Artfully Seeing

Yesterday morning my wife and I wound our way down to Hamilton to drop off Santa Maria’s halyard, which needs replacing. We then made our way over to LaSalle Marina, her home on the hard in this year of pandemic. We finished replacing a thru-hull, started a couple of weeks ago, after which we decided for a stroll on the shore. There we found a beautiful swan.

She, or he – I guess – was busy cleaning herself. It was most amazing to watch her. She could bend her head in pretty much any direction, and reach places I didn’t know to exist on a swan. The swan paid no attention to my paying attention to her. I took a video, and then wondered why. I wanted to capture the moment, I guess. But why?

I recall a professor some years ago talking about walking along a via in Rome, at sunset, with a friend who commented on all the tourists snapping photos (in those days with cameras not phones). The friend noted that they were trying to freeze a moment rather than enjoying it. They wanted to “capture” it; to have it ready at hand. I have thought about that comment for some time.

I also remember reading an article more recently about a study concerning memory and photographs. People taking photos of an event, or a monument were later asked about it. Set against those who simply took in the event, the photographers had less-clear memories and far weaker impressions than those who simply observed. But there was an exemption. Photographers who were trying to get artful images had a stronger impression than both groups. So, what does this tell us?

It is hard to know. But it does seem to be the case that those who practice art are practiced in patience. And patience is the sine que non for seeing in the richest sense of the word. Some ancient Greeks believed that when a person saw something, they became one with it. This was the condition for the possibility of knowing something, also evidenced in the Hebrew word for “know.” Yada is used in the broader sense of knowledge, but also with reference to sexual intercourse. Truly knowing comes from truly seeing which means being one with what is known.

I didn’t become one with the swan. But I know that she certainly gave me pause, and as I watched her bend in so many ways, I thought of my recent foray into yoga. The swan needs no guru to guide it. Maybe that’s why I took the video, hoping that she might be my guru, inspiring or in-spiriting me with this vision of flexibility and balance. And maybe too it, I wanted to remind myself that there are no ugly ducklings.

Sand Through My Hand

You’ve escaped me again,
like sand through my hand;
sweat from my pores;
sleep from my night.

I try to paint You,
but no portrayal will do. You
cannot be captured and every
image merely mirrors my wanting.

And yet yearning, too, is an attestation of your visitation…

I daydream of Your return, and
then you pinch me asleep. I dream
deeper into what is true: Your
slipping away is also Your drilling
deeper into me.

Staycation in Canvas and Verse

Today my wife and I were to return home after a week spent in Trinidad and Tobago building a home with Habitat for Humanity. It became apparent some time ago that this was not to happen, but I had a week of holidays to be completed before the end of April, so a staycation was in the offing.

The danger of staycation, especially after an extended period of working at home is figuring out a way not to work at home. I have to admit that I wasn’t altogether successful at this, but I did better than I thought I would. I was helped, largely, by two decisions I made. One was to buy a year’s subscription to Master Class, and the other was to work on a painting that has been kind of drifting about in my head for some weeks.

I was especially interested in Billy Collins’ class on poetry in Master Class. I delight in Collins’ poetry and so was not surprised to find his lessons entertaining, insightful and inspiring. He revealed much about himself and his process of creating poetry, all the while sharpening my tools for reading poetry as well as writing it. One of his great lines from the class was “the beauty of a poem can be measured by the degree of silence it creates when it is finished.” He read a few poems of his own and introduced me to others that gave me pause at their completion. Collins’ lectures, mostly in 10 minutes clips or so, allowed me to take in small bits, think about them for a time and return when I was ready for more. Undoubtedly, I will be revisiting these before the year is over. I have just started Margaret Atwood’s class, and it proves to be promising as well.

I would spend my morning doing a bit of reading, listening to a few Master Classes, and then think a bit about my painting for a half-hour to an hour. At noon or so I would go for a jog, eat some lunch with my working wife, and paint for a good part of the afternoon. Painting, when you are in the right space, is a timeless activity. A minute feels no weightier than an hour. Sometimes, I find my heart racing as an idea falls in place for dealing with some shape, or colour, or balance. Sometimes I tremble at the fear that I am going to wreck something that feels right as I move the painting forward. Painting, like running, are really spiritual experiences for me. I feel God powerfully in them, and they do not need to be successful to be successful.

I spent my evenings watching a movie, or another Masterclass, or reading some theology. I would end my evening with some yoga and a glass of red wine. I found good bits of silence in the course of my week, which makes me think that some of it was poetic, à la Collins. Luther famously said that the Holy Spirit is the best poet of all and so I suspect that divine fingerprints can be found here and there in this week of canvas and verse.

Gone now, save in this memory

What will come of all
of this poetry:
verses
words
letters
punctuation? Will
they fill the white space
or will it consume
them? A
Q now an O, a
bite taken out of it; a
t now an l, the ‘–’
erased…

I remember well a poem
I wrote in grade nine, published
in an education column in the Edmonton Journal. It was
sent in by Mrs. Massing, my Language Arts teacher, and cut
out by my modestly proud mother, who pasted it
on the inside door of the food pantry,
only to be seen by certain eyes, and
gone now, save in this memory:
my chewing on it,
its chewing on me.

On the Making of a Turtle

On Saturday I made a turtle. Or, more accurately, I carved a turtle out of soapstone, pictured below. I was a part of a workshop hosted by the Woodland Cultural Centre. A shout out to both Richard Morgan who led the workshop and Naomi Johnson at the centre who organized the event. It was quite remarkable.

At one level it was especially interesting because in our part of the world, the turtle is a primary character in some indigenous creation stories. I won’t tell that tale now, but one version of it can be found here, but critical to the story is the turtle, who agrees to have the land where we now live built on its back. For this reason, North America is known in some Indigenous Communities as Turtle Island. In the story, the turtle exemplifies self-less giving, a willingness to take on the world, as it were, for the good of all. For those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating creation story, you will find that other animals also give much for creation of community. And as a think about the act of carving, I can also see that the rock that gave itself for this piece of art, too, was generous. This is, I think, more significant than it first appears, since in some Indigenous traditions rocks are considered grandfathers and grandmothers, elders in our midst. They, too, give themselves in order that something marvellous should occur.

What also struck me as so very important in this Saturday adventure was the conversation we had around the table as we scraped away at the Brazilian soapstone with our files. Some people spoke about the many negative stereotypes that persist about the first peoples of Turtle Island, some spoke of their personal experiences of these, but a consistent theme that resonated was the role of art in healing these pains and others. Our instructor had also worked as a social worker and spoke of how carving had helped some of the young people he worked with work through their trauma. As he spoke, though, it struck me that it wasn’t only the art that healed but the fact that it was art done in an environment dedicated to well being and healing. Alas, I’ve also seen art used as a means for competition and control. But when art is done in an environment of grace and acceptance, it can release powerful emotions. I experienced something of this last Saturday. Of course, this isn’t just true for those carving, but all the arts, including but not limited to painting, dance, song, story-telling, poetry, etc.

Martin Luther (a famed theologian of the 16th century) in a commentary on Psalm 101, called the Holy Spirit the greatest and best Poet. Most immediately, he was referencing the poetry of the psalm. But as the great linguist he was, he also knew that the word for poetry comes from the Greek word for “to make.” The Spirit, then, is best maker, the best artisan, the best artist of all, as is evident in creation’s beauty. Whenever we have occasion to experience creativity, it seems to me that we imbibe something of Creator’s Spirit. I certainly felt that way last Saturday, and for that I am so very grateful.

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Highway Eleven – Saskatchewan

I drove into a William Kurelek
painting the other day – the sky
an orb, seeing me
travelling in God’s eye. I
stopped at a roadside
coffee spot, and saw
two wizened souls

she in spotted frock

and

he with hat crooked just so,

both leaning into the wind and
wearing both weariness and joy.

I travelled past wounded windmills,
from another time, and felt my soul
caressed by granaries old
enough to be my Omma and Oppa –
they called out:
“Do not forget your whence

and

Do not forget that your whither

cannot be divined.”

Painting Me in Three

I decided, not so long ago, that it was time to paint a portrait again. I generally work on landscapes but a few years ago I painted my Oppa, from a photograph. It was a most trying and satisfying experience: trying because I must have spent more time working on his eyes than any optometrist ever did. But satisfying because I remembered him as I painted: the way he teased Omma, his slow but graceful ways, his lovely accent, his warm smile, and the fact that he is – at least in part – where I come from. It was a richly satisfying experience, emotionally. But it was hard work for this amateur, not that painting landscapes isn’t. Yet this was altogether different. I’m not surprised it has taken me some time to come back to a portrait. The delay has been extended by the problem of deciding whom next to paint.

Some time ago I came upon the idea of doing a self-portrait. Yet, I knew I wanted to do something a little unusual and so have demurred. A couple of weeks ago I came upon an idea while cleaning up some files. I found a folder with some school photographs inspiring me to paint myself as a young lad. I spent some time pondering myself at twelve different stages. I came to the conclusion that I peaked in grade three, the year when my teacher likely combed my hair, and my teeth were all in place, and I seemed to exude a joy that suggests that life was pretty fine. I found my subject.

I have not yet started painting me in grade three, although I have done some sketches to warm up to the task before me. Drawing the sketches has been rather vexing. I come out looking like a young adult. With some re-working I can get myself down to what seems to be about grade seven. It is hard to draw myself at eight years of age. Perhaps the years have made it hard for me to reflect the adventurousness and curiousity of my public-school self. I can’t quite get me, but I have spent quite a bit of time looking at my eyes. The eyes seem to hold the key, and I will likely need a bit more sketch work before I wander toward the canvas.

In the meantime, I have been making an acquaintance of my grade three self. It has been most interesting. Questions emerge: what were my eight-year-old worries, joys, dreams, hopes? Was I proud of those delightful freckles? Where has my hair all gone? When I see myself in the photograph, I think that I would like to spend some time with that young man! Of course, I can and do spend time with him. He wanders around inside me; some days spreading more trouble than delight, and some days the opposite. Some days I send him to his room, but he generally sneaks out, and for that I am glad. We are spending quite a bit of time together these days!

I am not especially confident that this will be a successful venture, but I am absolutely certain that it will be worth every minute: looking at myself at a different stage in life, wondering whether one day I will be 82 painting my 56-year-old self ,and wondering: “What’s up with that grin?”

Seeing Double

I am only just now back from the American Academy of Religions, that annual event that allows me to be lost in a sea of folk who think about things religious, spiritual, and theological. It is always a rich experience, although oftentimes a bit harried with side-meetings, planning groups and such. This year, as I am wont to do most years, I came in on Friday. Things started in earnest on Saturday even though meetings and lectures are increasingly bleeding into the Friday too.

I came in by plane from Toronto, and my colleague and I shuttled our way to downtown Boston to Copley Place, a sprawling complex of hotels, shops, a convention centre and a huge mall. I checked into my hotel and from the 28th floor took my bearings. After checking a map, I walked out of the hotel/convention centre complex and took a right in order that I might go see the Boston Commons. After a time, it struck me that I was quite likely walking in the wrong direction. And so I pulled out my phone, took a look at the map and realized that yes, indeed, I had been walking for a time westward rather than eastward. But my map also indicated that this was a happy accident since I was now a stone’s throw away from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon finding out that the Museum was to be open until 10:00 pm, I bought my ticket and entered the shrine.

I always find art galleries to be sacred after a fashion. They don’t quite take the place of churches, temples, synagogues, and such in my mind and soul but still, they facilitate a kind of quiet where looking at the art seems to facilitate a shuttle into a different place, interior perhaps. I was quite taken by a display they had of Mark Rothko. For those who don’t know him, his work is abstract in genre, with rich colours that bleed across fuzzy edges, blurring where lines begin and end at the edges of what is often a rectangular shape on a rich coloured back-drop. I learned at the exhibit that he painted with the expectation that the viewer is to look at the painting from 18 inches away, which really rather radically reframes the experience of his art. His goal, thereby, was for the viewer to be drawn into the piece, which I found to happen with great effect.

When I left the Rothko exhibit, I came upon “Seeking Stillness.” This show invites viewers into introspection. Here I found a marvellous traditional Chinese mountain scene, shown below.

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I took this photograph of me taking a photograph of it, in the hopes to capture the manner in which stillness allows viewers to see themselves in art, society, the city, nature, and more. As I wandered around the museum, I took a few such photographs in the interests of seeing myself in the art, attaining, I think, what Rothko was hoping for. We often see things, but don’t see ourselves in the things we see. We aim for a kind of detachment that might well encourage a posture of judgement of art, play, family, etc. that is naïve about its objectivity. There is nothing wrong with “judging” art and such, I think, as long as we recall that our judgment might well say as much about us as the art. Art, good art anyway, always draws us into the art at the same time as it artfully enters us. Such art enables us to set aside the too easy conceit that it is ours to play God – now with art and next, too easily, with people.

A Blue on White Delight

This last weekend was dedicated to orientation at the school where I work. For some years now, we have held it at the Crieff Conference Centre, a lovely locale run by the Presbyterians in our part of the world. The event is always inspiring in many ways, and although year to year admits a kind of litany of repeat questions, and worries, and excitements there is always something unique in the tone of each student speaking and in the collective voice that takes my breath away. I am grateful for this.

On the years when the weather is in our favour, my wife meets me on the last day, after chapel at Sunset Villa. This latter is just down the road from Crieff. It consists of a Danish restaurant and a holiday trailer park, where Danes from years past – and now their families – spent and spend their summers and weekends. We often park one of the cars there and scurry down to Lake Ontario to sail. This was the very thing we did this last Sunday, but there was a garage sale at the Villa, so we dropped in to see that.

This garage sale had many of the things one would expect to see at a garage sale: trinkets, clothing, curios, out of date electronics, record albums etc. As one would anticipate at a Danish garage sale, there were also the famous blue plates, some Royal Copenhagen and some Bing and Grøndahl. If you frequent Danish households in Canada you are sure to find some of these on the walls. They serve as aides de memoire of origins and special events. People will often buy a plate for special years: anniversaries, births, retirements and such. There was a rather handsome stack of such plates, but they didn’t catch my wife’s eyes, so much as a table set in the very middle of the garage sale “garage.”

Here a table was set as one might expect, with crystal for wine, schnapps and water, as well as a candelabra and dinner plates. But here too was the surprise. The dinner plates were white, with Danish blue plates laid on them. This was unfamiliar to us: using decorative plates for the first course. We didn’t know if people actually did this, or if it was for effect. The latter most certainly the case, and led me to thinking about our relationship to things.

Things are designed for a purpose, but rather like the words we write, or the poems we bleed, or the songs we breathe, once they leave us they take on a life of their own. It struck me anew that this is just as true for things as for words. There a piece of art becomes a use thing, and a use thing becomes a piece of art. And here a tool to make a sculpture is taken up into the sculpture itself. Designers’ intentions are thwarted by human imagination, and the sovereignty of the artist is usurped by some soul who imagines an instance of art commandeered to host a smørrebrød of herring on rye; and in so doing making a table setting to be a kind of art.

Theologians talk at length of the image of God, defining in sundry ways what this might be. I think I incline to a more fulsome than minimalist definition, and upon seeing those blue on white plates can well imagine that this imago Dei is also a way to say that people are finally just plain old interesting: both students with their heady questions and elderly Danish ladies upending my sense of what is what with the simplest and unexpected use of something beautiful.

Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.