Friday, January 29, 2010

Petrowolves, and a vision of a greater world.

On winter nights in our village, on the outer fringes of the universe, the S.U.Vs. slink down from the hills and gather hungrily around the gas bar.
Coming out of the grocery store the other day I stepped out into the parking lot, watched my chance and skipped between the cars to my van. A familiar act, performed many times over the years. This time was different, as though a veil had slipped from my eyes.

All those massive steel cars, the reek of exhaust, those shadowy figures hunched behind steering wheels, all totally strange and totally obscene. My familiar way of life held up to a mirror and seen in a nightmare light. Sure we all are aware of the problems associated with fossil fuel use, we may even somehow know how recently the world has become dependent on it, but to see it so clearly and unexpectedly, as in a vision of the future, is unnerving.

Visions are not usually thought of as being like this. The Lady comes wrapped in light to comfort us, we see a hopeful picture of our future, not this old testament kind of revelation of ‘woe unto you’. So where does one go with something like this? I cannot see myself giving up the van right away, and besides, I had a sense that the mental leap was not just about transportation.

That shift in the parking lot spoke to a complete world view: my culture, my outlook, language, words, concepts. Everything I thought and how I did it was called into question. How does one even think or exist, be human, without that framework that has been abuilding since I was born? We all, no matter what our culture, what world view, swim in a stream of life among our fellows. We may be able to imagine life in other streams, other cultures, but to imagine the valley, mountains, the deserts beyond, would take an imagination formed somewhere outside of streams. I have just leapt briefly out of the water, glimpsed the shore and understood the water and my place in it for a moment. Do I put aside this disturbing thought or use it as a springboard to see further out beyond my stream? Of what use would that be? Crazy making. Ah, but to see a greater world, wouldn`t that be grand!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Shroud

The shroud.

Another rainy day and I am back in the studio with my camera and sp600 Speedlight flash unit. I have been thinking since the last session about what else I can do using myself as the subject. What do I have as a costume that would move me forward in combining lighting practice and expression? I reach for the coloured backdrop fabrics. I`m off on another rainy day adventure with my camera.
There is a long art history of figures wrapped in draperies, not only are the folds and fabrics interesting in themselves, but the figures clothed in them become monumental and formal - there is greater potential here for expressive composition. After yellow, ( a Buddist monk?) And black, ( Auda, the Beduin tribal leader?) I reach for the white length of cloth. I `m getting better at this quick wrapping and posing between tripping the 10 second delay shutter and the flash that bounces off the white reflector panel beside me, and the results seen on the little LCD screen on the camera back look interesting. How instant a learning feedback there is now, compared to film days.
Later, I have a good look when my mornings photos have been downloaded onto the computer. Yikes, Bill playing the silly fool wrapped in fabric, better not let these see the light of day! It had seemed so reasonable a thing to do back in the studio. I did learn a lot in the process but social ridicule about ‘dresses and gowns’ or ‘religious’ quips would be hard to take. I shake it off and get down to seeing what I can gain from the images in this next creative level of making pictures. The first thing that sticks out for me is how simple it is to create different moods and personalities with lighting, facial expressions and a simple costume. I have what could be a collection of National Geographic folk from around the Middle and Far East - anywhere a piece of wrapped fabric is considered normal clothing. My personal face has merged into the faces of the world. That old man in white calls to me.
This man, wrapped in his burnoose, leaning forward with his eyes lowered reminds me of the photos my dad took during the First World War in Egypt and Palestine and with which I had spent a lot of hours last winter trying to bring the yellowed, brown, faded images back up to a higher quality to illustrate the story I was writing of his war time experiences*. I knew now that I was going to follow that familiar trail again, but in the opposite direction! I set out to convert this crisp colour photo into a replica of the hundred year old images that I had found so evocative in the family album. Perhaps it was the thought that I would never show this photo anyway that made it so easy for me to wade against the stream of photographic tradition. Degrade a good photo? Horror! I was on a journey to express something with this image that went well beyond a ‘good photo’.As yet, I did not know how far that would be.
I send a copy via E-mail to a friend, -I do need after all to get to the last level of showing the final result to others, and the next day hear back on the phone. After we have transacted our business I hesitatingly ask, "So, how about the photo I attached to the message?"

" My daughter says it looks like you are dead, wrapped in a shroud." she laughs.

Whoa, I never thought of that! But of course, if one thinks of it as me, not some historical person from long ago and far away and an autonomous work of art, then that is exactly how it seems. I have accidently touched a powerful topic, death. My faded photo has a great deal more resonance than I had planned, but how lucky that as soon as a creation goes out of the makers hand it become open to a larger audience to participate in its new life. Of course, now I wonder if that was what part of me was headed for all the time.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Building a life # 19. There is a laugh in everything.

                                                           Big fish.

I am milking the goats in the barn when our visitors arrive and I quickly finish up and go out to greet them. I havn`t seen Pam, a fellow art teacher, her husband Mike and family since I left teaching in the Okanagan two years ago. They look no different, but I must be a surprise with my big beard and scruffy work clothes, stepping out of our rough plywood barn with a pail of milk in my hand. It is at times like these that I realize how far down an alternate path we have been wandering. And working so hard to get there!

They camp in our bottom field, and the next day I take them out in our big rowboat ‘Swallow’ on an expedition to Portland Island. It`s a lovely sunny day and Mike`s fishing line is out. This is what summer in the Gulf Islands is all about, right? Well, perhaps for visitors. I`m thinking how seldom I have actually been out in the boat, that months go by with my nose to the grindstone working to build us into some state of security. Security, wasn`t that something I had willingly left behind?

A sailboat crosses our wake and shortly thereafter the rod bends and the reel screams. Not a wopper fish, no, we have snagged the keel of the sailboat! There is no way he will reel it in so the line breaks and the lure is lost. Mike is furious! I start to laugh which does not help the mood in the boat. I am laughing at his loss, and at the sheer chance that brought this all about and also at what seems to me to be a disproportionate expenditure of emotion.

Once, I too might have reacted in outrage at what now seems a trivial and amazing coincidence. I resume rowing and the incident is passed over. Soon we arrive at Portland Island and walk the beautiful trails of the park and I privately review the fishing incident and what it has to tell me. We are leading a hardscrabble life still and learning many new skills in the process. One I hadn`t noticed `til now had crept up unannounced, the ability to simply deal with daily problems and reverses as they come along without throwing in a supercharge of negative emotion as well. I would be a nervous wreck if I indulged myself in that way because each day has it`s list of problems. The one luxury I allow myself is to carry on a feud with the goats and that seems OK because they are always trying to get my goat! If cussing has ultimately failed me, I have learned to laugh. As my favourite film character, Forest Gump, says, “It happens”. Some things have changed in my life for the better after all.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The vision of Paul Gauguin # 6. Vairumati.

                                        My version of 'Vairumati'

“ She was tall, and the fire of the sun`s rays burned in the gold of her skin; all the mysteries of love breathed in the black night of her hair.” Paul Gauguin.

I wonder as I begin this painting if perhaps I have already gone about as far as I can go with the re-imaging of Gauguin`s paintings. Not that he has exhausted himself, but that my own thoughts can not stretch fast enough to keep up with him in this ‘resonating’ process. One more, I decide, but much bigger this time, and even then on my largest piece of paper I will still only be one third the size of the original. How splendid the real painting must be! I grid off the colour plate I am working from and transfer the lines of the painting to the textured paper.

I then use charcoal to outline the main lines and shadows and later switch to oil pastel and rough in the areas of colour: the first stage in the build up of layers of pigment and varnish. “Ahhh, nooo”, I think, as the pastel picks up on the raised texture and just sits there. I grab the spray can of varnish and wet down a section, start rubbing into it with a finger tip so the pastel combines with the varnish and spreads smoothly over the paper. Now I can see the white of the paper shining smoothly up through the colour. This is more like it!

I have chosen what I think is a particularly beautiful painting to work with this time; ‘Vairumati’, that combines the beauty of a Polynesian woman with imagery from ancient sculpture and a symbolic white bird stepping on a lizard. Such a conglomeration, so effortlessly synthesized, with the symbolic spiritual colours in red soil and yellow bed blazing forth. This is holy ground! There is so much to work with here.

It is when I start work on the two shadowy figures in the background that I begin to really transition through the picture plane. Two women form a kind of chorus section in the shadows: one carries a tray of offerings, the other is singing and signing this painted story with hand gestures. In memory, I am back on our sailing travels through the islands of the South Pacific. We have stopped in New Caledonia during ‘The Festival of the Arts’, a gathering for all the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, and we are watching a group of young people from the isolated islands of Wallis and Fortuna sing and act out a traditional song of fishing on the coral reef. One girl catches my attention, her graceful hand movements, the shy glances she takes at the crowd gathered on the grass around her group captivate me. In her person she distills all that we have experienced in the months it has taken us to traverse the South Pacific, all the islands with their reefs and lagoons, the high volcanic mountains and low coral atolls all swept by the Trade winds. I know now why Gauguin has painted his particular girl into his canvas. She too represents all that immensity to him.

When Gauguin described Vairumati in his book ‘Noa Noa’ he chose the easy road - a sexy young woman- but there is little of that in this image of her or really of any of the other women he painted. Yes, many times he paints them completely or partially nude, but typically as in this painting they, at the very least, represent an exalted image of sexuality, something ancient and of the spirit. The reds and yellows, the bits of temple architecture, the gold of her body and the worshiping choir behind her all say in picture form what he could not express in words. That girl I saw was Vairumati also and the song she sang, Gauguin heard too,   -his painting is just another version of this great thing that sings through all our veins. The world is not just God`s creation, the spirit is in us and all around us, all is holy. Vairumati is beautiful, she shines, we all worship her.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Making pictures.

                                                         Twins: through a glass darkly.

At what point does one know how the image should turn out, - what its story is? Sometimes I find I know even before I go out with my camera, - I have been cooking up a feeling and it is just a matter of going out and finding the ingredients. While I am out I may find variations on a theme, but rarely will I stray far from the ruling impulse of the day.

The subject itself may be the ruling principle at other times. The tall up-reaching form of an arbutus tree will speak so clearly that there is no turning away for me until the image is safely in the camera. And then there are the times I am simply playing with the camera, collecting images as though they were bits of rock and driftwood only to discover that something there calls to me, half hidden things that jump out of the image saying that they can speak through the forms that I have captured all unawares.

It was a rainy wet winters day, really no fun to be out of doors, and I was using my dry studio to experiment with artificial lighting. If I were a sober citizen I would have kept to a sequence of shots and recorded each step to be able to duplicate it later but while I did try to follow a routine I could not help throwing in variations. My creative side is used to being dominant when I have a camera in my hand. I used a mirror, different coloured backdrops and a flash unit and eventually started prancing around in front of the camera which sat on its tripod with the shutter set to a 10 second delay. Way too many variables to keep control of. Using myself as model and being focused on all the details of the photographer at the same time led to an interesting effect: the picture sequences soon showed a side of myself I did not know. It was as if a stranger, - myself stripped of my social face- was showing up in photo after photo. An intense inner person, not well know at all. Those coloured cloth backdrops were also setting a powerful mood in each picture.

When I abandoned all but the mirror and started another sequence - the camera now resting on the table top -I found my inner self face to face with my mirror image. There were three of us in the room, ordinary me the photographer, my model me, and his reflection who seemed different again. Hilarious, I thought and snapped away. Only later as I sorted photos on the computer did I realize that those twins in the mirrors were something close to my personal history. My identical twin died at birth and I have always felt myself to be living double lives - living for two in this life and also living a parallel life with my other half over in the shadowlands. After some work on the computer to clean up the bits that interfered with the force of the image and converting it to black and white I had a photo that depicted a real depth of feeling for me. “Unsettling, disturbing,” people said on first sight, as if that was a mark against it as a work of art.

Now, I was pleased with this picture because it was unsettling and disturbing, it broadened the range of my expression beyond the usual crop of beauty oriented images. Then I remembered that most art that people see is designed to please the viewer, to hang on a wall and sooth the tired businessman and colour co-ordinate with the furniture: a kind of opiate, not a bugle call to wake up and think. Certainly not to disturb. Back in the days over a hundred years ago when the Impressionists and those who followed them were struggling to be accepted, the buying public had a settled idea about what was proper art, cloying historical and literary types of images, and also what they really wanted from the new art of photography - pleasing photographs of themselves. These days consumers want variations of the same thing. We live in a consumer society where the customer determines the product and many photographers, themselves consumers and sellers, have accepted this. All those talented people producing decorative images to be placed in galleries and sold to beautiful people. I bet most of them carry a second line of un-sellable images that reach towards a wider and wilder expression of the world.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The frozen lake.

                                     Along the margins of the lake

My sons in law want to go fishing on the lake on this sunny crisp winter afternoon, one of the last days of the year, and I decide that here is my chance to make some interesting photos. The old wood and canvas Chestnut canoe is lifted down from the cross beams in my studio, my little Zodiac inflatable raft comes too and shortly we are launching just down the road at Weston Lake. The lake is almost completely frozen over with the thinnest of triangle patterned ice, like what you might find on a mud puddle on a frosty morning, but this end of the lake is still open and gently rippled in a fitful breeze. The canoe drifts to the center, and the fly rods are soon in action. I follow, awkwardly propelling myself and camera with the ridiculous set of little oars that came with the raft.

I get some lovely shots of the canoe and then drift towards the shore with the breeze. The winter rains have raised the lake level a foot above summer standard and I can see water lilies suspended below the surface on their now too short stalks as I drift by. The leafless willow bushes that line the shore reflect across them in a beautifully complex pattern. I came for the canoe, but here are riches indeed.

Soon I am ready to head home to warm up, but my eyes have seen the most amazing things along the forgotten margins and across the icy surface of the glittering lake. Who say that love is only warm? I have felt Winter`s icy heart today and know it too supports this beautiful world in its cold embrace.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Building a life #18. Total bloody war.

                          'The lights are going out...'

I am exhausted and very frustrated. Our two pigs are ready to be taken to the butcher and the intelligent creatures seem to know this very well indeed. No matter what, they are not going up the ramp and into the pick-up truck. I have run out of options when an old prairie farmer drops by. After rolling around laughing for some while, he picks up a plastic pail, pushes it over the first pig`s head, and backs it up the ramp. Just so. I do the second one. Off to the abattoir.

Beside our regular exciting life with the goats: a foot in the milk pail, eating our fruit trees, eating our neighbour`s fruit trees, and our laying chickens: off lay, eaten by eagles, racoons and mink, we have also begun to raise meat birds. It takes a fine bit of guesswork to decide on the correct day of reckoning for them: too soon and we have rather light weight birds, too late and they start to die or become crippled. It is my job to do the killing and Heather`s job to do the dressing. The children and their friends help with plucking. There are the occasional shrieks as one child chases another with bits of chicken guts. Death and destruction is such good clean family fun. So much of farm life has death as its prime objective. Its not really life on the farm at all.

After one long day of slaughter we have buried the chicken remains under a big cedar tree and later that evening hear the oh too familiar sound of upset chickens: coons, we say and out I go with a flashlight to find a whole family of racoons have been digging up the remains and are now scrambling up the cedar. Many little dots, like Christmas lights, reflect down from all over the tree. They are up there, looking down. Perhaps it is the sound of jeering laughter from above that sends me to a neighbour to borrow his shot gun. With the flashlight held to the gun barrel I start shooting my way up the tree. The lights go out one by one and bodies start hitting the ground. “The lights are going out all over Europe.”, it feels like that sometimes. Total bloody war.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blue moon.

                                                   Happy New Year.