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.