Wednesday, October 27, 2010

‘What the world needs now....’

In a discussion the other day with someone very concerned about humanity`s headlong plunge into disaster, -ecologically speaking -, the man opposite me was musing about how to use the psychological mind-bending techniques of the advertising industry ( and of our governments) to correct our course before it is too late. On the face of it, a logical approach to an important problem. Along the lines of fighting fire with fire and all those ‘self evident’ truths, means and solutions.

I found myself struggling to define the error contained in this concept. Confronted with the problem and the urgent need, it was hard not to agree. That is how we have always dealt with things after all. I reached for the analogy of pre-war Germany and the emergence of the Nazi propaganda machine. We think now, rightly, of its leaders as evil beings subverting the thoughts of their people and building a vast, destructive juggernaut on the foundation of a set of nasty ideals. All true, but within the thought structure of the people involved I know most must have been acting for altruistic motives; they believed their own propaganda, were in love with ideals like the purity of the people, the manifest destiny to have more ‘living space’, to take their place as a world power. Perhaps they also dreamed of some kind of world government that could force the folk onto their (ideal) track. Being good pragmatists, once the ideal was formulated, the means to achieve it was flexible. The goal was the thing, not how you got there. The more you fervently believed, the more horrible the means you could use, - war, murder, genocide, the subversion through propaganda and governance of your own people.

Having always thought of myself as a pragmatist ( the usual default North American philosophy) it came as a surprise for me to be saying that the means is important, in fact more important than an end goal. Attractive as finding a psychological tool and altering the way people think about their world may be, it is the tool which is suspect, just as it was in Germany or in many nations today. Good results do not come out of bad action, never did. It is ourselves who are the ‘enemy’, if we think that using the tools of the competition is the way to go. The world may well ‘go to hell in a hand basket’, but let us at least begin to act from day to day as if good can only come from good, - that love is the only way, and that the way is important, not a goal.


Something has been bothering me about my own argument. If, having tried appeasement with Hitler, the liberal democracies had continued a pacifist stance and not rearmed and fought and eventually won, then where would we be today? Where does ‘love is the only way’ meet another really destructive way? When do we say ‘no passera’, and pick up the same weapons as the foe and beat him at it?

There is no doubt that wars, either tribal conflicts or world wars wreck havoc on societies not only during the actual conflict phase but for many, many years after; within succeeding generations of families whose members participated and were brutalized, or within societal attitudes that were carried forward into the future. Although we may not recognize it, much of our problematical attitudes towards the earth, seeing it as a commodity to be ripped up by our muscular technology, has the last century of warfare behind it. But I still think that, given all the difficulties, following a way of harmony is the final cure for conflict, though it may take more generations than we really have time for to accomplish it.

Forget about achieving the goal and live it in our own lives right now.

Walking with granddaddy.

Let the music begin!

I has rained heavily all night long, - the steady beat of the drum on our metal roof, but this morning the grey clouds are all wrung out, the seasonal stream and waterfall are speaking again after their long summer`s silence and little two year old Clara is in need of some outside activity. Her Granddaddy too, so out we go into the soggy world. She is dressed for the occasion; a shiny, red, hooded coat, rain pants and rubber boots. Off we go down the trail that parallels the stream, passes through the woods and curves back beside the stream again towards the house. For her short legs this must seem a grand adventure in an enormous land of moss covered mountains and towering trees.

As we wander slowly along, my mind wants to muse among thoughts about my latest art project, but Clara`s total absorption in the present moment pulls me back. I am taking her for some much needed exercise in nature and she, by her very nature, is pulling me back into this vital and drippy world. On the last stretch back up the grassy trail though, she is lagging behind. I stop and smile back to her and get a grin in return. She is not lagging because she is tired, or feeling left behind, or somewhat lost. What is it?

I realize that it is very quiet, with no distant aircraft or all the other background noise that we normally accept as silence in the country. Just the gentle murmur of the steam and... ah, the sound of her plastic raingear swishing as she walks. She herself is now off in her own personal world, listening to her own walking musical accompaniment!

Monday, October 18, 2010

“Tears, idle tears*

It had been a typical Fall morning, the fog slowly thinning to mist, the trees and buildings steaming as the sun burned through to bring a blue sky and a fresh breeze. The car window I was working beside was coated with tiny drops of moisture and it was a simple, mindless thing to stick out my finger and begin to draw a round face. As I drew in the little comma-like eyes the drops formed drips that ran down the window. Quickly I drew, not a happy face but a down-turned mouth to match the tears. Then I ran for my camera and recorded this transient image.

So transient, like the thought that drifted up from my unconscious and united with the developing face on the glass. My usual mind begins to doodle a happy face, and my deeper self, working with the image, expresses tears.

*Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather in the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
from‘Tears, idle Tears’ by Tennyson.

The title for this piece came to me immediately, even though it is by a Victorian poet and not a well known poem of his either. It is such a dramatic way of expressing regrets for what might have been. How often what I create has a feeling from music or poetry that is its twin in another medium. All of us creators are drawing from the same well.

Yes, those ‘days that are no more’ are surely behind me, but I are not dead yet and much remains to venture. Nostalgia, the looking back on one`s life, reminds me of the old West Coast method of navigating on foggy days. On setting out from land to cross a strait, a long line would be trailed behind the canoe. The crew could not see the destination ahead but by constantly lining up the canoe with the trailing cord behind and keeping the angle constant between cord and the dominant wave pattern they could maintain a course. So, while we cannot know our future, we do know our past, and a careful understanding of that is the best way of finding the path ahead. We do need to cast off and keep moving because we get, not what we deserve, but what we risk, what we dare, but neither should we never look back. Tennyson finds the mood in ‘Ulysses’ that is the next stage to the backward glance to the past, a resolve to keep developing, ‘to strive, to find, and not to yield’.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to find, and not to yield.
from‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Holocaust memorial. Ash, fire and wire.

I have been cleaning up around my workshop, now that it has a new metal roof and has been rebuilt inside and out. Thirty years of ‘may be useful’ bits of wood, full of nails and half rotten, have been going up in smoke over several days and now the last of it, a large pile of red hot coals, breathes orange flame in the gathering darkness. I reach for my camera and begin to create a series of images. I have no set purpose at this point, just collecting, with my thinking mind held in neutral.

I try different angles, swirl the camera around, take low and high angle shots and then on a whim roll a coil of old fencing wire against the flames and photograph through that. I move on to some interesting shots of old crockery, semi-immersed in the coals. Then I do a counter-intuitive thing and turn on the flash. All the bright orange light of the glowing coals is extinguished. Grey ash and charcoal, fissured by bright gouts of flame create a very different mood. When I photograph through the fencing wire this time, I have found a powerful image. Not a beautiful image, it reminds me of the Jan Martel book, ‘beatrice and virgil’ that I have just finished reading. His book is a very creative take on the Holocaust that I made the mistake of finishing just before falling asleep, or in that case, not falling asleep. I recognize my ash, fire and wire image to be existing in that same mind space, creating yet another form of Holocaust memorial.

I am still making photos of beautiful things these days, but when this kind of image arrives I am very pleased. It means that I am expanding my range of expression beyond the beautiful and into more difficult subject matter. My mind is touching things way down below somewhere, and translating them into more challenging imagery.

Spirit Dancing

Cast shadows of a maple branch and its myriad of leaves against a red barn door. A few from the still green tree hover above. The red/green colour contrast sets the green leaves and their shadowy relatives, projected and made visible by the last rays of the evening sun, to dancing. If I turn my mind just so, I can see that this is a companion piece to my image of wire, ash and flame.

All those millions of souls who went up in the purifying flames of the concentration camps are still with us, to be glimpsed in a certain cast of light, their spirits dancing joyously with the living.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Can you imagine. On the occasion of John Lennon`s 70th birthday

Can you imagine squatting down beside a tidal pool, your eyes focusing through the film of reflected sky and becoming absorbed in the beauty and minutia of the seaweedy world of crabs, periwinkles and bull heads. The rocky shoreline, the beat of the surf, fades from your awareness just as has the reflection of the firmament overhead.

Do you hear a loud crash of a wave, feel suddenly the spray of the wave that reaches far up the shore and invades this perfect little world? Look up! There lies the great ocean, glinting in the sunlight and stretching out to the curve of the horizon.

Friday, October 8, 2010

True Love. 'As You Wish!'

‘As you wish’*
 from ‘The Princess Bride’

In the comments after ‘Red Rose’ was published on Dragongate I was asked if I thought that ‘True Love’ was a concept that resonated in the modern world. A big question, and I could only answer from my own perspective, that it is important within my own life, and that the ability to love profoundly is an important part of what makes us human. If many around me have a more jaded and ‘realistic’ view of the world and human relationships, then perhaps they are missing out on something useful.

When Jung was asked if he believed that God existed he replied in a functional way. “ If believing makes sense of your life, gives it meaning, then why wouldn`t you?” Similarly, if allowing a feeling to fill me to the brim, to colour my way of being in the world, and if that allows me to function well from day to day and is a big driver behind my creativity, then why would I put it aside and choose a more limited ‘realistic’ view of human relationships? ‘True Love’ is part of a constellation of attitudes that enrich my life.

Coming for a British family who emigrated to Canada when I was four, right after the Second World War, I would guess that feeling and expressing one`s emotions was not something that was fully developed, suitable for Europeans of the more excitable kinds perhaps, but cool, calm and collected was more our style. Emotion was there below the surface, but given little space to express itself and develop a full range in our everyday lives. My life seems to have been a game of catch up ever since.

Now that I am working with art full time it has become critical that I develop my feelings and give them space to rattle around in my conscious self. Art is expression, and one needs a well developed inner life if what one expresses is to be anything more than simple and banal. I read a lot of poetry these days, listen intently to classical music and observe the world around me with sharp eyes; a catch-up, self taught course in the refinements of artistic expression.

Perhaps age naturally turns one into a ‘soppy old fool’ towards the end. If so, then I will surf on that wave crest too and ride it as far as it can roll. ‘April love’ may well be for the very young, as Pat Boon sang, but ‘True love’ is deeper, stronger and rolls on forever and forever!

* In the ‘Princess Bride,’ whenever Wesley said, “As you wish.” he was really saying, “I love you!” and that, as all will agree who have seen this movie, was ‘TRUE LOVE!’

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Red Red Rose.

A Red, Red Rose

My love is like a red, red rose,
That`s newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody
That`s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I;
And I will love thee still my dear,
Till a` the seas gang dry.

Till a` the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi` the sun:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o` life shall run.

 And fair thee weel, my only love!
And fair thee weel a while!
And I will come again my love,
Tho` it were ten thousand mile!

Robert Burns ( 1759 - 1796 )

I must have glanced at and then passed over this old poem in a college anthology yesterday, because at one in the morning I was awake with the emotion of it running round and around in my mind. I have never been any good at memorizing but I can remember the feeling of a poem very well. Now I am digging potatoes on a sunny Fall morning and multitasking by going over it again. Anything that insistent must be given some conscious thinking time.

Over this morning`s coffee I reread the poem carefully, - pulling it apart into its expressive elements. The two comparisons, a red rose and a melody. The declaration of love until the end of time; `til the rocks melt in the sun, `til all the seas run dry, while the sands of time shall run. The final promise of return, of constancy, though it were ten thousand miles. Very expressive stuff, but also very familiar and, like an old tune, often difficult to get past the by-now hackneyed expressions.

Hackneyed now perhaps, but the reason it is in the anthology is because at the time it was a revolutionary piece of writing and pointed to the future; the French Revolution, the Romantic poets that were to follow and how we understand the world and our place in it today. Here is an educated commoner ( unusual, except in Scotland, at the time) who writes to his love, not by dwelling on the quality and brilliance of his feelings but on eternity in a concrete, factual way. His love is not some court beauty, but the girl down the road. This is the beginning of the age of the common man.

So, why on this bright morning am I giving it a fresh pass through? The important part of this poem does not just dwell in words or ideas but in the reader`s own emotions as was Burns` intention. ‘And fair thee weel, my only love’ is written to a particular person and meant to dwell in her heart forever. It was never designed to have a shelf life of two hundred years, but even given the separation between his time and mine, even given the familiarity of ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, I am very moved.

That is the wonderful thing about the arts, they do not simply appeal to the intellect, but like an arrow, pierce directly to the heart. This poem is the epitome of that process. I stand with my shovel amid the growing pile of potatoes, perhaps in the same pose as farmer Burns himself took while dreaming up this poem for his girl, and feel that sweet emotion as though it comes, fresh minted, from within my own heart.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Wild (2). Skid row.

A red brick storefront glows in the morning sunlight. Its street number is 1910 and that could be its building date as well. A tattoo salon now, it must have had a long succession of occupants as this part of town, once the bustling waterfront that equipped the miners for the Klondike Goldrush, skidded by slow degrees to its present and pleasant state. That is what I notice right off, this is ‘ the other side of the tracks,’ but if one does not see it as such, does not pre- judge it to fit the stereotype, then it is simply a place basking in the same sunlight as the rest of Victoria. The camera is teaching me an important lesson, to see without personal filters on.

Just down the street is ‘Opus’ - the art supply store that I am headed for, and it seems appropriate
somehow that creativity and decay should rub shoulders here. The essence of creative thought lies in working with disparate elements, in not prejudging, in having no preset agenda. The kind of process that drives more rationally minded people crazy. But then that organizing cast of thought has written this part of town off long ago and prefers to dwell on the ‘social problems’ and the need for ‘renewal’. This is really just a part of town, like a part of the human body that has an important function but is screened from view and not talked about in polite society, - is often a curse word.

As I walk down the lower part of Johnson street I come across a store dummy on the sidewalk. Headless and sexless, dressed in a bright red shirt it calls out to be photographed. That is always the challenge in art, to find the one element in a vast collection of things that will speak for the whole, and here is one possibility. Red is the dominant colour in my photo, the shirt, the signs, the banners, and at first glance it speaks of happy things. But red is fire and blood also, and this upward shot has a hectic quality that reminds me of Las Vegas, all glitz above and snarls and fangs just below the surface. The thing is, this is not just skid row I am imaging here, but our society of which this is an organic part.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Wild.(1). Two realities.

A parking lot in Victoria is backed by the concrete-block side of a building and on the wall is painted a mural of a forest river. Fishing in its swirling water are bears that pause momentarily to look out into the city-scape that backs their reality. All rather mind bending once you really look at what is going on - this sandwiching of two disparate realities.

Today I am involved in using my camera to make a link with reality, looking through the lens, not for beauty and harmony, but for the authentic voice of this place down by the waterfront. It is difficult to break the habit of natural landscape photography, but this wall and all these cars is the perfect starting point.

The question that it presents so clearly is just what I need, - which is the wild? The scene by the river, or the streets, buildings and vehicles? For this day I will see these seedy streets as wild territory and photograph them as such.

Who knows, perhaps someday in the future all the bear`s real natural habitat will be paved over, or then again, perhaps there will be bears fishing for spawning salmon by this shore, backed by a forest growing on mounds of crumbled brick and concrete. Now there`s a cheerful thought!