Click HERE for a 10-minute journey through the methods and motivations behind this MFA thesis. (Film made by Ana Valine, Rodeo Queen Pictures, August 2020)
Everyone is feeling that relentless creep of plastic that is threatening to consume us, the consumers. I felt myself drowning in the tsunami of stuff over this past year of grad studies at Emily Carr University. Art, as one instructor stated, is a wasteful business.
Even as I retreated back to my green, pristine Gulf Island I was hit with it at the end of the long drive through forest to the local dump: a mountain of garbage. This, from a small off-grid community known for its environmental consciousness.
My art practice is driven by a need to physically grapple with the unfathomable when words are not enough. In the strange way that an idea for an artwork takes hold, that sight of that mountain of petroleum-derived recycling-rejects led to my latest project: Foundlings.
For a while I’d been trying to land on a low-barrier, low-skill technique that could involve kids in the making of objects from found, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable materials. Then I landed on the work of late American sculptor Judith Scott, whose many exhibitions of her curious bound and woven fiber/found objects have led to discourse on “outsider” art, disability (she was profoundly deaf, non-verbal, and had severe Down’s Syndrome), intention, new sculpture forms and the privileged art world.
Within a month of escaping the art institution I was driving a pickup-truckload of colourful non-recyclable, non-biodegradable bits from the home-grown garbage mountain to the island’s only elementary school.
Before we got to the making part I sat down with the students and shared some images of Scott’s work for inspiration. We talked about how this artist’s method of wrapping, binding and weaving fibre around objects adds curiosity to what is on the inside. We talked about how working with familiar objects and materials in unusual ways can lead to new ideas. And we talked about how an object can be terrible and beautiful at the same time, does not have to be a recognizable thing nor have utility.
We worked over time on the pieces, some kids on their own and some in groups of two or three, adding even more fibre and found plastic detritus from their year-end trip to the local provincial marine park. On the final day of school I arrived to pick up the final pieces and was astounded at the creations. They were richly textured, humorous and foreboding, and proof of why I collaborate with children: they consistently demonstrate the importance of letting hands and imaginations fly.
They each titled their pieces in their own hand and I installed them for exhibit on forest plinths (moss-covered stumps from the last big clearcut) in time for the annual Arts Fest. With no chance they’ll degrade in the weather they remain there, pretty and pretty disturbing: our inescapable stuff.
I've just returned from a month in the big country of southwest Saskatchewan: big skies, big farming operations, big empty days that were all too much at the start of my artist residency at the Wallace Stegner House.
Suddenly agoraphobic, I pulled down all the blinds and paced around that lovely century-old house, wondering what on earth possessed me to throw myself into this imposing patchwork landscape. I am not a landscape painter; that's my dad's bag.
Plus I came by plane and an eight-hour car ride, so even if I did want to paint, I didn't have my usual large stretched canvases and totes of paints. I did bring a few of my usual travel essentials: embroidery hoops, needles and floss — and an old bed sheet. I knew there was just a couple of stores in town, and none would be selling art supplies so I packed a tiny travel set of liquid acrylics, a few brushes and a pad of mixed-media cardstock.
My sketchy plan involved, well, sketching with my father, who has spent some of every summer in this tiny town of Eastend ever since he filled the Stegner House with his landscape paintings 15 years ago.
We were quite a pair: me, not at all comfortable with the whole plein-air tradition, and him, increasingly unfamiliar with his life's work of painting that involved biking into the country to sketch then returning to his basement to paint in the heat of the day. (Actually we were mostly a trio, his wife acting as facilitator for whatever this was, supplying us with water bottles, sunhats, sketch pads and willow charcoal, and generally getting us on the road.)
We circled around this vague idea of mine as we circled around this dead-quiet, struggling little town every morning. But the awkwardness turned to anguish back at my studio as I undertook the tedious pursuit of finding some interest — or even the point — in painting puffy clouds and dun-coloured hills.
A week later and out of sheer frustration at my lack of landscape-painting prowess, I resorted to dropping diluted paint on a taut scrap of bedsheet in an embroidery hoop just to watch it bleed. I threw the first painted scrap away and did another, with a little more intention, then threw that away too. Within a couple of hours I figured out the right water-to-paint ratio to create a slightly controlled bloom with each stroke. A lot of other distracted behaviour (baking apple crisps, walking by the river, venting via text to my artist friends) meant that each additional stroke was added to a dried layer and by the end of the afternoon, a landscape was emerging on a miniature stretched canvas. That one I didn't throw out. But it was still a little hazy. That's when I thought about using my stash of embroidery floss for final line work.
I sat in the cool of the front screened porch that evening and embroidered some more information onto the painting. It was a clumsy first effort but soon I was enjoying the daily practice of biking in the morning with my father, painting something inspired by the ride in the afternoon, then embroidering some details in the evening, inviting others to join me for stitching sessions on the front porch.
I did this every day until I had 12 little paintings, each a progression from the last. I saw them as blocks for a future quilt, which led to a well-attended culminating exhibit, "Scenes from a Quilted Landscape."
But now I'm viewing them as something beyond a quilt and beyond the horizon. I'm calling them Points of Interest: something to build on and build with.
As with all creative pursuits, forcing solutions is futile. My original idea of coaxing my father back into his painting studio by getting him to share some of his process with me was a non-starter. These days he finds everyday joy in the moment, whether that is spotting a hawk while biking the backroads, playing a languid rendition of The Girl from Ipanema on piano in the hot afternoons, or watching the town's many cats on the prowl from the front porch of the Stegner House while his wife and I embroidered the summer evenings away.
I'm not sure if he knew it but he passed on to me the most valuable lesson for painting a scene: You have to actually see it.
Slide-showing the process:
What I’d really like to see is a ‘realitylink’: an aggregate site devoted to photo tours of real Vancouver homes where people actually live, cook, eat, sleep, play, fight, have babies, raise children, have pets, grow old. Except there’s no incentive for people to post photos of their very personal spaces for the viewing interest of perfect strangers.
Occasionally, though, you get a glimpse of that rich world of personal spaces. That’s why I lingered so long at the final project of Mary Wendel Genosa during the Emily Carr University graduation show opening last weekend, and why I went back a few days later. The graduating photography student's compelling large-scale portraits of twentysomethings in their sleeping quarters, Bedroom Biographies are a glimpse into the values of the newest generation of adults. The narratives are rich here. There is the straddling of childhood and adulthood; the impermanence at this time of life; dislocation and alienation; engendered spaces and objects. Each 91cm X 60cm tableau is rich with signifiers and most devoid of self-consciousness. There is sincerity in each image, an inherent trust between subject and photographer.
The accompanying hardcover book covering Wendel Genosa’s complete series includes reflective commentary by the subjects, elevating them from person-objects to thinking individuals. But it is their personal spaces that speak loudest of their struggles and their need for solace and comfort. You can see it in the stuff, in the lack of stuff, the kind of stuff, their arrangement of the stuff.
If you believe what you see on realtylink.org, most Vancouverites live in clutter-free, pristine homes with gleaming hardwood and stainless steel appliances, matchy-match, neutral livingroom furniture and large abstracted landscape paintings on the otherwise empty gallery-white walls.
There’s nothing like clicking on the “additional pictures” or "virtual tour" to realize that your own home (and by ‘your’ I mean ‘my’) is an unphotogenic jumble of memory-things you can’t get rid of for sentimental reasons. Your space is unsuitable for realtylink viewing because it is not a market-commodity; it’s a refuge from all that superficiality.
Unreal real-estate photo tours can suck us into believing that everyone else is living a peaceful, uncluttered, happy existence, especially those in their 20s. These weighty portraits remind us of those early adult years that were the best of times and the worst of times. Real life is much more messy.
The Show 2015 continues at the Granville Island campus until May 17, 10 am to 8 pm Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm Saturday and Sunday. Take in one of the free one-hour tours on Saturday, May 9, 1 pm, Thursday, May 14, 6 p.m or Saturday, May 16, 1 pm. (Meet in the foyer of the North Building five minutes prior to a tour.)
It's getting close to a decade since I packed it all in: my needles and wool, my sewing machine and fabrics, my mid-level-management career. There was more to explore.
I've been mixing it up with a wide range of materials (and makers) ever since but even I'm surprised to find that my latest tools of choice for bushwacking new routes of making are the ol' crochet hooks, knitting needles, rug hooks and embroidery needles.
The line on the paper has always been too limiting to me; I need to pick up that line, play with it in my hands, turn it into area, then volume. I remain entranced by the possibilities of connecting something created by a silkworm or an industrial manufacturing plant to a mathematical model or a wearable with uncomfortable connotations.
The beauty of fiber is in its physical and metaphorical ability to connect the Art side to the Design side (not to mention the science side), weaving the two together until it's clear that playing with ideas cannot be put into separate boxes.
Except if we're talking shipping boxes, for the Toronto Design Offsite (TO DO) Festival next month.
A few object-experiments from my ongoing Fuzzy Logic series will be packed in there, as part of the Vancouver group of makers, selected by the Dear Human creative studio.
It's all part of the ‘Outside the Box’ exhibits featuring works from three selected Canadian cities — Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver — and five from the U.S.: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle.
It's a fine way to mine local design ideas and visions through an unexpected selection of objects that are shared in various locations via specific-sized shipping boxes.
The Vancouver contribution includes nine individuals and teams who live, design and make in the greater Vancouver area. The connecting thread is a pursuit of a design practice through material exploration, according to Dear Human. "Whether through common applications of unusual materials or transcending common materials through unusual applications, exploration is evident in each of the included objects."
Rounding out the Vancouver Outside the Box contingent are: Cathy Terepocki, Dahlhaus, Dina Gonzalez Mascaro, Hinterland Designs, Laura McKibbon, Rachael Ashe, and Studio Bup.
Vancouver Outside the Box will take over the windows at 1082 Queen Street West, Toronto, from January 19-25, 2015.
TO DO is an annual city-wide not-for-profit week-long festival that celebrates and showcases the nation's design scene, providing exposure and cross-pollination of ideas and techniques. There are too many exhibits, installations, talks, parties and films to list here, so check out the full (and growing) schedule here as well as the fun promo video.
Here's a plan: Meet up with a friend after work downtown for a drink, then go check out the latest exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. That works just fine — if your workday ends at 3 p.m.
Stupid us, we figured that at least we'd get a quick look at the Emily Carr/Landon Mackenzie show when we arrived at the VAG entrance at 4:55 p.m. Not so much; we were turned away at the door.
"This place is dead," said my artist buddy, looking around the empty Robson plaza.
It was a lovely, crisp late afternoon, but except for a couple of skateboarders riding the ice-less rink, the place looked like it had just been evacuated.
The city's premiere art gallery is open 10 a.m. to just 5 p.m. (Tuesdays it's 'til 9 p.m.). The VAG is not a bank, so why does it keep banker's hours? Heck, even bank hours are longer.
These are hours that suit the retired and field-tripping kids. Those who work and live in the downtown area, or like to head down to dine or socialize after work are pretty much out of luck if they hope to also take in some art.
And herein lies my beef.
In Paris, you can have your boeuf bourguignon then head for a post-dinner look-see at that contemporary art gallery mecca, the Pompidou, where they won't kick you out until 9 p.m. any night of the week. Even at the stodgy Louvre you won't get the boot until 6, or, if it's a Wednesday or Friday, you could linger until 10. In Berlin, the top-rated C/O Gallery is open until 8 p.m. every night. Yes, many major galleries in major cities close at the end of the normal working day, but that's no reason to follow suit.
It's like the dead-mall phenomenon. If you want to attract shoppers you need an anchor tenant, some major destination draw. Then the little guys open up and soon you have yourself a busy little retail centre again.
If the VAG adjusted its viewing times to, say, noon - 8 p.m., the grilled-cheese sandwich truck and the Peruvian toque kiosk might stick around. Soon a couple of buskers would follow, and before long you might actually have a little evening vibe going on in that plaza, different from the usual nine-to-five routine. My little group would rendezvous at a sushi joint, then duck into the VAG, marvel at the exquisite, rarely seen hand-embroidery in The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China's Emperors, maybe even wander by the gift shop while I'm at it. Ka-ching!
The VAG board is hell-bent on raising funds for a brand new building further east, when it's currently smack dab in the middle of a major plaza which is about to be anchored by a big-name U.S. retailer making its Vancouver debut next door.
I spent most of the day yesterday sitting with a very close friend in a hospital bed, waiting for the surgeon to slice into her gut and remove a large cyst and maybe an ovary or two. Or maybe all her lady parts. There was frank talk about the expected pooling blood and lingering pain and there were some last-minute tears as she was wheeled away.
It was hardly the time to go mingle at a gallery that night, but friends and family would be there for the opening of the Domestic Interventions show so it was the right thing to do. My sister exhibitors, Monique Motut-Firth and Janet Wang, had probably wrestled with attending too; they were both fending off whatever bad colds their little kids had brought home. But we all showed, and even managed to say a few words about the work.
I mention all this because this is what the work is about: trying to nurture an art practice when there is other, more pressing nurturing to be done, not to mention the cleaning and the making-a-living. Sometimes you just have to laugh over the lunacy of trying to paint or build or cut or even think amidst the domestic pressures; sometimes you’re ready to toss it all in, but don’t because you know this ability to express the predicament is what holds you together.
That’s why this show includes uneasy domestic objects, uncomfortable self-portraits and sculptures, paper dolls composed of the fictitious feminine form from women’s catalogues. We brought these works together to talk to one another, and to try to convey that dis-ease of the familiar with the strange. There’s something funny about a tiny mother-artist figurine gnawing through the telephone wire or a mannequin wrapped in 1950s ads of ecstatic home-makers or a long line of girdled paper dolls, but there’s a dark side too.
We love our families and our home life but we need our art practices too. We may live in a corner of the world that respects cultural workers as much as welfare recipients but we can’t help ourselves. Our domestic world and our work as artists will continue to twist and intertwine and something will continue to emerge that will evoke the messy, conflicted, emotionally charged and banal everyday.
And that’s important.
Domestic Interventions, curated by Jo Dunlop, runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15 at Cityscape Community Arts Space gallery, 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver (three blocks from Seabus terminal). Hours: Mon-Wed, Fri. – 9 am-5 pm, Thursdays 9 am–8 pm, Saturday noon-5 pm.
Group exhibit dwells on the domestic
My brief stint as a home organizer was an eye-opener — door opener, to be precise. I got a rare view of the reality behind the doors of some beautiful houses. Often I was the only outsider who had been invited inside for years, for many different reasons.
Home is where it all hangs out, for better or for worse.
Ostensibly it’s where the meals and love and traditions are shared but it’s also the backdrop to power struggles or social isolation (by choice or by circumstance) and other domestic dynamics that we don’t post or tweet or share or Like.
It’s why Monique Motut-Firth, Janet Wang and I decided that our group exhibit at Cityscape Community Art Space opening next week should include an opportunity for others to take a break from the relentless perfect-homelife-branding and share in the real, in our Dirty Laundry installation.
During the course of the month-long Domestic Interventions exhibit visitors to the North Vancouver gallery will have the option of anonymously adding one of their own pieces of domestic reality to the ‘laundry line’ set up in the Lonsdale Avenue space. It could reveal that our very private, personal problem might actually be a public issue that deserves an airing. Or it may be that no one will take on the option.
There’s power in negative space too.
Domestic Interventions, curated by Jo Dunlop, runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 15 with an opening reception Thursday Oct. 16, 7–9 pm at 335 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver (three blocks from Seabus terminal). Hours: Mon-Wed, Fri. – 9 am-5 pm, Thursdays 9 am–8 pm, Saturday noon-5 pm.
I did not sign up for this.
Well, actually I did, in my exhibiting-artist contract with the Richmond Art Gallery for the current City as Site public-art survey show, but that's not my point. I believed that steering away from my career as a manager and devoting my working hours to the independent business of building a visual art practice would be chiefly about making stuff — not so much with the talking and the writing about the making. But if that maker wants to actually be a part of what they call in art school "the discourse", she must talk about the work. In front of people. Sometimes a lot of people, many of whom are not here to listen to me. I mean her.
Engaging an audience is not my forte. I usually start with a pre-emptive apology of some sort because I know how this is going to go down. I tend towards the tangential when I'm nervous, often resorting to wild hand gestures to make my point. My pace quickens as I go until I'm hyperventilating at which point I cut it short, usually with an unprofessional, "That's it" or, for variety, "That's pretty much it" (arms raised in resignation for emphasis).
You've got to stop apologizing, a friend said in a phone call the day after my five-excruciating-minute Artist Talk last Friday. It shows a lack of confidence. (Guess who just read The Confidence Code?)
Haven't you heard of self-deprecating humour?, I said.
It's not if you're not being funny, she said.
She had a point.
Then there is the dreaded video interview (at bottom). I believe the only reason that the artist interview is listed as a condition of the contract is that otherwise most artists would high-tail it in the opposite direction. The single-shot monologue creates the perfect condition for sudden eye twitches and facial tics. I spend so much time, um, trying, um, not to, um, say 'um' that my train of thought often jumps the rails and I end up serving up such pearls of wisdom as, "I also do re-upholstery."
Even just being at one's own opening is akin to feeling naked on the street. After all, a lot of this making stuff originates in the privacy of the studio, involving private ideas. Sorry for making you all look at my privates.
But the smiles in this picture don't lie. Tough as it is, the talking is the audio part of the sharing that sheds more light on the subject, in this case, the behind-the-scenes look at Richmond's Public Art collection.
City as Site continues at Richmond Art Gallery (five minutes' walk from Canada Line's Brighouse Station) to Oct. 26. Artist workshop: How to Apply for Public Art Calls, Sept. 13, 1-4 pm with Elisa Yon, public art project coordinator with the City of Richmond. Public Art Bus Tour: Sept. 27, 1:15-3:30 pm, with public art specialist Dr. Cameron Cartiere and special guest artist Andrea Sirois. RSVP required: firstname.lastname@example.org or 604-247-8313.
It's one thing to dream up an idea for the back end of the elevated Canada Line track and quite another to see that dream come together in a mammoth aluminum sculpture.
So when I got my first glimpse of the progress of Cluster at the metal fabricators this week, the piercing clang and whine of the shop suddenly seemed to give way to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It was exactly as I had imagined it, except for the immensity. That something so voluminous could come out of a bundle of bubble tea straws was sort of short-circuiting my brain.
Well?, their faces seemed to ask.
"It's... very... big," I said, immediately thankful their earplugs spared them from hearing the bleeding obvious.
Of course, no one sees these moments of shock, nor all the anxiety, revelation, frustration, obsession typical of the emotional swings that go into the creation of public artwork. When Cluster is hoisted into position next month, its narrative will be in the eye of the beholder, its entirety read in an instant.
But a new Richmond Art Gallery exhibit (opening next Friday evening, Sept. 5) is pulling back the curtain on the process behind five public artworks that dot the city, in its City As Site show, curated by RAG director Rachel Lafo. Here is where visitors will see evidence of the beginning of the ideas that were pitched, developed, reworked, and finally translated into forms for public placement. Combined with that focus is a survey of all artwork in the local public sphere that is defining Richmond as not just another clutter of condos but a specific space in a particular time.
For me, laying bare some of my half-baked early concepts and awkward sketches that led to the development of Cluster (as well as the Crossover crosswalk design) is slightly uncomfortable but this is a warts-and-all display. Not shown is the high level of trust that must exist for any collaborative project to succeed: trust in one's own ideas, the physical properties of the materials, the skill and temperment of fabricators, the foresight of structural engineers, and the patience of the commissioning bodies. Public art projects come with the headache-y package of issues of insurance, permits, budgets, timelines and many unforseeables. In short, it's much more than a good idea.
Embedded in those physical projects is the intangible quality of faith. Cluster isn't done yet, but I have faith that it will soon be a thing in the manufactured landscape that will spark conversation, which will connect people and by extension contribute toward a unique, vibrant community and cultural hub.
Fingers crossed anyway.
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