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.

Where to look

Snow in the skies today, first time this fall. I’m reminded of every other first snows I’ve experienced, how watching the way the flakes move makes the wind visible, like magic. A grin that begins in my belly. Then watching, still in all the swirling: here we go, into Winter.

I was born into these seasons; my body is aligned to and by the rhythm of them. To NOT have days in which the light becomes shorter and shorter until it seems just a blink, oh, I would miss it. I love the richness of twilight that whispers into deep long nights. That’s where the stars sing from as the earth spins her eye across them, as the moon spins around us.

But it’s easy to be distracted from the magic by what’s happening on the streets these days. Wall street, Bay Street, Sherman, Barton.

On my way home from the studio I pass darkened factories, a derelict line of houses where a rose blooms golden from a choked garden. Boarded up businesses or just abandoned ones but a thriving McDonalds. Antifa Coalition headquarters, darkened and broody. Ivor Wynne Stadium eerily still and silent all these months, even the echo of cheering gone. Then a wave of small children chattering home from school with parents. Some are alone, kicking stones along the street.

I walk my big 5-foot square painting of Georgian Bay waves southward through heavy trucks, squealing brakes and throaty muscle cars, or just cars, constant on Barton. A bicycle with a tiny whining engine whizzes through stop signs, hood up, mask on. Birds, dogs, and wind. Trees and gardens falling into slumber. The painting’s heavy so I switch arms every block, a gallery-in-motion with alternating views: houses, street, houses. A neighbour calls from his porch, “Nice sail!”; I’m on ‘street-view’, so I can grin to him.

if the painting were a mere two inches smaller – 58″x58″, let’s say, it would have fit up my stairwell.

Just a thirty minutes of noticing while I use my legs to move with, my arms to anchor the five-foot ‘sail’ to my body. Because there are no vans available and it’s just half an hour. Because I need the space in my studio, and I want Georgian Bay in my Hamilton apartment. Because I want to read the street weather, not just the sky.

Because I live in a house that’s full of stories, on a street that connects through these stories to those in other houses, close to a neighbourhood were some people do not live in houses but in cars or vans or doorways, where for some McDonalds is the default because its cheap.

It’s easy to get distracted. Real Estate prices are ridiculously high here, as are rents from Toronto landlords who bought 20 years ago, and yet minimum wage has not risen proportionately – not even close. University students aren’t renting this year – why would they when classes are online? So that extra income from renting the basement is gone. CoVid-19 has boarded up half of the small businesses and all retail work is precarious, so is it cash business that’s keeping a lot of folks here afloat? Savings are dissolving – I know mine are – and CERB was over after 28 weeks, or since October 3, whichever came first.

Amid all of this other stories emerge, if you choose to hear them. Turns out deficits are a myth, which is extremely hopeful if we can learn to act accordingly. I watch discussions about circular economies and Indigenomics that make perfect sense on so many levels: economies are relational, complex. I notice too that there are high level discussions about universal basic income, that caremongering networks are still going strong – stronger even than they were at the outset of CoVid-19 in March. It is now illegal to demand a doctor’s note from your employee if they are sick, or it soon will be.

Also and importantly we are increasingly, actively committed to working with other species on this planet now. Case-in-point: the once-extinct Trumpeter Swan now numbers in the thousands, with a strong and well organized coalition of human defenders and helpers throughout Ontario and the US. They were first reintroduced back into Ontario (after 100 years gone) at a beach half an hour by car from my house.

My personal best and only answer to the pressure and bad is to keep doing what I do. It makes me a better human and I see no value in staring at the mud, sitting in it until I become mud, even though some days mud pulls at me like a magnet. I choose differently, even as my savings dwindle, since every fibre of my being believes that art is as essential to human life as love and hope. So, I make art, carry it through the streets, weave it into video and story, and offer it up as a sure-fire way to wash the mud off. It’s what I can do, and I get better and better at it all the time. I will launch my current wave of work online this fall and winter; we’ll see what happens.

A golden rose blooms in a choked garden, the snow makes the wind appear. The stars sing from out of the deep night, and the moon spins herself around us. Deficits are a myth, and economies are relational. Nothing we can imagine is impossible.

My faith in human ingenuity, in our ability to rise above all of this mud, together, is unshakeable.