Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The voyage. Recording by pen on paper.

The dory slides off the trailer and onto its own set of wheels for the last part of its travels so far this morning, - down the beach, across the sand and into the sea.

                                                                                           Photo by Nicole

This little 14 foot plywood boat has had a long and exciting life with our family. As the dinghy on 'Shiriri', our 50 foot gaff rigged traditional 'fisherman' schooner, she had performed all the exciting small boat work that went along with our Pacific voyages. Now, home again, she slides back into the sea for a little journey with me and two International students to Russell island. One might be tempted to think that this is small potatoes after her voyage down the Murray River in Australia or those exciting tropical reef journeys, but no, here lies the potential for a fully satisfactory experience for my passengers and if so it will be rewarding for me as well. Besides, there is no such thing as a boring voyage if one keeps one's senses sharp and focused!

We attempt to sail at first, there is a light breeze headed in the right direction, but down comes the little lugsail again when we are not getting anywhere very fast. This practical decision dates back to our ocean sailing days where the dinghy's function was to move us efficiently and not simply to provide an aesthetic sailing experience. Out with the oars and we row directly for our first way-point at Indian Point at the entrance to Saltspring Island's Fulford Harbour. From there it is but one more short crossing, and so an hour and a quarter after launching we are pulling our boat up on the island's white shell beach, tying her painter to a rock and eating lunch while watching the wildlife - the porpoises, eagles and otters -, and reveling in the warm March sunshine. Ah, blue sky, after the long days of overcast weather we have lived with all winter.

My passengers go off for a walk on this small part of Gulf Islands National Park and I begin to draw the world around me in a sketchbook. This book has drawings from twenty or more years before of other camping holidays and I have since used the information in many of these drawings for brush and ink paintings. As with  my use of the dory, my sketching tends to be practical and functional - a way of observing and documenting, of thinking, rather than as a defined 'art object'. Today I have sent my passengers to explore by themselves, and I am filling my solitary hour in a productive way. I could have brought my camera but felt a need to sharpen up my 'seeing' skills, and drawing is the best way I know of doing that. A photograph is a matter of a second, a drawing can take many minutes. By the time the girls come back I have noticed a thousand details and recorded the most important; the forms of the sandstone rocks, the shadows along the shady side on the shore, the tree types and their characteristic forms, how the wharf has been constructed and the warden's boat tied up alongside the dock. I turn the page and draw the rounded forms of drift logs and the bright shell beach directly before me. There is a deep satisfaction in this faithful record making. A way of saying to the world in all its complexity, “I see you!”

Soon it is time to head for home and the promising breeze is fluttering the leaves and moving the smaller branches. We can hear its murmer and also see the waves building in the passage back to Indian Point. We push off, raise the sail and this time have a fast crossing. I am having such a lovely time, with the sheet controlling the sail clasped in one hand and an oar clutched over the side to steer with in the other. The sail fills roundly, the water chuckles under the bow and bubbles down the lee side. Our dory has a voice once more and is reminding me of all those other adventures this boat and I have shared.

One last gust of wind, a quickly eased sheet and then a final surge into the sheltered lee of the point. Out with the oars again for the long pull up the harbour, back on the wheels,up the beach and onto the trailer and home once more. Just a little trip, but so rewarding. I have it down in black and white.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Feeling our way into art: experiencing the vitality and walking the walk.

To understand art is to be able to grasp in some meaningful way its vitality. The vitality, what Hofmann calls its 'spirit', is always there and apprehensible in great paintings. We just have to give a little, we have to admit that we can feel the vitality and experience the reality.
                             'Hans Hofmann' edited by James Yohe,

In a recent post I tried to show that while new ideas were necessary in the arts to keep us on our toes and mere repetition of the old and traditional did not challenge us, that it was not in the end as simple as that:

It seems that the 'art' part of the vast quantity of art production is a very ephemeral quality and is not directly tied to the new and novel or to the familiar or traditional.

What then is that 'ephemeral' quality that is at the center of the arts? If not pushy and new and not traditional, then perhaps we are framing the question as an 'either or' on a time line while the answer may lie somewhere or somehow else.

In the above quote from this beautiful book about Hofmann's work and thought we are lead into a realm that is best approached intuitively and not through categories. When Hofmann, uses the word 'spirit' we may automatically step back, but the word 'vitality' carries no such baggage to trip us up before we enter. Great paintings, (and other works) of all sorts and from all eras and cultures have a vital quality that communicates if we can 'give a little, 'feel the vitality and experience the reality'.

How do we judge, evaluate, quantify to know where on the scales to place a work of art? What is a work of art worth then? Even monetarily? In the end these are questions best answered by the business of art marketing. If we wish to really understand we have to stop seeking to intellectually 'understand' and begin to let that 'spirit', that 'vitality' work its magic in our relationship with a work of art that has taken the ephemeral and formed a reality that we can apprehend if we have the mind set to follow the messenger and participate in its voyage.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Estuary: the Englishman River reaches the sea. Deciding on what story to tell.

It was time to explore the estuary of this Vancouver Island river ( see earlier posts) and we arrived at the beach when the spawning herring were being eaten by every creature that could swim or fly. Flocks of gulls, long lines of Brant geese, sea lions, porpoises, and the ever present eagles animated the grey overcast day: a calm, ethereal seascape with action added.

I found too that nature was not the only element along the shoreline; an RV park for refugees from colder Canadian climes lined one bank and made a great contrast to the inland mountains with their tree cloaked slopes and icy tops, and while if we faced to seaward all was natural, at our backs were lines of houses. Here man and his works were part of the landscape and while it was possible to frame them out, it would not have told an accurate story.

It reminded me how selective photography can be in presenting what purports to be a 'true record' and how our biases can be hidden behind the 'objective lens'. That collection of metal, movable homes clashed with the greater landscape and the 'nature' story I might wish to tell, and I could easily filter them out. I needed to decide at the photographing stage what my story was to be. I chose balance.

This is what makes photography such a great propaganda tool, we choose our story and photograph to suit.

Selfie. The process of making subject matter into a work of art.

I step out of the shower and see that the venetian blind is casting black shadows on my older, hairy, white body. Not a pretty sight you might think, and best not photographed. Besides, this stripy kind of image is common enough and usually used for younger, more attractive models. But I am what is handy and it just takes a second to hold the mini camera at arm's length and collect this image. Much later I begin the next stage of the image making process on the computer photo program ( 'Lightroom', in this case) and realize that, bonanza, I have the possibility of seeing this reversed as white stripes on a black body and set to work to paint and adjust the image to tell a different, and to me, more interesting story.

If I were simply making a figure of fun, some old aborigine decorated for a corroboree, beyond the black stump, far away in the outback of Australia, I hope that I would not make this image, but what occurred to me is that the difference between the white me and the black me here is a trick of light and shadow. The essential job of all the arts is finding and expressing meaning; and painting and decorating the body has to be the earliest form of that process in the visual arts. The point for the Aborigines (and other peoples around the world) of the decoration ( and the music, words and dance that are part of the process) is to participate in the continuing story of creation; that eternal present that must be regularly honoured and created else it fade away forever.

Surely that has always been the central function of the arts, the continual creation and re-creation of meaning - visually and in music, dance or word. My photograph simply participates in that process of making form - finding and building structures that express ideas.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Point of view from the subject matter's perspective: an exercise in creative thinking. Is art a product of new ideas or something very different?

I converted this photograph within the camera to a sketch version.
. No pencil work involved.
Does this mechanical picture making communicate well and if so
is it any less 'art' than a hand produced image would be?
Vermeer used a photo-mechanical method to make his paintings, but
 does the art in his work reside in the method
 or the sensibility of the artist?

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
                                                       Ulysses . Tennyson

We put a lot of emphasis on the photographer: he makes choices of subject matter, chooses camera settings, depth of field, camera angle and so on. We hold the camera to our eyes and snap the shutter. The 'I' figures into the process a lot.

What then if we put the emphasis on the subject choosing us: turn things around and see what happens. Maybe it is below the consciousness horizon, but have you ever had the feeling of being drawn into taking a photograph by something officially outside yourself? Why do we snap yet another sunset or turn and catch something on the wing when we are supposed to be concentrating on something else? How is it that these images so often communicate well, beyond what our plodding brain can come up with?

I think that brain is the grey matter at the top of our spinal column but that mind ranges far and wide and is part of the larger picture. We are 'part of all that we have met' - we are inextricably in relationship with it. That out there is really that in here. Permitting the mind to roam like this, the idea that the subject controls the photographer for instance, is an exercise in creative thinking. If one slides into an alternate way of thinking there is a vision available that was closed before. New ways of conceiving and then creating are only possible if the mind can go there first.

We make art to challenge and awaken our own and the mind of the viewer - that is our function. If we produce what has already been 'said' there is no challenge, just confirmation of the already expressed. What is on the gallery wall may be comfortable, accessible, even pretty, but not pushy, not strange, and not challenging us to go beyond the already thought and made. What then of the 'new for new's sake' that seems feeble at best, or conversely, the reworking of 'old' ideas that really wakes us up?

 It seems that the 'art' part of the vast quantity of 'art' production is a very ephemeral quality and is not directly tied to the new and novel or to the familiar or traditional.