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.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


I imagine I can sense the earth’s vibrations in my fall garden, something profound about the perennials dying back this time of year. Something about dormancy, rest. I look at the yellowed hostas, the bared earth where the fall crocus spread their waxy-cupped blossoms just  a short time ago. I look at the little slope by the back fence where Loren and I planted tulip bulbs last week and in my mind’s eye I can see those bulbs, their pointed tips doing whatever it is they need to do, sitting in the darkness four inches beneath the surface of the soil. And I imagine brilliant reds and yellows in spring.

I think of the words in an email from the local yoga teacher whose class I go to on Monday mornings: To pause, to rest, to breathe, to begin again. My garden knows better than I do how to do those simple things..

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Printmaking II

On my second day of printmaking, I learned how to add colour to the prints I made the first day, and how to do chine collé. First I had to make a template that I could use for adding colour. I placed trace paper over one of my prints, drew the outline of the edge of the copper printing plate (so I would know where the edge of the print should be), and decided where I wanted to put the colour. Next I stuck clear packing tape over the trace paper so that I would have a stiff template to work with to make cutting easier. After I decided where I wanted colour (I chose red), I cut out those areas with an exacto knife. I cut out only a few small shapes in the template.

I placed the template on the copper plate and taped the edges to hold it in place. With red ink on the roller, I rolled it back and forth over the areas that I had cut out. Only a few small shapes appeared on the copper plate in red ink. I placed the plate on the press and then came the tricky part of placing my black and white print on top of the plate to print the red areas. Tammy helped me - well, she did it to show me how. We again covered it with news print and the felt pad and I rolled the press. This is what I got.

Now about chine collé (“chine” means thin paper and “collé means glue). Chine collé is method for bonding a thin, delicate paper, which is more receptive to delicate details than heavier paper) onto a heavier paper. Also, this method allows a background colour for the image which is different from the colour of the backing. You can also do collage with this method of printing.

I used one of my red prints from my first day of printmaking, cut out the image, placed it on a sheet of fine thin Japanese paper and from Tammy’s collection of wonderful papers chose two sheets from which I cut a rectangle and tore irregular forms for a collage. I assembled the pieces for a composition.

Next the pieces had to be soaked in water and sprinkled with wall paper past so they would stick on the paper when I rolled it rolled through the press. We put the cleaned plate on the press, placed the pieces of paper back the way I had originally arranged them on a thin sheet of paper, placed newsprint over it all, and then down came the felt overlay again before I rolled the press. Out came what I think is a beautiful collage. This is it.

                                          This is Tammy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

For years I have been wanting to explore printmaking, so I contacted a fine local printmaker, Tammy Ratcliff, who agreed to give me an individual workshop. What an interesting experience! I enjoyed the process of making mono prints, and I want to see if I can describe the steps in a way that makes sense to someone who has not worked in this medium.

Tammy showed me some prints so that I would have an understanding of what would be possible. She explained a few things and then “threw” me into the work. I sat on a stool at a table that was covered with a sheet of glass. Using a tube of ink in a caulking gun, she squeezed ink onto the glass and spread it around a bit with a scraper. To coat the roller, she rolled it through the ink. I learned to roll the roller in the ink until the ink looked velvety, then I was ready to roll ink onto a 6 x 6 inch copper printing plate, back and forth to coat the plate evenly.

The next step was drawing into the ink on the plate. I experimented with different ways of making marks on the plate: pencil, Q-tips, cloth, paper towel stretched over my finger. I had wanted to incorporate words into the image, forgetting that the words would be reversed. So I tried to write backwards, which didn’t work. I wanted to write “The Word” but the “d” turned out to look like a “b” and I decided to forget about putting text into the print and just explore the medium. Then it became fun.

After I made a drawing, and tried to make different textures in the ink, I decided to try printing. The press is like a table with a glass top that has a roller fixed to it, with a big metal wheel that looks like a steering wheel on a boat. We put the copper plate on which I had rolled ink and then made marks in the centre of the glass. The cotton-rag paper that had been soaked in a container of water, went on top of the copper plate. We covered that with several layers of ordinary news print to protect the inch-thick felt pad that covered the surface of the press.

Next, it was time to turn the big metal wheel counter-clockwise to make the roller roll across the inked plate, and then back again the other direction. We lifted off the newsprint, and then lifted the print off the plate. It was time to see how my marks in the ink translated onto the paper. I had my first mono print! But that was not all. We placed a very thin Japanese paper on the plate, and printed another, which is called a ghost print. Here are some samples of my first day of printing.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I just finished reading Twyla Tharp’s autobiography, “Push Comes to Shove.” Tharp is an American dancer and choreographer. She began dancing early in life as a result of having a mother who was a musician, who pushed Twyla into dance. Her mother, who changed the spelling of “Twila” to “Twyla” because it seemed to her a name more suitable for a celebrity, decided from the time her daughter was born that she would become famous. That tells you in a nutshell the origin of the impetus for Tharp to work with an intensity and focus that did lead to her fame in the dance world.

For me the excitement of the book lies not only in Tharp’s determination and hard work to develop her dancing but also in her honesty in looking at how her personal life affected her work and how her work affected her personal life. She drew on her personal life to create dance sequences, and expanded her understanding of herself through her dance.

It was her life as a parent that took the brunt of her commitment to dance. Tharp admits that her son did not get much parenting except when he was with his friends’ families. When he was eleven years old, he told his mother that he loves her but that she’s weird and he asked to go to boarding school. Tharp was relieved because she could not give him what he needed and still do what she wanted to do in dance. (I think she was a better dancer than mother.)

The final chapter of the book is moving because of the way she ties together an amazing lifetime of work between the covers of a book. I printed out the following sentence and have it lying on my desk, reading it over and over: “How to protect and extend the lessons and beauty of that past without buying our own energies and imagination is the challenge for every artist.”

Friday, July 8, 2011


Loren and I have both become consumed by landscaping behind our house. I finally finished digging out the lilies and chaos along the side fence. Loren moved the pile of soil that was left from last summer’s foundation and drainage work. He hauled some of it away and some of it we’re using in terracing. We’re making a raised, flat area at the back and calling it our “mesa.”

It’s a lot of fun developing the area. One new feature in the garden along the side fence is a small mound of soil about four feet across where I am hoping to plant sempervivums, commonly called “hens and chicks.” I have discovered how much I like these little plants that seem to suit growing alongside of rocks. Sometimes they pile themselves on top of each other in a delightful way as they develop their succulent - what shall I call them - petals. Some grow in rounds with little “babies” sprouting out to the sides of the parent, hence the name hens and chicks. That’s exactly that they are like - a big fat hen sitting with little ones like herself circling round her, attached until they root and become a big ones like their “mother.”

Around the little hill of hens and chicks I am planting sweet woodruff. Working my way on farther along the fence will be ferns and astilbe to join up to where the hostas and Solomon’s seal are already thriving.

I sometimes ask myself what it is about all this gardening that I love so much. I’m not sure what the answer is and does that question even need an answer? I do know that one reason I love what we're doing is that it's a way of experiencing the joy of creating my own world, creating spaces like rooms that are alive.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


From the 26th to the 29th, I was in Toronto attending the Onwords Conference and AGM of the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC). TWUC was conceived in 1972 and was formally begun in 1973 at the initiation of writers that included Margaret Laurence (1926-1987), Marian Engel (1933-1985), Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson and Andreas Schroeder. Now there are 2,000 members.

This year we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Public Lending Right, a program through which writers are paid a modest amount for the copying of their work in libraries across the country. The only reason the PLR exists is because members of TWUC worked extremely hard to gain the recognition that writers deserve to be paid for their writing copied by many people.

Andreas Schroeder, who is called the founding father of PLR, gave the keynote lecture, “The Untold Story of PLR.” He told the story of the endless work that was required – thirteen years of slogging - before Ottawa finally established funding for PLR, thanks to Marcel Masse in 1986. Unfortunately this money was, and still is, seen as a grant, rather than what it is: writers getting paid for their work.

No one expects plumbers or chefs or book sellers to work without pay. And yet, there is this strange notion that being published should be a reward in itself and with that reward writers should be satisfied and not expect payment. On the other hand, I have also encountered people who have the idea that if you have published a book you must be rich. Royalties to authors are generally ten percent of the selling price. So for my last book, “Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark,” I get paid about $3.70 for each book that is sold. It took nearly ten years from the time I began researching for that book until it was published. Figure that one out. I’d have to sell a lot of books to get paid anything that comes close to being able to live on my writing life. And this is fairly typical for writers.

Industry Minister Tony Clement commented that as a way of cutting government spending, he favours getting rid of entire programs that aren’t as important as they were twenty-five or thirty years ago rather than cutting back on programs here and there. Given this government’s disregard for the arts, this is an alarming statement for arts workers. How does the passing of time reduce the value and necessity of the arts?

In a number of the workshops the impact of electronic media, including ebooks, was a recurring theme. For me, as for some other writers, this electronic world is somewhat daunting. Furthermore, establishing a viable system in which writers are paid a decent amount for their work seems extremely complicated. For example, the provincial government in British Columbia is spending millions of dollars to make ebooks available, but are writers benefitting? No.

Having a chance to talk with other writers, some of whose books I’ve read and love, is one of the great benefits of this conference. And hearing writers speak about a variety of issues in the panel discussions is also stimulating.

During the plenary sessions, I was impressed with the dedication and hard work of the leaders of this organization whose sense of humour and respect for each other set a positive tone for the entire conference.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Praise of Hostas

I love starting a new garden. That is what I am doing around here. And yet, I know it is not entirely new, for someone, a very long time ago, planted borders along the sides of the back yard. In digging around back there among the weeds, I found a variety of perennials: violets, lovely small irises, periwinkle, sedum, fall crocus, way too many tiger lilies and something else that a local nursery told me is an old type of day lily. I like the evidence that someone else once had a garden here, even while I have the feeling that I am beginning a new garden. I’ve begun imagining the woman - I’m sure it was another woman - who planted these perennials and had the rocks placed there.

In April I wrote about the Star of Bethlehem (SOB) that had totally taken over during the years of neglect before we moved here. Over a period of a number of weeks this spring we managed to dig out the SOBs despite incessant rain for many weeks.

 On Saturday Andrea, my garden helper, called up and asked if I’d like her to come and do some more work. I was so delighted that she phoned. By the end of the afternoon she had completed clearing out the rest of the back garden along the fence and had planted hostas among the rocks. The hostas came from four clumps underneath the big black walnut tree in the middle of the yard.

I love hostas for their supreme endurance, their forgiving nature. They grow, regardless of how they are treated -  they certainly had not been treated well here and yet they endured. Now they have their own spaces and I know they will respond to the loving care they are receiving, each in its new spot.

So here’s to hostas and the pleasure they give us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Post-election Comment

The rain is steady, constantly dropping from the sky.
The universe weeps for Canada in response to Harper's majority.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Star of Bethlehem in the Garden

This time of year I feel almost  giddy from an inner propulsion to go outside and work in the garden, whether or not the weather allows me to be outside, and whether or not there is any gardening to be done. Of course, always, always, some kind of gardening is waiting for me.

Here, in our place where we have now lived for one year, the whole back yard and the once-upon-a-long-time-ago flower garden along the back fence are totally overgrown by Star of Bethlehem. A search on the internet gave me the Latin name of this stuff - ornithogalum umbellatum - and tells me it is very invasive, as if I needed to be told that. I suddenly realized the short form of Star of Bethlehem is SOB - how appropriate! The only way to get rid of these SOBs is to dig them up and throw out the clumps of bulbs and growth.

                         The biggest clumps are about a foot across.

During the rainy week that was, any time we had a bit of a break from the rain, I began digging out the clumps of SOBs. The big problem is that the clumps include babies, tiny bulblets deep in the soil, smaller than green garden peas. It is impossible to find all these babies, which means they will grow wherever they happen to be.

I must work at digging for short periods, ideally no more than half an hour at a time, because my knee joints are worn and become too uncomfortable with such jobs as digging, so after each stint I do my stretching exercises. I’ve long known that I can accomplish a lot by working a little at a time. I love this digging, and am enjoying the way the dark friable soil yields to my garden fork.

Andrea, my garden helper, is at the ready to help me as soon as there’s an evening or weekend without rain. Meanwhile I can’t resist the call of the garden fork and the SOBs, and I enjoy seeing the expanding clear space, which will be ideal for hostas to grow among the great rocks that people placed there a long time ago. I thank them for the rocks.
                                         A bit of clear space!

Thursday, April 14, 2011


As someone who draws inspiration and nourishment from both good writing and visual art, I registered for “A Unique Book Club: Words and Images” in the Continuing Studies program at the University of Toronto. This is a six-week course that meets once a week, taught by Tina Urman during March and April. She selected five novels in which visual art plays a central part in the story. Our last meeting next week will be at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

There are a number of things in this course/book club that stand out for me. One is the way the instructor placed each book in historical context, which illuminated both the visual art in the book and the writing. Another is that in her lectures she also told us what inspired the authors to develop the stories in their books. For example, Tracy Chevalier, the author of “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” had hanging in one of her rooms a poster of Vermeer’s painting and had looked at this face for years. When she was at a loss for what to write next, as she thought about the painting and wondered who the girl was, she decided to imagine her and tell her story. So it seems Griet, the servant girl was gestating in the author’s imagination for years.
During the class focusing on this book, Urman gave a PowerPoint presentation of Vermeer paintings (she projected paintings on screen for all of the books, works of artists that played a part in each of the books we read). She chose two of the Vermeer paintings, suggested an opening word for a sentence or paragraph, and asked us to write what our imaginations gave us about these paintings.

One of the paintings was “The Music Lesson” (also called “Girl Interrupted at Her Music”), depicting a seated young woman holding a paper and looking outward. A man stands beside her, with his right hand on the same paper. Urman asked us to write a sentence beginning with the word “Suddenly.” Here is what I wrote. “Suddenly I realized that this man’s ideas were not what he was really thinking about, and I had to look away to give myself the inner quiet to hold my own beside him.”
The Vermeer paintings are full of details and “props” that tell us a great deal about global expansion in the seventeenth century. A related book, “Vermeer’s Hat - The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World” by historian Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia, explains that because of European explorers, wealthy Dutch households had access to, and could afford, Persian carpets and porcelain from China and were included in Vermeer’s painting. It’s interesting that many of Vermeer’s paintings include either maps or a globe.

My guess is that the title for “Vermeer’s Hat” comes from the painting “Officer and Laughing Girl” used on the book jacket. The officer in the painting is wearing, of all things, a hat made of beaver pelt. We learn from Timothy Brook’s book that European beavers had been overtrapped, and after cleaning them out in Scandinavian countries, Europeans turned to North America and took home Canadian beavers for their hats.
As you can see from my ramblings about the course I took, one novel about a servant girl named Griet has taken me for a long fascinating ride far beyond her story.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Creativity in the City of Guelph

I attended an exciting event last night at the Guelph Youth Music Centre. Our mayor, Karen Farbridge, a vivacious woman with a vision that includes a city as a creative, vibrant community with a rich cultural life, talked about one of her initiatives, “Guelph Creates.” She convened a group of people to talk about creativity in the city.

One of the projects in the city is “1mile2,” or one square mile, launched last night. This is the first phase of what the Musagetes Foundation ( is calling the “Guelph Café,” which is “a program of artistic practices and a weeklong series of conversations and immersions in the city.” 1mile2 is a series of events this year from April to November, and the Café will take place in 2013.

To quote again from the program for last night’s event, “The artists who comprise the 1mile2 program will penetrate our urban spaces, connect backyard agriculture and rural ecology, study our watersheds and the people who live on them, design tools for artistic interventions, and possibly even build new habitats for our endangered urban species.” The project includes artists from Guelph, Waterloo, Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, Rotterdam, Geneva, London (UK) and Ljubljana.

Mary Mattingly, a New York artist (, gave an illustrated lecture about her work, which takes art out of a traditional framework into the big wide world. She created a liveable sculpture, the Waterpod, a large barge on which she with helpers created a complete living system that included gardens and lovely, healthy chickens.
Mattingly is giving two workshops in the month of April in Guelph.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Last evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) launched the new boxed set of Joyce Wieland's films. This was a welcome event, giving some well-deserved recognition to this multi-talented artist who died in 1998. Guest speakers who introduced the films were: Betty Ferguson, Su Rynard, Allyson Mitchell, Izabella Prska-Oldenhof and Leila Sujir.

The DVDs of Wieland films is of interest not only to film makers, but also to anyone who recognizes the importance of the contribution to Canadian art made by Joyce Wieland.

The CFMDC was gracious in having me at their table with my "Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971" to sell copies and sign them.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thoughts Today on my Sister

Today would be my sister Esther’s eightieth birthday. She died of breast cancer on 6 December 1991 when she was sixty. I spent the last week of her life with her in a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, was with her when she died, and with my brother took charge of her funeral as she had requested.

Until then, I had not thought much about the truth that being human means sometime we will all leave this beautiful earth. I remember after I came home from that week in Atlanta, I went for an early morning walk though our twelve-acre field surrounded by the light of a brilliant sunrise, and I felt in every cell of my body my human-ness, how that when the end comes no one can do my dying for me. I learned that from Esther. You can be surrounded by people who love you, but it’s still up to you to take your last breath, something no one else can help you with. This was a new realization for me. Sure, I knew I’d die sometime, but that was very different from what I now knew on a gut level.

As Esther was dying, I watched her gather together the tiny bit of energy she had left, and watched her focus on doing her own dying. Her last words were “Stand back.” I think she did not want me or any of her four children hovering over her and distracting her at that important moment of her life.

I still miss her, but I am grateful for what she taught me about living and dying.

Friday, February 18, 2011


The proposed “modernization” to copyright in Bill C-32 threatens to take away the rights of creators. I will give one example to illustrate how this would happen were this Bill passed into law.

As it now stands, revenues are collected through Access Copyright for photocopying services and paid to writers. The problem is that Bill C-32 would expand the current purposes of the broad exemption of “fair dealing” to include “education.” This would allow educational institutions to photocopy any books without compensations to writers. You might think that’s good because it saves money for students. But I ask, why should writers do their work without being paid? We don’t expect that of teachers, nor do we expect that of people in any other professions. So why should writers work without being paid for writing?

Consider this: 600,000 Canadians work as writers, artists, performers, composers, songwriters and producers. Our sector contributes more than $46 bn to Canada’s GDP, more than twice the value of Canada’s forest industry.

And yet, Bill C-32, instead of protecting our rights, as copyright has done for centuries, under the pretext of “modernization” Bill C-32 threatens to take rights away, making our future, and the future of Canada’s digital economy more precarious.

I suggest that you contact your Member of Parliament to ask him or her to work to have this badly written law fixed.

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