Archive for September, 2007

September’s End

September 30, 2007

Southwester bends

the rooted matrons across the road,

their russet frills stream, strain,

hold fast.

A child in a red hat walks by, 

anchored

by his father’s grasp.

Traffic flows against the wind,

propelled by an  unnatural force

over tarmac the colour of

a lowering sky.

Perched on a coffee-house stool,

an old woman gazes out the window,

waits for rain.

GM, September 2007

Practice: Fish out of water… – 15 minutes

September 28, 2007

C3, a sere riverbank of the River of Life. The old women abandoned fish groaning, gasping for a last breath, minute by minute losing moisture, lustre dimming, lie abandoned in the ward-room. Water, tepid in plastic carafes, is available on their bed-side tables but largely untouched – doled out by an attending nurse, whenever and if she remembers they are unable to pour a cupful for themselves. The vases on the windowsills contain disheveled flowers and need their water changed, their shrivelled offerings removed.

First order of my chores this morning – remove the vases from the room, then remove and replace the water jugs with fresh ones. I move along the aisles between beds with a rolling cart collecting these. The lady who sings every morning sits on the side of her bed, her spindly white legs swing in tempo with “Camptown Races” she warbles in her reedy soprano. She grabs my hand and makes me dance beside her, swings my arm up and down, smiles and looks pleased with this contact. I grab her carafe with my free hand as she lurches me around like an unwilling dance partner. Then she releases me and grabs an end of her bed-sheet which she swishes like a trailing large scarf. I like her. She brings a note of life to a largely passive group of unidentified women huddled in their uncomfortable hospital beds.

Mrs Mah, some distance away, seems more faded today. She looks smaller than she did yesterday,her already tiny arm seems ready to lose her increasingly large plastic bracelet.  i know her name. i have checked her chart hanging from the foot of her bed a couple of weeks ago.  She doesn’t speak English, but seems to want to say something to me whenever i come nearby, whether to wash the floor, tidy her rolling table or change her drinking water. Increasingly, daily, she has yellowed, her fine pocelain skin has become wrinkled parchment – yet her eyes, clouded as they are by the morphine she is given, shine like polished black pebbles at the river’s edge. She reaches out to be touched. I hold her hand, although i am not supposed to touch patients. i hate the thought of coming in one day and not finding her steady gaze on me as i work near her.

Unedited, but such a challenge to write.  This prompt, like all of the others posted on Red Ravine for practice, can be revisited many times and is a good way to explore possibilities in writing practice.  Thanks for the opportunity, Red Ravine!

A Frog Prince…

September 26, 2007

In fall of 1968, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, I began my university studies as a freshman. Mother and Father were much relieved by this turn of events, as it represented a sudden departure from the bohemian preoccupations of Art School toward a more socially accepted, hence desirable, educational goal. They decided that the hallowed degree and husband-hunting grounds required a further attempt on their part to wean me from a clinging attachment to my bottom-of-coke-bottle-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. (They must have bought into that old saying of “men don’t make passes at girls wearing glasses”.)

Thus, on a sunny September Saturday morning, Father drove me to an opthalmologist’s office to have me measured up for the, then, brand-new technology of contact lenses. The doctor made the measurements, gave me instructions of the maintenance of said lenses and instructed on how to insert them and take them out without causing eye injury. The lenses would be ready to take home the following Saturday for lucky me to begin the new transformation from nerd to princess. On the way home, father took great pains to reassure me that I would suddenly become beautiful, that my brown expressive eyes would now be seen by all and sundry.

Once the contact lenses arrived, Mother and Father duly admired the flair and skill with which I could pop them in and out of my eyes. Truth to tell, taking them out was so much easier and felt so much better on the eyes.  Imagine, if you will, placing glass chips into your eyes, where the introduction of such foreign objects cause eye irritation, red eyes, pain, and , as a by-product resulted in a constantly runny nose. According to the opthalmologist, wearing these for eight hours a day for four to six weeks is all it took to acclimatize the eyes to these inserted “beauty aids”.

It was during about week two of wearing these contact lenses that I finally had had it with getting used to them. On a sunny, windy early morning I parked the rickety VW in the D-lot student parking near the cow pens of the Agriculture faculty, schlepped my way a mile toward the Introductory Biology Lab Class. On the way, while I was admiring the streaming leaves windblown along the boulevard, suddenly some small speck landed in my left eye and began to cause tears to flow down my face.  Fearing that the contact lens in that eye would wash away, I clamped my left hand over my eye and kept it there until I arrived at the lab building. My nose began running in earnest.  I could hardly wait until reaching the safety of the women’s bathroom, where I tossed my book-bag on the floor and scrambled to the sink.

There I gazed on my raddled face in the mirror – a bleary, red-eyed and red-nosed Medusa reflection. Desperately contorting my eyes by stretching them with my fingers, I flipped out the contacts in turn and returned them to their plastic container, flushed the left eye with repeated handfuls of cold water, dried my face, combed my hair and slapped on my trusty glasses.  Much, much better!  Still, I looked as if I had had the weeps for several hours, sort of like Scarlett O’Hara after the burning of Tara, but not nearly so pretty.

Late to lab class, I had to endure the disapproving comment from a snot-nosed Graduate Student who was the Lab Instructor, as I made my way to an empty stool  in the room. It was Frog Day. All of us sat, huddled at the tables in eager anticipation of how the lab would proceed. The lab guy had us pick partners so we could share a frog.  This process was worse than pairing up for a high school Phys. Ed. dance class on the Polka, with far more serious consequences. What if the partner one selected, innocently and in good faith, was someone scalpel-happy and inept? The result would be far more dismal than having one’s feet trod on by a clumsy dance partner; marks for lab write-ups were at stake.

Ever a wall-flower, I waited to be picked as a partner, figuring that my wearing glasses would ensure me a serious and studious partner. And waited… Finally a really tall, well set-up, blonde jock type approached me. A real Tarzan in the blackboard jungle. He looked like he had been around the lab a few times, maybe even had failed several years of lab courses. Perhaps he figured that after having selected pretty, fluffy, blonde partners in previous unsuccessful Biology lab courses, maybe this time around he might pass if he chose a nerdish girl in glasses as lab partner? I though he might largely let me do my own thing and not boss me around in lab, so I assented. His name was Jim.

Once the pairing up of everyone had been accomplished, the lab guy fished a leopard frog from the tank nearby his feet and held it up like a trophy. The frog was alive, but sluggish, rather pretty, I thought, hanging limp in the lab guy’s hand barely  swinging its long legs. “Get a load of that frog” said Jim, out of the side of his mouth. The lab guy demonstrated how to pith  the frog so it would not feel pain. Then he demonstrated residual muscle action through remaining electrical impulses, even though the frog was brain dead. The frog’s leg retracted, strongly at first, and upon repeated stimulus the leg’s retractions quickly lessened.

“Come and get your frog!” ordered the lab guy.

Jim busied himself with inspecting his dissection kit as if he had never before seen a probe, forceps or scalpel.”You go ahead, bring the frog,” he suggested.

(Oo-kay, so it was going to be like that,eh?  Me, Tarzan; you, Jane. What a prince!)

I sauntered up to the vatful of frogs and tried to find a likely candidate.  They all looked pretty much the same. With the lab guy nearby and looking on with a supercilious sneer I resolved not to be squeamish and picked up a frog. Feeling rather sorry for it, I cradled it in my hands and patted it while walking it back to Jim and its fate.

Back at the lab table, Jim was intently studying the point of his probe.

“Here’s our frog,” I announced while making motions to hand him over to Jim.  Jim held up his hands in a warding off motion as he backed away from the frog on offer.

“I have done this before, so you need to do it now to learn how it’s done,” said he holding out the probe. ” I’m not touching it!”

(Having previously attended at home-slaughtering of chickens and seeing a lot of blood, but never having personally delivered the coup-de-grace to any living thing, I was somewhat reluctant.  After all, we were not going to eat this frog. I believed that it was only okay to kill an animal if one was going to eat it afterward.)

I took the frog back up to the lab instructor.  There was a long line-up of frog-bearing freshmen ahead of me. The lab guy made disparaging comments about us being “pussies” as he pithed one frog after another in turn for us.

“That pussified partner of yours, that dumb jock, unable to touch a frog,” he gloated, as he did the necessities to our frog.

“Yeah, he’s a regular prince!” I offered as he handed me our limp frog.

I ended up doing all that had to be done to test the frog’s muscle responses.  Jim just sat there  gawping. A sinking feeling came over me as I realized that he was going to be a problem throughout the rest of the labs, for the duration of the course. Perhaps he mistakenly assumed that because I wore glasses and was a nerd maybe, just maybe, he might manage a squeaky pass through biology lab this time, especially if he could get me to do all the dirty work, or maybe all of the work.

And, what an unfortunate waste of a frog’s life! I could not wait for the lab session to end. End of lab meant end of dealing with Prince Jim, until the next lab session.

Later, on the weekend, mother phoned to inquire how the wearing of the contact lenses was going, if courses were going well and if I had met any interesting young men there.

I reported that wearing the contacts was going to be a problem and maybe they were unsuitable for me being very uncomfortable to wear.

 I also told her, “well, I met a prince, but frankly I would rather pith the prince and kiss the frog!”

…and tenderly kissed the picture…

September 19, 2007

On a sunny August mid-morning Dedike and I sat alone on the threadbare fauteuil  in the salon. On her way out to go shopping with Ildiko, Anyu reminded me to be polite and careful while keeping Dedike company. She really didn’t need to remind me to behave as I hung on every word uttered by Dedike and always felt privileged to spend time with her. It made me feel special to keep company with her, to witness her strange manner and customs.

This time the novel way Dedike ate grapes was to be the treat for me. Anyu had brought a bowlful of reddish grapes from the kitchen, and placed them to warm up on the opened window’s sill outside the softly billowing ecru lace curtains. Two plates with two small sharp knives and forks sat on the table in front of us.  This table was covered in a fine cut-work and lace cloth that Dedike had made by hand during the time she was pregnant with Nagyanyu (grandmother) before the last decade of the 19th century.  We basked in companionate silence, dappled light shifted across this table and made patterns on her face and hands and alternately caused her marcelled silver hair to gleam or tarnish as we waited for the grapes to warm to the temperature she considered perfect before she deigned to begin the eating ritual.

“Gabi, bring me the grapes, please”, she requested. I jumped up, carefully eased the curtain aside,retrieved the bowl and held it near her.  With fingers trembling she felt the grapes to test their warmth, then imperiously gestured for me to place them in front of her. I sat down and waited. She picked up  her knife, plucked a grape and began to peel it slowly, carefully piling the peelings to one side of her plate. I picked up my knife, plucked a grape, popped it into my mouth and started chewing. I swallowed my grape before she even had hers peeled. She glanced at me, lowered her eyes as she  speared with a fork and placed the naked grape into her mouth.  She chewed with barely a motion of her jaws. To me it seemed like she was taking a communion wafer, what with the ceremony and care with which she went about eating. No-one else I had ever met ate in such a decorous fashion. I tried to copy how she prepared a grape, and didn’t much care for the process.  The knife slipped and took messy gouges out of my grape. The grape was slippery and slimy in texture as it’s skin came off. When I popped it into my mouth it seemed that I had the sensation of eating an eyeball. Peeling grapes also seemed like a huge waste of time, but because I did not dare to continue to consume one undressed grape after another in front of Dedike, I just stopped and watched her, utterly fascinated.

I asked her if she had insisted Nagyanyu and Anyu always eat grapes this way in her presence, She admitted that she tried to instill this habit in both of them, however they reverted to modern manners when not in her company. “Such a pity, the old ways of doing things was much more graceful” she stated.

As we talked, while fingering the table-cloth I asked her if she had taught Anyu to make all kinds of clothwork. (Anyu had no patience to show me how to do crocheting or lace-making and always sent me on my way whenever I asked her to show how she did certain things with needles and thread). I admired the pattern of the cutwork on the table-cloth and asked if she might show me more of her handywork.

When she had her fill of the grapes, she led me to the bathroom where we washed and dried our hands. On the way back to the salon, she stopped in front of the large cupboard and that housed all the linens. ” Come see”, she said as she took down a stack of folded fancywork, carried it into the salon and placed on the old leather sofa under the front window. She had me take each folded piece in turn from the top of the pile, and hand them to her.  She carefully unfolded, smoothed them out and talked about how she, Nagyanyu or Anyu had worked each piece and how long ago. These were beautiful treasures, elaborate, delicate and varied.

There was a framed picture in the stack, and I turned it over to look at before handing it to Dedike. It was an old photograph portrait of an unprepossessing man with a black mustache much like the short bristles of a nail-brush and slicked-down  short dark hair.  His jacket was a uniform of some sort, but rather than looking like some kind of general he looked like a boring old school-master. As I passed this over to Dedike, I remarked “So this is what great-grandfather looked like.”

“Oh, no”,she said gazing at the portrait with a soft smile on her lips. “This is the man I thought to be the ideal husband for Erzsike. (Erzsike was Nagyanyu’s name) He would have made a wonderful grandfather for you.”

To me, he looked decidedly unapproachable and uninteresting, not anyone I would care to have as a grandfather. I asked who he was.

“He was a great man – Hitler – and I adored him” whispered Dedike, pursed her lips, brought the frame up to her face and tenderly kissed the picture. “This is my big secret. And, now I have told you, it is our big secret.” She placed the frame face down on the pile of handwork we had already looked over, patted it and picket up another piece of worked linen.

I suddenly lost interest in looking at the rest of the hand-made treasures and wanted to know more about this Hitler character.  Why did she not put his picture up on the wall beside her bed if she liked him so much? What was it about him that might have made him the perfect husband for Nagyanyu? Where was he now, what happened to him?  Was he a Catholic?  Because if he was would he ever have married Nagyanyu – she had been divorced and was now excommunicated? I badgered her with this series of questions and she answered them with skilled evasions and reiterations of his greatness. She told me he was a great leader of men, a gentleman, a German who loved flowers, children, dogs and art and, that he had died near the end of the Second World War. She was obviously soft about this man, and her answers to me lacked the detail I might have found believable or convincing.

Dedike didn’t realize that Apu had told us some things  about this Hitler.  What he had detailed countered her admiring description.  Apu had described Hitler as an embodiment of the devil. How could Dedike believe someone so obviously evil deserved her love and adoration, or her regret that he never married Nagyanyu?

To have her love of Hitler become a shared secret with me I resolved not to accept. I needed to know  and understand why this ought to be hidden, locked not only in her linen cupboard but in a recess of my mind. This was something that wanted discussion and airing with Apu and Anyu. a mystery that must be studied.

When Dedike returned her treasured handywork collection to the linen cupboard, the picture of Hitler was hidden among layers of cloth. She shut the cupboard door  upon all this, little realizing she had nudged the door of my mind open and left it ajar.

The Fur Coat…

September 15, 2007

A long time ago, I read somewhere a movie review where the shortness of the lead actor was compared to the willowy height of the leading actress as “he looked like a midget walking in a trench”. This describes perfectly how I look when wearing a fur coat.  I said so to my friend Jane when she insisted on dragging me to the furrier’s located on the first floor of Rumpole’s office building. This was back some 28 years ago, up north – a place where it made sense to wear fur coats in the winter-time.

Jane was a fashionista who loved clothes of a luxurious cloth and cut. She badly desired to own and wear a gorgeous fur coat of the latest design. She did own a dilapidated mouton coat inherited from her grandmother. It had leg of mutton sleeves which added football-player proportions to her otherwise slim build. When wearing this “poor woman’s mink” coat she looked unsteady on her thin legs which looked like inadequate stilts with which to support a bear-like bulk.

On a cold December Saturday, after having done her sheep pen  and meat rabbit hutch cleaning chores, she phoned me to request my assistance in negotiating a trade of her lamentable mouton coat for a brand new, luxe, fur coat at the downtown furrier’s. We were to meet at a nearby coffee shop to prepare ourselves for the fur-trading process.  Jane was a keen and experienced bargainer and rehearsed her methods well in advance of the actual dickering.

I buttoned myself into my favourite winter coat for casual wear – Apu’s old plaid hunting jacket that hung to below my knees and with twice rolled up sleeves kept me snug and warm at -25F winter temperatures. At the coffee shop, Jane picked her jaw up from the table surface and announced “you can’t go fur shopping looking like that!” Her grandmother’s ratty mouton coat hung from the back of her chair like a forlorn dead thing.

“Well, no matter how you look at it, we are going to a place where the hides of dead animals are displayed.  There is no sign of the carnage that accompanies the production of furs. The least you and I could do is to attend there in the roles of both the hunter and the hunted,” I responded in my best sarcastic fashion.

We drank a couple of cups of coffee. Jane rehearsed approaches toward the clerk which might incline him to give her a good trade up to the desired fashionable fur for her disreputable old one. We worked up the nerve to cross the street and brave entry to the fur salon.  I trailed after Jane into the showroom like a hunter stalking prey.

An effete young gentleman greeted us effusively as if we were “grande dames” wearing the latest in winter furs. He gave no hint of what must have been going through his mind (These two characters look fresh off the farm… if not the farm then the trap line?) Jane, in her best shopping manner, told him what kind of coat she had in mind, the colour, the cut, the kind of fur, and the occasions it was intended for.  The young clerk swanned about bringing with elegant flourish one amazing fur concoction after another. Jane tried them all on and posed graceful as a fur model in front of the three-way mirror.  I stayed in the background, unbuttoned from my hunting coat, trying to sit as prim as possible, mukluks crossed in a lady-like pose and twiddling my fingers.  My mind strayed from the fashion show on hand to the contrast of smell between the perfumed fur sales room and my memories of the reek of mink and chinchilla farms as my family had driven by them many summers ago on the way to the local swimming hole.

Jane mentioned trading up from her mouton to a new below-knee length blonde mink coat. This smartly brought my wondering mind back to the situation at hand. She handed over her coat to the young man.  He appeared reluctant to lay his hands on it and held it out between his pinched thumbs and forefingers as he looked it over. With a disdainful expression on his face and holding out the coat as if he feared being sullied by its proximity to his person, he smartly marched over to a garbage can and dropped the mouton coat into it.

“No trade-in value here!” he announced as he wiped his fingers in fussy gestures against his pant legs. Poor Jane was mortified as she retrieved her coat from the garbage can, put it on and buttoned up.

The clerk turned his back on us, dismissing us. As Jane was shepherding me to the shop door, I could not resist a parting shot.

“I do need a good casual fox jacket to wear while mucking out the barn. Can you suggest a little something for me?”

To this day, Jane still has not replaced her grandmother’s mouton coat, as far as I know. It does keep her cosy and warm on those bone-freezing mornings when she does her farm chores.

I want to let go of…

September 13, 2007

illusion and a habitual desire to not admit change is an inevitable condition of life. The signs of mutability are everywhere, constant reminders of the cycle of life. A morning look in the mirror while washing my face reveals minute morphing of my physical self. A look outside my kitchen window at the apple tree surprises with a view of newly dropped ripe apples, of leaves shriveling, yellowing. A glimpse of the night sky’s inky dome shocks a realization that I can no longer connect the dots of stars into familiar reassuring patterns because of my failing vision.

I have been avoiding activities that provide daily tests of a faculty which has served me well for sixty years – my eyesight. Thus it has proved shocking that I nearly bowled over a young mother toting her infant who attempted to pass me from behind my left side as I was walking an aisle at the grocery store seeking some needed product. Frustration and fear of losing a capacity taken for granted suddenly overwhelmed me. I was eager to instantly return home, to the safe and familiar environment where such forced reminders of diminishing capacity are minimized by movement patterns habituated by custom and frequent repetition.

The hardest adjustment for me is having to accept solicitous attention by family and friends in order to be able to cross the street without mis-steps, or to negotiate stairs and escalators in public spaces. A reminder by a companion to look at an object of interest I have to meet with a new kind of response, “where”. I want to let go of my illusion of independence and my fear of becoming a burden on others. After all, the reality is that dependence is an unavoidable life condition and ideas of independence are fictions.  I cling stubbornly to such illusions and in clinging to them become miserable when all indications point to realities I must accept. It seems that at all stages of life acceptance of what is may lead to more contentment than blindly insisting on maintaining the polite fiction of what was, might be, could be, should be. This seems to me my lifelong lesson to master.

From topic posted on www.redravine.wordpress.com – writing practice.  Thanks for the prompt, Redravine!

The First Lesson…

September 10, 2007

It may be because the it is near the beginning of public school term, or on accout of my preoccupation with preparing a two-hour lesson on Rhythm for the weekly private painting class about to resume tonight. I woke up from a teaching dream.  Every year, starting in the middle of August, I dream often about being in the classroom – this despite being away from teaching in the public school system for the past twenty-one years.

What may account for why this particular memory cropped up today is the recent discussion Martha and I have been having concerning the beginning of her year as teacher of Photography, Media Studies and Art and all the peculiar joys and trials that attend her employment.  This year, it has been disallowed to levy a student lab fee in all courses in this province. Adding to this financial stumbling-block, Martha’s school district has clawed back all unspent department budgets, so those teachers who were relying on a reserve they held back from last year in order to survive the following year’s demands for materials have suddenly found themselves without a means to afford to do with their current classes activities which need added funding. I have suddenly found myself reliving my experience of my very first year as a public school art specialist, back thirty-six years ago.

Renaissance Man, two years old, and I, a callow twenty-five, had transplanted ourselves with our meager belongings and our ancient Austin 1100 heap to this small northern community of 7000+ souls in August of my first year as teacher. We took stock of our new surroundings, familiarized ourselves with where to obtain provisions and services, explored the countryside with its wilds of lakes, logging roads, rivers and mixed boreal forest. He came with me to the school where I was to take up my first teaching post and there he made big drawings with crayons on rolled out long sheets of white bond paper while I busied myself with arranging and re-arranging tables and stools and, in disbelief, counted and recounted the meager supplies with which to occupy over 240 students each day during the upcoming school term. RM’s happy background commentary on what he was creating on his large sheets of paper was a welcome distraction to my mounting panic as I realized just how little material I had to work with. In the storage room was a shelf unit bearing several reams of white cartridge paper, some 30 boxed sets of oil pastels, a number of gallon jugs of black, white, red, yellow and blue poster paint, some ratty paintbrushes bound with elastic bands, a terrific supply of clay working tools but no clay and about several years’ supply of various sacks of glaze chemicals.

What to do? This question occupied my increasingly sleepless nights leading up to the first week of classes. No doubt about it, to my mind, colour had to be our first concern for at least several months.  The numerous aspen trees surrounding our small town were turning to a wonderful beaten gold colour, their splendour set off by cerulean skies and dramatically punctuated by the sonorous darkness of stands of spruce. The students were looking forward to a season of increasing darkness, of somber muted earth tones and blanketing white snows. Surely the first week of art class was meant to celebrate the bountiful gorgeousness of our commonly experienced fall landscapes. I obsessed about this in the week leading up to the first formal classroom experiences with my new charges. But how to do this while sequestered inside the bleak walls of a basement art room?

I have always been one to poke about wherever I find myself, picking up bits and pieces – stones, bark, roadside weeds, dried grasses, leaves, pine needles, twigs and branches. So, a couple of days before classes were to begin, Renaissance Man and I foraged outdoors, making a game of finding all kinds of different fallen leaves.  These we took back to our basement apartment and spread around on the green indoor/outdoor carpet of our unfurnished living room.  Here we sorted according to leaf type, laid out sequences of colour changes in leaves, discussed why this might be so and packaged our finds into separate large brown paper grocery sacks.  RM helped me carry these sacks out to the Austin and there they were, ready to be taken to my classroom.

On the first day of formal teaching, I dropped Renaissance Man at his sitter’s, kissed his chubby cheeks and promised to return for him soon. I drove to school with my paper sacks of leaves, hauled them into the classroom and lined them carefully on the floor by my desk.  Then I ran upstairs to fortify myself with several cups of horrid staff-room coffee and nervously paced about chain-smoking and mentally rehearsing how the lesson was to proceed. Mercifully, the seasoned teachers, recognizing a terrified neophyte, lounged about, quite relaxed it seemed, and left me to my desperate internal rehearsal.

Once I had enough caffeine in my system to brave facing the first grade eight class, I scurried down to the class-room and prepared for home-room.  Taking attendance calmed me down somewhat.  However, much too soon, home room was over, the kids left and in straggled a great gaggle of eager faced, scrubbed bunch of shortish youngsters. There were thirty eight of them, perched in clumps on the stools around eight large tables, waiting expectantly.

Introductions disposed of, we did the seating plan and there still was 40 minutes of class left.  I led the class outside and across the street where there was a row of aspens glowing gold and trembling in the slight breeze. We sat down under the trees, the kids very quiet, me squatted down leaning back on an aspen trunk, the students gathered in a seated semicircle.  I stayed silent and gazed upward at the canopy above us and soon the kids started to look upward also.  We sat like this, looking upward and quiet for many minutes.  Finally I started speaking about how I was going to miss sitting under trees for the rest of the school year just looking at the sky winking between the leaves, the changing colour of leaves ruffled by the breeze or wind and  “see, now, those leaves starting to fall down toward us coasting and sailing on the air – following their trajectory, predicting where their movement would take them.” I traced the motion of leaf’s fall, then another, had each student watch for a leaf to detach and draw its passage through the air. “Remember what line this movement makes and think about it quietly while we go back inside”, I said.  We trooped back into the classroom in silence.

There I distributed  boxes of oil pastels,  piles of cartridge paper and a brown paper bag containing leaves to each table and then climbed onto my teachers desk and grsping a handful of leaves from my own bag of leaves.  There I made like a tree, arms upraised and let go a leaf at a time, suggesting in the meanwhile that kids look at the implied rhythm lines made by the leaves and begin to draw their version of tree with falling leaves showing a tracery of motion in a composition. Some of the leaves fell down into my wide dress sleeve, which I admitted tickled and giggled at and that kind of broke the ice and the students laughed. And they busied themselves drawing with their oil pastels like mad.

As the warning bell that signalled 5 minutes to end of class rang, I jumped off the desk and had the kids come up to tape their coloured drawings on the side wall. Some kids at each table collected the pastels and boxed them, while others gathered the reference leaves and piled them back into the paper sacks.  We looked at the drawings and discussed them in a shy fashion and agreed that they were pretty good ways of showing the motion of falling leaves. As the final bell rang out, I was in the middle of reminding them to look at the falling leaves on their way home from school that afternoon.

The kids smiled as they walked out saying their good-byes.  I felt kind of sheepish, even silly, but then I thought, “What the heck, there has to be an ice-breaker with every group of individuals.” And I decided that day to make fun and pleasure a part of the daily art learning experience with students, and that this would not mean any less seriousness in our endeavours together.

The Blockbuster…

September 5, 2007

“Dry Sherry”, my friend who works at the VAG, kindly drove me to see what has been billed as this summer’s blockbuster exhibition.  The whole first floor of the gallery is occupied by this show, laid out in chronological historic order starting with Courbet and ending with Ben Nicholson and Mondrian.

The rooms seemed packed to me, but “Dry Sherry” assured that the volume of visitors expected did not materialize. Martha and Elsa had gone a couple of weeks ago, on the evening of the “cheap night” where there were cheek to jowl people squeezed into the spaces, and looking at the displayed works was made difficult by the crowds milling about. Apparently, that evening the lines waiting to be let in stretched the length of several blocks, and they had to wait in line for over an hour before being let in. DS and my visit was fairly comfortable, and we took four hours to go through.

A problem for me was that I couldn’t read the title plates nor the didactic panels unless I got really close to them, and this was made awkward by the stanchions delineating space that prevented closeness to the walls.  DS read titles, media and other bits of information out loud to me while I juggled wearing two pairs of glasses in order to discern the surface of the paintings, and the marks of paint handling which is a particular pleasure for me..

DS is a great companion with whom to see an exhibition. She has an extensive art history background and a truly open mind about what constitutes compelling art work. We discussed each painting at length and she had an interesting way of providing opinions and impressions of what she was looking at. We each made a note of which paintings we would like to go home with, to live with and which would provide many years of viewing pleasure. There were some pleasant surprises, such as the Manet portrait of Berthe Morisot painted in an austere tonal pallette of blacks, coloured greys and a rich variety of browns with a most assured, direct and economical manner of execution. It was extremely casual in feel when compared with a Tissot confection that was highly polished; and yet it was the Manet which I loved.

The Renoirs in this collection (Cleveland Museum of Art) seemed vapid, flabby and sugary to me and reinforced my strong aversion to paintings by him. The one Degas portrait exhibited, a sober portrait of one of his Italian aunts, reminded me of why I have revered Degas as painter; yet this painting did not have the polish of the Renoirs. What it did have was a wonderful series of painterly decisions  and false starts, a record of a process taken by Degas in realizing this study. I felt like he was talking to me about why the veil of grey halo around one side of the head was necessary to try out, and why the placement of the reds in the composition he decided to place in the apices of an implied triangle in the composition. It was as if his thought processes were being transmitted by the construction, and I feel fortunate in being able to have this privileged experience.

The three Cezannes provided so much satisfaction. The Monets nearby did not fare well in comparison with the Cezannes, to me they seemed to lack an coherence, an overallness that was convincing, and their construction lacked rigour to me. They were paintings that would yield me a lifetime of absorbed contemplation – I loved them!

Van Gogh shared space with a delicious Redon. I am not a lover of floral still lives, yet this Redon gem captivated me with its effervescent and fresh colouration – we stood in front of it in discussion for a long time. Of the three Van Gogh pictures, two were gorgeous landscapes with all the beautiful casually cloisonnist shapes and spaces characteristic of Van Gogh’s mature style and with the brilliant matrix of brush marks with which he guided the eye through and around the composition.  And the colour was joyous and celebratory. Van Gogh is one of my painting “gods”, has been ever since I was a young girl and these paintings reminded me why I have held his works in the highest esteem.

There was a restrained and austere Braques Cubist construction that allowed for sustained contemplation that was most satisying.  This one, of somber browns and greys, reminded me of the meditative cadence of a fugue. Nearby hung a Cubist Picasso painting of a Pierrot, audacious and dramatic in contrasts of light and dark, pattern and plain, full of an inventive variety of pattern possibilities.  While I admired it, it was not a painting I would want to tuck under my arm and abscond with, were I so larcenously inclined.  But the Braques – oh, now that might be a painting for which I would risk my reputation as a law-abiding woman!

Of the sculptures, there was a lovely subtle head of a child by Medardo Rosso, which I had seen in reproduction many years ago – it sat there quietly seeming to elude stillness. A number of Rodin studies in bronze, patinated almost to gleaming black, were a treat to see. I like to see the struggle of Rodin to realize form, captured in these sculptures and it is so great to be visually invited to partake of his enormous efforts.

“Dry Sherry” really liked the two Dali  variations of St George, one a pen and ink drawing, the other an etching.  We agreed that Dali had probably studied Ucello’s “Rout of San Romano” because  the echoes of horse physiognomy were so reminiscent of Ucello’s prancing horses.  In the gift shop, we searched for reproductions of these two pictures, but alas, only the mainstream masterpieces were represented by the offerings there.  DS is an equestrienne and she was particularly take with these two Dalis.

It seemed to me that the didactic panels for the works in this exhibition gave only cursory smatterings of generalized information, regurgitation of art history canon, and predictably familiar brief descriptions.  A few people wandered around with large telephones held to their ears, listening to the canned explanations. At the sound of beeps they moved from painting to painting. We had a marvellous conversation with a couple from the north of England who had an interesting bit of information to share about a Dali painting in which a group of three men seemed to be engaged in a not very vigorous tussle.  They said the men seemed to be doing Cumbrian wrestling, a form of stylized and restrained gentlemanly sport. So now “Dry Sherry” and I can Google up some interesting bits about this.

I feel thoroughly energized by this time “Dry Sherry’ and I have spent at the VAG.  The whole experience was such a treat, and I am delighted that I am still able to see well enough to have made a direct face to face with some wonderful paintings. And the companionship of a knowledgeable and sensitive viewer like her was a special treat!