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.

shovel

Imprint:  A rapid learning process by which [an artist] establishes a behavior pattern of recognition and attraction to another animal or an object (artistic license generously applied)

Drawing is like that, for me.  The translation of an object or a face or a scene from eye to paper or canvas leaves a permanent impression in my artist mind – an imprint.  The work I’m currently doing in my studio is like this.

I’m working on a series of painting/drawings about simple tools:  Shovel  Axe  Hammer  Pencil  clamp  wrench  etc –   things in common use as extensions of our physical needs –  to garden, clear, build, keep warm (firewood), communicate and figure out.

Simple tho it may seem, the shapes and planes in a shovel (this one is a spade) are as complex as those of a human face – especially since I’m drawing an old one that still shows it’s history – mortar, rust, paint.  As I draw I’m amazed at how specific each slope is to the function of the tool.  If I were an anthropologist examining this object  2000 years from now I could easily discern it’s use – the shape speaks.

But I know more than she, because this is MY spade I’m drawing, and I have physical memory of using it:

Digging digging, hitting rock, finding the rock’s edges, then straining the long ash handle to lever out great slabs of limestone, great chunks of granite.  There is no bottom to this pile of soil – I’m down through four feet of strata – weeds, topsoil, clay – all of it growing rocks for harvest.  Loosen roots, turn soil, break solid clods with the back of the spade – whack, whack, clunk.

Right foot bruised on the push edge of the spade,  fingers slippery with mud, knees and boots caked and heavy, face smeared – I am utterly content.

Shift to my studio. My face and clothing is smeared with charcoal and paint.  I am barefoot, staring staring at this painting I collaborate with.

Now at my draughting table, write, sketch, play cards- anything to catch the next right decision out of the corner of my eye – then leap up in the aha moment to make an adjustment, addition, or big sweeping change.  I am utterly engaged, utterly content.

Early stage of the shovel painting. It's come a long way since then - looking a little like a prehistoric cave painting now, tho that may change.

The next painting is an axe.

I’ll keep you posted.