Monday, November 21, 2011

One's Cup of Tea

The Currency of A Cup of Tea

Expectation has no rights. Another's reaction is theirs. One might intend in one's work or   writing or product of some kind to evoke an appreciation, but to expect to control the outcome is possibly to face disappointment; many a cook, comedian, actor, writer, singer, or artist has had to face into the unrewarding responses of stolidness, silence, disfavour, or worse, an evident disinterest.

The monks make a sand pebble picture that is a painstaking pebble for coloured pebble placement of precision on a part of the floor. And no sooner are the days and days and hours of work done than they sweep it all into a heap; the performance was the thing, not the product. Well, such is my ongoing lesson. If my door-sized paintings are to be appreciated by another, as opposed to my being sufficiently engaged in brush stroke after brush stroke (one of them a fifteen year project in particular) then I am certainly yet to be completely disappointed. Not everything is everyone's cup of tea.

Rendered in Renaissance oil-glazes and many taking several years each to complete, some twelve or so of my canvas works made it safely, just yesterday, to my apartment. I stacked them in various bedroom locations, the two largest along the lounge wall, where I happen to be working on my current canvas. Admittedly, these are works of intricate and apparently overwhelming dimensions; they challenge rather than entertain. "That long band of thumb-sized miniatures along the top are copies of the great works of art throughout history," I usually explain. Surrealism is not quite readily read; it takes mental acuity, esoteric or at least extant knowledge, a willingness to piece together the many juxtapositions, and an energy of concentration that we are not easily given to, unless we perhaps have paid the museum entrance price and specifically are there to view the paintings. Analysis takes effort. Ask Salvador Dali. My paintings are not pretty pictures.

Perhaps the most insulting term to me about them was delivered by my mother. About fifteen years ago. I had not seen her in over twenty years and I sent her a few photos of my work. The reply came in Afrikaans. The phrase that hurt, that was to teach me to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, was "grotesque". It is spelled the same in the Afrikaans language. Coming from my mother, it corroborated what I had expected from her, and therefore it actually hurt more. But it served to galvanize me toward producing my own product, being my own man, choosing my own visions, and depending less and less on the approbation or appreciation or approval of others.

Then why bother to write this essay?

A cup of tea takes energy to make. The steps involved are multifold. The blend chosen, the vessel in which it reposes, the artfulness of skilfully putting it down, or not, all of which combine, especially socially, to serve another. Even a child likes the currency of respect, of appreciation. Few artists of any genre truly do things just for themselves. Yet as these works of mine sit here, still chiefly unheralded, I am reminded of the lessons of my mummy. The true art of living is in making such a product as even a cup of tea with a consummate care from the first, whether or not the result is truly to be appreciated.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fish Tails

Fish-tails and Floundering

"You've got to know your purpose in life," my friend said, expertly maneuvering his big GMC half-ton on the snow-laden mountain road past the slower long-haul lorry. "If I wake you at three in the morning, eh, you need to be able to state it just like that!"

"Wonderful," I smile. "And what would you say?"

He pauses. "That's my problem. I just am not sure. Used to know. Used to think it was about making money and having things, eh, but then that changed a couple of years back. Now I know it's important to be helping people. But not to enable them. Just to help people out and to give them a leg up. But I know there's a better way to state that, a bigger purpose, eh, just not sure how to express it."

All around us the world is white with November's heavy snow. The road is sometimes only visible thanks to the balustrades on either side. Occasionally vehicles headlights beam at us from the opposite direction. We've a ten or even thirteen-hour proximity together in the cab of his solid-feeling vehicle, and as relaxed as my 62 year old friend is, he is focused yet casually alert on the treacherous road. Other vehicles here and there have slid off, some vacant as abandoned igloos, one or two with occupants now outside and digging unrewarded. Emergency vehicles have lights blinking. Police cars, like snow vultures, hover around the carcasses of some stranded vehicles. A semi-trailer lies alarmingly tipped over onto its side, right in front of Three Valley Gap. Further on an abandoned car lies upside down, somewhere along the Coquihala. But we progress onward in our quest to get my paintings from Calgary to Victoria, until...

"Here we go!" he gives me the forewarning, even as the half-ton's backside slides out from under us on a patch of black ice. "Uh oh!" and the vehicle suddenly points toward the drop of the valley far below with a sickening wrench, but almost instantly my friend corrects the alarming fish-tail and we're cautiously continuing the long descent onto the narrow bridge over the Kicking Horse River. "Long hill ahead of us," my companion nods at it, and the engine growls slightly as it takes the incline.

"Seems to me you express it very well," I venture.

"What's that?"

"Your purpose. It's expressed in your actions. You're a superb driver and a most helpful friend. I couldn't have brought all these paintings with me on a plane, and they're too big for my own vehicle, and I certainly couldn't load them alone, so thanks! If your purpose is to help people then you do it, as another good friend of mine says, with action. He says love is a verb. So thanks for the love, buddy!"

He chuckles, and grows silent. I think to myself, I know what I'd say if woken at three in the morning and asked what my purpose in life is, it is... But then again, your knowing what mine is is not nearly as good as knowing your own, eh? So? So what is it, hmm?

Flights of Fancy

"I didn't know you are an artist," he said. "Got anything to show me?"

"Not yet," I responded. "My calling cards are stacked away in an Alberta basement."

And so the plan was born.

We have high hopes. We trust. We intend to succeed. We take risks. We invest in an uncertain future and brave the odds and fake it 'til we make it. We are driven by our want, by our idea, our concept, our ego's need to have its ends met. And in our very fancifulness we do indeed achieve yet more. Past success teaches us as much. But to what extent are we identified by that which we do, versus that which we are? And must 'versus' be the operative word, or can it be changed to a sense of 'conjoined' in the doing and the being? I am what I am?

As I write on this 17th of November I am at the Victoria airport, awaiting the flight. Snow is in the forecast and it's already snowing in Calgary. And within the roughly 1300 kilometres between here and there is a winter-bound road awaiting our return. My friend will pick me up at the airport later this afternoon and by 6:00 p.m. we shall have loaded my paintings in his vehicle and head back over the Rocky Mountains on the long road to Victoria. Somewhere tonight we'll get a motel. Sometime tomorrow we'll arrive back at the seaside. The flight booking for the whole journey was made several weeks ago. Once committed, we never did discuss whether or not we should let things depend on the weather.

Without the collection happening now the paintings will stay unseen until the spring, in April or maybe even March. Risking the winter drive would not make it worth it. But the difference between then and now is that the weather was not supposed to close in quite so quickly, nor so severely. Still, we persevere. Even my plane is now 20 minutes late. As I look out through the huge glass panes of the terminal the sky is black, foreboding, but all around me, life goes on. We humans want what we want. Some of us perhaps are ineluctably bound to schedules and expectations, but in the end we make a choice to stay with the commitment or to play it safe.

At issue is the reason I am convinced that fetching my canvases is worth it. It has to do with showmanship. It has to do with impressing others. It has to do with providing others with a product so that they may choose to buy the original, purchase a giclee copy, or commission me to do another work. It has to do with my being identified for what I do, can do, might do, like to do, and want to do. Yes, it is all because of my want.

We are creatures of want. In the smallest of things we manifest our wants. Eventually some of them become needs. Yet at which point can one let go and just be? Does it really matter if I never paint another painting? Does it really matter that another knows that I am an artist, once proven, and yet again to be? Does our fancy really matter, for a thee, or for a me?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bathing Beauties

People such as these are indeed beautiful. Would that many others would see them as well, coming out of the swimming-pool water, going in. They wear bathing suits and for the most part with an unselfconscious air, amble solo alongside the water on their way to or from the change rooms. I try not to stare. Others too seem not to notice. But then again the unstated atmosphere under the glass and steel dome of the swimming bath is one of absolute acceptance of half-naked attire and bare skin.

The changing-room for men is always the first challenge. The proximity of completely naked and unabashed bodies at the wooden benches in front of the pay-lockers can be overwhelming; one does not want to be touched by a naked or wet backside, however accidentally. And then there are the showers, both before and after the swim, where many men, sans bathing suits spend untold time soaping themselves from the chlorine. I admit I've wondered if the women are as free in front of each other. In the pool though, where everyone wears at least a swim-costume, neither men nor women, I notice, greet or show signs of recognition. In fact, since I have gone about eight times by now, there are some women and men who appear to give me the very slightest of nods, as though they recognize that our exercise schedules coincide, but that might well be speculation.

It's the beautiful bodies I wish more people could see. Perhaps because of the late afternoon hour, or perhaps because younger persons do not frequent swimming pools as much, very many people are somewhat closer to being seniors. Some are quite a bit older than me, some younger. But the bulges and the bellies and the wobbles and the veins and the hirsute and the bald and grey are all together in the water, or apparent on the walkways, or in the change rooms, and we all appear to accept and understand that bodies are bodies. That's the beauty of it. I see such different shapes and sizes as to make of us a species as interesting as any animal. We have such varied gates, such varied swimming styles, such different ways of being represented. And it's beautiful.

There is hardly space for vanity or pride in the swimming pool. One is what one is. A hair-do and makeup and clothing and jewelry is of no consequence. Whether one can even swim well is of no matter, as long as one is safe; it is the bravery to be there, to let others see you at your age and at your stage of physical development that is beautiful. It is the allowing of oneself simply to be. The pool water is of course the metaphor for our rejoining with the elemental; underwater the sound possibly resembles what it was like in mummy's tummy! Why then or now care what one's body, or another's, looks like?

There are people who are aided from their wheelchairs and let down on seat-crank-cranes into the water. There are other people who are heavy and lumpy according to what is popular, but who appear to be accustomed to the tight fit of their swim-pieces and come enjoy the water too, beautifully free in their acceptance of themselves. So too for a group of developmentally challenged young men and women who sometimes come, their limbs and body shapes and abilities different than others, but they're there, participating. True, once in a while there's a lithe-limbed young man or woman, but one hopes they're not being too aware of themselves. The beauty really resides in the freedom of the self just to be. Bathing beauties. Would that it were so outside of the pool too. Being beauties. Just people allowed to be.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mastery of Musical Mystery

Words were unnecessary. Michael Waters walked up to the platform in the small venue, picked up the guitar, and began to play. And notes, sweet music, the elixir of life poured around and about and through us. Easily it surged to engulf the shores of attendant souls and spirits, sweeping individual accords along, until as an audience we became ensconced in an ethereal harmony, attuned to every chord. Masterful music indeed.

Michael Waters is a consummate world-class guitarist. Music is his spiritual mission, not something he does to earn his way. After some thirty years of playing and evolving his style to its own unique evocation of hearing the spirit sing, without any words, Michael Waters has mastered the instrument to a level that makes it an extension of himself. His guitar is not some object on which one plays a song. His performance began as a mere trickle of sound, pooled into a melody, spilled over into a stream, gathered momentum to become a river, negotiated rapids and canyons and waterfalls, and then immersed itself into an ocean. We became as comfortable as babies in the amniotic fluid of a moving womb, taken wherever our repository of ethereal sounds drifted in its own wont.

Being in the venue, a small church in Victoria on Vancouver Island, November 5th 2011, quickly became a distinct privilege. It was as though sitting inside a cosy dome. Why only 40 or so others were there was a mystery; advertising had been good; tickets were only $10 apiece. Was our city such a mecca for 'things going on' that we were just a small representative of the many people attending other artistic venues? But thoughts like these merely disrupted the purpose of my being there; better to enjoy the music.

And the man, this artist, spoke French. English too. Before the concert he moved amongst us, chatting freely. His guitar on its stand waited on the candle-lit platform. Michael Waters was charming, sincere, warm, gracious, casually sophisticated, a man who's been places, seen things. It reflected in every composition, particularly when he shifted from the minor to the D major tuning in the second half. During intermission he spoke to us individually. Immediately afterward he opened the second set with the story of his life, told us of his mission to engage the spirit, spoke of his Oldfield, Renbourne, and Santana influences. And then he played, hardly ever looking up, with an intensity of flow and with his delightfully distinctive erudition of composition throughout to the close.

Austrian, Bavarian, Chinese or Zambian, people come together within music without need of words, of language, of awareness of syncopations, harmonies, or chords. Music has a spirit that reaches beyond the technicalities of grammar or spelling or precision. We conjoin our souls in sound. Music matters, yet needs have no specific meaning. We were not given the title of any one tune. No words evoked interpretation. Imagine a tune called The Trout, or Traffic, or Wichita Falls. Titles precondition us. But music that arises of itself has its own meaning, and that which I imagined, to be sure, was not that which others necessarily experienced. Our interpretation is naturally coloured by our own life's journey. And in the end, for me to describe Michael Waters' influence with and on music is likely to give my words an unnecessary intentionality all of their own, see? Or would you rather really just hear? Go buy his CD. He has four if not five of them. A treasure! (see:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Above it All

How to stay above it all? The lottery might do that for us. Being rich (and usually 'famous' ) puts us in the right style, we hope. Such heights of glory are easily ascribed  to those who live in penthouses, to those who live much above our own means, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes we deem such lofty-living beings to have a higher degree of intelligence or energy, a greater degree of cleverness, of fortune, of acumen, of birthright, nobility, and even street-smarts. After all, perhaps such people work harder or are smarter to earn the right to live way up there. Envy, at root, has many tendrils.

Well, our lunchtime visit to our new penthouse friends, a beautifully attired and retired septuagenarian couple, was as if being hosted on a ship's prow. From far below the massive expanse of deck the sunlit sea glistened through the guard rail. He is English, tall, handsome. She is Swedish, beautiful, graceful. The apartment itself was the epitome of cultured elegance. Ivory, teak, silver, gold. Original oil paintings of all sizes adorned each room, some dating back three-hundred years or more, still in original frames, and many depicting a long- standing family heritage. Colourful Persian rugs festooned. A grand piano waited, a violin as ancient as time atop it. White leather couches and antiques complemented the decor in a tasteful sweep of genteel and sophisticated apportionment throughout. Variously sized glass showcases housed a variety of china, ivory figurines, a ship, and coloured stemware. Refinement of taste, dignity, and decor permeated; a magazine-like picture of picturesque perfection.

And then came lunch time. A virtual Delacroix of August-hued artistic delights decorated the table, with tapered colour-coded candles circumscribed by miniature garlands and an unobtrusive centre piece of low lying exotic flowers. Twin pairs of silvered ring-doves reposed at the top of each of the four place settings. Yet intimacy and ease abided, despite the formality of setting. A large gold doubloon of chocolate rested on each serviette. And then came the meal. A delectable cheese and broccoli soup with a wafer of biscuit was followed by a plateful of delicious gourmet delicacies, laid before one like a Gauguin masterpiece of colour and culinary expertise, topped off by what appeared to me as a special Swedish creamy pastry. Our genteel hostess seamlessly interchanged plates, prodded the conversation in a balance of interests, and ensured our every comfort. Our engaging host was the epitome of good humour and mindful considerations. Whether courteous about James the Fourth (or was it the Sixth I mistakenly blurted) or Bloody Mary, or the modern day marvels of computer evolution, we discoursed without censure. Our caring observations were of integration, of acceptance, of interest for more knowledge and of compassion for others. Attitude, we concluded, is not easily a matter of choice. And then our hostess was asked to play.

During the sonorous and exquisite tonality of the blend of piano and voice, it came upon me, privileged to be there, that these are people who indeed are truly above it all; people who live in appreciation and grace and acceptance and inclusion of the diversity and complexity and hardships of life, for their story also was full of the surmounting of many hardships on the way from a past to a present. And far from being in some sort of lofty overlordship, they were so evidently happy to host us. To see us. Just happy to be.