Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Postive Language of Evolution

Look all over the news today. Or any day during the past many years. You are likely to come away with a sense of dread, if not fear. Sure, there will be some positive stories, but words like 'decline', 'collapse', 'fear', 'threat' and 'extinction' seem to be everywhere. I personally spend a lot of my time in fight or flight mode: fight the devastation of our civilization's demise, or bake cookies and tell myself (and my kids) we're going to be just fine, while inside telling myself I'm a liar. Maybe I'm not.

What if, instead of reminding myself at every turn that we are doomed, I shift the tone towards something more positive? OK, some of you might wonder why this never occurred to me before, and of course it has (hence the cookie-baking), but changing our minds is a slow process, and maybe this is another step on my journey.

I was just listening to CBC's Unreserved, where Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, discussed the words we use to discuss aboriginal languages, and how those words affect the way the language thrives or declines. She mentions words like "dying", "extinction" and "declining", which put negative expectations in our minds, and words like "revival", "reclamation", and "revitalization", which are empowering to speakers of the languages and to the languages' own vitality. This made me think about my last blog post, which I dramatically titled "Living Well in the Apocalypse". I did have second thoughts about that title, thinking maybe that "Post-Consumerist Age" would have been better than "Apocalypse", but I told myself it wasn't as catchy. I think I'm too concerned with catching my readers' attention. Sure, "Apocalypse" will get me lots of Google results, but will it help me achieve my goal? My goal is to see a positive future, despite current global threats.

A threat creates fear, and fear can definitely lead us to take action, but is it the action that we want? Or more specifically, is it the action that will best serve us in the long term? Studies show us that conservatives are fearful, that we can make liberals more conservative by heightening their fear, and that we can make conservatives more liberal by helping them to feel safe. This blows my mind. I suddenly see this in play everywhere. I heard of a girl in our city who was sexually assaulted after getting off her bus, and I immediately went to my daughter's room to warn her and declare tighter restrictions on her freedom. How does this keep her safe? I know in my rational mind that what we need to do is educate, love, and support our children so that they will become neither the victims nor the perpetrators of this sort of crime, but in the face of sudden fear, I acted on the impulses of my amygdala. By the way, the right amygdalas of conservatives are bigger and more active.

If fear is what is keeping us from stopping climate change, from developing a fair and egalitarian society, and generally from saving our species from extinction, shouldn't we let it go? Obviously it's not that easy, but I intend to try my best, and I'm beginning by looking at my successes. Unschooling is one of them. I admit that I leaned towards unschooling my children because my own school experience was so terrible that I wanted to protect them from it. However, within a couple of years, I saw such amazing positive results that I continued unschooling (and blogging and teaching from an unschooling perspective) because I loved it. And it's been wildly successful. My kids, husband and I spend close to zero time bemoaning the school system, and a lot of time looking joyfully at our many opportunities and engaging in them. The result of this is that we have two engaged, confident learners, and have also managed to bring some of this fabulous learning theory into a few schools. And above all, we feel great about it!

If education and child-rearing can be such a joyful innovative adventure, so can the rest of the societal changes we need. Maybe we'll figure out how to properly convert to solar energy. Maybe cutting back on plastics, instead of meaning sacrifice, can mean growing, developing and purchasing amazing new foods and products! Maybe living without big corporations can mean a blossoming of new, locally-developed community resources! This can be beautiful.

So my personal challenge now is to do this for the seemingly insurmountable problems facing our species' future. Wait. Not problems -- opportunities! Language matters. Let's try that again.

I hereby challenge myself to find positive, exciting opportunities for growth! Evolution. I would like for human evolution to be progressive rather than reactionary. I don't want to be cutting out the things I love; to sacrifice joy and abundance out of fear. We have more than enough resources to live very well without decimating our planet and each other. I would like for those I love to feel safe in this societal progress, and for all of us to evolve, finding wonderful new ways to thrive, together. I want to run out into the sunshine of our new and fabulous future.

Thursday, September 27, 2018


I have this huge big massive stick of graphite. I mean it's about the size of a landjaeger sausage. And soft. I keep it wrapped up in leather so I have something to hold it by without sliding around in the graphite, myself. And I use it to attack my work. The giant smudgy dark and soft and hard lines it makes are as enigmatic as my feelings.

The biggest reason I'm a hands-on materials artist is emotion. I use art to deal with my emotion, so my art is usually pretty expressive. There's a lot that comes out of the body - feeling through physicality that then gets transferred to the work. I remember my highschool art teacher encouraging me to paint by just holding the very end of a long paintbrush, and I struggled hard with that. I struggled to keep control, until I grew up and realized that she was right: when the conscious mind loses control, the unconscious is still in there, and finally shines, with all its crazy, unpredictable ways. Emotions are freed.

I have an autoimmune disease that has never been formally diagnosed but has been explored for decades by my faithful doctor. My symptoms shift and change and I've been through all kinds of potential diagnoses and healing modalities. The one thing I can tell you for certain is when I'm emotionally distressed my body reacts with inflammation. So my doctor sent me to a psychologist who explained to me that my body was harbouring the emotions I wasn't letting out, packing them into various places to manifest as inflammation and dysfunction.

So these days I let the emotions out. I put on the music that either inspired the piece I'm working on or that speaks to the feeling of it; I dance and sing and shout in my studio, I scribble and slash and hit and often push the material I'm using into the substrate with my bare hands. I laugh and often cry. I can't tell you how many times I've left the studio with paint or graphite in my hair and on my face from wiping away tears. I don't care anymore about keeping some kind of respectable appearance. I care that I put everything I had into the piece. I care about getting the damn emotions out of my body and onto the surface or into the dress, or into the words I'm writing.

I hope my emotions reach people. I hope I give people a space to feel and to express and become. I hope we can all find more spaces to emote, to share, to live and love and cry together.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration

(Cross-posted from the Rickshaw Unschooling Blog)
When I was in high school there was a poster on the door of my art classroom that displayed the then-ubiquitous 3 R's (Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmatic) along with a 4th: aRt. I think Mrs Sunday never knew how much that poster influenced my life. In grade twelve I spent nearly every lunch hour in the corner of the art room, using up her acrylic supply for finger-painting, and paint-squirting. To her enormous credit, she let me do it. I still do it, and I encourage everyone to do it - to get as messy and unexpectedly creative as possible with whatever supplies they're given.

I spend a lot of time on my other blog talking about explorative wilderness play, but many readers know I'm also an artist and art educator, so I am often asked about "real" art supplies, and what kinds of simple art projects are good for various situations. I feel like it's time I give a nice solid answer to that.

First, let me be clear: The best way to learn art is by exploration. Art is also a wonderful explorative activity for learning everything else. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2012) states the following:

"The benefits of play are recognized by the scientific community. There is now evidence that neural pathways in children’s brains are influenced and advanced in their development through exploration, thinking skills, problem solving, and language expression that occur during play.

"Research also demonstrates that play-based learning leads to greater social, emotional, and academic success. Based on such evidence, ministers of education endorse a sustainable pedagogy for the future that does not separate play from learning but brings them together to promote creativity in future generations. In fact, play is considered to be so essential to healthy development that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children."
So all those wonderful prescriptive art projects where you know the outcome before you begin, and the process of creation means following instructions? Those awesome craft kits that come with the pictures of what it will look like when you're done? They're junk. Throw them away. Or at the very least, get rid of the packaging and present the included materials with no expectations or directions and let the kids do whatever they want with them. Yes little ones might eat the crayons. So make sure they're non-toxic. Older kids might also melt them to make candles or wax prints or just to see how cool the melted colours are when pouring them around. Awesome! All of these things are actually done by professional artists all the time, so it's not even a stretch of the imagination to see their value. In fact, a stretch of the imagination is exactly where the value is to be found - because that is where the learning is. When I apply for an art grant for my own artistic practice, it always includes funding for "research"... which in the art world means experimentation and playing with material, form, and method.

It's important to think about how the presentation of the materials influences the way we use them. My father used to own a toy store, and supplied the Waldorf school in North Vancouver with the wonderful beeswax block crayons they use. He always had a lot of blacks left over, because they don't use those in their program. How does a child's thought-process change if they are never presented with the option to colour with black? We can't know for sure, but I am positive there are some interesting associations, there. I give me children all the colours. But do I always present them in rainbow-gradient? No. And amazingly, the kids end up sorting them themselves, into a myriad of different patterns, either because the sorting itself is fun, or because it's useful for whatever they're doing with the crayons. This, too, is an important part of their learning. It's how they familiarize themselves with the materials they're using, and with the colours they're working with.

Now for some material suggestions. I'm going to go most often with the cheapest alternatives, because we live in a disastrously consumerist society, and none of us needs to be buying new materials when they're not essential. Even on a tight budget you can get a load of materials at huge stores, but you don't need to. Going with unexpected chance finds from the local thrift shop, recycling depot, or other people's refuse not only saves money but also opens all sorts of new avenues for experimentation and problem-solving that will teach your kids more than a pristine new package from a store will.

Art-making space: Whatever your circumstances, just make sure you provide a large area where mess-making is acceptable and clean-up is easy. A large table is great but if you don't have one, or don't have suitable chairs, a corner of washable floor can be great too. Outside, a sheet of plywood on the ground suffices. I've done this often. Cover the space with a heavy paper that can be used for mess-making, drawing, or notes, and replaced when necessary. You can also cover it with a heavy plastic table-cloth, but glues and acrylics will eventually make the plastic lumpy, so I still recommend the paper-cover on top to make cleanup easier. 

But... don't keep art confined to this space. Take it to the kitchen. Bake cookies and cakes and decorate those; fill the sink with water and drip paints in or use the surface for oil-resist prints. Take art outside. Do tie-dyeing or papier mache there. Paint the lawn; paint your car or bicycle or front door. My uncle once gave his young children house paints and had them hand- and foot-print the front entry room. Decades later, their beautiful creative creation is still the welcome that guests first receive. Make everywhere art space.

An Easel: Not only does it give a new perspective to have your workspace upright, but dripping paint is wonderful, and should be encouraged. However, you don't have to go get an expensive easel. A stable propped board will do, as will an old sandwich board on a table. The best accessory for your easel, though, is a pair (or more) of large bulldog clips to hold paper in place.

Storage: If you want to have a beautiful art corner, you still can, even if it's not colour-coordinated or tidy. A bunch of large bins and a very few smaller ones will do well, or similarly a chest of drawers. We do have a great art-storage carousel that has been in use in our house for many years, holding an assortment of whatever the currently-most-used supplies are. This makes a greater number of supplies more easily accessible to various people seated at a table, and a handy place to put them away quickly. But it's not essential. A bunch of materials rolling around the table can actually inspire new ideas.

Some kind of drying rack is a great idea. We never had space for one, but the end of our dining room table was usually used for drying. Still, if you have space, old oven racks or baking racks can be a great thing to have in your art area. A permanent set of wire-rack shelves is amazing.

Paper: It really doesn't matter what you have - just have some. Preferably lots. We commonly have whatever papers people have passed on to us, including old letterheads, those old perforated printer-papers, construction and manila papers, some old used sketchbooks that people threw away with 80% of their pages still unused, and various types of white and coloured printer papers. I also supply my kids with the seemingly endless supply of graph-paper which they love. No papers have specific intentions. It's OK with me if fancy sketchbook papers get used for note-taking or construction or torn-up little shreds of I-don't-know-what, or even crumpling into balls and called 'cat toys'. Getting the paper second-hand helps me let go of my own hang-ups about 'intended use' and 'value', which gives the kids a broader explorative environment, and greater learning opportunities.

Cardboard: You could go all out and have some gigantic boxes for construction experimentation (my kids have built cars, rocket-ships, stores and villages, and most recently, as teens, a vending machine which they took into public for entertainment). But at the very least you should have some old boxes or scraps around in case construction starts happening. I hope it does!

Cutting Devices: Good scissors, appropriately sized for the people using them. An exacto knife. Obviously not for young ones, but you might have one handy to help out with big cuts. And a serrated bread knife! This has been very helpful to us for cutting cardboard, especially. Also never underestimate the usefulness of a good hole-pucher, and things like skewers for poking holes in cardboard.

String, ribbon, and other tying materials: Especially for constructing with cardboard, but also comes in handy for making books and all manner of other things. You never know when this will be just the thing you need in the moment!

If you're going to get a stapler, get a fabulous one like this that can reach into very big projects. 
And take a look at this Stockmar box from my childhood. The box has been replenished piece by piece over the years, and the crayons have been chewed and used by multiple generations.

Mark-Making: It's important not to narrow our kids' ideas of what constitutes a proper mark. So much is lost to a narrow mind! So provide lots of different options, and let the kids mix them up. You might want to keep some expensive felt-pens out of the acrylics, just to keep them in working condition, but experimental mixing of media in general is a highly educational activity, so do it! You don't need all of these but at least have many.
  • chisel-tipped pens - for older kids sharpies are awesome.
  • a great assortment of colourful felt-pens. Those cute stubby pens are a huge waste of plastic, though, since they run out frustratingly quickly and have to be thrown away. Tip: Store felt and ink pens tip-down, which means they last longer before drying out.
  • pencil crayons (as they are worn down they make many different types of marks)
  • wax crayons. Lots - and be prepared to see them very, very broken.
  • those Stockmar beeswax block crayons I mentioned earlier.
  • paint pucks that fit into a plastic tray - when you don't have time to get out the bottled paints, or just for watery experimentation, these are a wonderful thing to have available.
  • bottles of tempera or acrylic paints that you can squirt out small amounts of for open-ended free painting (tempera is great for younger kids who might ingest it, but acrylic is great for the ability to paint on many surfaces).
  • brushes! The best in my experience are natural stiff-bristle brushes, flat or chisel-shaped, because they give more opportunity for a variety of marks than round ones do, but others can be fun too.
  • pencils, erasers, and fine black markers. 
  • something smudgy like chalk or oil pastels. Sidewalk chalk can be used inside and chalkboard chalk can be used outside.
Glue sticks: Glue gets two sections because you need both. We always have a few glue sticks around, as they're the best way to stick papers together without soaking or wrinkling them. I recommend acid-free strong-hold glue-sticks. Don't bother with those silly school-glue types. They often don't hold.

White glue: While basic white glue will work for many applications, such as stiffening fabrics, gluing together cardboards, fabrics and layers of paper, we keep a bottle of Weldbond universal adhesive around because it glues almost everything! That's a great advantage when you're mixing up sometimes unexpected materials.

Fabric scraps and found materials: Without getting into the wonderful worlds of sewing and yarn arts, fabric itself is indispensable as an explorative material. With a bin of such materials for free creativity and exploration, you can create costumes, forts, decorations for those cardboard constructions, head-dresses, jewelry, dolls, doll-clothes, and really an endless list of delights. Have a bin of scrap fabric! And to this add found materials like plastic, corks, sticks, wires, etc. You never know what random things will be fabulous. Discarded CD's and cutlery for example. You just never know.

Something to squish and build with: A great block of clay and a big clay board to work on is awesome. That would be my favourite, although to be honest I didn't often have it on hand for my kids. We mostly used natural clay from the creek outside, and mud. Of course there are plenty of polymer clays available and while they're fun for building with, I don't personally like the environmental burden they bear (wanton use of plastics that end up in the garbage). I'm not really suggesting slime, either, because while slime-making and playing is a fine explorative activity, and fun, I think we get so much more mileage out of materials that stay put when shaped. A biodegradable glue mixed with sawdust or ground/shredded newspaper, by the way, is a pretty cool modelling material. So is salt dough, and gingerbread, if you want to eat your creation. One brand name product my kids did love and use for a long time was Stockmar modelling beeswax (no I'm not paid by Stockmar; they just make a few really fabulous products!).


So you see, the main thing is to have a fabulously free space and some stuff to play with there. Get messy. Play with the kids (or teens or adults!). They will learn a huge amount from watching what you do, so make sure you're exploring and have no idea what your outcome will be. This will help them learn to do the same, and together you'll make wonderful discoveries.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Residency in Amsterdam: Connection and Discovery and Stillness

Back in the 90's -- my art school days in den Haag -- I went over to Igor's flat just so he could give me some tapes he'd made. Good music to take home and feel. Igor Sevcuk walked himself to freedom from the war in Bosnia, leaving family and history and horrors behind. I think maybe we saw a similar brokenness in each other but we were utterly different. While my need to process my past makes me loud, Igor seems to live on a quiet, flat plain, processing and processing and processing. His mind and creations are full of contemplation. And out of this comes a kind of full-force storyline, like a chugging steam engine heading down the tracks, slowly but fast enough you can't let go. His art is captivating, and always leaves me wanting to understand. With his understated creativity he has been a recipient of the Prix de Rome, and he now runs the Goleb artist centre in Amsterdam with his equally fascinating, thoughtful, and generous partner, Go-Eun Im.

Igor and my husband, Markus at Goleb Project Space.
When I arrived for my residency at Igor and Go-Eun's art centre, I was amazed and delighted to discover that the whole of Project Goleb, which is housed in an old school building, echoed with the same quiet, tentative presence that I know of Igor. My husband and I settled into the residency studio and got to work with Igor, measuring and planning and talking. My usual work ethic is to quickly take stock of my situation, dig deep into my topic through interviews and endless mental planning, sketch up a working physical plan, and then work my butt off without any rest or break until I collapse. Not probably the healthiest way to work, and utterly opposed to the way things seem to go in Igor's world. To say it was a stretch for me to adapt to such an understated way of living and creating would be an understatement!! But it was clearly the modus operandi for all the artists working in the centre, so I had to change.

One day I spent over five hours walking and busing around Amsterdam with my husband (diligent, patient hero of an assistant), looking for the right fabric for the installation we were creating. The constant drone of the cars in the street, the relentless hammering of urban construction on a floodplain, the mill-like humming of people in the various markets we visited - it all felt so numbing and calming. Like a heavy blanket. Igor called my cell phone while we were out and I ducked into an insurance office so I could hear his gentle voice over the din of the street. The employees calmly but firmly pushed me off the premises as I strained to hear him, shuffling back out onto the street, hand cupped around the phone and my ear, the other waving apologetically. I began to feel like I was being bumped around like a stray dog in a crowd, hardly noticed but constantly on the move. I began to wonder if maybe the difference in energy between me and Igor is more a question of urban vs. rural living than anything else. But I got used to it.

We worked, visited, and experimented together and by the time the installation was up I could see my art had changed. Have I changed? The voices of people I had interviewed filled the room with a kind of encompassing drone. The sheets hung limply in the dark, and people who visited didn't laugh and play as they have in previous installations I've done. They stood still and contemplated. They stood among those sheets all quiet and wondering. Some told me later that they left with a feeling of thoughtful stillness. Still, in Dutch, means silent.

It's amazing to discover that I can change so easily, and to discover that I can still create, even in circumstances and emotional states that are new to me. Now that I'm home, I wonder if my work will change in general, or has it always been just a reflection of my surroundings at the time? Thank you, dear Igor, for your enormous contribution to art and humanity, for this residency and the time to spend getting to know you and Go-Eun. Thanks for opening more doors and eyes and hearts. May we continue to find connection.