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Absolutely nothing to do with painting.

Trigger warning: miscarriage.

I broke an egg on the floor this morning and in that moment I felt everything dissolve and unravel- past, present and future. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling. It’s grief. It’s like panic, a feeling like the whole veneer of my humanity is about to peel back and expose me, skinless, all my guts, all the parts of myself I’m not supposed to see. It takes me by surprise every time, even though its timing is often almost embarrassingly predictable. It’s tied to the calendar and the clock; my sense of at this time in that place is a constant, pedantic voice. It keeps me tied to wound like an umbilical cord.

I don’t talk about this one much. This is the miscarriage I had four years ago. I didn’t want to be pregnant. I was already up to my eyeballs in babies, my marriage was a disaster, we lived in the damn bush. But I was pregnant and the baby was moving and I loved it. I wanted out, and I wanted the baby and I didn’t want my life. And then one morning I woke up and I thought, I haven’t felt this guy move since yesterday. And I went to the bathroom and there was just a tiny bit of blood, and I thought, I remember this so clearly, I thought “Everything can go all the way wrong”. My husband asked if he should go to work and I didn’t want to be around him so I said yes, and the kids and I got on with the business of the morning, feeding horses, tidying up, hoping I was wrong. I had just thrown a flake of hay into the pony paddock and I felt a soft pop and my jeans were soaked and I thought “here we go”. I changed my clothes and loaded the kids and the dog into the truck and I called my midwife and I called the hospital and told them I was having a miscarriage. It was a beautiful day.

Some of us know how it goes, and like all births and like all deaths, it’s the same and different for everyone and it’s private and public at the same time. It was terrible, though some things are more terrible. I know people who have lost infants and children. That’s worse. Losing Tim was worse. But it was terrible. There was an ultrasound to confirm that he was dead, and there he was, and the tech said “what a beautiful baby”, and he was.

When he was born, I was alone. My husband was with the kids and I was just waiting. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t scary. He just slipped out and I held him in my hands between my legs till the nurses came. I delivered the placenta and they clamped the cord just as they had with my others; they let me cut it, they handed him to me in a blue blanket. His eyes were open and they were colourless.

When whales get beached, their bodies can’t support themselves and they collapse. Blue was like that. When we looked at him on the ultrasound, he was round and perfect, baby like, but out in the world he caved in upon himself, he bulged strangely. My husband had brought my bag and I drew him.

That was how it went.

Sometimes terrible things happen.

I remember thinking, of course, that it was my fault because I had said I didn’t want to have another baby. I remember wondering if he’d had a chance to think about it and decided he’d rather not be my child. Or whether perhaps he’d had a chance to be something better, like a sea lion, or a sunfish or maybe a narwhal. A bird, perhaps.

It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want to be pregnant, but I would have loved him and raised him and loved him. I know this because I didn’t get to raise him nor even see him ever draw a breath and I still love him.

There’s a lot of talk about how women don’t talk about miscarriage. An awful lot of us experience them; my mother did, I did, most of my friends have. If you’re reading this, I hope you know that it’s ok to talk about it, and if that’s what you want to do, I hope you have a safe place to do it. If you don’t I can point you to some resources, as can your doulas, doctors and midwives. I also hope you know that it’s ok to not talk about it. It’s ok to keep it inside, I think, if that feels safer for you. Not if it’s going to eat you up, you know. But if that’s how you keep safe, it’s totally ok.

I remember thinking a lot about rabbits, and how sometimes when they’re stressed, mother rabbits eat their kits. It seems awful and barbaric, and I can’t pretend to know what motivates rabbits, but if I had to guess, I would guess that they’re keeping them safe. I would guess that they’re getting their babies back into the safety of their own bodies the only way they can. And I guess that’s the way it is.

 

Slow painting

As many of you will remember, at this time last year I was gearing up to paint 103 paintings in 103 days. As I have described the exercise at length here and on social media, I won’t go into it too much now, except to say that I have decided not to do it again this year, and here’s why:

I learned a lot from making that many paintings. I learned about my own habits, I learned to clean up my composition, I learned to prioritize the parts of the pieces that mattered over the parts that didn’t. And round about painting number 40, I stopped learning, and I just kept painting. Which is not to say it was a futile exercise; all practice is good practice, and let’s face it, all money is good money when you’re trying to make a go of it as an artist, and particularly when you have dependents. And I was grieving and I needed to work. It was how I kept myself alive. I needed a mission, I gave myself one, I accomplished my goal and I am glad.

I have learned some other things this year, and my art making is changing, as it must always do, because making art is a living process and all living things must change. I have been thinking about slow painting; about making work that demands time and attention, not just to the image but to the idea of the image. I have been thinking about making work that talks about the world that exists in parallel with mine, ours, we humans, the world of fish and soil and certain kinds of light that don’t require or acknowledge me but which somehow are more real to me than anything. I am trying to find a language. The fact that my attempt to articulate it here is so feeble should indicate how difficult it is to undertake such  project in a way that is meaningful to me and which I can perhaps one day describe without sounding like a total flake.  We’ll see. At any rate, I am making these paintings that are taking a lot of time and focus, and if I make other work I think I will distract myself from the place I need to inhabit right now. And it’s hard.

I am accustomed to working fast. When my kids were little, I used to set the timer on the microwave for ten minute intervals and I would paint in these hurried bursts, and in that way I built a practice. My habit is still to paint as if my easel were on fire; I want things done, I want to get to the next and the next. I think that’s useful energy and it serves me well and it’s not that I want to lose that; it’s that I think it’s time I learned a little patience (I can hear my dead mother laughing). I think that in the same way I am trying to learn to listen to the world, I need to try to listen to my work.

So that is what I am going to do.

Stay tuned.

 

Something about change.

I write about art here, but I am going to digress a bit and write about love and grief and change. These things are of course inextricably wound around and through the process of art making, but they exist autonomously as well, and it’s best not to let one stand in for the other. Which is to say, my art is about me, where I am, what I’ve lost, who I love, what I want. It’s about other things too, about making shapes and colours do things that make something that feels real to me, more real than real, more real than a table or a baby or a house. But that’s not everything. Part of life is going to bed and waking up and walking the dog and making supper.

As I have mentioned, as everyone who knows me knows, my partner died last year. As I have mentioned, as everyone knows who knows me knows, that death has been a source of inestimable suffering for everyone who loved Tim; for me, yes, but also for his brothers and his sisters in law and his niece and nephews and his mother and his father and his many close friends and for the theatre community and for the Barkerville community and for the world, I think, insofar as it cares about beautiful fierce people and their fine minds and luminous talents. He’s gone and he’s not coming back, and I will miss him forever and so say we all.

As I have mentioned, as everyone who knows me knows, I coped with the immediate aftermath to the best of my limited ability by making paintings. There’s another post about that here, and I won’t go into it again. I cope with everything by making paintings. Every single thing. Tim wrote, I paint, fish swim, birds fly, dung beetles roll dung. Thus has it ever been, world without end, right up until it ends.

And here’s a thing about grief. You read this in inspiring articles and in Facebook posts, but it also happens to be true. You find it woven into the fabric of your body and your soul. It gets into your cells. It bloats them a bit; if you looked at them under a microscope they would be wider than the cells of a person who has not experienced loss. Not quite plantlike, but not fully animal. You would see something there that would remind you that you are made of the same stuff as other, longer lived organisms, organisms that grow out of death. You take it in, inhale it, and it makes a home with you and eventually you get to understand that it’s not a parasite, but a symbiote. You realize one day that you have a greater capacity for pain, that you can take on more, that you can love more. It just happens. I don’t know exactly how, but it does.

And here is another thing about grief: Everybody you know has a plan for you. People love you and they want you to feel better. People love you and they want you to move on. Or they want you to sink lower. Or they want you to cry more, cry less, take more time, get on with things. They want you to do what they think they would do. They want you to show them how they will be mourned in the event of their own deaths: they want you to grind to a halt, to give up, to go a little bit crazy, to waste away. They want your hair to turn white, they want to see you transformed by grief. They also want you to show them that it will be alright when it happens to them, that they too can survive unimaginable pain, that it’s not such a great leap to make, that there’s such a thing as hope, that one can move on, take charge, have control. People want these things, to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes simultaneously. And to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes simultaneously, all these things are true of grief. They just don’t look the way one might wish they would.

When time reasserts itself, when you feel like laughing, when you’re mad about something petty and unrelated to death, when you feel like fucking someone new, when you fall in love, when you look at a bird or a cloud or a tree without seeking some sign of your dead loved one, you inevitably experience a moment of guilt. How can I be happy about THIS, mad about THIS, how can I want something that isn’t produced by my dead person? Is it too soon?

And here is what I think about that. It is always going to be too soon. It is always too soon to lose the loved people. It is always too soon to face a future that does not contain them. It is always too soon to be broken and lost and without traction in the world. Life happens suddenly. It’s always too soon to stand up, it’s always too soon to fall in love, it’s always too soon to keep living. You do it though. Your cells compel you. The bacteria in your gut compel you. Your children if you have them, your job, God knows your bills compel you. And you do. You fuck somebody new, and if you’re lucky you fall in love. You look at the bird without wishing it would change form.

People who also loved your beloved dead person will feel betrayed in a way they won’t be able to name.

It doesn’t matter. Life is what it is.

If you make art, if you’ve spoken about the part of your art making that is the product of sorrow, you will surely be kept in that box. When you make joyful work, that will be backlit by the sadness.

It doesn’t really matter either. We make what we make, and beauty has all sorts of things in it, some of which are terrible and some of which are joyful.

I know a lot of people who are losing beloved people. I know one person in particular who is losing her own life. I don’t know what to do about it, except to say you won’t be one thing or the other, but you will be yourself. You’ll lose too much and it will change you. And whatever it does to change you is what the sea does to the shore, and that’s alright.

Old Work.

There’s an odd quality to being a visual artist. You make a thing, a physical object, and it is at once a piece of a story that belongs to you and something that lives its own life in the world. You stumble across these things from time to time, and they are rarely what you expect them to be.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting a dear friend (who also happens to be a devoted collector) in Whistler. She has a piece I painted several years ago in a prominent spot, so I had a good look at it over the course of the evening. I often tell students that one shouldn’t be entirely happy with the  work of five years ago or even of last year; that if you would still paint the same thing in the same way, it means you haven’t grown. I don’t generally form strong attachments to my pieces- I love them, I love making them, and then I love sending them away. To run into an old one is akin to running into a friend from high school. There’s a sense of someone I once knew well, and there’s an appraisal of the distance between that time and this and of the changes that have taken hold of us both. Anyway, this painting in Whistler is one that I look upon fondly. It’s certainly not what I would paint today, but I remember painting it. It was during the time that we lived in the bush, I didn’t have a studio, and I was in the habit of tying canvases to trees with baling twine and painting until I couldn’t feel my fingers or my paint froze or a kid needed me. The piece is a kind of odd perspective of birch trees, peeling bark, lichen. The foreground is more flattened than it ought to be; that was a problem I was working out then. The thing I find touching about the piece is its softness. All of the edges are fuzzy to the point of dissolving; it gives the painting a feeling of a memory, of something seen through sleepy eyes. I wondered for a moment when I changed that quality; I remember the struggle to sharpen my images up. And then I realized that what changed was that I stopped being absolutely broke all the time. I stopped buying the cheapest brushes and using them right up to the handle. I still buy cheap brushes, but when I wear out an edge I can replace it. I realized that my poverty had imbued my work with an effect that I actually really like, and I find myself now working back toward that softness. It’s nice to have the option.

I suppose I still think one should not be entirely happy with old work. But I also think it is important to recognize one’s own direction; to see the things of value that appear at every stage, to revisit, when appropriate, elements of the process. It’s not a straight road. It’s the work of a lifetime and that work, like living day to day, is not just today; it’s yesterday and tomorrow and before we were born and after we’re dead. I am glad of these reminders. I am happy about fuzzy edges.

Painting something like joy.

Nothing is easy, it seems. For years, I have been aware that much of my practice has been concerned with painting my way through painful circumstances; through the deaths of my parents, the loss of a pregnancy, the collapse of a marriage, through isolation and poverty and fear. I have been enormously grateful to have had access to my talent in a world where many do not, and I credit it with saving me from despair and violence and destruction of other kinds. Painting has made me empathetic. It is impossible, for example, to paint a tree without feeling deeply what a tree is; it is impossible to paint a human being without taking on some part of the weight of the soul in the skin. As my work becomes more abstract, I find that my relationship with small pieces of the world, with shadows on ceilings and cobwebs in corners and light reflected from the throat of a loved one, that all these fleeting fine things become my intimates and I love the world more because it offers itself up to me in these ways a million times a day, and the challenge is to always be looking, to not forget that the astonishing abundance of surprises lies in the fluttering instant.

A few months before Tim died, we were walking the dog out on Hardscrabble road in Wells, and the sun was filtering through hanging lichens and landing on trunks in a way that seemed random and circling-  a way I could not have anticipated and which delighted and fascinated me. I had said to Tim at that time, I wonder why it is so difficult to paint joy? I wonder why all depth and all gravity seems to lie in painting sorrow? We talked about it a little, and we concluded that joy is something we have easy access to, but that facing sorrow takes a kind of existential courage and that is what makes sad art deep. And then he died, and the question of making joyful art conveniently slipped my mind.

When I look around my studio, the majority of the work therein is steeped in the worst pain of my life. Losing Tim changed me utterly- it rearranged my every thought, seemingly my every molecule. And yet there is not a piece there that I would look on as a sad painting. Not one of those paintings is bogged down in anything- they are all reaching for something, they are seeking something and hopeful that they will find it. That, I think, is the secret of joyful painting. I don’t think I would have stumbled across it in any other way.

In recent weeks, I’ve stumbled across happiness in other forms. I’ve had exciting and engaging conversations. I’ve had long, connecting stretches of time with my children. I’ve put my hands in the ocean pretty regularly. I’ve spent time with friends I’ve known now for longer than I knew my own parents. I’ve had the great good fortune to have become acquainted with a remarkable man with whom I have been spending quite a lot of time. This is one of those things- one of the profusion of joyful events- unexpected and unrepeatable, and would have been a large and unknown loss if the chance to do so had passed me by. These things are affecting me in a series of ways. One is that I am just, straight up, happy. Another is that I am making work that is profoundly different again from the work that preceded it- I am taking far bigger risks and allowing myself to come far closer to failure than I have in the past. I am trying hard to let the work itself dictate its own direction- to engage in a dialogue with the action of painting. It’s a difficult impulse to explain, much less to trust, but it’s the way things are going. And in the same way that a spider spins webs and a dung beetle rolls dung, I find that there is joy in the work and that the work feeds joy, and I am happy. And I think there’s courage in painting this way that matches the hard work of painting sorrow. I think it takes a lot to find and face joy. Nothing is easy.

And here’s me talking about some stuff.

Stuck.

I have scraped two paintings in the last week. This really does not happen to me, and I find it disconcerting, to say the least. But I got lost. I’ve been working more intuitively than I have in the past, without working up my ideas beforehand, and until last week I’ve been happy with the way that’s developed. And now I am not- I can’t seem to engage with an idea once I see it in two dimensions, I get frustrated and do something dramatic- again, a reaction that has worked well for me in the past- and in the end, I scrape it down and start over. Hours and hours wasted, paint wasted, confidence shaken. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to paint. I tried taking a couple of days off, which is difficult for me- I panic if I don’t work. It didn’t help.

I KNOW what it is. I know it’s a block, I expect it will probably pass, I am fairly sure I haven’t actually forgotten how to paint. But I don’t get stuck; it just doesn’t happen to me, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I can paint really bad stuff until I force my way through it, I suppose. I can backtrack and return to drawing out my plans, identifying light source and vanishing point with arrows and exes. I think that’s all I can do. I hate it.

When my children were very little, they would reliably be most frustrated, most tantrum prone when they were on the cusp of some new achievement. I remember thinking that there must be power in frustration itself- an additional rush of angry energy which pushed them to gain the skills they sought. Maybe I will just make an angry painting and see what happens. If it doesn’t work out, there’s always prison.

Wish me luck.

 

 

What art can do

I am self plagiarizing a little here; I have written bits and pieces of this elsewhere. But I don’t care. I’ve been thinking about it.

I started to figure out what art can do seventeen years ago in a hospital hallway in Halifax while my dad was dying of leukaemia. When I think of who I was then (I was twenty four) I feel that I have a lot to apologize for. I was this sullen kid, I hated the hospital, I was outright mad at my father for being so enfeebled. He was only 56. It seemed preposterous to me that he should be unable to get out of it somehow. I spent a lot of time sitting in a corner of his room drawing. I was in love with the man I would later marry (and then divorce), and I drew things to send to him in Vancouver; the kinds of things I knew he liked: huskies, horses… things to make him love me more, or at least to keep his attention on me. I wanted him to be impressed with me. One afternoon my father’s oncologist suggested that I might take a walk to the neonatal ward, as an artist from Denmark had some drawings exhibited there. At that time I had not yet experienced birth or babies in any real capacity, and found the prospect of visiting the neonatal ward unnerving and vaguely embarrassing. I slunk down the hallway like a fugitive, and suddenly there they were: these small, unpretentious, perfectly executed renderings of babies, drawn in pencil and chalk. The babies were premature, very ill, often intubated. They were in incubators, they were tiny and wizened, and they were beautiful.  I was entirely unprepared for them, for the experience of running up against this vision of life in all its bravery and its unbearable fragility. Many years later I had the opportunity to meet and briefly study with the artist, Heather Spears, at a workshop at Island Mountain Arts in Wells. I count her as one of my heroes and great teachers. She gave my kids their first paid modelling gig, and gave me the drawings she made of them during those few days. You can see some of her work on line, or in her astonishing book Drawing From the Newborn. Her drawings showed me that the act of making art can be an act of love, and of care, and can have power over life and death.

I am not that cranky twenty four year old anymore. Aside from crankiness, we don’t actually have all that much in common:  a couple of decades worth of memories, a few loyal friends. But what I learned in that day has been the fuel for my practice ever since. That to make art is to engage in the world through love. That art itself is the rigorous application of love to the little span of time we get to spend here.

Where I’m Going.

A few weeks ago, a wonderful and thoughtful woman came to visit my studio. She asked “where do you see your work going?” The question confused me. My first impulse was to answer in terms of upcoming shows, or of some kind of plan for my career. I was relieved when she shook her head and said, “No, I mean, where are you going with painting?”

For a long time, I have said these things about my practice: “I am trying to save the world with a paintbrush”, and “I am trying to perfect my craft”. I meant both sincerely, I thought about them deeply. But over the course of recent months, everything has shifted. I found myself looking for words, which is good news, because the gaps in language are places filled with music and images. So I stumbled along in my description of my aim, and the best I could come up with was this:

I am looking for a place where we can be together. Not just Tim and me; I am looking for a way to meet the universe. I am painting something that simultaneously accumulates and dissolves. When I think about where my work is going, I think that I will paint things more and more finely and densely, so that at last my work will be like hair, like shadows, like dust. That’s where I’m going with my work. Shortly after Tim died, I had a dream from which I woke with his voice in my ear, and he said “We are together inside the prayer.” That is what I am doing, I suppose. I am praying.

I think of painting the way I think of love, or of breathing. You can’t hold onto a breath and say “This is my breath”. You keep doing it. You let it do what it needs to do with your body. It’s a movement, not a product. Painting is a movement, and rather than seeking to perfect the product, I think the key is in seeking to perfect the movement, to let it do with your body and your soul whatever it is that it needs to do. You perfect the movement by doing it over and over again, by listening to it and meeting its requirements, by giving yourself to whatever grace allows it to move through you. You allow yourself to be moved, and you understand that like a breath, you pull something of the universe into your body, you let it pass through you, and when it comes out its form has changed. And so has yours.

 

 

We won’t all make it

I didn’t keep my resolutions in 2015; I don’t even remember what they were, and if I did it would hardly matter. 2015 made no attempt to keep its promises to me. I don’t think I will resolve anything specific this year. That is, I won’t make a point of working harder or getting in shape. I work hard and I’m fine with the shape I’m in. I will write this year. That is something I am doing and will continue to do. I will be brave this year. I will be loving.

At this time last year, I said to Tim “I like that we don’t know what’s ahead. I like that the future is an unfolding surprise”. Well, I certainly didn’t expect it to turn out this way. I never thought I’d be without him. But it happened. It did. It has happened and not just to Tim and not just to those who loved him, and not just to me. The cemeteries continue to acquire the good and the loving and the necessary people of our lives, and sooner or later they will acquire us too. At this time next year, they will have succeeded in claiming at least a few of us. For some, death will not come unexpectedly. We’ll be overcome by illness, we’ll lose a parent, a grandparent, a suffering friend. For others it will be an accident, a sudden event. An attack. And that will happen, year after year, as it always has, until everyone we have ever known or seen or thought of, until we ourselves are dead. And nothing will protect us, not money or doctors or good luck or good design. Not love. Not art.

If you wanted not morbid, you are barking up the wrong girl.

On the other hand, this experience is the only thing we will ever be able to share with every single other organism that has ever lived. Death and water. That is all that joins us together, and that is powerful. I don’t think the worst thing that can happen is that we join with every soul in a great mystery. And whatever that mystery is, it is certainly that. Even if it’s nothing, it remains a communion, and it remains a mystery.

The worst thing that can happen is that we lose compassion. The worst thing that can happen is hatred.

This year, in this grief, I have had moments of losing compassion. I’ve had moments of jealousy. I’ve had moments of being angry at people for having the temerity to be alive while my loved one is dead. I have been angry and impatient and unkind on more than one occasion. I’ve felt the urge to build walls around myself and Tim and not let other people in. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been demanding. And at every turn I have been met with love and understanding and compassion, at every turn I have been shown grace.

This loss has not made me stronger. It has not made me better. But it’s in the dark that you find out who you are, and in this dark, along with all my glaring flaws, I have found out that I am brave. I might have been brave all along. I am brave enough to put my whole heart into painting. I am brave enough to be honest when I do shitty things. I am brave enough to apologize, and I am brave enough to love deeply.  I think we’ve all got that, if we look for it.

This year, whatever it holds, will shake some of us to our core. Whoever you are, however you find it, in whatever darkness is yours, I hope that you find your courage. I hope that you are held in loving hearts. I hope that you experience grace.

To those of you who have given these gifts to me, thank you.

Courage.