One Brush Stroke, One Prayer

Last Friday I took my youngest to the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. She was on her way back to Halifax to begin another school year in the march toward her chosen career. We were able to get away a bit early, and so avoided the ubiquitous threat of being stuck in gridlock. A turn around trip home immediately after dropping her off would have meant a plunge into the madness in reverse, and so I opted for a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I got there a bit before it opened, and so snuck into a nearby coffee shop for a quick java. The shop hosted an exhibit call “Foot by Foot.” The shop was adorned by paintings 12 inches square with three spots allotted to each artist. It was a great accompaniment to the smell of fresh coffee. I followed my cup, carried by a kindly young woman, into a “terrace” interior to the café. The sky shone from above and four brick walls framed my space, where I read a brilliant article by Rowan Williams before stepping across the street and slipping into the gallery.

I wandered around, from one gallery to the next. I popped in on a few favourites, and met some new paintings along the way. There were many visiting from galleries across the Americas to take part in the exhibit entitled “Picturing the Americas.” Some of these will be remembered by me and others not, slipping over the edge into the black hole of forgetfulness: images enjoyed in the moment and then gone.

After a while I made my way into the AGO Store. There I pondered, for a bit, buying a book on Scandinavian Design, but decided against it. The time didn’t seem right, and so I moved along. I found a little something I had pondered buying years ago, but then lost sight of and now found again. I might describe it as an art device – it goes by name “Buddha Board.” It comes with a water container/stand, a brush and a special board that turns black wherever water touches it. After a short time – one to ten minutes depending on the amount of water used – the image disappears. Slowly lines soften, and a block becomes blob and a blob becomes a fog that fades into nothing. The purpose of the board, according to its makers, is to allow the artist to “master the art of letting go.” It might do that for me. Time will tell, but I think I bought it for another purpose.

I was intrigued by the idea of having an incentive to make art close to hand in my office, either at home or at work. It will serve, hopefully, to give me occasion to use those little bits of fractured time in my day to find some unity. Life, it seems, is often a collage of splintered experiences looking for a narrative. Art might be seen as up to the task, and so is a sister to faith, which also knows of what cannot be proven but surely is worthy of a gesture to, an attempt at wholeness. It pulls together what is disparate; it wagers a narrative. Indeed, memories fade, paintings are forgotten, children fly to their future, but still, still hope announces its presence: one brush stroke, one prayer at a time.

Views from the Gallery

Last Friday I made my way to Toronto. A handful of times a year I venture in to see what is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was especially looking forward to its current exhibit on Alex Colville. For those unfamiliar with Canadian artists, Colville has been called one of our most influential. It isn’t easy to describe his art. His is a style that might be called realistic; some call it hyperreal, but that doesn’t quite catch it. You often hear the words “eerie” or “menacing” attached to his art. His style is dramatic, exploring the everyday in an uncanny way. He regularly introduces some unresolved narrative twist in an image, as if we are given a frame from a film spool – isolated and so bearing the burden of telling the whole story all on its own. The viewer is left wondering what the next frame will be. Colville’s art invite us to reflect on the phenomenon of searching for the stories needed to make sense of our experiences. Humans, it seems, are people attuned to stories, and are often on the lookout for occasions to unleash the imagination. But back to the story at hand!

I generally take the train for these trips, and so immediately enter a different world. I am neither in control nor accessible and so find the journey from home to the big city and back to be a kind of voyage deeper into the self. By the time I am at the gallery, I am in a different space and open to what might otherwise escape me.

I did not know that Colville, for instance, was a rabid fan of animals. I recall that animals often fit into his work, but I was not aware of his thought behind the images that I knew so well. At the gallery there were some interesting clips from a National Film Board interview of him some years ago, in which he spoke of animals as those not tainted by the many vices that mark being human. Their appearance in his paintings, then, strikes me as an especially interesting comment on our responsibility to attend to innocence. His work draws out the way in which animals invite us to see the world differently, and so draws us deeper into those residual moments of openness to the earth that paradoxically result in both joy and sorrow.

Colville points us to both our interest in the storied character of our existence as well as our sometimes muted yet never obliterated fascination with a more instinctive path of life. In the end, he invites us into a different world; a world where intuition matters as much as measurement, and passion as much as plans. Colville certainly cracks open a vantage point from which to witness a different way of being in the world – for those with eyes to see. May his tribe increase.