I can barely remember this city before community gardens. They're so integral to my neighbourhood, and I don't even have a plot of my own.
Aside from the obvious benefit of providing people ways to grow their own food, community gardens are also spaces of engagement, contemplation and innovation that attracts people of all ages like bees.
Which is why I was so taken by one Industrial Design student's final project at Emily Carr University's grad show last week.Theunis Snyman
has taken on the city-issue rain barrel
in a poetic re-think of our weird watering ways in this watery part of the world.
The green poly rain barrel is designed to connect to downspouts to divert 341 litres of water away from the storm sewers for use in outdoor plants and lawns. Trouble is, that system isn't too useful when it comes to watering community gardens. You could stick one of the rain barrels out there on the land to catch the water directly out of the sky but the downspout hole is too small to collect much rain, and there's also the problem of overflow.
The South African-born Snyman might just have the answer, in the Utixo Kinetic Rain Harvester, named after the Bushman rain god in South Africa. Four petals made from
reclaimed materials act as funnels for rain into the rain barrel. As the tank fills, an interior float mechanism closes the petals/leaves to stop the harvesting process. As the rain barrel is drained, the float moves down and pulls open the flower again, ready to receive replenishment.
No batteries, no high technology, no noise — just a lovely example of sculptural form meeting simple function in this part art installation, part garden innovation. An accompanying image (at left) at the graduation show reveals the sculptural beauty of the enhanced rain barrels in action here in Vancouver.
As if we need another reason to get back to the gardens:
Touring the Emily Carr University graduation show
(aka The Show) can be exhausting. There’s work by more than 300 grads packed into those halls and classrooms — too much to take in just one visit. The best I could manage last week was a scan of the lay of the land. Among the standouts was Emily Carr University graduate Kaveh Irani
's Politicians Can
, part of his Can Series
Because who doesn’t love finely rendered portraiture on aluminum pop cans, especially when they’re of Kim Jong-un and Stalin, wrapped up in the Coca-Cola logo?
I’m a sucker for culture-jamming, the only real sacred cow in our secular world. Quebecois may still take the Catholic Church in vain, and English Canada still swears about sex, but today’s taboos are legally protected brands. You really want to raise some eyebrows? Use multinationals’ logos for your own unlicensed purposes. Yeah, I said it.
| Image from kojitstudio.com |
You can run around with hard core porn in your pocket, or post picture of priests exploring each other’s bodies but it is risky business to dis Dow Chemicals. (As a reporter I once received a warning letter from Dow legal advising me that the newspaper could avoid being hit with further action if I completed and returned a questionnaire that would indicate I understood the difference between Styrofoam and “polystyrene product.” I complied and remained employed.)
Not surprisingly Messing with the Man (and his money and power) remains the top hot-button in these parts, which would explain why 50 per cent of Facebook activity appears to be posts of images like this one:
(The other 50 per cent is sharenting
| Image from wackypackages.org |
A 1973 New York Magazine connects Wacky Packages to cynical '70s kids.
BF (before Facebook) we had Wacky Packages. Damn I wish I still had my Wacky Packs but what eight-year-old kid could resist peeling off these sick send-ups and sticking it to the Man? We had no idea who Art Spiegelman was but the creepy graphics looked enough like Mad Magazine and Cracked that kids swarmed the corner stores for the latest gum-laced Topps packages. (Got 'em, got 'em, got 'em, got 'em, need 'em, need 'em, got 'em….)
Suddenly we held this power of counterpoint to all the commercials in our hot little hands, and the urge to disseminate that sentiment on street sign poles, all over our plastic lunch kits and the back of bus seats. Even eight-year-olds can't unlearn this kind of early social awareness. So it is with a note of nostalgia that I gravitate toward the Art Spiegelman show
currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery (CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps, to June 9)
And that's why the Kim Jong-Un can at the Emily Carr grad show had me at hello. The combo of the purported drink of the death squads
and dictator over actual death squads is powerful stuff indeed. The contrast between finely detailed painting on a throwaway object also needles nicely. It takes guts to go low at a grad show.
So much to see, The Show
wraps up this Sunday at ECUAD on Granville Island.
I know I should be researching or finishing or conceiving or cleaning or thanking or discussing or working on proposals. But like everyone else in the northern Northern Hemisphere, I can barely remain indoors these fine days. Because — and I hate to be the bearer of bad news here — the days will be getting shorter in six weeks. The time to make a break for it is NOW. Out, into the city gardens and the public beaches and the urban forests.
You know you're aching to get going/growing when you and your artist friends are more enthused about a trip to Home Depot for potting soil than an art show opening. You know it when your desktop is suddenly stacked with images of art that lives outdoors, in the midst of natural and tended landscapes. We want to make, we want to be inspired but mostly we want it to all happen out there.
Artists' gardens I have known may be overgrown shambles or even slightly freaky spaces but they are never manicured hedges and putting greens. They are spaces of adventure and surprise and they take me back to my artist father's East Van oasis, where my brother and I would get lost in the winding path that held treasures like his concrete head planters with greenery erupting out of the heads like Sideshow Bob hair. Artist gardens often have the feel of public art spaces in miniature, spaces of experimentation with form and materials, maquettes for possible large-scale works.
The discovery of these tiny simple sculptures in a garden would create surprise through unexpected form and the power of multiples, while referencing their particular space.
Having just finished a course in public art I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes garden art successful. Stuffing the space with curios feels like a clutter problem on summer migration. (The large-scale version of that is the charity eagle/bear/orca sculpure...thingies. Even monumental bronzes of horse-mounted Lords on expansive rolling lawns can be overlooked because they don't resonate.)
It's the site specificity and the element of surprise that makes any outdoor space sing, whether that's in the use of materials and scale, like the giant pinecones (above) that Ontario metal artist Floyd Elzinga
fabricates from shovels, or the juxtaposition of the object and the natural surroundings, like the firepit below. (I'm filing this mass-produced, buy-online item, credited only to "an artist" in Tennessee, under Accidental Art.)
It's something to contemplate while I look at all the unidentifiable weedy things already going to seed in my little space.
This globe fire pit will not be ignored — not because of scale or materials but concept. That and the scary inferno.
This hose topiary references its particular space through use of materials and is just weird enough that it works for me. (Artist's name lost in the Pinterest jungle.)
After a long and often painful labour, I’m happy to introduce…the twins!
I’m not sure why I plumped up the two eight-foot-wide doilies, freshly completed today, for their first picture. It might have something to do with this morning’s mammogram.
‘Why’ is always a scary question wherever conception is concerned. ‘What’ and ‘how’ are a little more manageable.
What they are are two crocheted doilies on a scale of 1 inch = 1 foot, using a material that mimics the relative volume, appearance and weight of the cotton floss called for in the original patterns for the two table-top doilies I found in my stack of 1950s homemaker magazines.
What material was a tough enough question without the Why lurking behind. I’d been searching for the right stuff for ages until I realized it was all around me. In fact, I’d been hammering cedar shingles into it for weeks at a time last summer: Tyvek exterior building wrap. I pushed the Why away as I special-ordered a 100-yard bolt of the wrap.
The size of the doilies was determined by the biggest crochet hook I could get my hands on (and could handle). After making several swatches I finally decided two-inch strips were sufficiently doilyish.
Scraping up any residual knowledge of basic math that has clung to my grey matter, I have conjured up this probably-incorrect calculation of length of materials used, in answer to the What:
36 inches (1 yard width) ÷ 2-inch strips = 18 strips x 60 inches (length) = 1080 linear inches per yard x 95 yards (100-yard bolt minus remaining five yards) = 102,600 linear inches ÷ 12 inches = 8,550 feet ÷ 2 doilies = 4,275 linear feet per doily. (I love how stats can be simultaneously unfathomable and banal.)
How did I know how to make doilies? Let me count the ways in all those crappy/crafty afghans, potholders, slippers, placemats, doll clothes, stuffed animals, toques, nerdy vests and that abortion of a bikini.
Why the giant doily, you/I insist? Because it was there, in my head. I conceived two to enjoy their similarities and their differences.
Go forth, twins! Find your purpose! Write if you get a show! And don’t let the why-ers get you down!
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who is aching to make a break from the indoors
and take it all outside. Now that the weather is improving (well, theoretically at this writing) thoughts go to how to set up an outdoor setup for sketching, fabricating, painting or plotting our next moves or just playing with materials.
In my neck of the woods, where the studio is often someplace at home due to insanely prohibitive rental fees, personal outdoor space is more likely a balcony and one that's none too private either.
It's a challenge to carve out a little outdoor sacred space in our vertical built environment. And even if we're allowed to create some delineation, on the Wet Coast there's no point hanging billowy curtains or installing anything that would sag and sog at the first spring shower. We're looking for something attractive yet weather-proof.
These are the kinds of things I think about when I scan all those online image collections on Tumblr, Houzz and Pinterest. There's no shortage of ideas for ideal outdoor sanctuaries, but I like the ingenious solutions, the ones that make use of all the excess lying around, like the flip-flop bead curtain
composed of plugs of the foam soles in Nairobi:
This blogger composed a collage of flip-flops found on a Nairobi beach during a single morning walk, as well as the pic of the storefront with the fun foam curtain.
It's the perfect case of necessity being the mother of invention, and an inspiration to make use of what's in over-abundance locally, relying on little or no tools in the making.
And since we're in the artwork-making world, we'd rather invest in supplies than decor anyway.
It reminds me of this little project I made a few years back, after I was searching for a way to deal with the ubiquitous plastic bags that are not accepted in my building's recycling bins. I shred the bags into roughly two-inch strips with a rotary cutter (scissors work fine too), tied them together into strands, then tied one end of each strand to each eye of a simple ceiling-mounted curtain rod. Voila!: a blossom-y sun-filtering retractable screen that to this day has withstood the elements, and grows as bags accumulate.
Everything's coming up poodles.
A few months ago I was trying to dog a persistent human-sized crocheted poodle
toilet-paper-roll cover. Then it was the whole public art controversy surrounding the 'poodle on a pole
.' Then today, as I was researching the subject of this week's posting, I came across Poodle with a Mohawk and it all came back to me: I wore this image on a ratty T-shirt through most of the '80s — to clubs, to class, to bed. Probably to job interviews. And I am not in any way a poodle-lover.
But I do love Lynda Barry, the creator of this cartoon. I've loved her ever since I first spotted her Ernie Pook's Comeek in the Georgia Straight (probably when I was scanning club listings).
Her raw renderings and scrawled narrative were the only thing I could find during those pre-internet times that exposed the harsh and banal realities of growing up girl in a working class, multi-ethnic neighbourhood. The angst, the powerlessness, the awkwardness — all in hand-drawn black and white.
But it's Barry's ability to shift seamlessly between the written word and markings that holds the magic for me and the reason I have most of her published works, which I re-read whenever I'm all sixes and sevens, as Granny used to say. Barry lays it all out there in her clutter of wince-inducing text and pictures, and also has the goodness to share her the creative process that lets her let go (and you can too!) in her book, What It Is
Barry believes that anyone can make the writing or the artwork; it's all about playing. This is why she enjoys wide acclaim for her popular writing workshops, including one at the Vancouver Writers Fest last October. And this is why I will often randomly flip open a page in What It Is —my playbook —before I sit down with a brush or my laptop.
From Lynda Barry's creative-process book, What It Is
We Barry fans like her because she tells us we have it in us; all we have to do is allow ourselves to play. In fact, we need play in order to do creative work, which she believes is related to good mental health. But she isn't talking dropping everything to do jello shots in Cancun.
"Adults confuse playing with fun," she told Jian Ghomeshi in 2008
. Play comes with some anxiety, she says, but it does not involve planning. "I never sat down with Barbie and Ken and said, 'Okay, this is going to be a three-act....'"
Making stuff, she says, has a function that's more important than producing something "that will make somebody else want to make out with you."
"if we don't use it then it's sort of like having a vitamin deficiency and it's one of the reasons why I think we feel depressed."
Damn I miss that poodle-with-a-mohawk shirt.
Photo from themarysue.com
We are to understand that being distracted is bad, and being focused is good.
Being focused will get the job done while being in the moment is not productive — productivity being the cornerstone of our prevailing Protestant work ethic.
I'm aware that it is absurd to continue measuring our national wellness by Gross Domestic Product stats and I deeply respect those ER and childcare workers who must rely on their mental agility to withstand chaotic conditions but if I'm not at least working toward producing something I start wondering why I'm even here.
I've been forced to think about the virtues of making over the last several weeks as life trumped my fastidious little production schedule. The best I could do was grab a few moments to watch from the sidelines, or catch a glimpse of work by other producers, like Eastern-Canadian metal sculptor Cal Lane whose Gutter Snipes show at Grunt Gallery
wound up last week. Lane, known for wielding an oxy-acetylene
torch and scrambling around 2,000-gallon oil tanks, is my kinda hands-on gal.
Photo from grunt.ca
She shows serious devotion to her work of imposing filigree patterns into found, often rusted industrial materials. It's the kind of demanding work ethic that recharges my productivity urge, but under the circumstances I had to park that and be content surfing over reviews of her work, her other shows and other collaborators, and soon, other expressions of lace as a pattern.
I'm sure that much has been written about the importance of going on a mental/physical/emotional hiatus, but I usually file that reading for later and get back to the job at hand. That's probably a sign that I may be overdosing on a devotional practice.
Since I couldn't get down to any real work I did a lot of image-surfing between things. This image of the artist's Burnt Lawn installation (right) reminds me that my serious focus can narrow the visual field.
Focusing on not focusing so much is a bit of a trial for me but I'm trying to resist the production compulsion and ride the Googleverse free-form a little more, enjoying the discussion
on a related show, Lace in Translation
, at Philadelphia University or viewing an interview with Lane at Grunt Gallery (at right).
Lane's 'Burnt Lawn' at The Design Center at Philadelphia University, 2010
And then I did what was only possible due to the distractedness of the last few weeks: I sat back and did nothing but watch a 12-minute video
made for a 2009 exhibition of re-imagined manufactured lace that plays in the space between art and production. Time well wasted.
Kerry Polite photo, from The Design Center
Lace Fence, galvanized PVC-coated wire, by Demakersvan, 2009. 16 panels: 152'W x 6.5'H
This week's clippings, destined for my over-stuffed sketchbook.
I’m addicted to Google Images and I’m not happy about it.
For the last several decades, most of my ideas have come from markings on wood pulp, specifically newspapers. And even though it’s now becoming almost unconscionable to sacrifice trees for the purpose of disseminating information, we’re missing out on something in the loss of the traditional newspaper format.
We’re missing an element of randomness and surprise that comes from scanning the sheets of a good newspaper full of a wide range of engaging opinion and well-researched, original subject matter. When we're used to flipping through the pages numerically, we come across whole areas of information that we're not looking for.
For most of my adult life this has involved a routine of morning coffee, three or four daily newspapers, the sharing of sections, and a lot of bitching over what’s missing from stories or the paper. It ends with tearing out a few items to share with others or add to my over-stuffed sketchbook, then bringing the stack of papers downstairs to drop on a neighbour’s doormat.
It all sounds so quaint now, and we’re fighting the losing battle to get our content without plunking screens down at the kitchen table. In fact, anecdotal evidence tells me that the rise of new media over tactile media has all but eclipsed the whole breakfast-table routine.
Newspapers were my entry point into an early understanding of public art, the global art market and art history. I would never have any awareness of the issues under those categories if I had solely relied on new media and its format of reading by topic. That method will instantly get me to what I’m looking for, but I won’t get what I’m not looking for.
I’m already mourning the stimulating visual experience of opening up the paper to a clutter of photos and fonts, opinions and statistics. I’m still clutching on to the clipping habit, still passing around pieces of paper, but I’m also getting sucked into art aggregators like Colossal
The Day After, 2008. Newsprint, canvas, acrylic medium.
Above and right: Two of my artworks that weave together the visual, tactile and literal elements of newspapers.
Deadlines, 2008. Newsprint, canvas, acrylic medium.
But the research randomness I crave is seductively being serviced by Google Images. Now, thanks to its new aggregating software, any image that I search includes a series of visually related options. No more walking to the newspaper boxes. No more sharing. No waiting.
We used to wait for it
Now we're screaming ‘Sing the chorus again!’
(Click the arrow below to hear the song that says it all)
My biggest obstacle is over-thinking — not to be confused with big thinking. Over-thinking is my umbrella term for all the second-guessing, the predicting, the analyzing and the re-thinking that can turn my mind into a maelstrom. It's unproductive and it's exhausting and it's why I and many of my maker friends are involved in repetitive, obsessive (I prefer the term "devotional") artwork methods. The focus required is just the ticket to get out of the rabbit's hole of circular thinking. Less mental chatter, more mindfulness.
Making is the key to learning for me. As the work takes shape I try to make out what it's saying, where it's situated in the whole art discourse thingy. It's clear that I have to be clear about my intentions, where I'm going with all this, and why. Some thought is necessary.
But over-thinking is a form of self-sabotage and it has threatened the existence of my latest project, Monumental Doily. As I hook into those strands I find myself grasping at threads from my art history and cultural theory classes, trying to work in ideas of power struggles and psychoanalysis. Next thing you know I'm assuming the posture of German artist-shaman/renegade educator/former Nazi militiaman Joseph Beuys, in some sort of feminist response to his famous 1974 performance art piece, I Like America and America Likes Me (below, left) until my Inner Victorian Grandlady cries, "Enough nonsense!" (She would never say, "I call bullshit!")
This is usually the point where I have to fight the urge to scrap the whole project and herein lies the conflict.
I have to be able to speak about my work but I have a pretty low tolerance for too much artspeak. I like artwork that has me at Hello, that hooks me in to investigate further and is not just some in-joke designed for the rarified few who have had the benefit of art-historical education.
It should evoke a wide range of responses from a wide range of viewers — 'multiple points of entry', as they say. It should resonate in different ways and over time, and not rely on an instruction manual disguised as an artist statement full of exclusionary academic language (unless the point of the artwork is to create a feeling of alienation). Yet if it's too definitive, it's over quickly, like a trick, and I'm done. Next!
Elitism is ugly and I really do agree with Beuys' belief that everyone is an artist, or at least can be if she would just shut out the rational jibber-jabber already
and hook into the emotional/spiritual, the unquantifiable, even the unreasonable. (Beuys' beautiful mind is behind his urban intervention project, 7000 Oaks
Sometimes a giant doily is just a giant doily, material evidence of one person's attempt to connect in an increasingly chaotic, hectic, overly-quantified and unrationally rationalized world.
A few weeks back, one of the local dailies ran a staff photo of a grumpy-looking woman wearing a hand-drawn sign around her neck that read: “Mount Pleasant needs a pool not a poodle on a pole.”
God, I miss the newsroom sometimes. When that kind of photo lands on your desk (so to speak) you do a little happy dance. This is the money shot, the hook into a hot little story, the art that guarantees the front page of a community paper. And the alliteration in the scrawled sentiment doesn’t hurt either.
It's the kind of story that has the community buzzing, the phones ringing, the (e-)letters pouring in. It has, as they say, legs. It promises follow-up stories with new angles, fresh emotions. It fends off the greatest fear for an understaffed newsroom: crickets. (Watch how a CTV news story
adds fuel to the fire.)
Successful public art does the same thing. Love it or hate it, it gets people talking, debating, engaging. As I write this the tweets for #MainStPoodle
have neared 1,000 since the pooch made the papers. (My December post on the freshly erected poodle is here.
It's all grist for the mill for those on the media sidelines but now that I'm out from behind the desk and in the rejection-rich realm of art-making, I wonder how the poodle-producer, Montreal artist Gisele Amantea, feels about people griping over the seven-foot-tall porcelain pooch’s $97K price tag. How does any public-art-maker, for that matter, not feel at least a little wounded by the slings and arrows launched against their own creative expression? An opinion piece in a newspaper is tomorrow's fish-wrap (it sounds archaic even as I write it) but public art endures. It could torment the critics for decades; the criticism could torment the artist for life.
New York City artist Dennis Oppenheim’s 1997 public artwork, Device to Root Out Evil installed in Coal Harbour was never intended to be permanent but plenty of Vancouverites squawked that the piece known as the 'upside-down church' was “sacrilegious” or worse: view-hampering. But does an artist of that international stature have all the steely resilience to chalk up the chatter to 'community engagement'?
(Above: photo by Papalars)
I wonder because I felt that pang of rejection as I was photo-documenting the installation of Crossover, the scramble-style four-way crosswalk in Steveston in 2011. My design was an attempt to weave together the history of the Japanese net-makers and the modern-day marine flavour of this corner of the Lower Mainland using a simple, enduring motif. I was not prepared for the few individuals who showed up while I was snapping photos, griping at anyone within earshot that this was a colosal waste of taxpayers' dollars, not to mention a safety hazard. (I'm not so resilient that I could resist following up on the hazard part and I'm relieved to learn it's a safety improvement.)
The other day an artist friend who had to return to the salaried workplace said she never realized how much rejection she had to deal with as a full-time working artist. I'm starting to see that this business ain't for sissies.