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Artist statement: Hamilton Work

From two Artist’s talks given on November 24th in Owen Sound Ontario, about my upcoming collaborative portrait work.

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I feel a need to establish some background, to support the foreground of this talk…

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I remember staring at the flower in our Dundas garden for a long time before I drew it.

Mom asked me later how I knew how to do that.  I said, “The tulip taught me.”

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Fifty years and a few life changes later, I spend a summer alone in a twelve acre forest.

This time it’s the forest that teaches me about my work as an artist as well as a human: about learning to see what’s actually there, rather than what I believe to be there.

Dad and I went away and painted watercolour landscapes together every summer when I was in my early teens.  Bless you, parents, for that experience, which established a fierce joy in me for the act and sensibility of making art from life.

…which led me to art study in Toronto… which led me to wonder, “where are the women artists? There seemed to be only five of note in the last century, at least as of 1982 –

– Georgia O’Keefe, Emily Carr, Mary Pratt, Freida Kahlo…

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Käthe Kollwitz
Self Portrait, Hand at the Forehead
1910, published c 1946/48
Etching and drypoint

…and Käthe Kollwitz.  This is also the way I felt, then, in a visual art class full of posturing males who defended their haphazard final pieces (painted while drunk and stoned past the point of clarity the night before critique) with claims that they were examining abusive relationships with their mothers….  The (CIA- funded) gods of abstract expressionism were fully present in those years, in that studio.

I clung to the women artists, and to Ms. Carr in particular.

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She travelled on her own to Europe and England to study art. She was self-reflective and wrote good books. She had at various times a cabin in the woods, a tiny house on wheels, a good friend who was a monkey, and she told the men in the Group of Seven to Piss Off when they annoyed her.

While the neo expressionists were grandstanding in New York City, Ms. Carr said

“I must go home and go sketching in the woods. They still have something to say to me.” 

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thirty five years after painting class, I spend a summer alone in the forest.

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Is it ironic that this experience of isolation from humans gave me a new love and appreciation for humanity?

It took me a full five weeks of living alone in my cabin to slow myself down enough to hear the tree frogs, to observe the incremental changes in that place which have been happening steadily for 100 years and more. There was a great deal to see when I learned to slow down and pay attention.

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this mushroom was like a dessert plate with baleen whale gills.

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This cedar is over 100 years old, leaning out to cut the wind for those behind it

The forest teaches me to open and hold an empathetic connection to my chosen subject,  get the heck out of the way of what I’m looking at, and allow myself to be surprised.

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But of course the human world is not slow. There’s a great deal of change and stress in these times, for all of us. What to do? How will we keep ourselves and each other safe and sane, alive and aware, in the mess of these times?

Ms Carr whispers in my ear, points out what is happening to my kindling pile after a only year on the ground.

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… trees gather their nutrients and water via their roots. However, these roots need to be in direct contact with the soil surrounding them in order to take what they can. As such, the roots are limited in the number of nutrients and amount of water they are able to extract simply due to their size and reach. The mycorrhizae fungi act as root extenders. By attaching themselves within and around the tree roots, mycorrhizal are able to act as a transport system directly to your tree. This optimizes gathering of nutrients and water, which allows your tree to focus on growth in other areas apart from its roots.
By surrounding [a] tree’s roots the mycorrhizae also act as a first defense against toxins and potential disease. Not only do these helpful fungi bring nourishing food and water to [the] tree, they also provide a layer of protection! …
In truth, without the mycorrhizae, many trees and plants would not be capable of surviving. Roots alone are just not enough to feed … trees and plants on their own, they need additional assistance if they are to reach their full potential for growth. The mycorrhizae need your trees as well, without the trade of sugar and carbohydrates for water and nutrients, the mycorrhizae would be incapable of survival. (https://treedoctors.ca/mycorrhizae-a-tree%E2%80%99s-best-friend)

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, now.

If mycelium and mycorrhizae connect entire forest ecosystems by symbiotically extending the roots of each tree and plant, and in so doing also build healthy soil, what connects and nourishes us in human ecosystems?

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Of course, we know that Love connects us.  But what is the action of Love? How does it deliver nourishment and connect us across race, gender, politics, economics, AND ALSO back to natural ecosystems?

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If you can forgive my clumsy photoshop illustration… my theory is that Arts connect us, internally and externally:  Music, painting, poetry, story, film.

I think we’re often not aware of the extent, or the strength of these connections we share, through art. Maybe if we were we’d be more discerning with what we ‘consume’, and it’s effect.

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My work at the Cotton Factory residency December 1 to Feb 28 will be a mini-experiment in connection through art. Through collaborative ‘portraiture’ I will endeavour to build and grow a mini human ecosystem in which ten to twelve collaborators are connected through the work we do together, and the paintings I produce as the result of my artistic collaboration with them.

I invite you to consider becoming part of this little human ecosystem – who knows what we will discover together!

This post is already long. In the next post I will outline how to become involved, on whatever level you choose.  I salute the six people who have jumped in without hesitation to collaborate with me, and also all those who will jump in soon.

Hooray for art!!

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The resistance clue

If your residency application is successful, what do you plan to work on‘ … over the ninety days you’ll share a large studio with another working artist, in a building full of artists and arts workers, in old industrial Hamilton, Ontario?

Well,’ say I to me, while writing said application, ‘what have we never tried before?‘. A world full of things, I answer. ‘Then what, amongst the world of projects still undone is the one you most resist? The one you don’t want to consider because you fear to approach it?

The answer leaps into my mind like an outrageously dressed bugaboo jester, finger pointing exactly where I don’t want to look…

Commissioned portraits.

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view outside my first couch-sit this month – a place I lived in 15 years ago. Thanks Christopher…

I’ve resisted commissioned work for two decades now because the whole business is rife with potential misunderstandings: client has a clear and fixed idea in their head about what they want – which has little to do with what I might envision or choose, which means that each step in the development of said painting will compromise both the client’s idea and my artistic integrity. It’s an old problem – it’s so easy for the artist to be perceived as a ‘stand-in’ for the client, who would paint the painting they see so clearly in their mind’s eye but cannot, because they’re not an artist…

The only way it works is if it’s collaborative, from the absolute beginning. Client/subject likes my work and approach, and together we build an intersected space of trust between us. This begins with a very clear confidentiality agreement – as an artist I will not share any information about my collaborator, other than what has been approved.

Client shares what he knows about themself – images, memories, traumas, insights, events, symbols, music, books, choices, yearnings, rages, curiosities… and I/we find imagery that resonates with these things. The resulting portrait then becomes partly the client, and partly my understanding of them: collaborative.

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It’s intimate, this process. Relational. A respect for and a reaching across differences, to form a new understanding of both self and other. The resulting painting reveals an essence that’s both client and artist, if we’ve done our job right. It’s more than possible that it will be less about faces and heads than hearts and souls, though overlapping symbols and figures will be recognizable, or at least I anticipate.

And so, because following the thing I fear most in my artistic work always bears the most interesting results, I wrote “Collaborative Portraits” in my residency application.

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In three months, with Christmas and a Masters capstone in between I think I can get ten portraits done at Cotton Factory. Four large ones (4’x4′ or the equivalent) at a $1500. entry fee, and six small (2’x2′ or the equivalent) at a $500. entry. By ‘entry’ I mean that I expect the final cost of the painting to be equal to that fee, but if the collaboration takes us down rabbit holes and onto a longer journey I may need to adjust for the final piece.

Folks who do not want their portrait painted may pay the commission fee for someone who does but cannot afford it – this might then become a 3-way collaboration.

These paintings will be shown together at the end of the residency, in Hamilton and in Owen Sound. I hope we’ll all be present to talk about the process, which I’ll also write about on this blog under the title “Portraits”, (with all confidentiality agreements firmly in place).  I’ll produce a print and an ebook as well, which will be available on this blog and likely other places.

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Since I began to talk about this last week I’ve received three commissions – two smaller ones and one large. That means four small collaborations are available, and three larger ones [I can’t do this with family or exes – that’s my only rule. This is not because I don’t love and value these friendships, it’s because my story and yours are too entangled for me to have any real objectivity – make sense?].

If you are interested in working with me on this December to January project, please write to me at keirartworks@gmail.com, with “Portrait Project” in the subject line. No questions are dumb questions – all are welcomed, so ask away!

I’m also planning an artist talk to introduce this in person on November 24, 2018 in Owen Sound. Some of my existing work will be on display there as well – I’ll be posting photos of those pieces on instagram and facebook in the days leading up to the artist talk.

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Nobu the cat has been a great advisor

In some ways I can see that that this project has the potential to build a human equivalent of the forest I lived in this summer. We share stories as trees share soil and sun. I have a growing suspicion that art for us is like mycelium to them – a connector across species that nourishes and enriches.

This is a good idea – I can feel it in my bones. Fun, challenging, intriguing – and fast. Three months begins on December 1 and ends February 28. I encourage you to consider coming with me to Hamilton, as one of ten collaborators.

Woot!  More to come in the days that follow!

 

 

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Cabin 21: Poets

It took this tree about 100 years to grow and I’m burning it, piece by piece, in four months. It was the one mature tree I cut down to make room for this cabin – a twinned birch, now half gone.

Every time I put a new log on the fire I’m aware of this – my territorial claim a year ago, my use of a once living thing to keep me warm. The math – our part in climate change.

Human in a place of trees. Over five months they have made peace with, and in me.

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This November forest song is not one I’ve ever heard so directly. I’m listening now because I can – my house is strong and warm, my belly full, and my heart (relatively) at ease. A sense of poignancy gives me added insight – in three weeks I’ll be making art work in an old cotton factory down by the dockyards in old industrial Hamilton, Ontario.

Which is nothing like here, at all.

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What a gift – to witness November here, day by day.  If leaves are like memory and wind like change they dance together, all around the cabin. Is the music then Time? Whatever it is, it feels dangerous, spins them faster and faster, past and beyond the known, remembered moments, the assurances, the conversations, the collaborations.

Birds are gone, toads buried, squirrels vanished. The trees twirl and bend and dip into swift certainty that all of what has happened here will soon be gone and buried, in snow.

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The young maple still gleaming gold against cedar green disappears in real time before my eyes, leaf by leaf.  Just branches like bones, now.

This morning I could see earth on the pathways, now, above has become below.  I walk on what lived in the sky above my head, three weeks ago.

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Branches like ribs, trunks like spines, but this feels nothing like death. There’s a beautiful economy to it, a paring down, a pulling in. I can feel the trees bowing with the wind, with infinite dignity to acknowledge what has been, to welcome what comes. Yes, they’re 100 years strong here, together. And yes, every winter some are unable to withstand the wind, and fall to the ground. Some fall into the arms of another.

I’m now part of the ecosystem here, so these still-aloft but fallen trees are the ones I bring my chainsaw to. These are the ones who will feed my fire, next year.

…which burns low, I notice.

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I’m thinking about this state we are all in, on some level. The state of becoming our older selves, while we shed the things that once were important. The gauge of this is perhaps that we notice things that were always there, but have never been apparent. The wonder of that.

I want this to be so – that the trees also gain a new viewpoint every year, as they reach their branches upward, and their roots down. They participate differently as they grow stronger, wider, steadier – they become protector trees, anchors for all the others.  Some grow more quickly, dominating the canopy in places so undergrowth doesn’t flourish – but these also have shorter lifespans and so build soil for the others.

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What do we do for one another, we who grow so quickly, take without asking, consume so much, are so afraid of dying?

I’ve just come out of a weekend of poets from across Canada who’ve met here  – impossibly and powerfully  – in some combination of truth and humour, compassion and rage these past fifteen years. Thank you, Words Aloud.

These are some who are not afraid, these poets, or at least they’ve found some good cathartic things to do with fear. These humans call us all out to a place of attention, honesty and grace. They walk along the edge of pain and find beauty there, dare to dance there, for all to see. They give us their compassion, their rage, their insight and their tricksiness, but most of all, they call us to our own depths with whispers of courage.

Truth to power. Grow beyond what you know. Find Love –  love Love.  Leap.

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Poets double-dare me to claim my becomings, to walk softly on what once lived above my head. To honour my future, whatever may come. I’ll take that dare.