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!

 

 

You’re doing weddings now?

Well, yes.  I officiated at a wedding yesterday.  It was my first time so, like the first time I had sex, it was a little awkward.  However, I think it went well enough.  The groom seemed to be happy enough about the way the ceremony unfolded and that’s really all that counts.

I’m not at all qualified to conduct weddings, at least not legal ones.  When one of my former students approached me to do this,  I explained that I couldn’t legally marry him to his love.  He said that he didn’t care about that, that he didn’t want any preachers or government person marrying him and that he wanted me to do it.  He said I was suave and well-spoken and that he wanted me to do it.  I had my doubts about my suavity (is this a new word?) and about my well-spokenness (again, my term).  Still,  he insisted that this is what he and his partner (I don’t like this word) wanted.  OK.  So I accepted to do it but I wasn’t sure how to do it.  In the end, I explained to those present, many of who had no idea what they were about to witness, about why I was officiating not being able to actually legally marry them.  I said that because my former student and his love (for lack of a better word) had been living together for some time and already had a baby together that the state already considered them married, so why be redundant and have some unknown marriage commissioner come and ‘legalize’ their marriage relationship?  I argued that this wedding was not about legalities, but about community, about the coming together of two people I consider ‘naturally’ in love.  When they are together it’s obvious how much they love each other.  There’s no strain there, no tension, just acceptance.  Now that’s something to celebrate!  That’s the idea I tried to convey to those present.  I’m not sure everybody at the ceremony ‘got it,’ but that’s to be expected.  This wedding was a mixture of conventional and not so conventional features.  It would not be surprising for some people to be a little confused. No signing papers afterwards but there were vows, people sat in rows in front of the three of us, standing by a small gazebo close to a beautiful beach in an amazing setting in Royston, BC.  There were mothers, grandmothers, assorted brothers, sisters, children and other family members and friends there doing what they would do at any church wedding.  Still, nothing legal about this ceremony.  It’s not uncommon these days to have a wedding on the beach or at some park-like outdoors venue of some sort.  It is uncommon to have a former sociology teacher with no obvious credentials or qualifications to do it, officiate.

This wedding ceremony is a first to my knowledge.  Nothing legal about it and in that I think it marks a new way of getting married.  Because of current law in this province, people living common-law are considered married for all intents and purposes after a very short time, especially if they have children.  So, the legal aspect of the conventional wedding ceremony is somewhat redundant, yet people still want their union to be legitimate and recognized by their community.  This ceremony provided the legitimacy and the community recognition of this wonderful relationship without the redundancy that would be there if a marriage commissioner had presided over the event.  In that sense it was more ‘real’ than most conventional wedding ceremonies and I was quite proud to be a part of it.

Quality of Life – What the hell is that?

So, as I engage in producing the 2013 Quality of Life report for the Comox Valley Social Planning Society I’m struck with the number of questions I have about just what quality of life means. I’ve determined that it’s not about comfort or serenity, the lack of problems or adversity, happiness or the lack of it, wealth, health, recreation, culture, fast cars, sex, food or much of anything else.  It’s not even only about personal, individual feelings and circumstances. So what is it about?  There are a number of organizations that have produced quality of life indices and reports.  The UN is into it: (http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/).  The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW)(https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/) has determined that the quality of life in Canada is declining regardless of the fact that the Gross Domestic Product may be rising.  We are obviously into contiua here.  The UN rates countries on a continuum of quality of life using a large number of indicators in three categories, heath, education and living standards.  The CIW uses dozens of indicators and eight domains or categories: community vitality, demographic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards and time use.  Some of these domains address individual dimensions of wellbeing, others how community affects personal wellbeing.  The CIW is on to something here, I find.  On a continuum of wretchedness to bliss, I expect that a person living on the streets of Kolkata would be at the wretchedness end of the scale while someone living in a fancy house on the beach in Comox would be on the other (blissful) end without being too categorical about it. However, the world is never as simple as it seems and I’m not a good judge of the quality of life of a person living on the streets anywhere, especially India. 

To me, some self-determination is important in thinking about quality of life as is sociality.  So, for me, life in a prison isolation cell would qualify as extremely wretched even though health, sanitation and food would not necessarily be issues.  And there are tradeoffs.  Idleness due to unemployment may adversely affect income, but there is a certain liberation in not having to go to work.  Problem is, we have developed strong moral, legal and political objections to unemployment to the point where the unemployed are considered morally weak, self-indulgent, lazy and worse.  So not working (for the employable) carries a stigma and the unemployed suffer opprobrium.  

I suppose, for me, quality of life hinges on a number of factors including basic health, a roof over my head, access to effective sanitation, enough money to keep food on the table, clothes on my back and maybe go out the odd evening to a movie, a day in the park or on the beach, a visit to a library or an art gallery, having friends over for tea, being able to move about without too much difficulty, and community support when things go sideways.  Emergency services, then, take on more importance than they might otherwise in determining quality of life.  The question is, can I count on the help of others in the community if I get sick, lose my source of income, my house burns down, I get beat up on the street or bullied at work?  

Of course, comparison is the foundation of quality of life studies and indices.  How do I measure my wellbeing?  Well, it will be good or bad in comparison to the person next to me or in the next town, city, province or country.  If I have nothing to compare my life to others, the whole question of quality of life is meaningless.  As for the Comox Valley, what makes this place unique in terms of quality of life?  I’m not sure there is a basis for comparison with other similar sized communities on Vancouver Island.  

These are just some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently on the subject of quality of life. There’s lots more…for later.