Archive for the ‘landscapes’ Category

Is it a vole…or is it a rat?

July 28, 2008

Our last morning on the island, Jeanine was unloading the dishwasher, Martha was organizing the recycling, and I was folding dried bedding. We were cleaning up our traces of a week’s habitation in Ron’s house. The sky was leaking fat dollops of rain, the first rain we had seen in several weeks. Our stay on the island had been full of sunshine and miraculous sunsets. The day’s rain made it easy to leave such idyllic a setting, to return to our suburbian lives rife with traffic and the roar of lawnmowers.

I was mentally reviewing a magical sighting of ravens winging overhead and calling to each other with their stones-dropping-into-water knocking sounds, when Martha’s urgent call beckoned.

“Quick, you guys, get over here, RIGHT NOW!!”. She had her nose plastered against the sliding glass door of the dining room and was gazing fixedly toward the outdoor bird feeding station. Jeanine and I converged and pressed our noses to the glass as well, eager to see some exotic new bird. Some rosy headed finches were chasing each oher around the feeder. A rufous-sided towhee muscled its way to the preferred area of the platform and put the finches to flight into the surrounding hedge.

“It’s the same old birds,” complained Jeanine brandishing a fistful of mixed cutlery. “Nothing new here. I’m going back to my labours.”

“Stay a moment and watch,” suggested Martha, “Just keep looking at the bottom of the feeder post.” We stayed put and watched, waited.

Soon a low rodent slinked out of the shadows at the bottom of the hedge, made a run to the base of the feeder, curled its body into a ball and proceeded to chow down on fallen seeds. It had cute round ears and button black eyes, a rounded head and fawn-coloured fur. I opened the sliding door, whereupon the beastie scurried back into the safety of the hedge. It flashed a longish tail.

“Eeuw!!” exclaimed Jeanine. “It’s a rat!!!” She slammed shut the sliding door. We stood on the inside, gazing out to get more sightings of this rat.

The animal made several forays into the grass around the bird-feeder’s base. It sat there munching away, undisturbed by the birds above, and by us shut safely behind glass doors. At every opportunity I studied its movements and conformation. While it shared rodent characteristics with rats, it looked distinctively different, shorter and rounder in body and with a compressed face that reminded me of a gerbil’s. Its eyes were bigger and more button-like, not beady like a rat’s.

“That might be a vole,” I conjectured. “There are voles living out in the wilds here. While it kind of looks like a rat it is too rotund, and its belly is a lighter colour.”

“Pshaw,” said Martha. “You are half blind, G. You can’t mean to tell me you can actually see it has a lighter underside. It’s got to be a rat!”

“Well, I can see flashes of beige.” I asserted. “Go look it up on Ron’s computer.” Yep, we were on an island, but the internet has extended its hooks even here, even if it was only by dial-up.

“We don’t have time to check,” said Martha, peevish. “We have to get our garbage down to the transfer station. I still say it’s a rat.”

“Yuk!” uttered Jeanine. “Just think, here we have been lolling around in the mornings and evenings with all the sliding doors open, and these rats may have taken up residence inside the house. What will Ron think when he comes home and finds his house infested with rats?”

“Well,” said Martha in her reasoning manner, ” he may rethink feeding birds outside. I had to stop doing that at home when I saw rats that were getting fat on fallen seed from my bird-feeder.”

“No kidding, you guys.” I repeated. “There are such things a voles. It’s probably just a vole who has discovered an easy source of food.” I opened the sliding door and returned to my chore of folding sheets and towels.

Here I’m back home and after greeting Rumpole and having a coffee with him, after playing with Jessica and giving her a dog cookie, after picking up the General and ruffling his fur, I repaired to Google the flora and fauna of the island we had been staying on. Sure enough, there are both voles and rats on that island. But after looking the photographs I am only halfway convinced that what we saw there was a vole. How can I be sure, me with my poor vision?

But, whatever it was, it was doing a fair job of fattening itself for the winter ahead, and also had secured itself a source of ready food for the leaner months. This is all to the good, providing it was a vole and not a rat. Ron may not be happy to have a whole population or brown rats he is feeding in perpetuity. And heaven help him if they take up domicile in his garage or basement. He will be inundated.

Surely he must be aware of that possibility. Maybe its us squeamish suburban matrons who need to take  deep breath and relax about the whole thing. Maybe I need to convince myself that it was just an innocent vole who we had sighted. Who knows?

Studio visit with Anarchist/Artist…

June 12, 2008

Flora and I had been planning this trip up the coast for a couple of weeks. We intended to visit Anarchist/Artist, take him for lunch, see his local exhibition and then visit his studio. I was pumped, and not only because for a shut-in, like me, a trip like this is a special gift, but also because I so much enjoy spending time with Anarchist/Artist and see him pull out of storage one remarkable work after another. Prissy german Tourist, who is also friends with him, and I, both consider Anarchist/Artist one of of B. C.’s underappreciated artistic treasures. He is absolutely committed to his work and to living within certain stringent principles which he espouses. A man to admire, in the complete sense of admiration of coherent belief and practice as exemplars in living. He does good, does no harm, and lives gently with great respect for the gifts life bestows upon him.

Taking a ferry to get to his community is such a production. Because Flora is such a fine and intelligent companion, time travelling didn’t seem so onerous. En route, we discussed various points of politics and practice of the publicly funded gallery system. We admired the views from the ferry’s lounge, even though the day was one of lowering skies, greens, and misty greys. We watched a small motor boat struggle to cross the bow of the ferry up ahead, quite nervous and anticipating a small marine disaster. Some operators of small craft have little awareness of the speed of larger vessels. Our coast has a history of many accidents during such attempts to not lay by and let a larger boat have right of way. We were quite relieved to note the smaller boat scoot out of danger, by a hair, it seemed.

Once debarked, we made good time on the Coast road, and soon turned off the highway onto the dirt track where Anarchist/Artist’s cabin and studio nestled among a profusion of Rhododendrons, past bloom, and tall evergreens. An eight foot cairn marks the parking area. A bonsai-ed horse-chestnut tree in a planter stands near the front steps; its leaves perfect and tender green. Sweet woodruff carpetsthe foundations on either sides of the staircase. We peeked through the glass door to see Anarchist/Artist upright near his vomiting skeleton sculpture, happily sipping from a ceramic mug with a temmoku glaze. We tapped on the window. He came and let us in; greeted us with warm hugs and kisses on the cheek.

I invariably feel good whenever in his company. He is courtly, charming, beautifully spoken with an educated British accent. In his mid-sixties, he is aging as only men who have led a healthful and considered life age – gracefully and well. He lives a simple and aesthetic life surrounded by his work, by books, music, and growing things which he propagates for his survival and consumption. On his easel was a recent still-life study of a clutch of beets and their greens. This glowed in jewel-like splendour, made with reverence, vigour and beautiful marks. When asked if he got his vegetable garden in ample time this spring, he bemoaned that he had been reluctant to set out his cucumber seedlings because nights, even in June, have been so cold this year. He is fearful he will not get in his usual crop. He grows an organic cash crop, and exchanges for meats and other supplies. We wondered what kind of crop he might get this year. The weather has been so unusually somber and lacking in hot sunny days.

Flora sked him wher he migh want to go for lunch. we decided to blow the budget and go to a restaurant where there was a good chef. However, after we drove there we found it closed. We went off to a waterfront pub and sat outside under propane heaters ( a most unusual necessity in late spring at this latitude). We ate, drank wine with our pub fare and discussed his long career. Flora demonstrated by her demeanor that she much enjoyed his company. I listened and posed some questions and small observations. After all, our intention in visiting with Anarchist/Artist was to have the two of them meet and discuss further exhibition possibilities of A/A’s works.

After lunch we drove to the local Municpal Gallery, where A/A’s plein air paintings of local industrial landscapes were exhibited. I should hesitate to label them as “plein air” because they are qualitatively much different with what is associated with plein air paintings. They are really direct studies of industrial constructions in the landscape, and as such differ from the flabby, inchoate landscapes that are lately characterized as plein air paintings. A/A has an acute manner of distilling industrial forms, and way of notating the characteristic land, water and sky patterns of our region. As a collection, this exhibition should be bought by a local museum, as examples of a painter’s recording of the economic activities of a specific region. But, by God, there were several I would have loved to have for myself! We stayed in the gallery for a long time. I entertained myself by getting nose-to-painting looks at the marks he had made the paintings of, and studying his truly idiosyncratic use of colour. What a treat!

We drove back to his studio afterward and stayed for a couple of hours more. He pulled out from storage his more controversial and political work, some drawings and studies. We looked at his collection of seed-pods, bones, roots, a remarkable desiccated skunk, stones and dried insects. Much of his graphic work is inhabited by the presence of these objects as part of the symbolic vocabulary he uses. He has obviously developed his visual language over many past decades of consideration and study, and in his work offers permutations and combinations of them much as a poet does of words and metaphors. The energy and control with which he makes his marks is masterful; his skill developed by years of trial and practice. he is a remarkable colourist. While his political imagery is disturbing, it has the conviction of thought and belief, long considered, as underpinning. One may or may not like his paintings, his prints, but they seep into the brain, into memory, under the skin and won’t let go. Flora looked and looked, commented, asked questions. I asked to buy a book of his prints and one of his more anarchist print images for myself. But there is one remarkable painting i am going to save my shekels for, now. I know Rumpole wont necessarily like it, but usually he assents to my decision to acquire art that means something to me.

Flora and i realized after a time that we were almost going to mis the ferry home. So we said our goodbyes to and appreciation of the time Anarchist/Artist had given us. On the trip home we discussed how Flora might be able to raise funds to have an exhibition of Anarchist/Artist’s work at our Municipal gallery. We brainstormed over coffee and muffins and filled paper napkins with copious notes of our fundraising ideas. We agreed it had been a day spent in the best possible way.

Today I am exhausted, but happy at having had such a wonderful experience and opportunity. I just hope Anarchist/Artist doesn’t feel like we have wasted his time. And I am hoping that a local exhibition comes about from the meeting between him and Flora.

Equus in Agrum Est…

April 7, 2008

What a sentence – “the horse is in the field.”

Does it imply a horse-inhabited landscape

of fields rolling,

pocked with wild-flowers, a crop,

as far as the eye can see?

Does it suggest a legion of soldiers

marching by with their kits,

a simple farm-boy among them

who gazes on the browsing horse

with longing for his homestead?

Does it foretell of a scene

where an unmanned horse nuzzles

fallen men, strewn in the casual,

splayed, abandon of the dead?

Does it intimate that a horse is

 a guileless companion to man,

a witness to all that takes place

in fields everywhere?

GM 2004

Pitt River, looking West…

March 31, 2008

img_0087.jpgimg_0086.jpgimg_0085.jpg Lila and I gathered our outdoor painting stuff at 8am on a warm April day, piled them into her Ford Focus and drove to the end of Harris Road in Pitt Meadows. The road ended at the dike and we parked right next door to the barn in which Dry Sherry kept her beautiful Percheron/Andalusian, Paris. He was out in his paddock cruising around, munching hay, a splendid dappled, distressed grey -white monolith in motion. Because I was busy gawking at him I nearly ended walking my easel into the ditch. Lila meanwhile, being much better organized and less of a wool-gatherer, made an efficient job of carting her easel, large canvas, and carrying bag up onto the dike. I dragged my easel and set it up. Had to go back to the car to get my drawing board and paper pad as well as my bag with my drawing stuff. Once set up near each other we sussed out the place; looked about us to select an area to work with and from.

I had earlier in the morning determined that  in no way was I going to get precious or self-conscious about my materials or the imagery which would absorb my attention. I was in a rebellious mood. No museum quality paper, archival drawing medium, or picture-worthy, picturesque subject would distract me from the pure pleasure of looking, seeing, making marks, moving freely and playing.

So, the paper was plain old 18 by 24 newsprint. The tools, oil pastels. The challenge for me today with the subject was to take the least picturesque aspect of the landscape in front of me and to find the rhythm and unity of forms in front of me. It didn’t have to be an earth-shattering or mind-blowing image. So there was the spring growth of sedges near the river’s edge; shrubbery, low-lying near the shore, denser and taller, more vigorous further from the river, and in the distance a massing of vegetation, then the sky. The log-booms snugged along the river provided a warm contrast against the sky-reflecting blue of the water.

I windmilled my arms to get the blood flowing, did some knee bends and lunges and then selected the pastels colours and began the drawing dance. And kept drawing until the study reached the above stage. Lila may as well have been on the moon, for aside from hearing her brush scratching and swishing on her canvas somewhere to my right, her presence didn’t infringe on my concentration.

We spent the whole morning, working in silence, absorbed as the sun rose to the zenith and we began to tire. Lila worked on an ambitious 22 by 30 inch oil of the mountains and river and had a strong start with which to work later in her studio. I made the three oil pastel studies and felt satisfied with having met the goal I set for myself.

As my vision has failed me now, to the point that I no longer can make such distinctions visually as in these three-year-ago drawings, I like having these rather flimsy pieces of paper up on the walls of my studio. As I come and go from the house the drawings are an aide memoire. Now when walking along the dike this is not how I see what is there. It has changed so profoundly that patterns have lost their crispness, shapes have lost their clarity and tones and colours have become of paramount importance. Now, I realize that already, three years ago my vision was starting to change from the almost painful acuteness and clarity I have been gifted with throughout my first fifty years of life. These drawings represent a change, though not necessarily for the worse. A change toward some different ways of seeing, maybe a different way of being.

Cement Plant…

December 13, 2007

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In 2004, on an August summer evening, Rumpole took me to take reference photos of the local cement plant. I planned to do a painting of the plant for a fundraiser for the local municipal art gallery the theme of which was – “Paint the Town.” To my thinking, local historical buildings and scenic views did not represent our town of suburbs, downtown core of cement buildings, malls with their massive concrete parking lots, the hard paving that we travelled on daily and were surrounded by, everywhere. For some reason, the cathedral of cement, from where all this suburban skin originated – the local Lafarge Cement plant – seemed an appropriate icon for ‘our town’.

So there we were, the two of us, at dusk. We wandered around the plant grounds. It felt abandoned, with a few cement trucks parked, ready to resume their next morning’s labour of moving wet cement to add yet more hard surface to the steadily encroaching spread of our community – bridges and overpasses, house basements, driveways and walkways, streets, mall parking lots – all multiplying like a grey mold. Rumpole didn’t seem to be as excited as I was by this place. He was more interested in making sure I took “The Proper Picture” and followed me around, taking the camera from my hand to see what the photos were like, and giving instruction on how best to take pictures. After all, it was his camera that was being used, and he has strong ideas as to what constitutes “good photos”. I was pretty pig-headed, myself, as to what kind of reference I needed to work from, so as we walked about in the failing light, we engaged in our usual heated discussion. Finally, I growled at him to back off and let me do my visual note-taking by myself.

There was something engaging about the persistence and vigour of the tall evergreen that flanked the plant. It suggested the power of nature to endure, to reclaim its primacy over any attempts to supress it. Thus it was this picture which I felt the most useful to work with and from.. It also approximated my idea of what constitutes the notion of “picturesque”.

This cement plant sits alongside a road many townies take regularly to access the ferry across the river. It is a landmark that goes largely unremarked, I suspect, not of as great importance or noteworthiness as the mountain that looms over our community, and which has been painted and photographed innumerable times. And yet, there it perches, this amazing structure, and has persisted in its peculiar architecture for over forty years. In terms of time, this is not so long a period, and yet as far as history of our town goes, its presence has been pivotal to the steady growth and spread over this region. So, how could it not be an important landmark, of sufficient interest to be used as an image representing the specifics of our town? I went with it, whole hog!

The painting, in oils on canvas, was three feet square. The scale was an important consideration to me. The painting grew apace, with a lurid and angry reddish sky. I delivered it to the gallery, still slightly tacky, as reds take a longer time to dry. It sat among the rest of the fundraising paintings and photos, like quite an odd man out. The mountain was represented at least in ten works; the parks, the dykes and historic buildings, nostalgia inducing, made up the rest of the images on offer. I could see that my painting might be a hard sell – not many people could live with a painting of an industrial subject, say, above their floral couch or looming over their dining room table.

At the fundraising auction, my painting did not incite vigorous bidding. A lady picked it up for $300. Well, at least it got some money for the art gallery, so that was fine. One thing though, I never took a picture of the painting for my own records, but that’s not so big a deal – it’s out there somewhere, even if it takes up a spot under someone’s bed.

A year ago, I was browsing through a second-hand store in town. Tucked in a corner, between a bookshelf and a ratty armoire was my painting of the cement plant. No price tag on it. I hunted down the clerk and asked him how much was being asked for the painting. $350, he said, “and it’s by a well known local member of the Mountain Club. It’s an original, you know – a real steal.” Later, that evening, I casually mentioned to Rumpole that my painting ended up in the second-hand store.

He studied my face, looking for signs of disappointment and dismay. “I’ll go buy it back. I like that painting.”

“Nope,” I said. “Once a painting is done and out in the world, it needs to find its way on its own. It has its own legs; let it end up where it ends up.”

“But, aren’t you feeling somewhat sad about it being remaindered?” he asked.

“Well, this is a good lesson about ego, self-importance, preciousness, letting go – it is a good lesson for me to think about.” I said.

Come to think of it – all those men who make roads, foundations, cement buildings do so in anonymity. I have my funny little signature appended to a part of my painting of the plant. The painting is one of many out in the world a mere speck of colour on a stretched sheet of canvas. It has served its purpose for me as its maker. It may, in its small way, cause people seeing it to wonder why someone might have lavished so much time and attention to crafting such an image. If it makes anyone, just one more person than myself, see the meaning, and importance that a cement plant has in our lives, my labours will have served their purpose.

The Drip…

October 20, 2007

Where is my mother, just when we need her to be here with a dish-towel in hand, lurking behind painters, ready to pounce and wipe, whenever drips course down paintings in progress?

Scenario: On the patio, I have set up my easel, canvas, buckets of water, upturned plant pots to serve as places to rest   paint tubes, brushes, rags, the ubiquitous cup of cold coffee, my ashtray and other necessities for painting uninterrupted for a morning. Mother materializes, unannounced and unexpected, at the corner of the house near the garden gate.

“Hi!” she says, “what are you doing this morning? I just thought to drop by and visit you.” ( She lives three miles away, and has walked the distance without calling ahead!)

“Oh, I’m painting this morning. Gotta get this painting off to a good start. Grab a coffee and come sit,” I suggest, meanwhile trying to contain my irritation with this unwelcome interruption.

I mix a good quantity of fluid acrylic, start to lay in divisions , forms and tonal areas.  Mother comes out the patio door, and, heaving a showy sigh, arranges herself in a nearby rickety lawnchair, in the shade of the roof overhang. She watches in silence for a while, then goes back inside. I carry on laying in broad marks on the canvas, change my mind, wipe out and resume building the understructure. A workable design begins to emerge. Also does mother, back on the patio again, toting a dish-towel. With noisy ceremony she resumes her perch on the lawn chair and mutters, “oh dear”.

“What? What?” I ask, gritting my teeth.

“You are making such a mess of that painting,” she grouses. “look at all those drips!” She leaps us from her seat and advances with the dish-towel clenched in her hand. Elbows me aside. Begins to carefully wipe all areas on the canvas where drips are coursing down.

I am stunned into silence, then into a realization that the poor dear is merely trying to save me from that dreadful painterly cliche – drips. On the other hand, maybe she is merely keeping up her practice of tidying me and my messes. Whatever! I start to giggle and snort, not only because this is so funny a situation, but also to hide my mounting frustration.

So where was Mother, or her spirit, when the numerous painters in last night’s art opening were in the midst of their painterly labours creating cliche after painterly cliche. And not just of technique, full of drips and artful ‘fuzzification’, but also of flourishes of brush which hid their inability to draw believable forms. Then of course, one must also not mention the pot-boiler character of the images, the flabby landscapes, romantic strollers on the beach, and unremarkable still lifes of wine bottle, wine glass and flowers in a vase.

I guess, because so many drips were left frozen in spot alongside attempts at bravura brushwork, so that paintings looked as if done in a fit of painterly passion and urgency, these paintings would be elevated from “bad” Impressionist paintings to “contemporary” Impressionist ones. The original Impressionists must be rotating in their graves!

Martha and I attended this opening. Rumpole declined to accompany us tonight. There was a good crowd sipping wine, eating canapes, gawking and chatting. A good deal of reverence emanated from the crowd.  After all, the venue was the lounge of a golf course club-house, quite toney.

I crept around the perimeter of the show with my nose near the paintings. Martha schmoozed. The work of eight painters was on show, but damn me, with a couple of exceptions, most of the paintings might have been done by one person. It felt a bit like landing in an exhibition and sale of the kind of work made by a painting mill. One where one person painted skies, then passed off the canvas to the next guy for him/her to paint the trees, and so on.

I grabbed a brochure to see what was up. Of course, this was all from a studio of acolytes and hangers on of a Luminary of contemporary Impressionism. Yes, Luminary was capitalized. The brochure was full of bad grammar, hyperbole and reverent mention of the influence of Pino and Nikolai Fechin. The name of Monet, if not the spirit, was invoked. Ah, so!

When we got back to my house, Rumpole poured us a cup of coffee. “So, how was the show?”he asked innocently.

“It was very well attended” announced Martha.

‘Lots of artful drips” I added, “but they could sure have used Mother and the dish-towel to sop up some of the excesses.”

“Piles…”

October 4, 2007

This coming Thanksgiving weekend, Renaissance Man and his friend, Pete, are going surfing on the west coast of Vancouver Island, leaving behind wives, children and family, home and work obligations, to play in the water and sand. They don’t care whether the forecast is for sun or rain.  They just hope for good waves.

I have seen pictures of numbers of these young men of varied ages dragging and piling beach refuse into huge piles behind which to take refuge from the westerly winds punishing this shore. Their multicoloured surf-boards are erected like menhirs in Brittany, aligned, waiting for the perfect waves, the magic condition for their deployment. These worshippers of the surf are all garbed in severe black neoprene skin-suits, huddled, waiting behind their windbreak.

When he first announced his intention to go surfing in this inclement weather, my gut reaction was instant fear for his safety.  I greeted his announcement in frozen silence. Holding back from uttering a motherly caution, I wondered if this fear for my child, who is no longer a child, but a man with a family and good common sense, would ever cease in my lifetime. I marvelled at how even as a young child he was fascinated by contrasting elements; water acting on sand and gravel, piles of different things disarranged by an applied force acting on them.

At first, when he was about 16 months old, Renaissance Man was partial to outings to the sand-pit in the park across the street from our basement apartment. He didn’t particularly like the feel of sand after he had a faceful flung at him by another young child. Yet, he liked to slog through the sand on his sturdy little legs. He studied the marks behind him made by his feet as he laboured along making parallel v-shaped grooves behind him.

A year later, we were living up north where great snowfalls reigned in the wintertime. Bundled up like a spaceman in his winter gear, he waddled around in the snow, whenever he was not ensconced in his little sled with me pulling him like a plow horse. Whenever I had to dig out the car from drifts, he stayed near, patting the piles created by digging into a semblance of order with  his mittened hands.

Indoors, during the spring before he turned three, he played with his Christmas present, a yellow Tonka dump-truck. I bought a good supply of cube sugar which was his to play with, to load, dump and reload. He made piles of sugar cubes, built strange lines of several rows  meandering on the green indoor-outdoor carpet of the living room. He shrieked with frustration when he attempted to create discrete piles out of these white granular squares. They did not make tidy mounds. As they gradually lost sharp corners and edges, became rounded, they rolled down the incline of the pile in unpredictable ways.

One day we went to the central depot for our bulk provisions of flour, granular sugar, oat flakes, nuts, beans and wheat germ. He watched in earnest as I ladelled my allotted quantities of consumables into separate old cotton pillowcases. Once home with this bounty, he carefully observed transfer of these goods into large jars, cans and cartons. He ran his hands through each type of substance, feeling textures. I wondered what was going through his young mind as he did this.

A couple of days later, the results of his thought processes manifested itself, in a quite surprising way. In the middle of the night, truck-sound splutterings and roars filtered into my unconscious.  I lay in bed, disoriented, until the nature of the sounds registered on my sleepy brain.  It was Renaissance Man, playing and making noises in the kitchen. I stumbled out of the bedroom to find lights on in the kitchen. RM was crawling along, operating his yellow dump truck and spilling dark brown mounds onto the carpeted floor. He was one with his machine, providing the sound-effects of growling diesel engines. There were shallow ribbons of road-ways connecting these mounds. These had a hard glistening surface like fresh ashphalt. He had created the miniature world of a construction materials depot.

“Mom, look!” he gleefully waved muck-encrusted little hands at me.

I looked. There were separate mounds of coffee grounds, wheat germ, beans and oatmeal joined by roads composed of jam, peanut butter and brown sugar. These roads snaked around the whole kitchen floor. RM looked extremely proud of what he had made.

I grabbed him up and took him into the bathroom to clean him of sticky and gritty substances. Although he had used up food supplies so carefully laid in with what little money we had, I didn’t have the heart to chide him.

“You know, that is all stuff we eat that you used to make your construction yard,” I muttered, wiping crud from his hands. ” but we will have to clean all the roads up from the floor before they harden.”

“Can we sleep first?” he asked as he yawned.

“Yes, we’ll clean up in the morning,” I replied, carting him, now clean, to his bedroom.

Back in my own bed, I resolved to make him his own sand-box in the back-yard as soon as the spring melt ended.

Came Spring –  sunny, windy days, aspens broke into their tender green. The muddy ground dried and we cleared an area in the background of grass, and dug down to provide a pit to contain sand. We went off in the car to one of the local lakes which was our sandy swimmming hole in summertime. There we shovelled sand into garbage can, and buckets and took them home to deposit into our sand pit. We made several trips to get enough sand to make a decent play area. RM enjoyed having a part in creating his play space. He collected rocks and pebbles, and built up a supply of various sized gravel mountains that he carefully separated by size of unit components. He spent time in this outdoor play zone and built himself a complex world where he moved stuff about, constructing, dismantling and reconstructing as his imagination prompted. He collected twigs and sticks to augment his little world.

One dinner-time as we were feasting on broccoli, his little face lit up with a realization of discovery. Of a new idea.

“Mom, we are really eating trees right now,” he announced, brandishing a broccoli spear in his hand. “Can I have some fresh ones to plant in my city?”

“You are right, these do look like trees. But this is food, hard to come by. Maybe we can go and look for stuff in the yard that might make good trees,” I told him.

The following summer, we travelled to Vancouver to visit family and friends, go to the beach, hike in the woods and visit parks. A university friend had an installation showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Also being exhibited was an American Minimalist’s work, labelled “PILES”. Renaissance Man was my gallery companion to this exposition. I figured it was never too early to introduce him to gallery experiences, and model some appropriate gallery behaviours. His questions about new experiences he encountered were pointed, and his reactions fresh and surprising.

So, on a sunny afternoon, before hitting the sands of Second Beach to play and frolic in the sea and sand, we took a brief side-trip to see this exhibition. The main gallery held “PILES”. Grabbing Renaissance Man firmly by the hand, I hefted the heavy gallery door open. He swiftly squeezed through ahead of me, disengaged his hand from mine and simply stood there in silence taking in the various piles of gravel, gravel drawings in the floor.

“Oh, Wow!  Piles!” he chirped, took off at a run before I could grab him, made a bee-line for the nearest gravel mound and flung himself on top of it. He lay there, working his little hands in the gravel. He was grinning with pleasure. I grabbed him up, just as the irate gallery guard materialized from his station somewhere in the gallery.

“Madam, you have to have better control of your child.” he ordered in a stentorian voice. “Look, he has wrecked an exhibit!”

What did Renaissance Man care about the fact that the various piles were examples of the concept of “The angle of repose”? Or of possible methodology of placing precised edged drawings  composed of gravel lines on the gallery’s floor? He simply reacted, directly and honestly from his particular experience and appreciation of the materials thus displayed. To him, these piles of different quality of gravels represented a potential to manipulate and create with of an imagined end that he had in his own mind. These piles called to him with an irresistible and unheard siren call of “handle me, use me, make a world with me!!!”

With red face, I clung firmly to his hand and we walked around the exhibit, talking about where the piles of stuff came from, how they were brought into this place, and how possibly they had been created.

He expressed surprise that a grown man had made this display of stuff he himself was so familiar moving about.

“Dads really do this? They still play with gravel and sand?” he asked, mystified.

So, I wonder, will he, perhaps, remember his early play with earthen materials, as he plants his surf-board in the sand, shifts logs and beach debris to make a shelter from the winds, dig his toes into the sand and watch the water shift the shoreline as he waits for the perfect waves to form?

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

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!