“But whatever you wish to keep you’d better grab it fast”.
Over the past month, various events and thought patterns seem to have conspired to give extra force to that great song (It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue by Bob Dylan). Memory has been one theme. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that we can grab our most prized memories and keep them safe…to think that it is those memories that will remain uncorrupted by age and sickness…wouldn’t that be nice? If only will power could extend that far.
The second verse of Baby Blue alludes to another theme that recurs in this blog: “Take what you have gathered from coincidence”.
One of those glorious moments of chancey synchronicity hit me between the eyes the other day when I wandered into Southampton City Art Gallery. I have been staying at my sister’s in Southampton since I came back from Canada and felt in need of a break between visits to my Mum and to my Dad. I have a long list of previous convictions for wandering round art galleries. Socialism? Communism? Conservatism? Hinduism? Calvinism? Give me recidivism every time…I repeat my follies therefore I am.
Anyway, I walked up the stairs and made a turn to the left in order to view the permanent collection before checking out the special exhibition. Slap bang in front of me, the size of a fat barn door, was a work called Old Crow, Yukon by David Tremlett. Instead of a gasp of appreciative surprise (it is a magnificently striking abstract evocation of Yukon essence) I found myself laughing with the shock and pleasure of such an unexpected gift, such a moment of nourishing connection. It felt like one small salve towards an eventual healing of disappointment.
Old Crow is the only community of any size in Yukon that I have yet to visit. You have to fly to Old Crow, there are no roads, and a canoe trip would take many days of linking together various watercourses, probably starting from Alaska. Old Crow lies within the Arctic Circle and has about 300 residents, most of them from the Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation. Shirley, the Tagish / Carcross lady who invited me to the rattle-making described in an earlier post, is originally from Old Crow. Shirley was also a prominent organiser of the Solstice event I wrote about in the last entry. Much of the impetus for the Solstice celebrations in Carcross came from a dream that Shirley had and described to the local Elders. Shirley now has an anglicised family name, but her original Old Crow family name translates as ‘Two Rivers Meeting’.
My house-sit for the wonderful 5 weeks referred to in the early parts of this blog was in a home built on land once occupied by Shirley. She helped design and build the house itself. From Old Crow, Yukon, to Southampton, England, via several human links along the way. Apparently David Tremlett lived in Old Crow for a couple of years in the early 1980s and has made various paintings, drawings and art projects from his time there. His large canvas in Southampton City Gallery is underscored by a warmly appreciative paragraph by the writer Helen Simpson. I won’t attempt to describe the image, but it has a powerful simplicity and an overall sense of harmony and wholeness. The sheer scale of it evokes the vast dimensions of the Yukon elementscapes.
A spore of wilderness seed amidst the pounding traffic and the dehumanising malls, the paving-concrete-steel-glass brute force of the city.
“The empty-handed painter from your streets / Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets”……
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Mentioning art galleries reminds me that I have been intending to put in some words of encouragement for UK readers to explore a little of Canada’s art history. Before I first went over in 2005 I was truly ignorant of Canadian art. The European and British movements and big names tend to dominate over here, with liberal helpings of American art from the last 60 years. Other cultures are given headline exhibitions from time to time, but Canada has remained better known for its music and writing than for its painting or sculpture.
So it is nice to record (and how many nations can say this?) that probably the best known single artist in Canada’s short history is a woman – Emily Carr. Her life story and her bold solo expeditions around the Pacific North-West coast are fascinating in themselves, as are many of her treescapes and paintings of aboriginal life. I love her swirling, dance-of-life forest images that teem with energy and hum with depth.
The other key figures to check out from the formative period spanning 1915 – 1970 are Tom Thomson and the artists known as The Group of Seven. Thomson produced a batch of highly influential landscapes in a few feverish years before dying young. The Group of Seven were partly motivated by a desire to carry forward the breakthroughs in colour and composition that Thomson had achieved. And they also had a deliberate mission to explore the idea of a specifically Canadian and ‘Northern’ vision. Perhaps the most interesting (in his writings as well as in his painting) is Lawren Harris, who pared down his landscapes to bold and increasingly abstracted forms. They each deserve to be much better known outside Canada…do check ’em out if you are not already familiar with them.
Of course, within Canada itself the reaction against the ‘national’ art that The Group of Seven came to embody has been going on for some time, with all contemporary currents and eddies well represented (Canadada anyone?). When I was passing through Prince George in northern BC recently I re-visited the excellent Two Rivers Gallery, where the current exhibition included a huge representation of Tom Thomson’s iconic The Jack Pine, but where the tree and rocks consisted of densely packed images of enthusistically copulating wild animals.
Not all modern or contemporary Canadian art uses The Group of Seven, Thomson and Emily Carr as touchstones, whether ‘pro’ or ‘anti’. I saw a fine retrospective of Jean-Paul Riopelle in Calgary…like luscious mosaic takes on the best of Jackson Pollock. Jeff Wall has been at the forefront of photographic art for some 40 years. I’m ashamed to say that the only others I have heard of, and know to be Canadian, are Michael Snow, Janet Cardiff and Peter Doig. And then there is also the wealth of vibrant art produced by First Nations and Inuit carvers, sculptors, craftsfolk and painters, much of it astonishing in its simplicity, symmetrical beauty, and updating of traditional forms.
Becoming even a little familiar with another country’s art is a happy aspect of travel as opposed to tourism. As the world becomes rapidly more and more uniform and a globalised monoculture becomes more and more entrenched, art is one of the few unique experiences left. When I am too decrepit to ramble the mountains, lakes, forests, rivers and tundra, I would love to make an east-to-west trip across Canada, zigzagging a trail around the musical and artistic map.
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I seem to be inhabiting a strange bubble of unasked for time just now. As I write this I am conscious that at this point in July I had planned to be exploring the area around Inuvik and beginning the long trek back down the Dempster Highway, with lots more to come. Instead I am starting to bring forward everything I had assumed would be happening in September: a search for some paid work; renewed efforts to get Pick Up the Pieces out there; consistent work on other writing; reconnecting with family and Friends; work on my home-nest in case I have to sell up; getting my prize sweet peas up to competition standard (…not…).
Except that it is all in a slo-mo daze and haze, a waking dream of motorway drives, infinite subtleties of maternal madness, and an overwhelming sense of several lives on hold…the double bars of a ‘pause’ key firmly pressed down.
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As a special gift for Owl’s 500,000th birthday, Raven organised a collection. He received contributions from Bear, Coyote, Wolf, Salmon, Turtle, Eagle and many other entities. After much deliberation they decided to buy Owl a state-of-the-art digital camera. The camera could take the best still pictures in the world, and could shoot hours of video film as well.
Owl was suitably grateful, and everyone was very pleased that they had given Owl such a fine present.
However, over the course of the next 12 months no-one ever saw Owl taking any photographs or filming anything with the camcorder function. Finally Raven made a series of spy flights around Owl’s nest and was shocked to see that the camera was still in its unopened box, propping up a bookcase and gathering dust and downy feathers. Raven reported this to all those who had contributed to the gift, and on Owl’s 500,001st birthday they came to confront him.
As spokesperson, Raven did not mince words: ‘We clubbed together to buy you the most expensive, most versatile and most wonderful camera in the world…but you have not even bothered to take it out of its box, and you have not taken one single picture or captured one single minute of film…why?’
Owl gave them a piercing look, shrugged his wings a couple of times and replied: ‘I am very grateful for your generous gift, and I considered very carefully after you gave it to me, but, you see, I don’t really want to take any photographs or video film of my world…I want to see everything, to remember everything as I want it to be, not as it is.’
(This is a true story. What happened next is less clear but legend has it that Owl gave the camera to a charity shop in aid of cattle, called Oxenfam, and Coyote stole it. But that’s another story).
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“Strike another match, go start anew…”