Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Women’s Work

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and although I rarely mark its passing with any fanfare, I feel moved to dedicate this post to women I admire, to their creative work and how it manifests as art. And I also want to celebrate how art—in a way that I don’t fully comprehend but nevertheless believe—changes the world. And if that is true, if art does indeed change the world, even one person’s action in the world, perhaps art can help save it, too. And that’s also worth celebrating.

On Mountain Time

For three consecutive years, I’ve been very fortunate to travel to Banff, Alberta, at Christmastime. That means that 2010, 2011 and 2012 have all been ushered in, for me, amidst indescribable beauty. 
On a trail somewhere near Lake Louise.

Mount Rundle

A grainy Rundle, captured on the iphone.

Since my first visit to the Bow Valley in 2000 it has become and will remain one of my favourite places on Earth.

Most people who go to Banff at Christmas are there for the skiing. That's what Barry and Aaron do everyday. 
Trying on the gear on Day 1.
But I don’t downhill. The pace is entirely too fast for the way I need to take in the world. Instead, what I do in Banff is walk. I walk and walk and walk. I write, take pictures and keep walking. I spend my days alone, eat lightly when I want, and I walk some more. 

I watch the clouds stir up the snow that drifts into the air past Rundle’s peak.
I see Cascade bask in sunshine like a proud well-fed lion unaware of his conceit—how could he be? Arrogance is inherent in his character. 

Not so for Sleeping Buffalo. I hear the quiet exhale of this gentle giant. Her breath comes slowly because she is ancient, so you must be very patient to discern it at all.

And so it goes. Between 8 in the morning and 4 every afternoon, I enter another state where inanimate becomes animate. It is a state that requires little external stimulation more demanding than the contemplation of the structure of a pine cone, the colour of snow in shadows, the texture of a tree laying down in decay and of the dark towering ones that loom in fairy tale forests. 

Every day I become a drunken urban refugee high on nature, drifting like the clouds that drag across the peaks, blown about with no will of my own. A wanderer.

Yet I do usually dip into civilization for coffee in town every day. When I first enter the bakery from one of my walks, I feel a little self-conscious and ungrounded. I can barely reconcile that these two worlds, my internal experience of nature and these shiny surfaces and crowds of people, are in fact the same planet. But the cappuccino is damn good and as I sip, I soon feel like what I imagine everyone else around me feels – pretty much like everyone else!

Toward the end of our week there’s also a mandatory extremely extroverted game of shinny on Lake Louise. That always makes joining the world a deep, deep joy. 

But before that, in my solitary days, I seek a transition to immersion in the natural world. The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies serves that purpose. A visit there has become ritual for me now, a way to learn a little more about the region and our creative response to it. This year's exhibit, Women of Fibre: Mary Garnham Andrews and Articulation, moved me in a way I hadn’t expected.

Mary Garnham Andrews is a Banff-based Master Weaver now in her mid-90s. She taught her art at the Banff Centre for the Arts for decades and has donated hundreds of pieces of woven art to the Whyte Museum.

It was almost cruel to hang her work on the gallery walls and expect me not to touch it. I’m quite sure the artist never meant her exquisitely woven creations to be objects of visual pleasure exclusively. Surely they demand to be enjoyed tactilely. But I didn't, I swear! I was well-behaved.

As much as I admired her work, it was the "Articulation" part of the show that transformed me the way art can, slowing you down, drawing you in, sending your thoughts adrift, introducing new thoughts.

The name refers to a group of Canadian women textile artists, some of whom exhibited works alongside Andrews’ woven pieces. There were some fantastic pieces but I will focus on the first piece that arrested me.

This is Lesley Turner's Valuing Women's Work.

It’s an extraordinary piece. Here's what she says about it on her blog:

“An afternoon tea cloth was left under a maple tree during fall to be incorporated into the decay cycle. After many hours of washing, ironing and stitching the work goes largely unnoticed as the restored cloth is sacrificed again to protect furniture while the hostess serves tea to her guests. This installation is a metaphor for much of women's work not accounted for in our national accounts system.”

Well, that resonated! It may seem an over-reaction, but at times I have been reduced to tears in frustration and anger at the invisibility of my labour at home. The drudgery of cooking when you’d rather eat a bowl of cereal and call it a day; the cleaned counter that becomes covered in papers, dirty dishes, pots, ketchup bottles and toys in the two hours you’ve been out getting groceries; dirty toilets.

I laughed out loud when I read Lesley’s blurb at the museum (not manically, you know, but it wouldn’t have mattered because I was the only one there!). “I hear you, sister,” was how I felt.
Yet this was a piece of exquisite beauty. So poignant. This too shall pass, it says with a shush.

And so will these busy days of laundry, mopping and soap suds. And so will I.

And so the work reminded me to give my gifts aware of their transience, not to expect the vacuumed carpet to stay clean. Mostly I do. Mostly I give freely.

And I thought, too, about how grateful I am for the privilege of buying food, of having a house to clean, for the good fortune to do this work that becomes invisible. I am aware of the randomness of a universe where such riches are bestowed on me and not the one who is raped in the Congo, or the one who begs food for her children in Bangladesh, or the woman in the motel down the street from my house, who shoots up to shut out the customers that line up to use her.

I know, too, that the beauty I create here in this house is creation, a manifestation of love for me and mine, and that work has value that’s incalculable. Like Lesley Turner’s tea cloth, it is beautiful in a different way even in a state of decay.

I thank you, Lesley Turner, for leading me to reflect on Valuing Women’s Work.


Ordinary Acts With Extraordinary Consequences

Which leads me to my friend Carrie, an enormously talented artist that leaves the world a little more beautiful each time she turns her hand to a new expression of her spirit. Her photography, jewelry, crazy-weedy-wild garden, her preserves, her laughter, her children…everything she gives the world she gives with such fierce passion. Her creative acts are such an inspiration, and I look forward to seeing what next captures her attention and what medium she will choose to express herself in, and what shape that creation will assume.

For now, I’ll share some typical “Carrie Vignettes” from Christmas at her place. These little acts of domestic artistry are always emerging from the busyness of her little corner of the country, and are no less beautiful because they will not last. They are gone already.

 And you can see her photography and jewelry here


The Nature of Creativity

And now to an artist who has captured my attention for years. Doris McCarthy died in November 2010 at the age of 101. She died days after I’d finished writing a profile on her and her legacy to the Canadian art world. She died blocks away from me in her home overlooking the Bluffs, the area in which we both live. She was in her last days as I typed and deleted and typed and deleted and tried to sum up a century of vitality and talent, passion, love of nature, spirituality, regrets, mistakes, triumphs. She died as I raced through her three memoirs for the second time in my life, absorbing her wisdom, hungry for it.

The profile I wrote could not possibly capture what I wanted to say about her. I had 600 words—about six for every year she lived. When it was published, Doris was dead, and the piece had been edited in a way I didn’t love by a well-meaning editor who needed it to say something I didn’t know to be true and could therefore never have written. But there it was. And Doris was dead. It was over. The profile had become an obituary.

I didn’t really know Doris. I’d been a fan. I’d stumbled on her first memoir and her magnificent paintings back in the early ’90s, and I was so star-struck I sent her a note thanking her for writing the book and painting pictures that spoke to me deeply. Well, she wrote back and invited me to a breakfast that she and her friend hosted weekly in the Beaches, which is near where I lived at the time. I never took up the invite. I couldn’t imagine what I would possibly say to this great artist.

I did accept the invites to the openings of shows that started to arrive and I introduced myself to her at one. She was gracious and friendly and generous. The last time I saw her, I was picking up my son from a play date at a house on her street. It was 2008. She would have been 98. She was walking with a woman who was helping her along. They walked so  slowly, but by the time I decided to approach them I had to run to catch up.

I didn’t say much, just that I’d been in contact with her in the early 1990s, that I had recently read her last memoir, Ninety Years Wise, and so loved it that I’d bought more copies for friends and family members. I wanted her to know.

Again, she was warm and gracious. She smiled, said something expected, but her strength was clearly waning and I made my exit. I tried not to feel grief for someone not yet past, but it was there at the edges.

What I regretted most about the article that I wrote was that it did not capture Doris’s spirit. How could it? It wasn’t meant to. Truthfully, that wasn’t the assignment. And that was one of the many times I’ve realized over the last few years that the kind of writing and reflecting I cared most about was not required by the medium I worked in. How could I expect an architecture magazine to delve into the deep spirituality that informs creativity in any meaningful way? It was like asking silver to be gold, a cube to be a sphere, an elephant to be a frog.

So Beneath the Boughs is where I will share what I learned about women and creativity from Doris’s memoirs. I learned from her to just do the work. Every day, with discipline, craft your art. Delve deep, be true to yourself, look at the world, love it, and let your art emerge from that place.

Her understanding of creativity goes deeper and I will quote now from Ninety Years Wise (Second Story Press, 2004). Her words echo my own sense of spirituality/creativity—the inseparability of the two, their oneness.

“Later, the mystery of creation convinced me that God was immanent as well as transcendent – in the rocks, the trees, the animals and me – still creating but not exercising the authority I had once believed in. Then I had to discard the He, because He, She, They, It, Life Force, Energy takes an infinite variety of forms. During all these intellectual shifts I was increasingly experiencing God’s presence in my life in a way that made argument irrelevant. You don’t need to prove what you know. (Who can prove the power of a great work of art?) You know it because you experience the power.”

Thank you, Doris, for your writing, your triumphal paintings, and for showing me what a well-lived life looks like.



I believe in immanence. Even the word helps to still me. Even the word sounds like shining stars. 

It means inherent, like the lion inside of Cascade Mountain; the gentle soul in Sleeping Buffalo. It is the place I go to create.

The concept of immanence leads me to the next work of art I get to share and which will close this homage to women and creativity.

Lorna Crozier is a renowned and award-winning Canadian poet who I admire.

That sort of stops me because here’s the truth: I feel like an imposter when I write that. “Oh, la ti da, I’m such an authority of poetry.” Ah…no! The brutal truth is that until recently I’ve been afraid of poetry. I always worried I didn’t “get” it. I spent years over-thinking poems, fussing about interpreting them the “right” way. I’ve stood back from poems, peeking around the corner of a novel at their cryptic messages.

But, you know, the older I get the less uptight I become. I mean, it’s exhausting worrying about what other people think of you and eventually, I think, most people stop. That’s the stage I’m approaching, and that, of course, allows me to feel instead of think a poem. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do both, but for now, I’m still a novice poetry reader who puts her faith in feeling. As Doris said, Who needs to prove the power of a piece of art? You know it because you experience it.

Lorna Crozier’s Sand From the Gobi Desert is helping me experience the sweetness of standing under a poem and letting it wash over me. It is helping me appreciate the beauty in the brevity of a poem; to rejoice in the ability of finely crafted language to capture the clarity of a moment or a thought or an image. Mary Oliver’s words often do this for me. Dorothy Livesay’s, too. But right now I’m loving Lorna Crozier.

This stunning piece dovetails precisely into this post on women, creativity and the immanence of Creation (cap C). I wish to share it so we can all lap it up, word by delicious word; it is that tasty. 

Sand From the Gobi Desert

Lorna Crozier

Sand from the Gobi Desert blows across Saskatchewan,

becomes the irritation in an eye. So say the scientists who

separate the smallest pollen from its wings of grit,

identify the origin and name. You have to wonder where

the dust from these fields ends up: Zimbabwe, Fiji,

on the row of shoes outside a mosque in Istanbul,

on the green rise of a belly in the Jade Museum in Angkor Wat?

And what of our breath, grey hair freed from a comb, the torn threads of

Just now the salt from a woman's tears settles finely its invisible kiss

on my upper lip. She's been crying in Paris on the street that means

Middle of the Day though it's night there, and she doesn't want
the day to come.

Would it comfort her to know another, halfway round the world,
can taste her grief?

Another would send her, if she could, the rare flakes of snow

falling here before the sunrise, snow that barely fleeces the brown
           back of what's

too dry to be a field of wheat, and winter's almost passed. Snow
           on her lashes.

What of apple blossoms, my father's ashes, small scraps of sadness
that slip out of reach? Is it comforting to know the wind

never travels empty? A sparrow in the Alhambra's arabesques

rides the laughter spilling from our kitchen, the smell of garlic

makes the dust delicious where and where it falls.

Thank you to Lorna Crozier for allowing me to post the poem here. For more of her poetry, visit her website 

Happy International Women’s Day!