Monday, December 30, 2019

New Decade: How Connection will Save us

As we round the corner on a new decade, I find myself contemplative about the evolution of our species. What have we changed? Where are we going? What changes are to come? And, as so many ask these days, how can we save ourselves? How can we "be the change"?

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
This morning I read that two firefighters have died fighting Australia's massive bush fires. That's 10 people dead so far this year in a fire season that's only half over, according to Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville. Over 1000 homes have burned so far, but it's not a shock, anymore. It's the news we're accustomed to hearing. I was, however, surprised to read that the prime minister apologized for having been on vacation at the time. His compassion is news; in our current human state of trauma and overwhelming feelings of helplessness, many of us have become dispirited, numbed by the constant reports of tragedy. We are accustomed to looking away. My children know that in every season people around the world die of heat, floods, storms, wildfires and other climate-related disasters. Sometimes we watch the smoke on the news; sometimes we're battling to keep it out of our own lungs. It's the end of the decade, the end of my children's childhood, and the beginning of a new epoch for humanity. And what can we do to save ourselves?

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about her university students' inability to imagine a healthy relationship between humans and nature:
"As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like? If we can't imagine the generosity of geese? These students were not raised on the story of Skywoman."
I would like to suggest that connection is how we will save ourselves.

The other day I drove my kids past the recreation centre in Burnaby where I first kindled my desire to connect children with nature. Around two decades ago, before I had children of my own, I took my eight-to-ten-year-old art group out to the small planting of conifers and rhododendrons beside the parking lot at that rec centre. It was the only forest-like area between the mall, the skytrain and the office buildings. Beside the smooth concrete pathway, I and this group of kids dug our fingers into the grass and needles and found worms coming skyward after recent rainfall. We saved one from a puddle. We gathered cones and twigs, and the children discovered that cones actually contain seeds of the trees they fell from. Although I tried valiantly to connect our indoor art adventures to this one outing, it was plainly evident to me that the greatest learning we'd had by far was the short fifteen minutes we spent out poking fingers into the earth. This was the moment of connection - of discovering a sense of home and belonging in nature. I have spent the last two decades bringing people into the wilderness, welcoming them to these spaces where nature still displays its fabulous and curious habits, and beckoning them to feel at home. Because this is our home.

In the last decade forest schools have become increasingly popular; as have explorative and self-directed learning. These things, I think, are beacons of hope for our civilization. As we reintegrate with nature in a curious and explorative way, we become, as a species, attuned to our own existence, and better able to understand our own nature. As we discover the amazing interactions between other species in the wild, we discover our own interactions with them, as well. We discover our mutual needs and gifts. We discover our sameness.

But how will this help us survive the climate emergency? In very practical terms, explorative wilderness play helps people of all ages become more resilient and resourceful; both qualities needed to survive any time, but especially in the unpredictable time we're entering now. A few years ago, during the worst smoke season we've had yet on Canada's west coast, I bought an air purifier that barely managed to keep the smoke out of one room of my home. But I took my Wild Art groups into the forest nearby, to discover the clear green-filtered air and relatively smoke-free play areas. During the hot smoky season we found respite under the shelter of cedars and hemlocks, leaning our bodies against the cool logs and reaching fingers into the mud that remained from the previous winter's flood. The children learned resourcefulness as they wrote, developed and performed a play about consumerism (their own idea, but not surprising given the climate of fear in the forest fire season). They connected with our local recycling centre and second-hand store for props, and created other props and a set from objects found in the forest.

In addition to resilience and resourcefulness, the deeply-felt connection that nature exploration develops between humans, and between humans and other species, helps us to see the bigger picture. We discover the trees' need for moss, holding water like a sponge, as we discover our own need for the damp cool that that moss provides, and the shelter of the trees' leaves. Symbiotic relationships are everywhere, and the more of them we discover, the greater our perception grows; the bigger our picture becomes. Climate change is a very big picture. If we want to solve it, we need to understand the interconnectedness of all things. We need to know that we matter.

And mostly, in this world where happiness is sold on in-game-advertising and the price-tags on our brand-name merchandise, we can discover happiness in nature. The pursuit of happiness continues to be a ubiquitous aim of the human spirit, and we're not going to save our home and future by denying ourselves joy. Our salvation will not come from starvation and asceticism. It will come from abundance. We just need to start seeing abundance - happiness - in the things we need to save, and then we'll find ourselves ever more willing to save them. Saving the trees is much easier when the trees are our children's playthings; when we know their scent and the feeling of their cool skin on ours in the summer; when we have experienced their canopy protecting us from the heat and the smoke. Saving frogs and beetles and worms and slugs is much more delightful when we're not envisioning some far-away ecosystem we've never walked in, but noticing the appearance of worms after rain in our own neighbourhood puddles.

Wilderness isn't far away. Wilderness is happening in the city puddle under our feet, or, as we once discovered with the help of our trusty microscope, in the surface of an old moldy piece of cat food! Wilderness is, yes, in the Australian bush, burning up with its koalas heading ever closer to extinction. And it is also in the weeds along the edge of a forgotten urban alley. It is in the heart of the little girl playing there, digging her fingers in past plastic wrappers and grasshoppers to find the treasure she buried there last winter: A fir cone full of now-sprouting seeds, which she carefully pulls out, and plants again.

In the last decade we have become, as a species, accustomed to watching our home burn from the other side of the street, then turning our back on it and looking towards our cell phones for a quick emotional fix. We've become accustomed to blinding ourselves to our own feelings of despair and helplessness; using capitalist promises and lies to soothe our broken hearts. Now it's time to get back over there and put out the flames. I think about Robin Wall Kimmerer's despair at her students' lack of connection with wilderness and I think to myself that if we allow our children to find joy in the discovery of small things, the next generation will be the first to return to nature. When they reach university, the scope of their vision will be greater, because they have seen and known the wilderness beneath their feet. They will integrate the great technological systems of their day with the great system of the wilderness and those of us who follow them will, finally, be the change we already know ourselves to be.

Happy new decade. May we connect with each other and with our wilderness.

*image: copyright Emily van Lidth de Jeude

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Gratitude: ArtAscent

I'm ArtAscent's bronze artist this month! I was so pleased to discover the lovely spread they made, as well as the article written by Dr. Alexis Culotta. Thank you for this honour.
Digital or print copy here: https://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1688503

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

art towards evolution

Art that is engaged in change-making is relevant to humanity’s evolution as a social species, by encouraging and supporting us in making the changes necessary for our survival. During this time of growing climate and social crises, we need work that challenges us to evolve for the better. Relationships – interaction between individuals, our histories and common future – are how we grow. It’s essential that we take time to listen and know each other; to learn from each other’s wisdom and stories. I hope that as artists we can give people space to be heard, to hear other people, and to change and make change.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Teens

"Children are the most disrespected group of people in the world."

She turned her small face and looked at me intensely, maybe to see how I would react; maybe to be sure I heard her. She was one of a group of three teens who had just come through an installation about children's rights and left her comments behind. I hoped she felt respected by me as she walked out of the gallery.


And then it hit me: "Group of people." That's how we see them. We see them as separate from us until we judge them to be old, wise, or experienced enough to earn our respect - as adults. We determine their clothing, their food, their education and other activities, their freedom to come or go and quite often we even determine their friends and hobbies. They tell us their fears and hopes and great big plans and we pat them on the shoulders and ignore them; carry on with our lives. When do we look them in the face and ask them to tell us more? When do we ask their advice? When do we heed it?



I grew up and eventually returned to raise my kids on a small island. For longer than I've been alive, the teens from this island have boarded a ferry five or more days per week to attend school on the mainland. Unchaperoned. As a teen I got up at six-thirty, washed my hair under the tap, dressed, put on my makeup and left to walk to the ferry at seven. In the winter I arrived at the dock with my hair frozen like brown sticks around my face. Unlike some of the other girls, I did not push into the crowded washroom to fix it in the two tiny mirrors. I sat at the end of my age-group of kids, watching the same kids get beat up day after day, watching the animated conversation of some girls I wasn't friends with, picking at the Naugahyde seats and avoiding the splash of the food fights. I moved further down when people started bringing compost to throw.

Twenty minutes each way. Morning and afternoon. The ferry commute was a drag, and a shared ritual, and also the rocking, floating bridge between the confines of childhood and the expected freedom of adulthood. In the 80's we skipped school by going en masse to the mall first thing, then arriving at school before lunch to report that we were all late because the ferry was late. We sometimes argued about the ethics of how to accomplish this feat. We shared time every day, but we were individuals. We had different stories, different values, and different lives.



Our island also has a history of ferry exclusion. As a public-private entity, the ferry corporation has the right to ban people, and they have done so on various occasions that I remember. They banned a teenager in my grade for vandalism and mischief. He eventually took the ferry with a chaperone to attend school. They also banned our local petty criminal because the police thought it would do him good to get out of the community where he regularly slept in parked cars and picked drunken fights in public. It didn't help. Community members transported him back to the island in the trunks of their cars. My point is that these people, too, are individuals.

At various times we've had issues arise on the busiest ferry runs, like unidentified persons vandalizing the boat or flooding the toilets, and sometimes the first response is for the captain to make announcements to the teens. He tells them, as a group, to smarten up and behave themselves. He tells the adults on the next commuter run to rein in their children. Recently people in the community have been wondering aloud in public why teens (again, as a group) can't just behave themselves for twenty minutes at a time. Few, if any of us, know what the current transgression is, but we know it's been committed by teens. The captain has reportedly announced to our teens that if the unnamed incidents don't stop, the police will be involved and the surveillance footage will be reviewed. For me that crossed a line.

If criminal acts are being committed, it's perfectly reasonable to check surveillance footage and involve police. It's perfectly reasonable to expect people not to commit such acts, and to take steps to ensure that they stop. It is not, however, reasonable to reprimand, admonish, threaten and sometimes (as I have witnessed) deny service or civility to an entire group of people based on the premise that one or a few of them are suspected of having done something wrong.



When adults smoke on the ferry (which is wholly a no-smoking/no-vaping zone), they are asked to butt out. If they refuse, they are taken to the chief steward's office and spoken to, as individuals. I've seen this happen. I've stood at the chief steward's office while an adult smoker was being spoken to, and every effort was made to treat me with respect and provide me with service despite the fact that I, too, am an adult. The same can't be said for our teens' experience. Every teen is a suspect in some people's reasoning.


What do you think that does to a person? Imagine if every day you walked to work only to be eyed suspiciously at the door to the building, and every time a toilet overflowed, people called all the adults in the building together to reprimand them. How would you feel about using the toilet? Imagine if, when some person stole from the vending machine, they denied all adults access to the vending machines. Would you respect the people who judged you? Would you still care about upholding the values of your community if you weren't expected to uphold them anyway?

I'm responsible for denigrating teens as a group, too. When I was barely more than a teenager myself, a truck full of students from a nearby high school pulled up to my grandmother's lawn, dumped an assortment of fast food wrappers out the window, and drove off. A few years later, walking along our island road with my four-year-old son, we spied some litter in the ditch. He immediately shook his head and muttered grumpily, "ach... teenagers". I can't remember how I led him to that assumption, but I am certain I did. Now he's seventeen. He and his sister have somehow managed to get through a bunch of teenagehood without dumping their trash. Even more than navigating teen years myself, parenting teens has taught me to see them as individuals.



Teens are worthy of our attention as individuals. They are humans learning to be adults, and counting on our respect and exemplary modeling to help them navigate their surprising, sometimes frightening individual journeys. If we want them to see adults as individuals rather than a homogeneous, brooding group, we need to model to them how to do that. We need to see them, and we need to show them how seeing people is done well.

Some teens are children. They have an innocent wisdom not yet drawn out of them by the pressures of growing up. Some teens are also adults. They know their own minds and they know when they haven't done wrong. Some teens see us when we're wrong, and they know when we aren't hearing their voices. Some teens know when not to bother speaking up, because we've lumped them all into one disrespected group and we can't hear their individual cries. In fact, when teens report crimes committed by adults, they are often ignored.

It's time we look into the faces of the children and teens we pass and see them as simply humans. It's time we see them as individuals with wisdom, needs, values, and human rights. It's time we respect them.


*The handwritten statements accompanying this article were contributed by teens at a recent installation of a piece called "Building Blocks: What do you want the adults in your life to know and respect about you?"

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What Children Need Us to Know

My current exhibit includes, as its central installation, this piece about children's rights. It's made of plastic clothing storage boxes, which I've covered in portraits of children, holding signs that state various answers to the question, What would you like the adults in your life to know and respect about you?

The children who contributed the answers for this sculpture range in age from 5 to 17, and the sculpture is interactive. Visitors to the installation are encouraged to put on white gloves and play with the cubes, rearranging again and again to make a vast assortment of different children.

The installation includes a small tray of black paper, where young visitors can write their own answers to the question. I've been hanging these answers around the installation as they appear.

These are the voices of our children - mostly anonymous children, and therefore everychild. These are the things that all children need us to know. They need us to shed our busy-ness, our righteousness and our preoccupations and hear their voices. And their voices keep coming. Let's be good listeners.































Thursday, October 03, 2019

Layers and Layers and Layers: My Process

Question: What is your process? What paints do you use and how do you get the layered look?

This question pertained specifically to the work in the change/able show, but the answer relates to everything: Layers!

Both in materials and theory, my work is about layers. Maybe that's just how my mind works. I look at something one way, then turn it around and see the same thing another way. I despise going with the flow, and I'm going to disrupt it. If you tell me how wrong someone is, I'll try to see why they might be right. If everybody hates the rain, I'll organize a mud-splashing adventure. It's my nature to be contrary, and today I'm not going to deny it (but I might some other day, because I'm contrary like that).

The change/able show is all about change: accepting it, and making it happen. So in order to make these multi-canvas pieces, I hang all the canvases up on my studio wall and paint them, usually with a layer of textural acrylic, to begin. I love acrylic because it dries fast, and is easy to create harsh scrappy texture with. When that's dry, I rearrange all the pieces and make another layer, this time of oil. I let it cure, or mostly cure, then rearrange and layer again. Some of the layers are glazes; some are textural, and some involve graphite scribbling, which for me is usually the point that the most emotion goes into the work. I keep making layers until it feels finished, and that can be anywhere from about five to twenty layers. There's a good amount of curing time between many of the layers, so I'm often working on other pieces at the same time.

Basically I've changed things around so much that there is an infinite number of ways to fit the painting together, among which not a single arrangement will be wholly compatible, but all of it is beautiful. Like life. Life changes every time you look at it; emotions, conviction and ideation evolve. We look at things differently as our moods and circumstances change. The reason I work in layers is so that I can get all those many levels of thought and feeling into my work.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Community as a Way of Life

When I was 26, bewildered and a bit in shock with the reality of new motherhood, I took my baby to our local Family Place, and sat around the edges of the activity, watching. Whining lines of Suzanne Vega ran through my head: "in the outskirts, and in the fringes, on the edge and off the avenue"... as my baby nursed his way through the stress of a new situation. Out of the fray of mothers and toddlers and snack foods and plastic dishes came the most welcoming smile. This woman actually held out her arm to me, beckoning me to join the group. And Mara became my friend.
Years later, as we sat around her trailer home together, watching our kids play and leap from the furniture, I complained about my back issues, and Mara deftly used the opportunity to attempt to convince me to take the adults' ballet class that she taught in the evenings. I told her 'no way'. I explained that ballet left me behind when I was nine and had a pot belly and knees that didn't straighten all the way. She convinced me anyway, and next term I cautiously and inelegantly stepped into her class. 
Mara Brenner with students of Gabriola Dance, 2019. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara doesn't just teach ballet. She's an accredited Pilates instructor, and a passionate life-long-learner of human anatomy and movement. She looked at me while I attempted the ballet moves and explained exactly what my muscles and bones were doing and how I could optimize for my personal development. When she didn't have an answer, she went away and researched or thought about it until she figured it out (yes - that's the definition of being a life-long-learner, and an expert!) She sees people not only as moving, learning bodies, but as humans with struggles and opportunities. I soon became one of Mara's 'Tequilarinas' - the group of adults who danced until 9pm and then went for a tequila at the pub, together. After a year, my back was healed. I started wearing superhero costumes to ballet.
Through her friendship, clear strong vision, and unflinching determination, Mara gave me more confidence and opportunity than any other teacher I've had.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara Brenner taught our island's children and adults ballet, and also used her company MaraGold Productions to bring world class artists to perform not only on our small island, but at various Canadian venues. She worked her dancing feet off one hundred percent of the time, not just giving to her community, but building it. She exemplified a kind of character strength and courage that's hard to maintain, but essential in a thriving community. Eventually her community turned its back on Mara and her family.
Our land use bylaw only allows trailer-living for a brief period of time while landowners are building a permanent dwelling. As you can imagine, building a home on the wages of a ballet teacher and a glazier, while also raising two young children, takes longer than it otherwise might. Mara and her partner, Stu, lived in a trailer on land they owned, while slowly building their permanent home. At the point they were forced to leave, they had only built the foundation. Theirs was almost an idealist story of dreamy island living, until our snooty bylaws pushed them out.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
So they left! Mara and her family found their new home on Gabriola Island, and quickly turned the small outbuilding into a dance studio. Around the same time she was gifted her own ballet teacher's extensive collection of ballet school costumes, and she threw all her extensive skill and passion into Gabriola Dance. Last weekend I went to see her year-end showcase, and I was moved to write this article.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Finally with a permanent roof over her head on Gabriola, Mara pulled everything out of her heart and poured it into ten years of parenting and teaching in her new community. This 10th showcase felt to me like watching my friend stitch up all her passions and skills into one beautiful, powerful package. It was in many ways her gift to the world. 
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
I think we all hope we can make a difference in the world - at least leave it a slightly better place than we found it. These days many of us are just hoping we save enough of the world that our children will grow old before it's gone. So Mara developed a dance performance of Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'. The piece brings together students of many diverse ages and training levels. It's profound and moving, but Mara didn't leave it at that. Working on this project brought up a great deal of conversation among students about climate change, and it became clear that she needed to deal with the prevalent angst and anxiety that today's children harbour around this topic. So she had all the conversations with them, and at the end of the dance showcase, she hosted a talk back with biologist Melanie Mamoser and registered clinical counsellor Caitlin Kopperson, to discuss the affects of climate change on childhood anxiety. One of the most urgent questions, of course, is 'what can we do?', and although there's no clear answer to that, there were some good ideas, and the conversation at least left me feeling hopeful that people were talking about it, and that children's voices are being heard in this discussion.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
With The Giving Tree, Mara does something I hope we all manage to do in our lives: She orchestrates her many gifts into one grand oeuvre, showcasing not only the work of her students and other community members, but pulling them all together in a kind of hopeful community invocation. May we all have the courage to live our hearts' dreams and create a better world in doing so, each in our own ways, and all within community.
Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Resources:
Gabriola Pilates and Dance: http://maragoldtheatreproductions.blogspot.com/p/dance.html
Inspired Spirits Photography: https://www.inspiredspiritsphotography.ca/