Monday, November 16, 2020

Why I Make Portraits the Way I Do

The process I use for making portraits is designed to connect me with my subjects. If possible, I begin by doing a photo-session with the subject(s), then I download some songs recommended by the subjects, and put them on repeat in my studio. I choose a good photo from the session, and lay out the portrait using my handy projector, before setting up my laptop beside my painting wall and getting going with the real drawing work. I use graphite, I scribble, I cross-hatch, and if desired by the person who commissioned the work, I use gesso. There's not a step of this process that is dispensable to me, and I thought I'd explain why. 

The reason for doing a photo-shoot is probably obvious. I need to connect with the subject. I've been commissioned a few times to make portraits as surprise gifts for the subjects, and while it's possible, it's incredibly difficult to know if I've captured the essence of somebody I've never met, just working from a photo I didn't take. The most beautiful portraits, to me, capture the essence of a person or relationship. They capture a moment in time. You want to look at that portrait and have a happy memory. So either I work from a photo that was taken at a very happy moment, or I make that happy moment. When we do a photo-shoot we talk endlessly throughout the session about what makes life (or the relationship if there are multiple subjects) special. I get into the nitty-gritty of what matters to the person I'm photographing, and by the end of the session, I'm in love. Yep. I love really easily, so if I've ever interviewed or photographed you, there is a piece of my heart dedicated to you. I'm going to make your portrait with all that love I have for you, and my memory of the time we spent taking your portrait. 

That love is what the song-requests are about, too. It's a way of filling my studio with your personality. I've been given songs by artists in genres I didn't care to listen to, before, but by the time I'd drawn the portrait, and listened to the songs a hundred times over (no that's not an exaggeration), I hum the songs in my sleep and love them too. I've discovered some great artists this way, but more than that the spirit of the songs informs the work. I usually title my portraits, as I do most of my recent works on canvas, after a line from one of the songs I'm working with. If you've hired me to make a portrait, you probably already know I'm a synaesthete: I see sound. So when I make the portrait with the recommended songs playing on repeat, I'm drawing my own visual interpretation of the subject, the moment, the feeling, and the music... all mixed up on a flat surface, with graphite. 

So why use a projector? I know a lot of people think projectors are a terrible intrusion into visual art, taking away the artist's eye; the artist's interpretation; the art. I used to think that too, until I was painting portraits with watered down acrylic on used bed sheets (the MAMA Project) and couldn't afford to make a single mistake (because you can't remove or even lighten up a misplaced stroke of paint). I re-did a few of those first bed sheet portraits, and ended up throwing my precious donated sheets away, before resorting to the projector. Then I realized that the projector doesn't have to take away the soul of the art--I just had to learn to use it properly. It's a wonderful tool for laying out the structure of a person's face or body, to avoid making mistakes that would have to be fixed or reworked, later. The trick is to stop using the projector early in the process. I lay out the structure, and then I turn it off, turn up the music, and go back to the way I love to draw: scribbling and painting layer after layer, from my heart. But without mistakes of bone-structure or eye-placement. 

The scribbling. To me this is truly indispensable. It's just how I draw, like others use watercolour, fine chalk shading, or bold brush strokes. I scribble. Call it cross-hatching, if you like; it originally came out of cross-hatching, and there's still a good amount of cross-hatching in my work. But straight-up cross-hatching doesn't have the energy and vivacity of scribbling. Scribbling is unscripted. It's emotional. It's how I let loose and let art happen. It's how my intuition deals with putting feeling onto a flat surface. It's the reason my hand-drawn portrait is more than the photo I took to begin with. When I work with gesso (and I prefer this, although many clients request only graphite), I get to layer the scribbling with a depth that graphite alone can't really muster. Then it becomes scribbling with texture and colour (because gesso turns graphite blue in certain light), and allows for so much more depth of feeling and movement in the portrait. 

Recently I was asked to make a portrait without the scribbling, or cross-hatching. I did it, but although the client was happy with the result, I wasn't. I felt it didn't have the depth or feeling of my other portraits. My style isn't for everybody, and that's OK. It's who I am though, and a hand-drawn portrait is a big messy soup of the subject, the moment, and the artist. Just like it's essential for me to capture the nature of the portrait's subject, it's essential for me to let my own heart be present in the work. After all, I've put my whole heart into connecting with the subject, and that's where the feeling is. My heart is messy. That's the nature of my work.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Contribution to the Trauma Cocoon

After one week, this is already a deeply moving place to sit and contemplate the lives, struggles and strengths of all in our community. I am pulled to tears by the contributions of children, here, as well as by some of those written by adults. 

This installation will remain at the Hearth Gallery on Bowen Island until September 14th, 2020, slowly wilting and drying as people add their heartfelt notes to selves.

Gallery Hours: Thursday through Monday, 10am - 5pm. Just a one-minute walk from the ferry dock on Bowen Island.


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Trauma Cocoon: Notes to Selves

Markus and I just installed the first iteration of my Trauma Cocoon concept at the Surfacing show, Hearth Gallery, Bowen Island. The show opens August 12th!

I'm very happy this came together as I hoped, and am also stoked to be showing three pieces from my Songs of the Apocalypse collection at this show. It's the first time I've ever put this deeply personal series on display. A little scary, but feels right. 


If you could send a message to your former self at the moment of trauma, what would you say? Our lives are full of traumas, from birth to bullying in school, to loss of loved ones and the end of the world as we knew it. This pandemic provides new traumas for most of us, while also offering an opportunity to reach back and heal our younger selves. Did you ever build a fort to hide in? Did you wrap yourself in blankets and chips and Netflix? Did you crawl under your sister’s bed for safety? We all need a trauma cocoon. We all need a place to heal our former selves. Please partake in and contribute to this healing space, as others have done before you.


Monday, July 27, 2020

Work in Progress for August Showing... and Enormous Gratitude for My Partner

Well, it's been an interesting few months. Due to the covid-induced cancellation of my main source of income (the Wild Art program), I've been producing explorative wilderness videos and farming, which has taken most of my time. It's hugely rewarding, but a little sad to feel so disconnected from my art practice.

Of course I'm still producing pieces -- all of them part of the Songs of the Apocalypse series. And three of these pieces will be in an upcoming show at the Hearth Gallery on Bowen Island. The show is an invitation-only exhibit called Surfacing, and will open August 15th and closes September 15th.

Here's a sneak peek at the sculptural piece I'm including:
Trauma Cocoon: Notes to Selves
I'll let you mull the title, for now. It's participatory. :-)

Mostly I would like to point out that gorgeous man in the photo. That's Markus. I couldn't do anything I do without his support. He's too shy to allow me to credit him for his work, but he pretty much helps with every large sculpture or installation I create. He does the grunt-work, he helps with engineering, and he holds up my heart when I'm discouraged. Sometimes he just looks after the house while I'm in my studio, and appears at the door with a hug and some dinner. I live with inflammatory auto-immune issues, and this week I'm having the worst flare-up of my life. I've been unable to do almost any of this construction, so I sat on the driveway and directed while Markus built. I literally could not have built this on my own, and I owe so much to him. Thank you, my love.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

After Planet of the Humans: Where Do We Go Now?

Yesterday was Earth Day, which we ignored for most of the day, since we were busy with a bunch of important things, among them my partner Markus' work where he makes software for various land-based companies. Some of them are supposedly environmental companies; some are resource extraction companies, and one even has plans to log our home. But never mind. It's a good solid job and gives him employment and financial security in a time where there's not much security to go around. The bosses even took huge pay-cuts to keep from having to lay off employees like Markus. And besides. We live in a wooden house with glass windows, appliances and a car, and we need those resource extraction companies to supply the raw materials for these things.

So last night at the end of Earth Day, Markus and I snuggled up in our cozy foam bed and down quilt, with a cup of imported fair-trade hot chocolate with instant factory milk, set our nifty black laptop on our knees, and watched the movie about humanity's demise. Planet of the Humans. Well Happy Earth Day to us. We're wrecking the place. Thanks, Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, for bursting our hot chocolate bubble.

This film has received a good chunk of criticism, mostly (that I've seen) for being biased, and for using some of the fossil fuel industry's tactics to demean green energy and economy. But some of the points they bring up are truths we actually need to face. Like that switching over to electric cars (which I covet endlessly despite this film) will still require far more resources than the earth has to spare. And more importantly, we need to face the fact that our consumption is simply not sustainable. Green tech is not going to save us; we have to make some sacrifices, and yes - we're capable.

What we already knew:
The problem isn't fossil fuels as much as it is overpopulation and over-consumption.

If we curbed the rate of human consumption, we could make a better go of long-term survival for our species. Like Markus' bumper sticker says: Save the Humans. We all know we'd be OK without tourism, commuting and global travel-for-work, imported foods, large homes, or all-the-stuff. The kind of consumption our species has become accustomed to is not necessary.

We want to do better by our planet and our future, but we're competing in a world where everybody is waiting for everybody else to change, and none of us is willing or able to make the first big jump to a new way of living.

We're competing. Did I mention that? School is a competition, financial markets are a competition, getting ahead in business and life is a competition, the rat-race is a competition. Hell, half the time even friendship turns out to be a competition. So in some deep-seeded way, our minds know that being the first person to jump off the train means losing the competition -- losing at life. It means our kids won't keep up with their friends; it means our kids will cry about being left out of Disneyland and Hawaii and Broadway musicals; our kids will badger us about why their friends have better computer systems and better cars and better, bigger houses, and why-can't-we?! It means the guy we sit beside at work has a better house or works out harder or just gets paid more. Being the first person to jump off the consumerism train means I will lose, and nobody wants to be that guy.

What we learned from this movie:
No, technology can't actually save us. There is no "green" technology. There is only green consumption... which means less consumption.

Most of the "green" or "ethical" products we buy or use are in fact not green at all. Most rely on fossil fuels - including solar power, wind power, and every. single. company. that claims to run only off of green energy. Hmph.

Electric cars, solar panels, and other green tech are just shiny destructive sink-holes for our hard-, rat-race-earned money. Second only to replacing rotten bits of our home, getting an electric vehicle has been our main goal. We realize now that driving a heap of metal and plastic around using electricity isn't going to save the world. We have to stop traveling. Period. We've been deluded, and we don't want to be that guy.
What coronavirus isolation is teaching us:
Isolation has taught us that we are happier with less!! Markus isn't traveling to work every day, and for the first time in about twenty years, he has energy for more than just work. He's building a chicken coop in his spare time. We have interesting and engaging conversations. Our relationship is renewing itself and we're discovering that we're still in love with each other's minds. I can't ever see us letting this go again, not matter how frightening it feels to be that family who stays in isolation when the world goes back to "normal".

Our kids are happy! Don't get me wrong - they're not at all happy about the chasm between them and their friends right now, but the lack of travel to and from town, along with the lack of pressure to do all kinds of activities means that for the first time in years they're well-rested and healthy. Their relationship with each other and with us has improved, as well. We're all finding ways to live authentically as a family and enjoy each other's company, when before we barely had time to sleep between outside engagements. We all are watching the need for all those outside engagements fall away, and discovering that most of what we needed was right here.

Hugs are more important than we realized. I really miss hugging the people I love. If we didn't live in such a globalized community, we could live in small isolated groups and hug each other more.

We don't need as much stuff/food/money as we thought we did. The first thing we did in this pandemic time is realize that our income was going to drop, and make adjustments. We quit buying more than the essentials. That hot chocolate we had last night? Yeah. The cocoa is finite, now, and suddenly we're all very very careful about consuming it. We have a hunk of cheese in the freezer that I keep offering to get out, and the kids decide they'd rather save it for very special occasions. We're doing just fine on (mostly) rice, lentils, oats, and veggies from our garden.

Growing our own food!! Like so many people out there it seems, we now have more time to commit to our food-growing, and it's very, very satisfying. Currently we're eating cauliflower, kale, and weeds from the garden, and next week we'll get a clutch of chicks to start our new flock of egg and meat birds. Around that time we should also get our first asparagus harvest.

I know we're very privileged to be able to say all this - not everybody is having a good or easy time of isolation. We have some land to use (not ours, but a very secure rental from my parents), and Markus' secure job, and the skills we've developed over the years to provide for ourselves without some of the usual conveniences. Additionally, unschooling gave us the confidence to see that change is possible. We can at least lean out the windows of the consumerism train and feel the wind on our faces, so all this change is less of a shock than it might have been.

What we can't change (yet): 
Land ownership. We can't afford to buy land, and we're going to have to make due without it. We acknowledge that moving to a much more isolated location would potentially give us the ability to own land, but that would mean leaving our family behind, and we don't want to do that. Additionally, land ownership can only happen if we borrow money from the industrial complex that we're hoping to put an end to. So that, too, is not an ethical choice. You might say that renting is still living on the same system, and it's true, but right now we have to accept it, because we don't know of an alternative.

Working for the complex. The transition to a more self-sufficient life can't happen instantly, so Markus plans to keep working, and hopefully keep earning enough to pay our rent and buy the things we need.

Fossil fuels. We can't yet source everything we need locally, although one day we hope we'll be able to. The more people are living a sustainable local life, the more we can trade within our community and provide for each other, but for now we're still going to need our vehicle to drive out to the valley and buy some farming supplies, grains that we can't grow ourselves, and other such things. Maybe once in a while a piece of local(ish) cheese or a new pair of farm boots, too.

Our kids' decisions. These are kids who have spent time at climate protests. There's no way they don't care about their future. But it's not our place to make decisions for them, and if they choose to keep going to town, the choice will be theirs. Their independence and freedom to choose will enable them to make sound decisions. As parents, we can lead by example better than by force. And besides, who knows -- with their open, creative minds and youthful courage, they might end up teaching us quite a bit! In many ways they already have.

Not being able to make all of the changes doesn't mean there's no point in starting. The more of us get on the bandwagon and live in supportive community, the easier the bigger changes will become.

What we can change now:
We can dream. I envision a day when we grow a field of oats. The oats will feed us (and to some extent, our chickens), and the hay from them will be bedding for the chickens, and then will become a fertilizer-rich additive to our vegetable garden (soil-building!) The chickens will give us eggs and meat and fertilizer for the garden. The garden will give us innumerable different foods: starches, greens, fruits and proteins. I see a cycle of life all around our beautiful home, with all household-members contributing because we're finally home often enough to do so.

We can make our dreams come true. Markus and I have made a massive commitment to carry on consuming less -- a LOT less. The pandemic isolation has shown us that we are capable of living a better, happier life while consuming a fraction of what we did before, and we plan to spend the next year working towards being mostly self-sufficient. By this time next year we'd like to have gotten through a winter on largely our own produce, and be well on our way to getting our energy-consumption (currently wood and electric) under control. Yep - we put a short timeline on our dreams, because otherwise it might be too easy to be waylayed by the rat-race.

And no more traveling. We're going to have to find our adventure locally. Entertainment-wise, that's not hard to do. I just walk out and look at the world around me, and I am endlessly entertained. Most devastatingly, though, no traveling means we might never see some of our European relatives again, and while that feels truly horrible, we are going to have to find other ways to connect. Globalism has to stop if we're going to have a livable globe.

We can share our dreams and struggles and successes, and I hope you will, too! Judging by the people who, over the years, have told me that this blog helped them make changes in their parenting or lifestyles, I think writing here may be the best thing I've done with my life. Sharing our story has apparently given confidence to others. Imagine if each of us took a bold step to make a change, and shared our story? It could spread like wildfire. It could spread like coronavirus. No, we don't all know what we're doing, but neither did I when I started this crazy unschooling journey. A while ago I asked Markus if he thought I'd changed in the time he knew me. He said that in the beginning I just tried stuff and wanted to know stuff. Now I know stuff, and I share what I know... and I keep learning. I think it was the biggest compliment of my life! If we can give each other the courage to jump, we'll be there to help each other figure out the details along the way.

We can love. I woke up this morning imagining that I was sitting back-to-back with my brother on my porch, just leaning into the love of him. Without sharing our moist speaking, we shared our breath, through the rhythm of our lungs, and the feeling of our bodies, together. I had "phone tea" with a few friends over the last while. I visited a couple of people from a long distance and I longed to hug them. I'm picking up some chicks for my heart's sister and am going to drop them off at her door, hug her from afar with my heart, and then we're going to go on the adventure of raising chickens together, as we keep each other up way too late on messenger, sharing our lives and laughing so much we wake our children. Love is not gone. We can always love.

Watch Planet of the Humans, and don't let it bring you down. Let it light a fire under you! Humanity can change! Please join me in figuring out a future that is sparing on consumption while abundant with life, love, and hope.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Outdoor Exploration with Emily - edible plants in a maple biome

Art in the year of COVID

Photo: Adrian van Lidth de Jeude
A lot of my artist life consists of writing proposals to send to organizations, curators, and gallerists who, if they have time to look at them at all, will likely not respond. But I persevere because I have a studio full of work, and a mind full of plans, and this is me. I can't just stop. Everything I see, think or feel is an opportunity to reach out - to share and communicate and open eyes and touch hearts.

Then coronavirus struck, and I found myself struggling to create anything at all, never mind make proposals. What is the point, when galleries are closing everywhere, and the internet is stalling like an old beater with the mad flood of people viewing livestreams and open operas and online exhibitions. Most of the live events I've tried to watch with my isolated kids failed due to server overload. Why go to my studio and create art that nobody will ever see? I asked my daughter this question one dismal day when she generously offered to make lunch and dinner so I could get a whole day of studio time. She told me to write.

First of all, the all-seeing wisdom of my 15-year-old daughter never ceases to shock me. What a blessing her advice has been on so many occasions. So I followed it. I wrote the first many things that came to mind - on my Rickshaw Unschooling blog because that's where I have the biggest audience, and in this season of coronavirus isolation, I've been fielding more unschooling consultation requests than usual. It feels like that's what's needed, right now, both for me and for the parents who read my blog.

I have three separate lives: social practice artist, mother/homemaker, and explorative learning facilitator. I make all the meagre income I manage as an explorative learning facilitator, consulting and leading various workshops, classes and events under the umbrella of my Wild Art program. Then coronavirus arrived, and I had to cancel them all for the foreseeable future. My father was recently diagnosed with cancer, and I have an inflammatory autoimmune condition that affects my lungs, so our family is going to be isolated for a long time. Hopefully until we can get a vaccine. With my cancelled programs and my partner's pay-cut from work (he's grateful to take a pay-cut instead of a layoff), we're making a good chunk less money than we had expected to, but we're making due with lots of rice and dried peas, lentils, and chickpeas. We're all getting creative about inventing new foods and learning to make things we had grown accustomed to buying ready-made. My college-going and musical-theatre-producing teens are now fully unschooling at home again, as they did when they were younger, and we're all gardening, mending, baking and living the home-life I once dreamed we would. I'm not teaching, I'm not making art in my studio, I'm not earning a penny, and I feel like we're thriving.

Slowly, slowly, as the isolation carries on, I am seeing the lives I had carefully kept separated are colliding. And it's thrilling! My separate lives were different, but always based on the same innate desire: to live authentically, and to make some change in our human culture, so that we all can live our best lives. Now I'm trying to envision how perhaps my art, education, and homemaking can all become one. I have no idea where I'll find myself as the spring progresses, but at this moment I see that living my authentic life means making art out of my home-life, with my garden, my writing, and my nearly-adult children. I'll get back to you on what that means when I figure it out!


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Gratitude: ECUAA Get to Know

I'd just like to thank Emily Carr University Alumni Association for interviewing me for their Get to Know series. I was honoured and delighted (also for the opportunity to give thanks for my education, and specifically to mention Celia King).
Link to interview: