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Earth Day, 2am

China, made from clay deposits in northern Czechoslovakia, close to the German border. From the earth, these fine, fragile things are fired, glazed and gilded, then bought by people who wish to make a ceremony of visiting over coffee. Add the story of the Paris Accords, then WWII, concentration camps, confiscation of shares, the Holocaust… intergenerational trauma.

These fragile, gentle pieces survive intact and still beautiful in the sunlight, half a world away from the little village where they were made eighty years before. This moves me.

Drawn to examine each one more closely. Where a hand slipped while drawing gold onto a tiny cup. What concentration! Essential, the steady steady hands and singular focus of each craftsperson in the gilding room. Was it a relief from worrying about what was going on around them, about what had happened to the jewish workers they had replaced? Was it a kind of defiance I wonder – making beauty in the face of death and abuse. I know, because now I am drawing their gilding work into my paintings, that their work could not have been done without love. 

Light in the darkness, love in the making of beautiful things for people to drink from, take pause with, to gather around in friendship. It was a business, too, and paid work at a time of great uncertainty.

My work here is also a business that continues through a time of  global uncertainty. I find myself isolated and in a city I don’t know, looking for new expressive work and surrendered to the fact that I cannot be in my studio to work on canvas. I think about how I love light and form – the singular focus of expressing this love, with whatever is to hand, on paper.  I find my dad’s travel watercolour set and some torn up bits, while drinking tea from an ornate china set I bought at auction…

As I draw them I discover my own fragility in the tiny cups, also my own worn toughness, my beauty. I think of trauma and how important things can happen even in the midst of it, especially in the healing of it. How we break and mend and wear through trauma, how we continue to function and grow. I think of what I’ve learned from Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter. The understandings that emerge still from The Holocaust, from post-colonial, post-apartheid cultures, from the American Civil War, the French Revolution, The Clearances in Scotland that sent my ancestors out across the sea, exiled from the land that once sustained them.

I think of time, and how as I work all of these things are happening NOW in my mind, interwoven and in conversation together. 

Some stories light up like a flash moment of insight. Others are more like a flush of colour, a scratched line. Gilding sits on the surface, a skill that improves only with practice and focus. A skill I learn now, taught by the hands and minds of the gilders in Poschetzau from eighty years ago. Steady, steady hands as their world changed, all around them.

Piece number 8, a cup and saucer; number 12 a sugar bowl and spoon…. a madness of elipses from every angle, curves and fluting, pin-stripe gilding flashing in the light, transparent white glowing blue in shadows. I am called to get it right, to honour the 80 years of dignified function these pieces have lived. How many lips to this cup? How many hands to that handle, pouring… In what country? In what language? During what conversations, and with whom?

I think of how much I miss gathering with others at table, at coffee shops, over breakfast. This hasn’t happened for over a year now, since the pandemic lockdowns began. I’ve made many little pieces on torn up bits and on a whim I lay them out on my dining room table, like puzzle pieces that connect through colour and line.

This is satisfying on so many levels – a gathering, of sorts, in my house. Now a large painting is made from eleven smaller ones, each representing a moment I would like to share, a person, or persons I would like to join with in conversation. Torn apart, but still one piece, reconstructed. Then two more large pieces, reconstructed – one dark, another light.

It makes more sense every day, this work. Each piece will be framed, and also printed in very limited editions. The reconstructed pieces will be printed on paper and possibly re-worked (we’ll see what happens), then sold in very limited editions as well. Working to get all of this happening and online for you by early June. Stay tuned here.

It is earth day, 2021. I draw and paint from pieces of china made from eastern European clay. China made eighty years ago by people with steady hands in the midst of chaos. With my own steady hands I do my best to honour them in paintings while in lockdown in my apartment, which is the top two floors of a house made a hundred years ago of red clay brick from just over there. The abandoned brickworks beside the train tracks that I walk past every other day .

All of this – china, house, paper, laptop, paintings, my steady hands, are made from earth.

And now it’s 5am; the cardinal sings outside. Happy Earth Day.

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particularities

I am not been feeling generous with humans of late. Maybe because I’ve read and signed and shared more petitions than I can count over the last week. Myanmar’s big-oil supported military shooting at citizens, Trans Canada Pipelines & TC Energy’s horribly distorted value systems, the fact that we only protect TEN PERCENT of our incredible boreal forest from loggers, who cut the equivalent of four hockey arenas EVERY DAY, Doug Ford’s bid to get more money for his election by selling the greenbelt to developers, the massive amounts of garbage left by Londoners released from lockdown… when, just when are we all going to grow up out of our collective stupidity?

I’m not calling you stupid, nor me. It’s US, together. WE allow all of this to continue.

There’s a new Canadian news service called The Breach. Entirely people-funded, launching this spring. They are determined to ask good, uncomfortable questions. I gave them money.

There are passionate, knowledgeable, remarkable people who have built grassroots lobby groups, people who understand where the political and financial pressure points are, who are collecting signatures and delivering petitions where they will count. These are the places I’ve signed and shared – my twitter feed, @KeiraMcArthur, is full of opportunities to do the same.

There’s more, but getting this much off my chest has lightened my being enough that I no longer feel like screaming bloody murder at next person who litters in Gage Park.

Thank you for reading through all the spit. The fact that you do really does count for me.

Have you noticed that the world is both smaller and larger in these pandemic times? I’m regularly in conversation with California and South Africa now, along with people from other continents, cultures and belief systems. I can check what the weather is like in Kyoto and Prague, whether it’s raining or snowing at Skara Brae in the Orkneys, and then continue with my chores… garbage out on the rain washed street past the chirping sparrows then respond to a text from LA, then turn the kettle on & after send a quick note to Johannesburg.

I eat a Mexican avocado, a Chilean plum. I wear a merino wool (Australian sheep) sweater made in China, shipped from the US. The gas in my car comes from the ground beneath the middle east, my coffee from Guatemala via the Kicking Horse Pass in BC.

A container ship blocks the Suez for a week, and 400 million dollars per hour in traded goods just… stops. More empty shelves.

Effects and counter effects. I came into this residency to change and deepen my work, which was never gonna happen if I wasn’t willing to change and deepen myself. Luckily a global pandemic, then, which brought with it some hard right turns, then some hard lefts, also some necessary full stops. Much buffeting and dissolving of old ego stories. I am not the person who arrived here in January of 2019.

The works shifts as the world does – how can it not? In purely material terms, working on six and seven foot canvases is no longer practical or sustainable. I have two on the go at the studio and three here in my apartment, but I’ve scrapped all big installation plans for now. Works on paper, which began in 2019 and grew through 2020 into a 2021 series of painting/drawings (Conversation Pieces – see posts with this tag) with crazy-wild shifting grounds – these have become my new pleasure and practice, each one a delight and a surprise. Small, intimate and mid-sized, they fit and shift in the changing light on walls between other things – much more practical.

And playful. I’m putting fruit stickers in some – Chile, Peru, South Africa, used stamps – Spain, Poland, USSR, in others.

Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, Resmaa Menakem, my friend and inspiration Marilyn Struthers and the entire conversation around intersectionality and post colonialism has turned me with slow, steady inevitability toward an exploration of my own indigenous roots in Scotland and Ireland. Back across the ocean I will go, through the commons and the old ways to find out more (when we are able to travel, which I hope will be in 2022). This will, no doubt, change and deepen me some more. Bring it on.

It’s these backdrop pieces that aim me toward a personal archaeology of my ancestors’ land, story, memory.
It feels very much as though they are expressions of an older part of me

Trees and water, water and trees. In 2020 I found myself studying the behaviour of my beloved Georgian Bay, while the world was in lockdown. My cabin there is in a forest, some of which is original growth that anchors the various levels of shore over the past eleven thousand years or so. I love that lake with my soul, and will always return to her to learn and give thanks. The Water Bodies project, and The Tree Story project are both alive and well in me, waiting patiently while I change and deepen enough to make something meaningful that honours the lake and the tree people I know and love.

The red-tailed hawk sails past my window on the spring thermals. I know where her nest is, among the trees on the escarpment cliff at the end of my street. I felt a need in this post to offer a snapshot of the particulars of place, purpose and context to you, a pause to breathe in the way everything connects us one to the other, whether it’s through garbage strewn and picked up, petitions signed and shared, tough questions asked, choices and artwork made.

Watch here and on Instagram, twitter, tumblr, fb and a new YouTube thing (in development now – why not?) for photos and stories from the new work. If you have a piece of wall for a twinkling piece of art capable of sparking a good conversation, there’ll be some easy ways to purchase it from me.

I’d be so honoured.

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The Ladies of Laurel Street

I was seventeen; what did I know? In my own mind, very very little. And yet, astonishing things happened that still echo across forty years. We compare notes, my old friends and I, just recently re-connected after decades of life and distance.

I’m fascinated by the fragments of us that have shown up on the virtual conversation table. Me, worldly and seductive. He, doe-eyed and innocent, she a refugee, bright, determined and funny – a natural connector of humans. They, emerging into manhood and complexity. The other he, a philosopher who of course later traveled to India. I, emerged but invisible to myself. She, we, in search of something – family?

Barton Street Public Art, across from the MacDonald’s. My walk to work this morning.

The conversation began on the very last weekend of permitted gatherings last year and has grown throughout the pandemic. I share things with them I wouldn’t share otherwise, they are as direct and unadorned with me. We check in with each other when isolation, when the forced interiority of life feels heavy.

I find a note written by a fourth who was there with us too and we find him in Japan, living by the sea. I send a photo of the note and he writes back, just as direct and unadorned as we. Profoundly moved, to meet with his younger self, unexpectedly, and to like that self, across 40 years. There he was, beautiful in that little note that said, Thank You, Keira.

NE Hamilton, from the path half way up the escarpment

Turns out I did know some things, and I was not invisible then, no matter how I may have tried to bury the memories in my own inadequacies and innumerable failures. Quite a swamp of those, I had. My pals knew a great deal, and were far more present than I, but I remember enough to ask questions – why did we have baby chickens in the apartment, C?

We hand these things across the ongoing conversation to one another like little wrapped things, and a bridge, a balance, a warm sense of self-regard is renewed, restored. Quite a gift.

The tor at the east end of the escarpment cliffs, Hamilton

I like this weird world were in, where 40 years can disappear then reappear in packages kept safe by friends across time. I like the direct and unadorned attention my friends and I have paid to this conversation in, and perhaps because of our global pandemic.

When we can all travel again, she will go to Korea (has been learning the language) and stop in Japan to see him. I will go to Skara Brae, then the Cairngorms via Findhorn, and continue my ancestral archaeologies there. He will build even more sensible, sustainable, humble castles that make sense in these times of Climate Change and the most recently emerged he will drink his morning coffee by the sea, feeling threaded back into the strong warm fabric that we are, and always have been.

The lovely, timeless Bohemia of Laurel Street.

4 coffee cups from the set made in Bohemia in 1940, by JS Maier Co.