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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of time and people

My favourite teacup is made of fine bone china. I was offered it as thanks for playing at a church fundraiser many years ago, but not until this year of coVid isolation have I understood what it’s for – I’ve only just learned to drink tea.

This cup in particular demands a certain level of attention to ceremony. It slows me down to listening speed.

My new practice this year is to find the pause, wherever it lands in my day, and take my tea up to the window where my great-grandmother’s chair is. Cup and milk in the little Czech creamer first. Then the teapot.

I sit with a lap quilt in Gran’s lovely chair, beside the plants, the backyard trees and I just notice. Little changes, little samenesses, the wind, the squirrels, the soft questions that tug at my sleeve like a shy child.

In this photo it’s my coffee mug. But that’s Gran’s chair, and the window.

Sometimes I think about Gran, who I barely knew, but who my mother loved I believe. My sense from stories is that she was quiet, strong in an unobtrusive Edwardian way, married to a successful hoisery factory manager from Pennsylvania. Family and family history were central to her worldview; she kept things steady and grounded through all crises. When I sit in her chair I can feel all of this; I imagine I know her.

Sometimes I think about The Queen of England, whose name endorses the bottom of my cup and saucer. She reminds me of the lady I imagine Gran to be.

I’ve discovered that when having tea it’s not a good idea to attempt other things. I did so this evening, thinking it would be nice to have some early grey while working on this series of the old Czech set (ellipse practice and fun to work with mixed media on printmaking paper).

But there is no ceremony. The listening I do while I draw is not the same as the listening I do in a tea ‘pause’. Both are moments that become stretched and lightened, but differently so. Drawing requires hyper focus and is intensely relational. There’s a kind of electric intimacy between me and the curve my hand describes.

A proper tea holds space for something I don’t yet know – a space that would encourage shy children to approach with their quiet, interesting observations.

The length of my tea is measured by the volume of the pot, but also the breadth and depth of my listening. It ends when what I’ve poured no longer lifts its warmth upward in steam, since soft ideas cannot abide cold tea.

The ideas that came today were in and around my fascination with making marks on a page or a canvas. Three thousand choices in every hour: the strength and character of a line or a shadow, the richness of colour and symbol, reference where and to what – not just in my work, but in all things drawn and described by people, wherever we do it.

Walls, paper, canvas, school desks, trains, washroom stalls, the caves at Lascaux. Humans describe what it is to be human in the world of change and challenge and beauty.

Art is impractical, unmeasurable, difficult and astonishing, is made only by humans in and of and for this place we share. I love that we do this. I love that we make ceremony of tea too. Art and tea in response to adversity.