Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Springtime at Indian Point.

Oak trees wait until they are absolutely sure that Spring is here before opening their buds.
The tide is far out this morning at Indian Point and the shore, often so narrow and ribbon-like, is now large and dominated by geology. Backbones of hard volcanic rock make walking here today more like rock climbing. And all this will be back underwater again in a few hours. The unconscious mind has surfaced for a while and shows its rugged self.

The sun flashing brightly on the gently rippled ocean surface is well on its way towards its full summer glory. It has already drawn almost every bud and stem of grass out from its winter sleep. Maple trees drape their blossomed boughs out over the beach toward the light and bushes of ocean spray flash patterns of tiny leaves in the vivid air. Red currents are brilliant against the rock and white shell beaches. Everything is so alive, so freshly minted. Spring!

In this familiar place it is easy to think of the rocks, water, trees and sky as extended family and revel in the joy of new life. The ancestor ocean and grandparent bedrock that have given structure to everything, the tall cedars and firs who stand benevolently beside the trail as parents, aunts and uncles watching over me. Those smooth skinned arbutus reaching their seductive limbs out to the light of the bay and the oak trees cautiously waiting to be absolutely sure of the season before opening to the light.

It is so natural afer all to let ones mind slip into a sense of relationship. A knowledge that the landscape is me and that my unconscious self really is the totality of the natural world. On a morning like this it is hard to think of exploiting, of fishing out the seas, logging off the forest, mining out the minerals, because it is so obvious that I would be cutting off my nose to spite my face, self mutilation. I wish that more people could directly experience a Spring morning at Indian Point or, more to the point, find an equivalent space within their own lives.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The drawings.

A while ago I became restless in my studio, too much small fine colour work, and decided with the help of an old art history book to do some large charcoal reproductions of well known drawings by Degas, Munch, Renoir, etc. I have always avoided working in charcoal in the past and it is a big hole in my kit of techniques. Thanks to my work with Gauguin and later Cezanne I have been getting better at this process of ‘resonating’ with the works and minds of those artists from the past that appeal to me. Just as musicians step into the minds of composers while they play their music or readers live in the minds of writers, so I would launch myself into another intimate association with those I feel I can learn from.

While much of my creative work these days is in photography I still feel the need to expand my ability to create, and just as the artists of the time of Degas were starting to learn lessons from the new process of photography, so now I choose to go back to that transitional era and try to understand what the ideas embedded in their drawings have to teach me in my own photographic work.

Thank goodness these pictures are all in monochrome and I will be reproducing them in charcoal. All those weeks of working in colour can be tiring, but black and white are, for me with my partial colour blindness, dead easy. Subtle differences in tone are a pleasure for me to work with.

Later, I photograph myself between two of the drawings, Edvard Munch`s ‘Puberty’ and ‘Two dancers’ by Degas. In monochrome, I fit so well into the pictures. Later, as I continue to take photos I notice that the passions that drove the artists in their drawings have filtered into my own view of the world. This study of the work of other artists really does help inform how I see the world.

On a visit with my daughter and her family, I set my camera on the dinner table and casually snap away as granddaughter Katie resists help with eating her meal. From Munch ( she is munching, but reluctantly) I see this as a psychological moment and portray her small and overshadowed by ‘the helping hand’ and all the glasses and bowls. The next day I use a slow shutter speed and pan along with her as she does her dancing to classical music. Degas` dancers come to mind as she becomes absorbed in the expression of the music.

Somehow I doubt that I would have benefitted so much from just looking at and reading about those artists. I really had to move in, spend the hours of focus and learn with my hands and eyes. Stepping into each drawn line, each subtle tonal shift to become one with them so that their vision of the world could live again through me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Building a life # 24. Cougar bait.

Although this is an island, we are close enough to big Vancouver Island that deer, cougars and bears swim across to add us to their happy hunting ground. A lovely natural idea except when one has small children and farm animals that are at risk of being attacked. ( we even have recently had attacks on people from the many deer on the island) One night during a time when cougar tracks have been seen just down in the valley below we lock up our goats in the barn and bring our new border-collie Diggity into the house. Cougars love dogs all to bits.

Later that dark night Heather decides to take a letter down to the mail box at the end of our road. She will not have her life dictated to by rumours! However, just to cover her bets, she rousts the dog from beside the woodstove and takes her for a W*A*L*K. ( Oh, you lucky dog!) Her theory of course, is that any cougar will take the dog before it attacks her. Diggity: cougar bait.

Off they go into the dark. Soon, too soon, Diggity is back scratching frantically at the front door to be let in. But no Heather! Heather arrives shortly later quite out of breath. She had gone half way to the mailbox before she noticed that the dog had already turned around and run for home. Had it smelled cougar? Did that leave Heather alone in the dark with a creature that would settle for her if a dog meal should fail? AHHHHH, all the way home!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dark star. Man`s search for meaning*.

Out in my studio on these dark rainy winter days I have been following the trail of studio lighting with myself as the ever available model. From portraits to mirror images to draped figures. There seems only one more step I can take beyond that, so one day I remove my shirt and begin to photograph my own skin. Although I have drawn and photographed human bodies before, it is another much more revealing step to photograph myself. I do seem to be on an artistic trajectory, somewhere high in the atmosphere, with no indication yet where I will eventually land.

A male in my late sixties, I do not worry about overt sexuality in these images or of finding that delicate line between sterile lighting studies and overly exploitive imagery. I`m really just a hairy old guy. So hairy, I`d never realized how furry I had become. I have a strange feeling of compassion as I view that grey hair, muscles trying to turn to flab. My body is also on a trajectory as it speeds back to earth.

With a collection of images in the camera and then into the computer files I begin to wonder how I can use them. It was a revelation for me to make these photographs but to show them to others would be very revealing indeed. I squirm at the thought of exposing myself to the obvious remarks I know will surely follow, but then I shrug it off and begin to search for meaning. If I can use these human images to communicate complicated ideas I will be advancing along my path toward expression of thoughts that transcend the possibilities of mere pretty pictures. With me as a model, I`m already halfway there!

I crop a hand and forearm from a full torso shot and replace natural colour with sepia, turning the palid hairy body into a universal brown tone. It was cool in the studio and the hair is standing on end. “Primate”, I think. Hair and hand. I have found the meaning encased in this image and am well pleased. Human beings think of themselves as the lords of creation and are destroying the earth as a result. Let this remind us all of our intimate fellowship with the earth.

Another day I find an image of my back, leaning forward away from the camera and ponder its possibilities. ‘Primate’ got its share of ribald comment when I posted it on a local photoclub site, just as I feared it might, and this photo has some obvious crude sexual possibilities. The more flack I get just seems to harden my resolve however and I begin to look for meaning in this image. As with the last one, I remove the natural colour and this time tint it red, crop the arms close to the torso and remove the small bit of head that remains in view. A red truncated cross blending into a black background. Now that has possibilities!

What is that black environment the torso floats within? Space? The unconscious? Why not both?
They really are the same in the end. I start to sprinkle dots of light around: stars, I think and if stars then how about a larger one with its rays sweeping across the body. I`m on a roll. The image is soon complete except for a blank space at the bottom. Just put the title into the image. Why not? It is very freeing to cross conventional boundaries and I have figured out by now what meaning this has for me. This I`m sure had its beginning during star-filled nights sailing in the mid Pacific where my sense of self expanded into the universe. Its present meaning for me is the parallel place of the creative spirit which reaches into the dark void and finds new meaning. My head is in a creative space.

Once this picture makes the final leap into the public view its origins within my life experience will not matter much. Perhaps in the end only a few who have something gritty in their own life story will find meaning here and they will find their own meaning, not mine. A new image born into the world. The potential for new meaning.

* ‘Man`s search for meaning’ . by Victor Frankl

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coureur de Bois. A matter of perspective.

The other day I had an idea for combining painting and photography and quickly made an eight inch canoe with two simple cut out figures from some heavy paper. After a quick paint job, I sprayed it with varnish to make it water proof and the next sunny day carried my camera and my little piece of Canadian history down to the stream to see what I could make of it.
I also took a length of wire so I could anchor the canoe in the stream because trying to tend the canoe and camera at the same time seemed unnecessarily difficult A few rocks in the canoe for ballast and I set it gently down in the current. Transformation! Standing, and seeing the paper model in the context of the larger landscape was one thing, setting the camera at water level so all that was visible was the canoe in the rapids was quite amazing. All a matter of perspective! I moved around to various places and photographed it in a variety of settings; the two paddlers splashed down fierce rapids, eased their birchbark canoe through quiet water, and balanced precariously on a waterfall ledge. Like actors on a stage or characters in a book the artifice of cut out figures faded into real people in the midst of a grand adventure. The young people in their fragile birchbark canoe were characters from the early days of Canadian history - Coureur de bois.

Coureur de bois ( Runners of the woods) in the early days of the first French colony in North America were those young men who evaded the rules of church and state and wandered off into the wilderness to live with and learn from the Indians whose land the colony had invaded. What an amazing opportunity for them to be the transitional figures between the rigid European Colony and the land and it indigenous peoples. For a while at the beginning, in what would eventually be Eastern Canada, just as in The Thirteen Colonies to the south there was an opportunity to begin a relationship of equality and respect here on native land. It did not work in the end of course, we are all familiar with the blood and destruction, the building of attitudes that exist and power our national attitudes to this day. But, ‘for one brief shining moment...’ there were the Coureur de bois and others who came in wonder and wandered within the spirit of the land.

So have a good look at these young men, that Indian in the bow, showing the way to his friend and sharing his adventure. That determined fellow in the stern with feathers in his hair, concentrating on this moment in history. He can still speak French, probably two Indian languages, hunt, build a canoe and is no longer certain what he is in terms of culture. They are very small in my little stream, as though, as in perspective, the farther back in time, the smaller is our view of them. I think though that they can still live in and activate our imaginations.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Building Bridges.

 ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and ‘Stones into Schools’ The story of Greg Mortenson and his quest to build schools in the most isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This will be a new departure for me, - writing a book review - but what the heck, I really love these books!

When Heather and I were young and just out of university we were swept up in the hopeful period epitomized by John F. Kennedy`s call to go out into the world and make a difference. We went off to Guyana in South America as teachers with CUSO and served in two schools; on the coast at Covent Garden Secondary and in our second year replaced a Canadian couple who taught and ran a hostel for children in the isolated Rupununi district close to the border with the back country of Brazil. (We were chased out of there by a rebellion). As these experiences are wont to do, the time we spent there transformed our lives. Reading ‘Three Cups of Tea’, recently and its sequel, back to back, re-immersed both my wife and me in that stirring experience.

In a part of the world known in the West as taliban and al qaeda territory and into which thousands of soldiers and bombs have been poured in the ‘war on terror’ Greg Mortenson has been quietly making friends and helping local people achieve the one thing they really want -schools, and especially schools that will educate their girls. Education for girls, they know is the key to stable societies and they thirst for that after years of neglect and war. In ‘Three Cups of Tea’, Greg finds that in order to get the school building materials to his first village he must first build a bridge across a river. As he says, it was such a concrete example of what his job was all about - building bridges between peoples.

The second book, just recently published, ‘Stones into Schools’ takes its title from the wish of an Afghan leader to turn the sacrifice of all the people killed in many years of warfare, ‘one for every stone on that hillside’, and build schools as their living memorial for peace. As Greg and his local representatives expand their program into the far north of Afghanistan, in the Pakistan areas of the great earthquake, and even into the still dangerous places along the Pakistan/Afghan border, they do so only at the request of local people. They find as they go along that they expand into adult female literacy programs, small local businesses, water supply systems and so on, - whatever the people see as necessary so that they can live honourable lives within their own cultural context. That I think, is the most important element in Mr. Mortenson`s work: there is no grand hidden agenda for American or Western imperialism or World trade. One shy and humble guy who is asked by a little girl in a remote mountain village for his help to get an education, for a school, and who goes home to America to fulfil his promise no matter what personal difficulties this causes for him.

I was close to tears many time as I read these books, plain and matter- of -fact as they are. They remind me that it is too easy to be cynical, worldly wise, but that one person who ‘doesn`t know any better’ can reach out, find a mission in life and begin to move the world.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Orange you glad? Fruitful creativity.

Orange you glad we are having a baby?
 The navel oranges are yummy at this time of year and so we have a wooden bowl full of them resting on the counter. Hmmm, NAVEL oranges,  -my mind is racing off into lalaland with possibilities. Before they can escape I grab the camera and start taking photos.

Through the camera lens I wander across the surface, peering down at the relationships until suddenly I have it! Navel was the clue even if it is the stalk connection point I see. Belly button... round orange belly... thighs. A pregnancy photo! Click!

The lander fires its retro rockets as it nears the 'navel feature' on the orange planet.
Later, in the computer I see a single orange on a dark background, one of that same series and see... an orange planet with an interesting round recessed feature on its surface... lets call it a ‘navel’ and send in a lander to check it out. NASA probably did this in around 2050. This will need some photoshopping, but not much. Mostly I will need to create the story to support the illusion. Now that could be fun!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Building a life # 23. Moving into the big house at last.

We have been a long time building the big house ( at 1600 sq.ft. it is not really so big.) but at last it is finished enough to move into. The house is still sheathed in black tar paper and it will have several layers reapplied before the cedar siding is cut from still more trees by a portable mill and nailed on. Bedrooms have ‘temporary’ carpeting over the plywood sub-floors and some furniture waits for me to design and make it. The kitchen cabinets and stairs are beautiful though, made of hardwood planks we have milled from our own maple trees. Friends have given us some contorted willow branches from which to make the curved handles. Owner built houses on Saltspring are seldom really finished and indeed it would seem like we were putting on airs if our neighbours were to see us rushing to a perfect finish. Rural rustic is the style of the day.
It is time, and all our goods come down from the log cabin which will now become Heather`s mother`s summer home. All those anonymous garbage bags stacked in the big open- area downstairs room are just a little intimidating for Heather to unpack but over the next two weeks things settle in and find a place to live. This house is almost three times the size of the cabin and, including the basement and the loft, is on five levels stacked up in a split level arrangement. We no longer all share one big room as we have done for the past three years. We notice that we all move upstairs as a group, it is so lonely all alone by oneself. Gwyn especially finds this a difficult transition, she doesn`t remember any other home than the cabin. One thing though, all three girls don`t know enough to feel hard done by that they all must share one big bedroom.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


The last of the bunch, two bananas lie curved together.

I have been reluctant to post this on the site because it is so simple. And yet for me it speaks of something very deep in my heart. How to communicate a feeling so personal in a place where it might just be brushed off. And yet, not to do so... well I might as well take my marbles and head home. There is no honourable place to limit the creative process. A little Japanese poem says:

“If you meet a master swordsman, show him your sword.

If you meet someone who is not a poet, do not show him your poem.”

So, I`ll take a chance. Stop a while and let this sink in. What is deeply personal is always universal. You can feel it too.