Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A Web Spun in Reverse

   I am taking a little break to warm up in a sunny window with chokeberry tea.  I've been spider-like this past little while: blocking everything out, joining up all the lines, and then taking everything apart again.  Since I started weaving my webs on paper, a snow of eraser dust has mounted up around the legs of my desk.

    I have been building invisibly across an expanse of deep white paper, making homes and then whirling them around like tops to find the best face to show of them.  Shadows of people slide past on the page from time to  time, only to be burst open into the bright oblivion of empty paper.  But all of this drama takes place in a creeping, creaking sort of slow motion, and with long breaks in the action. 

   Some people quite admirably make dozens of studies for an artwork.  They can lay them all out at the end and clearly show the journey from their first idea to their finished work.  At school when I was growing up, in art classes and math classes we were obliged to perform these sorts of demonstrations down the pages of our notebooks.  I inevitably went back at the end, just before handing a thing in, and treacherously made up all the steps.

    Despite my best efforts, I am a secretive person by nature.  My drawings rest on top of endless invisible false starts and revisions.   I would love this to change, but perhaps learning to erase with one hand while I draw with the other is the surest way of speeding things up.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Ghost Walk

   A couple of weeks ago we went back to Paris to see some of the people and places we used to visit when we lived there.  During the day, while the people we knew were at work, we wandered the streets together like ghosts trying to relive all the best parts of old times before having to step off the earth again and go home.  Since it is summer, there was not much going on; many parts of the city had already packed themselves away until autumn.  But all was not lost, of course, our favourite places waited for us, posed so we could photograph them.

In Belleville we walked past the printmaking studio I used to go to most week nights.  The tall wooden doors of the place were bolted tight, the lights were all turned off, and the street out front didn't reek of etching chemicals because it was all emptied out for the summer.  But in the streets around there, paintings grew up the buildings and bloomed in the evening sun.  There were posters everywhere with pictures of CCTV cameras, and beneath the photos there were little messages saying the government is watching you, scratch out its eyes.  And there were sculptures to be seen in the windows of the many studios there.  There were women in lovely head scarves, there was delicious Laotian food, and there were places to sit outside and drink red wine until it was late, time to go. And then there was the group of forty people all on roller skates passing by.

Another day we walked into the little cluster of Russian restaurants and icon shops that sit around the Cathédrale Saint Alexandre Nevsky.  I used to love walking around in the filtered light of this church, full of lovely art nouveau-influenced frescoes, and heaped with icons. But somehow my husband had never seen the inside until this visit.  Not far away from here there is another church that we love, the Église Saint Augustin.  Although it is a little shabby in places, it captures the feeling of being in a train station with its long nave lined in iron lamp posts.  Unfortunately, the photos we tried to take in there didn't really come out.  Inside, I lit a candle at a side altar dedicated to Mother Teresa and thought of an orphanage/school in India I once visited that was started by a man who she had helped as a child.  Although I don't have a religion, I do miss the churches and other religious buildings in Paris that leave their doors open so people can come in to pray or meditate or think freely. 

We also visited La Grande Mosquée de Paris.  In the courtyard garden it is easy to forget that there is a bustling European city surrounding the mosque.  Instead, there are palm leaves and tiles, dazzling geometric patterns everywhere and bright flowers that look as if they should grow some place much warmer.  It was a hot day, and we stopped in the shade of the vine-covered courtyard where sweet mint green tea is served, and sparrows riot overhead. 

It's funny to come home and see the photos that have been waiting inside the camera after being away someplace.  Walking down the street, eating with friends, waiting out a sudden rainstorm under the nearest awning, or talking endlessly on some patio are the sort of things I remember most, but I hardly ever photograph these things.

Instead there is usually an inordinate amount of stained glass...  or old floor tiles with patterns made of grotesques maybe.

But we also visited Brittany.  In fact, the main reason why we went to France right on the heels of all our other visiting, when all we really wanted was to stay still for a moment and pick up the threads our daily lives again, was to have one last visit at my husband's grandmother's house which will soon have to be sold. 

And so we walked the beaches and the rocky shores and stepped out to the ends of piers; we watched the sea endlessly.  At low tide we dug clams and collected the fragile shells of star-marked urchins to decorate the table.  We swam, and we went to markets where each piece of fruit, every cheese, every single thing looked like a piece of art, riper than ripe and ready to eat.  And we passed through villages where all the roofs are thatched and the houses are built with nooks for statues of saints.

We found dolmens in old oak groves... 

... and beside farmers' fields.

We marvelled at these enormous rocks pulled out of the earth and then balanced so precariously, as if they were lighter than air and could float in place.  And then we crawled in underneath them for another look. 

And we floated in a black tar boat through a maze of canals in marsh-land.  White geese honked from the shore, swallows dashed back and forth, and moths fluttered about the tall grasses.  And we knew that we were indeed some kind of ghosts, visiting only shortly... because everything was too good and too beautiful and all that we could have desired to pack into a few short days was there.

Already it seems so long ago.  Right now what is most in my mind is that we are just home after a trip down the street, through the harbour, to the lighthouse that sits surrounded by wildflowers and purple grasses, where cormorants sit on the rocks, holding their wings out to dry and the huge boats of the harbour come and go.  And that is a good thing, I've been writing too much in the past tense in these last few entries, it's time for things here to start moving again. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Lizzie's Dother

   In early May, when I arrived at my mother's house for a long-awaited visit, the first thing I had to do was to awkwardly excuse myself from visiting so I could work on a commission I had accepted before leaving Scotland.  I spent a little over a week holed up in the sun porch drawing and painting with all the windows opened wide.  The commission was for an illustration to accompany the story that won a literary competition that runs annually here, the Toulmin Prize.
   I think that my Doric-reading skills have possibly improved a bit since I illustrated last year's story, but the story was a challenging piece to illustrate nonetheless.  The plot centres on a woman who lives in rural Scotland in a time when women had far fewer options available to them, and one of the main issues raised in this complex story is female infanticide.  So, I did have to think quite a lot about how to present my illustration.  I tried to make an image that was appealing enough for the magazine audience, but which would take on a new meaning for those who looked at it again after having read the story.  The caption at the bottom is a line from the story.  Though it's written in Doric, it's probably not too difficult to figure out.  It means something like: She remembered all the other little girls that she'd held the same way.

   For all the worry this project gave me, I did very much enjoy reading the story and had a great time working on the painting.  I wish I could always paint in a sun porch... it feels just like being outside, but no mosquitoes, black flies, or rain falling on your painting.  But sun porch or no, it will be lovely to get back to work now that we have no more plans for travelling about.  It has been months now since I've even held a pencil or a paint brush!  Oh, and I'll write very soon about our visit back to France.  This trip I made sure to take photos! 


Monday, 2 July 2012


   It seems that our camera sat mostly forgotten in a bag of rumpled clothes while we were back visiting in Canada.  There were too many people we hadn't seen in too long; we were overwhelmed by crashing waves of familiarity.  And so there was only one time when we went out and trapped little bits of the late evening light to bring home with us.

   All of the rest: swimming in lakes; thunderstorms; June bugs and moths tapping on the screens at night; laying in grass beneath trees in the afternoon; the bird, bug, and frog songs I grew up listening to as I drifted off to sleep; the plants I knew well; coyote yelps; hummingbirds; porcupines; the meeting and mixing of people from every part of the world; the blinding sun and smothering heat; the rich forests... all of those things I would have liked to have shared here... I'm very sorry, but none of that got recorded somehow.

   So the photos of our evening's bike ride over the rolling hills near where my father lives will be all I can really share of our time away.  Luckily, my father lives in a place full of charming farms and roads where cars have to share the lanes with horses pulling buggies and quite a few bicycles. 

And just at the end of the street he lives on, there are farms selling eggs, maple syrup, pies, and vegetables to any who will knock on the door and come inside for a second.  One of the only foods I miss a lot, not living in Canada, happens to be maple syrup.  And so we walked past the cows moaning and stretching out to be milked and stepped inside a little wooden house where a girl with a fluttering accent brought out jugs of different colours of syrup, from light to dark.

   My parents happened to separate before I was born, after an argument on their honeymoon, so I never spent too much time around the places you see in these photos while I was growing up, just on summer holidays and some weekends.  I always felt cut off from the people on my father's side of the family who spoke a very thick dialect of German, like many of the people who live around here.

   It is lovely on a bicycle though, especially when after a long stretch of dusty, open road there is a valley filled with deep forest, where the trees give off a moist coolness and everything smells very green and very alive.

  Down long country roads there are little pockets of farm houses with kids running about in brimmed hats and sometimes playing stick-ball.  Mennonite ladies walk about in their bonnets and there are horses everywhere, and everything feels so lovely and too intimate to photograph (which is why I only took photos out on the big main road that runs between towns). 

   Returning home after so long away is such a perplexing experience.  All the funny little everyday things that I always believed to be ordinary in every place jump out at me now as having been unique all along.  The words of family and friends are accented, though they didn't use to be.  There are some strange and Rip Van Winkle-like effects to returning home after a long time away.  And yet, there is the opposite sense, the familiarity and the feeling of belonging to a place.  Before too long, time and thoughts start reaching forward, tracing out the alternate life that could be lived here, on the spot you grew up out of, this warm place filled with family.


And then it's time to go off again.

It happens that tomorrow morning, bright and early, we are heading out on one last homesickness-inducing adventure, just as the boxes have all been unpacked and this new flat is beginning to look like home.  Somewhat unexpectedly, we are returning to France for a little over a week, and then our time of roving should be over for a good while, which is probably a very good thing.