. Always with paint and colour, music and language, all in layers, visceral and strong. I’ve got good plans in motion that will generate income from and for this work, am grateful for the new practicalities of internet commerce.

Talking about money need not be a divisive issue. Are we coming anywhere closer to a place now where we can see that, as with Shakespeare’s plague, as with the pandemic, income affects, but need not define us? So much focus on money since yes, we are indeed dependent upon it. Certainly, take care of what you need to take care of. But what if we found ways to ‘unhook’ from the disempowering belief system that’s connected to money? What if, instead of focusing on economic self-judgement and anxiety, on how to profit, collect and consume ever more, chasing security as if our lives depend upon it – what if we just … let money be the simple, relational thing it is?

I suspect this looks a little different for everyone. For certain though, an enormous amount of energy and time get freed up if and when we unhook from the toxicity. If we weren’t so obsessed with what’s going to happen next month or next year, trying to to control the economic ‘weather’ so we can keep things the same, maybe we’d work out new, healthier systems that would never have occurred to us, otherwise.

Ivor Wynne Stadium (Tim Horton’s Field), November 2020

As an artist I’m familiar to the point of boredom with judgement placed on my chosen career. The voices are clear and remarkably self-righteous; our culture simply does not support artists in the way it supports bankers, lawyers, CEOs, teachers. It’s a predictable trigger point, when I tell people what I do. Why such a point of contention?

A handful of people early in my career took direct offence with my practice. They were, in fact, a reflection of the voices inside my own head: You think you can do this full time? What makes you so specialYou think you’re the next Emily Carr? (which is funny, considering). Maybe if my pieces regularly sold for $1M this resentment would dissolve into a grudging admiration? well that’s okay then, you’re in the business of money; I get it now.

People who do not resonate with my work will politely change the subject, or, unsolicited, show me someone else’s work they prefer or an approach that makes better sense (as if to guide me in a better direction). Well, if it were me, I’d… An online troll attacked me personally and fervently with some nastiness they felt compelled to project in the moment. Others find my work engaging and compelling, which often leads to further conversations, connections, exchanges. People are different from one another, and always have been.

I don’t waste my energy on a need for external validation. Not any more. That said, I’m blessed to have many people in my life who are sincerely supportive of what I do, which feels warm and good to me. I am and always will be grateful for this.

Art isn’t about money, Charlie Brown, it is about people. Selling my work for 1M is not and never could be my primary goal; it just doesn’t work that way. The folks who pay grossly inflated prices for art are quite often trying to hide dark money or use investment loopholes – the purchase is far less about the art than about taxes. Certainly if the artist is still alive it’s rare that they see any of this, since the big money goes from one ‘investor-owner’ to another. Good heavens, how Emily could have used that money while she was alive and working!! The middle-folk – dealers, agents (Sotheby’s, etc) rake in a tidy fee, for guaranteeing that the work will hold its ‘value’, or at least tracking its value on the art market. You’ve heard of the BANKSY painting that shredded itself in 2018? He was making a point.

Value on these upper echelon markets is capricious. Recently there’s been a huge demand at art fairs for ‘primitives’, or work by artists who have never been to art school, who may have regular day jobs as bus drivers or insurance adjusters. Was it last year that someone duck taped a banana to the wall at Art Basel Miami and sold it for $120,000.?; Face palm (but also pretty funny).

on my walk to the studio there were ten people here, all wearing masks, picking up garbage and bagging it.

I’m not BANKSY, though I greatly admire what he does, as I do Ai Wei Wei and his work. I’m not aiming myself at being quoted in 400 years. I’m just observing and responding to the complex, relational world of right now in a way that stretches, challenges and eventually empowers me. I do believe art is about people, and that people are about connection, choices, stories, innovation. I know without any doubt that income will flow and I will keep on doing this, because things just work out, in exactly the way they should. I don’t need to control the weather.

If you’re someone who resonates with this, I’m glad. We need to keep stretching and evolving, empowering ourselves and each other. If this makes sense to you and you’re interested in hanging or showing my work in your spaces, I would be delighted to find ways to make it so. You can connect with me through this website, email (keira@keiramcarthur.ca) or on social media (messenger works well). Coming in the next few weeks are a newsletter option, and a subscription series which gives you access to my new Story Cake videos. I’ll talk about these in my next posts.

In the meantime, If you like what you read and see here, and just want to offer support, I’ve set up a safe, encrypted donation option on this site for the first time in eleven years. Your support of the work I do here can only make it better, so if you are able, I am grateful to receive. Here’s the button, apologies that it’s so large (I’m working at simplifying as you read):

Thanks for your support! xoxo

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My point here is that we can choose where to invest our energy. We can choose how to know and show ourselves, just as we did 400 years ago, 2000 years ago, aeons ago, when there was no such thing as money. My point is that when something makes no sense, you can choose to find something that does, and focus yourself there. WAY more interesting than being stuck.

I find art deeply meaningful, and choose to spend my working time making it; other people study and learn from fruit flies. Still others are in jobs that bore them to puddles but make really interesting things happen when they’re not at work. Raging lame duck president is canny enough to earn money from loyalists, classical dancer does their work in an abandoned factory, shows get cancelled even though musicians really do need income and work so let’s fix that problem of income. We share rich meaningful phonecalls, broken hips mend, poison ivy heals, tears soak into a pillow, snowflakes dance on the wind, and I hear laughter outside. What a fascinating, amazing world.

It’s not about the pandemic or the politics, or that person that’s driving you nuts. It’s not about money or fear.

What do you love? Do that.