August 2017 S M T W T F S « Jan 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
- The Sound of Peace January 1, 2017
- OH CANADA … forgive me June 30, 2015
- The Kingston Juried Art Salon 2015 May 31, 2015
- Old Dreams March 31, 2015
- Señor H.D … a love story, a tale of a muse March 20, 2015
- THE BURNING OF BRAZIL March 15, 2015
- The Poetry Game March 12, 2015
- RUMINATIONS OF THE HEART — on Valentine’s Day February 14, 2015
- Art and Controversy – notes on a love affair and taking a moment … January 31, 2015
- HAPPY NEW YEAR! December 31, 2014
- 365 October 31, 2014
- Writings on the Wall – capturing a moment, leaving a mark September 30, 2014
- Canadian Anti Spam Law – myths and realities July 31, 2014
- O CANADA! July 1, 2014
- How Did You Get Here Anyway? – exploring life’s paths June 30, 2014
- From Vermeer to Balthus – exploring the work of others May 31, 2014
- The Judgment: are you good or bad? April 30, 2014
- A Final Word on Weather – the misery index March 17, 2014
- Snow Cakes, hygge and other weather ponderings February 28, 2014
- She Set a Cake Upon Her Head … February 14, 2014
- AULD LANG SYNE – a toast to Anne January 31, 2014
Tomorrow is Canada Day. And with all the wonderful Canadian musicians we’re blessed with, here I am listening to the music of Silvio Rodriguez … a Cuban. When Spanish is sung I don’t hear the words … unless I make great efforts to, and Rodriguez’ voice, like a delicate instrument, blends seamlessly with the strings of his guitar. Later I may listen to Eric Satie (French) or Philip Glass (American) or my favourite of favourites – Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Estonian). I need music this night without the distraction of words that take my heart and other than Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Canada’s dear Glenn Gould, my Canadian collection – sadly small as it is – doesn’t work with writing.
Despite my admiration of Canadian musicians, writers, artists, architects and filmmakers, I’ve been known to be a poor diplomat for my country, especially in my early years. Then, dipping my toes into the ponds of travels, I was forever surprised when the widely-worldly explorers – those who had been everywhere – expressed a cherished dream of visiting Canada one day. In reaction, my skeptical anti-Canada mind thought: ok, you’ve been everywhere, so, if you haven’t been to Canada and you so really wanted to go there and want to, still, then… why haven’t you?
Being Canadian, I could only assume they were being polite.
Politeness is something Canadians are known for. While the Dutch pride themselves in being rude (frank, they call it ) – piercing your pupil and calling you ‘bitch’ if you don’t reciprocate eye to eye while raising your glass, Canadians are by contrast … humble. To put it simply, we are known to break our backs bending backwards with apologies.
Indeed, Canada has a reputation for being many good things —- polite, clean, fair, trustworthy and trusting. There’s a naivety about us. A quietness. Rarely known to hog the stage, we are people who dress for comfort versus fashion (let’s exclude Montreal here) and being reserved, we don’t make a big deal of things. Reasonable and soft spoken we dance a quiet two step in our crepe soled shoes and sweat pants. We sing folk songs around a campfire while gently patting our mosquitoes (to death) …. And if we want to be wild we’ll play a little blues banjo and go hunting for moose. Boring? — who said that?
Of course, we have extraordinarily beautiful landscapes … but … so what? Doesn’t every country have its geographical wonders? True, we are known for our wealth of wide open spaces … but, in fact, most of those vast spaces are inhabitable – it’s not a matter of who would want to live there but …Who could live there?
You see, when viewed through the eyes of someone (moi) who so naively thinks the grass is greener beyond the sea, I confess to having had a bleak and dismal view of my homeland. I admit to having grown to love this country only through the eyes of strangers. The positive note here is … I’ve learned.
I’ve learned that there’s a great deal to be said for our geographical wonders, whether it’s Niagara Falls or one of our zillions of lakes (2 million, roughly) – for there is nothing quite like gliding over our pristine waters in a kayak or canoe, hearing the haunting voices of loons or the slap of a beaver’s tail. All that said, though – in truth, it’s not landscapes that make countries – people do. Values do. Human rights do. As do our musicians, writers, artists and others who speak without fear of losing their pens, their hands, their tongues … or their heads, for that matter. Indeed, we are a civilized people here and despite our reputation for being on the dull side, we are also a people of passion – but we know how to direct those passions positively.
It’s not all a bowl of blueberries though… Our current government has at times been an embarrassment, surely. Even so, a stroll through the news each morning tells me that we are among the best of places to live. This little planet – and not for the first time – is in a dark phase right now. … As Canadians, let’s applaud that we are on the brighter part of this world. Let’s bombard the skies with fireworks – not bombs – and rejoice that we are exciting the dark night with colour.
The world is wide and full with adventure, it’s true, but nothing is as spectacular as a place one calls home.
To see my Canada poem, click here: O Canada
Happy Canada Day!!!
Kingston’s Juried Art Salon has historically been a venue to showcase the “best” work of regional and local artists and — as we’re blessed with many fine artists in this area — it has been the Salon’s intention to include as many of their works as space will allow. And that is a good thing.
As a juror it’s tempting to include everything that you like – everything that surprises you, intrigues you, amazes you with its technical virtuosity or engages you conceptually … And, yet, this can have its downside – and I speak here from the perspective of the viewer.
With thirty to forty artworks juxtaposed tightly within a space that is never, ever big enough, we, as an audience, are unable to see individual pieces clearly. To use a kitchen analogy: if you stir too many good things into a stew, nothing stands out – and no single ingredient can be appreciated.
With that perspective, we — Lindsay Fisher and I — chose works with the greatest of care. As artists, we’re both veterans of the application process and we value the time, effort and emotion that go into submitting to a juried exhibition.
Had we unlimited space, there could easily have been at least two, if not three, distinct exhibitions. In this case we focused on works that spoke to this region’s diversity of contemporary art practices and which prompted us to engage in their meaning.
Speaking on behalf of us both, Lindsay Fisher so well articulates our engagement regarding just a few of the pieces within this show – as follows:
“We were moved by notions of social disconnect, so well expressed in Rogalsky’s “Motivational Speaker.” In Derby’s “Fields along highway 51” and Corky’s, “It’s a brewin”, we are drawn to the repurposing of waste , as waste in these works is transformed into something that expresses a new vision. Hamelin’s “Red” seems to speak of our negation of the environment with a sense of humility and prayer, while ideas of feminism, motherhood and the changing shift in how we define what a family looks like are wonderfully echoed in Soudant’s “New Born Tapestry” and Foster’s “Daddy’s Pride and Joy”. Lastly, Montgomery’s “Smoker” and MacKinnon’s monumental “Dad” suspend a question in the room: “What do the multitude of lines that twist and travel along our skin tell us about life as art?”
It has been an honour to adjudicate this exhibition and to work with my co-juror, Lindsay, whose integrity and intelligence brought a depth of understanding and humility to the process.
Above all, my thanks to the participating artists who have made this exhibition what it is – allowing us insight into their creative processes, their thoughts and their motivation.
And last, but – not at all least -I bow to all the artists who submitted their artworks – many wonderful pieces which, although not presented here – are worthy works, nonetheless.
I thank the Kingston Arts Council for hosting this event, their art director, Greg Tilson, for his enthusiasm and for accommodating Lindsay and I, in opening the gallery to us for a few more hours, when we needed to further ruminate on our selections. Also, I applaud Ally Jacob, for her time and invaluable expertise in hanging this show.
I hope you will all celebrate the artists in this exhibition – and that these works will bring something to you, as they did to us.
and more… see the show!
Tett Centre for Creativity & Learning, 370 King St. W, Kingston.
Mondays to Saturdays from Noon-5pm
… until June 26th, 2015
We pass them on city streets and, if not rushing madly by, we may drop them a coin but rarely do we wonder how they got there. Even had we time to listen, would we want to know? Most of us begin life with dreams and potential and we learn how to nurture these throughout the years. But there are many paths to hell – drug abuse, mental illness, lack of education, loss of work, family disputes, marital breakdown, poor choices and just plain bad luck — and Charlie had her feet on most of them.
I met her one evening beneath the church tower where everyone gathered at sunset for drinks, tapas and conversation. The clouds had finally lifted, the weeks of rain had ceased and the waiters buzzed from table to table to fill their orders – gambas pil pill, calamari, a glass of wine or a beer. Charlie joined our table, sitting next to me. Animated and chain smoking, her gravelly voice commanded attention and in learning I was an artist, she told me of art fairs I hadn’t heard of and places I’d never seen. Intense but intelligent she talked the talk of the privileged, of having rubbed shoulders with so and so, of her fabulous career in fashion, of the marketing themes she’d made famous, of her marriage into wealth and of her son, a brilliant and beautiful boy she’d not seen in awhile. If called to describe Charlie in one word, it would be: exhausting. She passed me a glossy business card and I was glad when she waved toward a distant table, grabbed her bag and left. She had places to go and people to see.
A year or two later, shortly after my annual return to Spain, Charlie reappeared in the village. It was cold and wet as winters often are in the mountains and rather than gathering in the plaza after a long day, people filled the little bars and restaurants. Again, Charlie plunked herself next to me. It didn’t matter that I was in conversation with someone else. With big hugs and sloppy kisses she claimed me. She was not looking good and for whatever reason, pity or curiosity, I listened. That is, I tried to listen, but there was no following her. Her nervous energy defined her, always, but this time it was as though she was plugged into a wall socket. Electricity pulsed through her big veins and with the crazed fluttering of a trapped bird, her every gesture – those wild smiles, her darting eyes, those skinny arms piercing the air – frightened me.
Her source of income had been scaled back and she’d taken a small room near the bus stop. She couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore, thus, she’d returned to the village, a place where she’d forged a history. I didn’t know her well but I knew her well enough to know she was unhappy. She’d not seen her son in two years or so, but she didn’t blame her ex husband or in-laws for cutting her off. As she spoke, catching remnants here and there, I wondered who she’d really been before, when all was well and the sky was the limit. I could see she’d once been good looking, although now her skin was baked dry to her bones and it was apparent that she was educated, although now her words made little sense. She’d had and realized ambitions, which now she drew from her bag of memories – disjointed tales of success and the grand and wonderful parties that had celebrated them. She’d been in love, at least once, and likely more, and left the arms of a family, a husband and a son, because she just couldn’t deal with their demands … and not because she didn’t want to. She couldn’t.
“She’s got major problems,” I said to a friend.
“Yeah!” he said, “It’s called heroine.”
The last time I saw her it was early spring, sometime in March, and although the sun shone clearly, the air bit and you needed a scarf, even under the sun of mid afternoon. Enjoying the sharp shadows of a brilliant day, I sipped my café con leche in the plaza with a friend who was visiting from Canada. It must have been Sunday for families had gathered with their children and, as always, there were tables of foreigners – people who’d either settled there or had travelled from different parts of Europe to enjoy the hiking. Casting my eyes about the plaza, a scene on the street above caught my eye: an argument, two people, one of them still and silent while the other, a peculiar person – seemingly a woman, gesticulated wildly, wiry arms arms stabbing the air. Some weird thing jostled on her head – a gigantic turban, like a twisted knot of old, worn clothes. She – Charlie – descended into the plaza and walking through the tables, she passed me and others she knew. A relief, for the moment.
One day soon after, following a long day of work (me in my studio, my friend in his office) we sat in the plaza once again under sunset skies, our shopping bags full with the makings of a meal or two. And then, Charlie – as was her way – appeared out of nowhere and sat herself down. Her turban bounced erratically with her voice. She had nothing, she said, her source of income (from her in laws) had been cut off completely and she was sleeping in doorways or the foyers of banks and other public spaces. Did I have a place to sleep? she asked – she wasn’t asking for a bed, just a bit of floor space. For a moment, I wondered – could I have her in my home and, if I did, what would that mean for the days to come? My friend, K, was palpably uncomfortable with this idea … and I was glad he was, as I was too. Early that evening we met with others who knew her far better. They’d declined her space in their houses as well. They’d extended their hands several times, offering to get her registered for financial assistance and finding places she could go for help with her addictions. But Charlie was beyond that. She didn’t want to conform to rules. She didn’t want to be helped. What did she want then?
She wanted her life back. But there was no way she would get anywhere near her life of the past without working toward it. … Indeed, perhaps, her life of the past bore the seed of her problem.
In thinking about Charlie, I think about Spain and when I think about Spain – among many other things – I think of the gypsies of Malaga. Those gypsy women take great fun in trapping you as you’re walking – hoping to sell you a magic herb, or tell your fortune, all good things you want to hear .
I don’t know how Charlie’s life moved on … but I don’t think the prospects were good.
Anyway, in mulling all this, I realized that we’ve all old dreams that never panned out quite as we may have hoped. Sometimes we exceed our dreams. Other times, it’s more difficult to find our way.
And so, these words spilled. I dedicate this to Charlie and all of us who’ve looked back on our lives and wondered “what went wrong here?” or “how do I accept the loss of someone?” or “how do I get beyond those things that are missing in my life?” ———- I think almost everyone knows loss in one form or another, and that is what the following piece, Old Dreams, is about.
In dusty corners buried deep
old dreams rise
from borrowed sleep
And like all beggars on this street
They raise their palms and cry
just a dime,
of your precious time
And we’ll kiss your lies goodbye
We’ll pocket all your promises
We’ll drown your broken hearts
We’ll make a little statue
Of all your broken parts
Untie those knots
You knew weren’t yours
Pretend they never happened
We’ll put the past to sleep
We’ll fill a bottle full of hopes
never meant to be
We’ll say a pretty little prayer
And throw it out to sea
We’ll call upon the strings of time
To strum a simple tune
And if the night is clouded dark
we’ll pretend …
There is a moon
Just a dime
of your precious time
Let us see your hand
We’ll identify your sorrows
Forgetting all those plans
We’ll walk you down your lifeline
We’ll wipe away your tears
We’ll tell you all those lovely things
Your future never hears
We’ll say it doesn’t matter
That things were left undone
We’ll pat you on the back
Never poking fun
Old dreams we are
your best of friends
We never take a chance
We know you like to dance
We know you love romance
We’ll catch you when you fall
Because that’s what we do
Your story’s safe with us
The world revolves ‘round you
It’s true that we are gypsies
We twist the hearts
You’ve left a trail of bread crumbs
We seek and so we find
All your faded treasures
Smooth upon the shore
We’ll string your secrets
‘round your neck
We’ve seen it all before
From dusty corners buried deep
We rise again
from borrowed sleep
And like all beggars on this street
We raise our palms and cry
just a dime
of your precious time
And we’ll kiss your whys goodbye
You’re sitting there with your muse and your muse is telling you something and you’re following it, and you end up the next day looking at it and thinking, ‘What the hell was the muse saying to me?’ – Nathan Oliveira (Artist)
“The real comic muse is the one under whose laughing mask tears roll down.”
– Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs, (Author)
Not always, but often, my muse arises from the inside-out, and from this place inside – wherever it is rooted, be it the head or the heart – from time to time, the whimsical, the weird and the humorous ascend unbidden from their crawlspace. Conversely, when working from the outside-in, we are inspired by the tangible; be it a luscious dish of fruit, the face of a stranger, a landscape or even a concept, the muse exists as a thing already, complete in its form, with its raison d’être … And wherever or however the muse originates, we take its hand and run with it. And so, it was with Señor H.D.
We met on a narrow side-street in Nerja, Spain, beneath a bright and burning sun, off the beaten path of restaurants and tourists. Clothes hung quietly from balconies to dry, the air hummed softly with the gossip of neighbours; it was just a normal residential day, with children dressed in their Sunday best and a red ball bouncing over the cobblestones. So, who knew passion tapped its foot, waiting, as sometimes passion does?
But that’s life, isn’t it? It’s all about the crossing of paths.
Meandering along as a group of friends, we turned a corner and there he was – the love of my moment! He was standing on a table – an appropriate place for his kind, and he was among good company: a gang of Pez Heads gleaming in their suits of reds, blues and yellows, bobble heads of only the highest class, a few respectable dinosaurs, action figures bulging with promise, and, of course, the omnipresent teddy bears, a bit worn for wear with a life’s job well done … the crème de la crème. Here stood an array of a little boy’s collection baking in the sunlight, a tale of love discarded, of toys outgrown. Yet, among a crowd of even that caliber, Señor H.D., shone like an angel – with his fancy costume, that sexy hat, those crazy legs, and that smile (boding of an adventurous future) – well, the long and short of it was: I had to have him. And for a euro handed to a little hand, H. D. was mine. … As we sauntered away, it was Marion who noticed the peculiar compartmental crease in his face: That’s got to be there for a reason, no? Indeed, facial creases are never for nothing, thus, back we tracked to the table where the little boy explained, “Well, you see, if you scrunch his legs up into his chest, he opens his mouth.” He tried with all his might to demonstrate, and then, giving up, he sighed, “…But he doesn’t work so well anymore.” Indeed, scrunching one’s legs into one’s chest would open anyone’s mouth, but H. D. had retired from this monkey trick; his face had grown stiff with time. His raison d’être – designed to entertain the innocently masochistic minds of children with his expressions of pain – had finally shifted. Slipping him gently into my purse, I promised him a new life. … One day.
Sometimes muses sit around for a while – even years – doing nothing, but in this case, although a quiet fellow, H. D. begged attention. On returning him “home” to my goat shed studio in the mountain village of Competa, I set him safely upon a rough wooden shelf next to my laptop and every morning, rain or shine, he greeted me with his renegade smile, as though bursting with the excitement of a new life and all the trouble it could throw his way. This was not a fellow who would fall from a wall, spilling his yolk among shattered shell. After years in hiding, it was his time to shine and suicidal thoughts were the furthest from his mind. As a woman, I must say that nothing inspires like a confident man with a joie de vivre … thus, one day, in the warm light of a day near done, with a palette of love, I painted him.
… H.D. liked his portrait, I think, although he may have preferred, as do we all, that I’d blurred his creases or rendered him thinner – but, he is an egg, after all, not a string bean, and a good egg he is. Now, many months later, he sits on a shelf in my kitchen and from his place above my stove, he watches me cook. No doubt, omelettes are a source of some discomfort, but, for the most part, although he’s no longer the apple of my eye (again, he’s an egg) he seems content to be what he is, The Man of the House, habitually reading the morning news, and watching sitcoms at night. … But that’s the nature of passion, isn’t it? Being unsustainable it must evolve, eventually, into something else: something quieter, something softer, something that smiles rather than roars. That’s not to say he no longer inspires me. One day, yet, he may climb the sixteen steps to my studio and posing himself on the windowsill, where the sunlight casts him in the most flattering way, he’ll tip his hat, wink, blink and blow me a kiss … and then, we will begin all over again.
… Such is the power of the muse.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” ― Marcus Aurelius
Frank didn’t understand it either. A purposeless activity, he called it, a waste of time, maybe, but like picking your nose, it’s not what you’ve got in the end that counts. Everybody needs something, he said. He himself continued to write, scribbling furiously through the pages of his next book as though racing toward a deadline – only to destroy it.
The first time, years ago, was the burning of Brazil. She’d tried stopping him then, grabbing his arm – Frank? What are you doing? Wait… – as four years of manuscript fell into the flames. She’d cringed as the white sheets curled and blackened. She hadn’t understood. He was mad, surely, caught up in the moment, encircled by darkness beneath those wilderness stars, that full moon dancing on the lake, the campfire flickering shadows, frog songs rising from the shore below. That moon – la luna, luna, lunatic.
But there was nothing maniacal in the way Frank moved – calm, deliberate, without ceremony or fuss. He skewered two wieners on a sharpened branch, held them over the fire. And then he asked, Did we bring mustard?
The last one, Papua New Guinea, was dropped in the sea. It wasn’t his choice, he said, as though his actions belonged to somebody else. It was the way it was, a prescribed course, a bad habit, maybe – or maybe not. Nevertheless, he felt no remorse in disposing of his books. On the contrary, each time it relieved him, as though he’d returned something stolen to its proper place.
The above vignette is an old writing, inspired by someone I knew. Frank was a Czech immigrant, part of a Czech community of artists (painters, writers, etc.) who’d made their home on the east coast of Canada. Frank was part of that group but not; although bound by a common culture he lived outside its circle, knocking on its doors now and then for a shower or a meal. And no one expected anything of him because, with Frank, you never knew what to expect.
The last time I saw Frank he was living in a bare boarded, one room shed in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. He invited me in. It was the middle of winter and he was fretting because he’d had to buy a wood stove. He despised possessions and he felt a stove tied him down. I don’t know how he’d lived there without one, or how long he’d been there, but he’d always lived on the edge.
A single, worn mattress lay on the floor with a sleeping bag spread over it. No pillow. No windows. No bathroom. I’ve got an outhouse he said … You need to go? I didn’t. On a rough wooden table, his old pink typewriter, plastic and portable, sat with a sheet of paper rolled into it, dense with faded words – he needed a new ribbon. What are you writing these days, Frank? He smiled nervously with chapped lips. Ah y’know, I write always about life. He offered me the only chair and sat himself down on a low wooden crate. Did I want tea? he asked, and poured me a cup from a pot on the stove. A single light bulb dangled from the ceiling and we talked, perhaps, for a half hour or less. He told me he was eating only yogurt. Yogurt had everything the body needed, he said, and occasionally he would get some French fries at Jack’s. He made enough money doing odd jobs here and there, hammering nails, lifting stuff, helping out all the old people who’d hire him. In the summers, sometimes, he went out on the fishing boats.
Throughout his life he’d sailed on freight ships and worked in mines. He’d clubbed seals somewhere in the far north and traversed the jungles of Brazil on some sort of mission. I don’t know what he was doing in Papua New Guinea but it was a place he wanted to return to. He craved adventure. His favourite book was The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. He’d also been a great fan of Jungian psychology and in particular, the process of individuation. But that last time I saw him, he talked mostly about yogurt. But whatever the subject he spoke intensely. That was Frank.
From time to time I’ve googled his name and, not surprisingly, he leaves no trace. I can’t imagine him sitting behind a computer, addicted to Facebook or Twitter. No… although a man of surprises, that would be a massive stretch. I’d like to think he’s in Papua New Guinea, or wherever he wants to be, sitting behind his typewriter with an endless supply of ribbon to tell his tales – if just to himself.
He needed no audience. His life was his own. And I’d guess it still is.
Now and then you meet someone with whom it is just so much fun to play. You sit down together and your minds start bouncing about, ricocheting off walls and exploding with laughter. … We call these people friends. And I have been blessed with more than my share.
Still… the poetry game is something quite special. And I’ve not had the pleasure of playing this game with all my dearest of friends – for whatever reason: sometimes we’re just too busy catching up on life and, thus, playing with words doesn’t come into our precious time of sharing. The poetry game does demand some moments of leisure but, beyond that, it requires little: two friends, a sheet of paper, a pen, and whatever words fall.
It goes like this:
You flip a coin to see who goes first. One person writes a line or two and the other follows with a line or two or three. There are no rules carved in stone – it’s a game, after all … and so it goes. It need not rhyme … although it can. It could be stream of consciousness prose or a story that builds from beginning to end … shape it how you will. As an artist, I’ve also played this game of collaboration visually —for example, with other artist friends, sharing a palette and a couple of brushes, we’ve played around on one canvas … Sometimes it works, other times not, but it’s the process – be it a battle or a dance – that is, at it’s very least, amusing. At it’s best, it challenges one to release control and when that happens there’s a bit of magic in the game. Whether with words or images, the point is not to create something great and masterful. It’s just an exercise. It’s play. And, occasionally something quite nice comes out of it.
Sitting down with my friend Gordon in my studio the other night – a place he affectionately calls wonderland – I brought a sheet of paper and a pen. As he loves words as well as I, it’s a game we’ve played several times. So, we flipped a coin – and he won the place to begin it all. And so it went …
As yet, it’s untitled.
If you’ve any ideas for a title, do send them!
And so, our simple poem:
The common push me pull you
The tangled shuffle on floors
The wrenching ventricles
of the heart
Leading us from wars
Those battles falling from thin air
The whirling chaos, an art
Where life falls into pieces
But never apart
Moved from within, then straight ahead
Another hill to climb
We rise to higher places
Soul and mind
By Gordon Gower and JT Winik
Throughout evolution, ostracism was death indeed. – Helen Fisher
You should read history–look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing. They always happen to the best men, you know. – George Elliot
Pain can be alleviated by morphine but the pain of social ostracism cannot be taken away. – Derek Jarman
Long ago, there was a little boy named Gregory. Thin and frail, pale and poor, he was an outcast. Tall but bent, with clothes too large, cinched at the waist, he seemed like someone you shouldn’t know and so, we didn’t – we didn’t want to know him. We only observed his pointed features, his running nose, his crooked teeth, his blonde hair, cropped short on the sides but long on the top and as dry as straw. His eyes, grey or blue, as transparent as water, were rimmed in red, as though infected. He was older than the rest of us by a year or two, or maybe not, because in grade three one doesn’t know very much about anything at all. We only saw him from the outside. I never shared a word with him, nor heard him speak. If our teacher paid him any attention, his lips may have moved, but we heard nothing.
It was Valentine’s Day and I’d proudly brought cookies my mother had made, shaped like hearts and lined with icing. Earlier that week, we’d all brought shoe boxes to art class and with paint, hearts, stars and glitter, we transformed these into post boxes, each baring our name. We stuck them all together with tape or glue, a three tiered, gaudy grid of hope and popularity: The Valentine Post Office. Set at the back of the classroom, Valentine cards accumulated surreptitiously, and although we were not permitted to open anything, we scanned the piles, guesstimating our numbers among the others. I don’t know if Gregory had a post box, but he must have had. In retrospect, it was unlikely that he’d have had a shoebox but surely the teacher would have supplied one. She was a nice and good teacher, kind and gentle, but these were times before the embrace of inclusivity.
As one of two “postmen” (there were not postal workers then in the age of men) I gathered each student’s mail and delivered it to the front of the class where our teacher sat, not at her desk, but before a long table. Here, stacks of mail arranged by name, shaped a graph from A to Z– showing, with little doubt – who had most and who had least. Even at this point, Gregory was not part of the equation; if we thought about his place among the others, I’ve surely forgotten, discarding discomfort as we all do.
But there is one thing I cannot forget, and not for lack of trying.
Moving from one stack to another, our teacher called our names and one at a time we rose to the front of the class to receive our envelopes. At our desks, we opened these greetings embellished with hearts, cupids and arrows, kings and queens, roses, birds, and butterflies and all manner of goofy characters who whispered be mine, I’m yours, you’re liked, we’re friends. And then, she called my name again.
The card she handed me was not in an envelope. It was not a card as I knew cards to be. A flimsy piece of paper, like newsprint, it had had been torn into the shape of a heart, awkwardly inscribed with a dull pencil, Happy Valentine’s Day, signed: Gregory.
Embarrassment consumed me. Why would he send me this terrible thing? Catching his eye at the back of the room, my feelings twisted into a knot as he sat there trembling and so painfully alone, watching me. But it all happened in milliseconds. With a mind of its own, my hand crushed his card and dropped it into the teacher’s wastebasket.
People often say they’ve no regrets, but I do have regrets, and this is but one of them. I shall regret that moment for the rest of my life. Acts of rejection take many forms. Even in silence their voices scream. And it breaks my heart that in a sweeping motion – but not without consciousness of right and wrong — I so destroyed someone that day.
Now and then, I’ve wondered about Gregory – where he is, what he’s done, how his life evolved, whether he is even alive. His eyes haunt me still, they’ve made me a better person, maybe – an ongoing task. His Valentine card, simple and honest, ugly but beautiful, was without doubt the most meaningful and heartfelt card of the day. It has taught me much.
Some studies with infants suggest that we are born with a sense of right and wrong, good and bad but ALSO inherent to us may be the sense of discrimination toward those who are “different.”
*Are Kids Born Good or Evil? (an experiment): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLYRDsJADgg
In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves. — Buddha
Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way – and the fools know it. —Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest. — William Hazlitt
Art and controversy have long been passionate bedfellows. Before Manet’s Olympia depicted a prostitute reclining in her boudoir or Duchamp’s urinal (Fountain) upset the art world with its audacity in proclaiming found objects as art, long before Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or David Czerny’s Entropa, the wide and whirling sphere of artists courting controversy – throughout and since – have been twisting and knotting the bed sheets with the steamy ardor of provocation. Indeed, it is fun to surmise that since women and men first scratched their feelings across the surface of rough cave walls by the light of a torch, there stood others with nostrils flaring and arms crossed, stamping their muddy feet in anger and protest.
It’s a love affair, true, with Arta and Contro, a bond of soul mates spurning approval. They laugh and play, they stick their tongues out at the world, giggling like adolescents, flagrantly erasing, with the flick of a foot in the sand, those tidy circles of conformity, acceptance, authority and safety. In doing so, they disturb, they challenge, they break barriers and, if lucky, they prompt debate.
Unless challenged, this little blue planet swirls seamlessly through time, oblivious to all that occurs on its surface. The world is essentially blind. It has air and water, land and life, but it has no eyes. It has no ears. Nor can it speak – it has no voice of its own. As its people, we can use it, abuse it, kick it in the butt out of its orbit if we wish and it won’t whisper the slightest complaint. Yet, it craves to be heard. Voices rise on its behalf and Arta and Contro are part of that voice. We may not want to acknowledge their childish antics for their love for each other infects us with itches and so we scratch. For some parts of the world we scratch until we bleed, wishing for someone to hear, as heads fall like stones to the sand, silently. … But it’s not as simple as having ears or eyes, or even voice.
The recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris have provoked discussion on some level but not much in the way of fruitful exchange. Certainly, we’ve been inspired to hold hands in a deeply fervid stance of solidarity in the name of freedom of expression but, as would be expected of any highly emotional reaction to a horrid event, divisiveness reigns at this moment. Moderate Muslims -those who would not wield a sword nor aim a gun – have felt suddenly pushed and shoved outside the circle of acceptance, even in western countries within which they live as citizens, where they raise their children, where they pay their taxes, where they value life and peace as anyone would, with no more inclination to strap a bomb to their body than you or I.
It is human nature to assign blame, for, surely, someone must be at fault. So we point here and there, blindly seeking culprits, as happens when threats fall too close to home. Some point their fingers at Charlie Hebdo, at their victims, lying there in pools of blood. And even for those of us who held hands in support of the dead, few of us want to stand too close to those pools, lest we find ourselves lying there too. Others cast their eyes at their own, be they moderate Muslims, politicians, governments or laws … because, surely, laws can solve everything … can’t they?
The thing is, with emotions charged in times like these, despite the millions of je suis Charlies,… rational and thinking minds are but fleeting comets at this moment, there and gone, not to be seen again within our lifetime. It would be nice to capture some of those comets, raise a big, blue,voluminous bowl to the skies, then whisk them around like eggs and pour them into a pan where they might unify and fluff up into something palatable and pure, full with complexity but free of the sour tastes of vengeance and strife. If we’re to give the world time… time to think … then, perhaps, beyond our ears, eyes, and voice, we must give it not only our hearts but our minds … rational minds that are melded with our hearts rather than hearts that fly, helter-skelter, like injured bats, erratic, fearful and worst of all, hostile. — If we must point our fingers anywhere, let’s point at those who pointed guns for they are a major symptom of sickness, of psychopathy, of the irrational and are the textbook example of emotions run amok.
Arta and Contro? … Well, they are just doing their job as they’ve always done, shaking things up, as they should. And I hope they shall continue twisting their sheets for eternity, because a world without them is a world without itches, and a world without itches is a world that is blind.
My only hope is that those who speak on behalf of this little blue planet can take a moment of silence, of introspection – a moment divorced of primordial anger, a moment in which we cast egos aside, a moment of relief from self and economical interests – a moment to think, not about blind retaliation but to really think about what we’re dealing with here, about what is important and how to give voice to this place we call home.
“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been” – RainerMaria Rilke
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.” — Little Gidding – T. S. Elliot
“May the New Year bring you courage to break your resolutions early! My own plan is to swear off every kind of virtue, so that I triumph even when I fall!” – Moonchild, Alister Crowley
“I was here but now I’m gone
I left my name to carry on
Those who liked me
Liked me well
Those who didn’t can go to hell'”
― E.M. Crane, Skin Deep (the bathroom wall)
“Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy” ― Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
“I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the stupidities of so many scribblers.” – Pompeii 79AD (CE)
I like graffiti, in the same way I enjoy old cemeteries. Each gives us a little insight into a life; whether defining a span of years or with a fleeting moment’s scrawl on a bathroom wall, a message is left which says, simply, I was here, or we were here, or I loved someone, or this is what I think. And it seems we’ve been doing this for as long as we’ve been people. Perhaps, subconsciously, even the young are inherently (and always) aware of mortality, thus, we record our moments to trap time. Surely we do so excessively with photographs but long before the camera, we made monuments to ourselves and others with words or pictures scratched or painted on whatever surface begged our stamp.
The delicate lines of prehistoric cave paintings, those beautiful renderings of animals we’re all familiar with, allow us to glimpse how lives once were, yet, those that most deeply move me are the stencils of hands. Place our hand beside them and there is no difference. Those hands had fingerprints, they felt cold and heat, they knew the sensations of rough and smooth, they spoke with gestures, they touched others, they fought and killed and held, as well, the slipperiness of newborns. I was here, they say. Or, we were here together.
Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), Santa Cruz, Argentina, Age: 9,000 – 13,000 years
And then there came words…
Some of the most famous and infamous writings on walls are found in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city near Naples, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79AD (CE). Buried beneath ash, the forms of its people were immaculately preserved but even were they not, the words they wrote would call them to life:
“Aufidius was here.”
“Marcus loves Spendusa.”
“I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you. – Severus”
“I have screwed many girls here.” (a brothel)
“Apollinaris, physician of the Emperor Titus, had a good shit here!” (bathroom wall)
“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog.”
“Let everyone in love come and see. I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?”
“To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.”
(Note : I’ve been known to echo words of this genre in discovering lumps of dog-poop on my front lawn.)
“Traveler, you eat bread in Pompeii but you go to Nuceria to drink. At Nuceria, the drinking is better.”
“The late drinkers ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia eadile. Florus ad Fructus wrote this.”
“Albanus is a bugger.”
“Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life.”
“Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him perish who knows not love. Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.”
Just as we see today, the graffiti of Pompeii took many forms. From political propaganda to declarations of love, and bitter words, too, of love lost — Who, even now, would not wish to clobber Venus now and then? Of course, then as now, the gorilla-minded pounded their chests while scribbling their conquests. Yet, of all the Pompeii words that have survived, perhaps the most poignant is (on the surface, at least) the most banal: “On April 19th, I made bread.” — A euphemism? Perhaps – but as the scribes of Pompeii were not known for their discretion, I like to take it as it is. … Perhaps it was his or her first time making bread. I made bread for the first time last winter, and although I didn’t run about noting it on the walls of the city, it was, nevertheless, absurdly exciting.
I did once carve a heart into a tree while a “he” of long ago looked on. It took a lot longer than expected … wood is hard and we both grew bored as I tediously scratched away with my new Swiss Army knife. But once begun, you can’t stop – you can’t just say, well, I’m tired of this now, and leave a heart half done. … So, I finished the heart. … But I did leave it empty. Setting down my knife, my fingers aching, I suggested we imagine our initials – for that matter, wasn’t it more interesting that way? “Sure,” he said, and we got on with our picnic. But something had shifted; our glorious autumn-day-balloon deflated over stinky egg salad sandwiches and flat ginger ale.
Perhaps others have passed that tree in the woods and wondered what that was about. Why, after all, would someone carve an empty heart? — Perhaps they had nothing to fill it with? Perhaps their love was imaginary. Or perhaps, like the Pompeian who made bread, the idea was more significant than the fact.
I like to think another couple has filled it by now, adding their initials and even a cupid’s arrow. And maybe they brought a marker rather than a knife and, thus, enjoyed a glass of whatever bubbly they were drinking – that was still bubbly — when they sat down upon a blanket to enjoy their autumn day.
When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I’m either going to be a writer or a bum. – Carl Sandburg
Be careful what you get good at doin’, cuz you’ll be doin’ it for the rest of your life.
– Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
… What were the tipping points which paved your path to the present?
As the topic of a recent Arts & Letters Club meeting, the above question did not imply an easy path but in talking careers, we were asked to explore the pivotal events which led us in the direction of where we are now. As artists and writers – including painters, musicians, actors, producers and more – the tales told that evening conjured images of a pinball machine: a little ball ricochets through a maze, is flipped and spun this way and that until, finally, having cleared obstructions, it rolls down the groove to some kind of victory.
It’s a story that applies to all lives and although some careers may travel a more direct zip from A to Z, many if not most, take a circuitous route. Perhaps, like Sylvia Plath, you had no idea what you wanted to be. Others, stepping into the roundabout decided on one direction and then, years later, found the courage to jump the median and shift course. Still others, following a dream, never quite get there but pursue their passions when time allows and strictly for pleasure, while there are those who, knocked swiftly onto a track unforeseen are completely surprised to see where they’ve landed. Paths to the present are rarely paved but when you do find yourself rolling smoothly down a road with the wind in your hair, it’s hard not to believe that it wasn’t meant to be.
Following the crumbs back along the trail of my own career – a rambling walk with its dead ends, roundabouts, good times and experiences I wouldn’t change for any express train – I found myself reaching for those crumbs further and further into the past. Just where did this road begin, anyway?
Within the back cover of an old, musty book there lay an answer. Over the years, since embarking on my adult life, this old book has sat on my shelf as a reminder of a time I remember clearly : … the curly hair phase. For whatever reason, and despite my protestations, my mother liked curls. Taking a lock of my hair, she’d wrap it around her finger, stick it with a bobby pin and so the process continued until the curls dangled and itched until they dried. As you can see, in what may have been my first self portrait, I was not too happy. Beneath those curls, eyebrows knotted and discontent brewed – and even the “pretty girl” to her left was not having a good time. … Until this day I cannot bear anything touching my neck. But what I know beyond the source of this discomfort is that visual expression began early in life. As with most children at that age, drawing was inherent – it functioned to describe thoughts and feelings when the childhood limitations of the written word resembled a fried egg, and drawing was just the best way to get things out.
Pivotal moments may summon visions of light bulbs flashing above our heads or skies rumbling with the parting of clouds to reveal some grand truth, but they aren’t always. Sometimes they are small, nearly insignificant moments and, yet, they burrow into the backs of our brains, arising at some later time with the deep voice of premonition. My such moment, at the age of seven, was just a blip one sunny, summer’s day when neighbourhood children had gathered to play. An older girl of eleven or twelve was the organizer that summer, a natural leader who set about defining the afternoon’s game. We were going to play “community.” I don’t know if that’s what she called it but that’s what it was. And so, like the mayor of a town, she pointed her finger and assigned our roles: you run the grocery store, you are the postman, you are the policeman, you are the baker, you are this and you are that, etc. – And what am I going to be? I asked.
Well, you are the artist.
But, what do I do?
You’ll do what you always do. You’ll make pictures for people to hang in their houses.
That struck me as odd. Making pictures was nothing special in my home. Several of my older siblings drew and painted – it was the norm. It was a pastime. That making pictures could be something one could do as part of a community was absolutely baffling. Indeed, it would be a long time before “being an artist” made any sense at all.
Despite deciding to study art, meanwhile a love of words burgeoned as a second but prominent passion that filled pages of journals with tortured teen moments and very bad poetry. I still painted and drew and the subjects, often morbid, explored themes of loss, death, blood – basically, (with a few exceptions) all things horrific. Looking back, I can’t believe my parents allowed me to paint the ceiling of my bedroom with a sprawling mural of a stabbed Christ-like figure, its black blood (it was monochromatic) dripping down one wall. In their place, I’d have been seriously, very seriously concerned, yet, to their credit, they barely blinked. Perhaps they knew by then that teenagers were peculiar and it was best to leave them to it.
Thus, in art school I joined the ranks of the black-clothed, an anti-uniform way of dressing that was in itself, as distinctive as any uniform might be, and in those wonderful days when your head was bursting with all things renegade, when you owned the world because all your ideas were surely new and utterly, without doubt, extraordinary … well, wasn’t that what being an artist was about?
At that time, I’d thought being an artist was easy. But the more I learned the more I realized how little I knew. It never occurred to me that art-making was serious business, that being an artist meant that one could actually do something worthwhile. Overall, it was a game – a game which, without any practical end in sight, served to satisfy only the expansion of one’s thought processes and wherever those thoughts led … well, that was reason enough. What came out of all this was confidence born of making mistakes, the development of critical thinking, and the ability to criticize not only what one read, saw, heard and lived, but the ability to critique oneself, one’s work, one’s ideas. And there is nothing quite as lovely or as worthwhile as that.
Indeed, there were a lot of bends in the road and, as the little silver ball in the pinball machine, I ricocheted about as much as anyone and if I’ve found my groove, well, it is not a constant and that’s what makes being an “artist” interesting – because one is always a little confused. Because you never grow too comfortable. Because, unless your groove becomes a rut, you’re always challenged. And, as an artist, for that, I’m grateful.
Twice, I have been consciously inspired to work with the images of other artists, these being Vermeer and Balthus. By doing so, the intent was not to replicate the style, nor to attempt to master the technical virtuosity of another, as was a common practice during the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries among students of European art academies. Rather, as with any object of inspiration, the impetus to further explore the work of these two artists was based in my personal experience of their work – a process of reaction and assimilation, the result of which a fresh interpretation was born.
Each artist utilizes the visual language of form, colour, line, composition, texture, negative and positive space, concept, etc., however, what we each make of these visual components, how we use them, creates a “mark” not unlike a fingerprint. Whatever it is that inspires us, does so because it strikes a cardinal chord and, thus, compels a response. In both Vermeer and Balthus I found a compatible visual language and through investigating its similarities discovered dissimilarities and, throughout, my own singular expression in response. Inspiration comes in many ways – reacting to it is the journey.
v e r m e e r : t h e m a u r i t s h u i s g i r l s e r i e s
Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring is a work I first encountered as a child – it appeared as a small reproduction in the “A” volume of an encyclopedia. A was for “art,” among other things, and this volume provided a whirlwind introduction to the world of painting, a miniaturized gallery of Michelangelos, Picassos, Warhols, etc., wherein centuries of art-making were reduced to a mere pages. Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring enthralled me and I recall a lazy summer afternoon, with pencil and a page torn from someone’s notepad, captivated by the act of recreating her haunting gaze. I was not alone in my mesmerization; Vermeer’s girl is one of the most popular of his works, her image so often reproduced that one grows nearly blind to it. Like the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa – seen too often, one is immunized against its impact.
Then, in January of 2000 I found myself face to face with her, “the girl.” An hour or so from Amsterdam (where I was spending the winter), the Mauritshuis Museum in Den Haag (The Hague) was hosting an exhibition entitled Rembrant by Himself, an inaugural gathering of Rembrant’s self-portraits, not something to be missed. The Mauritshuis is an intimate space, crowded with small rooms and large paintings and that day, at least, too many visitors to view anything too clearly. To escape the shoulder to shoulder claustrophobia, I rounded a corner into a room nearly empty of people, save for those whose images were stretched on canvas and hanging quietly on walls. And there she was, The Girl with Pearl Earring… as fresh and alive and as contemporary as she must have been when posing for Vermeer almost three and a half centuries before. She took my breath.
And she played on my mind. Melodramatic as this may seem, the only way of exorcizing her grasp was to indulge my need to further explore her image. What was it about that pose, that expression, that momentary glance that rendered the subject of this painting both alive and timeless? Of course, there was Vermeer’s treatment of the subject, the application of the paint which, upon close examination, is astonishingly loose – little dabs of white at the corners of the girl’s mouth, the brush strokes defining the fabric of the headdress – executed without the self-conscious pain of deliberation. His geometric analysis of the face, a study of form in planes of light and shadow – all this, altogether, contributed to the integrity of the subject and its intrigue. My intent in exploring Vermeer’s subject centred on discovering the kernel of its credibility, to succumb to it as with any object of inspiration – not for the need of result, but for the need of doing. Thus began several works which I call The Mauritshuis Girl series, of which The Tunnel is one.
The Mauritshuis Girl series is composed six paintings. The first of this series, In the Woods, depicts “the girl”, much as Vermeer painted her, wearing the peculiar, yet, timeless headdress but placed within an established context – in this case, the indication of a forest. Painting # 2, entitled The Gathering, depicts her as one of several people in a crowd. The paintings which followed: The Umbrella, The Sea, Clouds, and The Tunnel, utilize only the pose, while the women depicted vary otherwise, quite dramatically, in appearance.
The Mauritshuis Girl may still continue to crop up from time to time, as she has become subsumed within my personal iconography. And so, what began as my involvement with Vermeer’s Girl With Pearl Earring, has become my Mauritshuis Girl, an exploration of a psychological state as expressed in the turning of a head, of momentary eye contact, of the ambiguity of fleeting encounters, of a single, almost insignificant moment trapped.
p l a y i n g w i t h b a l t h u s
Balthus (Count Bathazar Klossowski de Rola), a figurative painter of Polish decent and French nationality, embarked upon his career in the late 1920’s, holding his first solo-exhibition in Paris in 1934. The images he produced over the following four decades are haunting and enigmatic depictions of friends (Joan Miro, Andre Derain, Matisse, etc.), street scenes, landscapes and interiors wherein the human form, most often female, plays an integral role. Certain works – interiors in which young women or girls were the subject- struck a primary chord with me. As a figurative painter who also paints female subjects, these Balthus figures compelled me to recreate them. Thus, focusing on details of his compositions – extracting a single figure, altering its context, or combining figures – the process began.
What occurred during this exploration of Balthus was not anticipated. I found myself struggling with the vulnerability of his female figures, needing to transform them, sometimes clothe them, contrary to my reason and sense of aestheticism. For example, the figure in my “The Dream” is based on Balthus’ “The Room” in which the figure is right unclothed. The light falls perfectly and unbroken along the length of the figure…but reveals a young and vulnerable body. Those who are familiar with my work will know I have painted women in blatantly sexual poses, yet, in recreating certain poses of Balthus I found myself reticent, uncertain and realizing I could not have posed the female figure as he did. My female figures, provocative as they may sometimes be, maintain their autonomy whether it be through a sexual power or what seems an unconscious disregard for their audience. While originally drawn to the beauty and purity of Balthus’ forms, this exercise proved that a mutual aestheticism does not ensure a mutual perspective. Indeed, in exploring the perspectives of others – be these born of era, of gender, of politics or race – one finds one’s own.
exploring the role of judgment in art …
Party Hats, JT Winik, 2010 (Exhibition, Banquet of Consequences, Oeno Gallery)
It is from the womb of art that criticism was born. – Charles Baudelaire
Remember that all is opinion. – Marcus Aurelius
Don’t mind criticism. If it is untrue, disregard it. If it is unfair, keep from irritation. It if is ignorant, smile. If it is justified, learn from it. – Anonymous
Even the intrepid of us cringe, sweat and panic with the words judgment, jury, adjudication. These are tough words; they chafe the tender roots of us, summoning images of report cards, exams and the often nebulous lines between right and wrong, good and bad, winning and losing. Judgment excites fears of admonition, discrimination, evaluation and the inevitable pronouncements. Basically, judgment poses the question: Are you up to snuff, or not? Simply put, no one likes to be judged. And, yet, as artists we willingly place ourselves in this position again and again.
Evaluation is just part of life and common to all fields, of course, but as artists we are unique, because what we do is what we are. It’s not just about what we think and how we think – it gets far more personal. Our creative process demands that we turn ourselves inside out and for all to see. Thus, very early, as art students, dealing with evaluation is an integral part of our experience. A former student of OCAD, one of Canada’s more prominent art universities, responds to a CBC report on mental stress among art students:
“At OCAD, the pressure is intensified by a tradition of often-punishing critiques of student art work.” As much as I do agree that critique can sting sometimes, it’s also something every artist has to go through and need if they want to improve. It’s something you have to develop a thick skin for as an artist. – Stephanie Wu, former OCAD student – (please see link below)
Indeed, by the time you graduate with a BFA in your pocket, if you’ve learned nothing else, you’ve at least become a slightly better judge of fair criticism. With maturity and further confidence in your process, you may come to learn that not all critiques are created equal – that there are times to let judgments slide off your back and times to take something from them. It’s an ongoing process, and for many artists it remains a sensitive issue, yet, they continue to put themselves on the line. Why?
Answer: Art that lives in a closet is not seen.
As artists, we seek exposure and the response of others – like anyone else, we need verification. Working in isolation may sometimes be necessary but there comes a point when we must place what we’ve made into the real world where it can undertake a life of its own. Thus, we find ways of doing so. We join art groups and find galleries, and again and again, we apply to juried exhibitions and competitions and, well… so it goes.
As one who has participated in many juried exhibitions both as an applicant and a juror, I’ve a great respect for those who present their work for judgment. True, there are times in viewing submitted work, I’ve thought oh dear, that’s dismal – as in, dismally bad. … But everyone has got to start somewhere. There is a quote by Malcolm Cowley (writer, editor, literary critic) : Be kind and considerate with your criticism… It’s just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book. The same goes for any of the arts. Artists put their hearts and souls into their work, be they educated in the arts, self-taught, or newbie amateurs and as a juror, it’s not my job to slash their potential. If anything, in accepting or rejecting a piece, it’s my role to look more closely.
Adjudicating an exhibition is subject to a number of factors, some of which have nothing to do with the art itself. As a juror, you are most likely one of two, three or more jurors who operate each within their own agenda and comfort zone. Each juror brings their specific knowledge, experience and background to the table. As a result, being accepted into an exhibition depends on the agreement and compromises of those tasked with choosing. In the end, although one would like to be objective as a juror, it is, necessarily, a subjective but informed process.
My experience as a juror is such:
First of all, at the initial viewing of the submissions, there’s what I call the scream-factor. A work that screams at you is one that snags your eye with an unusual viewpoint on the theme, a surprising use of colour or technique, a powerful composition, perhaps, or a harmony of design. This is a work that begs you to linger and to look again… and again. Secondly, on further viewing the submissions, other works distinguish themselves with their subtlety, quietness, depth. Art can speak in many ways and viewing an artwork is both an emotional and intellectual experience for the artist and the juror. A work, finely rendered is not necessarily engaging if it fails to speak while, on the other hand, a simple gestural line may speak volumes. Some artworks scream, others whisper – what they have in common is that they’re telling us something we haven’t heard before.
So … how does a work of art speak? As artists we all utilize the same visual vocabulary: line, gesture, colour, composition, space, balance, tension, texture, form and mass, value (lightness and darkness), asymmetry, symmetry, etc., any of which may inform our visual expressions, be they painted on canvas, drawn on paper, or carved from wood or stone. What makes one artwork speak when another doesn’t is a good question. It’s one we all deal with in our studios every day, myself included.
I think the answer lies somewhere in this: art seems to gain strength when it leaps beyond reproducing a perfect facsimile of something that already exists; if it extends beyond our preconceived ideas and delves deeper, chances are, we come up with something. When, as artists, we digest what we see or experience, mull it around and then filter it through our own unique vision, something wonderful happens … and sometimes (not always) we create a small jewel and that jewel may not be pretty, it may even be rather rough but if it speaks with authenticity (if it born from the gut) it likely has something to say. And if it does, it speaks to others.
On the disparity of viewpoints in observing art: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2007/oct/09/howdoyoujudgeart
Advice From an Art Competition Judge: http://artid.com/members/artid/blog/post/120-advice-from-an-art-competition-judge
Former OCAD art student, Stephanie Wu: http://www.ixdaily.com/grind/4c24edb7fd05ad8b9456ddfd4939194f872d229f
Mental stress in art students, CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/at-ocad-mental-stress-met-with-support-1.2252208
I am told that the Inuit have some sixty words for snow… for different kinds of snow. That doesn’t surprise me; they see a lot of it. I live considerably south of the tree line, but even I have seventeen words for snow – none of them usable in public. – Arthur Black
As a Canadian, I am naturally fixated on weather, especially this year – for it has been hell. A quick google search for “Canadian winter hell” turned up a few things, thus, I’m not alone. What also appeared in my search were several entries about the “misery index” entitled: This winter is miserable: meteorologists confirm it. Hmmm … really? So that’s what’s been happening here. Lovely to have our winter grumblings verified; now we can discard our layer of Canadian passivity, peel it off (just a bit and just for awhile) and let the expletives spill! Because winter has got our goats this year and it really is______________!!! miserable. Feel free to fill in the blank with your blackest of words. There’s no doubt I’d echo it. (And why am I tempted to plunk a happy face here? Because, I’m Canadian …But I won’t, I won’t… I shall not.)
“From Environment Canada” – Rick Mercer Report:
A Fellow Canadian who Says it Like it is:
And this brave soul … without uttering even a mild cuss – A Canadian to the core. Maybe he doesn’t know about the “Misery Index?”
To see more of what we’ve been dealing with here: