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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.

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Coming to

I’m in my socks on a quiet street in the old section of town, pulling goutweed out of the garden.  It’s early on an idyllic spring morning, full of bees and growth, flowers and a gentle cool breeze.  A starling, harsh and insistent, comments on my weeding.  I explain that in the ecosystem of my tiny garden many things grow, and that the manifest destiny that is Goutweed’s nature would change all of it into a monoculture. This is why I must, however reluctantly (I’m not feeling reluctant at all, not even shocked that this is so), do my best to kill or maim Goutweed.  I tell him I prefer his sweet starling voice to this rasp.

my lawn.
my lawn.

Muttering about invasive plants and the more tender, solitary ones I seek to protect, I feel myself ease into the beginning of this three-day inner working space.

The mornings early articles were about artists – Kahlo, O’Keefe, Yayoi Kusama – specifically, their struggle to give artistic voice to the particular forms of madness they’d discovered in themselves.  Our relationship with others; our relationship with our own minds – maybe the greatest challenge in being human?

I found myself writing about strict ordering of colour, the music and the muscle of line, the often oppressive heaviness of form.  This was somehow inside of thoughts about the utter sanctity of solitude, the necessity of it.  It’s here I build fortitude, here where I can examine and own my relationship with crow-darkness; my internal, eternal desires (lust even?); my old, creakingly reliable rigidity.

Scratching the surface, but then this is day one of three.

LawnMeadow1

The goutweed surrenders to my will, stem by stem, and as I stoop mutter pull I hear the sound a badly injured animal would make if I were in the bush.  It’s coming from a largish man in spring coat and backpack. He’s standing at the end of the street, not five houses away.

He and I are the only ones visible. I instinctively give him space, content in my goutweed campaign, not looking, but listening. He moans again.  Mutters (to himself),  You shouldn’t have done that.  It wasn’t right and it’s not okay.  You’re not okay, you need help.  You need to get some help.

I know he knows I’m listening.  In fact, he called me to listen, with his moans.

I think to myself that this is a shared moment of something unnameable but infinite.  I think that every human everywhere works this way, all the time, every day.  We do our best to make friends with our madness.

LawnMeadow2

My talkative neighbour has seen me – as I hear the creak of his side door I hear myself too, muttering not now not now…  But there he is, coffee in hand, ready to chat.

Startled by the interruption we run with our minds, the largish man and I, to seek solitude again, where the fragile thought-threads can be followed, observed, even understood a little.

You just missed me!  I say to coffee-cup-neighbor.  Too bad!  I need to go in now and get back to my work.  He says ya sure that’s ok. Inside, I can feel the door as I close it.

LawnMeadow3

I feel happiness.

 

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In Christmas

It’s the 18th of December, one week before Christmas day.  I’ve rehearsed and planned and delivered and engaged, I’ve painted and written and talked and sang and posted, I’ve cooked and sorted and laundered and cared-for and now all of a sudden on the eve of my first day off in what feels like centuries I’m hearing the call that maybe only dogs can hear, that no other human around me seems to acknowledge but nevertheless has got my full attention in this moment…

…. stop.

Not sure why this image. Something to do with Christmas I think.
This feels correct to the moment just previous to the moment I turned off my Christmas engines.

Basil Johnson once said to me, “Simple, and good – that’s all you need.”  We’d been talking about art, and what makes it resonate with human culture in the short, medium and long term.  As I remember, I’d been talkative and keen then – about socioeconomic indicators of health and growth, artists in the workplace and some utopian ideas around the political value of the arts as a generator of individual authenticity.  In 2004 I was Cultural Capitals Coordinator for my town of 22,000, doing my best to imagine and then somehow impossibly manifest a bridge between national and local, micrososm and macrocosm, embracing all issues visible and audible under the sun. I’d been given my rein, was impossibly curious, – a single artist-mom on the eve of a lifelong marriage that would only last a decade. I was provocative, insistent and intense, flailing.

“What kind of painting do you do?”, he asked, in a pause I’d left open.

again, no articulate explanation for this choice

My answer was long and exhausting.  He listened and gave me two words in exchange.

I heard them enough through all that noise in my head to swallow them whole and keep them alive in my belly.  They sing to me now.

 

I love these ladies with all my heart. This was a gig we played at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery six days ago.
I love these ladies with all my heart. This was a gig we played at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery six days ago.

The planet, the politics, the migrations of people and animals; conviction, passion, intensity, art and music; friendship, hurt, joy and the passage of time….  our response can be simple.  And good.

It’s a choice, to live and work that way.

 

BHill_SEwindow

I choose therefore to fill my tomorrow with simple rituals.  Instead of a phone, a computer, a list of errands, I will make a breakfast, a burning, a giving-away, a silence.  I will listen to what lies under all the Christmas noise.

This is good.  Thanks, Basil.  I can feel you smiling.