Yesterday I slipped on the bottom step and landed in a puddle. Full soaker from my lower back to my knees but the books and laptop were fine; I kept going to the car, to the studio, to the cello, to the paintings then to catered ramen for lunch, which turned my day back in the right direction.
Factory life here among artists and arts workers is not so dissimilar from how it works in the twelve acres of forest where my cabin is. Each living thing there takes ownership of its space according to the conditions of nourishment available to it. Some need direct light, some indirect. Some grow best in the lee of things, others push out west into the prevailing wind, and so provide shelter.
All are connected in a system of shared growth that does not privilege strength or size or ability of any one kind, but instead demands and supports difference, so long as there is fair exchange of nourishment. Tree, critter, lake, wind, insect, sun, rain, snake and amphibian all require each other’s full active presence, in order to thrive.
Oh how I miss my toad friend, and that singular, complex world! Even as I remember the daily surprises of living and listening in the woods last summer, I meet another resident here in the complex and overlapped worlds of this old factory/ new arts building, and I feel… a resonance. Carlos and Avery build and restore, now the new boardroom, next the floors downstairs; Avery also runs a weekly life drawing class and paints beautiful figurative pieces on burlap. Carissa runs a kind of creative dispatch for the owners and is also a singer songwriter. Glen does interactive sound installations and books live music, Warren does any number of things and is generally awesome; all are fully, actively present.
We meet at lunch upstairs, tenants, staff, owners – like critters at the watering hole, thirsty but also curious. More names to memorize and pin to stories. Another reference to part of the building I’ve never heard of or been to… I learn more of the shorthand every day. Who are the guardians, who the connectors. Who the generators, the observers, the part-timers who come like bees do to a meadow full of flowers.
Tenants are active and connected, come downstairs now! Someone’s moving studio and giving away stuff (I find a good stretched canvas and a vase, which I fill with flowers and put in the shared sitting space.) Hey Keira, don’t you like to work large? Ashley’s giving away a huge canvas – go find her, she’s right down the hall from you. Ashley tells me the story of her unfinished 2017 piece, and how she turned to sewing instead. I tell her what it will be used for and invite her in to make some marks on it, which makes her happy.
I carry My Eight with me in my head through the halls, through studios and conversations. Spread them out on pages of newsprint and toothy paper, measure them on the walls, sort and rearrange their answers to Proust-inspired questions. Serious, then playful, I’m less and less overwhelmed by the task of shining some kind of light on what is becoming in me, and in them.
Though they have never met one another and may never meet in person, I imagine us sitting at table together and playing an obscure board game after dinner. These Eight who have commissioned internal portraits from me are part of this ecosystem too.
More and more every day.
The overwhelm subsides into a kind of rhythm as I begin to understand what my new job is; what feels unfamiliar but is actually okay.
As the illusion clears – of pitfalls and boobytraps at every misstep – I can see that the floor I walk on every day is sturdy, reliable… and beautiful. The walls are well built and practical, the beams and posts resilient and strong. Built to carry workers, materials; to support dreams of steady slow progress in reward for daily, hourly persistence.
So many have carried their private stories through here, many more will do so, now that this factory has been so lovingly snatched from the jaws of disuse and abandonment, launched like a ship into the ocean of now.
The big building loves industry and honest work; I can feel it.
I imagine, self-indulgently, that it loves the current industry more than the one that built it, and to some extent Hamilton, in 1901. These bricks were laid, these beams milled and bought thanks to the labour of slaves from the south who laboured daily in cotton fields barns and shipyards. A different daily, hourly persistence from that of the workers who laboured here. Did the industrialists ‘own’ them too, I wonder.
The Portrait Project grows, here.
In the research process I hold careful space for the stories of what I now call ‘my eight’. I am quietly astonished, again and again, at this meeting place of diversity in story and self awareness, and how each disclosure connects, through my own experiences and oh so gently to another from someone else.
They are strangers to one another, my Eight, but they are all here in the studio with me now, as I listen again to what I’ve been shown and told, and form the larger story that is ours together. From this I will make eight pieces that each speak to the other across difference. I’ve never felt more challenged by a visual art project, have never welcomed a challenge more than I do now. So many languages to learn; listening is good work.
I’m grateful to have been able to extend my stay by finding permanent studio space here, at the marvellous Cotton Factory in Hamilton. Not only will this give me the time to do justice to these portraits and my Eight, but also to build strong ties with the people who work here. A new kind of family.
My new middle name is Curiosity. Like a little kid, mouth open: wow. huh? how come? really? Wow, really. Who?
Strangely, it feels like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, living my brand new daily life in an arts hub in the old rather broken, semi-forgotten industrial sector of this big city where my Grandmother raised her children. Memory cells light up each night with twenty new names and connections, emails fly out daily from my computer to people I’ve just met, or want to meet. The work on the walls of my studio changes before my eyes as I try things I’ve never tried, make mistakes I’ve never made, sort through which ones to keep and which to release.
There’s a lot of trust in the air.
I’m deeply aware of my solitude, my autonomy, and grateful beyond measure for the opportunity to stretch myself well beyond what has become comfortable. In the sixth day of the first full -time week I’ve lived here, I can feel my thinking, my painting, my writing and my awareness shift as old belief systems dissolve. There are seven weeks left of this residency, and every one of them is glowing with promise.
From school to studio; books to paint. It’s a complex shift in awareness and perception, I find. The road from left to right brain is populated with circus performers and street musicians, frequented by students seeking their masters of illusion, lined with bright market tents full of tempting diversionary tactics. You quickly discover that only tourists stop at these, that it’s important to stay mindful and moving forward.
It has taken a while to sort out who actually lives here, in the space between things predictably linear and things … shaped and sounded differently. I’m finding that this right brain work is more about releasing what I think I know than applying any learned structure and experience to what I do, since the objective is to change and expand my understanding of what’s possible.
Often the return to people and conversation is a shock. I’m happy to be reading the reader’s edition of Carl Jung’s Red Book (2009, Shamdasani, Ed.), which is providing some context for the conscious choice to enter transformative space, and be changed by it. A good ‘bridge’ book, as is Once Upon a Time, a short history of Fairy Tale (Warner, 2014), and The Heart of a Peacock, a collection of short pieces by Emily Carr.
It’s been useful, occasionally, to dip into Art Lessons, Meditations of the Creative Life (2003, Haynes), or a bit of Emerson. Also to shut the whole thing down, go sit in a big chair at the Jackson Square cinema, eat popcorn and watch Aquaman.
Art heals, writes Sean McNiff. I agree, wholeheartedly. Nature heals too.
Now I’m surrounded by human nature, not my beloved lake and forest from last summer, and we humans are complex. Thank you Nora Bateson, for this 8 minute video, which inspires me to make my own, about what art work makes possible.
In this place of broken sidewalks and boarded up warehouses we grow art, like sprouts push up asphalt. Slowly, bit by bit, but as surely as the sun rises in the east, artists take places like this and clean up old toxic abandoned soil, growing impossible things in impossible places because it is their nature to do so.
It is a reclaiming of health; I’m grateful to be part of the process.
Wasn’t expecting a day of psychological paralysis after I moved in to the apartment-for-January. All I could see was a massive knot of project-and-task-ropes too tight to unravel – there behind a thick glass wall. I was not feeling intrepid, in any way. More like a five-year-old left behind in a huge unfamiliar city with some gummy bears and a pat on the head, have fun kiddo and don’t let the Mafia get you! Mafia?
It’s been my habit to take all my willpower and run full tilt at that glass wall over and over again until I reach emotional collapse. A saner strategy yesterday was to maintain a steady awareness of the conundrums behind the wall while I read, wrote, ate well, organized the books left behind by Mac students and recovering alcoholics, moved furniture around until the space matched my rhythm, and puttered away at my christmas present (Dec 24 text: Hey mom, Raccoon or Horse?).
By midnight the knot had begun to unravel of its own accord; I found peace.
Morning teaches me where east is; I can hear the complex conversation of starlings in the back yard. It’s comforting to know they are themselves here, too.
The man downstairs is a smoker; I woke remembering what that was like, ten years ago – my first waking thought of nicotine with my coffee. Amazing, how the smell permeates.
My street is near the hospital, where nurses are charged for parking when they go to work. They avoid this by parking here all day and all night and so the street is packed with cars.
It’s going to be quite a dance when I come home from the studio, but that’s just fine. I am moved in at both places now, and happy to walk. In fact I’d prefer to walk after the car miles I put on in November-December.
There are eight weeks left now, for nine paintings, blog and book, for building good, enduring connections in Hamilton – this is the residency idea-rope, the one that glows with curiosity and promise. It’s right in front of me now, sleeping and still like a beautifully patterned snake, no longer tangled with the others.
The other conundrums: Patreon launch for funding (I’m half-way to my winter financial goal); where to live next month and after; redesign of my Masters research to include Hamilton Musicians; Artists talk about art and validity/function (and others about community); where to move my orphaned piano, desks and dining room table while I set up my life here – those are still slightly knotted, but now accessible and in a different room. They too will unravel themselves as I move ahead, I know.
The reason the glowing curiosity project-rope was tangled is because we’re now down to the brass tacks,* i.e., this is no longer just a great idea, the Hamilton Portrait Project. I’m done my December gig work (that has funded January), and the project now requires steady, concentrated, sustained action. My painter self gathers for the leap:
Define dimensions with portrait-ees, then purchase, build and stretch canvases, or find boards to work on if I decide to work on paper (I’d love to do them all on paper, but framing is much more expensive).
Define symbolic content and focal point subjects in collaboration with Portrait-ees. This will be mostly online, but also with scheduled in-person meetings with collaborators who will come to Hamilton, bless them. Since we’re down to the wire now I will use Proust’s questionnaire as a template for all portrait-ees, then devise more specific questions (myth, curiosities, symbols) for the second interview.
It has occurred to me that since these nine pieces will be in a show together, they need to be connected somehow, visually. I like this part of the ‘puzzle a lot. As I work through the preparations (above), I will ‘play’ with the pieces I worked on in December, and experiment on paper. That will happen today, after I’ve got these things in motion. I can’t wait to get at it.
I’m grateful for and fascinated by the wall adornment in my bedroom – that it’s here, and that the most challenging of the pieces are those I will wake up to every morning.
These pieces were perhaps started and finished within an hour, then sold at market. The authors were incredibly prolific painters who had figured out the cost vs labour equation, and how to make painting a viable source of income. You need to see the work up close to appreciate the skill level – just enough finesse to get the idea across, then on to the next piece. You need great imagination and confidence to do this kind of work.
These painters had made themselves familiar with the effects of light on water, and also what tourists want – a narrative of place, time, and moment. Fantastical illustrations, grounded in observation of places where shore meets land, but most likely made up in their heads.
I do not paint this way, and I do my utter best to avoid nostalgia. But I do admire the efficiency of these pieces. Glad they’re not the puzzle I’m working on.
So, as social media quoted to me this morning, get curious, look around you, and work with what you’ve got. I find myself thankful that a) there are no velvet paintings here, b) that only one room has garage sale art, c) that I have absolutely no desire to smoke cigarettes and d) I have a beautiful studio with clean air where my heart sings joy. I will go there as often as possible, knowing I have bath bed and kitchen here to take breaks in. (Oh, and reliable high-speed internet, which I did not have these past ten days while dog sitting.)
Will brew coffee number two in said kitchen now, and attend to the next task – a detailed list of specific new ways for us all to connect and collaborate.
- Down to the Brass Tacks.. The origin of the phrase, dating from the late 1800s, is disputed. Some believe it alludes to the brass tacks used under fine upholstery, others that it is Cockney rhyming slang for “hard facts,” and still others that it alludes to tacks hammered into a sales counter to indicate precise measuring points.
All ten portraits but one large one, spoken for. Incredible, since the Portraits Project arose out of the Hamilton Arts Council’s Cotton Factory Residency offer, announced only eight weeks ago. In the meantime, seven gigs in three different cities, 3,000 km and six different family Christmas gatherings. In the most recent meantime, Westley the Bernese Mountain dog and I become fast holiday friends…
…and the snow falls, then melts, then falls again in Grey County, Ontario, Canada.
As I watch it fall I find myself in wonder at how time can compress and stretch, how it can split as it did this past December into many parallel timelines, each one as full of healing moments as with tasks, events and connections. I’m not the only one whose life went this way – folks every place I’ve been have their own version of crazy and wonder-filled weeks.
What a world to pause in, here. As Westley snores on the floor beside me and Fezick the fighting fish soaks up the music I play (how does that sound from inside a fishbowl?!?), the snow falls like sifted fragments of memory.
I think about the marvel that was Wassail, at Heartwood Hall, three days before Christmas, and one day after a solstice evening of reading & music with Anne Michaels and david sereda in Toronto. Never has there been a better entrance into the holiday season – poetry and song so gracefully offered in a tiny, mid-metropolis church, then the next night a hall packed full of voices raised in full-throated song – both breathtakingly beautiful and boisterous (some downright badassery by the Wassailors).
Thank you, Anne Michaels, for your language and your strength; I continue to be guided by who and how you are in these complex times. david sereda for your love, your sincere and powerful intention, and your true voice for and of the world. Thank you J Scott Irvine for sponsoring Wassail – it was important and valuable to many, as you are important and valuable – to many. I am honoured to call you friend.
Thank you Kim Dutfield, Tessa Snider, Jim Howitt and Ted Stewart, for showing up to the Wassail workshops and dreaming up impossible, improbable and brilliant versions of songs we all know – and manifesting them beautifully in performance. Thank you Coco Love Alcorn for being exactly right, for knowing just what to do, for your great soul.
Thank you Tyler Wagler for your excellent voice, your beautiful guitar, and your fine, fine sensibilities in music and in life. The sound of your laughter is up there in my top 20 favourite things – it’s always worth hearing what you are finding hilarious in this world.
Thank you Christopher McGruer, for your perfectly toned rendition of Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales; thank you Lauren Best, poet laureate of Owen Sound, for your buckets & sticks, and being game enough to join us on the last possible day.
Thank you Suze Laporte and Mary Flynn for tolerating my annoyingly list-driven parallel selves through the months of November and December. You have been so so generous with your space and time, and I could not have done without your help.
Thank you family, thank you all the full-throated singers, thank you Heartwood Hall, Nathan Wagler and dear Lisa Koop – I’ll talk chicken with you anytime.
I promised to write about my patreon site (now up and running, but no, you’ll have to wait just a bit more for the link) and how to climb on board with the arts projects in my world, but that post will have to wait until after this one.
This post is about good friends, gratitude, springboards.
When I was in gymnastics as a kid we called it a vault – or maybe that was the action, I don’t remember. You run full tilt, then leap and land hard on the wider end. It compresses then releases, lifting you in a kind of explosion, up and through the known laws of gravity.
The sensation is like being propelled, higher than you could ever get on your own steam, by euphoria. During those long impossible moments in the air you can sumersault, twist in a pike, flip like a dolphin, and vault yourself onto and off the ‘horse’. The landing can be tricky, but there’s always a padded cushion, a spotter, and a good sense of humour waiting there to soften it.
With good friends, and gratitude, you can defy the laws of gravity, and find ways to land well, with laughter. Thank you, and all my love to everyone for 2019. Lets do this one together.
Why so complicated?
The only movement is a slow floating down and slightly to the right, here in the woods. The only sound the crunch of snow underfoot, and the dog’s open-mouthed breathing. He finds deer tracks from earlier today, I find the mother tree – five feet wide at the trunk, strong, healthy arms raised to the sky – a living monument to time and resilience, to peace.
Do we find our need in these times maybe. Does it sometimes speak in the voice of old sorrow, maybe.
Underneath the desire for things and events that pass for fulfilment, that partly satisfy -lies the deeper understanding that seeks acknowledgement:
Ah. I do feel an ache, here. And yes, only I can name it. Only I can tend to it.
Also: I can ask for help with this. I am not alone.
May we tend to our deeper needs with compassion and love, for ourselves and for each other.
A new year begins, from a place of deep deep love. Truly, all of my very best to you all.
Keira – xoxo