Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Seeking balance

“The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” ~Albert Einstein

Okay, what I am about to say here goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: seek balance in your life.

The Greeks, specifically Aristotle, were really on to something when they talked about the "golden mean". They believed that anything in excess produced imbalance and disharmony. Their philosophy centered around the concepts of beauty and truth primarily but we can apply their thinking to everyday principles and the way in which we choose to live our lives too. We need not be a Romantic poet either to appreciate the benefits of nurturing these qualities within us.

We all have a natural homeostasis...a plumb-line of optimal health if you will. When the weight shifts to one side we get sick, flounder, fail to thrive. If we veer too far off the path, whether it be through an addiction, a distorted way of thinking or anything at all that swings the pendulum off course we experience negative consequences. Sometimes we realize when this is happening, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we WANT to escape, to be somewhere else, to remove ourselves from the path of certainty. However, as time passes the effects will catch up with us.

Perhaps I am rambling here but my point is that seeking balance really is the path to health and happiness. I can only speak for myself in these blog entries but perhaps what I have to say might resonate with you as well. When the health of my family was in jeopardy a couple of years ago I fell into a pattern of disharmony with myself and the world, all the while trying to make my way creating paintings that chronicled this difficult time. I got sick as a result and it took me awhile to get back on track, but I did eventually get better, healthier, and am now thriving. We are amazing creatures; our bodies and minds really are our temples, places to appreciate and to never take for granted. Our physical bodies are very forgiving but we must treat them with respect too. We must nurture our entire beings, and in turn we will have the energy to do great things.

Imbalance can occur externally too. We can fall into unhealthy patterns with others, with food, with anything that is taken to the extreme, even exercise, which is good for us...must be done in moderation! I try to focus on positive friendships and relationships and pare away associations that are not fulfilling, that sap my mind and body of energy and thus impair the flow of creativity.

The key is knowing when the compass is spinning, when we are off course, when to regroup and prune away unhealthy areas of our lives. We are all amazing works of art...each one of us. We all deserve respect and happiness. It is easy to undermine optimal health by letting ourselves fall into negative habits. Fortunately our bodies and minds give us clues: we get a cold, the scale goes up , our mood is down consistently. When this happens check yourself and make changes. Sounds easy, but often it is very difficult. Chocolate just tastes too darned good...yet in excess..well, you know the answer.

I think that fundamentally we know in our hearts when we are out of our natural homeostasis. We can sense it in it's more subtle forms, and of course it slaps us in the face in more pathological manifestations. We all have the power within us to make great changes, to self-actualize, to find the sweet spot of effortless effort within our lives. The time is now, anything is possible and when we are well balanced, health and happiness will follow.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”~Albert Einstein

Friday, July 25, 2008


You are the music while the music lasts. ~T.S. Eliot

This is a painting of my good friend Conrad. He is a singularly fascinating person who I am very fortunate to know. The course of our conversations is totally unpredictable and therefore, a pleasure to engage in. He is a man of many talents, and this includes music. One morning he was singing a new song to me when I saw the way he was sitting on his chair and wanted to paint him, just as he was. A few weeks later we recreated the pose and he sang another song, just before I shot the reference photos.

I envisioned a painting that was "heavy" to the one side...with space and breathing room on the other side. I was pleased when Conrad chose darker clothes as I knew it would create a nice contrast in values on the canvas. As with many of my pieces I wanted simple shapes with room for the eye to move around in and rest, contrasted with areas of detail as well.

It was truly wonderful to be in a creative environment where music and art coexisted like that. Human beings are very strongly visual by nature yet there is something so evocative, so poignant about music. It resonates with me in a similar yet strikingly different way than art. I wanted to try to capture that energy within Conrad, on the canvas.

"The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity." - Alberto Giacometti

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Laura, Parkside

“The capacity to be alone … becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realization with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings and impulses. Thinking can be regarded as a preliminary to action: a scanning of possibilities, a linking of concepts, a reviewing of possible strategies.” ~Anthony Storr, A Return To Self

Many of my paintings, in fact most of them, deal with a solitary figure. Within my work you will not find groups of individuals; no crowds of people talking or otherwise occupying the space on the canvas. No, I choose to deal with one person at a time in my canvases. Whether it is myself as the subject, a close friend, or a new acquaintance, I prefer trying to capture inward dialogue rather than extrinsic distractions that other figures might bring to a painting.

I have wondered in the past why I choose to paint this way. I think it is because fundamentally all of life is distilled into our own subjective matrix of thoughts and feelings in how we relate to the world around us. Our perceptions are ours and ours alone. No one can see through our eyes and experience life as each of us does. That fascinates me. When I photograph my models and myself for future paintings all I ask is that they do not smile. I suppose I lean a bit towards the melancholic by nature...but smiles are difficult to paint for one, and two, when we are alone we are usually not smiling. We aren't necessarily scowling either, we are just neutral, yet our minds may be racing, pondering, plotting or resolving issues in our lives.

Laura is a new model and friend of mine. I was taken by her cherubic face the first time I saw her. She had such kind eyes and lovely, soft features. We arranged a photoshoot and the resulting painting is what you see before you. I found her dark kitchen an interesting counterpoint to the light coloured wall of her back porch. I wondered how a cropped room beyond her contemplative pose might work into the painting's narrative. I do like the weight of the composition...it might not have been as successful if her kitchen had been a lighter colour perhaps. I enjoyed her look of reverie when painting her...a look similar to when one's eyes cloud over with a moment's remembrance or the contemplation of some future event.

"An art aims, above all, at producing something beautiful which affects not our feelings but the organ of pure contemplation, our imagination."
~Eduard Hanslick

Monday, July 14, 2008

Be Here Now

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's the truth: we cannot change the past. However, the present is ours to meld and do with what we choose. I am a ruminator by nature and thus is so easy, especially when working in solitude at the easel, to drift into "what if" scenarios... to revisit past choices and decisions that seemed wise at the time but in retrospect become overshadowed with doubt. I have to continually, persistently, fight to stay in the moment.

My point is that as we all know, the past is finished, the future will never arrive...we only have the present moment. In our helter skelter lifestyle the invariable stresses brought on by technological advancements displace us from the present moment and we are relegated to a state of chronic, elevated stress. I am a caffeine addict and thus my adrenals are probably already burned out. However I take solace knowing that right now...at this very moment, anything is possible. It is a very liberating feeling to realize that each moment is ours to do with as we choose.

I am house sitting for a friend of mine and madly biked across town today to get my heart rate up and also to make sure his place was secure. I thought of him hiking out on a glacier in The Yukon Territory and had to fight feelings of envy. I take an iota of comfort in knowing that I will be able to view his pictures upon his return. I also buoy my spirits with the positive thoughts that I too one day will get up to visit the northern areas of North America. The beauty of generous friends with good hearts is that there are often people ready to extend some hospitality and help in the process of exploration. Until then however I am focusing on inward exploration.

Setting goals for oneself is healthy I believe. To set goals and not shy away from their seeming unattainability is wise and helps to bring them forth in the world. The latest addition to my list of things to accomplish within the next five years is to write a book. It will be a travel/art book with a focus on paintings of remote locations in Canada with accompanying journals and reflections during and after the sojourns. I am going to travel to two locations on each coast of Canada within the next year. Newfoundland, as I have mentioned previously, is happily crawling closer with each passing day. The rocky crags and warm, generous folks from Newfoundland will surely make for some exciting paintings which I will work on over the next year. In addition, I am traveling to an isolated little 3 acre island off the coast of Salt Spring Island next spring. There is a small cabin, an outhouse, a lovely copse of trees, a beach and most importantly, no power. I will probably stay on the island for up to two weeks. I will sketch, write and collect reference for another body of paintings that will try to capture the overwhelming beauty of that little pocket of British Columbia. I have included a couple of pictures of the cabin and island. When the large body of paintings are complete and I have compiled my notes I will attempt to get it published. This is all in my mind but it is a goal nonetheless....and I am all about trying my hardest to attain what I set out to do in this life.

I wonder if people would find this idea for a book of interest. If so, please send me an email or comment if you are so inclined. An idea has to be viable in order to work. I has to offer something of value to the audience. I hope that my idea will come to fruition and I really believe that with enough energy and effort anything is truly possible.

I do not care for tattoos usually. While they can be beautiful I have never been inclined to get one...that is until my final year of university. I adore William Shakespeare and more specifically, his tragedies (no big surprise there). Hamlet is his greatest work I believe and Polonius' words to Laertes have always hit a chord with me: "The above all: to thine own self be true". He speaks the truth indeed. What good are we to family and friends if we possess a counterfeit attitude or intention to ourselves or others? Aren't we diluting our true potential if we are less than genuine to ourselves, however unconscious? As my friend Conrad says "bring it all to the table". Hide behind nothing, regret nothing, and let the chips fall where they may. I had Polonius' words tattooed on my inner arm, a place that I look often, so that when I err in intent, waver in my resolve for any reason, I will see its wisdom.

My prescription to you for your day tomorrow is to bring it all to the table. Have a coffee, fire up those adrenals and remember : to thine own self be true-always.

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in, forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You will begin it well and serenely” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Of Power And Time

A good friend passed on a piece of writing to me the other day. He had written a thoughtful note accompanying the literature: "Heather, May you be inspired and charged up by these words, so many of which you already embody". These words meant a lot to me. To have such conscientious and sensitive friends is a gift that is priceless.

The piece of writing he gave to me was called "Of Power And Time" by the American poet Mary Oliver. It is taken from the book "Blue Pastures", 1995, Harvest Books. I used to work in the best independent bookseller in Canada before I embarked on the financially nomadic lifestyle of a full-time artist. My former employer and good friend, whose opinion I value highly, was a big fan of Oliver's. I can now understand why. This piece of writing has struck a huge chord with me...it has changed me. It is my new creative manifesto...I will post a small section of it near my easel to read when energy or inspiration wane, when my cat tempts me to play with him, when interruptions come calling.

I have included the essay below for you to enjoy. I do hope that it might serve to inspire you a little bit, to bring you to the easel with a bit more fervor, to neglect distraction in favor of one extra brushstroke, one more thoughtful turn of the wheel, one more moment doing what you love to do.


OF POWER AND TIME by Mary Oliver

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart-a pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And What does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist,that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is took weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal fore-this intimate interrupter-whose tracks I would follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self-and does-is a darker and more curious matter.

I am, myself, three selves at least. To begin with, there is the child I was. Certainly I am not that child anymore! Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice-I can feel its hope, or its distress. It has not vanished. Powerful, egotistical, insinuating-its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy rivers of dreams.It is not gone, not by a long shot. It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.

And there is the attentive, social self. This is the smiler and the doorkeeper. This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life. That keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met. It is fettered to a thousand notion of obligation. It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.

The clock! That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly! How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily! Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again! Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish! The clock is still ticking. All its vistas are just so broad-are regular. (Notice that word.) Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought. The town’s clock cries out, and the face in every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself. Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day. (Notice that word also.)

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do-fly and airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go around.

I, too, live in this ordinary world. I was born in it. Indeed, most of my education was intended to make me feel comfortable within it. Why that enterprise failed is another story. Such failures happen, and then, like all things, are turned to the world’s benefit, for the world has a need of dreamers as well as shoe-makers. (Not that it is so simple, in fact-for what shoemaker does not occasionally thump his thumb when his thoughts have, as we would say, “wandered”? And when the old animal body clamors for attention, what daydreamer does not now and again have to step down from the daydream and hurry to market before it closes, or else go hungry?)

And this is also true. In creative work-creative work of all kinds-those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook-a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always-these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the middle ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can to but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come-for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is an adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is all about.

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity. One must work with the creative powers-for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place. Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration. A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example. Also, it is enough to tell them. Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all our conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings-disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Of this can there can be no question-creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does no know tis-who does not swallow this-is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true. For they are in another world altogether. It is a world where the third self is governor. Neither is the purity of art the innocence of childhood, if there is such a thing. One’s life as a child, with all its emotional rages and ranges, is but grass for the winged horse-it must be chewed well in those savage teeth. There are irreconcilable differences between acknowledging and examining the fabulations of one’s past and dressing them up as though they were adult figures, fit for art, which they never will be. The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work-who is thus responsible to the work.

On any morning or afternoon, serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another. Serious interruptions come from the watchful eye we cast upon ourselves. There is the blow that knocks the arrow from its mark! There is the drag we throw over our own intentions. There is the interruption to be feared!

It is six a.m., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, wherever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Encounters At The End Of The World

"The kinds of landscapes I try to find in my films...exist only in our dreams. For me a true landscape is not just a representation of a desert or a forest. It shows an inner state of mind, literally inner landscapes, and it is the human soul that is visible through the landscapes presented in my films."~Werner Herzog

I took a trip to Toronto today to see Werner Herzog's newest film, Encounters At The End Of The World. It is playing at The Cumberland theatre, a great theatre that always seems to be playing the movies that I want to see the most.

I really enjoy Herzog's films. He possesses this wonderful quirkiness which comes across in his work. They are quite idiosyncratic...lovely long shots of grass blowing, rivers flowing or subjects of a documentary just looking at the camera for an extended period of time. They are thoughtful films, careful without being precious, emotional without being saccharine. Besides, anyone who can be shot during an interview and continue on with the interview is a cool guy in my books.

Encounters At The End Of The World takes a look at the intrepid people who call Antarctica home. We also learn about the geological aspects of the land, it's enormous active volcano that can unexpectedly spew magma at any time, its icebergs, and a host of indigenous flora and fauna as well. Herzog maintains that he stipulated to his sponsors that he was NOT going to study penguins or make a 'penguin movie'. He does have a brief look at them of course. One moving scene has a penguin who breaks off from the group waddling to the ocean many kilometers away. The little bird embarks on a fatal journey by himself, towards the mountains which lie hundreds of kilometers away. To see this small bird, a spec of black dwarfed by the landscape, heading off to his inevitable demise, broke my heart but I had to realize that it was another cog in the wheel of nature and to try to accept its sadness and move on.

Herzog also interviewed dozens of people who work and live on Antarctica. From scientists to dishwashers with PhDs, all have a story to share. Philosophers who work as truckers, world travelers all, they are a unique bunch who choose to live at the end of the world. Werner Herzog seems to be attracted to those that flourish on the margins of society, people who shun convention and make their mark on society's fringes. He also seems fascinated by impossible, sometimes doomed journeys. Aguirre: Wrath Of God was very disturbing for this reason. Plus, Klaus Kinski just petrifies me-period. His unpredictable behavior in the wake of a failed pilgrimage to find El Dorado will resonate with me for a long time.

We are pulled into these adventures with Herzog's infectious inquisitiveness. The scientists in Encounters At The End Of The World love what they do and are humbled by the world in which they live. I too was blown away by the beautiful creatures who live in the frigid waters of the Ross Sea.

I recently rented Grizzly Man again. This is another documentary style film by Herzog that examines the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell, an eccentric naturalist, bear enthusiast and filmmaker in his own right. Treadwell lived in Hallo Bay on the Katmai coast of Alaska every summer for over a decade, studying and living with grizzly bears. Even after a second viewing I shake my head and smile when I see footage of Treadwell. He was a singularly unique individual with a passion for bears that unfortunately, ultimately proved fatal. As a longtime friend of Treadwell's said, Timothy would have wanted to die that way, doing what he loved to do. It is individuals like Werner Herzog and Timothy Treadwell that make our world a more interesting place. They are the wheat cleaved from the chaff. There are some lovely shots in the film, with Herzog almost steering the film lightly, letting Treadwell helm most of the direction, or so it seems. Werner Herzog opens the door for us to step into these epochs of time and place, these far flung lands that hold the promise of the untrodden path. I think that we are fascinated by those who have the courage to step off the grid of map and mind. I know I am.

"It is my firm belief, and I say this as a dictum, that all these tools now at our disposal, these things part of of this explosive evolution of means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal — be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever — human solitude will increase in direct proportion." ~Werner Herzog

Listening to: Coverage of Wimbledon as I work at my easel
Reading: Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer