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.

5 Responses

  1. We are fortunate to know this, but if you hadn’t said it quite like this, many would have forgotten just how fortunate,

  2. I love learning things about people I know, I didn’t know about the connection to Heather, and well I really enjoy reading what you write, it moves me like your art, takes me places I may or may not be comfortable in, but I am safe and at any moment walk away, and then sneak back and have another look. (or feel – I mean feelings you silly, not like “cop” a feel) and I like the things I’ve learned seeing your art and reading your words – about myself. thank you.

    1. Thank you! I love that- and I get that too- the windows into work that moves me. There are artists I check in on regularly. I find I can rarely predict where the work might go, but equally am reassured to see what direction it takes. Like a note that resolves a musical phrase. One is Benjamin Björklund- astonishing, mysterious, narrative work.

  3. Yes it’s true what you say

    That to make art is to engage in the world through love


    The doing ‘practice’ of it is rigorous and messy as is bringing a life into the world is


    I’ve had three babes boys 25 17 15. 5 now

    All premature arrived on earth and started out in the special care nursery

    I understand

    All being well, Hope to meet you tonight, will be driving in from faraway Steveston


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