Friday, April 30, 2010

Daffodillia III. Daffodil reflection.

I am out amid the daffodils that cloth the slope beneath the flowering maple trees. It is early morning, I have a mirror tucked under my arm and my camera around my neck.

Carefully the mirror is propped at an angle beside a clump of yellow blossoms, thus creating what I hope will be some interesting repeating images. The first photos are disappointingly flat, - the sun has not reached down to the ground yet and the shadows of night linger on. Out with flash and try some more. The results are dramatic, bright yellow flowers and darker backgrounds or, if the mirror is slanted more, the trees above and blue sky. It is difficult though to keep the camera and photographer out of the picture. I do my best and then go on to take other images of bracken ferns and later download them onto the computer for a proper examination.

There is an interesting image of a bracken fiddlehead, some passable daffy shots and a slew of images where the camera and its attached human are all too visible. I wander off for a few minutes, come back to begin deleting the disappointments and catch myself just in time. Those rejects are insisting I get out of my rut and take a second look.

A fiddlehead image repeats in the mirror but what is this?, - a hand farther back in the darkness holds a green stem across its palm. It is vague, out of focus and almost out of the frame but it is mysterious. I do not know what is portends, but I know this is a keeper.

A daffodil shot has a large bright fuzzy back of a flower in the foreground and the camera and its flash in the opposite corner. If I cropped the camera out, it would still not be all that useful, but wait!, - this is one of those feral images that, like a de-constructionist novel, walks outside of normal conventions. Create a mirror image of the mirror image so ‘Nikon’ is show normally and not reversed and I have a profoundly disturbing image and the camera and flash are vital to its impact. The big daffodil in the foreground is also the small one close to the camera`s lens in the background, the fingers of the photographer over there are invisibly close to our eyes. One can get sea sick being two places at once. The sky and the framework of upper branches fill a background that our sense of balance says is all wrong.

Images like this can keep me looking forever. What is real after all? This feels like another take of another, or is it this, dimension.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Daffodillia II. The girl in the yellow dress.

 It is Spring at last on Saltspring Island and all around our land the daffodils are in blossom. Such cheerful bright yellow trumpets announcing the return of life after winter`s sleep. They are so deeply symbolic, so I do some research and find that the “fields of asphodel’ that Odysseus walked through as he approached Hades, the land of the dead, were in fact daffodils. Such perfect symbols for bright life, gradual maturation and final withering, with the essence remaining below ground in the bulb until the trumpet call of Spring begins the cycle once more. So much of religious belief is so deeply rooted in the seasonal waves of life, death and renewal. Easter. This human tendency to see the story, the symbol, behind the surface image works in the visual arts as well.

The other day I picked some daffodils and began a series of photographs that involved water in glass containers and some black ink and red paint. I acted as though I was doing a portrait session with my flash unit. Experimenting with an open mind and no preconceived ideas of what would be the outcome.

A daffodil lying in a bowl of water. Add a little red colour and it is instantly a girl in a yellow dress, - something nasty and bloody has happened. A murder mystery book cover. I have made the leap from flower and red paint to seeing it as symbolic of something else. William Blake would call this a two-fold vision. (A thistle is also ‘an old man grey’).

I start again with fresh water, add black ink and begin a rapid series while the ink spreads quickly into the clear. The flowers become stained, the water takes on a smooth oily quality. ‘Black gold’ are the colours and the symbolic message.

Finally I take the stained flower and crush it beneath the glass bowl. The flash filters through the water and picks out the still delicate folds, now flattened. A pressed flower under glass, - and underground.

All these photos are nasty and beautiful at the same time, and they are teaching me to look at every photograph I take to seek the symbolic idea that may lie hidden within. Art has always done this, it is within the tradition from cave art up through religious paintings and to the present day. We look at a photo and our minds run a secondary program seeking the meaning that may lie within the image.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Daffodillia I* .Feral patterns

Katie, at two, has few learned inhibitions. She runs to the electric piano and calls for Grand-daddy to join her on the bench. What? - but I do not do music, not even sing along. I do the visual stuff!

Well, what harm, she will not know the difference, so I slide in at the low end of the range and try to match her abandon. She zooms up and down on the high keys, twisting control knobs, while I pound away with both hands on the low notes. Then an interesting thing happens, I find a kind of motif, a repeating rhythm, and provide a structure beneath Katie`s wild melody. We have contact. One moment the piano switches to organ and I linger on my share of the keys and the next the keys are producing something vaguely like a flute: little fingers press buttons and twist controls. This feels suspiciously like when she and I collaborate in the studio, making paintings with acrylic paints, brushes and various scrapers. We are then and now making patterns out of colour and sound and the underlying process is the same.

Today, on the radio there was an interview with an Englishman who conducts workshops in ‘Feral choir music’ and I pricked up my ( feral) ears. People were being lead to use their whole voice range to produce a wider sound pallette, the kind of wild noise that Katie and I had been making. They howled and growled, cawed like crows and gradually produced... music. They had permission to try to make any sound, -to improvise. They were getting their whole voice back! Breaking through traditional barriers.

Two days ago I took a glass carafe and my camera out into the bright sunshine. I was remembering a poem by Wallace Stevens ( ‘Anecdote of the jar’) about how a jar, placed on a hilltop in Tennessee, organized the wild nature around it and I decided to experiment, to play, with a visual equivalent. A dandelion in the grass under the upturned carafe looked different from above than from the side, the distortions were different. I decide to rinse water in the jar to get some drops on the inside, - all those little prisms, I think, but stop dead with the jar still filled with water. I am about to go sideways in a most productive way.

I reach for a daffodil, pick it, pop it into the water, set the carafe on the outdoor table and start photographing, all within a minute, without conscious thought. I shoot from above, the side, and looking up to the flower outlined against the surface. All this bright yellow, reflecting against the sides, bold against the blurred blue sky. There is really something completely different and exciting happening within the water than in the dandelion photos of just moments before. What I am doing here and now is the same impulse when Katie and I were swept up in the piano or out in the studio with the paints. The same as that ‘Feral choir’. Making and finding patterns in unusual places. Improvising.

Later, at the computer, playing with the photographs, I begin to remember a book I had taken out of the library some months ago. A San Francisco photographer had made some beautiful images of ballet dancers deep in a swimming pool. They posed tippy toe, upside down, balanced on the shining surface of the pool, Beautiful, yes, but the ability to imagine making such an image was what must have impressed me at the time. A feral and most productive form of thought.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

“Oh, but you are so beautiful!”

On the lefthand side of the ferry dock at Vesuvius, the little community with the big name on the north-west side of Saltspring Island, is a big Arbutus ( Madrone) tree. It has seen better days. Not only have all its upper trunk and branches been brutally shorn away, but generations of people have carved their initials, some encased in hearts, into its bark. “Poor bloody thing”, I automatically think as I drive past. There is something here that links the tree`s condition with our own human sensibilities.

I photograph it one day while waiting for the ferry to the other side and it is hard to do. There it rears up into the blue sky, its orange bark so smooth, folded, and skin-like, a last few branches and leathery green leaves wreathed around its shattered torso. It is like photographing a disabled person lying on the street, weird and disrespectful somehow, but a reality that needs to be included in the scene all the same. To avoid it would be to wipe its reality out of existence. And I do need to understand this conflict in my thoughts between pity, revulsion and a dawning sense of beauty.

That skin-like bark has grown over wounds in the past. Old carved initials are healing scars and branch stubs have grown over into softly rounded breast-like projections. The tree is so obviously female, and the thousand cuts and major wounds jump across the species divide and reach into my human heart.

Later, at the computer with my collected images I can see the next logical step if I am to take this reality and create an image that clearly speaks to that duality: tree and person. It is only our cultural classifications that stand in the way of thinking of ‘tree’ as ‘person’ after all, but what an important leap in thought that would be. Across the water stands a pulp mill absorbing mountainsides of trees without a thought beyond technology and profit to a multinational. We all participate in this mind set. It is practical for us to do so and goes way beyond this one mangled tree. We carve ourselves into the landscape every day. How best to help this one tree speak to this mental divide. I look at the oh so human smooth skin and ‘breasts’.

I begin to copy the one breast on the lower carved up trunk to make an identical mate beside it, - photoshopping it in like some plastic surgeon. The result is almost life-like and emphasizes the humanness of the arbutus, but the carved initials become so very horrible. Once I have removed the cheerful colours, I have created an image that is very stark and cruel if we think of a human being and her life story. Although this is female imagery it is not so hard for all people to experience the pain. We have all endured ‘a thousand cuts’ and have lost great chunks of our human potential as we have lived our lives. I have a dawning sense that this is a kind of beauty, fierce and terrible, to whom I have given a voice.

The ‘Wild Woman of the Woods’, is the mythic figure of the First Nations people who speaks to the thought that I am trying to develop in the present context. The mistreated, alienated aspect of ourselves who retreats into the forest, forced out of human contact but representing the guilt of the people and the terrible power to destroy those who neglect to acknowledge an intimate relationship with each other and the earth. All peoples around the world have myths, teaching stories, that speak of this vital relationship with nature. Our own Western religious tradition however, has our symbolic ancestors, Adam and Eve, breaking that primary link with nature and from then on manipulating nature and living outside natural law. Tremendous advantages have come to us from that severing of connection. We profit from it every day. We are just beginning to feel the edges of the ultimate balancing up that is at last coming upon us. That old tree can teach us a few things if it is still not too late.

When I see real beauty here I am making that connection that needs to be remade. I can see it in other people, in myself and in my environment. I walk in beauty; beside me, behind me, below and above me and also before me on my trail.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Building a life #24 Camping at Arbutus Point.

                                           Canoe Rock beacon from Arbutus Point.
Caw, Caw ,Caw! The crows are perched up in the arbutus branches but they sound like they are in the tent with us. Another summer dawn, camping at Arbutus Point. The children will be up soon with this racket for sure, so I roll out and start bringing the campfire back to life. Some previous camper has built up a splendid hearth of sandstone rocks which gives a sense of permanence to our favourite camping spot. Funny to think though, that ‘our’ place is also the home of others before us this summer and of those who will come after when we have returned to Saltspring.

With the fire under the kettle to make our morning ‘cuppa’ I step down the low bank, hop over the drift logs gathered at the winter high tide line and onto the white shell beach. At this low tide a reef extends out into the channel, smooth slabs of brown sandstone sprinkled with white barnacles and blue-black mussels, but I turn down to the sea`s edge for a quick wake up splash. The water, even in mid summer, is very bracing! I give myself a shake and scan the horizon. Out in the channel is Canoe Rock with its familiar beacon, looking like a submarine, and beyond that is Moresby Island. The waters of the Salish Sea are cluttered with many islands; just in this one direction are Pender, Saturna, some smaller Canadian Islands, and the many humpbacked outlines of the American San Juans. Layer upon layer upon layer.

The kettle whistles and I retrace my steps over the logs and up the low bank of black dry soil speckled with clam shells. I carry Heather`s cup of tea to her in the tent. She will soon begin another busy day managing our children and their friends and all the meals, but just for this morning moment she gets to have her first cup in peace. When the tea is half down and sleep has definitely fled I venture a remark.

“You know that we are camping on an old Indian camp site? The ground the trees are growing in is an old midden, formed by maybe thousands of years of campers chucking away their breakfast, lunch and dinner wrappers. A layer of shells, fire ash and charcoal sprinkled with blackened hearthstones”.

“Yes, that`s the first thing I noticed when we came here two years ago. I like that. The continuity. I am cooking, running an open air home, fishing in the bay just as other women have done before me. I hope our girls will be able to do the same in their turn. If we raise them right, make this part of their lives, I`m sure they will, if not here, then some place they find of their own”.

That evening, with the dishes washed, I watch the beacon light on Canoe Rock send its guiding pattern of flashes out from mid channel. The children have had another busy day hiking, fishing and playing on the beach and they are now singing around the fire. The arbutus leaves rustle quietly overhead in the breeze, waves gently swish on the shell beach and somewhere out on the dark reef seals are noisily hoisting themselves out for the night. Stars circle way up in the dark sky just as they have always done for others here before us at Arbutus Point.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pivotal moments in pre-history.

“I`ve been thinking. We have invented fire, cooking, woven fabrics, needles and scissors, but our poor menfolk are still running down wild animals and killing them with their bare hands. What say we put our heads together and come up with some simple tools that will make it possible for them to kill from a distance.”