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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Why Feeling Matters in Public Policy

(I open my mouth and) Nothing Comes Out
Emily van Lidth de Jeude, 2016

Last night I attended a devastating meeting in my community. On the surface it was pretty run-of-the-mill: A bunch of councilors and a few municipal staff members slowly picking their way through various presentations, decisions, and amendments. They came to the end of the meeting having checked a few boxes, put a few requests to bed or to progress, and made a few small changes to the contentious bylaw that much of the population feels will rip the heart out of our community.

As a member of this community for all of my life, I've been passionate about the things that tie us together. Some of those things are the big organized events, like our traditional summer festival and Remembrance Day celebration; the fishing derbies that used to happen when I was a kid, and the raft race. The events change over the years, but always hold us together, and are facilitated by a huge number of dedicated creative people, who look at their community and see the need for celebration. We're also held together by the little things, like stopping to chat with an oncoming driver in the road, or letting the community cat into the car for a ride. We're held together by actions like calling a neighbour for help clearing a dead deer or sitting down with Bob for an ephemeral but deeply interesting conversation. 

Sometimes the holding together is very intentional. So many of us contribute time, ideas, and great heart to this community. In my own work and volunteer roles, I've been bringing newcomers into engagement with our wilderness, so that they can love and value this place as I do. As an artist I've grown in this rich stew of community to see the value of social practice around inclusion and diversity. I consider my work (both public and gallery-focused) a method of bringing out the voices of my fellow citizens and reminding us all of our personal benefit to community. 

Most of the artists I know are somehow engaged in broad community visioning, and feelings are our language. When we sit around talking together, we talk about the big picture. We talk about the vibe of the public spaces in our community, and the vague drifting of public sentiment; of community values. We talk about the social-emotional gorgeousness we're trying to promote, and the social change that is or should be happening. We see the big web of emotional connection that makes a community whole; that tethers us to the place we live, and we work in our sometimes-mysterious ways to keep it alive. 

Yes, these feelings and ideas can be vague, but we are masters of vaguery. The term "vague", like its linguistic origin in the French for "wave", might seem unthreatening. But a wave, however gentle, rarely comes alone, and sometimes builds slowly, unseen. Sometimes a tidal wave is a wall of water. Often it's just a going out of the tide, and then a returning, and returning, and returning, until the one unappreciated wave has enveloped a whole community. "Vague" is the feeling of community sentiment, and it can be just as devastating.

What devastated me about the council meeting was our council's lack of vision for that social web; that vague sentiment. During the meeting, various councilors mentioned that the bylaw was needed in order to "control" people, and that "not all people are our friends". They spoke often about controlling the population, but never about listening to it. They received a long series of letters asking them to consider the social damage caused by a pending bylaw that will severely limit access and enjoyment to our most popular public spaces. Letter-writers spoke about the casual gathering that will no longer happen after this bylaw is passed, and the councilors chalked it up to a lack of understanding on the public's part. The one councilor who opposes this bylaw spoke up to explain--again--his fierce opposition, and the idea that they shouldn't be pushing through a bylaw that is so publicly reviled. They carried on without acknowledging his words. Finally, they picked away at some of the wording of the bylaw, ostensibly to help people understand, without seeing the big picture. They didn't let any feelings they had to get in the way of their bylaw. They deafly ignored their populace, and carried on as though nothing had happened.

Is this a crisis of imagination? Maybe. Maybe we as a society are becoming less and less able to imagine a future we want to live in; to envision it so that we can create it. We're less and less able to see a future that is inclusive if we can't imagine how to converse or get along with those who we deem "not our friends". We know, in the abstract, that we need public policy that is expressly inclusive, but we, like our councilors, have forgotten how to include our neighbours. We've forgotten how to listen to the great vague voice of public sentiment.

The big picture in public policy is public sentiment. The public doesn't like this bylaw. We don't like that we haven't been consulted. We don't like that our letters were not read aloud, nor discussed for the many serious points they bring up. We don't like the feeling that a series of long complex bylaws will govern our footsteps and enjoyment of community spaces. We feel oppressed by this bylaw, and our feelings are what this community is made of. 

As our community becomes more and more developed; more populated, more busy, more anonymous, we're losing sight of the importance of neighbourly compassion in our social exchanges. As our municipal government takes on more control, we have relinquished the desire to affect change, ourselves. We've given up. We are increasingly more likely to call the authorities to deal with dead deer or fallen trees instead of hauling them away, ourselves. We used to use them for meat or firewood; we're no longer permitted to do so. And as our social agency is taken away, we're growing more likely to call the authorities when a neighbour offends us than to bring over a drink and have a chat. Our crisis of imagination has led to a crisis of public agency.

And when I realized that the vision of that big picture--that public engagement--is missing from our leadership, I realized that we also have a crisis of feeling. We elected leaders to do a dry job of picking through legal documents and approving or rejecting requests, but we didn't empower them to feel. When they post on public forums they are expected to remain impartial. We expect that the work of governing should be done without emotion, but it concerns emotion a great deal. We need our councilors to have compassion for the woman living in a tent behind the library, to prevent them from passing bylaws that would outlaw her presence. We need them to notice the people feeling alarmed and horrified by proposed changes and ask themselves how those feelings will impact the big picture of our community. We need them to feel, so that they can take our feelings into account; so that we feel heard and empowered to engage in our community.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Creating Hope as an Exit from Existential Fear

This has been a hard, hard month in my province. We're reckoning with our responsibility regarding both climate change and colonialism (which are inextricably linked). Our province is beginning to locate the remains of thousands of murdered indigenous children, at the same time as our towns, farms, wildlife and even humans burn, in the climate-change-fueled fires we're now accustomed to. And all the while we're trying to save the last remaining stands of old-growth forest on this land... with very little success, so far. Colonialism, capitalism, consumerism and industrial terrorism are huge foes and how can we not feel small and weak? Terror and hopelessness abound. Two generations of kids are growing up without hope. And now they're looking at their parents and seeing no reassurance, because we adults are scared, too. We have no idea how we're going to pull out of this one. I think the only way out is through. 

Yes, to some degree, it's necessary to recognize the fire and just run like hell. It's necessary to make sure our neighbours know about the fire. It's necessary to point out that the torch and gas are in our own hands. But then... where do we run to? Through the fire and out the other side? Where's the other side? And why even bother? The concept of "through" requires us to see an exit on the other side, and we have to want that exit.

The exit we want is joy. Harmony. Peace. Love. Those are things worth running to. So we have to find joy, again--or create it. We have to create hope. We have to find reasons to stop fighting and instead start working for change, and, even more importantly, we have to make that change joyful. We have to know that the place we're headed is the place we want to be going.

You get back what you put into the world. Most of us know that, at some level. And yet many, including myself, are feeling and putting out a lot of fear. I think I put joy into the world wherever I can, but maybe I can do more! Maybe instead of dwelling in the anger that my friends' missing siblings might be among those buried children, or instead of raging against the industries and "isms" that are creating climate change, I can make an exit door.

I know it's hard. Sometimes I just want to hide--bury my face in the pillow, or in the tear-soaked sweater of my partner, and wallow in my hopelessness. Sometimes I want to spend money I don't have on something I don't need and just pretend the whole scary world doesn't exist. That's OK for a minute, but then I have to look up again from my sorrow or my distraction and be real. 

I guess for all of us, the ways we "look up" and get busy creating our exit doors will vary. For me, it's working with other parents and teachers to find positive ways of encouraging exploration and discovery in learning. In helping others overcome challenges and find hope, I feel more hopeful, myself. But it's also the small things.

This is a picture of my salad. My family grew it in our garden, and picked it for dinner last night. We gobbled it up with a huge amount of joy. The diversity of colour, scents, flavours and ideas contained in this bowl looks to me like a visual story of hope for the people of our world. Despite all odds, and because of diversity, this abundance of life persists! And I eat it and am a part of my own ecosystem. And my wild and unkempt garden not only provides food for me, but shelter from the heat; shelter from the storm; shelter from the fear. 

My salad isn't enough to change the world. I know that. But in every small way that we cultivate hope in our own hearts, we bring more hope to all of our actions, and to the world. Maybe the small things we do at home give us courage or hope enough to make bigger changes in the world, like supporting those neighbours who suffer directly from colonialism, forest fires, and loss of hope. Having hope, too, is a great privilege, and once we've accessed it, we need to share it--by both small and large means. And when we all have hope, we can tackle the really big problems, like colonialism, capitalism, and consumerism. Or maybe those "isms", which thrive on a population devoid of hope, will just starve when we stop feeding them, and start feeding hope, instead.

So how do you create hope? What is your joyful exit door? What is your vision for a workable, hopeful future? How can we make positive change in our own lives and work towards change for our whole community; our whole world? How can we change our lives, our employment; our communications so that everything we do is working towards the future we want? And how can we be generous; how can we hold each other up, make joyful, hopeful futures for each other to run to? 

I want to be running toward something.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Why Public Art by Kids Matters so Much

There's a rambling little debate going on in my community right now about what kind of mural should go up on the lock-block retaining wall that acts as the de facto welcome sign to our island. This wall faces the ferry dock, and forms the north side of the pedestrian walkway from the dock to the rest of the island. This is the plain concrete wall that, for generations now, has welcomed commuting adults and teens, newcomers and old-timers as well as untold numbers of tourists to our small island. Sometimes it sports blackberries trailing down to catch our shoulders as we pass by, sometimes obscene or public-shaming graffiti, and almost always an assortment of hardy edible weeds that pop out from its crevices. But most noticeably, it's a boring grey wall of concrete lock-blocks.

The Nex̱wlélex̱m/Bowen Island lock-block wall, as it was once painted by local kids.
Photo by Singne Palmquist

Once this wall had a vast mural painted by kids from the local school--each block was painted with scenes of local wilderness or animals. Another time there was a big plywood mural of the island and local information, painted with students from our middle school. Yet another time, the wall was the stage for a temporary piece of public art made by one of our local artists, which peeled and disappeared over time. For a few years now, it's been just a boring grey wall of concrete lock-blocks. 

So now there's a call out for proposals from artists who would like to paint it, and an ongoing debate about whether it should have been offered to the island's children. I'm an artist; I'd love to have my work up in my own community and in fact have been talking with other artists about a collaborative work depicting local wildflowers for this wall. I love the idea of something that pleases and educates at the same time. But now I'm going to champion kids' art, for this wall. Because I think the many benefits of a mural painted by local kids far outweigh those of a more polished, "adult" mural.


One of the best ways we can build sustainable community is to encourage engagement and concern for home and community. We need people to care that this is their home and feel that it deserves looking after. We care about things we feel ownership of. Kids feel ownership of their artwork--especially artwork that was designed and developed by them and displayed publicly in their home.

Why not just put their artwork up on the fridge? Well we can, of course, but not "just". It's not the same as being given the respect of one's community by being welcomed to paint right on our most visible wall. Being welcomed by one's community is, of course, the nature of the meaning of "home", and we want our kids to feel at home. We want them to grow up with the idea that this is their home, that their home matters, and that how they engage with it matters. We want them to feel seen; to feel responsible; to feel that what they do makes an impact on their home and future. So we have to give them that responsibility.

Imagine how it feels to children who painted the wall, say, in grade five, to then be walking past it twice every weekday on their way to and from school in grade eight. Some will tease each other about it; some will feel embarrassed, some will ignore it, and some will feel a quiet or even loud sense of pride. Almost all of them will feel connection. They'll feel a sense of belonging. Maybe they'll walk down to the dock to meet visiting relatives, and escort them past the mural they painted. Maybe they'll take selfies with their contributions. Maybe they'll move away and come back to find their marks still here, a few years later. 

Not every child will have an opportunity to paint this wall. Maybe just one or two grades, and maybe it will be repainted every five years. But the kids who didn't paint it may have siblings who painted it. They may just have witnessed it being done and feel the tendrils of connection reaching out. They'll know that this mural was done by and in honour of the children of our community, and they'll feel valued.

Nex̱wlélex̱m/Bowen Island plywood info-mural painted with local youth.
Photo by Singne Palmquist.


As a parent and educator I'm quite horrified by the many ways children are silenced in our culture; their ideas and skills unvalued, as they're seen as "still developing" in the system that is meant to develop them. Have we forgotten the meaning of development? It means growth. Children are not vessels into which we dump our own ideas for eighteen years and then trust to follow along like good little citizens. Children are growing people with their own ideas and skills and values, and they learn from experience. 

Everybody learns from experience. You can read as many manuals as you like about how to fix your appliance, but the first time you actually open the appliance up is when you really start learning. So what do kids learn by painting a mural in their community? So much. 

They'll learn simply from experience about materials: what type of paint is needed for this project? What chemical properties make it suitable and why won't classroom acrylics do the job? What types of scenes are acceptable, and why? Why has the council requested local flora and fauna, and what exactly are our local flora and fauna? What is the political and social work that goes into a project like this? And all the various applied maths, sciences, communication and language skills that come as a matter of course in the creation of this mural. 

Why can't they just learn those things in school? Why can't they paint the school walls? Why does this painting have to be making a visual chaos of our lovely manicured community? 


Chaos = Development

Because growth, development, and learning need chaos to thrive. It was the chaotic and random assortment of elements that evolved to become life as we know it, today. It was and is a chaotic assortment of peoples, places, climates and experiences that make humanity as we are, today. It was the chaotic rambling experiments of toddler-hood that gave our children the chance to develop skills they now depend on, like language, social skills, gross motor skills and dexterity. They learned all of those things from observing and experimenting, free-range, under our benevolent supervision. They didn't learn them in a school, from textbooks. They learned them because they felt at home in their homes, and made big messes and had big accidents. Our homes were chaotic. Now our kids are older, and it's time for them to be out in their wider community.

Our children are part of our community, and they are our community's future. Instead of being tucked away, seen and not heard, they need to feel they are part of it, so they can grow and thrive here.

Kids' mural on lock-block wall at the Alert Bay ferry marshaling area.
Photo by Emily van Lidth de Jeude


We look after what matters to us. If we want our children to grow up to look after their home and community, we need to allow it to matter to them. 

We used to have an old cherry tree near the lock-block wall in the cove. Kids would climb it and hang out there, waiting for their commuting parents to walk off the boat. But eventually someone injured himself falling out of the tree, and then the tree was deemed too old, so was surrounded by fencing, off-limits to our kids. Now the area has been beautified as part of an effort to create a more visually-pleasing entrance to our community. There are all sorts of gorgeous plants there. I love them. But do the kids? Do they care about a tidy garden that they were expressly excluded from, and forbidden to play in? I asked my kids. My daughter says, "It's just another place you can't go." And how long before that garden is a dumping place for their litter and midnight beer cans, because it was never something they cared about in the first place? We look after what matters to us.

So how about a playground? What if we put in a playground at the ferry terminal, and the kids can play in blissful harmony with the commuters and traffic and beautiful gardens. Sure, but what kind of playground? Is it creative, dangerous, messy; fun? Because those are the things that make a playground worthwhile. Imagine an area full of tools, wood, climbing-trees and ropes; dirt and shovels and paint. That would be an amazing place for feeling belonging, learning new skills, and developing a sense of responsibility. But these playgrounds tend not to be condoned, these days, because of the chaotic look of them in our otherwise manicured landscapes, and because parents are afraid of danger. But danger--risk-taking--is essential for learning and for developing a sense of responsibility.

Another section of the Alert Bay mural. Photo by Emily van Lidth de Jeude.


If we never take risks, we can't learn to manage or mitigate them. Learning is all about taking risks, and risky play is a big part of progressive education all over the world. Just like babies learn to walk by taking risks and falling, teens learn to navigate social situations by taking risks and making mistakes; suffering heartbreak and social exclusion. We take risks as adults when we choose partners, careers, or make big purchases. We learn from all of those risks, and that's how we grow as individuals and how we evolve as a species.

Our kids are part of our communities; our species. They need to take risks like painting a public wall or climbing public trees so they can learn how their community works. You know what the boy who fell out of the tree learned? In addition to some of his physical limits, he may have learned that he was valued in his community, when he was seen, held, and tended to by an adult who was not his parent. 

Kids who paint walls take many risks, in choosing what and how to paint, in consulting with their peers, their supervisors, and their community, and they take social risks in walking past the mural they painted every day for a few years and navigating the conversations that arise. They take personal emotional risk in putting their artwork in a public space and facing the opinions of their community. And that social risk helps them to grow into their community--to become a part of it, deeply and permanently because they grew and thrived there.

A community that sits in stagnant contemplation of its perfectly manicured surroundings is not growing, thriving, or evolving. And who wants that?

It's not only kids taking risks in this scenario. It's us, too. It's the adults who give the kids our most prominent walls to paint and just trust them. That's a huge risk, especially for those of us who are quite afraid of the chaos of childish experimentation. But it's a risk we have to take if we want to grow as individual adults or as a community. Is it like giving our living room wall to a bunch of monkeys with paintbrushes and walking away? Maybe. But I'd rather have something unexpected that I can learn from than live in a stagnant community. It's a risk we have to take if we want to grow. 

As a community we are growing. Our kids quite literally are our future, and if we want them to grow into responsible adults who care about their home, then we need to make them a part of it, now.

Friday, April 23, 2021

On Teaching Art: Playing In the Wilderness Is the Core of a Good Education

Discovering a gigantic (and partially slug-eaten) mushroom here in Canada.

My first outdoor art class was rather an accident. I was working with a group of kids from the American School in Wassenaar, the Netherlands, and decided we'd make a mural to revitalize the wall of a local underpass that at the time was covered with white supremacist graffiti. Taking the kids outside to paint the mural they'd designed was just the obvious next step in the process, and it required the city to drop off a ladder and high-vis barricades to keep us safe from passing cyclists. The city obliged, and we cloistered ourselves up against the wall and painted that mural.

But really we had to stand back quite frequently to look at the job we were doing, which meant stepping out of the barricaded area, across the busy bike-path, and onto the unkempt grassy area beside the overpass. That's where we took breaks, where we sat in the long grass and weeds and chatted, ate our snacks, pondered the mural, and generally did the work of assimilating all the learning that comes with designing and then painting a large mural in a public location--and confronting racism as a group of culturally displaced children. There, in the grass, we found little beetles climbing up the blades; we dropped breadcrumbs by accident and wondered about the safety of picking them up to eat them. We watched all the cyclists zooming by between us and the mural, and we soaked up the sunshine on our faces. We talked about neo-nazis, flowers, bicycles, the various countries we came from, different species of flies, the American School, flies stuck in paint, and languages of racist graffiti. I was nineteen, and really had no idea what I was doing with these kids, as a teacher, but the act of teaching taught me.

Scrubbing algae, tire-dust and graffiti in preparation for painting.

It took me quite a few years, more art classes taught for practical reasons outside, and parenting my own two kids into an unschooling paradigm before I realized the importance of that time spent sitting on grass in Wassenaar. I didn't originally take my classes outside because I knew it was the best place to learn. I took them because it was a place to let off steam; a place to find interesting textures for rubbings, collages, and still-life arrangements, or just the place we had to be to make the big art. Back in those early days I didn’t realize we were doing so much more than art. I took my own kids out just to escape the monotony of our living room, and the boring routine of meals, diapers, nursing, and play time. We did meals, diapers, nursing and play time in the forest, and let me tell you—that was not boring! And it wasn't long before I realized that we didn't actually need anything other than a snack and a spare diaper to go into the woods—that what we were doing there was so much more than just home in the forest: it was everything. Very soon, books, toys, and the stroller were irrelevant, and sticks, mud, water and plants became my kids' playthings. And playthings are learning tools. It wasn’t long after this that I started taking all my art classes outside for at least half our time together, and realized what I’d been missing, all along: connection.

The ecosystem that surrounds our curated homes is vast and complex and interconnected. It’s the seeming chaos that we tried to tame with our cities, boxes, and rules, but in actuality it’s the perfectly-tuned balance of millions of organisms, ideas and functions that we have not yet nearly achieved with our human-made system. Every concept humans dream up has roots in our basic understanding of the world and its natural systems.

Human-Designed Environment vs. Wilderness

The confines of a classroom or home are the curated attempt at a kind of intellectual ecosystem by a species that has become accustomed to putting things in boxes: to looking so hard at one object that we forgot to see the context it exists in. We put everything in boxes. We hang alphabet posters on the wall, keep fish or hamsters in a tank on a shelf for observation, and keep a stack of books, papers, or laptops for recording our observations. In this, we teach ourselves to exclude. We teach ourselves not to consider the wider context of whatever we’re seeing, because we’re afraid it’s too much for our small minds to fathom.

But our minds want to fathom! Our minds need to expand; to take time to sit and observe and wonder; to take subconscious note of all the millions of things that happen in the wilderness, from the slope of a leaning tree to the plants growing on top of it, to the smell of the soil, the mechanics of wings, jaws and elytra to the taste of sap. Our minds draw the connections between these millions of things long before we could ever articulate them.

One of the greatest tragedies of the current education system is our need for documentation and evaluation of learning. Students and teachers spend so much time documenting, testing, and evaluating that there’s no time left for sitting out in the wilderness, just assimilating. I can understand that, given the centralized nature of our system, the people at the top want to be sure every child is receiving the same instruction and meeting the same standards. But this is old. We’re progressing beyond the industrial society this system was designed for, where humans are needed to follow directions and work in factories. We’re on the edge of a new enlightenment, where the work we do with our minds is valued as much or more than our ability to assemble products. We don’t need the over-simplified, over documented fact-sheets of the industrial age, that break reality into such small pieces that it’s meaningless in the big picture. Our minds need a rich environment full of wonder, intrigue, and uncertainty to grow. The wilderness offers that.

Boxes vs. the Big Picture

As unschoolers at home, my kids were welcome to play and explore whatever interested them, free from the school system. But the fear I developed growing up in that school system led me to buy them a series of workbooks designed for their grade-levels. At some point my son was working on the science section (the only section he was willing to look at), and became furious. “This is a stupid book!” he declared. “They don’t know anything!” He was talking about the page that claimed killer whales eat other whales. He knew they ate salmon—at least those whales inhabiting our area at the time. And he knew that other killer whales ate seals and sea lions, but he didn’t care because they weren’t anywhere near us. I tried to explain that transient killer whales might, in fact, eat smaller whales, so maybe the book wasn’t wholly wrong. But both of us were dismayed at the description of something we knew to be a very complex system, as something so simplified as to be incorrect.

Humans are forever trying to make things simpler to understand them. It’s definitely simpler and less risky to put something in a box for observation than it is to go get to know it in its natural environment. If you put a killer whale in a big box with a smaller whale, I bet it would eventually eat it. But then you wouldn’t know anything about either species at all.

Boxes are more predictable, and we like predictable. The trouble is that the world and everything in it is not that simple. So in boxing everything; in teaching our kids “the simple facts” of, say, anatomy, combustion engines, or long division, we ignore the greater context of not only how these things fit into the vast ecology that we’re a part of, but why they matter. That’s why it’s OK to forget them when the test is finished and we move on to the next subject. They were never important in the big picture because we never saw the big picture: The ecosystem of everything.

The thing is, though, that that ecosystem is the context of our lives. We didn’t come from nature thousands of years ago and then progress beyond it with industry and technology, we are nature. We are the ecosystem, and our minds, unbeknownst to us, are naturally evolved to live in, observe, and understand it. Everything we are is the same basic particles that comprise a killer whale, a turtle; a beetle, or a piece of sandwich fallen into the weeds and digested by microbes, on the side of the bike path in Wassenaar. Everything we have built came from nature. Not just the raw materials, harvested unseen behind a slim screen of trees by the highway, but also our ingenuity. It comes from nature. It comes from people walking through the wilderness getting to know it; people living for thousands of years in their own ecosystem, learning and understanding the ecology of that place until they know how to heal themselves with specific plants, actions, and technologies. Humans learned medicine from the wilderness, and then learned to make it into pills. I learned about my own body’s anatomy by butchering rabbits with my family, as a child. Humans learned engineering from stacking, digging, and weaving pieces of wilderness to make homes and all other manner of ingenuity—like birds build nests and bears prepare dens for winter. Children build forts and mats; crowns and shoes and gardens in the wilderness. And this play is where they learn the core skills they need to become engineers, physicians, caregivers, fashion designers, mathematicians, and politicians.

That’s a lot of things to become! And you know it’s just my random little list. It looks like hyperbole but it’s really a gross understatement. I can’t think of a single career that wouldn’t be ideally begun in the wilderness. Why? Because our minds are capable of more than we know, and more than we can articulate. In sitting, playing, or living in the wilderness we give our minds space to learn. That’s why we learn better, there.

Natural play in the forest.

The Whole Picture: Interconnection

Getting to know our own ecosystems isn’t quantifiable. It’s not really so much about seeing or learning more as it is about seeing the interconnection of all things. What was missing from that infamous killer whale page in my son’s workbook was indeed just a lot of information, but more importantly it was the connection between all that information. Salmon is to killer whales what smaller fish are to salmon. And our local residents prefer chinook salmon. But where do they find them? And how do they interact or share territory with the transient (now Biggs) killer whales, who eat pinnipeds, dolphins and minke whales? What do minke whales eat? Who eats their poop? Oh yeah—whale poop is the fertilizer of the seas. Like rabbit, horse, and chicken manure on my garden. Like deer poop in the forest, and the leaves and berries that went into it, feed the ferns, trees, and the grasses that later were picked for the robin’s nest; the corvid that later stole the robin’s scrawny babies to eat; the blue eggshells that fell to the ground to be gnawed by insects and harvested for calcium. The picture goes on and on forever. It’s not just big; it’s whole. Try to put that on a spreadsheet and send it to the ministry for documentation of learning.

Really. I’ve tried. As an unschooling parent still enrolling my kids in a DL program in order to access community resources and group activities, I had to quantify my kids’ learning on paper once every term. I learned very fast that what my children were learning was absolutely unquantifiable; that an “education” in our province constitutes a list of checked boxes, but that what my children understood of the world was much more important. School-going kids also understand far more than is noted on their reports; more than they are seen knowing, by a system inclined to look at them mostly for the purpose of checking boxes. They understand the social connectivity of their class and school, of their families and the landscape of the places they are given to explore. If we want our children to know more about the world, we simply have to give them more places to explore. And if we want them to really become comfortable and fluent in complexity, we have to give them plenty of time exploring in the wilderness.

Exploring: Curated Experience vs. Free Play

Exploring doesn’t mean hiking along a trail. I mean, it might, if that’s where interest led you. But it might mean going off-trail, crawling into the underbrush, or sitting down to dissect a pile of bear poop. It might mean sitting smelling the wind, and maybe it’s autumn, and the wind carries a musky smell that turns out to be a very large rutting deer watching you from afar. He saw you first because he’s accustomed to this wilderness and used to noticing the changes. You’re the change in his wilderness, and now you’re a part of it. And you discovered something you didn’t expect when you sat down to smell the wind.

When kids play in the wild without direction they probably learn more than they would if the play was curated. Most times school kids are taken outside to play, the play is directed by a teacher. Maybe we play capture the flag; maybe we sit and read our books or go on a scavenger hunt. These aren’t harmful activities, but in the expectation of specific activity, they don’t leave much room for exploration. We learn to see outdoor spaces as locations for performing human-designed activities, as opposed to ecosystems to be a part of. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Take a group of kids into the woods with no expectations, supplies or instruction, and leave them to play. They will use their previous experiences, their broad complex understanding of the world, and their inquisitive minds to take stock of the situation and adapt. They’ll explore their surroundings. They’ll use whatever objects they find around (clothing, sticks, leaves, water) to act out and explore their ideas. It’s a lot like documentation, but freed from the constraints of ministry check-boxes and expected reporting methods, it will look like play. It is play. And it’s essential for learning. Just like in playing, a crow learns where the robins are nesting and where he might find his next meal. He learns how to slide in snow and dig for grubs. Play is essential for learning. In playing with kids in the forest, I learned the best things I know about teaching.

The wilderness provides the best playground for our imaginations, because it’s complex enough to house all our ideas. It provides the best place for learning, because, when we give ourselves time to just be there, we can discover and come to understand—intrinsically—the roots of everything. Without constraints on space, complexity, or imagination, we really can be wholly educated. We can become everything we want to be.

Monday, January 25, 2021

reaching people; alienating people; being unheard

This video by Rage Against the Machine x the Umma Chroma brings up something I struggle with a lot in my own work and in the work of people I really respect, like RATM. You try so hard to help people see their own strength in changemaking; their own worth and their own ability to make postive change, then you look out at the crowd of people supporting you, and you know a large percentage don't hear the message. They go home shouting about it, but they didn't hear it. Maybe that's because they didn't go there to be educated--I get that. But we keep telling ourselves, as artists, as educators, as community organizers, that even if just one person in that crowd goes home and makes some kind of positive change, we've been successful, but how is that really enough?

The most successful instagram post I've ever made was an in-progress shot of a dress that's about oppression of women; the objectification of the female body. In a very brief time it got thousands of views, and was worked into a German graffiti artist's work. The vast majority of the people sharing it were men. You know why? Because the breasts of the mannequin it sat on were visible. For the handful of women who felt seen, understood, and the smaller handful of men who understood the message, there were thousands who just consumed it like a piece of meat.

I love this video because they're not allowing us to just revel in the anger of the song and not question our lives, our heritage, our thoughts; our whiteness. Putting out something so blatant runs the risk of people choosing not to watch--of alienating any and all of the audience that didn't already understand or agree. Please watch this video if you think it looks stupid. Watch it if you think you already understand, or you don't need to know. Watch it if you think RATM is too white. Watch it if you think you're too white.

Anyway. These are my thoughts for the moment. This is something I struggle with in life and living and art.

Monday, November 16, 2020

why I make portraits the way I do

"I see the story in your eyes" 2020
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. 

"Just a breath and the world was bright again", 2019
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. 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. 

"Alan Shatwell", 2009

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

Contributions 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.