Friday, December 31, 2010

Carving.1. The old one.

This Fall I have begun to carve again. This was my first childhood creative work and I have picked it up again from time to time. It comes more easily to me and is the most intimate experience I have with the side of my personality that communicates through imagery. As a child the only art I saw being produced in my little coastal BC community of Mill Bay was that produced by the Indians down the road by the ferry dock. In the big wooden buildings by the beach were dugout canoes and in the cemetery, totem poles, and that was what I carved too with my pocket knife.

It never occurred to me that I was transgressing on another culture`s tradition. I had a powerful dream of the Thunderbird several times and I never thought to doubt that this could not be for me, this little white boy recently arrived from England with his family. Ignorance was bliss. I still know this in my heart even though I have studied Anthropology and know now that only First Nations peoples have the right to make First Nations art. And I agree. So, this carving thing that I have a direct line to the spirit of the land with? What do I carve? Because, you see, it is the Thunderbird who made me a carver.

I have been saving interesting pieces of wood for years now and have recently bought a circlet saw chain cutter that is mounted on an angle grinder, - a dangerous, high speed tool that permits me to cut into wavy grained or very hard pieces of wood that defeat conventional gouges and knives. I pick up a long tapered piece that was once a buttress on a cedar tree and begin at random, - no plan. I know that the agreement I have is that I hand over my labour and something other calls the shots. The thick end starts to form into eyes... a nose... lips... and the long trailing piece must be the beard. The machine bucks and gouges as I learn to control it. Oops, that was too deep so I guess that changes the design a little, the eyes will be deeper set.... There can be no thought of My deciding here at the beginning, and this process is so rapid that the image swims up very quickly into view.

By the time I learn to shave delicate slices from the wood it is high time that I begin the fine work that will pull all the elements into a co-ordinated whole. The belt sander grinds the final shape to the face and the circlet cutter puts the curls in the long white beard. The blank eyes stare unfocussed until my sharp knife cuts the grooves across them.

Hand sanding always takes a long time, but every imperfection in the wood will show when the oils and then wax finish is applied. The oil darkens the heart wood and that sets off the white surface wood off nicely. Finished!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

After the Deluge. The wild wet beast.

Ok, so our west coast of Canada is also called the Wet Coast, because of our winter rainfall, but these past two days were very wet. At night we woke regularly to the drumming of the rain on our metal roof and the gurgling and dripping of the run off. Days were misty affairs with the clouds wafting through the trees and dropping their loads of sheeting rain. A good time to work in my studio, even though walking back and forth to the house left my jacket permanently damp.

The second night, Heather said she could hear a new sound blending into the raindrops and I suggested it might be the stream plunging over the falls. “Yes and no,” she said. “There is the deeper sound of the falls, that`s true, but this is a higher pitched noise that I have not heard before.” I`m too deaf to here this sound, so I dismiss it and roll into sleep.

Next morning, waking late after another apprehension interrupted sleep, I step to the window and peer out into the rain which is slackening at last, and see a wide streak of white foam lining the path of our usually well trained seasonal stream. It writhes down the valley bottom, leaps over the waterfall with a roar and bounds off down through the trees that line its course. Right after breakfast I am out with my camera into the last few drops of rain and follow the course of the stream from where it comes out of a culvert under the road to where it disappears into our neighbour`s land on its way to join the main valley stream below. Even I can hear the noise Heather noticed last night now that I am beside the stream itself. It is the sound of rushing water as it twists and turns, sporting a rooster tail in the steep spots and bunching up grumpily when it must crowd through a narrow passage under the forest trail.

Big Pond, beside my studio, is sheeting across the lawn as well, unable to fit all its discharge into the stream bed. The stone bridge has both its channels filled and is hosing water out its lower side. The long low falls have a perfect curl of water and the lower pond`s main stone barrier not only shoots out a smooth curve of water in its falls but is spilling water all along its length as well. I pause here to get all this in the camera before follow the stream in its headlong dash down the valley. All those little patches of rock dams in the streambed I had created years ago are now performing as I had visualized, creating a long series of rapids and high speed twists and turns.

At last I reach my bottom fence where the stream has bunched up maple leaves against the wire, creating another torrent of water that leaps through and streaks white on down the hill. I`ve taken over a hundred photos in one hour! This is what winter brings us; snow, gales, and every once in a while the excitement of a wild wet beast writhing through our landscape.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

First snowfall. In communion.

It had been a gentle Fall; rain, wind and plenty of sunny days. No frost. All the more shocking when the temperature plummets overnight and the snow begins to fly. Morning`s first light illuminates the bedroom with a cool white light, so different from the slowly waxing flicker that struggles to push the darkness aside that we are used to at this time of year. Time to jump out of bed and get the woodstove going and warm the kitchen up. It is bright and cold this morning and everything; the balcony, garden, trees and rocky knolls are transformed.

Before I light the fire, make the tea, I take the first photograph of the day out of the window. An early dawn panorama of big white trees. Firs carry their layers of white on fans, a complex arrangement of interlocking planes, while the bare maple trunks, branches and terminal twigs are careful white line drawings. An even grey cloud layer blankets us in silence. Before the snow can begin to degrade from this perfection I will be out and about recording this moment.

Even as I wander through our forest and later on a walk down into the valley I know I am taking Christmas card kinds of images. Partly this is on purpose, I need to select something soon for our season`s greetings mail out and that need is driving my vision today, but really it is all perfection and the novelty draws me to record the obvious. How pretty the snow is with a few bright leaves sticking out. How warm is the fluffed-up red breast of a robin in a landscape of white and cool blue. I am like a tourist snapping away at the tried and true and unable to see any other reality that might co-exist with quaintly costumed locals and dramatic canyons at sunset.

A few days later the novelty has worn off and a cold rain is pelting the snowy ground. A new pattern of white and green covers the ground under the somber tones of the now snowless forest trees. These melt patterns are more interesting to me, there is the possibility now of experiencing a voice in this landscape that speaks of something beyond pretty, beyond eye candy. I dress for the rain, slide into my winter gumboots and tuck my camera inside my jacket to keep it dry. Feeling the cold and soaking rain personally is an important part of the process if I hope to get close to what is happening here, and I need to do that, to cross over into the other, if I am going to understand what is going on and record an authentic image. No more a tourist in a winter wonderland, I am back home again.

To keep my camera dry, I find myself testing first with my eyes, mentally framing and then referring it to my inner editor. I am not staring at the world through a viewfinder with the camera screwed to my face. I am part of the world and not separate from it and this makes an immense difference. When I whip the camera out and quickly make a photo I have already checked it out and know that it is right. Up on the ridge of a moss and snow patterned rock outcrop in the forest the land pulls me in and guides my hand.

This morning there are still patches of white, flashing their morse code of dots and dashes in the shady places and the pond has rain puddled on its icy surface. The trees sigh and sway in the south-easter and the grey clouds slide by close overhead. Yesterday morning was the last hurrah of this first snowfall with its bright sun and the mist rising off the cold ground. I was there too, recording that moment of everlasting transformation.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Foggy . Truth and beauty on the waterfront.

“Beauty is truth, truth, beauty,” -that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need know.                                                         
                 John Keats, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'

Down by the harbour the morning fog is still thick. As I drove to Ganges over the height of land I could see the grey blanket filling the harbour below and now I am walking down to the dock to check my sailboat. Photography in fog is almost too easy, everything is coated in glamour!

Some school girls ask if I will take their picture, so I do, and then look beyond them at the rocky bank, arbutus tree and the ocean sliding smoothly out into the white mist. Out there I can see a channel marker post and its reflection and, faintly, another. These are just the first two of several that mark the dredged channel which curves through the muddy shallows and out to the open harbour and the world beyond.

I give the girls their camera back, take a couple more with their permission on my own camera and then start thinking about the scene behind them. What will this picture be about if I do take a fog photo? Spooky/generic is just not enough today, but to imagine beyond that takes an effort.

I have been reaching for a different way of thinking about composition for some time now. The hallowed rules of composition that come slightly tattered and musty from the long tradition of European painting work less and less for me these days as I seek a more nuanced and dynamic way of recording the world. I raise the camera, place the rocks and tree in the right hand half of the frame and have nothing but foggy blankness and two whispy channel markers in the left hand section. I look carefully, make slight but seemingly important adjustments in the angles and proportions and click, I have the image in the camera. I know this is just right, that it is an excellent image by my developing aesthetic but also know that to others trained in a simplified photographic formula this may well seem rather weak or enclose too much white blankness or seem to be about nothing interesting at all. Just another fog photo.

What I think I have found is an image about a thought rather than a thing. - an idea, an epiphany of sorts. The eye slides off the softened forms of the tree and rocks and follows the channel markers out into the misty world beyond the harbour. This is an image that engages the viewer and leads him out of the frame into ‘wild surmise’, into the world beyond. Into another way of thought.

In a way, I have reached a long way back to those cave paintings of Paleolithic times and to the art of ‘primitive’ societies in our modern world that were made, not to be pretty, but to create a bridge with the eternal and the secrets of life. Beauty in those images was about truth. Truth and beauty, two words portraying the same thing, were to be apprehended by careful observation of deep relationships and the building of understanding, and not by a formulaic repetition of the status quo.