Wednesday, May 1, 2024

How We Become

back cover illustration from Emily and Arthur, 1975
This morning I got up as I have almost every May morning for as long as I can remember, and went barefoot out of the house to wash my face in the dew and pick flowers for my mother. I don't know why I do it, and I don't know that my mother even knows I get that dew all over my face and feel so at peace in the world this way. Something inside me just feels this is right, so I do. I used to take my own children out to do it when they were little, but I don't think the practice has stuck with them in adulthood. Why do I do this? What makes it so important to my identity?

I came back home after visiting my mother to find this old book on my table. Emily and Arthur, by Domitille de Préssensé. It was there because my daughter and I were recently going through the children's books, reminiscing, and I'd pulled out a few of my old favourites. 

In these old books from the 70's, I saw how I became me, and some of how my children became, as well. The girl in the image above is Emily. She's wearing red--always--and holding her beloved hedgehog Arthur among the flowers. She has interesting things in her house like a "long stocking" that I always thought must have been a wonderful thing to have. And because my name is Emily, I grew up thinking this little red-clothed Emily represented me. Is she the reason I love to wear red? Maybe! Red just feels like it belongs with me! I remember feeling a lot like the way this Emily looks, as a child. I remember the feeling I had one May morning when I went out to find my mother some flowers and got distracted looking at woodbugs on the log where I eventually broke off a beautiful Turkey Tail fungus to bring in for her. I remember when I handed her that beautiful Turkey Tail with a couple of flowers how it couldn't encapsulate all the beauty of the woodbugs on the log, or the special curve of the broken wood, or the smell of the bark or the happiness of my heart. But I hoped she knew it meant I loved her. I became that girl on the back of the book--the one who is delighted by small found things--and am now a mother and artist who is also just still Emily. Still wearing red and going into the flowers to be me. How many Emilys have been somehow defined by this book?

As a parent, and former educator, and as an artist I know how much our childhood experiences mean to our identities. I sat wondering this morning how the idea of washing my face in the dew came about. I feel like I've been doing it all my life, but I can't ever remember doing it with my mother. Then I saw another of the treasured childhood books, and I remembered: The fairies drink the dew! When I turned four, my father gave me a book called In Fairyland, Pictures from the Elf-World, by Richard Doyle. In this book the fairies dance and fly and race snails... and drink the dew! I remember trying to drink the dew off the plants as a child, imagining I was one of the fairies. I guess somehow this became part of my personal May Day celebration. This is how traditions are born, how they grow and change and define us. And... this is the power of art!

page 13 of Richard Doyle's "In Fairyland, Pictures from the Elf-World", 1870

I always knew these and other images were drawings made by artists. Even the text of Emily and Arthur is a hand-drawn piece of art. Now I can see its influence in my own birthday-card making, and I can see how Eric Carle's rainbow of fruits for the Hungry Caterpillar informed the way I set up any painting, now. Nothing is complete for me without a whole rainbow.

So what have I given my children through the books I chose for them? Some I'm not so proud of, I confess, and some I can see in their life-choices, now. Obviously they were also more drawn to the books that suited their personalities--this isn't a one-way system of influence. And I chose things that suited them. We know that every move we make as parents will have effects on our children's psyches, that every mistake we make will cost them in self-doubt and therapy dollars, one day, and we hope they'll carry our triumphs forward as courage and happiness into their adulthoods. Our children become themselves in the environment they're given. 

But our sphere of influence doesn't end with our children. It grows from each of us into the world around us, whether we're artists or teachers or foresters, diplomats or farmers. We're all creating and influencing each other every day. The choices we make in the language we use, in every bit of media we consume, and in the products we bring into our lives all influence everyone we come into contact with. And through our contact we become ourselves, in community. Living with this in mind is self-determination. This is how we become, as a species, or perhaps even as a planetary ecology. It's good to remember that in everything we do, we have a choice.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Art for Change: When Connection and Conversation Are the Outcome

"(dis)robe Gaia Gown", worn by the artist, in conversation with a fellow Covid long-hauler.

I could see him drifting across the polished concrete floor of the convention centre, blue-jacketed arms spread into a perfect reflection of the very wide smile that punctuated his neatly-trimmed ebony beard. He was studying the very sad-looking portrait of my recently-divorced brother that adorns the train of the gown I had on display. He circled the gown slowly, hands splayed as if to catch every bit of story it offered, taking it in with sparkling eyes and smiling, smiling, until he looked into mine, and said, "did you make this?"

"Yes," I answered. "It's called '(dis)robe: Nursing Gown'. Tell me about your big smile!" And he told me he felt seen. We talked for a long while about how crippling our societal expectations can be for people of all genders. We talked about how trapped the painted man looked, even though he held the mannequin by a dog-collared lead. We talked about how the patriarchy crushes all but the wealthiest people--it was never about men versus women; it's just a few billion pawns fighting for survival under the shoe of someone much more powerful. And what if we were to work together, instead?

I just finished a four-day stint of exhibiting some of my wearable art pieces at the Art Vancouver fair. This gave me opportunity to reflect quite a bit on why I do what I do. My purpose as an artist hasn't changed, but it has deepened and I suppose I feel it more intensely, now. I'm here to connect people with each other, with their own authenticity, and with a more equitable, sustainable future. My art is a conversation-opener. Conversations like the one I had with this blue-jacketed man are the cornerstone of social change. They're the space where the change takes root in our hearts.

See those two people talking at the back of the image below? They're talking. Their hearts are making change. During this show I also spoke with many children who wondered what was "going on with the boobies" on that Nursing Gown, or whether they could touch the insects on the Gaia Gown, and I saw children pull their mothers around the skirt to identify the flowers they knew. People wondered where they might wear such unusual dresses, or why anybody would want to. "Definitely not to work!" One of them exclaimed.

The main piece of this winter's artistic journey for me was the Long Covid gown, '(dis)robe: Hospital Gown' (image at the top). It involved over 300 selfies contributed by Covid long-haulers from around the world, transferred to an altered donated hospital gown. From the back of the gown, trailing from a drawing of my son's hands (because when my Long Covid was at its worst, he used to help me walk by gently pushing my back), was a hospital-blanket train covered in some of the most common symptoms of Long Covid. These are the symptoms that millions of people worldwide live with every day, often confined to home or bed, invisibly. So the train is supported by a wheelchair that is also partially hidden. There's symbolism in everything I do, and this was my opportunity to give a voice to the millions of people who, like me, live mostly invisibly with Long Covid.

And when I got too exhausted (shaky, blurred vision, heart palpitations) from wearing the gown and talking to people, I could just step back and sit in that wheelchair. A purpose-built wearable art piece! This is what comes of making art that truly deals with my own personal experience.

I invited many people from the Long Covid community to attend, so it was no surprise that this was a conversation piece for long-haulers, nurses and other health professionals. Some people even came to delight in finding their own faces on the gown! But it was also a chance for us all to be visible to others--many of whom had never realized Long Covid was happening in the world. Education is change-making.

This weekend was, for me, an opportunity to see other people becoming; changing, evolving, and questioning themselves. It was an opportunity to hug so very many lovely souls, and to express gratitude for their thoughts and opinions. There were people just visiting from afar, people who came to support artist friends, and people who were also showing work at the fair, or working to organize. There were people who came just to buy a pretty painting, but ended up chatting about climate change, gender politics, and the healthcare system. My own display confronted people with sometimes-difficult topics, and yet they bravely engaged. This reminded me that while we sometimes want to hide from challenges, humans are mostly courageous, and generous with our intentions.

I was not the only artist there trying to change the world through art. Humanity is a great kaleidoscopic spectrum of beautiful people, reaching across so many circumstantial divides to connect and thrive. We're like all the network of roots, mycelium, compost and microorganisms in the forest floor: a vibrant bubbling potion of hope, and a foundation for continued life. In following our own paths with so many tentative, compassionate feelers, we're finding our way.

Video of (dis)robe: Gaia Gown performance

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

(dis)robe: Hospital Gown

This wearable art project about Long Covid is finally finished and filmed (thanks to Taliesin River!) It's also available to see on Instagram if you like, in a different format: https://www.instagram.com/p/C5R9o3ZxVmP/
 
Thank you SO much to the hundreds of people who participated, who shared this journey and who have held my heart as I worked on this. It has been my huge honour to represent you all in this way; to create something that can speak for us.
 
(dis)robe: Hospital Gown will be performed and displayed at the Art Vancouver fair, April 11-14, 2024. 
(To see full-screen video, click "YouTube" when it begins playing, and watch on YouTube.)



Text of the poem from the video (Emily van Lidth de Jeude):
 
It's Not Over
                  from behind the windshield
           waiting for my blood-test
           I see you getting        back to normal
                  walking on the sidewalk like
                                              it’s easy
                                because Covid is over
    telling me
           don’t worry
                  it’s safe now
           just get some exercise
        you’ll feel better       stop masking
           because covid is over
              and you don’t see
    that behind my mask I’m masking
                         my disability

because now my normal is different than yours
           and the Covid is not over
              when I walk       the blood
                pools in my legs and my lungs constrict
                  and the pox come back       the shingles
                    and the screaming       lungs
                     hold fluid         exhaust me
                     and the world becomes blurry
              I can’t see
you anymore because my mind is blurrier than the windshield

but it’s not over when I get home       I will stop masking
     what I’m living with       collapse       shake
           never mind the bone-ache
        I will treat my fever and sleep
     for a week
and it won’t be over

but now, because a blood-test means hope
with a hand on my back he walks me to the lab
he took the day off work to drive me here
I long to work again     just walk       even
                                     to feel valuable
but I don’t tell him that
because his burden is already
              too much

in the morning he rolls me
presses pillows under me
and pulls underpants onto my feet
so I can reach them       he strokes my hair
and brings me food and asks
if I’m OK
                         and I say better
                          than yesterday
                                because
                     I’m afraid of his fear
              and it’s ironic consolation
          that I’m one of many millions
             that my small adventure
                today    to the lab
                 is not even possible for so many of us
                    for whom Covid
is not over

    and four years of doctors wringing hands       telling us
           there’s nothing they can do and we should learn to
pace
                         maybe we just have asthma       or anxiety
                              maybe we’re just sensitive
                                                    or lazy
                  and it never ends
                                                                 and it’s not over
          we keep persisting
          go for more tests
          visit more specialists
          explain to more family
                                                     it’s not over
                                                 but we keep persisting

and in moments of despair
looking out from the pall
we quietly tell other long-haulers
because they’ll understand                    we wish
                                                          it was over
                  and in silence
              with blurred vision
         and shaking hands
                we hold each other up
           by the hundreds and thousands
                                                 by the millions
                                               we keep persisting
                              it’s not over

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Playgrounds, Gaza, and a Forest: How Competition Impedes Prosperity

One damp autumn day, I crossed the dirt and wood-chip playground to the swings, where I saw a girl a couple of years younger than I was, and also the bottom of her grade's social heap, swinging on the best swing. You know the best swing? It's the one that is for some reason not spun up out of reach by the older kids, and the most visible to the playground supervisor, so other kids don't bother trying to haul you out of it. During those years, I spent all recesses and lunch hours either hiding on the bluffs, up in a tree, or firmly glued to that swing and swinging fiercely back-and-forth, back-and-forth, daring people to come near me with a glare they never noticed. But this day, this younger girl's thick brown hair flew back-and-forth, back-and-forth over her raincoated shoulders. I stood at the pole of the swing-set and ground my boots into the dirt. When nobody was looking, I told her passing face that I was magic and would turn her into a rock if she didn't get off and give me the swing.

When I was a kid I was near the bottom of the social heap. The kids who hurt me the most were also hurt the most by their parents, or by other kids at the school. It's normalized, in our culture, to turn and dish out to someone else a cruelty that was served to us. School, career-building, politics, capitalism--they're all just games of getting ahead of others, and put us in a position where we feel that "getting ahead" is the same as "prosperity". It's an illusion, but our longstanding capitalist social structure leads us to believe in it at the cost of vision and community. 

Israel is flexing its playground seniority in Gaza. It feels heartless to compare genocide to playground bullying, but I want to point out that in accepting what we see as insignificant cruelty in our privileged day-to-day as a necessary cost of getting ahead, we also pave the way to accept greater and greater atrocities. I understand from my playground experience how easy it feels to commit some lesser act of cruelty against another person when I've been hurt. So by extrapolation, I get that maybe if your people has been persecuted for thousands of years, and even in living memory was the pointed victim of horrific acts of genocide, it might seem less than horrible for (some members) of that people to commit genocide against the next victim down the chain. I mean, aren't we all just making gains by stepping up upon the backs of those just below us in rank, privilege, or esteem?

Well no--not everybody is doing that. Some of us from every race, religion, and social ranking in the world are in fact trying very hard not to be that kind of monster. Some of those in my circles who are most vocally supporting freedom for Palestinians are my Jewish friends. Because fighting to get or stay on top of a social pyramid does not equal prosperity! Because some of us learned this important lesson in childhood.  

Back in my elementary school playground... I have never forgotten the look of horror on that girl's face, and my triumph at seeing her run away, so I could get to safety on that swing. My triumph was the worst. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach, after she left. I didn't know where she had run to, or who might be kicking her, feeding her dirt, or holding her down and whispering the most vile threats in her ears. I remember thinking we looked rather similar and maybe she could have been my friend if I hadn't been so desperate to get that swing. I felt that getting the swing gave me safety, but it also took away hers. I remember that my triumph came with a horrible cost to my feeling of righteousness, and that year I became one of those people who knows better than to pass the bullying on to the next rung down the ladder. Sometime after that I bravely spoke a few words to my bullied-mate in the classroom. We had a breath-holding competition. So for a couple of minutes we found common ground in an environment of terror and ladder-climbing, and I think in some small way we both learned to transcend the hierarchy of our class.

We can ALL learn from our mistakes. We can all look at our leaders and our cultural and personal privileges and refuse to make progress at the cost of others. Sure, we're trying to survive in what is, at its root, a culture of competition, and to some degree we have to participate in the status quo to survive. But we can also work to change it. Those of us with more privilege have more ability to effect change. We can change the ways we look at others; we can choose to befriend the people who make less money than we do, the people whose lashes lower when we speak to them; the people who seem least likely to improve our social status. We can look critically at our privilege and resources and belongings and ask ourselves what we actually need, and how we can change our lives and share the excess to achieve a social balance in our community. We can remind ourselves that a balanced community means prosperity for all. 

Does prosperity mean a lack of suffering? Of course not. We're all going to die. We're all going to hurt. We're all going to lose loved ones, and health, and hope. But a balanced community is exactly the only thing that will sustain us through these challenges. And we can look to the ecology just outside our city limits for inspiration in achieving prosperity through social balance. 

A tree in a forest. If a maple drops ten thousand seeds on the forest floor, all but a few hundred of those are likely to be eaten by insects, rodents and birds before they ever sprout, and of those that do sprout, most will be eaten as spring greens by the likes of deer, and others. And maybe five will grow to be saplings, and maybe zero will live to become trees, most years. Until one day the mother tree has crumbled under the weight of some winter snow and in the mess of her fallen limbs, one of last year's saplings will grow sheltered and become a tree, itself. But you know what? In all those years where not a single one of those seeds grew to maturity, that original tree fed the ecosystem around her, and reached her roots through the landscape to share nutrients with the neighbouring trees. All the other plants and animals' droppings and dead bodies fed the soil, and now that soil is rich with microbial life and nutrients, and that new maple tree will grow strong--not on the backs of all those it conquered, but in an ecology of giving and dying and growing. The maple tree has no fear of falling behind. She is a sanctuary for mosses, ferns and all kinds of insect, microbial and animal life--she is part of that life. She's just growing and giving and crumbling and feeding her ecology. And that is why she prospers. I want to learn some of that wisdom.

What if there was no fear of falling behind in human society? Would we carry, feed, and connect with each other; with our ecology? Would we relish those connections instead of conquering others? I feel like I've experienced this when I sing in community. When my own voice drowns away among the voices of others, but together we're a beautiful sound. I experience it when I play with children in the wilderness. We're each so insignificant in the big forest, but our play changes the landscape and we see the impact of our being there; we learn to play carefully. We learn that if we destroy the stream-bank, then the water downstream will be muddy, and then we'll have no clean water for drinking, anywhere. We learn that affecting anything (anybody) will have impacts on ourselves.

If my life depends on privilege gained through competition, and supported by people who aren't being supported by me, then when those people's lives falter, so do I. We can't build a pyramid to stand on, then rip out the stability of the base, and expect to keep standing on the top.

And from another perspective, when we've prospered exponentially at the cost of the ecosystem that supports us without honouring it, giving back to it, and living in harmony with it, the ecology we depend on is faltering underneath our ridiculous pyramid, and we're all beginning to discover what happens, then.

Our system of pyramid-climbing is not a strong one. A strong system is lateral. Like a forest, or a group of people singing. A strong system loses a limb and regrows to heal the wound. A strong system has no leaders, but many trusted and equal members, all giving instead of taking. Giving is not sacrifice, it's prosperity.

It's scary to think of not having enough (food, money, land, power, achievement, influence, etc.) In a hierarchical culture, "not enough" equals failure, threat; fear. For those near the bottom of the cultural pyramid in my community it means no shelter; no food. For those on the bottom in Gaza it means abject trauma every day. It means death. Is this an acceptable cost for my "getting ahead"? I don't want this kind of unstable throne. I don't want to support a global society that prospers on hierarchical oppression, because in that kind of culture, everybody is a potential pawn, or enemy. Everybody is unstable. 

I want to transcend capitalism and find joy in uplifting others instead of uplifting myself at a cost to others. I want to stop prospering as an individual, and when I fall, I want to fall down in community, knowing that others will grow into my wounds. I want to be worth more than what I own or who bends under my feet. In a lateral community I will be worth the whole of us. I want the mirage of hierarchy to disappear and I want us all to be free.

Free Palestine.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Participate in a Long Covid Awareness Project!

CALLING PEOPLE WITH LONG-COVID:
 
I'm looking for self-contributed photos of people who have or have had Long-Covid. 
 
I live with Long-Covid myself, and am currently working on a Long-Covid art piece, which will be performed and displayed at the Art Vancouver fair in April, 2024, and likely more places, after that. The piece will be part of my (dis)robe series, and titled Hospital Gown. It will be a wearable art piece made of a hospital gown and hospital blanket, and including a train Long-Covid symptoms and research findings over a gown of the faces of Long-Covid! I will need at least a few hundred faces of the millions currently affected in order to make a solid statement. The purpose here is to increase visibility for this issue, as well as for the many who are affected. Hopefully through awareness we'll also get more research.
 
Edited to add: The 200+ people who have already sent their selfies for this project have humbled me. I've had personal conversations with over a hundred of them; have shared stories of symptoms, of ups and downs and hopes and despair. We've talked about some of the things that are helping us persevere, and of who we were before all this. The images I'm collecting cover a range of experience from pre-covid wellness to the depths of illness. There are masked, gowned and tubed people, and smiling faces in work and athletic gear. This experience has been personally very motivating for me. It's easy when, like me, we've been sick for 4+ years, to forget our humanity and to accept the social perception that we're just a bunch of sick people. This project is reminding me that before this we were active contributing members of society. We want that back. This is why raising awareness matters.
 
Current concept drawing for (dis)robe: Hospital Gown, Jan 25, 2024

In April 2023 the National Library of Medicine published that "at least 65 million individuals worldwide are estimated to have long COVID, with cases increasing daily." This gown will be a part of sharing that story with the public.

Huge gratitude for these first 72 faces that will become a part of the upcoming project! I now have nearly 200 contributed faces, and hope to finish with 300.

IF YOU HAVE OR HAD LONG COVID AND WANT TO PARTICIPATE:
 
Just send me a photo of your face--any photo you like (although face must be visible). That's it!
You can Instagram DM @emilyvanartist or send in an email to emilyvanartist at gmail dot com.
 
Yes it will be anonymous! Even if I see your name when you send me the photo, it will be printed without a name and added anonymously to the gown.
 
I would also very much appreciate this post being shared, as I hope to get at least a few hundred photos on this art-piece. Thank you!

New Year New Projects!

WOW it's been a year!!!
If you follow this blog or my Instagram feed, you already know I was lucky enough to install three shows this year, all with the gracious help of my partner Markus, and one with my first project grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. I also hold enormous gratitude for the Hearth Gallery and the Gibsons Public Art Gallery for hosting these shows, and to the huge number of supporters I'm beginning to realize I have for not only showing up at the openings and to take in the shows, but also for buying quite a few of my paintings to bring home. Because of this support I was able to donate over $1400 this year to support the Bowen Island Conservancy, an organization that works hard to advocate for and preserve wilderness around my home. It feels humbling, in the way my wedding did, nearly 25 years ago now, when I looked out of the window and saw the guests gathering, and realized that these people cared about me. It's very deeply personal, and in the case of my art, it means I'm able to make an impact in protecting and educating about the things that are important to me. And this is huge.

In my studio working on paintings about the Shuswap fires.

As I sit here contemplating the year, the things that stand out are even more personal. My kids moved out last January and are now paying their own way in the city, some friends lost their homes in the raging wildfires we had this year, we lost a few loved ones both in my family and the community, and I'm FINALLY beginning to recover some of my ability after 3.5 years of living with long covid. Interesting, because 3.5 also happens to be the number of MILLIONS of Canadians who have or have had long covid, as of StatsCan's December 2024 publication.

So this leads to my next project: Hospital Gown.
This wearable art piece will be part of the (dis)robe series, and will be made from donated used hospital gowns and blanket, along with an ever-growing collection of photos of Canadians currently living with long-covid. Again I am humbled by so many people putting their trust in me as an artist to bring their faces into the wider community. The gown is barely started, but has already been invited to the Art Vancouver fair in April. I'll wear it to the opening event, there, whereafter it will be displayed along with other gowns from the collection. I still encounter quite a bit of misinformation and disbelief about long-covid, especially because those of us with autoimmune disease are so invisible. Either we're hidden away with our illness or we're out in public trying our damndest to look healthy. So it means a lot to me to have this opportunity to bring the faces of so many invisible sufferers out into the world.