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Conversation Pieces

J.S. Maier Company, porcelain makers

In a small village in northern Bohemia where there are large deposits of kaolin a porcelain factory is built by three merchant partners, in 1890. Shares in the company are passed down to sons and daughters through three generations, who manage the factory and sell porcelain wares throughout Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

Twenty-four years later a world war, with Germany at its epicentre. At war’s end, Europe, the Middle East and Africa are re-distributed at the 1919 Paris Accords. The village is now in Germany. Nine years after that at the Munich Accords, Czechoslovakia is given to Hitler in an attempt to prevent WWII. He marches into Prague in 1939, and occupies it.

Shares in the porcelain factory are confiscated by the Third Reich, and management of the factory is reassigned. The descendants of the three partners in J.S. Maier Comp and their families disappear into work and concentration camps, and out of history.

Seventy-five years later, I buy a Czechoslovakian ‘tea set’ from an auction in a small town in Southern Ontario, Canada. The cups are tiny, and I’m a coffee drinker, so it sits on a lower shelf behind a door. A year after that the world, already in the grips of climate change, overpopulation, astonishing corporate abuse and systemic white supremacy is swept into massive and abrupt change by a global pandemic.

Lockdown keeps me from my studio and my elegant tea set emerges from the lower corner shelf and onto the table, an echo of old world comfort. Tea served to myself in a ceremony of pause, as a way to mark the passage of time. Milk poured not from a printed box but from a graceful gilt-edged creamer, then tea from an elegant pot, fluted and tall. My blind Glasgow-born grandmother lived alone and drank twenty-seven cups of tea a day at regular intervals; I begin to understand the ritual that once baffled me.

I’m missing conversations and writing at favourite cafes like The Brain. Sitting right beside someone I don’t know in a room full of people watching live music, an artist talk, a play. I miss smiling at people with my whole face, and not just my eyes. I observe the now embedded courtesy of avoiding contact and nearness; cross the street when someone else approaches, two metres at all times, always behind masks. Questions at every store, have you…? Do you…? Are you….? No. No, no. Okay, come on through.

Stay Home. And so we do. I read Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless.

The light here in my residency apartment is lovely on the gilt-edged blue and white porcelain, and right there is my good sharp pencil. There’s a pile of printing paper I had torn into pieces last year after experimenting with media in the studio. There’s my dad’s travel W&N watercolour set and some titanium white, there’s a speaker, my playlists; I start to draw ellipses. With my pencil and brush, titanium white and ultramarine blue I explore curves and the hollows, connections and conversations, the way the light shines the gilded handles and rims. This becomes a ritual pause that marks the passage of time.

Research enriches the experience, deepens it with the story of enterprise, good business, fine craftsmanship, anti semitism and brutality. Not so comforting, this old world porcelain, however beautiful. Not a tea set, but coffee set, made at what had been J.S. Maier Co in a little village in Southern Germany during World War Two, by imported german workers. Some of these workers are artists and master craftspeople, and I wonder what they are thinking about as they draw the gold lines around each rim.

The new owners stamp their work CZECHOSLOVAKIA, under the J.S. Maier mark of a hand holding a torch beneath a crown.

Now we have variants of the virus, and vaccines. A year since the first lockdowns we still Stay Home, still answer No. No, and no. from behind our masks in socially distanced lines. Through the long months we’ve become better at connection across distance, so that borders and countries and oceans and physical travel begin to seem like old school. Maybe also better at connection with ourselves, better at understanding what we value in others.

Each one of us has insight into this experience from inside a bubble of solitude or space shared with family, room mates, a significant other. We live in a billion trillion fish bowls – in small-space water that once was a pond, a great lake, an ocean. That’s a billion separate experiences complete with observations, epiphanies, traumas, breakthroughs. This fascinates me far more than the news, this ocean of fish bowls that we are.

With brush and pencil I explore these little cups and saucers, the creamer and the pot which are exactly and precisely designed for conversation and the sharing of anecdotes, insights, choices. I draw them on grounds I have made that look and feel chaotic, and change as the light changes. Like our world does. My curiosity is peaked. What do my musician friends see? My prison guard friend, my teacher friend, my paramedic friend… could I curate a pause that connects us in conversation?

I find a package of used stamps from around the world Poland, CCCP, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Churchill, the Queen of England – little pieces of old school art, from a letter sent long ago from somewhere to somewhere. Makes me want to connect.

Conversation 1 happening this week. You may be getting an email from me, inviting you to the next one. Stay tuned.

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Frozen Pipes Day 19

“..last year the pipe to the barn froze in February and didn’t thaw again until May 15. Nothin’ I could do about it, so we hauled water…”, said the farmer beside me in the feed store. Of course then I added my story of hauling 30-60 litres per day depending on house activity, “…well over 300 houses now, and everyone on our street just has to wait ’til April…”

“Water guys are out there 24/7 I hear, losing battle against frost though.  City water bills might be a tad lower now  (chuckle…)”

A version of this conversation is shared every hour or so across town and in barns & kitchens.  So and thus the February freezes of 2014 and 2015 are woven into our local history.

harbour from studio roof, March 13, 2015
harbour from studio roof, March 13, 2015

I still haul 30+ litres of water a day, cook only simple meals that don’t waste alot of water (I cringe at the thought of boiling pasta or potatoes now), and flush our toilets with a bucket.  Somehow, the fact that I can go outside in shoes (not boots) and with only a sweater on is helping.  Faucets that actually run with water could be weeks away but the thaw has begun, and that makes all the difference.

2015-03-13 13.07.46

We may not need to wait that long.  City staff (the heroes!) have knocked heads with a local engineering firm to devise a temporary solution for our little street that may have me in a hot bath by the end of next week.  Woot.

I’m feeling cheerful today.

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#Selfie 13: Loving Narcissus

This wire is familiar – the one I’m down to.  Six paintings, eleven days – I’m now working on two at the same time.

(also workshop and rehearse the Performance Piece for Opening night, compile the Book for #Selfie and make at least two.  Then my breaks:  three rehearsals, two concerts, teaching cello lessons and art class, sleep, exercise, eat….)


The one just finished.  Biggest in the show, and difficult to understand scale here (thumbnails are same size as my face).  It had me on lock-down for the last two days of its' fulfillment.
The one just finished. Biggest in the show, and difficult to understand scale here (thumbnails are same size as my face). It had me on lock-down for the last two days of its’ fulfillment.

This past weekend the most difficult task was to hold my own in recurring conversations with self doubt.   I managed it, I think, by utilizing every trick in the book – bull-headedness, steel-jawed determination, nonchalance, distraction, humour, tears, goading….

Next up (one of two) is on red linen, just for a challenge.... (what was I thinking?)
Next up (one of two) is on red linen, just for a challenge…. (what was I thinking?)

This morning and late yesterday as I worked on the content of the next two I began to think differently.  It’s as though each piece is a school.  When I graduate, I get a few hours off (though this will undoubtedly change as the days pass), and then I start a new series of courses in the examination of #Selfie and … me.

As I wrote to Kristan this morning (he and I are in workshop mode with tandem and solo spoken word for the opening performance), School Rules are:

1. go consciously and directly at whatever chafes and disturbs you, or makes you squirm in discomfort.

2. find imagery that resonates with that.

3. draw, paint, sing, write – quickly, to manifest it as clearly as possible.

4. Do NOT succumb to melodrama, self-pity, cynicism, terror or denial.

5. Remain open to shock.

6. Don’t forget to breathe, sleep and eat.

Here's the photoshop sketch for Red.  Looking also for another image to layer on top of this for symbolic reasons... it will come.
Here’s the photoshop sketch for Red. Looking also for another image to layer on top of this for symbolic reasons… it will come.

I want to say something about the myth of Narcissus, which has come up in conversation as a way to describe #Selfie behavior.   Ovid’s telling of the story has been most resonant in western culture (book III of Metamorphoses.) though it’s interesting to see what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say:

Narcissus, in Greek mythology, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was distinguished for his beauty. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Narcissus’s mother was told by the blind seer Tiresias that he would have a long life, provided he never recognized himself. His rejection, however, of the love of the nymph Echo or (in an earlier version) of the young man Ameinias drew upon him the vengeance of the gods. He fell in love with his own reflection in the waters of a spring and pined away (or killed himself); the flower that bears his name sprang up where he died. The Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, in Description of Greece, Book IX, said it was more likely that Narcissus, to console himself for the death of his beloved twin sister, his exact counterpart, sat gazing into the spring to recall her features.

The story may have derived from the ancient Greek superstition that it was unlucky or even fatal to see one’s own reflection. Narcissus was a very popular subject in Roman art.

Narcissism has long since become a psychiatric term used to describe extreme self-centredness – often so pathological that it prevents any meaningful engagement with anything not self-referenced.  A Narcissist will project himself and his needs onto anyone and everyone he/she meets, and then become confused when that ‘other’ has needs of their own.  We all do that, to some extent, myself definitely included.  It’s conditioned into us.

Obeying School Rule #3:  I will never ever get used to this #selfie thing.  Still very much squirming.
Obeying School Rule #1: I will never ever get used to this #selfie thing. Still very much squirming, but I needed an image, and so I shot myself, again.

I want to offer another idea about Narcissus and why he died.  It refers to my last post – #Selfie 12:  My face belongs to you.

I actually do believe that our outer selves belong more to those people we relate to than to us, and that we need to recognize this.  What if our fascination with our own face is more about a longing for relationship?  I would propose that taking a #Selfie and posting it online is the action that follows that longing.

Do we do this because we believe that someone out there will actually be able to ‘see’ what’s inside us (as in Avatar’s “I see you”)?  It’s interesting then that instead of this ‘recognition’ what often happens is that the anonymous viewer projects his or her self-image onto your Selfie, and then writes hateful, destructive messages in response.  Artist Lindsay Bottos has published a compelling piece that illustrates this perfectly, called Anonymous.   It’s worth taking a look at.

I like it better when they're blurry.  Does that mean something.... oh, probably it does.
I like it better when they’re blurry. Does that mean something?  Oh, probably it does….

I need to get back to painting very soon, and I’m struggling to articulate the crux of this idea.  Here goes:

If we all search for meaning through relationships, but find that meaning only when we stop projecting our internal needs onto ‘the other’, then really what we long for is a good, honest, trusting relationship with our own Self.  My needs are my own; I am responsible to and for them, and I respect that you are different from me.

Certainly Narcissus’ beauty was legendary in the myth – so many pursued him, gazed at him, idolized him for it.  What if he died because he got caught in the idea that his outer beauty was so great that it completely overshadowed who he actually was?  What if he died out of starvation for himself?

That’s happened to a few people in this culture that makes gods out of movie and pop stars.  How terrible.

a place I love.
a place I love.

So, back to it.

Wish me luck and speed and clarity, if you would.  It’s all corners on two wheels time…

Here’s the actual invitation, no longer a work-in progress.  Please come if you can.


...back.  The gallery would like you to R.S.V.P., so they know how many to set up for.  much appreciated, K
…back. The gallery would like you to R.S.V.P., so they know how many to set up for. much appreciated, K