42 On art (poiesis) and the search for meaning in my life.

[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]

Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.

In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.

Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.

I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿

In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.

Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.

So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.

Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.

Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””

My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):

The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’

Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.

Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.

Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.

So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!

That is all.

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✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.

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 1.

I haven’t written in these ‘pages’ for a while because I’ve been working on my ‘art’ blog and getting ready for a printmaker’s show on October 27th and 28th in Cumberland at The Convoy Club where 10 printmakers including me are showing our works and offering them up for sale. Check out my other blog at: https://rogeralbert.blogspot.com. There’s a page on it that includes most of my prints.

[Just a note about printmaking: the works offered up in this show include relief prints (woodcuts, linocuts), intaglio prints (drypoint and etchings), collographs, and serigraphs (silkscreening). All of the prints are hand made. No digital prints allowed. All of the work is complex, but some is more complex to execute than others. For example, one of my pieces called Van Duesen Dead Ivy is multi-stepped in its making. It starts with a drawing I did of ivy that I was particularly struck by on a trip to Van Duesen Gardens in Vancouver. It had been growing up a large fir tree and got very large before someone cut the vines off at the bottom of the tree in order to save the fir tree from being choked by the offending ivy. My pencil drawing was then transferred to a 15X20 inch copper plate that had been coated with resist. Resist is a material that prevents the areas covered by it from being etched by ferric chloride. I had to transfer every line, every feature of my drawing to the copper using a variety of sharp metal tools. It’s not necessary to dig into the copper at this point, just remove the resist from selected lines and areas so that the ferric chloride can etch the copper. Once the copper has had its bath in the ferric chloride, it’s ready for printing. Printing itself is a very physical activity. It requires spreading ink on the plate then wiping all of it off again. Well, not all of it. Only the ink that has not settled where the acid has etched away the copper and where the plate needs to remain white. The ink is wiped off the plate with newsprint, a physically demanding task for a plate this big. Once that’s done, the plate is placed on a press bed, paper is placed on top of the print followed by a sheet of newsprint than three blankets. If all goes well, a print is born. If all does not go well, it’s back to the drawing board… The ‘art’ cards I’ve made for this show are very simple linocut prints but each is still made by hand. I should do a YouTube video showing the process of etching but there’s a lot of them out there already. Still, that’s no excuse. There’s a lot of blogs out there too yet I still do this.]

Printmaking, particularly intaglio printmaking, requires heavy presses so I didn’t start printmaking until I had access to a printmaking studio at North Island College. Most of the ‘art’ work I have done over the years involves painting. I have done many paintings and drawings over the years. I make prints now, but I also draw using pencil and pen, I paint in oils, acrylic and watercolour and I’ve done a bit of sculpting in wood. I’ve been drawing and painting since the 1970s; printmaking and sculpting are more recent additions to my repertoire. I’ve been printmaking for a mere 30 years or so and sporadically at that. Art work has not been a central part of my life until recently.

My main adult occupation was as a college sociology instructor. That paid the bills. Writing has been a large part of my career too. I wrote television scripts for two Knowledge Network telecourses for which I was the instructor. I wrote all kinds of research reports and manuals. My ‘art’ has been with me a long time, and now that I’m retired from teaching I can spend a lot more time at it, but I could never have made a living as an artist. I’m mostly self taught although I have taken courses over the years in the art department of my college and with independent artists. I don’t hesitate to call myself a sociologist (I have the credentials). I do hesitate to call myself an artist even though I do a lot of things that artists do. I need to explain this further in another blog post. I’ve read many books on art and art history but the nature of it still eludes me. It’s clear to me that looking at a painting I’m not always looking at a work of art. Oh, I have some sense of what it is, its origins and connections to other aspects of culture, but I’m still not convinced I fully understand it.

I was not destined to be a teacher, writer, and artist. In fact my social class at birth almost precluded access to those adult pursuits. My father was functionally illiterate although highly intelligent and capable. My mother had a grade eight education in a rural school at a time when academic achievement was not considered very important for girls. As she entered adulthood, she was too busy raising children (I have fourteen siblings) to engage in any sustained artistic activities even if she had wanted to. We had very few books in the house as I was growing up. We got a television set in 1956 and that became the centre of family life after church and cards.

My grandparents migrated from Québec and New Brunswick in the early 20th Century to homestead in north-eastern Alberta. They weren’t farmers by training, but free land had its appeal. They were tradespeople and entrepreneurs. My paternal grandfather was an accomplished blacksmith and my maternal grandfather was much more inclined to start a small business than farm. He eventually ran a bakery in Bonnyville, Alberta and later, after moving to British Columbia, he owned a grocery store. Later, he returned to agriculture to some extent with a quite successful blueberry farm in Abbotsford. My father, in spite of his illiteracy, was able to rise to management positions in the lumber industry, nothing high level, but still, he became a foreman and operations manager of a fair sized wood remanufacturing plant. More important, he was a virtuoso with tools, both creating them and using them. I have no idea how he did it, but without any formal math or engineering skills, he could grind planer knives to very demanding specifications and in a variety of profiles.

I grew up in a small three bedroom house in Coquitlam. I never felt poor but I knew that we weren’t rich either compared to our doctor and dentist or even some of our neighbours like the mayor (reeve) of Coquitlam. Of course, they weren’t wealthy either on the order of a Jimmy Pattison or other corporate magnate. As I grew older, however, I came to fully understand my class position. More on that later.

So, in terms of employment my family life did nothing to prepare me for my life as a college teacher. Higher education was not a consideration in my early teens. In fact, I actually started working in the lumber industry during the summer when I was fourteen years old when my father got a job in a picket fence manufacturing plant in South Surrey, BC. and continued to work in mills and lumber yards for a few years. In a sense I was much better prepared to work in the lumber industry than at a university or college. Partly what turned me away from the lumber industry was an industrial accident requiring lower back surgery. Fortuitously, after I recovered from my surgery, I undertook a one day occupational and psychological testing program as a means of figuring out what my aptitudes might be. A couple of weeks later I got the results of the day’s testing and one of the results was that I had the aptitude to become a writer and maybe an anthropologist. Well, then, I had something to go on. I applied to attend Simon Fraser University but was turned down because of my poor high school record. So, I turned to Douglas College in New Westminster where I was accepted. I did very well there in terms of grades and after a couple of years applied to SFU and got in. Both of my degrees are from SFU.

Strangely enough, although my family had no way of relating to my career choices, it did prepare me for a sensitivity to art. Some of my siblings are wonderful at drawing and painting and one of my uncles was a brilliant artist but made a living painting street signs for a couple of different municipalities. What my family did for me without doing it deliberately at all was show me that art could infuse my life even if I couldn’t make a living at it and that artistry can be found in the studio, in the darkroom, but also at the forge, in the garden, and in the woodworking shop as well as in the kitchen.

In many ways I have had an idyllic life. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to do so many things. Of course I’ve had my share of trauma being human and all that, but I’ve also had the privilege of learning and studying with some very fine teachers over the years and my years of teaching have been a wonder. I’ve read thousands of books, mostly in sociology and related disciplines, but I’ve also read many books on art and art history as well as novels and stories from which much learning can be had. I’ve been able to travel, canoe and hike in some of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a beautiful home. I have my family. What a gift my family has been. Nothing I say about my family can be enough. No words can express the love I feel for everyone, Carolyn, my children, their children, my brothers and sisters, their children and their children. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s okay. Everyone’s road is different. Sometimes we do share the road. At other times not so much, but that doesn’t diminish the deep connection I feel for everyone in my family. They give meaning to everything that I do every day. On top of all that, I have my community in the Comox Valley, especially in Cumberland. I feel firmly connected to it and the natural environment here. I know about evolution and the temporality of life; I know that my life is meaningless in the cosmic sense, but I don’t live in the cosmos, I live here and now. I know that it’s a bit of a waste of energy, but I get angry at the utter disrespect some people show towards others and the natural world in which we live. Yes, I do feel love but I also feel anger. I’ve thought about this a fair bit because sometimes I feel anger welling up inside of me and I have some trouble explaining why. Anger is a very complex emotion and it is not easy to explain or dissect. I’ll give it a try though in a post coming soon to a computer near you!

Finally, in future posts I want to explore teaching, writing and art in turn as aspects of my life. I want to explore the processes involved in each activity and my journey in learning how to teach, write and ‘do’ art. As well, I will reflect on the philosophical and social underpinnings of each activity. I’m basically embarking on a bit of a retrospective examination of some major parts of my life but, like a good teacher, I expect some of you might just learn a little something by reading my work. It’s a hope I always had as a teacher with respect to my students, and that hope hasn’t died just because I’m no longer getting paid to teach!

 

 

Did you know Seniha Çançar or her daughter Saide Sullivan?

Seniha Çançar was a woman who was born in Turkey in 1926 and who died in Victoria in 2015 at the age of 88. How do I know her? Well, I never knew her personally and we certainly wouldn’t have met socially although I think it would have been wonderful to meet her. She and I have a very tenuous connection. I own a book she previously owned:

The image on the left is of the book that Seniha Çançar owned at one point and that I acquired in 2010 at Russell Books in Victoria. Her obituary says that she left Turkey to settle in Calgary in 1966 but then moved to Victoria in 1973, the year that I married. I wonder if Calgary winters had anything to do with her move!

The reason I know that she owned the book is because of the writing on the left. This text appears in three places in the book. I guess she wanted to make sure people knew it was her book. One of the texts is ‘Se” Çançar. Se must have been a short version of her name. I’m sure her intimates called her that.

I got curious about this inscription. I ‘Google’ translated 21 Eylül, 1977 and it came up as September 21, 1977, probably the day she bought the book. Then I googled her name and her obituary from 2015 came up. The internet makes this kind of research so easy. I learned a little about her family and her life, the kinds of things one can learn from an obituary. I learned that her daughter, Saide, died of cancer at age 64 in a Victoria hospice. I read her obituary. She had married James E. Sullivan who died in 2017 at the age of 82. From his obituary in TheWesterlySun.com in Norwich, Connecticut:

 He was a professor and Head of Academic Programs in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., from 1969 to 1998. After his retirement Jim relocated to Victoria, B.C., and founded the Hope Through Achievement Foundation, eventually returning to his Rhode Island roots in 2014.

I can’t help but wonder if Jim Sullivan, of Rhode Island, had relocated to Victoria because of a previous connection with the highly artistically-inclined Çançar family. After his wife died in February, 2013, he probably felt ‘released’ to return to his roots. Who knows. This is speculation on my part, obviously. However, there are family connections to Connecticut. Saide had previously been married to Sherwood Fehm. Their daughter, Saba Fehm-Sullivan died at the young age of 13 in 1993.

There are many other details in the various obituaries of Çançar and related family members that I have no need to share with you here. I do not intend this blog post to be a voyeuristic intrusion into the Çançar family. Family members are out there and I have no desire to offend. Whatever I write about the family is pure speculation. What interests me here is the connection Seniha Çançar and I made through a book she once owned and which I now own. I felt almost compelled to find out as much as I could about her and her family. I’m not at all sure why.

The book in which we shared an interest is an ‘art’ book. The Art of Drawing: From the Dawn of History to the Era of the Impressionists is a history of drawing rather than a how-to book. I have a number of books like this one and some that teach one how to draw. I have no idea whether Seniha Çançar, later Seniha Çançar-Birch, was an artist. Her obituary says that she worked as a high level assistant in NATO in the 1960s and that she ran successful businesses. I wish to think that if I sat down to tea with her we could discuss her life, her work and her passions. We shared a book but we couldn’t share anything else. She was my mother’s age. I think of her whenever I pick up The Art of Drawing, and I think of how many ways we are connected to people we don’t even know, in ways we can only dream of. Norbert Elias was very perspicacious when he concluded that we humans are essentially interdependencies and interweaving, both in time and space. We are connected to each other in so many ways, even by the simple fact that we leafed through the same book. I bought the book in 2010 but Seniha Çançar died in 2015. I wonder if she brought the book to Russell Books herself or if it was a member of her family cleaning out her belongings. I’ll never know.

 I finally understand poetry: my dance with Matt Rader (with choreography by Denis Dutton).

Enough of politics for a bit. This post is about my mistress, art, and Matt Rader, of course.

One of my favourite poets is Matt Rader. Not only because I know him personally, but because of the evocativeness of his poetry (and his prose) and the stunning imagery with which it teases and challenges me.

I’ve been re-reading his book of poems called Desecrations which he published in 2016. It’s a delightful acid trip of a romp through the brush strokes of words and sentences that eventually come together in his poetic evocations.

I’m a painter. I put paint on canvas, paper or wood sometimes with the intent of producing an image that is recognizable, sometimes I stretch my own imagination, pushing the viewer to see the world in ways that challenge long held pathways of recognition and understanding. But, whatever my intent, I cannot control the viewer’s experience of my work.

In the same way, Rader’s intentions in writing his poems are essentially outside the reader’s remit. The reader must read Rader’s poetry just as he or she might gaze upon the images that are the realm of the visual arts.

I’ve attended a few readings by Matt Rader. They’ve always been a challenge for me. I’d think to myself: “What does he want to say with this poem? Where does his imagery come from? What do his lines, as evocative as they are, mean in relationship to one another?” I think that I might have provoked him occasionally to inwardly give his head a shake with my questions which, I admit, were coloured by decades of teaching sociology. I hadn’t realized that his poems, his words, his lines are akin to strokes of the brush on one of my paintings or pencil marks on one of my drawing. I myself have sometimes bristled when a viewer of my work questioned my use of colour or line or imagery. I often don’t know why I’m drawn to certain subject matter or approach and why I would use acrylic paint or watercolour rather than oil paints, or why, on occasion, printing appeals to me more than simply producing one off works.

Matt Rader paints poems with exquisite brush strokes, modelling and carving design, energy and landscape in much the same way I create a drawing or painting. There is no need to explain things to me anymore, Matt, not the juxtaposition of incongruity, not the process by which you carefully craft images, not the incredible research you undertake to bring historical moments, characters, places and events to a life they could never previously have known. You especially don’t have to explain to me the sources of your choices. I get it. At least I think I do.

Part of my epiphany came from my reading of Denis Dutton’s The ART INSTINCT: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (2009). Reading Dutton it came to me that I was being too analytical in my assessment of poetry and maybe of art in general. Instead of riding the waves of imagery and luxuriating in the richness of expression, metaphor, simile, and characterization, I was losing myself in my frontal cortex, judging rather than enjoying. Now, reading Matt’s Desecrations again I can simply feel the words as they interweave and congeal into images and sensations, much as I l did in the Orangerie museum in Paris a decade ago surrounded by Claude Monet’s majestic paintings of his beloved Giverny water lilies. Thank you, Matt.