Monday, December 28, 2009

Tree sailing.

                                                       Tree sailing.

As a child in England during the Second World War I discovered a special little game I could play by myself called ‘lining things up’. Through a slight movement of my head a fly speck on the window could be placed on the top of a tree outside, the line of the edge of the table before me could be extended into space to pass precisely between the heads of the adults who were talking to me. They were talking sure enough, I could hear the distant murmur of their voices, but I was off in a visual world of my own. If I had been born twenty years earlier that developing skill might have made me a sniper or bomb aimer but others performed that task and many died that I might grow in peace and eventually become through that little habit of mind an artist and photographer.

That habit grew and grew through time. At first the lining up of things became more challenging: as I walked I could I see potential complex line-ups as they developed and “fire’ with a quick twitch when the magic moment arrived. For it felt like magic. Then it was shapes in three dimensions: the garbage can in the foreground became the base of the building behind it and the cloud in the sky would balance for a moment on the mountaintop in I waited just a minute. Fortunately for me this never developed into a mania as it could have done if I had lived a difficult and stressful kind of childhood. Instead the family moved to Canada after the war and I lived on a little ocean bay on the west coast of Canada. The family was preoccupied with making a living and I , the youngest of five, was overlooked to wander the shores and woods alone. I began a romance with the wild that would last me forever and combined that with the keen observation I had learned in my childhood game. Now my world was a familiar, constantly shifting constellation of relationships. The top of the cedar tree I was clinging to in the gale for fun danced in concert with its fellows and the waves in the bay echoed that in an interesting complex rhythm. The low clouds rushed close overhead and spoke in a kind of grey visual language. I started to draw.

Nowadays when I take my camera for a walk I not only still see those complex relationships but look within those forms for what they are saying in their visual language. In this I share something with other artists down through time who have striven to record this in their art, whether in music, dance, or in pictures and sculpture. I think back to the cave paintings of Southern Europe that were striving to portray the mystery ten thousand years ago and know myself to be in good company. That little childhood game was not so crazy after all, just my portal into the realm of a reality that underlies and informs our knowledge of what we call ‘ the real world’.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Merry Christmas.
Here is a memory of our Pacific voyages in Shiriri. The moment when the squall drifts off, the sky clears and land can be faintly seen ahead is a high like no other, especially if the crossing has been a nasty one. We are going to live after all, we feel, and then immediately snap our tired minds back into focus for the tricky bit of winding through the reefs that stand between us and a safe harbour. At the time we think that the safe harbour is the ultimate goal but in the end it is this moment in the midst of life with all its dangers that will remain most vividly in memory.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The vision of Paul Gauguin #5. Frog Woman.

My sketch of Gauguin`s painting.

‘ the avoidance of the anecdote, the substitution of a situation that is equivocal and suggestive, demanding the imaginative co-creation of the observer,....’ David Sweetman. ‘Gauguin. A complete life’.

The woman in Gauguin`s painting kneels forward, knees apart, propped up on her elbows in what seems an awkward position. She fills the frame, supported by simple bands of white and yellow sand. The background is a thin, barely differentiated wavy strip of land and sea. Here at last I can settle down to a simple figure study.
I focus, trying to get my drawn lines to be precise to the original figure. Usually my drawing is not accurate to nature but here, with a figure, any straying from the truth will look awkward and false. OK Paul, but why have you chosen that pose, it cannot be normal for this woman to pose like that? She looks like a frog!

I begin to get a woozy feeling that once again I am sliding into a symbolic painting and that this is no simple figure painting at all but a synthesis of ideas. I proceed through the layers of colour, blending one layer on top of another, sometimes scraping pastel away to expose some of the lower layers: the hours pass like seconds. I am deep in the process when the power of the painting begins to take over, my clever little mind gets passed by. I am part of the scene, part of the woman and of the beach, part of a universal truth.

Gauguin is calling upon my imagination to see her as the present embodiment of the eternal woman who carries life forward through time , the mother of us all. Her breasts dangle beneath her, nurturing the earth, she spreads her legs and births everything into existence, dreaming us up as she stares off into space and time. Her strong brown legs and arms support her firmly on the earth. She is Frog Woman of my local West Coast First Nations traditional mythology. First creator, maker of the people, Eve.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Choir. A moment to remember.


Heather is a member of a new community choir on the island and tonight, just before Christmas, is their first concert in the Anglican church which they have borrowed for this occasion. It is a large choir ( 60 people) and looks splendid on the risers in front of the altar and pipe organ. With this many members they could pack the church with relatives alone, but in fact the community as a whole comes out on several cold winter evenings like this to support not just this choir but another of similar size and several smaller ones. And that`s just choirs! It is a very lively place, this little island of ours.

I sit well back in the pews to get the full range of sound and as the program unfolds I begin to look carefully at the individuals singing there. Some are young or in mid-life, but many I recognize from thirty years ago who were here when we ourselves first arrived. Then they were in their twenties or thirties, now they are so grey, their faces set into the forms that tell of personalities and their life journeys. Others are more recent retirees from around the world determined to throw their enthusiasm into their new, and perhaps last, island home. The spotlights angle down onto faces that seem so vulnerable, caught up as they are in the singing. I am planning to take my photography into a study of people next year and already I am taking the first steps by focussing on personality, faces, and the angles of light that will bring all this to my camera`s lens.

It is interesting though, how all the elder faces are so beautiful. One would naturally look for it in the faces of youth, but here it is shining out of these lined faces much more powerfully than one would expect. Partly, it is the music that is transfiguring them, - they are the song they are singing - and partly too it is the sheer polishing, like rocks in a streambed, they have achieved as they slipped through the years. As we all, in the choir and in the audience, slide closer to the end of our lives we are beginning to be transformed, not “In a moment, in a twinkling of a eye”* but through the much more sure and steady progress of living through the joys and trials that fate has brought us or which we have struggled to achieve. We are all the singer and the song and this is a moment to remember.

* Handel`s ‘Messiah’.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Building a life #17. Its all a matter of balance.

                                                                                           Oh, Jez.

It is time to raise the ridge pole into the peak of living room ceiling and as usual I am working on my own. I have the radio tuned to CBC ( Morningside, with Peter Gzowski) for company and am scratching my head to work out a system that will get the 20 foot cedar pole way up high in the cathedral ceiling -12 feet or more. At one end is a tall post with a space at the top and at the other a slot in the peak of the wall for the beam to slid through to the outer end of the roof line. Really, this is a job for at least a couple of hefty men and some staging but I decide to wing it. It is some time since I have fallen on this building site and cracked my ribs yet again. I am getting cocky.

I manhandle the beam into position below and lift the inside end onto a wooden plank nailed temporarily to the vertical post. Great! Now I lift the outer end onto another temporary step. The beam is now four feet off the floor. I repeat the whole process once again and then hoist the inside end up into a rope sling beside the top of the post. The beam swings ominously in its sling at a 35 degree angle even after I lift the low end to the top of a six foot step ladder. It is time for the decisive step! I will climb the step ladder, take the beam on my shoulder and just walk up the steps until I can slide the beam into place. Up I go, -as the beam approaches horizontal it seems to get lighter - and with a grunt lift it from my shoulder to over my head. Drat, still not quite high enough! I am standing on the very top of the ladder with a long heavy pole held in my quivering hands.

Now I realize that there is no going back. I could never reverse the process smoothly enough to put the log safely back on my shoulders and hence back to the ground. If I try to throw the beam to one side and leap for it, the ladder would just tip over and I would end up crushed by the beam on the floor below. How far down that floor seems! Very carefully I lift the log up onto my fingertips. Still not enough! AHHHH! I rise on tiptoe and, ever so delicately, it slides into place. Phew! I will wait a long time before I share this story with my family.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ancestral memories on a moonlit night.

                                              Owl moon.

There are several degrees of frost tonight, the still air crackles and though the window the moon shines so white that it looks like snow coating the rocks, trees and buildings. I will have to step outside for an armload of large pieces of firewood to last the rest of the night. Whoever wakes later will go downstairs to stoke the stove some more, thereby saving us from a chilly morning kitchen. Somehow, as I step down the stairs through streaks of moonlight, these nocturnal trips are rather special, as if an all-night sleep is not really the normal state for humankind at all.

After my quick trip outside I stand for a while at the window to admire this white world, so seldom seen during weeks of cloudy, rainy weather. An owl calls and is answered from somewhere deep in the big woods. These are not standard owl calls, but shrieks and moans, -either someone has cold claws out there or they are plotting some very bloody deed. If it gives me the shivers, I can imaging how all the field mice must be feeling crouched down in their burrows.

Then I remember that far back in the remote past our ancestors were once small mammals too. They must have listened in the pine woods on moonlit nights like this to the dinosaurs calling from ridge to ridge as they planned their hunting. We must have shivered in our dens like these mice do today. Then I remember some more: those owls are the last descendants of the dinosaurs. No wonder they raise the hairs on the back of my neck tonight.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The vision of Paul Gauguin.#4. Sea bathing.

‘Wishing to suggest a luxuriant and wild nature, a tropical sun, which set aflame everything around it, I have had to give my figures an appropriate setting. It is indeed life in the open air, but at the same time intimate; amidst the thickets, the shadowy streams, these whispering women in the immense palace decorated by nature herself, with all the riches that Tahiti affords. Hence all these fabulous colours, this fiery yet softened and silent air.

‘___ but all that doesn`t exist!

‘___ yes, it exists, but as the equivalent of the grandeur, the profundity of that mystery of Tahiti, when it has to be expressed on a canvas a meter square.’      Gauguin.

While walking along the beach road on the island of Moorea, I caught a glimpse of a very white European woman quickly covering her breasts with a towel lest my ‘prying eyes’ should shame her. A minute later I found a couple of local ladies bathing waist deep in the lagoon with their children, completely natural in their nudity. The contrast was striking! There is a quality in Gauguin`s portrayal of women that is very refreshing, - they are like those women with their children, real people who are comfortable in their flesh. For Gauguin of course they also represent a tropical Eden before the serpent, or Tahiti before the missionaries.

I am thinking of that moment on Moorea when I select my next painting for exploration. In the immediate foreground there is a long passage of pinks, purple and oranges; sand, fallen blossoms, vines and twigs - one can almost hear the music from the orchestra pit. A tree trunk stretches darkly across the front of the stage and then sweeps up and branches. Two women prepare to swim; one is already splashing in while the other is removing her parae. They are strong, competent people, diving into the ocean. Out in the dark water I glimpse an outrigger canoe and a spear fisherman. Perhaps the swimmers are to join in with the harvest? Flares of light from the fishermen`s lanterns are like stage lighting on the dark beach. If there is a deeper message here I`m sure it has to do with what the sea represents to Gauguin. As in the two previous paintings, and as it was for us sailing across the Pacific the sea is the universe, eternity, the unconscious, that which birthed us all and to which we will return. He is orchestrating his painting so I can make the connection at a deep level. He shows us real actors on the stage of life living the mystery.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

THE ROAD TO COPENHAGEN - We follow, the U.S. leads.

"Did we lose that Mr. Harper yet? "
"`Fraid not, Mr. President."

Building a life # 16. Cussing has its place.

                                 The interview.

The early 80`s see a big downturn in the economy and building activity wanes. I need to jump into new employment and I see that the Provincial Parks Department is looking for Park Rangers. I apply, and later, as I am cursing away while laboriously chain sawing a big cedar post in half lengthwise, for the house, I see a pair of brown shiny shoes out of the corner of my eye. My interview for the job has begun! My academic qualifications may actually count against me for this ‘man`s job’ but I guess my chainsaw abilities and cussing qualifications ( learned from the goats) are just right, so I become the new supervisor for the three provincial parks on the island. It is difficult adjusting to being a cog in a civil service wheel, I have lived a remarkably independent life so far, but I do adjust and at least I am quite confident at running the island parks with limited visits from head office in Victoria. The union pay is good and regular too which eases our financial worries. By this point the main house is framed and roofed so I can work on it as time from ‘Rangering’ permits.

                                        The Park Ranger.
24th of May long weekend.
In one dark park a once yellow schoolbus, now spray-painted with graffiti, is surrounded by a screaming multitude of drunken young adults. It is my new job to control this and I have no training, no idea what the rules are and it is just a tad risky to even approach this lot. In another waterfront park, a large crowd of drunken people have lit an enormous beach fire out of drift logs. Beer bottles fly about in the darkness. Now what do I do? It turns out that there is a good reason why this job was available!

It will take me several months to clean and prep the parks for the summer season, to study the Park regulations and to decide that, despite the general lawlessness of the majority of park users at that time, that I will begin to push back. Interestingly enough, my ex-teacher self is of little use here and occasional supervisors who wander by have few useful suggestions. I remember an American park ranger I met briefly as a child and decide to model my new park ranger self after that impression: friendly, fair and firm. Of course he had a proper uniform while I have a used green jacket, he had training and a large organization that was prepared to supporting him, but I realize that this is mostly a matter of acting. Until I really have the experience to professionally fill the role, I can confidently act as if I do. It works! Several exciting years would pass before the word gets out to all the youth, party and motorcycle crowds that things had changed on Saltspring and I will have lots of technicolour evenings on patrol to talk about. “What happened last night Dad”, would be how I was greeted by my children in the morning. “Well I had to call the RCMP again last night because...”.