Saturday, 18 August 2012

Summer and Fantastical Fictional Settings

Where have I been? Not here, that’s for sure. July and August without a post—shame on me! Blame summer.

Summer is too full of strawberries and cicadas, swimming and sunrises. Sitting at the computer simply doesn’t appeal. Summer is like adolescence, there’s no time to think and reflect; it’s a time for activity—for moving, running and dancing as fast as you possibly can.

This summer has been a summer of sunrises. The cottage we rented was ideally positioned to take in dawn in all its glory. I snapped pictures that I hope to use in watercolour practices as I try to learn technique.


The time at the cottage was the highlight of my summer. I hope I never forget it. It reminded me of what I love most about Ontario—water, trees, rock, sky. Softly rounded ancient shorelines. It reminded me of what feeds my soul.

We spent about four hours a day playing in the water!

We had time to share dinners with people we love.

I'd like to wake up by a quiet lake everyday, but for now I will study this sacred landscape in art and words. For now I will let its mysteries unfold internally and hopefully find expression in art.

Meanwhile I managed to find time to finish my first ever watercolour painting.

My crows. Not your typical watercolour, is it?

I could keep working on this piece but I must move on. There are a million things I would do differently. I am frustrated, as usual, by my lack of experience with technique and with my lack of skill/talent with composition. But despite all that, I'm proud of my daring. I’m proud I just did it, despite such ignorance. I'm proud, too, of the idea behind this piece. It is strange and personal and feels like a piece of my soul.

I've written before about how I don't like to appropriate First Nations' culture, yet, it seems to rise up in my subconscious and conscious alike. What can I do? It's powerful imagery, shared perhaps in a Jungian way through our collective unconscious. And as strange as this sounds, birds—crows, in particular—have been speaking to my soul since spring. I also had a very strange, archetypal dream about crows, which I'd forgotten about until cleaning up my desktop and finding a detailed note on the dream. It has inspired another crow painting that I hope to attempt this fall.

As far as this one is concerned, I feel it is, perhaps, my first real piece of art. The idea coalesced at a deep level, and now it is external, made real. I feel no need to give words to its meaning, to explain it in any way. It is enough that it exists. 

I know what the work means to me and that is enough. As for its meaning to others, I feel that if it appeals, if it speaks to someone else on a personal level, that's great, and if it doesn't, that's okay, too.

This is a breakthrough for me. Art for art's sake. And so, humble though my crow painting is, naive as it is, by Jove, I believe it is art!

I know this little guy enjoyed it. As soon as I took it outside to photograph, this beautiful creature alighted upon it, investigating thoroughly. I was honoured. And I don't believe he defecated on it or anything like that, so I guess that's a good sign.

The next exciting bit of creative news is that I have refined my idea of setting for the “little story” that I've been working on (or not working on!). Since I started the story, I've been equivocating on the fictional world that I needed to shape for my characters to live in and move through. Would it be modeled on the idealized English countryside that haunts my imagination thanks to the literature I love? I thought so, but elements of my own country kept creeping in. 

Then a visit to the Ontario towns of Fergus and Elora settled the issue. 

Elora is a sweet little town that, thanks to its preponderance of early 19th century stone architecture, reminds me a wee bit of St. Andrews in Scotland. Elora is younger, smaller and boasts no North Sea coastline (sigh), but its impressive gorge, where the Grand River rushes past 22-metre-high limestone cliffs, adds unexpected drama. 

Victoria Park in the centre of town offered a vantage point for a tired 11-year-old and his mom to quickly take in the exciting setting without actually hiking, which I would have loved to do had I been alone. 

The park was a surprise. You must walk through a lovely grove of cedars to get to the lookouts. As we entered, my son said, "I'm trying to feel them," and he put his hands out into the air in front of him. I was so happy because I once showed him how to do that and told him that sometimes I can feel the energy of trees. He didn't believe me then, but it stuck with him and he has remained open to the possibility, which is all I ask. 

Immediately upon entering their quiet space I was reminded that Ontario is a powerful setting that I know and it is as worthy of starring in fantastical fiction as is any copse or moor or rocky Welsh mountain. 

So this summer, I have recommitted to Ontario and feel more confident in setting my fictional world physically in rural Ontario (tweaked to include some massive mountains), but in a time that never existed. 

The truth is, I need to include the plants I know and love, like these cheeky cedars that insist on coupling in broad daylight and in public, too!

This landscape is witchy, sensual, soft, sad, romantic, mysterious, dramatic. Perfect for a work such as I'm trying to create.

I long to live closer to nature in a place much less paved than Toronto, but if I can't physically live a wilder life right now, if the city must be my home, then I shall let the wild live in my imagination and I will come to know it better through my art. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Vacation Brain

After running for the plane in Toronto and being practically the last passengers on board, then waiting many extra hours at the Miami airport and then on the runway, somehow we were finally sinking our toes into the softest sand I've felt since a trip to Eleuthra many years ago.
A boy feels sand on a tropical beach for the first time. 

Upon arrival, we headed straight for the beach when we finally reached our destination at Provinciales, Turks & Caicos. 

Since arriving, this place quickly turned my brain into mush. It takes all of my energy to walk from a lounge chair on the beach to the water for a swim, then shuffle back up and plop back down on my chair. Whew. Exhausting! 

Gentle swirls of air are like silk on the skin, the ocean is warm, just a few degrees cooler than body temperature, these things conspire to unplug a northerner from her busy brain. 

So be it. Pictures will tell this story until words return.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Rut Busting

Whether our routines are hoist upon us—a necessary and intelligent response to the demands of our daily responsibilities—or they are safe choices whose predictability we depend on to feel protected from the inherent randomness of life, once established, routines can quickly become a rut.

Artists need new experiences in order to create. It is impossible to grow a crop without planting a seed. First, something new must be introduced to the soil and nourished in the dark before the first green sprout breaks through to the surface.

It was that need to break out of a rut that led me, on a whim, to sign up for a watercolour class. It had been years since I'd done any visual art, but working with my son, showing him how to look at the world as an artist does, ended up opening my eyes, probably more than his. The teacher (me) realized, not for the first time, I was the student.

The course is over now, but what a continuing richness it gives my life. I am in love with the medium of watercolour. I am changed for exposing myself to it as an adult learner. And I will never see the sky in the same way -- never see nature the same way. Colours are new and nuanced. Light is a mystery that I must study carefully.

I am rather incompetent—my vision far outreaches my abilities. But isn't that the way it is every time you try something new? Best not to judge too harshly. Best to play. Otherwise you risk stifling the unique vision that only you, as a beginner, can ever bring to this art form.  

That idea is explored at one of my regular haunts, writer/artist Terri Windling's blog, in a post called  When You Fear You're Just No Good.

And before I go further, I must share another quote lifted from her pages. It captures exactly what the creative process means to me.

“The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”  - Rilke

As my eyes begin to see, many images are bubbling to the surface and I struggle to express them in this new-to-me, highly mutable medium of watercolour, to do them justice.

I can't, of course, because I'm a beginner (go read that post I mentioned)! But you know what, I don't care, because, bloody hell, this is really fun. It's exciting. So what if a piece turns into a big mess? Those occasional moments when it works, when I like what I see, are worth every effort. Now, I just need to allow myself that same freedom in writing, a medium in which I am much less forgiving of myself.

If you feel like a beginner in your art and you are frustrated by that, maybe even considering giving up, read the above post by Terri. Then nourish yourself, feed your creative soul with something new, and let your heart-work begin. Let's be easy on ourselves — let's play!

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Sweet Life

I've been so bad, so very, very bad. There is a backlog of postings filed in my brain. Pics of the new robin, who—when I have time to notice—seems to have claimed my home as his home. Pray the neighbourhood cats I've befriended don't betray me.

But this "magazine article" is what I've wanted to finish and post since a certain glorious evening weeks ago at Carrie & Tim's. I do so appreciate that family.

Now, a few apologies: my handling of indesign is atrocious but getting better, the font use would make my art designer friends seasick, and I simply don't have time to fuss with the copy anymore right now though I see things that make me cringe. The pics were snapped on either mine or Barry's iPhone (or is it eyePhone?), so they are quite grainy, but also at times beautiful. The worst thing was that blogger wouldn't let me upload a pdf so each spread had to be made into a jpeg of a suitable size and then uploaded. Drag. That's why the font is so tiny, but you get the idea????

But it is all unimportant - the weather was perfect, food delicious, the company was spectacular (though one of us was missing and he was missed).

I want to post this because it is a sweet slice of our life and it makes me feel lucky indeed!


Saturday, 19 May 2012


Three baby robins have hatched. No time to write. Off for a fun day on a long weekend.

I took these yesterday after my husband had used the camera on Manual. I didn't realize! Took the shots and couldn't fix them in post-production. Full on crazy exposures. So I played with them (in seconds, no time to finesse) but the results are interesting.

More words later this weekend. I'm late for my watercolour class - and more on that later, too.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Bird Song

The mornings are musical now with bird song slipping in through the window before dawn. It's past 11 AM and they are still going strong. Nature's band of musicians plays on.

And I just discovered that someone has built a home in the Japanese Tree lilac.

It looks like this one is awaiting the arrival of their family.

Either I'm looking for birds subconsciously or I've never been awake, eyes wide open, in spring before. I refuse to consider Alfred Hitchcock's classic. I will not. I'm loving these guys. I'm glad they've moved in.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012


More birds in my life. This one came to me in a video. A short film by Johannes Nyholm. It's been viewed almost five million times on You Tube, so I'm clearly not the first to fall under its spell. (It premiered in Cannes in 2009.)

The music is by Little Dragon, and it is heartbreaking enough to listen to on its own. Coupled with this video, I believe it could break through to the most heavily armored soul. It is haunting, beautiful, powerful. Watch it before you read the director's statement, which I've posted below.

Aside from reminding us of the fragility of our gifts and of the importance of giving, it is a lesson in how great art can sometimes look so damned simple but can be so difficult to achieve (for me, even bad art is a challenge to produce!! Funny how that happens!). I hope it breaks through for you, too.

The idea behind the film was to tell a story that was a mix between dream and reality. For the first time in my life, I guess, I wanted to create something that actually looked beautiful. The form should be so fragile that you get the sense that it could dissolve any second, like a dissipating cloud. I wanted to encompass a whole life in just a couple of minutes. Love, break up, death and grief. A melodrama without any irony.

It is not a typical film, but rather a filmed theatrical play, a shadow puppet theater. An important principle throughout the production was to do everything the old analogue way, not in postproduction with digital techniques. Every shot was rehearsed multiple times. Then shot, live, with numerable puppet players controlling the figures and elements. Sometimes we were 15 people controlling different small elements of the scene simultaneously; one controlling the little bird, another the girl, four people controlling the wind, yet six controlling the fires all over the image. Some shots were so difficult and complex that we had to reshoot up to 200 times. 


Thursday, 12 April 2012

Building a Home

A quick note to say, “Look who’s back.”

Gathering grasses and leaves from my very untidy front garden is the Lady Dove (from the couple in the throes of spring fever that I posted about the other day). At least I think it's the Lady. I've tried to compare the shots from each day and it's sort of hard to tell - I'm a sad excuse for a birder! Anyway, this mama-to-be was busy building a nest in a nearby neighbour's yard, getting ready to start her family.


Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sink, swim or take a hike?

The creation of this blog marked the re-dedication of my intention to lead a more creative life. Since high school, I’ve dipped into visual and written art forms in a hobby-like way. I wanted to dip in again, but this time to wade into deeper waters, maybe even leave the security of the shallows and go where I’d be forced to swim, go to that place in the middle of the lake where you float and wonder, where is the bottom? Just how deep does the water go?

It doesn’t require much, really. A desire and discipline, and bravery, too. And one other thing: time. 

But these days time is like a slippery moss-covered rock partially submerged just offshore. You clamber up on it out of breath thinking you’re safe for a moment on something solid, and the next moment —sploosh, you slip ungracefully off the stone into murky, weedy shallows.

Lately, life has been a series of slippery stones. But I’m far from giving up on my goals. No, I’m in the water now and soon I’ll stop flailing around long enough to notice how soft and cool it feels on my skin. No, I don’t want to get out. I want to swim.

But March was full of motherly commitments and real paying work, and there’s a busy week ahead and after that, the added complication of jury duty looms. Still, I’m trying to keep my heart open, to keep the intention present, to stay in the water and not scramble for higher ground.

Twice this week I’ve managed to dip into the natural world for a bit – not for swims, sadly, more like sponge baths!

First was a visit to nearby Centennial Ridge Creative Centre. The gardens there are not wild spaces; rather, they are cultivated, the hand of the gardener evident everywhere. But there is beauty in that, too.

Here, there were trees to feed my imagination.

Trees with faces from the pages of dark fairy tales.


Trees of unusual beauty.


Trees of unmistakable sensuality.

And others with a poignancy that begs you to pause.

This magnolia unfurled its buds early – coaxed by the March heat wave, those record-breaking days of 20 and 25 C, followed by April, the cruelest month, with frosts that burnt the blooms dead.

This last shot I took was of a younger magnolia, which blooms later; its blossoms are thankfully unharmed. In a few days they may unfurl.

There were wonderful colours here. Clouds of purple and white scilla.

I love how these yellowy-red leaves contrast with the green foliage and the purple blooms below them. 

Before I left I popped into the centre’s office to see if there were openings in their spring session watercolour courses, which have already started. What possessed me? I need something else to fill up the schedule? Really?

I think this desire for the visual started when I helped Aaron with his portfolio a few weeks ago, showing him how to slow down and look carefully at an object while drawing it. Then we worked with oil pastels and replicated a Lawren Harris painting. I showed him how layering the colours added depth. We were really happy with both our efforts. 

Then I stumbled upon artist Valerie Claff’s blog (also note her art website) . Her watercolours moved me deeply. 

Her blog, where she writes of her life in the woods with her cat and her art, her need to listen to the trees, to have that energy around her, made me gasp. That resonated so powerfully in me I feel it even now in my core. It vibrates up my spine. That truth shifts my awareness from my busy mind to a different kind of knowing, clunking into consciousness in my solar plexus and heart. Call it what you will, a gut instinct, a message from your soul—all I know is, I don’t want to ignore those feelings any more. I’ve no time to put off experiencing the pleasure that comes with focused creative work and connecting with nature.

Why have I denied this necessity for nature for so long? And why is it that we humans are so quick to turn from what our souls tell us to do? I think it happens slowly, slipping away from us as childhood does, without us noticing. I know I have compromised my values along the way, but I do believe I can turn the tide, although I do not underestimate the effort it will take to live aligned with my deepest values. But I don’t think I need to think that far down the road. It doesn't feel as daunting to know I will do this one blog post at a time, one word at a time, one story, and maybe even one watercolour at a time.


Yesterday, I dropped Aaron at school and heeded the call of the Oak Ridges Moraine. I felt guilty about the gas I had to use to drive there (I’ve driven more this year than I’ve ever in my life — that’s so wonky considering my desire to step more lightly on the earth). 

My intention had been to go for a hike, take some pictures and stop at the art store on the way back to pick up supplies. But soon I started having second thoughts about the painting course. Do I have time? Is this just a way to get out of the hard work of writing? Am I sabotaging myself again? What about the money for supplies? Starting up again will cost quite a bit. I told myself the walk would clarify the issue. I told myself, “For once, just SHUSH! (Okay, I probably said SHUT UP Kathleen!) The answer will come if you stop panicking.”

I also knew having a couple of hours alone on a work day was a gift, and I was grateful, so I tried to put guilt aside, tried to trust that even this walk was part of my unique process.

I found the entrance to Pangman Springs Conservation Area and was immediately greeted by crows as I set upon the path. I love how they talk to each other, such a confident cawing from one treetop to another. We know now crows are sophisticated communicators. It’s not as though they just developed this — they always communicated, we humans just didn’t know how to listen. We didn’t ATTEND to them.

The presence of the crows hit me on two levels. At first, I thought, “Cool. Love crows. Wonder if I can get a shot?” But I sensed a greater meaning. Later at home I looked up crows as a totem and read they are an omen of change among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, a call to “speak your truth.” 

I try to avoid cultural appropriation and oversimplification of indigenous people’s spirituality, and I think reading totems in this way can be like reading horoscopes—too simple, too psychic fair. But it was funny, too, that a man named Crow-Eagle registered me for the watercolour course. 

But I am wary of reading too much into signs and I try not to force convenient interpretations upon every coincidence. Philosophies like the “law of attraction” oversimplify how things work (or don’t work) in the universe, and can promote a tendency to self-centredness. A woman explaining the law of attraction to me once said, “I wished for a red wallet and the next week I walked into a store and there was a red wallet, just like the kind I’d wished for!” I asked her, “How is it that starving children can’t attract food to them, because surely they must want it?” I know, kinda bitchy of me, but it didn’t phase her. She bumbled on about how those children might be living those lives so that we are called to help them and live our purpose—so offensive! But, really, she believed what she said and seemed genuinely ignorant of its implications. She really believed she had all the answers, which was another clue that she didn’t.

Still, despite my previously admitted Doubting Thomas tendencies, I realize that when it comes to spirituality, you must be open to interpreting meanings in signs perceived. Each person must give meaning to the life that pulses around them, but it’s a fine line I walk when I look for the meaning in “signs from the universe.”

Back in the woods I continued to study tree forms in detail and how they are shaped against the sky, and to study the shifting clouds and the light and its affect on the forest, how breaks in the cloud let the sun pick out white birch in a stand of trees, and how cloud cover grayed the scene down.


Too late, I noticed the delicate life springing from the forest floor. This, I realized, is why we are asked to keep to the trails.

I must have crushed quite a bit of newness before my eyes opened. I walked more carefully afterword, cringing when I snapped the dry branches of trees and shrubs not yet pulsing with spring’s life force. A bull moose would have done less damage.

I examined lichen carefully and noted striking colour combinations.

When I was ready to go, I turned and my attention was caught by something moving quickly on a branch nearby. A single feather was attached to a twig and fluttered madly in the wind, followed by pauses of almost total stillness. 

I watched as it shook wildly but did not blow away. So beautiful. Just there. So animated, enlivened by the wind. It was like a gift held out to me. A treasure. I felt it was for me to keep and to contemplate, so I carefully put it in my camera bag.

After dinner that night I went up to the plaza to buy the last few items I needed for the watercolour class (yes, I’m taking it, partially because I can’t get a refund as the class started two weeks ago!). I was getting in the car (ugh…again with the car) and looked up to see two hawks flying low – gliding on strong wind gusts. From where I stood, the setting sun lit up their wings from below. Golden wings flashed, turning the pair of hunters into mythic creatures from another dimension. The wind was so strong they barely had to flap, just tilting left and right to change direction as they scanned for food. Spellbinding. I struggled to reach my iphone for a quick picture but in seconds they were past the parking lot, heading for the trees. Always this heading for the trees.

At home moments later, I am at the sink looking out the window at two mourning doves on the deck, puffed up feathers and agitated. I grabbed my camera just as they mated.

Afterward, the male spent some time grooming himself and then a much longer time grooming his mate. She seemed content, I must say.



So many birds today. It is spring, after all. My appreciation for these creatures is growing. Just this week I was reminded of the devastation this city’s reflective-glass-clad office buildings wreak on migrating song birds. It’s an unforgivable tragedy and I mourn the hundreds and thousands of dead birds. 

It is a crime. At least I hope it will be. A current precedent-setting trial will hopefully find owners of a building at Yonge and York Mills in Toronto guilty of three charges under the federal Species at Risk Act, the EPA and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Check out this article and this organization for more information

And so I will hold this feather and think of their plight, and also consider the strength, beauty and resilience of something that seems so delicate. 


I knew this creative work, which requires such openness, would be inseparable from spirituality but I did not realize it would require a return to environmental activism.

Frankly, I’m afraid of this love I have for nature. It is so strong that when I open my eyes to the pain of the planet, I feel it too. It can feel like a crippling sadness, like grief. But it can also be a motivation to act, to commit small acts of love, because what is love if not a verb?

I worry about time. When will I fit it all in? Art, writing, this blog, work, family. But that worrywart voice is a waste of energy and really getting on my nerves. 

I think again of the feather in the forest, how it withstood the wind; more than that, it rode the wind. When the gusts came, the feather waved at me with a crazy joyousness, an exhilaration, holding fast to the twig with its downy after-feather near the base of the quill. The after-feather seems to be the most delicate part of a feather but is actually crucial in protecting a bird from cold. Bits of fluff so soft and insubstantial, yet deceivingly strong. That is how I want my heart to be. This feather is why I go to the woods.