Monday, June 20, 2022

The Unboxing Project at Sainte Croix de Mareuil

Un-boxing at Plas Bodfa (Wales) photo from Julie Upmeyer
It's been interesting to follow the Un-boxing project on its travels so far. Gudrun Filipska's Arts Territory Exchange creation, a box of contributions from artists all over the world, has been making its way slowly from one exhibition space to another, and as an artist participant, I get to witness the remarks of curators along the journey. So here I link you through to curator Jane Linden's essay from La Vieille Closerie, Sainte-Croix-de-Mareuil in Aquitaine: "Curatorial Reflections on Un-boxing at Sainte-Croix-de-Mareuil by Jane Linden". 


Jane has also posted some photos from the box's visit to France on her instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lavieillecloserie/

process of Un-boxing at Plas Bodfa photo from Julie Upmeyer


part of my own contribution to Un-boxing, displayed at Plas Bodfa photo from Julie Upmeyer

Monday, May 23, 2022

Do You Really Want Your Kid to Be an Artist?

Me at 7, trying to be an artist.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. Or a botanist, or a hair-dresser. My parents and grandparents gave me wonderful art supplies, and my father even made me a palette with a hole in it for my thumb, and positioned the kitchen stool in front of the wall of our trailer for me to use as a painting stool. That’s me in the photo, in the early nineteen-eighties, feeling wonderful and accomplished, but with absolutely no idea of what it meant to “be an artist”.

So What, Exactly, Is an Artist?

I'm an artist, now. Twenty-five years and two kids after I got my degree in visual arts, my career is built on helping people reach beyond societal expectations to un-silence themselves, and connect genuinely with the world we inhabit. I do paint, and I do have gallery exhibitions, but I also tromp in the forests, use materials I never imagined would one day be called “materials”, and make art I never imagined would be called “art.” The focus of my work is to connect people with our own deeply-held stories; as an explorative learning consultant I also encourage parents and teachers to do the same with their children. It turns out art was just a vehicle for something more important to me. And I’m still an artist.

The stereotype of the famous artist making masterpieces in his (he's almost always male, white and powerful) studio has almost nothing to do with a successful art career. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was a kid. Picasso was an abusive, deceitful creep, and we don't have to appreciate his work to be artists. There’s SO much more wonderfulness in being an artist than I had imagined! So much more diversity!

Artists are responsible for not only the beauty we see in our human-made world, but also for the connection we make with neighbours, for the realizations we make about our own lives and feelings when we watch movies, listen to music, or read books. Artists determine how easy it is to use the devices we buy. Through media, artists determine which devices and foods and colours will be more popular. They understand the influence of shapes, colours, sound, movement and texture on our emotions, and... like it or not, our emotions govern much of what we do. Artists are powerful. A “career in the arts” is a massively open-ended term, but also, having a grounding in artistic practice and theory means a deeper foundation or influence in any career we choose. Moreover, having the ability to express ourselves is an important foundation of meaningful connection.

I like to imagine a world full of people who were encouraged in this way. How happy, satisfied, and valuable could we all be? How would our chosen paths be enhanced by a facility with self-expression and material, sound, or movement exploration? Do you really want your kid to be an artist? And if so, how can you support them?

What NOT to do: Unsolicited "Help"

It's incredibly easy to break kids' confidence in art (or anything) and less easy to build it. As with so much in life, the first thing we can do to "help" our kids succeed is to get out of their way. It's not easy, especially when we're watching them struggle with something we know there's an easy solution for. But we zip our mouths, find something else to occupy our attention, and trust that they'll get where they need to go. And never, ever critique.

Criticism is more likely to break our confidence than to teach us something, and a shattered confidence is a massive barrier to success. My daughter is a writer, and was recently working on her second novel. I edited her first novel for her, judiciously reporting back on only glaring typos and missing punctuation. It was an amazing realistic fiction coming-of-age story, written from the bold heart of a young girl whose grandfather had recently died. I love it so much I heartily recommend it to readers of all ages. Her next novel, though, was a departure from the world she knew and understood so well, and required a steep learning curve. It was an epic fantasy, full of people from different cultures and a massively complex magical world... all of which she dutifully researched and developed before writing. But then she was challenged by trying to fit this enormous complexity into a single story. And when it came time for me to edit her book, I didn't hold back with the criticisms and suggestions. Some chapters were confusing, some events seemed out of place, and mostly I was confused by the timeline. Sure, she was only fourteen, but I just knew she was capable, so I critiqued! Despite my attempts at being gentle with my criticism, it all seemed insurmountable to her, and after a few attempts at editing, she abandoned the book. To her credit, she's keeping an open mind about the possibility of writing it in the future, but unfortunately I feel I threw a hammer at a beautiful glass sculpture she was creating, that actually she just needed more time with, alone. Without my critiquing.

So that's how not to build confidence. Just think of all the ways we're doing that, in every part of our kids' lives, and even our own. So many of us have an overachieving inner critic. And a culturally-supported fear that that critic is what's keeping us on the straight-and-narrow. But you know what? It's not. What would happen if we just didn't correct our kids? Well I have some experience with that, now, both in teaching and parenting. It's ridiculously hard to shut up my inner critic sometimes, but when I do, the kids thrive.

My daughter is truly an excellent writer--so much so, that in her frantic enthusiasm she charges ahead, forgetting to put periods at the ends of sentences, capitals on names, or sometimes misspelling words. She edits herself, and (as we all are prone to doing) sees right through her mistakes to read what she intended to write. What if she asks me to edit and I just ignore those mistakes? I've experimented with that. Sometimes she looks over her work later and discovers her mistakes. Sometimes she puts it aside for a few months, grows and learns, and comes back to it to realize she would now write it differently. Sometimes, even, she submits or publishes something with mistakes. And you know what? That's just fine! I frequently go back to my own work from years earlier, and see how much I've learned and grown since my thirties--and yet my work was appreciated then, as well. Have you any idea how many typos I still find in my writing? Tons. I'm especially accomplished at missing words and totally redundant examples. Sometimes I don't even bother to correct them. Because they're part of my humanity. Our kids deserve that space to be human, too.

Honouring Growth

Rhiannon, age 5, experimenting with paints.
As a visual artist, I love to look back and see all my mistakes. I look at portraits I painted years ago, and wonder why I did them the way I did; sometimes I also notice things I thought were problems at the time, that now inform new directions in my work. Growth is where it's at, people! Otherwise what are we living for? In some deep place, children know this, as from the moment they're born they challenge themselves to grow by exploring different tastes, movements, and expressions.

Children, like my daughter in the photo, above, want to represent their world. But it isn't always as we might expect! As parents, we have a choice about whether to show our children how to draw things the way we think it should be done, or to allow them to discover their own ways, through experimentation. My son was once drawing a whole page full of lines, and I asked him what he was drawing (something I've since learned not to do), and he told me it was a drum. I was totally perplexed, and asked him where the parts of the drum were. This was a boy who had no problem drawing a circle--why would he choose to represent a drum with a whole lot of unconnected lines? "It's the sound of the drum." He said. Boom.

He didn't need my assumptions. He needed my appreciation, and the freedom to keep exploring. As long as we respond to our kids' experiments with curiosity and loving encouragement, they'll continue to know that where they are on their journey of growth is perfect. And that will be the impetus they need to keep growing with enthusiasm. I have no idea how my son's drawings of sound influenced his life, but considering he now is employed as a visual artist and makes music to accompany his personal visual projects, I'm relieved I didn't get in the way of that particular growth pattern by showing him "how to draw a drum."

Asking Helpful Questions

I realized during my children's earliest years that questions like "what are you drawing?" are extremely limiting. In that question I have determined that my child must be trying to represent a specific thing, and the assumption is usually that it's a visual representation of something we know. But what if it's not? What if it's our children's experimentation with colours, shapes or lines? Or sound, as in the drum example? That kind of experimentation--without intent to satisfy outside demands--is essential for learning to use materials. Professional artists actually bill for material experimentation; it's called "research". We even sometimes mount gallery exhibitions composed entirely of experimental output--often to great acclaim. So why would I limit the possibilities of my own child's artistic output?

But we want to ask questions! We know it's important to engage and encourage! So how can we ask questions that promote growth-dialogue about art (or anything), without limiting our children's growth or expression?

Think about the words in the question "What are you drawing?" The word 'what' carries the assumption they're trying to represent an object. The word 'drawing' means we assume they're focused on the output of the material in their hands, as opposed to the feeling, taste, smell, or movement of it. How are these assumptions limiting the range of acceptable answers?

Drawing by Taliesin, age 3.

Maybe we have a kid who is happy to contradict us, and says, "I'm not drawing anything. I'm dancing the pen," or, as in my son’s drawing, above, “Nothing. I didn’t tell you.” (I learned a lot about parenting from that bold rejection.) But more likely, our kid wants to please us; to learn from our example, and will find a suitable answer, like, "some lines," or as my daughter used to do, look at a bunch of lines she was experimenting with and come up with a wild explanation like, "it's a dog on a house with the family having dinner." It's tragically very common that kids learn to minimize themselves to match what they perceive coming from adults. I've seen plenty of kids who were making successful attempts at depicting what might have been people or animals declare that they were “just scribbling.” Why? Because maybe they feared hearing our criticisms, or maybe we've previously defined their drawings of animals as 'scribbling', or maybe, because their own inner critic is already developed enough to silence their voice.

Adults are notoriously bad at asking kids questions, and kids generally have rote answers ready to respond to each of them: How old are you? How is school? What are you making? What is your favourite colour/subject/sport/etc.? How are we so uninspired?! These questions aren't about engaging with kids or developing rapport; they're expected. What if, instead of asking what they're drawing, we invite them to tell about what they're doing? This is an open invitation to consider what they're doing and talk about it. It's up to us to be open to hearing their response, no matter how long, unexpected, or confusing it may be. Not all questions will be helpful for all kids in all situations, but through practice we can become better at asking good questions. Here's a list of interesting open-ended questions to use in engaging kids to talk about their art:
  • Interesting! Can you tell me about this?
  • Does this have a story or feeling?
  • How do you feel about what you're doing?
  • Show me how you like to use [material]...
  • What do you think about the materials you're using?
  • Are there any other materials you'd like to use?

Materials

Ah how I love shopping for materials!! And hoarding them!! Don't we all?! How much of our parenting waste is comprised of once-used adorable kits that were soon replaced by something newer and more exciting? I won't go on at length about this, because I've previously written a whole article about Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration. But suffice it to say that well-chosen art materials are the foundation of good artistic experience. And I don't mean the expensive stuff. I mean well-chosen. Materials can be anything from kitchen supplies to mud and sticks outside, to a mish-mash of mark-making, gluing, cutting and melting tools. The important feature of all of these things is that they do not come with instructions or intended uses. How we present and use materials is much more important than what they are.

Modelling

From the moment they were born, and possibly earlier, our kids have looked to us to lead them. The important thing to remember about modelling to our children is that it's happening all the time; not just when we do it intentionally. Our kids see our hesitation and fear with art as much as they see our enthusiasm. They see us avoid trying new things, and they see us when we courageously do them, and when we have small successes and failures. They emulate not only our actions but also the way we emotionally deal with these things.

With this in mind, the absolute best thing we can do for our children is to use any and all materials available to us to explore creatively, for our own happiness. That last bit is important. Kids can smell a fraud from a mile away, so we have to be creative in the way that we want to be. Otherwise we're just teaching our kids to put on a show for someone else's benefit, and that's nothing about authenticity.

And we should stretch ourselves. If we're accustomed to buying craft kits and following the instructions, we should absolutely try to break that habit (more on why in the materials article, above) and try experimenting with new materials. We can also stretch our definition of art-making. Try experimental baking! Try sewing or crocheting! Try putting on your favourite music, getting dressed up in fancy dress or costumes and dancing your heart out! Try painting your whole self and rolling around on an old sheet, outside. In the rain! It doesn't matter what or how you engage in art, just as long as you do it. And if your output isn't what you expect? Even better. Keep experimenting. You're modelling growth to your children.

Living a life full of joyful exploration and learning, ourselves, is the best way we can teach our children.
 

Nurturing Important Skills

Me, age 4, being an artist.
We’re culturally trained to associate specific skills and attributes with art: dancers should be thin and flexible, visual artists should be able to draw realistic depictions with technical skills like shading, perspective, and colour theory; musicians should first learn to read music and do scales. Unless we’re born talented, of course.

Oh hell, I hate the word ‘talent’! It's such a harmful concept. I wasn't born talented; I developed some skills in accurate rendering of my observations by having a keen interest in observing how things are put together; how the light plays on them, and being given room to experiment with materials throughout my life. It was easy for me because I loved it, just like my daughter loves telling stories, so writing is easy for her to learn. We develop the skills we need when we realize we need them, and as long as we're not discouraged from exploring them.

As parents and teachers, we need to help build foundational skills for life, and trust that those material skills will come when needed. As an artist, I owe a huge amount of my career satisfaction to some less-concrete skills and passions:

  • seeing the big picture in life, art, etc.
  • a keen interest in social phenomena
  • a passion for exploration and discovery


We really can't know what skills will be foundational for each of the unique kids we work with. Neither can we know the cultural landscape our kids will grow into, nor what careers will be common, when they’re grown. Who knew, when I was in art school twenty-five years ago that people would be making virtual and even invisible art to sell online, one day? Who knew I’d raise a son who gets paid to make thousands of geographically plausible planet renderings by using procedural generation techniques? His art process looks like a bunch of visual programming. I could never have predicted this, never mind taught him these skills. So when trying to support kids I parent and teach, I try to encourage growth of all sorts of skills. Life is not divided by subject. Careers are not determined by skill-acquisition. It's all interconnected. The more we learn, the more we can learn.

So Do You? Really?

Yes. I guess I really do want my kids to be artists--however that looks for them, and however it looks in the future we can only dream of. I want them to explore all the materials and develop all the skills I can’t even fathom right now. I want them to change the definition of the word “artist” to mean new and wonderful things, and I want them to keep on growing as the world grows, around them.

Friday, January 28, 2022

One Solar Year

I've begun a new project!  

One Solar Year is an observation of our shared, fragile, resilient humanity over the course of (surprise!) one solar year! I began the project at the previous winter solstice, and plan to write over a hundred poems before the next winter solstice, each inspired and combined with a portrait of wildness around my home. Our human experience isn't separate from the ecology around us; it's completely integral to it. The dewdrops, the haggard plants emerging from the snow, the wilting blossoms in the heat dome; they're part of our psyche, even when we don't notice them. I'm noticing them.

One Solar Year is an Instagram project, which may or may not become a book in the future. If you'd like to follow it, go here: https://www.instagram.com/onesolaryear/

 Thank you for your support. 🧡


Monday, January 24, 2022

Stay-At-Home-Feminist-Mom: Why I Traded my Early Art Career for the Privilege of Parenting My Children

Visual and film artist Lidia Patriasz paints the silhouette of my mother, Lyn van Lidth de Jeude, during a performance of my work, SuperMAMA, 2010. All the women who participated in this production were mothers; most were also visual artists or musicians, and these two were also preschool teachers. Photo by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude.

As a teen, I never really thought about becoming a mother. Finding the elusive “true love” — yes! But not kids. I was going to find a man who was supportive of my political views (and would understand there is nothing actually “political” about equal rights), and spend my life busting up the patriarchy with gusto! Through the amazing art career I had planned, I was going to save us from climate change AND our degrading societal norms, by showing the world what absolute tools for the patriarchy we’ve been, and getting us out from under the shoe of the Man. Yeah.

So… that didn’t go quite as planned. My man was not unsupportive, he was just mild-mannered and uninterested in the big angry mission I was on. But he loved me. And also: hormones. Somehow my hormones side-swiped my passionate goals, so that suddenly, and for a few years, there was nothing more important to me than having babies. (My teenaged self gets whiplash here: HUH?!) So I had my baby, and determined when he was nearly two that it was time to go back to my career… or have another baby. I chose that latter. The timing of this choice coincided with our first child’s registration for preschool.

Preschool is such a wonderful thing! These devoted people take our kids so we can go back to the work of tearing down the patriarchy! My mother in law tells of the glorious day she left both children at preschool, and walked away with her body upright for the first time in years! It’s the place you go to drop off your beloveds for a beautiful day of mind-building play and learning, and you — the newly freed mother — go back to your world-changing career!! YES!! (I was SO naive.)

In my case, the first two years of preschool were spent back and forth between nursing my youngest and tending to the eldest while he very slowly acclimated to a system that never worked for him: school. I said he acclimated. He never thrived. By the time my youngest entered preschool (where she absolutely did thrive), my job became accompanying my eldest to his Kindergarten, where he continued not to thrive.

It wasn’t a heartfelt thinking-through that led me to leave my career behind. It was just circumstance. I could never have left my son in that world that wasn’t serving him, and homeschool (unschooling, in our case), seemed like the best option. Nobody picks the second best option for their kids if they can help it. My husband and I rarely even talked about our life as a choice, and when we did, it was only that I apologized for not making any money, and that he reassured me my work with the children was equally important. I had found the equality I’d been fighting for: not in equal pay, but in being equally valued — at least by my partner.

Financially, staying home with my kids was certainly a sacrifice. On one income for the foreseeable future, we abandoned our dreams of owning our own home. We are incredibly lucky in being able to rent from my parents, which has meant we have a kind of home security unavailable to most renters, today. But it was a mouldy and rotten home, and has necessitated over a decade of my husband’s free weekends and vacation time spent rebuilding (he’s still not finished, actually). So we sacrificed free family time, as well. Of course all this meant that unlike many of our kids’ friends’ families, we rarely had money for vacations, new clothes, or sports and arts programs.

What we do have is an amazing attachment. That alone, and the benefits I knew it would have for my children’s lives, was enough to keep me home. It was enough to make every sacrifice of money, freedom, and career worthwhile. And I was so passionate about my work as a mother that it really became my life. I volunteered at various family-related organizations, served on and chaired various boards in my community, and founded and ran a few programs, all geared towards supporting healthy families in our community. I somehow never even saw the irony of becoming a stay-at-home-mom, after my passionately feminist youth, until people began pointing it out to me, as my kids grew older, and I continued staying home. It seems it’s reasonable for a feminist to have kids and attachment parent them, but then apparently one should put them in school and get back to work on smashing the patriarchy.

Well hold on! What if my work as a mother IS smashing the patriarchy?! Is feminism now relegated to single, childless women, or those who leave their kids in the care of others? What does that say about our respect for other women? Day-care workers and teachers are some of the forgotten sacrifices in this equation, disrespected in wages, benefits AND the mainstream feminist viewpoint. Like stay-at-home-mothers, they’re the people feminism blindly relies on to raise the next generation of feminists, while feminists are out doing “more important” things.

In the process of changing the world, there is NOTHING more powerful than raising children.

The way we raise our children determines how successful each generation of women will be at improving our lot. When caregivers aren’t valued as much as our economy values shareholders and industry-builders, we all lose. That goes for daycare staff, teachers, AND stay-at-home-mothers and homeschooling parents. Many stay-at-home-mothers are the volunteers in our communities who make the programs that support women and children. 

And all that is not to ignore the unbelievable power of setting an example. As parents, we are the greatest teachers our children will ever have. When they’re sixty they’ll find themselves blindly doing what they saw us doing. There is no such thing as “do what I say, not what I do”… our children will always do what we do. So when they see us living powerful lives, when they see our partners respect us; when they see us respect ourselves, they will follow suit. And if we take in other children to care for, we’re influencing those children, too, and their children’s children. In everything from the choices we make in life, to the ways we speak to our children to the ways we glance at ourselves in the mirror, in passing, caregivers are POWERFUL. We’re the grease in the wheels of feminism. I argue, actually, that women who put down other women for choosing to stay home with children are just part of the blind patriarchy. 

Without regular vacations, without owning a home, without being socially acceptable, I am privileged. I’m privileged to have watched my kids grow up; to have shared my own life with them, and to have grown alongside them. I’m privileged to have had opportunity to make a difference in my community, and to model that for my children, so that, as young adults, they’re now busy doing the same. I’m privileged to have developed a very close relationship with my kids.

The experience I’ve had in staying home with my kids and unschooling them is not available to all women: especially not to single mothers, or those with partners who are not supportive of the idea. Even as I now struggle to develop a career as a middle-aged woman with disability and not much documented work experience, I know how lucky I am to have lived the life I chose. My career has shifted from some-kind-of-subversive-artist to an artist that is deeply rooted in my own experience as a stay-at-home-feminist-mom. The first big installation I created was about giving voice to other mothers. Being a parent has given me a perspective on humanity that was deeply needed for my art-making, but not available to me until I’d had the experiences I have.

I didn’t trade my values and career for having children; I traded my early career for the extremely powerful, feminist privilege of parenting my children, full-on. Or, to shift the focus a little, I am using my chosen experience as a stay-at-home-feminist-mom to build a stronger foundation for my career, and thus hopefully to smash the patriarchy, even harder.

~ ~ ~

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Thursday, December 2, 2021

How to Prepare for Scarcity and the Great Inflation

Illustration by Taliesin River

"You’d better prepare for the greatest inflationary wave in human history." That's the line that stuck out to me, near the end of umair haque's REALLY good article, "Why Everything is Suddenly Getting More Expensive -- And Why It Won't Stop". If you haven't read this article yet, or aren't already familiar with the idea of the Great Inflation, and how we're now paying for the affordability of past generations, I recommend reading that article before reading this one. 

umair's article was very helpful to my understanding of why our groceries are getting so expensive or why, for example, I looked into second hand electric cars a few years ago and could find plentiful good options under 9K, and now there are none. So we know the Great Inflation is happening. My question is, how are we preparing?

Emergency kits and Go-bags are not going to cut it. Home preparedness is totally underway at my house. After this year's excruciatingly horrible wildfire season, we made plans to back up our family photos and prepared a little waterproof box for our phones, wallets and hard-drive, for when we'll inevitably have to jump in the ocean and swim. After this year's heat-wave, we bought an air conditioner that doubles as a dehumidifier for the now annual warm-and-foggy (read: in-house-moldy) season. After the deep freeze we insulated our chicken-coop. After the current flood-caused highway (and whole-town) washouts, we put emergency supplies in our car. After gas prices jumped and the flood-caused supply chain disruptions made gas rationing necessary, we looked into electric cars. I already told you how that went. 

But what's next?? We all know that none of this is enough. We can hardly predict the next climate-change-related disaster. Who knows how we should prepare? The one thing we all have to do is learn to live differently. And the change needed is so drastic we can hardly fathom it. Personally, I need lists to help me fathom. So I'm making one. In my mind it breaks down to three broad sections: things we need "much less", "none" and "more". My list is not complete or well-organised, but it helps me sort out my mind, so here goes:

We need much less of this:
Most things in this first section should actually be on the "none" list, but at the moment our culture is such that we're going to need a transitional phase. I guess that's what this is. This gives us time to learn and share some skills we've abandoned and get prepared for the time when, whether we like it or not, all these things move to the "none" section.

Travel: As fuel and steel prices rise, it's going to become impossible for most people to travel, anyway, and the many industries that depend on travel tourism will die, regardless. But on top of that, it's already becoming impossible to commute for work, to send our children to non-local schools or programs; to visit our parents. We're going to have to use our great ingenuity, as we have already proven capable of during the pandemic, to work around this.

Dependence on government: I'm not sure what makes us think that the government will just keep creating resources to fix and replace those destroyed by climate change, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that right now our government and military are pretty taxed just dealing with the constant march of disasters. At some point that's going to break. There won't always be soldiers available to build dikes and put out fires. We might as well get used to that, and expect to do the work, ourselves. Yes we can.

Clothing: I have such a clothing addiction! I think I buy very few things--just a garment or four a year for each person in my household. And recently I try to buy sustainably. But I also still own, alter and wear many clothes from my teens, and every decade between then and now. I probably have about ten times as many clothes as I actually need, and it's not like giving them away would be any more sustainable. Some parts of the world are drowning in our "donations" (take time to watch that if you, like me, still thought donating clothes was helpful). The only actual solution to this is to stop buying, entirely. I know I have enough clothing to last the rest of my life, if I do more mending. And I could clothe the rest of my family, too.

Non-local food and industrial agriculture: We know that industrial agriculture, along with fossil-fuel driven production and transportation, is a disaster for our future. Thousands of chickens and cows just drowned in my province when the artificially-drained land they lived on flooded, because of climate change. Our flimsy, human-made systems are going to crash so hard they can't recover. We might as well accept that now, and start something new so we're ready when they're gone. There are many viable solutions for this problem, and they begin with all of us eating more simply. 

Imported food: We can do this now. My family is Dutch, and we LOVE our imported cheese. My family is also Mexican, and we--wait! We already figured out how to make our own tortillas from local corn! This isn't going to be as hard as I thought. This isn't as big a deal, perhaps, as how our food is produced, but it's one way we can make a difference to our impact, and become more engaged in local food production.

Fossil fuels. Resource Extraction. ALL. THE. WASTE: We're already making some progress with this. As we limit our needless use of office buildings for computer terminal work than can be done online, we will need less concrete and steel. As we commute and travel less, we'll need fewer highways and less fuel. As we drive less, fewer cars. And on it goes. The stuff that supported our wasteful consumerist existence will no longer be needed, and we can stop pillaging and burning our earth's resources.

We need none of this:
We already know these things are destroying us, and we can eliminate them, now. Yes, there will be devastating job losses, and huge shifts needed in our culture and thought patterns. We'll have to get very creative. But you know how when a close family member dies we're devastated and we don't know how we'll ever recover? But then we do, and we grow. And we end up somewhere new we never could have imagined before the loss. This will be the same.

Tourism: Yep. That's probably the end of the travel industry. Airlines. Cruising. Little plastic souvenirs and the trusted income source of so many communities, including mine. We'll find other ways to enjoy our world, along with other ways of supporting our communities.

Careers that depend on global travel: So much of our current air-travel is related to needless work-travel. It's the end of my career as an artist who exhibits in Amsterdam. A few years ago I might have said, "at least I got to do it once..." Now I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't make this realization before that. Lucky for us, technology has brought the world to our handheld devices. We can make the most of this.

Needless consumption, supporting mega corporations, escapism: I, like most of us, grew up in an age where Christmas was actually about presents; about light shows in shopping districts and buying stuff to feel happy. I learned to satisfy my soul by shopping, by travelling; by escaping my real-world life into screens, food, shopping, and travel. Now that that world is falling apart, it's no longer satisfying to fulfill those consumption needs. For Christmas I want to be released from the "age of stuff", as my friend recently called it on Facebook. Oh yeah. Facebook. That has to go too. I'm going to have to actually go to out and talk to my community members in person. I hope I find some walking around without their phones.

So now what? Now that we've dispensed of most of the biggest industries in the world, most of the jobs, and everything we actually loved about life... how on earth are we going to survive? Well, maybe not on earth. The billionaires are already playing with spaceflight. Let them move to Mars. The rest of us will dig deeply into that "More" category, and thrive. 

We need more of this:
This is the beauty section. This is where we take all the grief and fear from the previous two sections of my list, turn it on its head, and marvel at all the joy we've found.

Local food (and other resources): The more of us go find sustainable, local producers to satisfy our needs, the more such producers there will be. It's not cheap to do this, so a huge part of it is valuing the food for what it's really worth. My partner and I decided to eat very little meat, a few years ago, and what we do eat should be sustainably produced. So in order to afford this (both ecologically and financially) we went from eating meat three or four times per week to a maximum of once a week. And we eat cheese about twice a month. I'm still looking for a really good local cheesemaker. When I find one, that cheese is going to be as expensive as it should be, but deeply, deeply appreciated. When you don't get something very often, it becomes so much more valuable. It's the scarcity principle, but this time it's working for us.

Sharing: My family has chickens, now. Sometimes we don't have enough eggs even to bake bread. Sometimes, we have enough to bake, make quiches, and share with our family. Those are happy times, when we feel rewarded by our ability to contribute. Like when my neighbour grew so many apples she asked us to come pick some. We ate so many apples that year. Sharing isn't always about food, or even objects. We make a point of learning and sharing knowledge with our neighbours, as well. Sharing isn't just necessary for the equitable use of community resources--it's necessary for our survival.

Finding sustainable ways to contribute locally: This is the joyful counterpart to the misery of losing jobs and entire industries; economical collapse that will be a natural fallout from rampant inflation. This is where we find ourselves working instead of for money, for survival. And I can tell you from my experiences supporting unschooling parents, teaching and writing for free, and raising plants and animals for food, it's the most rewarding work I've ever done.

Connecting with community and local ecology: We protect what we know and love. Those who know and love us are our resources, and will protect us. This is the foundation of a wholistic society, but it's also the root of love and joy, so... what more can I say?

Pointedly appreciating what we do have: This comes back to the scarcity principle. My family has been regularly cutting back our consumption for a few years, now. We're eating mostly rice, corn, beans and lentils, along with what we grow, ourselves, and locally-grown veggies in the winter. We really enjoy our mushrooms, now that we only get them when they decide to pop up in the garden, or when we find them growing in the wild. It's the same for our homegrown chicken, eggs and veggies. It's the same for clothes we've mended or repurposed. Now that we rarely get to see our family (because: travel), we appreciate phone calls so much more. I make a big deal in my heart of what we took for granted, before. And that leaves me feeling deep joy.

~~~

Maybe it's weird to be talking about deep joy in relation to climate change disasters and our current basic needs becoming unaffordable. But maybe we're just not seeing straight. The cost (as opposed the price) of our lifestyle has been astronomical since our parents and grandparents were children. Now we're finally paying for it, in climate change disasters and rampant inflation. That's going to hurt a lot, no matter how we slice it. But maybe some mental preparation can make the hurt more tolerable. 

Maybe, instead of dreading the fires or floods or the housing crisis, we can prepare by living more simply, by forming strong communities of people who support each other; by building and living within our means. Maybe instead of rushing to the stores to stock up when we hear there's a shortage of microchips, maple syrup, or gas, we can embrace scarcity. Those last few spoonfuls of maple syrup are extra special now; I can feel resilient by making do with older devices, and I can walk instead of driving. I can even stay home. I can change careers, if I need to. And most of us will. Maybe, instead of working ourselves to death and spending more than we earn on big homes; spending time and money we don't have on travel and products that cost us our future, we can work less, spend less, love more, and look at everything we do have as if it is a gift. Because it really is. And we're finally learning to cherish it. That cherishing--that appreciation and finding of deep joy--is how we prepare our minds for the inevitable.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Survival: Agility of Mind and Heart

One of the various road-collapses on the Coquihalla Highway in British Columbia.
Photo used with permission from Douglas Noblet, of Wild Air Photography.
Douglas has shared a series of these photos here, on Facebook.

I was looking at these photos by Douglas Noblet, this morning, which seem to be mainly of the Fraser Valley, and highway collapses of the Coquihalla and the Hope-Princeton, and I found myself wondering how long it will take to restore our infrastructure. Months? Maybe years for the Coquihalla? (More on what's broken, here: North Shore News

Then I realized that we're in climate free-fall, now. Any restoration is going to be hampered by increasing floods, blizzards, storms, fires, deep-freezes and heat-waves, not to mention the human issues like pandemics, supply-disruption, economic strife, labour and food shortages. Maybe the answer isn't how to get back to old-normal, but how we move forward instead of backward, and build new normal

The flooded Sumas Prairie in British Columbia.
Photo used with permission from Douglas Noblet, of Wild Air Photography.
Douglas has shared a series of these photos here, on Facebook.

Upon hearing that thousands of dairy cows (half our province's dairy production) have drowned in their barns, I am ashamed to say that along with immense grief, I felt an urge to go buy "the last milk". My cousin reports that stores are bursting with panic-shoppers. What was I thinking?! Milk?! Really?! Milk is not a "need". Thankfully we didn't buy any. 

But you know what is a need? Love. Community. Right now we have some of our extended family here, who out of sheer luck got briefly lost on their way home to Princeton, and managed to just barely miss being caught in the Agassiz slide. So they're stuck here on the coast while their town is flooded. The silver lining to this situation is that, while we haven't seen them in over two years, due to the pandemic, last night I got to feel their arms around me, again. It was a huge relief. 

I know these photos are terrifying. It's awful to wonder if or how our kids will manage if schools remain closed, as they are now throughout the flooded valley and other towns. It's awful to wonder how our supplies and jobs and communities will survive if these highways and industries don't get repaired soon. It's awful just to wonder what we'll feed our kids if they can't have cereal with milk and they refuse to eat anything else! I know--it's a fear borne of privilege. But it's fear. We feel so easily lost at sea with no answers; no clear vision of where we're going. This fear leads to panic shopping, competition, greed, and more reckless consumption. It's exactly how we got to this place in human evolution, and the only way out is to let go of the fear. 

Now I'm thinking about how we can change, instead of rebuilding. It isn't the cows' milk we depend on, nor the farmland it came from. The Sumas Prairie was created a century ago by draining an enormous wetland. It was never our land, to begin with, and the question of buying milk seems so meaningless, now. It isn't the infrastructure that creates land for industrial farming, or brings our groceries from afar, nor the schools that hold our children while we work to buy the milk. It's love. Love is what makes us resilient. Love is what has brought citizens and business owners in the town of Hope to feed and shelter travellers trapped by mudslides. Love is what gives us the strength to grow food in the first place, to share with our neighbours even when we barely have enough, ourselves, to hold up our communities and hold on to hope. Love is what supports us while our minds are doing the amazing task of being agile; of finding solutions to problems we never fathomed just a few years ago. Love is what creates agility of mind and heart, and gives us the power to survive. 

The new normal we need to be building will become evident as the old normal is no longer available. For me, it is found in the arms of my loved ones. If I never drink milk again, and if my whole "normal" becomes something I can't even fathom, right now, it will be built on love.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Travel is Becoming Unethical: Hyper-Local Exotica in Artistic Experience

"Mama Running in the Water"  photo by Taliesin River

One of my favourite natural events is when the meadow floods. That's when the rain comes fast and the creek that normally flows through the alder forest comes out around the trees to run across the compact paths between long grasses, creating two- to thirty-centimetre-deep creeks that speed along, where in summer, bare-footed dogs and children run. In winter, I've run these temporary creeks in bare feet too. I know the feeling of the mud and wet grasses between my toes, and the fear of stepping in drowned dog poop. The joy of the immersion is too great to be daunted by the threat of poop. As I've grown older, though, I've come to appreciate the benefits of good rain gear and tall boots, which allow me to dive into my landscape without physical repercussions.

Diving into landscape is something I've been thinking about a lot, lately: How, through residencies and travel and schooling or working abroad, artists aim to really immerse ourselves in different landscapes, to come home refreshed and inspired; often longing to return again to the exotic and wonderfully wild places we visited. We make art during or after these travels that sometimes explores the longing, the wildness or the bodies-in-place-ness of where we were; sometimes the brokenness of our human emotional existence across a diversity of different locations.

But pandemic and carbon-footprint considerations have led many of us to think deeply about the value and sacrifice of these muse-journeys. It's not only the air-travel that's a problem. There's also a problem with small villages taking a great percentage of their income from residence-tourism, or just tourism in general; when the actual residents of the community become dependent upon visits by people who will never actually become engaged in or contribute to the community as residents do, but only as grateful residence-artists. I live in a small community that gleans some of our income from tourism, and I know exactly how damaging a million tourist footprints are to the ecology of the place my own bare feet feel at home. I know how they take photos of this beautiful place, but never deeply understand the ecology; how they go home to write travel-blogs that extol the quaintness and quietness of my home but fail to capture the realness of our people; the political and social crises we feel, and even the imminent threat to the forests, fields, and beaches they're photographing. Once when I was small, my parents were out by the road cutting a tree into rounds for firewood--a gruelling job they did every year to keep our family warm--and some tourists drove up and stopped to watch them. They never got out of their car; just stopped to watch for a while and then drove away again.

I felt the other side of this problematic story keenly during my own residence in Amsterdam, a few years ago. I stayed and installed a project in the Goleb Project Space run by my friends Igor and Go-Eun. They welcomed and supported me graciously and while my experience was expansive, I noticed that the below-surface politics of the centre were very different than what I was experiencing as a visitor to the space. I wondered how my presence there had perhaps displaced others' work or intentions; how my ideas had changed the dialogue or intention of the group. Goleb is in one of the more mundane urban areas of Amsterdam, so I didn't think too much about my ecological impact, but one afternoon that changed. I was walking along the gracht (a small waterway for which we have no English word), getting closer and closer to an adorable family of coots, attempting to photograph them in what I thought was a remarkably interesting way, and a pair of men sitting on a bench nearby told me off for disturbing the wildlife. I reminded myself of the tourists I complain about, here in Canada. I had truly no idea of those coots' ecological value, nor who the guys on the bench were, or the stories they brought to that moment. It was all just an afternoon distraction from the project I was working on.

Then came the pandemic; the shutting down of most international travel. And the growing list of climate change disasters claiming our cultural, personal, and ecological heritage. Personally, I can't reconcile travel with artistic purpose anymore. I'm not even sure I can justify travelling overseas to visit family. So I'm thinking a lot about how we can be engaged and inspired by place without the inherent damage of travel.

The Un-Boxing Exhibition, arranged by Gudrun Filipska, Caroline Kelley, Lenka Clayton and Carly Butler of the Arts Territory Exchange, on arrival, here at Plas Bodfa, in Wales. Photo by Julie Upmeyer.

What if travel isn't necessary to become immersed in landscape, or even to experience exotic places? We've already proven quite thoroughly that many of the business- and organizational-meetings we used to travel for can be done over the internet. I joined my brother's birthday dinner by video-chat, and have attended a couple of symposiums by Zoom. Artists have always found ingenious ways of making art in collaboration and across time and space through the mail, telephone, internet, and travelling exhibitions or projects. For me and many others, the creative solutions were often borne out of financial or temporal necessity, but now perhaps we can make these choices also out of concern for our future. 

My work about my own Pacific Island, on a staircase in Wales.
Plas Bodfa. Photo: Julie Upmeyer

I'm including photos, here, of the Un-Boxing project I am honoured to be participating in, this year--a travelling box of works that examines ideas of place, travel, gifting, and time, as well as the delight of opening parcels. It seems a bit meta to me, and I can see how it might inspire a lot of searching and thoughtful dialogue. My entire experience of this show, so far, has been through others' lenses. For me personally it's reignited my passion for the hyper-local: If this is the view of my experience through others' lenses, what is the view of my experience, through mine? Or their experience of my contribution, re-experienced by me? I'm not a huge fan of navel-gazing, and now this sounds like meta-meta-meta, but maybe in trying to reevaluate our engagement with space and time and each other we can find new ways of experiencing. 

In a symposium I attended virtually today about mobility, spatiality and virtuality in Iceland, artist Zuhaitz Aziku of Strondin Studio suggested that we need to "make people realize that they're buying experience. Because you cannot ever buy experience." The experience is what comes from what we put into anything. Whether Zuhaitz intended this or not, he made me realize that experience doesn't need to be far away to be exotic. I've been exploring the exotic of my own backyard for over forty years. How can there be anything exotic in my own backyard, when my body knows every inch of it so well? Because, as Zuhaitz helped me to realize, my experience of this place changes with every moment. My intention and what I take away depends on how I engage, and that, too, changes with every moment. 

I think we travel in order to escape the routine of our lives; to break our minds from the same parade of sensual input we receive every day. It's easier to take a different view if we remove ourselves from our routines. But maybe that's just lazy. Maybe we can train ourselves to look differently every day; to pass the same places but never in the same ways. Maybe we can practice closing our eyes and listening to things we normally only see, or lying down in places we normally only stand. When I stop running through the meadow and crawl, instead, I discover that rodents have created pathways under the mat of grass. I find insects leaving trails of detritus inside these covered runways. It's like an entirely exotic world to the one I stood in just a moment before. When I run through that meadow in the flood, I feel a kind of sensory freedom that doesn't in any way compare to the way that grass feels in the summer. I wonder where the rodents go when the creek runs through their pathways. If I learn all of this, it won't be exotic anymore, but something new will happen tomorrow; there will be new questions and new experiences and new ways of engaging with this space. There will be new ways of experiencing and inspiring. I won't have to leave this place to find them.

Can I live in place in my own backyard and call it a residency? I sure as hell reside here, and the more I stay home, confined by pandemic and financial restrictions; my own ethical concerns around carbon footprint and supporting large corporate airlines, the more I see the value in this. Maybe we can adjust the expectation of worldliness in our artistic practices for the benefit of our common future. And far from becoming navel-gazing meta, our practices will expand into our spaces in a way that they never could when we were busy escaping for exotic experiences. We can use our art as a means for researching, understanding, and bettering ourselves and our own communities, in place.