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.