Tuesday 30 December 2014

As Canadians Gear Up for Elections in 2015

photo collage

Elections have become stressful times to which I do not look forward. 2015 approaches, however, and I’m afraid it will be yet another campaign with a ‘lesser of evils’ outcome, especially for those of us in the Arts.
I had a thought as Canadian politicians begin their pre-federal-election campaigns. Maybe there could be a requirement that people wishing to put their names forward as candidates first complete a rigorous degree on Leadership, regardless of their political parties.
Oh, I know many people disdain education, and higher education especially.. They’ve made it without Masters or PhDs to influential positions by sheer will, arrogance, and canniness. I think that’s not because education is over-valued, but because of individual personalities. We all admire people with drive, ambition and self-confidence, and they, whether they have degrees or not, rise to the top.
Problem is,I think that a community, no matter its scope, is not really defined by its elite, its business, its military or its competitiveness. These things are the direct result of its Culture: they are a result of the Values that define it and the way it applies these as it relates to other communities. A community, especially when it is ‘A Nation”, is an extremely complex and nuanced entity, even in dictatorships, even when they grow out of terrorism or colonialism. This is true especially in a country that functions democratically, especially in a country like Canada that prides itself on its multiculturalism, its social safety network and its sober, fair approach to international relations. Any Canadian leadership candidate should have to prove she or he is up to leading the community from these core Values.
In Canada, the Leadership degree could be offered by existing universities but evaluated by an independent body. Representatives would come from all regions of the country. For regional-level leaders, for instance, each region would select its best thinkers in public, private, military and corporate sectors, male and female, to create the curriculum, including rigorous Human Rights and Heritage sections. For national level contenders, top thinkers the world over would design and add courses to cover World Cultures, Global Environment and International Human Rights, for instance. The course creators would determine the grading, standing structure and examinations, select the educators (for limited, rotating contracts) and award the Leadership degrees. For these degrees, a balanced number of men and women would have to enrol.
Courses would cover the major areas of public concern: men’s, women’s, children’s, seniors’ and family rights (regardless of religion or orientation), Aboriginal rights, military rights, animal rights and health, human health, environmental health, education, culture, multiculturalism, visual and performing arts, sports, competition, infrastructure, economy, budget, international affairs, technical and scientific research and development, banks, etc. A scoring system could be determined, and a minimum total score required for the person to earn the right to be a ‘Leadership Candidate’.
Once so prepared, and only then, the graduates would be eligible to run for office. They would each be expected to conduct themselves like leaders: no more talking down to or disdaining voters, no more gratuitous attacks on their opponents, no more focus simply on charisma or personality. And no more promises without a clear, concrete explanation of how they would honour these promises: perhaps their platforms could be drafted as legal contracts?
Why a degree? Why not just business acumen or a camera-friendly face or a strong lobby group and an ‘apr├Ęs moi le deluge’ attitude (Oh, Steven!)? Because somewhere somehow, prospective politicians need to understand that leadership is not the same as ownership. They need to be more than the sum of their own interests. Making them become learners might help to broaden their thinking, un-blinker their eyes, re-direct their attention and make their candidacy about broad-based ideas and achievement, not power grabbing or partisanship.
Maybe really good people are hesitant to run for office because they don’t feel qualified, leaving it to ‘career politicians’ to focus on keeping their jobs rather than on leading. Maybe they’ve lost faith in the electoral system, which seems to have been tampered with to serve… whom? Too many candidates grasp for power by any means during elections and then forget they are elected and not divinely appointed, protected by their term of office and rewarded for their ‘service’ no matter what its quality with a nice, for-life pension at the end.
Perhaps what I propose would be complicated. Perhaps it would take a huge amount of effort, cooperation and be costly. Perhaps it would affect everyone’s behaviour. Perhaps it would require the involvement of more citizens than currently turn out to vote. Perhaps it wouldn’t solve all leadership problems in the world, for, as far as I can see, they are huge.
Maybe it would be worth the trouble.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

All About Perspective

Mind's Eye
photo collage

The first time someone saw me the way I saw myself was when, I think it was a fellow grade six student said, “Hey, you’re AN ARTIST!” with that emphasis that communicates both delighted surprise and respect. It was wonderful to hear it like that, as something good, and as something real to someone else, not just to me. I heard that voice in my head for many years subsequently, and it made me smile every time.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult and traveling in Italy that I heard that particular statement said with that particular emphasis again. Between that day in elementary class and my trip to see all the art I’d only ever seen reproduced in books during my studies were many comments more in the style of “You on welfare?” or “So what’s your real job?”
I was staying in a pensione with people who apparently spoke very little English and no French. I’d gotten the room through the service at the train station when I arrived in Florence, and had managed so far to communicate only with smiles and nods until one morning at breakfast. I was sitting quietly, waiting to be served by the mother of the house, when a child of about eight came up to me holding a binder in his hands. My binder, which I’d left on my bed in my supposedly private room.
At that moment, the boy’s father walked in from one side of the apartment, and the older sister came storming in from another. Over the cowering boy’s head there ensued such a loud exchange accompanied by so many hand gestures that I feared for the boy’s head. I said, “It’s ok!” and had to repeat it loudly to cool the room down. I understood that the older sister had gone to my room to change the sheets on my bed and that the brother had illegally followed her. It was a punishable offence.
As a distraction, I invited the boy to sit beside me and encouraged him to look through the binder. His family came to stand behind us to see. My binder contained my portfolio. Along with paperwork there were four slide sheets, each with twenty slides (remember those?). Before I could take a sheet out of the binder, the boy started pulling individual slides out of the sheets to hold them to the light and then pass them around. I watched. One after the other examined the images carefully. Faces grew focused, serious. The silence unnerved me.
My work was … unusual, at least as far as the ‘average person’ was usually concerned. It was not what people expected when they heard “I am an artist”. In the early eighties, being ‘an artist’ mostly meant being a painter, and failing that, a sculptor of big things in metals, found objects or involving technology and elaborate architectural installations.
Clay sculpture, I’d say when people asked me what I do, and people expected to see not art but ‘ceramics’, that is, clay made into objects and glazed for use, usually involving liquids or food. Or yet people expected to see clay used purely expressively, for the focus to be on the clay’s plastic (meaning malleable) properties rather than on classical-style control. My work did not (and still does not) fit neatly into those expectations. My sculptures were ironic; they referenced Surrealism and represented people caught in moments of inner conflict or confusion or daily objects animated theatrically and symbolically.
But I was in Italy, and this was Florence. Nearby was Fiesole, a hill where once the Etruscans lived. As in other European countries, the Czech Republic, for instance, clay was still a respected old-world material.
When all the slides had been examined, the father of my pensione family turned to me. In English, he said, “You are an artist,” with the same mixture of surprise, delight and respect I had heard so long ago. It’s all he said then, but after that it was as if I’d been adopted into the family. No longer just a foreign roomer to be kept at a distance, I became a kind of celebrity aunt. It turned out they all spoke English, so over meals we talked art: what a delight I had to discover that all the family members could discuss the art I saw in the various museums in the city with proprietary pride and surprising knowledge
That memory sustained me through another bunch of years, until I had enough of a body of work for it to help me “suffer … the heart-ache and the thousand natural (and unnatural) shocks that…” being an artist is heir to (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

Monday 8 December 2014

In Another Place, At Another Time

In Another Place, At Another Time

The story begins on a family visit. Father, mother, five-year old son and one-and-half year old daughter are visiting the father’s brother’s family. The uncle has two twin teenaged sons who are forced to be home for the gathering.
When the cousins are gathered, the twins are assigned the entertainment of the children. Off the four go to the boys’ room in the back of the house, out of earshot of the adults gathered in the living room. The plan is this: the twins will give their cousins toys to play with and sneak out the kitchen door to join their friends.
The five-year old boy is easy enough to occupy. He sits happily in a corner pretending to fly the planes and race the cars he is given. The chubby baby girl is another matter. She not only walks, she runs, and the second her hand is free of a cousin’s hold, she is off, laughing happily. The twins have to chase her all over the room. Her laughter, however, is contagious and soon the teenagers forget their plan and are playing like five-year olds with their cousins.
When the two sets of parents come to gather their children, they are astonished to find the cousins all laughing uproariously. The merriment is caused by the baby’s delight at being swung by the arms between the twins as her brother lies under her swinging feet, either tickling them as they fly by or pretending they are trampling him. The play is interrupted, the five-year old and his sister are gathered up and amid more laughter and farewells, no one pays attention as the baby cries when her coat is put on.
By the time they get home, everyone’s nerves are frayed. The baby has cried the entire way. Nothing calms her; everything the mother tries makes her cry the more, distracting the father as he drives. Once home, the girl refuses warm milk, she pushes the father’s stroking hand away, she cries though her bath and cries until the parents fight. The father leaves the house to go smoke in peace and the brother is sent to his bed without supper for being uncooperative.
For the entire next day, the baby, exhausted, slips in and out of a fretful sleep and whimpering wakefulness. The father is relieved to spend the day at work, the brother happy for once to be in pre-school; the mother feels increasingly helpless and afraid. When the father comes home, they agree they must take the child to the doctor, cost what it may. Something must be wrong beyond teething or gas. The baby won’t eat, but worse she doesn’t tolerate to be touched. Another sleepless night follows.
The doctor examines the child but finds nothing to explain her reactions. “Spoiled!” he announces finally. The treatment? “Let her cry!” The father pays. They go home. They try ignoring her but neither parent can stand leaving the baby alone. Anyway, she doesn’t stop. They sit with her all that third night, taking turns singing softly to her and feeding her formula by the drop as she lies on her back in her bed. By now she barely moves though she keeps up a soft mewling unrelieved by sleep.
Now it’s the weekend. The beach is nearby. The parents agree that they all need fresh air. Perhaps the baby will be happier on the beach. Preparations are made, the mother carefully gathers the half unconscious child in her arms, provoking loud cries that gradually become softer, weaker. As the family walks to the beach, father and son slightly ahead, they try to ignore the looks people give them. The baby continues to cry softly as her mother holds her protectively.
Now they have passed a row of vendors who have set up shop along a stone retaining wall on the beach when the mother feels a tug on her skirt. “Mom,” someone says. She keeps walking. “Mom,” someone says again and she stops and turns, annoyed.
“I won’t buy anything, go away,” the mother says to the girl standing beside her. The child is maybe seven years old, not very clean in her unkempt clothes. Her teeth are brown and her fingernails are broken.
The father has returned with his son to stand with the mother, he says angrily, “What do you want?”
The girl doesn’t flinch, “My granma, she wants to talk to you, mom. There.” and the girl points back along the row of vendors. The father, mother and son turn to look. There, sitting cross-legged on a blanket on the sand is an old woman. She doesn’t look much better than the girl; in fact, she is very old, very bent, and obviously very poor, obviously a widow for she is dressed all in black. She is staring at the family, a vacant look in her eyes.
“We don’t want anything,” the father says but the mother is looking intently at the old woman. She is blind.
“Please, mom,” says the girl, “It’s about your baby.”
To the father’s surprise, the mother is walking to the old woman. He follows with the son to join his wife by the old woman’s blanket.
“Your baby,” says the old woman “she’s crying.” The father snorts. He’s seen this kind of thing before: she’ll offer to sell them some potion or some spell.
But the mother, near tears, says, “I don’t know why.”
“Shh,” The old woman listens, tilting her head. “That baby is hurt.” She shifts, stretches her legs with great difficulty before her on the blanket in a ‘v’. Then says to the mother, “will you trust me?”
The father stands surprised as the mother does not hesitate. She bends and gently hands the baby to the old woman who takes her as if she is made of glass and lays her on the blanket between her legs, feet toward her. Her hands are arthritic but to the mother watching her every gesture, she moves her fingers like they are butterfly wings caressing the child’s body, gently exploring until they hover over the baby’s shoulders. “Ah!” it’s a breath sound, but it could be a shout.
Moving quickly, the blind old woman grasps the baby’s right shoulder with her right hand and putting her left hand on the baby’s chest, snaps her wrist. There is a barely audible pop and then silence. Silence. The baby stops crying. Just like that, after days of it, she stops crying. With the old woman’s hand on her chest, the baby takes a deep breath, sighs and falls deep, deep asleep.
The mother kneels and kisses the old woman’s arthritic hands. The father is reaching into his pocket, shamed, he is peeling bills out of his wallet but the old woman shakes her head. “No money,” she says. “Love your baby.”
            That baby grows up with a desire to embrace space, a longing for unfettered movement, and a passion for malleable form. And she comes to love stories, the kinds in which change defeats stasis and where obstacles are nothing to potential.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Stories: Sources of Inspiration

I was a shy little girl, or is it that I lived more in my own world than in other people’s? This world, the adult version of it anyway, seemed rather alien to me, I only felt connected to it, and safe in it, when I was around my older brother. He didn’t always tolerate my following him about however, so sometimes I had to find my own way outside of the home, which was a strange and scary place full of mysteries I could only explore if I went about in it invisibly.
My rare independence was only possible if my brother gave me the slip, or when we went to one of the clubs to which my family belonged. See, in Brazil, little girls were never allowed out alone, so I was told, because of all the possible ‘badnesses’ that could befall them. Outside my home, if my parents were too involved with some activity or other to pay attention to me, if they forgot that my brother was off doing his own whatever and not around to grudgingly watch me, if no one around even knew that I existed, then I might wander off unchecked, like a puppy attracted by some interesting movement, forgetting everything else.
            On that day, I was sitting by quietly while my parents chatted with friends; I wasn’t really there. I was in a lush and beautiful garden, my garden, tending to my beloved plants. Which is why, when the two men passed by, I got up without thinking and followed them silently as they talked intently together, unaware of me behind them. I was so quiet they never even looked around to look at me or I’d have realized that I was following strangers and run back where I was meant to be.
I had two particular passions as a child, animals and flowers. As the men passed by me all I heard was one tell the other, “The rose is black.” A black rose! My garden was full of plants; there was even a gardenia tree like the one that grew in my mother’s garden, though mine never stopped blooming like hers did. No roses grew there, however, and neither any black flowers of any kind. It had never occurred to me that such flowers might exist.
“Isn’t it unusual?” one of the men was saying.
“Not only black but scented!” said the other.
They didn’t head into a large building I knew was a greenhouse but walked around it. Now they stopped by a plant. I stopped as well. I could see a bush. It sat in its own flowerbed, a lush, deep green with darker spots near the top. Wanting to dash forward to see better, I still hung back. What if the men shooed me away? I watched as one man gestured and the other bent down over the plant; he lingered there a long time. After what was a tortuous time for me, the two men finally walked away, still too intent in their talk to look back. They might as well have disappeared into a puff of smoke.
I shyly approached the rose bush, came close enough to see the flowers but at a respectful distance. There, two fat buds ready to bloom and one flower already with its fleshy petals open invitingly, reaching proudly for the sun. I moved nearer. They were black all right I could see that, black as my friend Akiko’s hair but without even a tinge of any other colour, except some dark green of the leaves reflected on the outermost petals. I stood in awe, eyes half closed, breathing deeply, ready to receive the flower’s gift. Nothing. I could detect no scent.
I opened my eyes. I was too little to bend over the plant as the man had done and it was still too far away in the bed for me to lean into it. Completely mesmerized by the flowers’ beauty, I stepped forward into the flowerbed.
My screams brought the two men running back from wherever they had got to but I knew nothing of that. See, the flowerbed was an anthill, a red anthill. Brazilian red ants are ferocious; they’re the ones that can strip a carcass in record time. The good news is that the men, who’d not wandered far, reached me in no time, saw immediately what was happening, ripped the sandal off my sockless right foot and slapped the swarming, stinging, biting insects off before they got to my ankle. The bad news is that they put my sandal back on. By the time they carried me screaming and writhing to my parents and someone removed it, there were ants floating INSIDE big burn bubbles all over my foot.
It took all kinds of adults all kinds of time to fix my foot. Once the bubbles had been burst and the burning pain had been soothed, I enjoyed the unusual amount of attention I received until my foot healed.
What amazes me is that the incident didn’t inspire fear of independence in me. On the contrary: What it did do is make me realize I had to pay better attention to my environment, be as aware of the world outside my head as of the one inside it. I had put myself in danger, not the men, not the ants. Thinking about it, I realized I had blindly trespassed in my eagerness to smell the roses. I was sure the rose bush hadn’t minded my presence but that its protectors thought I meant it harm. The thought mortified me. I developed a desire to learn about ants, and consequently about all manner of not-so-cuddly living things, and to keep a respectful distance from their homes.
I do have my actual, beautiful garden now, and it is full of flowers of all kinds, well flowers that can survive Montreal winters anyway, even black irises (ok, they’re a very deep purple, almost black). It’s full of bees, and wasps, ants and worms, centipedes and other buzzing or crawling Canadian things. There are lots of birds too, sparrows, starlings, crows, doves, cardinals, blue jays, tiny woodpeckers, finches, hummingbirds, and other birds that come solo or in flocks to pick at the seeds or drink from and dunk in the water bowls. The only ones who aren’t happy are the roses.
I’m going to give up on roses next summer. I have trouble keeping the foliage healthy and bugs off the blooms. I used to blame overcrowding, then the type of roses I chose that were perhaps too fragile for the weather, then the fact that I can’t (won’t) spray them with anti-fungal or anti-pest medication because I have dogs. I think, remembering the perfect black roses whose scent I will never know and the anthill in which they thrived, that, much as I respect them, I will NOT invite red ants to come live in my garden, I don’t care how good they are with roses.
I will create images of roses instead even black ones. Maybe there, red ants will be welcome.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Creative Block

I can’t sleep. I can’t work in the studio. This week, two Canadian soldiers were murdered, and their murderers were killed after them. This while four of my good friends are fighting cancers, trying desperately to stay alive. The disconnect between these two realities is overwhelming. I bet we all would have a vastly different take on it if we were the ones fighting cancer.
But then, maybe we are.
The level of disrespect that taints human dealings at all levels defies all religious posturing. I was born Jewish in a Muslim country, grew up in a Catholic country, live in a Christian country boasting Multiculturalism as its core value though the province I live in is sometimes unclear about that concept. I learned by this that all the religions are guilty of arrogance in their relationship with other religions and with people with different faiths. Each boasts a direct line to the deity, each struts about in self-righteous confidence that its answer is THE answer and all who don’t see it are, genetically or by wilful self-exclusion, inferior.
Sure, the militarized fundamentalists and extremists (aka terrorists) take this to insane levels (as we saw for instance during the Inquisition and the Crusades), as we see today going on in the Middle East, but it would seem that many of the more progressive and moderate still deep down believe that ‘the other’ deserves his/her fate, or in fact attracts it.
It’s easy to see it in the way those we call terrorists are behaving. However, it’s more subtle but equally present in our society, for instance in the way those who defend male-dominated sectors of society treat women (they’ve given themselves permission to never forgive Eve), the way countries treat their First Nations, the way we tolerate all kinds of human rights abuses - what they do to children! - the way we think of and treat animals, what we do to the environment. According to the religions all these things are God created yet despite this nothing escapes our exploitation and abuse. None are spared our disrespect.
To me, that is what all the religions have in common. The extremists prove it by their violence, the moderates by their inaction and religious so-called leaders either by their thirst for dominance and control or by their silence. It’s not us, everyone cries, it’s someone else.
How the world would change if Priests, Rabbis, Imams and all other spiritual leaders left Heaven (or Hell) to its own, I’m sure quite capable, management and led by respect of ‘the other’, including non-human others.

But, so much for fantasy. Now, my thoughts are with the families of those killed and I just hope my friends survive their cancers.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Cross Pollinating

To Be or Not To Be?
photo collage

It has been wonderful to be ‘just’ an artist for these weeks! See, my vacation from being a Director/Curator and from teaching was to be a full-time artist during four of the six-week run of my trio exhibition. The gallery has a talented Curator of its own who did a terrific job blending our three different styles and media together. I had nothing to do with the hanging other than to assemble my two multi-part works. That’s a real vacation!
The exhibition is still ongoing, though my vacation is over and I once again have to divide my time and shift my focus from just my art to exhibiting other people’s and teaching. However, we three co-exhibitors are still going in almost daily as Artists in Residence. We have done so since the exhibition opened to the public for I proposed that for its six weeks, we each create individual work publicly in a room adjacent and connected to the gallery. We will present it and a related performance piece publicly at the end of the exhibition in a week or so.  
My first experience of this kind as a visual artist was when I was a Banff Centre (Banff, Alberta, Canada) participant. I originally went for a month in August of 1983, but thanks to grants, spent the next year and nine months there in the fall, winter and summer studio programs. I believe the format has changed since then, but at the time, summer meant we participated in a series of workshops and winter and fall were each a three-month period of working on our ideas or collaborative projects and receiving studio visitors, attending lectures, presentations, performances, exchanges, tours of the region, doing sports activities, and so on.
For each session, we were ten in the Ceramic department. We each had our own workspace in a shared open studio where we could create at our leisure – so called since there was nothing ‘leisurely’ about it. While we worked, people attending conferences of all non-visual arts kinds could come by and see what we were doing, usually at restricted times so as not to be too distracting. Many participants found it difficult to concentrate on their work, because there were so many distractions in fact: so many choices to make daily about activities, so many interesting people, both famous and not, to meet or collaborate with, and so much to see of the natural environment!
My studio space faced a huge bank of windows. I would often go there long after supper (deliciously prepared in the main dining hall) when most other participants had been lured by some evening activity or other. What distractions could there be when humans were elsewhere? Herds of elk. They would gather as evening fell on the well-tended and spacious lawn outside the windows, thirteen to fifteen strong. Man, they are beautiful!
Nature was a huge presence in all our psyches. The mountains of the Rockies chain surrounded us majestically on all sides. It would be pitch dark in the am and suddenly the sun would clear a mountaintop and there would be spectacular light! Or a group of us on the roof of the Sally Borden building at some late hour would oh and ah at the incredible Aurora Borealis display. Or I’d be sitting alone on top of Tunnel Mountain listening to the howl of wolves in the distance, or walking along followed by a curious, noisy flock of magpies, or squatting patiently by a path to watch a coyote watching me before deciding to cross in front of me and disappear into the brush. How full can a heart get?
Sleep? Who cared! I worked at night to concentrate but also because the day was too full of amazing opportunities to miss any of them. Besides the eye-popping environment, guest artists came regularly to each department of the Banff Centre, Dance, Musical Theatre, Music, Creative Writing, Photography, Painting, Fibers, Ceramics, Film and Video… I wanted to hear or meet them all, maybe get to work with some of them. I met Margaret Lawrence and John Cage, John Roloff and Dennis Oppenheim, Rita McKeough and Nancy Cain, Anthony Braxton and Vera Frenkel, Bob Arneson and Michael Lucero, Gene Youngblood and many others. What a thrill to have many of them visit my studio and respond to my work!
This was the unique thing about the Banff Centre experience, the cross-pollination among disciplines. Not all artists had time or the inclination to venture outside their medium or technique, but those like me who did were richly rewarded. I discovered through the artists who came to give me critiques and share their creative and life experiences with me that all arts are bound by the same procedural and conceptual frameworks, that inspiration and imagination function the same way whether one is composing for violin, building a wooden structure or taking photographs. To whatever degree and no matter how symbolically coded as image, sound or pixels our creations are, we all work from the deep  core of who we are and what we’ve experienced that opened our eyes to the world.
Besides the nationally or internationally known artists, I also met fascinating fellow participants doing all manner of creative work. My background in theater, dance and story telling came into play when I acted, danced or read for other artists, but they also allowed me to conjoin medium-based elements with performance-based elements, adding movement to drawings and voice to sculptures, for instance and learning to begin bridging the gap between usually stand-alone disciplines.
I also got to curate exhibitions, help re-build a wood-burning kiln, dance madly at parties with relay good dancers to improvised music by really good musicians and trek up and down mountains for art events, careful all the while not to damage the incredible variety of tiny, delicate and susceptible plants growing in the tundra. The audiences for all these things were always engaged, attentive and intelligently responsive, and my co-creators when we collaborated were knowledgeable participants from all over the world.
What an experience I had! In its scope, accessibility and variety it probably will never be repeated. If those twenty-one months at the Banff Centre with professionals and other pre-professionals in all manner of artistic and creative disciplines taught me anything, it is this: artists who don’t ever have the chance, even if short-term, to devote themselves full-time to their practice and process, who can’t connect with other artists in different disciplines as peers, who don’t have the opportunity to have serious, ongoing discussions about their and others’ intents, meanings and achievements, and who never venture outside their own techniques, these artists are severely deprived in their personal development.
The experience taught me to understand in a professional sense why I make art, why I make the art I make with the mediums I use, and how to make it despite all the distractions and difficulties. I wish all artists had the opportunity to have similar experiences, say in an artists’ residency somewhere, preferably where Nature is one of the participants. Or, if they can’t leave home, to create mutually supportive or collaborative projects that bring in people in other disciplines, and carry them out publicly. The challenge is invaluable.
Other than the work in studio itself, I found that there is nothing better for my artist’s soul than to have had the experience I described above and I try to carry its spirit into all art projects I create today.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Life with Clay (The Silica Kind)

photo collage

I’ve been thinking about my life with clay.
In 1976, it was a course to take with my mother who needed to get out of the house but stay close to home and a post-operative husband. We went to my parents’ town’s civic centre where a clay class was being offered informally. It was a ten-week, evening leisure class, and we met there after both our jobs, once she’d seen to my father. My mother made coil pots and slab, leaf-shaped bowls.
My first ever glazed clay piece was a terracotta pinch-pot that became a turtle. My mother kept it. It became the first in her subsequent collection of turtles. She collected so many over the years, stone, metal, glass and plastic ones, turtle broaches and pendants, realistic ones and comic ones, even children’s turtle paper clips, that I had two engraved on her footstone when she died in 2007. Whatever they represent to the world, I think that to her, they represented me.
Over the course of those ten weeks of evenings, I came to realize that clay was my home. I mean that I had never felt at home with anything as I did in the presence of clay ready to become whatever it allowed me to make of it. It was the most generous, the most cooperative, the most imaginative, the most communicative medium I had ever touched, but it demanded my full attention, much like a life partner does. From then on I worked with it intently, totally committed, and somehow communicated with it without difficulty though gesture and touch. No other language had ever come as easily to me.
Not long after that first encounter, my first sustained series in clay was a group of portraits of characters from stories I told to children at the time. In terracotta still, they were high relief faces and heads. If I remember correctly, the final series had fifteen of them, life-sized (what is the life size of an elf?) and as expressively realistic as I could make them.  I had always been interested in ‘the figure’ but being able to give physical, three-dimensional life to people who had lived full lives in my stories made me realize it is ‘the person’ I wanted to represent in my art, not just ‘the figure’.
From these portraits, my clay work progressed to more and more complex images using talc-body clay. One series referred to expressive personal objects as stand-ins for the person, and another combined the modeled human form or parts thereof with built structural environments. As I worked, my visual art was increasingly inspired by the ‘internal’ person, not the external; that is, by human psychology and philosophy. My most recent works are a type of narrative that reveals thought and attempts to capture pivotal life moments or moments of insight.
I love the feel of clay in my hands as it warms and responds to my touch. I love its mass and weight. I love the architectural and even engineering challenges it gives me as it moves from slip to dough to leather hardness and greenware to bisque to accepting colour, which changes upon firing. Each stage allows me to push the clay into new directions, to use different tools, gestures and energy, to delve deeper into my technique and my interpretation, and to discover new expressive possibilities.

            Of course I enjoy using other media. I love to draw, and I’m getting back to painting with acrylics. But no matter what technique I use to draw or paint, the image is still flat; it is non-existent viewed from the side. For me, the dimensionality of clay is as appealing as its malleability, its changeability and its flexibility. For me, no other medium can beat that.

Friday 12 September 2014

The Ins and Outs of "Why?"

photo collage

There are many typical questions asked of artists by audiences. One questions the medium or technique used to render a particular image. Looking at say a clay piece, a viewer might ask the artist, “Why not bronze?” Or looking at an acrylic painting, “Why not oils?” Or in response to a work on paper, “Why not on canvas?” The implied assumption is that the work would be IMPROVED if it were in bronze or oil or on canvas, that the artist somehow made the wrong choice of medium or technique.
Where does that kind of subliminal judgment come from? Not from a true response to the work being viewed. The persons looking approach the work with a pre-set programming; one that has been sustained through the generations and about which they are not even aware.
In this sub-routine of the viewing experience, media live in a stratified critical environment. Such media as pencils, clay, paper, glass and fiber, for instance, have retained their low ‘art’ status because they were once cheap, meaning accessible, are associated with functionality, and over the history of art, they have been used for sketching, and some by women and children. Over time, they have also developed a reputation for being fragile or worse, for being impermanent, for not retaining their freshness for more than a few human generations.
These considerations are not really a part of the viewing experience; they are knee-jerk reactions by people coming to look at art already convinced that supposed fragility, impermanence and accessibility reduce the value of a work of art, and that media like paper, clay, pencil or fiber are less ‘art’ than such media as canvas, oil and bronze. Also, for some, somehow, their association with function sullies their potential purity as art media. Art teachers, galleries and museums sustain these attitudes – the MOMA, for instance, has separate museums for works it deems ‘craft’ and ‘art’ based largely on the work’s medium not its intent or effect (Yet Picasso painted on clay, Chagall made stained glass, Duchamp’s urinal became iconic, Andy Warhol based much of his imagery on functional objects…).
It’s a great victory for the art dealers. It is in their best interest to promote and sell an artist making bronzes (multiple times) than one making clay pieces, or one painting in oils on canvas than one working in print on paper. Why sell something for $3000 when you can spend as much time and sell for $30,000?
Self-sustaining longevity is, after all, a big selling point, and it can justify big prices and hefty gallery commissions. A work that lasts with little help from its owner is more desirable than one that needs care, or that can be damaged by dusting, for instance. As long as there’s no war or shortage of metals, or as long as they’re not dropped or banged, bronzes are forever, and as long as there are no floods, no direct sunlight, no mould or too much touching, oils are forever- if they were painted well to begin with. (Yet, fine art museums have staff and spend much money on display, restoration and preservation of their collections).
Ok. To a person or especially public institution investing considerable amounts of money on a work, self-sustaining longevity  might be relevant. However, judgments based on this question rarely have a place in a viewer’s pure viewing experience. All media well used require serious technique, and all works, no matter their materials or functionality, express through their media.  There are probably many fascinating reasons why the work is in one medium or technique and not another, but the most important is that it’s in the medium or technique the artist chose. That could be the starting point of any query, not what the artist didn’t choose.

Friday 5 September 2014

The Old Quarter

Riding the Wave
photo collage

Ok people, we need to talk about what seems to be a 21st century phenomenon: retirees taking art courses and expecting to exhibit and sell their creations.
            Many of you come to art after a working lifetime in other fields, all geared up because sometime in your youth or childhood, you must have done something artistic (with apologies to Rogers and Hammerstein). You are adults +, have perhaps been highly successful in positions of power or authority; perhaps you brought children to adulthood and usefulness, perhaps you have accomplished miracles as members of philanthropic associations and/or garnered respect for your knowledge in and contributions to your field. Or conversely, maybe you endured or even hated the domain that ate up your creativity and felt dissatisfied and under-appreciated in it; you have spent a lifetime dreaming of something more exciting, maybe something sexier.
Then you have retired, or approached retirement. Your profession no longer needs you, or you no longer need it.
            What to do? Too many of you come to art classes expecting to just cross the floor, to sashay gracefully into being ‘an artist’ at the same level and with the same ease with which you were something else, and for the same or better acclaim. Perhaps you’ve held on to that pleasure or praise you got from a teacher long ago, or nurtured the idea that you’d have been an artist if life hadn’t conspired against you. All you have to do is to just do it and all will be well.
            I hate to be the one to bring this up but I must point out that it doesn’t quite work that way.
Seniors retire and come to art classes as adults, expecting to pick up where they left off, forgetting they often left off art as children or youth. They believe that the knowledge, skill and attitudes, but especially the desire they had then are sufficient, that with a couple of courses here, a few how-to’s there and very little practice in between, they will become ‘artists’.
It doesn’t seem to matter to them that art is a living practice,  that its tools, its materials, its subjects, its styles, its themes and its concepts have kept pace with an eve-changing world. They disregard the fact that others have dedicated their lives to research, discussion, debate and practice to sustain, grow and popularize the profession. They will be the artists they were as children or youth and ignore, even disdain, the entire body of knowledge and skill that has evolved into today’s art world.
As an educator, this is my lesson if you are one of these seniors: Forget supplementing your retirement income. Make art because you have your own images clamouring to be expressed, for which you will take whatever time it takes to learn and develop the necessary skills, techniques and concepts. But do so aware, connected. If you are the artist you imagine you always were, if you really love art, not just the romance of it, then you will engage with all aspects of the profession to fill in the gaps in your knowledge and understanding. You will find this exciting, not onerous; you will not lament the money, space, time and effort it will take. You will support the profession not just as a maker, not just to exploit what others have accomplished, but also as an informed viewer. You will respect what it is to ‘be’ an artist.


Tuesday 12 August 2014

When Things Get Crazier

The Lure
photo collage 

            Becoming a juggler was not in my life plan when I set out to be an artist but a juggler is what I have come to be in this circus that is my life as an artist. My big top is the interface between making art and doing everything else. See me teetering on the very uneven ground destabilized by the current economy and world politics, juggling three full-time occupations, each squeezed into part-time time: making art as an ongoing, body-of-work process; teaching others to make, think and talk about art; and exhibiting art by other artists who themselves are jugglers in their own circus big tops.           
The show must go on. Busy-ness isn’t any excuse. These days, my current even more-than-usual busy-ness is due to an upcoming exhibition of my own work, so the added pressure of preparing for it is actually a blessing! I am one of the artists in a trio entitled and themed “Inner Narratives’ that will open on September 3 and to which I will be contributing work in clay, pencil, and mixed media assemblage. Today is… August 12! The day of the opening is nearing at an alarming rate.
The work to be included in the exhibition is almost ready. I don’t usually like being unprepared to crate and transport the work a month before the opening but it’s been a struggle to even make new pieces. They are demanding: given the inner narratives theme, they require a level of reflection and focus not easily achieved with repeated interruptions. And the interruptions are certainly not only repeated but equally demanding of my reflection and focus.
What is difficult in this juggling act isn’t the busy-ness – I love all three aspects of my professional life - it’s being able to free myself from the two other aspects of my thinking and visualizing when I go into my own studio to work.
Teaching is a demanding profession for me, whether I do it in the school system, say as a high school teacher, in so-called ‘alternative’ contexts such as co-ops, art centers and not-for-profit environments, or independently, out of my own studio. While different, and regardless of the age group I’m teaching, what all these practices have most in common is the teaching itself. To do it well, and like any good teacher, I have to have expertise, of course, as well as a clear focus and a well-defined course intent. I have to have a tight, progressive curriculum, and a well-prepared series of lesson plans. Since no two groups of people making up a class are the same, and individuals in each group need different levels of instruction, explanation and supervision, I also have to be able to switch and adapt the class improvisationally, in real-time and in direct response to the students. This means I have to immerse myself in techniques, subjects and themes from their most basic levels – levels I have long since integrated in my own art – to their most complex – levels I am myself in the process of exploring. While my teaching has to be authoritative, I also have to work from a completely open position, with sympathy/empathy for the students’ ideas and needs. This complicates my own process.
Similarly, being the curator of an art gallery that does not focus on sales yet that must support or enhance the Value of the artists’’ work requires a specialized type of approach. By Value, I mean not the commercial worth of the work but the importance the medium, the technique, the imagery and the narrative, thematic, conceptual or philosophical content have for the artists themselves. I have to understand and integrate these things as if I were each artist I exhibit to have a sense of how to install, light, write about, promote and conduct tours of the exhibits as the curator. To do this, I must visit the artists’ studios, grill them about every aspect of their work, read everything about them or those by whom they are influenced, look again and again at their art and think about it as an artist, as a viewer, as a historian, as a critic, as a teacher, and finally as the curator.
Walking into my studio each time after I’ve taught a class or mounted an exhibition becomes like a medical procedure, say a brain transplant. It takes me time to reconnect my artist brain: I have to seek out, recognize and disconnect concerns and imagery that are for or about my students or the artists I show. It’s a job to re-identify who I am when I’m creating, not a different person from my teacher or curator self but the same person coming at imagery, my own, from a completely different perspective. This takes time, and I’ve had to develop numerous cleansing rituals to help me proceed such as writing in a studio diary, singing and dancing around to my favourite music as I prepare the studio, going methodically through my sketch books and plans and carefully lining up the tools and materials I’ll need for the work ahead. It’s a good thing I work alone because in extreme cases, I also talk to my images as I encourage them to materialize. Until I actually start creating, I feel like Dr. McCoy in the original Star Trek 3 series episode entitled ‘Spock’s Brain’, where he had to restore Spock’s brain to his body (Written by Lee Cronin and directed by Marc Daniels).
Should I ever ‘retire’, it will only mean that I’ll stop juggling. My aching joints will be happy. I’ll try to do each of my three ‘things’ separately, perhaps alternatively. I’ll mostly sculpt, draw/paint and write, of course; these are absolutes. They are manifestations of the brain function, ‘artist’, that fits most snugly into my cranium. But I will still teach, because it is amazing to awaken or encourage the art passion in someone else, and I will organize exhibitions, because it is my most satisfying way to celebrate and support my community.
Until then, however, a juggler I must still be, today in my studio, tomorrow visiting other artists’ studios, the day after conducting a tour of the group exhibition for which I am the curator, the day after that back in my studio…