Monday, January 14, 2013


On Sunday afternoon I saw "Chasing Ice" at the Bookshelf in Guelph, a documentary film based on the 25 cameras James Balog set up in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska to document what is happening to the glaciers in the North: they're disappearing. The visuals are beyond-belief beautiful, but the meaning of what is happening to them is so grotesque that watching the film was both an aesthetically profound experience as well as disturbing. It made for an hour and a half of inward churning - for me, at least. Ice in all its architectural forms left by weathering is not like anything I have ever seen.

The other aspects of the documentary that I appreciate include the incredibly fierce weather conditions that the crew working on this film had to withstand, as well as the work of scientists to develop the necessary technology in the cameras for this kind of environment.

All the climbing of steep ice cliffs, the powerful wind, hiking through storms and sunshine, their sense of humor from time to time - the passion and determination of James Balog infused the film with a kind of grandeur that was so strong. He even had multiple surgeries on his knees because his trekking through such tough terrain and icy conditions wrecked havoc on this part of his body. The shots of his personal life with his family made the viewer realize that his passion to do what he can about global warming is based in his love for future generations - his daughters - and the whole planet.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Now that I have had  a year’s sabbatical from my blog (I had a year away from writing it for a variety of personal reasons), I’m wondering if there is a word specific to a blog sabbatical. Perhaps I could make up a word, something like “Sablogital.”

One of my recent pleasures was to watch Barbara Freed’s film called “A Model for Matisse.” I had found information on the film on the Internet and suggested to the Guelph Public Library that they order it to add to their holdings. To my delight, the GPL did just that, and in only two months’ time I received an email saying the film was being held for me at the main branch, which is within walking distance of where I live.

This film is the little-known story of how the Matisse Chapel in Vence, France came to be. Toward the end of his life, when Matisse required nursing care, he advertised in Nice for a young, pretty nurse. The ad was answered by the twenty-one-year-old nursing student, Monique Bourgeois.

Bourgeois later joined a Dominican convent and became Sister Jacques-Marie. One day she showed Matisse a drawing she did of the Assumption, and he suggested it would be suitable as a stained glass window. It was this sketch that inspired Matisse to design and oversee the building of the Chapelle du Rosaire, which included the floors, the walls, the windows and even the vestments for priests. Over a four-year period Sister Jacques-Marie worked as the liaison between Matisse and her religious community as he planned and built the chapel.

The film beautifully tells the story of the friendship between these two, the artist and the nun.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing." - Rothko
Years ago I discovered Abstract Expressionist painting and was drawn to the work of Mark Rothko and tried to emulate him for a time when I was painting. His colours shimmered for me, and drew me into spaces where I felt different, felt I could find out about colour in ways that was not usually possible.

                                 Four Darks in Red 1958
So when I had an invitation from my friend Jan Mason-Steeves (  to see “Red” in Toronto at the Bluma Appell Theatre, I had no hesitation. It was yes, yes, yes. I was not disappointed. I don’t want to give away everything about the play, but the performance was superb with Jim Mezon playing Mark Rothko and David Coomber playing the artist’s assistant named Ken. The staging and the music matched the acting in working as a whole, and I found it extremely moving.

Rothko was born Marcus Rotkovitch in Latvia in 1903 and immigrated to the States with his family when he was ten years old. He was seen as gifted and received a Yale scholarship but dropped out and went to New York. There he discovered his love of art at the Art Students League. His work was well received from the time he first began showing.

By the 1930s he became friends with other New York painters, among them Milton Avery, who became something of a mentor, and Max Weber from whom Rothko learned that making art could be a way of expression emotion.

Many European artists immigrated to the United States before and during World War II, many of them Jewish. Increasingly Rothko was worried about the power of the Nazi regime and became an American citizen. He also changed his name from “Marcus Rothkowitz” to “Mark Rothko.”

In Rothko’s early works, he painted urban scenes and mythological subjects, as well as portraits. He read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and gave much thought to the emptiness of humanity. He turned from representational work to abstract colour-field painting, convinced that his paintings expressed timeless, universal emotions.

“Red” convincingly and dramatically shows Rothko as he experienced angst about his painting; his enormous effort to lay paint on the canvas in a way that was meaningful and satisfied him; and his fury with a person who could not fully enter into his work in the way the artist wanted. Rothko was not a “nice” man - he easily ranted and raged at the efforts of society to pretend everything was “fine” when everyone was full of detritus, which translated into emptiness.

Central to the play was the development of the relationship between Rothko and his assistant Ken, who in the beginning was shy and frightened of this great artist. Ken won his way into Rothko’s heart in spite of being Mr. Tough Egotist. It is this personal interaction, and Ken’s risk in revealing the traumas of his life (brought to the fore by his associations with colours Rothko was using ) that wins the audience and makes the atmosphere in the theatre electric.

Another key element in the play was a commission Rothko won to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. After having dinner there, he came away declaring it merely as a den of jackals who jawed and yawed over nothing, and he couldn’t stand the thought of his wonderful work being in that restaurant where the patrons would not care about the paintings. He cancelled the whole thing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Recently I put on the wall above my desk two photos from old newspapers, one photo of an old Russian woman voting in December 2007 in western Russia, Alexandra Zhaldybina, 101 years old. I stuck this photo to the wall because her face is leathern, marked, a line for each year of her life, I think. Black-rimmed glasses help her see out from underneath her black scarf, her pursed lips show an intensity of thought and significance of the moment. Her face is beautiful in its great age. Putting her picture on the wall gives her a new life about which she knows nothing, for I’m sure she is no longer living and I have no connection with her other than my feeling that she deserves to be remembered for her determination and the beauty of the traces of her long life in her face..

The other photo shows a brother and sister reunited after not seeing each other for 80 years. The man, identified as Benjamin Feinstein is also 101 years old. His sister, Sara Pyatigorsky is 87. She holds him against herself, lays her face on his forehead, and the two are weeping and laughing at the same time, their faces equally lined, the skin rough and spotted. They, too, are beautiful in their craggyness. I am sure their lives were full of turmoil and pain and the full range of human emotion. Their faces reveal the many years of their lives.I’ve saved this clipping since 1994, and only last week did I decide to put it on my wall because… I am not sure why.

Why do I like looking at these images of these old, very old, people? Why, when I am out on the street do I notice the old? But I also notice the young, I notice how they move so easily, how moving seems the most natural thing in the world, fluid like a stream of water winding down a hilside. Why do I notice the young women laughing and jostling each other on the sidewalk? Because I want to remember, I try to remember how that feels. I try to imagine walking without ever feeling stiff,  pretend I have fluidity, thinking it might help me walk better. And so I put photos of old people on my wall, for any of these confusing reasons that don’t make sense in my head but make sense in my belly.

When it comes down to the real reason, perhaps it's just that I love looking at those faces that are each their own landscape, faces that tell a story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


On Saturday I went to see “Satyagraha,” Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi, his formative years in South Africa, live in HD at a local theatre. The title means “truth force,” and the text of the opera is taken from the “Bhagavad Gita.” It’s hard to believe that opera singers could sing the whole thing in Sanskrit, but they did. I couldn’t imagine how this could be opera material, but it is, and it is dramatic in a minimalist way that I would describe as stunning, so different from the typical opera in which cataclysmic events occur and the characters thrash about.

The music with its persistent rhythm, repetition and throbbing continuation until I thought it couldn’t go any farther - but it did - carried me along relentlessly. Midway through I wished I could get up and move - I had difficulty staying seated. I really wanted to dance around the theatre even though I would not describe Glass’s music as dance music.

The acting, all of it, was superb. And the enormous puppets and puppeteers created a kind of drama I have never seen. These puppets, whose “skin” looks like newsprint, are gigantic as well as sinister. They give a visual form to the evil forces that Gandhi encountered, at least this is my interpretation of their function in the opera.

Three people important to Gandhi at different points in his life also make an appearance in the opera: Leo Tolstoy, the Indian poet Tagore, and Martin Luther King.

The encore broadcast of this opera in theatres will be 14 January 2012. And no, I am not getting paid by the Met for this blog post.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Even though I have finished reading Eavan Boland’s "A Journey with Two Maps" I continue to think about what she wrote and I have been rereading parts of the book.

The last chapter is “Letter to a Young Woman Poet.” This chapter moves me for its forthright and intelligent comments, and because she writes in such a personal way. When as a young seventeen-year-old girl she walked the streets of Dublin, past all the statues of Irish orators and patriots, she - as a young woman - was absorbing her culture, her history. And when she began writing poetry she “began to have an intense engagement with every aspect of writing a poem. So much so that the boundaries between the edges of the poem and the limits of the world began at times to dissolve.”

She entered into the history of poetry to such an extent that she wanted to change the past it encompassed. She wanted to eroticize the tradition so that she could make “the iron breathe and the granite move” in those historical figures past whom she had walked as a seven-teen-year old. She saw words as agents rather than “extensions of reality.” Words can change us, she concluded - could change her - rather than just recording what was happening.

She lived her life “through ordinary actions and powerful emotions. But the more ordinary a day I lived, the more I lifted a child, conscious of nothing but the sweetness of a child’s skin, or the light behind an apple tree, or rain on slates, the more language and poetry came to my assistance. …Finally, I had joined together my life as a woman and a poet. On the best days I lived as a poet, the language at the end of my day - when the children were asleep and the curtains drawn - was the language all through my day: it had waited for me.”

Boland’s life became the source of her language, and for me - a creative woman who desires wholeness in the “ordinary” parts of life and in her art, a woman who becomes fraught with the necessities of domesticity - reading about this poet for whom daily-ness becomes the source of her creative work brings me, if only for a moment, into a state of light on this dark November Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

“A Journey with Two Maps” by Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland, a poet who was born in Dublin, Ireland, and now a professor at Stanford University in California, begins her "A Journey with Two Maps" with a personal narrative even though she considers her book to be “a book of criticism.” She does not apologize for beginning this way because her personal story is part of who she is as a poet. She writes of herself as a poet with two maps: the first one traces her past and the second points the way for her future as a poet rooted in the history of women who were poets and finding her place now among contemporary poets.

The subtitle of her book is “Becoming a Woman Poet,” and in her introduction she explains that the book is about both “being and becoming.” “Being” and “becoming” are about as all-inclusive as is possible. Any creative person is doing both of those things at the same time, always for as long as he or she is alive, and who knows, perhaps even after death.

I was drawn to this book because some days I feel myself to be a poet, and other days I am not sure that I even am becoming one. I thought perhaps reading about Boland’s maps would feed my imagination and lead me to feel more sure-footed with words. In any case, I had a feeling I would enjoy this book, which was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement as a memoir. It has a delightful mix of personal experience and critical thinking about literature, about poetry.

Boland experienced what many women face as a mother with young children. In the nursery with her babies, she ruminated on the idea of the domestic as subject matter for poetry. This was at a time in the seventies when Ireland was torn apart with violence. She had a clear vision of her life within the four walls of her suburban Dublin home in the shadow of what was happening to her country. The domestic poem had not been given a place in the public realm, and yet for Boland in her own home she felt she was being given an opportunity to bring the two together in poetry. The dilemma was that as far as she knew, there was no welcome for this kind of poetry in Ireland.

She writes candidly about her life. She and her husband were young, and in the midst of the stress of the country, in their own home they quarreled. And in later years she remembers these scenes, these two young people. “What was it I kept going back to?” she asks. “It was more than their youth and anger. It was a puzzle of art rather than life: a split vision. Each time, I returned to them in memory and with design. I remembered the actual setting: unvarnished floors, a small television. But I also thought of what was outside the windows, the sparse trees and disturbed earth of a new suburb. And beyond that again, a troubled and scarred island.”

And later she says “I knew I wanted to re-interpret the domestic poem. In my house, on a day with tasks and small children, I felt its about-to-be power everywhere. As a painter’s daughter I had memories of my mother arranging flowers, fruit; getting them ready for a still life. I wanted the opposite: to feel that those atoms and planes could be thrown into a fever of spatial dissent; that they moved, re-arranged themselves, threw off their given shapes. I thought of that as the starting point for my poems.”

Boland spoke of going to the National Gallery in Dublin and looking at paintings portraying interiors: “A woman’s checked dress. A table with a cup on it.” and these objects became her own, and she became the women in the paintings, which for her spoke of the “ferocious” importance of these things in the lives of everyone. “What made painting capable of that narrative? And not poetry?” And she thought it was strange that these interiors were not a part of poetry. She wanted to change that.

This is why this book speaks to me: Boland’s questions, her observations that broke down conventions. She was persuaded that the fabric of daily life is legitimate subject matter for her art, as it can be for whatever art is ours, whether we are using words or paint or ink or glass.

There is so much more this book has given me. Line after line, the words of poets I had never heard of, and a sense that delving into the lives of artists and writers, and looking deep within myself, I can discover where my creative energy can take me.