I know so little

We call them bodies, the lakes. Bodies of water. Great and larger lakes, oceans, straights and inland seas are bodies. I’ve amended my understanding of this term through travel in the world in a learned understanding that context is all-important.

The largest lake in Ireland, Lough Neagh, is about one fortieth the size of Georgian Bay, upon whose shores I spent my tween and teenage years (and where my tiny cabin is now). Compared to the other Great Lakes, Georgian Bay is little – just a bay, even though it covers more area than Northern Ireland.

Context is all. All six Great Lakes have been ten minutes or a few hours away by foot or car throughout most of my life. Huron, Ontario, Erie, Michigan, Superior, Georgian Bay. The land I live on and travel through is full of rivers and waterfalls that feed the lakes with groundwater and snowmelt. Water’s pretty high this year, we say to one another, yep, just like the ’80s. Had to raise the dock again. Every one of the locals has a favourite spot on a favourite shoreline; we mark the days with sunsets or sunrises over the lake.

As a kid I believed that the whole world was just like it is here – abundant and generous with water. As an adult I came to understand that my soul and my white female body is forever linked to these enormous freshwater seas we call The Great Lakes, bodies that for 10,000 years and more have had other names. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The older names sound like the beginning of a long and complex story; full of a kind of wisdom I’ve always longed for: Waaseyaagami-wiikwed, Shining Waters Bay. I begin to learn that story in my middle age, and just how much of a recent anomaly I am within it, me with my white female body.

Yesterday I listened to the long version of the excellent, compassionate and enlightened Krista Tippet’s interview with a man whose name sounds like the beginning of another good story I can learn from: Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist from Minneapolis. The interview occurred in the On Being studios just before our pandemic lockdown. I could hear Resmaa observing Krista’s white body cringe as they discussed racism and white supremacy. I could hear the squirm he was seeing in her voice, as she struggled with choice points about what to ask him, how to ask him… for help with what she doesn’t and cannot understand about being black, from her experience in a white woman’s body.

I’m grateful for this interview because this is my struggle too, especially and specifically right now right here. If you’re white, I recommend you give yourself a good hour to listen to it, then another hour to walk through the park with what you’ve just heard.

Good Lord, but it’s well beyond time to pick up the burden of my white person inheritance and feel its’ actual weight. More appropriately, to take the weight off the backs of the BIPOC people who have been carrying it for me all my life. To observe what I have assumed without question, and how this has translated into behaviour through fifty seven years of living in a white body. In a system where to be white is to be supreme and privileged over all other people of colour.

Start there, says Resmaa Menakem. Say it, white-bodied people: White Supremacy. Look straight at what that means, and how you benefit from and support the system. Then stop talking. Just notice what happens in your body. It’s your job to change the system, but not just with patchwork policies, empty slogans, and lists of books you’ve read that prove how enlightened you are. You need to do this from a place of real, embodied understanding.

I know so little, but I learn, daily. Overwhelmed by the news, the full display of blatant callousness, rage and brutality from white people in power. How different that behaviour is from the intense but peaceful protests organized by BLM.

There’s a great deal more for us well-meaning white folk to learn about this long-rotted white supremacist system, a great deal of listening to do. Changing to do, in right action: for a start, my taxes over-fund the police, when they should be funding universal basic income. A start when I ask good but difficult questions, and make my wishes known in the system that has benefited me and my white body while excluding and punishing all other bodies. It’s not activism, it’s being human.

And it’s simple: if I don’t ask the questions and make my wishes known, I support the rotted system.

My story, and every story is valid, but it’s more important to hear the one that came up in my fb feed this morning.

Please read on. If you’re in a white body in a predominantly white neighbourhood, don’t just file it afterward and move on to make another coffee. Give yourself some moments to sit with Kyra’s childhood experience and notice how your body feels. Notice if you’re squirming, like Krista Tippet does in the interview. It’s okay to squirm. That’s how you know something’s wrong.

Ask yourself what you want to do about this.

In a rural population area of 350,000, a mere handful of the locals I grew up with were black. Two Anishnabe reservations were within a 40 minute drive but I remember little to no interaction between first nations people and the white people of Owen Sound. This is changing now, but we still have a long way to go.

I’m grateful to Kyra Nankivell who writes here about what it was like to grow up black in the same place I grew up white:

Kyra Nankivell is with Erick Baptiste.

JtSpeune 5 ato mSn11fsnmurof:rg2l0h eidSueAatdM  · Black in a White Town – SHARE THIS PLEASEFor context, my full name is Emma Kyra Nankivell and I started going by my middle name in grade 10 to “feel more black” among other reasons. I want to share my experiences because I’ve been told that it really helped people recognize their ignorance and try to understand. So here it goes…I’ve always described my experience growing up in Centre Wellington by this simple line, “The first time I saw a black person in school was like grade 9.”Although, I never fully understood my situation until Erick (my bf) looked at my CWDHS 2018 yearbook and saw pages and pages of white kids in every grade. He was just in awe. And honestly I never saw my yearbook like that… That was a “wow” moment. Like holy sh*t I actually grew up in that environment. Obviously I wasn’t an idiot and there was racism but it became so NORMAL to me.Here are some very specific experiences:

1. Finding out my best friend had a confederate flag in her basement
2. Being asked countless times to punch “N****r cards” so people could say the word.
3. My school invited a group from Brampton to perform for black history month and they didn’t even invite me to the assembly. On top of that, everyone was asking me who the group was and why they were at my school. AS IF I KNEW.
4. Getting my hair braided and having almost every TEACHER ask me if I went on vacation.
5. Going to track & field meets in Guelph and actually seeing black people was the first time I felt NORMAL.
6. PEOPLE TOUCHING MY HAIR 24/7 and people asking why I don’t straighten my hair.
7. TAKING INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS AND HAVING CLASS DISCUSSIONS ON ISSUES IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES WAS LIKE ME AGAINST EVERYONE. “Why don’t they just raise minimum wage”
8. Someone drew swatstikas on the bathroom stalls
9. Having a black friend over, walking around Elora and getting 628379191 texts the next day saying “who was that”
10. Countless black jokes that weren’t funny at all. “Hey Emma what sound does a chainsaw make? Run nikkaa-nikkaaa-nikkaaa”
11. Explaining to people what black history month is, then explaining black history
12. BEING TOLD EMMA IS A WHITE NAME. “Seriously your name is Emma??” *confused look*
13. Always being “the only one” or at least feeling like it!!
14. BEING CONFUSED WITH THE ONLY OTHER NON WHITE GIRL IN THE ROOM BY PEOPLE & CUSTOMERS AT WORK HOLYYY. Like no I’m not that person.
15. People assuming the only other black or even just non white person is related to me. Like whattt?¿
16. Never seeing a shred of my culture displayed, understood, spoken about. Only ever talking about Jamaica when “those poor nations” came up.
17. People comparing their skin to mine after a sunny day/week. “Omg I’m almost as tan as you hahahaha”
18. Being told I look “aggressive” with my hair braided
19. “Where are you from” ummm I was born in Guelph “no like where are you actually from?!”
20. I played hockey for 10 years of my life and I can count the number of black people I saw on my FINGERS. It was super discouraging and you best believe that when people “talk sh*t” racism was fuel for the fire. “Monkey” “N***r” “Why r you even playing hockey?” “Do your parents have the money for this?” “Why don’t you go back to Africa”
21. I was nicknamed “Mocha” on one of the teams I played for.
22. WHEN I WORKED AT MCDONALDS IN FERGUS SOMEONE ACTUALLY REFUSED TO LET ME TAKE THEIR ORDER. THEY ASKED FOR A WHITE PERSON. THAT WAS 2017.
23. Girls at my high school asking me to hook them up with my black friends… As if it was something on their bucket list.
24. People trying to guess where I’m from, like it’s some kind of fun game.
25. I actually tried to switch schools after crying to my parents and saying “I hate it here, no one understands me.” I remember going on a tour of the new school and the guidance counsellor asked me my main reason for switching, I said “There’s not enough diversity at my school” and then we spent a couple weeks trying to figure out how to “legitimize” my reason so the board would allow the transfer. CRAZY.

After Ahmaud Arbery was shot while running, I was genuinely afraid to let my bf run in my neighborhood alone. I still am. I get anxious everytime he goes on a run or bike ride by himself… THIS IS NOT JUST AN “AMERICAN PROBLEM” THIS IS VERY VERY REAL IN CANADA. The fact that people are brushing off RACISM as just some American issue is DISGUSTING. WAKE TF UP PEOPLE. I need everyone to reshare this. I know my following is predominantly white people and it’s hard to admit that you’re part of the problem but it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. Y’all are getting tired of hearing that black lives matter, TRY BEING BLACK. I love everyone, idc if ur black, white or purple. But right now we all need to get behind this because I don’t want to raise black children in the society we live in. #blacklivesmatter#sharethis#blackpower#useyourvoice]

where might this tunnel lead

Just a hint of snow. The occasional fat flake visible against the still leafy tree, in slow dance downward. I watch, mesmerized as if my back window has become a television, the floating white stuff a metaphor, a plot device in the opening credits that whisper a coming change.

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There are things I am pleased about. The great functional beauty of my living space. The ancient trees five minutes away from my front door, the warm community of artists that surrounds my studio and work. The hum of this reconstructed painting as it nears completion in a few days, in time for its’ entry submission into a group show.

The way this painting, with its’ odd off-balanced, skewed gravity has informed what I will do with the other golden one – a permission to work with graffiti on my own work – to include a vulnerability, a soft ‘wrongness’ in what the piece will say, or sing.

To include an ache.

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New awarenesses have risen in me in these days spent writing, reading, drawing – and watching the rain, the wind, the first snowflakes dance slowly downward. This is what I’d hoped for when I leaped off the cliff last winter, though of course there were, and are no guarantees.

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Now the train song, second of the daily five as it curves past my neighbourhood’s houses – high metal squeals, deep chug chug of engine, bell clanging a clear, steady, andante A. My mother would have named that note without checking, which warms my eyes a little, remembering. The mark of a real musician, I used to think.

I know that at some point in my three years here I will record that train song, and add my own voice to it, like graffiti.

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This morning I’m feeling more than a little raw and chafed by the lack of beloved human voices in my world. The rootedness I feel only at my cabin is a lump in my throat, a wetness behind my eyes. I yearn for that safety, that belongingness, today.

As I listened to our Estonian residency artist Kai Kaljo talk about her time here in Canada last night I heard a thread of this in the way she approaches her work. Belonging and not belonging, comfort and discomfort, public recognition and then forgetfulness. In a dark time after everything changed she drew dead flowers, because she found them beautiful. Eventually realized that her creative self was rising, impossibly, again and change was good. Of course it’s good. But still.  Why eyes? asked the young artist. What is the significance of eyes for you?  “I don’t know, really. You decide.”, says Kai.

Kai gifted me a print of the opened window she stared through and loved all through her Italian residency, said as she signed it “I think art is like a window, yes?”. After the rich art talk and the connections made I closed my studio door and wondered why I felt different.

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I begin to understand that my known internal voices have long been misinterpreted by me, out of a learned assumption that outside voices automatically hold more authority. An old old lesson; my older sister finished all my sentences when we were children together. Somewhere beneath conscious awareness our culturally competitive parents approved of this as a mark of her superiority of mind and were entertained by it.

Instead of arguing I learned to archive my unspoken thoughts deep in a subterranean library. Floors and floors of shelves full of unspoken observances, delights, curiosities, private games, resonances and interesting relations with other-than-humans. Beneath those floors the wounds, traumas, bewilderments, betrayals, shocks I believe we all have some version or extreme of, levels below levels, each darker than the one above.

By doing this I could become the mirror required of me aboveground, and did so for many years, since “mirrors show everything but themselves. …nothing of your own will be heard”

Or possibly this is what I did. It’s a good working theory at least, based on what I’ve gleaned so far. In any case I’ve known for a good long time that for me stories are best mined in the dark.

IMG_0375 In The Faraway Nearby Solnit says,

 

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. …. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two?

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The end of my annotated, allegorical Masters story, Seven Swans, Seven Rooms keeps changing, as I get closer to telling it aloud in collaboration with an Owen Sound audience on December 7.

Since I last spoke the story at the end of April, my father passed, I traveled for a month in Europe, returned to find I lived somewhere else, was surprised on the summer road by the strangeness of Grief, and then the comfort of Retrospect. Both have since become my good companions. So of course the story’s end changes. It describes a beginning I’m only just now beginning to glimpse through the trees.

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To echo Kai – I’m not sure why these curiosities are here, or these aches, these lumps in my throat. Am reluctant to over-explain, wise enough to know that the only way through is in. I do trust them, that they’re here for good reason. Maybe they’re for you?

I really don’t know. You can decide.

 

Artist residency in Hamilton: highly recommended

I cannot imagine my life without the experience of the Cotton Factory artist residency. On all levels – personal, professional, academic, philosophical and physical (since I have now moved my work and my life here) – it continues to enrich, expand and amplify my world.

Residencies are transformative things, I’ve learned. In some ways, contradictory, since you come in to them with a clear, proposed plan for the work but also with an intention to engage with completely new surroundings and people which influences your practice, your insight, and thus, your work.

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The Cotton Factory hosts a mid-length residency. In retrospect, I can see that three months of absolute focus on visual art practice is both a blessing and a challenge. For me, the first month included Christmas and music gigs, all in cities outside of Hamilton, and so I spent what studio time I had establishing momentum for January’s work.

This was satisfying; I was able to stretch my art muscles, and take two pieces that had floundered in my last studio to a new level.

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In January I settled into my proposed plan, which was ambitious: ten collaborative portraits of folk from three cities (none of them Hamilton), a book that explored process and insights gained about art and portraiture, and an artist’s talk/performance.

I settled into Portraits, yes, except that my powerful response to Hamilton and the Cotton Factory community and space was impossible to ignore. It became imperative that I respond also to where I was, that I explore the rich history and culture of industrial Hamilton (which included both of my paternal grandparents, emigrants from Glasgow, Scotland), in my work.

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Pavement II: Gate. oil pastel, acrylic and vine charcoal on paper. Machine sewn bottom edge. Improvisation meets structure, and a narrative emerges.

Within the first two weeks of January – seven weeks after the beginning of my residency,  I realized that my work in The Cotton Factory and in Hamilton needed to be extended. I signed a three-year lease on another studio down the hall.

Now I had two goals fighting for priority in the seven weeks left of my Arts Council residency:
1. Portraits Project, and
2. a conceptual series on paper which explored the human spaces of industrial Hamilton.

Gates and fences, ways through and in to working spaces. The imposition of an idea (human industry and progress based on profit/ ownership) on what was once a thriving natural environment. The growing sense I had, that the natural environment – the spirit of the land – was still there, patiently waiting for its chance to reclaim the space through natural growth – with or without human collaboration. Vines using barbed wire and chain link to climb on, trees still growing beside junkyards, grass breaking through pavement.

Chain_Final
The first of five pieces on paper I presented at the artists’ talk for the 2018-19 Cotton Factory Residency. Pavement 1: door and chain. A response to my month-long stay in a student apartment at Barton and Emerald Streets in Hamilton. Pretty disempowered neighbourhood – I found myself walking there with eyes down, was warned not to go out at night.

My impression – of impossibly overlapped stories from 100 years of european emigrant workers who had been imported from their original cultural homes and offered ‘a better life’ in the new world. Enticed from their homes by government-supported businesses, they populated that treaty-acquired, previously populated land, which soon became unrecognizable to itself. They came for wages and in exchange became the visible backbone of the Big Industrial Dream of constant, unsustainable growth – my ancestors, transplanted here, to feed the perpetually growing, industrial profit/ownership machine.

The same machine that slaves from the south had been picking cotton for for a century or more, in chains, without wages or anything remotely approaching autonomy. These people – not enticed, but forcibly removed from their villages and homes, then commodified and traded –  were the true, but invisible backbone of the cotton industry. For more insight please see this excellent PBS series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”, available to rent or own. Here is PBS’ news release announcing the series.

Oh, the damage done. How much wrongness and entitlement can we own, as white people, in the origins of this story?

Stairs_Final
Pavement III: Stairs 2019, conte, oil pastel, acrylic and vine charcoal on paper. Machine sewn edge. Overlapping stories, up and down the back factory stairs.

The effects of all of this are all clear and visible now, in old industrial Hamilton. The shores of Lake Ontario, once forests populated by indigenous people, is now dominated by abandoned factories, populated by immigrant settlers and the descendants of slaves. How do we address this, as artists?

In three months, I could only begin, with fences, locks, chains and gates. Trains. What I knew of my grandparents.

[NOTE:  I have received some pointed and negative feedback on my original blog post that I believe is warranted. I want to address my error, as pointed out by a reader, whom I have thanked for her input. 

Here is the offending paragraph, as originally written:

Gates and fences, ways through and in to working spaces. The imposition of an idea (human industry) on what was once a thriving natural environment, and the growing sense I had, that the natural environment was still there, patiently waiting for its chance to reclaim the space in collaboration with humans. My impressions, that 100 years of emigrant workers had been just as harnessed and used as ‘natural resources’ by industrial design was part of the story – my ancestors, transplanted here, to feed the same machine that slaves from the south were picking cotton for, a century ago.

My point about the industrialists’ abuse of the natural landscape for use in the development of factories and suggesting that the immigrant workers were “just as harnessed and used” was awkward and without proper reference points, and this I believe is the beginning of my error. The land was acquired through Treaty between the government and the indigenous peoples (see treaties No. 3, ‘Between the Lakes Purchase and Collins Purchase’and Brant Tract 3&3/4 here. See also the website Native Land, an ongoing indigenous- run project which maps indigenous territories and nations on several continents. Be sure to read their ‘about’ page). The immigrant workers were paid, in exchange for the ‘harness’ of daily work, and so benefitted from the possibility of a new and more prosperous life in Canada. This is not at all like slavery, and though it was not my intention to imply so, the effect on my reader stands, and I take responsibility.

My point should have been absolutely clear, that I  feel that the Cotton Factory building is full of overlapping stories, none of which would exist in that place without the people who picked the cotton that arrived by train. The (white) emigrant workers – my european ancestors – were in fact beneficiaries of the work of enslaved people, through the wages they earned. The toil of slaves and that of white emigrant workers should not have appeared in the same paragraph, without clearly distinguishing the extreme differences between the conditions experienced by them. I have corrected my post to reflect my intended point, with gratitude to AMR for calling me on it. This note will remain embedded in the post as well, for clarity.

My work and my reading actively inquires into the generational, cultural, physical and environmental effects of colonialism and industrialization, white privilege and entitlement. I sincerely apologize for any offense taken as a result of my lack of clarity. 

Fence_Final
Pavement IV: Fence 2019 acrylic, oil pastel and vine charcoal on paper. Machine sewn lower edge.

I wrote this poem in response,

Song for the Workers

 

If I stood on the street where you walked to work
every day
If I asked what you thought what you remembered what
would you say?
Did it take, what did it take from you
Did you break, how did you remake yourself
again, and then again and then, and then
How many miles of pavement
through the long working years?

 

Did you ever wonder
over a hundred years wonder
where it would all lead us?
Out the grey porch door
down the long street
over the train tracks
through the opened gate
through the big door          (with the others)
Up the long stairs               (with the mothers)
across the wooden floors to the chair,  to the treadle
I think of you now, when I push my gas pedal.
Ten million miles of thread,
fed carefully through your steady needle.

 

For Jeannie Brown,
and for Hamilton where she made herself fit,
like all the others, all the mothers,
the brothers, the daughters and sons.
Transplanted, harnessed,

 

In the name of God, waged.
In the church, when the bells.
Every Sunday.

Hamilton is a place of factories, trains and churches of every faith from every country out of which emigrant workers came. In some ways it is the most european city I have yet experienced in Canada, because of these hundreds of years of carefully maintained connections with ‘home’. I can find food from any part of the world in the grocery stores.

The City of Hamilton acknowledges that it is situated on the traditional territory of the Haudensaunee and Anishnaabeg. This territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. (Note: Haudenosaunee – This name refers to the Iroquois Confederacy comprising of these Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Anishinaabeg/ Anishinaabek/ Anishnabek/ Anishnaabeg – this name covers Ojibway, Odawa, Algonquin, Potawatomi, Nipissing, Mississaugas, Saulteau, etc….all the Algonkian/Ojibwa Nations.

3Crosses_Final
Pavement V: Three Crosses, 2019 conte, acrylic and vine charcoal on paper, machine sewn lowest edge.

Because of the Hamilton Arts Council / Cotton Factory artists residency, and this rich, complex history into which my own ancestors’ stories are woven, I have moved my work and my life to Hamilton. Portraits will open in the fall of 2019, and I will publish and tour a performance of my Masters thesis book, Seven Swans, Seven Rooms shortly afterwards.

There is a rich fabric of artists, music and community here that grows into future collaborative work and artistic exploration well beyond the horizons I could imagine in the fall of 2018, when I applied for the residency.

highly recommend that you – artist from any culture in search of a practice-deepening, perspective challenging, new friendship-building, pivotal experience – apply to the excellent Cotton Factory Artist Residency program. From wherever you are, in the world.

Here’s the Link.

(Write to me if you’re from away, and I’ll help you figure out accommodations. keirartworks@gmail.com – put ‘CF Artist Residency – Help!’ in the subject line.)