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Before the Plumber

5am mid February, 1.25 hours from the Canadian-US border. Early early pre-dawn sky looks like a dull ultramarine red, slightly warmer and washed out along the eastern horizon. At the corresponding time in the evening – post sunset, the sky is deep intense indigo, flecked with the one or two stars strong enough to shine through the light and air polluted atmosphere. Three hours north of here is a window that looks onto the eastern sky resplendent with a firmament as old as time.

We’ll be testing the new fire alarm today and tomorrow. An amazing opportunity to showcase your work! $25 for each piece entered, online exhibition begins in a month. I can tell none of you are healers. Shall I drive to California? Scotland calls still; Skara Brae in spring 2022, then perhaps another space in the highlands for a month – I’d like to see the part that is being reforested. Our ancestors require us to heal the trauma they could not, which is partly why things can feel heavy at times. Lockdown is lifted but we’re still in the red zone, mutated virus is here.

I pick things up, unaware, as I suspect most people do. Visible things like dust, or the hair of a dog on a black coat, but also emotional things, psychological. As though we walk every day through a field of unclaimed, un anchored emotions and gather them like seeds on our clothes. Ah, burrs, drat. Which we then pull off and leave on the ground. They become compost – or if the conditions are right, put down roots in the spring. What happens with the unclaimed emotions we pick up I wonder. Washed off in the shower and down the drain.

Sam the Plumber looks like a tall, bookish PhD student, soft spoken and gentle. I suspect he has a quirky nervous half-smile, though I’ll never know because it’s hidden behind his blue and white printed mask. The bathroom is small and so he will need to move the toilet to get to the tub drain he’s been hired to fix. It’s just what it is, he says.

I leave him to it and go to work in my studio – the first day since lockdown kept us home again almost a month ago. Why do I feel nervous? Why did this lockdown feel more like three months than 3.5 weeks? I bring commission work home from the studio but can’t see it properly in the smaller space. It’s just what it is.

Instead I start a new project that I can continue at home, should lockdown be required again. This project is a conversation over tea, with people I know and others I don’t. A connectedness despite and also because of the isolation.

The central images are drawings of an old Czechoslovakian tea set that somehow traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and ended up, via a rural auction house, in my kitchen. Six saucers, five cups, a creamer, sugar bowl, a very elegant tea pot, and a matching tray to carry it all to table. So loved and well used that the gilding has worn off in places. I have a collection of stamps and chinese cookie fortunes that may also make their way into each of the 22 (or more) pieces, which will be available for purchase after the show has gone public.

still in progress, this photo is taken in the morning sunlight. Every piece changes with the available light, I’m quite enchanted with them.

The grounds for these drawings are torn from a large sheet of printing paper onto which I’ve spilled and scratched out all the emotional and psychological impressions I’ve gathered each day, consciously or not. OIl pastel, silver ink, fluorescent chalk, acrylic paint, pencil crayon. The grounds are holographic, designed to shift and change with the light, just like our world does at the moment. Illusion and insight.

This week I begin to gather the accompanying conversations from people I know and don’t know. If you are interested in knowing more about this, and being part of these conversations, please let me know at

Your story and impressions, your insights and curiosities in these rather pivotal moments of right now are important for others to hear, I believe, since we are in this together. If you want to share and would prefer to remain anonymous, that is not a problem. Everyone who shares gets a preview before the project ‘drops’ this spring.

The ‘talking wall’ opposite my desk, where I watch for adjustments that need to be made with each piece. Also thinking about framing options.

it’s 5am again, and this pre-dawn sky is full of snowflakes. It’s the day after Sam the Plumber arrived and fixed the problem with the tub. I’ve been up since 3:30am after tossing around for eight hours, sorting through the stray unanchored stuff I picked up in the previous twelve. Some of it quite shocking, with guillotines and incarcerated women from the French Revolution (A book), first degree face burns and time-space loops (a briefly glimpsed TV series). The painting that was patiently awaiting my return to the studio…

Are they kelpies?

I shall soak these off in the tub and listen, with gratitude to Sam, as they spiral down the drain he fixed with his gentle half-smile.

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Recall; the Muppets

It’s taken me five hours to find the inner stillness required to properly enjoy a pot of tea, damnit. Twitchy, grumpy and unsettled since Tuesday evening. Yesterday I went to bed at 7pm and rose at 1:30am of course, doing my best to find serenity* while writing and drinking coffee. At 6am I took myself back to bed.

*See Animal and James Coburn on the Muppet Show.

Then I dreamed that I called David Bowie for help while trying to sleep at Larry and Kate’s place after a party there. Except it wasn’t Larry and Kate’s place it was more like a sprawling tacked together old cottage near Balmy Beach, full to the brim with odd characters and bizarre but predictable inebriation.

Bowie came from the afterlife when I called, of course, because he and I are lovers. I have a million questions for him about how the afterlife and coming back to visit works but we are amorous first. Just before I wake up into the first day of our second covid lockdown in Ontario he looks at me from his brown eye and says ‘there’s something. A gift? I ask. No, something you own. Or owe..’ – to myself maybe? Hard to know, he’s fading out.

I get up and as I make coffee I do my best to seek more forensic internal questions (because I love and respect Bowie), but they evade me in my twitchiness.

I need Action. I’m determined to set up what I could gather from my studio yesterday (because of lockdown) in the dining room which will be my work space for the next month or so. As I work through this I can feel my blood boiling though I don’t understand why so I grit my teeth and persevere until I almost wreck a painting I like and hit my thumb with the hammer. Fred Flintstone comes to mind then which is a slap upside the head, then funny.

I stop. It dawns on me that I’ve been reliving the awful awful trauma of winter 2017 when I moved my beautiful huge old studio in the Circle Bar into a little bedroom in my dark rented house. Good lord that was a horrific time, forced on me by vindictive separation negotiations and in the midst of nasty litigation with my sister over – gah! – family property**. Oh my sad sad old self from that winter. I felt as though I was being dismantled piece by piece and completely utterly helpless to prevent it.

That feeling came back four years later to twitch me for 2.5 days then hit me in the thumb with a hammer, just to remind me that I got through it all just fine. I’m glad I experienced that time; I’m grateful to both my ex and my sister for the good, hard lessons; I’m glad it’s over.

Feels good to have broader perspective to observe now from. This three year self directed Hamilton residency looks a lot like a doughnut with 2020 as a hole, and oh can I stretch that metaphor. Into that hole has disappeared a brilliant (?!?) strategic career plan and an astonishing amount of savings money in studio/ apartment rent and living expenses (I did not qualify for CERB). Also my ego, my confidence, my community both here and in Owen Sound where I hail from and my foster cat, who died in my arms in November, damnit.

But, my dear Bowie, I do not feel dismantled now, I feel reconstructed. My coyote ego and I are friends, he trusts me to lead. My studio work is better, more interesting, more direct and honest. I am learning how to draw water – a thing I would never have attempted until this fall – more than halfway up that mountain of curiosity now. I’m submitting show and project proposals to galleries and funders I respect and building ways and means to offer the work online in a meaningful way – in full acknowledgement that we are all online-weary. I’m devising ways and means to make sure it’s not about the solo, but the connection.

Happily, I have not moved out of my beloved studio at the Cotton Factory – the new archaeology pieces wait, safely and patiently there, for my return. I finish the tuba triptych this month – the third of five commissions that have all been my good teachers. These pieces, and the tea ceremony ones are interesting and different; they are fun and light and edgy.

Thanks Bowie. I still have a million questions so you’ll need to come back again tonight. Thanks Larry and Kate for that weird party. And thanks, Animal. You will always be an inspiration.

Pot of tea is almost done, just one cup left. I’ll close this laptop to enjoy it as the skies turn to dusk above the trees.

You can watch Animal again.

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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.