My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 4: Arting.

Alright, so I’ve written a little bit about teaching and writing in my last two blog posts. If I decided to, I could write a book about teaching and writing. In my last two posts I didn’t touch on my philosophy of teaching nor it’s sociological and economic dimensions. I just introduced you to my practice. In a later blog, I want to address my intellectual development in all of its many manifestations, permutations and stages. Now, in this fourth post in this series I come to art.

The act of creating  or making art, in my humble opinion, should be called arting. If I can teach and write, I should be able to art. I know, as a verb it doesn’t work in the English language. It should. I’ve been arting for a long time. It’s never been a way for me to make a living nor do I have much formal training in art, like I had in teaching and writing. Still, it’s been an important part of my life.

When I was a kid I’m sure I played with crayons. I may even have drawn stick people on the wall of the bedroom, but I can’t recall. What I vividly remember maybe at the ages of five or six is watching my older sisters, Thérèse in particular, drawing what I can only describe as fashion figures, always young women with elaborate hairdos, flowing gowns and elegant arms. Thérèse would not consider herself an artist now, but I thought she was amazing. Some of my other sisters probably did it too, but I don’t recall. If they read this, they could maybe jog my memory. A little later in my life I clearly remember my uncle Denis paint a kind of small cartoon character on the side of my brother-in-law’s car. It blew me away. How could anybody do such a wonderful thing? I’m sure these events had something to do with my compulsion to paint and draw later in my life, but I don’t recall actually making the connection at the time. I don’t think I ever said to myself: “Boy, I want to do that too!” It wasn’t like that. Then I went off to boarding school and art was not on the curriculum. Music and theatre were taught to some extent, but sports dominated extra-curricular activities.

When I left boarding school before completing grade twelve, it took me some time to adjust to life on the outside. After some time I took an informal painting course with a nun I had not previously known. (I was taught in elementary school by nuns but she wasn’t one of them.)  My sister Lucy and my uncle Denis were also involved. Lucy painted like a dream as did my uncle. I had already tried to paint. I bought some cheap oil paints, a rickety easel (which I still have), a couple of brushes, canvas boards and eventually some canvas and stretchers. I put together a few paintings, some quite large but none very good. Well, I was just starting out, but I was impatient. I wanted to paint a masterpiece. I bought some how-to-paint books (I still have those too). One by Robert Wood, a California landscape painter caught my fancy as well as a book of photographs he took that could be used to inspire paintings. I used that to paint a sunset and it turned out pretty well. (I’m not sure where that painting is now. Maybe long gone after a short stint in a dumpster) I was encouraged. I didn’t draw well at the time so I stayed away from painting figures. That came much later. This painting is based on a Ringo Starr album cover. I don’t know why I wanted to paint it but I did and I realized that I could have some control over my paints and brushes. Devil Woman

The kids were scared of this painting for a long time. They still may be for all I know. The grandkids probably are too. Who knows why.

I also painted this little boat. I still have this painting. It’s 16 X 20 and hangs in my studio in the corner. It’s a reminder of what I did in the far distant past. Yes, far distant past.

First Boat Painting

I think it’s okay for what it is and when I did it.

This covered bridge painting I did in 1971 while I studied with the nun I mentioned before (Damn, I wish I could remember her name!)

Covered Bridge 1971. 18X24 Oil painting

So, anyway, this is some of my earlier work. By 1974 I was doing more drawing but I was in university and that put a cramp in the time I could dedicate to my art. And besides, we got married in 1973 and that also took up some of my time…in an entirely good way, I might add.

It took me ten years to get back into arting after we had moved to the Comox Valley the year before. That’s when I read Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It inspired me to draw again, but this time in a more realistic style. I wanted to be able to draw what I saw when I wanted to. So, I started doing this kind of thing:

Then this:

These two last images of derelict boats (the pencil drawing and the acrylic painting) came from some photographs I took on River Road in Delta, BC, I can’t remember exactly when, but it would have been in the 1970s sometime. Over the years I did three more acrylic paintings incorporating two boats from the photographs I took in the 70s, the Elcay and the VR 280:

River Road Derelicts 36 X 40 inches. Acrylic.

I also did a pencil drawing of the same two boats in the mid 90:

That drawing and a course I took in printmaking at North Island College with John Hooley changed my direction to some extent. I was still interested in painting and drawing, but now I would add printmaking to my repertoire, a medium I very much enjoy. This drawing became the first intaglio print I did. I used a zinc plate that was etched in nitric acid to get the effect I wanted, which was this:

I really need to take a better photograph of this piece. I have an edition of 30 of these prints (I do believe) that are now for sale. I’ve already sold a couple. 

During my course with John Hooley I also learned how to do relief printing and silkscreening. I need to take a silkscreening course again because the techniques and materials have changes so much in the last 25 years. 

After moving to Cumberland in 2002 I had a large studio available to me:

That allowed me to set up a painting and leave it on the easel as long as I needed to instead of having to take everything down every time I finished a session because we needed the space for something else. I’m now working on some prints and have a printing set-up in my studio for relief printing.  I also have a large acrylic painting on the go…which I WILL finish soon because I want to finish up an oil painting I started 10 or 15 years ago at least.  Me in my studio ten years ago:

Five years ago I did this from a photograph one of my former students who was a new mom at the time allowed me to use. She has this drawing. I’ve always meant to do a painting based on this drawing. It’s still my intention, but I have stopped pressuring myself to do this kind of thing. It will happen if it happens. One thing is certain, I have no shortage of projects. My only limitations are my aging body and time. 

If you’re interested in seeing more of my work I have a selection of it on my other blog: http://rogeralbert.blogspot.ca. 

Over the past 25 years I’ve done a number of realistic pieces but I tend more to the impressionistic side of things and I even do what some people would consider pretty kooky works. I’ve copied the works of some of the masters including Vermeer and Schiele. I can’t say that I’ve been overly influenced by any one artist of the past. I just do what comes to mind.

I love to doodle and sometimes I’m astonished by what comes out:

I often carry a drawing notebook with me but don’t always use it. Sometimes I just sit and think about painting or drawing subjects. Art is never far from my thoughts. Neither is writing. They tend to compete for brain space. Carolyn knows all too well what this means for my lack of attention to other things I could very well be attending to in my environment, social and natural especially as they concern her. My brain is a busy place. If a subject attracts my attention in a particularly forceful way I’ll sit and draw it if it’s possible given time and place. Drawing people on the ferry and sitting at picnic tables in parks has been fruitful for me in terms of drawing subjects. I’m finding too that I’m increasingly drawn to ink rather than pencil for my doodles and mini sketches. My ink drawings tend to be less precious and more spontaneous. I like that. 

A group of printers and I associated with the Comox Valley Printmakers Association just last weekend had a pop-up exhibition and sale in Cumberland. We had some 500 people come through in my estimation. Some say more came through. Now I have to finish up some flooring upstairs in the house and some window and door trim. Art has to be set aside for a bit. That said, I never stop thinking about it. But, you know what? I have to clean up my damn studio. I may want to be on a studio tour sometime soon. 

That’s enough for now. I’ve already started to plan my next blog post. It will be a about my intellectual development. 

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 3: Writing

I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.

Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.

I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.

At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.

So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!

SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.

Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.

Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.

 

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* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.