Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Year's Goals and an Imperfect Mary

New Year's Goals and an Imperfect Mary

When I was a girl, we had a crib with all the Christmas story figurines. One of the shepherds had a lamb propped over his neck, like a woolen scarf. Two angels were propped up on top of the crib and a large silver star hung at the peak of the open creche. My father used to 'hide' the baby Jesus up high in the cabinet and surreptitiously place it in the manger before we got out of bed on Christmas morning. Over the years, with seven children playing with the ceramic figurines, they naturally got chipped and broken and lost. Some of the figures were so damaged with chunks of plaster gone so that we could see the wires at the centre of the figure. Eventually, the entire set dwindled down to only one sheep, one shepherd, one cow, two of the three wise men, one angel and of course Joseph, Mary and Jesus. But one year, we could not find Mary. I suppose she just couldn't sustain the wear and tear of our household. Baby Jesus still arrived on cue but it just wasn't the same without Mary.

The following Christmas, the creche was set up again but this time my mother had found a 'spare Mary' to complete the Christmas scene. However, because Mary had been scrounged from elsewhere and was not an original member of the set, she was quite a bit larger than the other figurines. In fact, Mary on her knees still managed to tower over Joseph who happened to be in a standing position. At the time, we were simply glad to have Mary back and it made no difference to us that she didn't 'match' the set.

Now, in retrospect, I am so grateful to have grown up in a family where things didn't match, where china was often chipped or cracked, where stairs creaked and windows rattled and where the gooseberry bushes overran the garden. I think our generation is obsessed with perfection. We want the best of everything. Few of us would glue up a broken figurine or replace a broken clasp on a bra or take apart a toaster to attempt to fix it. When we paint a room, we want things to match. There's even a name for these small items we place in the newly painted room: accents. When did 'accents' become something that everyday people had to worry themselves about? Personally, I love beautiful things. I am an artist, after all and aesthetics mean a lot to me. But do I love perfection too much? Is there some wisdom in the way I was raised? Where perfection was an ideal only to aspire to only in terms of developing character traits such as kindness and 'doing the right thing'.

This new year, I am going to sit down and write out my goals, as I always do. It's fun to think about what this next year might bring. But I am also going to include something different in my goals. That is, I'm going to include a “make-do” attitude. In certain areas in my life, I am going to be okay with imperfection. Not only am I going to be okay with it, I'm going to celebrate it. Why not? It's going to be a 'yes' kind of year: yes to hope, yes to kindness and yes to living in this imperfect world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Salvation Army Kettle Drive and the Snow That Came to Stay

The Salvation Army Kettle Drive and the Snow That Came to Stay

Each year it's the same thing. In November, I resist digging out my winter clothes. I delay and delay until it's been minus zero for over a week, and then finally I relent and I open up the dreaded 'box'. This year, as I unearth my winter things, I notice the slightly musty smell of the wool, the coolness of the attic and the snow gently falling. All of this releases that valve of memory from previous winters in Northern Ontario. And suddenly, I see myself at sixteen in January, wandering into the “Famous Shoe Repair”on Simpson Street.

As teenagers, my best friend and I often promenaded along the sidewalks of Simpson Street frequenting 'The Ukrainian Book Store', 'The European Bakery' (with the most amazing poppy seed bread in the world), 'Cherry's Corner', 'Morrows' Pianos', 'The Venice Grill' and, of course 'The Famous Shoe Repair Shop'. I remember how Gerry, the shoemaker, hummed to himself while he worked and his fingers were permanently stained. I loved that Gerry named his shop “Famous” and that he took the time to chat with us. And even more wonderful that his shop doors remain open to this day, as does the European Bakery!

As I reminisce, I slowly dawn my winter clothes. I am about to volunteer for the Salvation Army kettle drive and realize I may be stationed outside or near a drafty doorway. As I gently ring the bells throughout the afternoon, I remember a line from a play by John Books‒“The snow that came to stay, fell this night.” I wonder if 'this night' will be the snow that comes to stay. As I watch the snow, dozens of people stop to talk with me. One woman tells me the story of losing her brother in an industrial accident just following the war. “He survived the war, only to die back here in Canada.” A woman drops a twenty into the kettle saying, “Salvation Army saved my life so many times. Literally. I don't mind giving. I don't mind.” I have no explanation for this surge of conversation with strangers, other than the fact that the Salvation Army makes our communities kinder, gentler places. And it's snowing. Perhaps snow is our common thread. And as the months of winter fly by, I discover that this November day was indeed “the snow that came to stay.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gratitude from the ashes of worry

Gratitude from the Ashes of Worry

The older I get, the more fragile I come to realize that life is; and the more gratitude I feel. Granted, I sometimes am grateful that no great disaster has befallen me or my loved ones that day. But I am also grateful for the smaller, almost invisible blessings. Like the fact that I saw a red ship floating in the harbour mist yesterday morning, or that my mother is still well enough to live in her own home, or that the winter clothes I put into storage last April have not been eaten by moths. I have an idea of what cultivates gratitude but I don't always pay attention to what devours gratitude. And many things devour it. Worry, for example. I have had a lifelong relationship with worry. I know its many faces and its many voices. It calls me from my sleep and sings a siren's tune. Worry has a huge appetite and the more you feed it, the more its appetite grows... or so it seems.

Case in point: one day last week, I had two things happen within a time space of an hour. In the first incident, one of my co-workers was unhappy with me and had corrected me. In the second incident, a different co-worker sang my praises. My immediate response was to sink into a worried, depressed state over the co-worker who was unhappy with me. Would this affect my reputation at work? Would I come across as someone incapable? I went up into my room at home and literally shut the lights and slumped into a chair. I tried to snap myself out of it. What did it matter if one, single person was unhappy with me one afternoon out of the year? I can never arrange the world in such a way that everyone is always going to always be happy with me! Never! In fact, I can never arrange the world, period. And what about that other co-worker; the one who sang my praises? Why has her compliment been relegated to the back recesses of my mind? Why am I sitting in a dark room in a chair?

When I was working in sculpture a number of years back, I created a worry chair. I asked people to write their worries onto the chair. Underneath it, I sewed a rug with an image of a woman and a window above her head; light streaming in from the window. (The artist part of me knows that it's better to open a window, rather than shut out the light.)

Sometimes, I question the little tidbits of activity I do around the home to bring in the “light”. I call it 'little art' because it is art-in-transition; art that is here today and likely gone in a few days or weeks. This week, I filled a cream pitcher with mountain ash berries and also stems from a white berry bush (that the nursery has mistakenly sold me as a gooseberry bush). I also found an antique postcard of a little girl reaching up to touch an angel (from Italy) and I framed it in an old frame I had sitting in my attic. For a few weeks, each night I drank warm milk with freshly grated nutmeg and black pepper, crushed star anise and cinnamon sticks. It tasted heavenly. I don't always have time to invest into making a piece of art. But I can always continue puttering with these small, seemingly insignificant pastimes. And as I work at this or that, I seem to also burn off the residue of worry from the day, making room for gratitude.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Unknown Destinations

....Marigolds in becomes night...

Our lives are built on a foundation of unfinished projects, it seems.... the winter quilt I began five years ago, the drawings I intended to render into paintings, the ingredients lining the basement shelves meant to be made into pies and cakes, the mosaic pieces of broken teacups and bowls meant to adorn a tray.... all unfinished projects And there are also the 'completed' projects that are not truly complete until I give them wings and send them into the world. Shall I be haunted by these unfinished creative shapes that hide in the corners of my house and heart? Or be inspired by them?

I've always identified myself as an artist but perhaps I am more an explorer than anything else. Perhaps I am not an artist after all, but a mapmaker. I make complex, emotional maps, complete with legends and directions; where to find this or that; what kind of terrain to expect; protective clothing to wear; gear that may come in handy. Maybe my purpose in life never has been to accomplish things but rather to map the process of the creative journey 'When did I feel rattled to my core? When did I thrill at the discovery of a new view? When did I find myself injured and when did I find myself healed? When did it make sense to step out into a boat and explore the oceans and when did it seem necessary to remain on safe, dry land?' These are the relevant questions of my arts practice. Sometimes I reach my destination, sometimes not. Either way, I've left markers on the way for others who may wish to set foot onto similar territory. (Keeping in mind that those 'others' may find it more useful to create their own maps).

However, as I write this, I do have to wonder if this notion of map-making is actually an avoidance or an excuse for avoiding the hard work of pushing something out into the world. But what about those times when pushing something out into the world resembles a bulldozer smashing trees and wildlife and anything else in its path? In that case, is it not better to keep something close to home; safely stored in my pocket? At least I can be assured that I have not placed myself or others in harm's way. unknown destination... open eyes...whispering dreams.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Under the Pearl Moon

What happens when an eleven-year-old urban girl is forced to live in a remote cabin with an eccentric aunt? And what happens when that same aunt– a long time activist and a woman driven with worry for the environment– chooses to live a no-garbage lifestyle. Years ago, I visited a friend of mine in Atikokan who had taken on that very task. She had reduced her garbage down to one small plastic bag a month. At the time, I was so inspired by her dedication that I, along with composer Lise Vaugeois and performer Jennifer Garrett, wrote and toured a theatre piece, then titled “Under the Moon with Aunt Birdie”. (Incidentally, this will be produced this season by the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra).

During our performance run, we invited filmmaker Sonja Obljubek, to film archival footage. She thought it would make a great premise for a film. This percolated in the back of my mind for years until one day, I picked up my pen and wrote a film script, (well, not all in one day, naturally), re-titling it “Under the Pearl Moon”. Once I could think and create in a visual language, the story expanded to include neighbours, a boy with a bit of a chip on his shoulders, a woman with vision loss, and an ancient pine tree. Out of necessity, this eclectic group becomes Pearl's community. And in the end, it is Pearl who discovers a true and lasting relationship with the natural world, rather than her aunt.

Children, I fear, are not sometimes not encouraged or given opportunities to develop connections with the natural world. It is my firm belief that without this connection, we are all deeply deprived. It is one of our most basic human rights; to have access to the natural world. Only then will any of us have the passion and desire to truly become responsible stewards of our earth.

If you want to contribute and be a part of this wonderful project, click here.

Late last summer, we filmed a demo scene of Under the Pearl Moon. As this has been developing for years, other components and community people have become part of this project. Filmmaker Sonja Obljubek will co-direct the piece with myself. Lise Vaugeois will incorporate some of the music she originally composed. Eco Superior Thunder Bay has contributed to the educational component of this project. As well as producing the film, environmental-arts lesson plans have been developed for teachers to use in classrooms. As funding comes into place, these lesson plans will be delivered by artist educators throughout the province. As well, an educational package and website will be made available to teachers across the county. The film itself will visit environmental film festivals worldwide.

It's a tall project with a tall order. Our message, in a nutshell is, “come play and be inspired within the natural world”. We have some funding but we are striving first to complete the film, and secondly to delight and inspire family audiences everywhere. And to do this, we need additional support. Will you invest in this vision? Ultimately, it is our way of giving back to this extraordinary planet, and encouraging stewardship for all.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I've Got My Darning Needle Ready!

Whenever I feel a bit dulled by stress. Or wound up. Or unable to piece together a creative thought, I consider my day and I ask myself “What is one thing that stood out for me?” Sometimes I try to force the 'one thing'. I tell myself it was the crackle of thunder that woke me up or the delicious peaches and ice cream I had for dessert. But if I really and truly want to discover the kernel of something wonderful, I must relax my mind and wait. I've been asking and waiting all day today and just now, in the early evening, it comes to me. It was my mother's comment when I dropped her off in the car after taking her to the bank. Just before leaving the car, she cheerfully turned to me and said “I've got my darning needle and dental floss ready!” Now we hadn't been talking about anything even remotely related to either darning needles or dental floss and so for a moment or two, I was perplexed. But later in the day, it hit me. You see, just yesterday, my mother and I spent the day out at “The Bothy”. The bothy is a cabin in the woods that she and my father built from reclaimed lumber. They both embarked on this project when they were in their 70's.

My mother's main mission during the summer months is to make “the bothy” mouse-proof. She herself grew up in a log cabin in the bush with seven other siblings and perhaps her own mother was in a constant battle with mice. But for whatever reason, my mother works hard to ensure that every cupboard is airtight, and every nook and cranny is sealed. Almost nothing on earth gets my mother down, but any sign of mice defeats her mood, (though only momentarily).

Yesterday at the bothy, we tried to pick blueberries but the heat was scorching and so we gave up after gathering only a cup or two. We then tried to open the boathouse but the lock had rusted. Next we proceeded to putter in the cabin. And somewhere along the way, we came across evidence of mice who had taken up residence in the couch. They had nibbled a hole into the cotton filling and left scores of mouse droppings behind. We first folded up the heavy futon cover and hauled it outdoors to shake it out. I then took a knife and pried into the hole, ferreting out cotton and droppings. After hauling the futon back indoors, we folded it with the outside in, and fought with it until it sat back on the couch frame. But it sat badly. It drooped here and puffed out there. So we fought with it some more. Finally, we got it into a position we were both semi-happy with. It was a “for now” kind of a position though. Between the two of us, we decided that on our next trip out, we would slice the futon cover in half using a sharp kitchen knife and sew it up again. Twenty-four hours have passed since either of us have mentioned the couch. But my mother's comment today- “I've got my darning needle and dental floss ready!” is her reference to repairing it up.

My mother, I realize always has her darning needle ready. In my mother's world, every single problem can be solved with a darning needle of one sort of the other. She may have a discouraging moment but it's only ever a moment. I, on the other hand, don't have that same readiness to face every problem. But it is something truly to aspire to. All this business of living a creative life, I realize, is incomplete without that spunk that most of life's problems can be solved with a darning needle!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When objects begin to choke, rather than inspire

I collect things. Most people do. I collect things because of the inspiration that the object happens to give me. Usually it has some sort of nostalgic connotation but not always. Sometimes, I'll collect something because I like the texture, or colour, or quirkiness of it. Or because I think I will some day integrate it into a piece of art. All the this becomes dangerous territory when a person happens to own a basement. Because basements seem to have no limit in terms of how much stuff can be crammed into a tight space. And basements are hidden from guests. So embarrassment alone will not entice a person to organize or clean out a basement. In fact most of us will not clean out a basement until we're literally forced into it; such as a flood or a move. Only then is the truth revealed. Only then must we face the ridiculousness of objects we have treasured beyond the point of sanity. Only then, when the rock is turned over, do we see all the bugs trying to squirm their way out of the daylight.

I faced my own basement last week. We could no longer walk through it. All paths had been cut off. The only function-able corner was the washing machine and that corner was quickly becoming threatened. I had to face it sooner or later and for whatever reason, my son and I took charge and descended. Five days later, we emerged. The job is not yet over but there is definite improvement.

Throughout those five days, I asked myself 'What could possibly be creative about this?” This feels like the equivalent to digging up potatoes all day. Or replacing shingles on a roof. However, I trusted that somehow i would extract creativity from the job. And eventually, I have to say, I did find the link. And it comes in the form of letting go. By releasing and giving away objects- bits and pieces of art objects or objects I had intended on 'up-cycling'- I am saying “that was me then but it is no longer me now”. And by throwing something out or giving something away, I'm not erasing that older version of myself either. She'll always live and breath in me somewhere. I don't need mounds and mounds of proof in the form of boxes of stuff.

The creativity comes in the form of a now-empty pallet (well, not quite empty as that would be an exaggeration). And some objects were spared; I kept my plaster squashes that I made years ago as part of a window installation. And I kept my tin cans of bees wax, simply because I love the smell of bees wax. And I did find a vase that I filled to the brim with daisies from my back yard. It's an exciting new chapter I'm beginning. And I have a space now, to write the contents of that chapter into. Or begin to collect all over again!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

the terrifying act of art brought into the public eye

Art is a lovely, cozy kind of an act when a person is alone in his or her room, with the cat quietly purring or the tunes playing or the soft breeze of summer floating in through an open window. Yes, in those situations, art-making is a relaxing, breezy delight; the process of creating something without the disturbing thought of sharing it with "the public". No critic to deconstruct or criticize or minimize its worth. I know that there are books galore that expound on how to deal with the 'inner critic' and it's true, we all have an inner critic that sometimes needs to be silenced. But in fact, there are external critics as well. (Or perhaps worse, there are those who simpy do not care a fig about art or artists.) This is the place I struggle; the place where I must move from the little room in my mind and bring it out beyond the borders of the safe place where that story or art piece was first born.

Today I did just that very thing. I took something which, until lately, has been kept safe in tea rooms and conversations with one dear artist friend. And now I've opened it up for others to participate and join in. Interestingly enough, creating the invitation itself was a joy. (There's nothing more fun than collage.) But the moment I began sending it out through all those various "social networking" sites, I felt an anxiety creep into my mind. Oh, don't I know it so well, this anxiety. However, I will welcome it, this nervous fluttering of the heart. I will add it to my ongoing list of what a creative process involves. I can't all be warm summer breezes. There has to be the odd blast of cold air to keep us all awake!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Year of Seclusion and Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Over three years ago, I lost my father. This had a huge impact on my tolerance for the stumble stones of life. Prior to his passing, though I could not have named it, I felt a sense of confidence in my choice of vocation as an artist. Like so many things in life, only when his day-to-day presence was withdrawn, did I understand thoroughly what he had given me. He was, among many other things, my emotional patron. You see, as an artist, I could do without many things; I could live on a modest income; I could squeeze blood from a rock, if I had to. So I wasn't really on a search for a patron of the arts, in the usual sense of the word. Yet, with him gone, I came to the realization that he was and always had been, my emotional patron. And with him gone, and that emotional patronage removed from my life, I experienced a serious loss in confidence. Why had I chosen this artistic path? What made me think I could or would succeed at something which, for many, is viewed as a triviality. My reaction to this loss of confidence was to seclude myself. And though I continued to create art daily, I shared it with no one. I made no motion towards offering my supposed gifts to the world. This may seem, by some, to be a selfish act; to create but not share. But at the time, I just could not conceive of doing it any other way. I had to create; this kept me from drowning in my own grief. But there was no law to force me to share what I created. This self imposed privacy began eventually to impact, not only my artistic career, but also my personal life. I had no wish to see people, beyond the necessity of being in the work force during the perfunctory nine to five window. (With the exception of those few people nearest and dearest to me.) But most every night, at least six nights out of seven, were spent in isolation as I wrote, or hand sewed, or cooked, or tidied up the house or watched another episode of The Gilmor Girls. My husband works nights and his schedule suited me quite perfectly. I began to feel awkward and strangely out of place whenever I did occasionally find myself in social situations. I began to feel that I had no social graces, no eloquence, nothing of value to add to the conversation.

Something eventually came along to catapult me out of this hermitage. And that is all well and good but until reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette, I thought of myself as flawed. Otherwise, I would have not let this happen. How could I have let myself go so far and so long in isolation? I would have picked myself up by the bootstraps and embraced life, the way it is meant to be embraced.

Thank goodness for my friend Alanna (who is herself an artist and creates exquisite paintings), who recommended that I read Villette. How could she have known the impact that book would have on me? In the novel, the narrator is the voice of Lucy Snowe, a young woman who struggles with her own dark corners and her own depression. She is also wise, this Lucy Snowe. She observes and writes her interior world with a ruthlessly honest pen. Lucy Snowe has given me a fresh view into my own year where I closed the windows and bolted the doors to the bustle and business of life.

I admit, somewhat reluctantly did I begin to read Villette. I thought nothing could ever or would ever compare to Jane Eyre and I was prepared for disappointment. Villette drew me in slowly but ultimately, with just as much force and depth as Jane Eyre. Allow me to share one small excerpt from Bronte's novel Villette; the excerpt that helped me view my year of being a hermit in a new light.

“Those....whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world..... The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more. Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones- that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends. The hermit- if he be a sensible hermit- will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be comfortable; make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life's wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season. Let him say, “It is quite right; it ought to be so, since so it is.” And, perhaps, one day his snow-sepulchre will open, spring's softness will return, the sun and south-wind will reach him; the budding of hedges, and carolling of birds and singing of liberated streams will call him to kindly resurrection.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tea in Rome

Sadly, I think this may be my final (or perhaps second to final) entry telling tales of our trip to Italy. By our last day in Italy, we were a bit worn out and needed an easy day. For me, an easy day always involves a tea room and writing or drawing in my journal. In fact, this is the fuel for an imaginative life; whether at home or in Italy... a book with blank pages, something to write or draw with, and a few hours with no other obligations (or a few hours outright ignoring other obligations). No matter what my mood may be; whether I'm battling a headache or facing a deadline, that combination of tea and journal-writing is always the perfect elixir. For a few minutes, I am able to take some simple observation of my external or internal world and place it within the confines of a page. A page has edges. A page is generally small and manageable. A page does not demand much from me... a few scribbles, a few words. Yet I consider what it gives back to me; perspective, delight, calm. It gives meaning to random events. It captures a moment (like cameras are supposed to do, though too often cameras rob me of my moment). So that is what our last day of Italy consisted of. We made our way by city bus to the Spanish steps. It was Monday morning, and we were to leave by that evening. We entered a tea shop named Babington's. The tea was divine, the scones tasted as if they were baked in Bath, England. The waitresses were dressed in robin's egg blue (linen) skirts. The girls reminded me of my own daughter, who is about that age and sews linen skirts by the dozens.

After tea, only metres away from the subway station, we noticed a Roma (gypsy) woman by the entrance to the subway. She was kneeling on the cobblestones and had a cup in front of her with a picture of the Madonna on the cup. She was not imposing in any way on the passerbys. She was praying continually and my assumption was that, if we contributed to her, she would include us in her prayers. I did drop something into her cup, as I cannot think of a more difficult way to spend a day under the hot sun. Please understand that my intention in drawing an image of her, is meant as a tribute to her. It is, in no way meant to comment in a negative way. She has her story too. We all have our stories. And all are valuable. And who knows, perhaps it was her prayer that got us home safe and sound. I like to think so.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Rome in a day (or two)

It's been said you can't do Rome in a day but I think we came pretty close. We walked for five hours, from site to public bus to site to public bus. When we stopped at Trevi Fountain, I followed custom and threw a coin over my shoulder into the fountain. When we arrived at the fountain at the Spanish Steps, I also threw a coin into the Fontana della Barcaccia (If you look closely, you'll see me in the sketch). Now, it seems, I must return to Rome, now that I've scattered my coins everywhere. After that, we found a narrow alleyway (one of hundreds) and sat on a bench to cool off and enjoy some gilato. While we sat, we watched a handsomely dressed young man attempting to woo passerbys into the restaurant where he worked. He smiled and flirted with the crowds of people, young and old, and in the half hour that we sat across the lane watching him, not once was he successful in his attempts. But was he upset? He wasn't fazed in the least. A half hour before that, we wandered into the Pantheon, a notable experience because at that moment, a concert was just coming to a close. Never before in my life have I heard such incredible acoustics. I felt bathed by the voices of the singers. Out in front of the Pantheon, there were people selling tickets to the opera- La Traviata by Verdi. I couldn't resists. That night, we entered a marvelous, tiny opera house that seated no more than 150 people. Most of the audience members sat sipping wine during the performance. It was a first time opera for my husband and I must say, I was impressed that he only nodded off twice.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A traveler's gift and Kathy's goodness

This will be a brief entry. As I have been logging my travels in Italy, something quite surprising and sad came up a few days ago. One of the women I met while on my travels in Italy passed away suddenly. Her name was Kathy and whoever came into contact with Kathy, I'm sure found her to be kind and gentle. I only spent six days with Kathy but it never occurred to me that her life would be ended so soon. I'm sure she didn't realize it either. But she certainly added goodness to this earth. On our last evening in Rome, a large group of us went out to dine together. It was a jovial night with a jovial group. The restaurant was called Pinsa Buoi, and they are famous for their 3-grain pizza, their wines and I will add, their service and hospitality. Not to mention the most amazing mixed greens I have ever tasted. That night I had neglected to go to a 'bankomat' to get out funds to pay for our dinner. So when we were breaking up the tab, I offered to pay our portion with credit card, as I was three or four Euros short. Kathy quickly offered to pay the difference and added "It's a traveler's gift". I received many traveler's gifts, but that generous spark in Kathy is one I will always remember.

I took this photograph as we were waiting for our streetcar, after our dinner out. I realized afterward that the shadows cast on the ground were the shadows of the group of us who had dined that night.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gems of Assisi

When I travel, I notice certain things and take photographs but when I arrive back home, these are not necessarily the things that stay with me. Memory is strange that way. It surprises us with what it clings to and what it discards. Today, I will share a small morsel of what clings to my mind about our time in Assisi. We began our day by visiting the Basilica named Santa Maria degli Angeli. An impressive church, but the real gem is the tiny little church-within-the-church, named the Porziuncola, dating back to 1200 and connected to St. Francis. I entered the tiny church, seating capacity of perhaps 40 people, and just as I sat, a young monk entered, knelt before the alter and began chanting. As he sang, the bells (so many bells) rang and it was then that it dawned on me he was singing the Angelus. When we were very little children, the church bells rang at noon and my mother would have us stop to say the Angelus, so it was a sweet moment for me, that I just happened to be there at that moment.

From our hotel, it was about a 4 kilometre climb to Assisi, and a steep uphill incline every step of the way. By the time we arrived, I really did feel like a pilgrim. Assisi feels like a city of peace, every though it is crawling with tourists. And I am sure there are troubles there, just as there are hidden troubles almost everywhere, but there is such a strong intentional force that speaks to peace; it is almost palpable. There are cloaked men and women everywhere (often chatting on their cell phones), but also just making their way through the winding, cobblestone streets. The Basilica of St Francis is massive and all I can say is that I am truly glad we had a guide to take us through it, to explain the frescos and to give us the story of St. Francis. I won't relay it here, but it is an inspiring story and one that I knew little of prior to my visit there.

In Assisi, I have, never in my life, seen so many shops with so many religious objects.... rosaries and triptychs and thimbles and lace and statues and baking and chocolates and paintings and the list really is endless. I visited some of the shops and in truth, I felt badly for the shopkeepers because even though there were hoards of people, very few were entering the shops. And this was confirmed when I spoke with a few of the local shopkeepers. They had such lovely items, many of them locally made. I purchased a few embroidered linen items that will make lovely gifts.

I will conclude by sharing another one of those stay-with-me moments. We had returned to Assisi the next day early in the morning. It was a very different town early in the day as it was still quiet. We visited the Basilica of Saint Clare, which was completed in the year 1265. I loved being there. I loved the quiet and the hush that seemed to encircle the space. Also, there was a bit of a museum with artifacts from her life. Saint Claire was a highly skilled textile artisan. On display was one of her woolen cloaks, a cream piece with simple and yet intricate design that Saint Claire had woven. I can't help but admire her attention to detail. On our way home, we were walking along a street and passed by an open doorway to a very unassuming building. There was nothing notable about this building, but for whatever reason, I felt drawn to enter it. When we stepped inside, we found ourselves inside a very tiny chapel. Paintings adored every wall and a few rows of kneelers were stationed in front of the alter. The entire chapel was smaller than my livingroom. Again, the place resonated with a marvelous and awe-inspiring energy. We sat quietly for ten minutes or more before we realized that very close to us, knelt a nun silently praying. It's as if she appeared as an apparition. Her stillness was so perfect that she was almost part of the chapel itself.

The hidden chapel door along a side street.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Choir Window in an Alleyway

Two things struck me while traveling through Italy... food (of course), and music. Everywhere we went, music was present: two girls with skipping ropes singing as they skipped, choirs practicing with four and five part harmonies, a young priest singing with a voice as smooth as olive oil, a drunk walking home at night and humming out a tune. One evening in Gubbio, as we were walking home after dining, we heard a choir practicing through an open window. Our tour guide, Elisabetta, and I and Gary stood in the alleyway, and we had our own lovely concert. Free of charge.

This perhaps, is a good time to mention, our tour guide. Elisabetta and twelve of us spent two or three hours together each day. (Though for the first few days of our trip, we were on our own.) We had booked a week through a tour company that is environmentally responsible and socially ethical. Their tours are simple, small groups, give lots of flexibility and free time. Do I sound like an ad for Intrepid? If I do, it's only because I was thrilled with this tour company. And, well, there simply is no replacement for Elisabetta. She went far and beyond in the attention she gave to each of us. And if it weren't for her, we would not have discovered so many little, out of the way, family-owned restaurants with amazing food.

We spent one day in Spello, which I've named the "medieval city of flowers". I have never, in my entire life, seen so many flowers, aside from flower shops. Flowers literally poured out of the windows and selfishly took their place in the narrow streets and alleyways. There wasn't one unadorned doorway. There wasn't one spot that wasn't a perfect place to snap a picture. Also in Spello, we went to a wine tasting event at a lovely spot called "Enoteca Properzio".
Now let me say that I am not a wine drinker. As I'm sensitive to sulfates, I rarely let wine pass my lips. But... well, this was an experience I could not pass up. I pictured a few snacks, perhaps some bruschetta, to accompany the wine. I could not have prepared myself for the foods that were placed in front of me- each meant to be taken with a specific wine. At first, local olive oil was drizzled on bread and that alone was enough to make me want to move to Italy. Following that came various selections of cheeses, meats, salads with aged balsamic (the real thing), not to mention desserts of every variety. We spent three of four hours there and I could not have felt more satisfied. Every part of me was delighted.

I especially loved one of the desserts. It had a very thin layer of pastry and the mixture inside was a unique combination of walnuts, raisins, chocolate, anise seed and apples. And it wasn't overly sweet. In fact, the raisins may have been the only sweetener. I'm going to try and recreate it in Canada. The tasting was completed with a glass of port. And for me, the port was the icing on the cake, or should I say, the encore after the performance.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gubbio and bird cage mountain lifts

After Venice, we traveled to Gubbio. Gubbio is in Umbria and Umbria is a quiet part of Italy with hills and orchards and mountains. It was a five hour train ride/bus ride. On the train, I had packed a bottle of pesto and bread and cheese for the journey. And, much to my horror, the pesto jar leaked all over my belongings in my green travel bag. Train washrooms don't have running water and there were no paper towels either, so I wasn't quite sure how to rectify the situation. I decided to be methodical about it all. So I pulled out one of my scarves, a scarf of no particular value to me, and one at a time, I began to clean the green oily mixture off of everything in my hand bag. Eventually, a fellow traveler- a traveler prepared for all occasions- gave me handi-wipes. (And handy they were!) Needless to say, my romantic idea of having a picnic lunch on the train while reading my Charlotte Bronte novel, did not pan out. However, I did smell like a delicious plate of pasta by the time I arrived in Gubbio.

We tasted the most incredible food in Gubbio. This medieval town, with its grey foot stones, is known for its truffles. The chef at the restaurant offered to give us a plate with a little taste of this and a little taste of that (all from the "primo" section of the menu. I do not think I have tasted anything so delicious in my entire life. Don't ask me to tell you what the items were. All I can say is they had bits of black truffle in them and that the name of the restaurant was La Cantina. The next night, we ate in an equally delicious restaurant. The entire town is saturated with amazing chefs and food.

The next day, we took took a cable car up a mountain. But it wasn't a cable car. It was actually a cage that would properly fit one person, though we were fitted two to a 'car'. The cage didn't stop for us as it came round the corner so it was a bit like hopping a train, except for the fact that the cage door also had to be first opened and then closed, once we were inside of it. But oh the glories of gliding up that mountain. Mist in the sky. Poppies in bloom. An medieval city below where every single rooftop had clay shingles. I wished for that ride to last all day. Once at the top, we entered a Basilica, the Basilica of Sant'Ubaldo. I can't begin to describe the churches in Italy. They're all designed to lift our poor spirits from the shadows and into the divine. If it isn't enough that there is incredible frescos and glass windows, throw in a monk singing Gregorian chant or a choir practicing for an upcoming service.

On our way down the mountain, we decided to walk, rather than take the bird cage car. Half way down, we found a small chapel (no big surprise to find random chapels in Italy). There we had a lunch and this time, I properly secured the pesto jar!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Venice Discoveries

I promise to be less verbal on this entry. Some of the sweetest discoveries of Venice included walking in the Jewish section of town and discovering lovely art galleries and restaurants. We dined at Gam Gam Kosher Restaurant.

The food was nourishing and delicious. I loved watching families with young children come and go and it felt like a real hub in the community. For supper, we had fish, soup, and latkes with a wonderful apple sauce.

Earlier that day, we had visited the Murano Glass factory on the island. We watched a glassmaker whip up a detailed glass horse, with huge tongs. Tongs so large, I would have used them to pick up a log to toss into a fireplace. I certainly would not have imagined that anyone on this earth could have fashioned the fine details of a horse. Amazing. In the shop, I bought a rosary. It was expensive, naturally, but the blue-coloured beads are incomparable with any other rosary I've seen. I don't know if my prayers will get answered any quicker, but the beads do look lovely wrapped around my fingers. On the way back from the museum, the weather suddenly changed and we found ourselves in a thunder storm, huddled on a boat packed with people. There was nothing to do but allow ourselves to get soaked.

The weather quickly changed, with the sun coming out once again. That evening, we took a midnight, or almost midnight stroll. And this time, we weren't hauling luggage, nor we were in a hurry to make our way to any particular destination. Finally, the romantic city fell on us, like the sweet smell of Jasmine.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lost in Venice 1st Post of Travels in Italy

The last time I stepped foot into a country where English wasn't the first language, I was a teenager and backpacking through Europe. My cousin and I, with birthdays only a day apart, traveled for a few months on a budget of $10 a day. I needn't say how long ago that was, but let's just say I was younger than my youngest child. So the memory has receded far into the back of my mind. I know I talked myself into "falling in love" with a Scottish fellow who I met in Spain. I think I loved the notion of being in love more than the actuality of it. But nevertheless, fortunately for me, I once again crossed the ocean and this time landed in Italy. In Venice to be precise.

Everyone told me I would find Venice to be the most enchanting city in the world. And that I would love getting lost in the tiny three-foot wide, cobblestone paths, winding up and around and across tiny bridges and so on. And eventually I did get to that place of wandering around aimlessly and loving the enchantment of it. But initially! Initially, after not sleeping all night long and arriving half dazed and confused, I almost had an anxiety attack. First, we found a bus to take us from the airport to the city of Venice. Once we arrived, we took a water taxi to our hotel, because the google map literally had four pages of arrows turning every which way. (Hard to believe that Google map even attempts to give directions in Venice). So we took the water taxi never thinking for a moment that the 10 or 15 minute ride would sing to the tune of 60 Euro. For only 20 Euro more, we could have taken a gondola ride with a opera singer serenading us! However, after I got over the shock of the 60 Euro, we began to make our way to our hotel. The directions from the water taxi fellow were about as helpful as a frog in a teacup. We walked. And we walked. And the streets were jammed with people. And I was terrified to approach people with my very pathetic attempt at Italian (I got less nervous as time went on.) We dragged our luggage in circles for two hours, asking this person and that person. But no one had heard of the hotel and when I showed them the google directions, that just caused people to shake their heads knowingly. And then, bless this woman's heart, I stepped into one of the many, many tiny shops selling masks. And I asked the woman if she had heard of the hotel. She informed me that I was close, but everyone had informed me in much the same manner. It was always 'just over there', but 'there' was as allusive as a misty midnight drive on a country road. However, this shop keeper was my last hope. She said I needed to follow the 'road' (really a 3 foot wide path) until it ended. Then I was to step under an arch and there I would find the hotel I was looking for. I left the shop and walked in the opposite direction because my husband was waiting for me at a designated spot and she actually called after me "No, no! Wrong direction!" And I answered "My husband is this way." She smiled and all was well. We found our hotel and I loved the tiny room we were given. When I looked out the window, the building opposite to me had laundry strung between windows and I could hear a baby crying. I always relax when I hear a baby cry. We had many amazing days in Venice. And each day, I will post another few drawings from our travels.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ten tips for success as an artist

I was asked to give a talk at a conference. The theme of the conference is on developing business skills for artists. I was flattered to be invited as truth be told, I don't consider myself very high up on the ladder of business skills. In fact, in some ways, I am abysmally poor at pulling together the practical elements in my life. But nevertheless, I was invited to speak and it certainly got me to thinking about success. Others may or may not consider me successful in terms of my career as an artist, but the true question is: 'do I see myself as successful?' If I have more than ten people visit my blog in a day, does that define success? If I have a minimum of one play a year produced, is that the definition? Is it a matter of keeping my head above water or is it a matter of thriving? What is it and who decides? Well me, of course. I decide. If I say that one person visiting my blog each year and growing a small garden of rhubarb and keeping on top of my bills defines success, then so be it! And the nice part about it is, whose going to argue with me? My husband has often said "the secret to success is to lower your standards". And though people often chuckle when they hear this, there is a grain of truth to it. But maybe it's not so much lowering standards, as keeping them very flexible.

Well enough, preamble. The following are my ten tips. Hope someone finds them useful. They took thirty-five years to write, after all.

Vision and Reality: The Ever-Changing Landscape of an Arts Practice: Ten Tips by Eleanor Albanese

1) Nurture mentorships; both formal and informal. Be open to intergenerational relationships. There is so much an established artist can benefit from an emerging artist and the reverse is also true. Look to people whom you admire in your field and see if there is potential for working together or hanging out together in a mutually beneficial manner.

2) Don’t wear your knuckles out banging on closed doors. Go where you’re wanted and/or needed. Sometimes we’re so focused on the closed doors that our energy is being depleted with frustration.

3) Give the same quality of work to the low-profile engagements that you would give to high-profile engagements. You never know what growth and good can come out of these ‘humble’ projects. Numbers is not always reflective of the success of a project.

4) Enter each project with the mind of a learner. Be curious. Ask questions. Take time to reflect on what the learning is and try to incorporate that learning into your vision for the future.

5) Everything is worth weighing, considering (and sometimes throwing out the window). Criticism is never easy to absorb, even when it’s offered constructively. As a sensitive person, it may be difficult to get past the initial shock of receiving a blow. A playwright once told me that she reads every review, even the negative ones. She felt that, even if she did not agree with the criticism, there was always one tiny grain of truth to be drawn from it. (Personally, I stay away from the negative reviews but I did appreciate her perspective.)

6) Spend a set minimal amount of time each day engaged in your artistic practice. This will help to keep you current and responsive to the ever-changing arts and culture climate. At certain points in your life, you may be able to give more or less time to your arts practice. However, that minimum daily commitment will keep you connected and alive.

7) Know where your inspiration comes from. And keep a steady stream of it filtering into your life. If you need to be out in nature, then be in out nature. If you need to have late night conversations with friends, then have late night conversations with friends. And be open to that source of inspiration changing, as it very likely will over time.

8) Know what it is you will not compromise in your arts practice. Know your bottom line. It’s a matter of integrity. An artist’s approach to making a living if often different than that of a pure entrepreneur. Though both work toward success, artists need to keep their creative process and works intact. This means something different for every artist. The popular expression “sell out” is a very real phenomenon and by the way, not limited only to the art world. Self-awareness can be an artist’s saving grace.

9) There is no formula to success because success is how you define it. If you define it in such a way that it becomes impossible to achieve, then you may end up feeling like a failure. Or, conversely, an artist may achieve ‘success’ in the world, but has compromised something else of value such as health or family life and so on. Success is not a straight-forward thing. In fact, most of the time “success” happens in such an organic way that we don’t even recognize it.

10) Set goals each year. In goal-setting, include aspects of life other than artistic. That way, the goals you set will be balanced with everything else of importance to you. And if you don’t accomplish a goal one year, there’s always next year!

As you can see, I've also included two photographs of the balcony landing a few weeks ago when all the blossoms had dropped. It was so beautiful, almost like snow. For me, that's a creative moment; the moment of seeing those petals.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lilacs and barefoot brides

It is spring. The smells are glorious, wafting in on the breeze from the lilac bush just outside my front window. Wherever I've lived, I've always been blessed with lilac bushes to welcome me into spring. When I was just eighteen, my best friend was getting married. It was 1975 and she wore bare feet up the aisle, carrying lilac blossoms, much to the complete dismay of her parents. She insisted on lilacs for her flower arrangements and most years, lilacs would have been ready for a June wedding. But not the year Beth got married. That year, spring came late. Still, she would not agree to buy florist flowers. Rather, she phoned her cousins who were travelling up from Minneapolis and asked them to pick lilacs for her wedding day. Which they happily agreed to. After the wedding, the three of us bridesmaids, dressed in golden muslin embroidered dresses, took pictures of each other in the park by the fountain. We were so young. Yet even at the age of eighteen, a half dozen of my closest friends were either married or had children or both. I feel lilacs connect me to those years of innocence. There were hardships in the world then too. But we hadn't entered yet the era of “environmental justice”. I didn't know a time would come when I would grieve for this earth and the damage that's been done to her. I didn't know that I would feel compelled to create a film that would be my own offering to the future of our earth (titled “Under the Pearl Moon”).

I don't expect I'll ever return to the days of barefoot brides and muslin bridesmaids dresses. But lilacs do return each year. As too does my gratitude for this incredible earth we're so privileged to live in.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Choco- Zucchini Gluten-free muffins and Red Rose Tea

I was visiting my mother this past weekend and I was thinking about the 1950's housewives I grew up with. The women on our neighbourhood block were community-builders and cooks and seamstresses. They sewed and made doll's clothes and most of all, they looked out for each other's children. I know that it wasn't easy for many of them. Some, I'm sure, felt they had unused talents and wished they'd had more opportunities. I know that many worked from morning until night and barely recovered from one pregnancy before they found themselves pregnant again. That certainly was the case in my neighbourhood where the women had anywhere from seven and thirteen children.

For years I didn't think twice about my mother's role as housewife. Yet now I think about it with great admiration for her. She was incredibly resourceful and "made do" in so many situations. She and her friends were what I call "the red rose tea generation". Because they were so happy to simply sit with a cup of tea. They were satisfied with a two-day old tea biscuit or a slice of cinnamon toast with their tea. They were down-to-earth women who delighted in simple pleasures. And they were not consumers at all, not in the way we are consumers today.

Here is my latest version of gluten-free muffins. Because of my mother, I experiment in the kitchen. Because of my mother I sew, I croquet, I make clothes, I make art and sometimes I even "make do". If you like these muffins, you may want to try them with a cup of red rose tea.... like I did this week with my mother.

Choco-Zucchini Gluten-free muffins

two eggs
1/2 cup soy milk or rice milk
1/2 cup yogurt (may use soy yogurt)
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup melted butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup grated zucchini

1/2 cup quinoa flour
1/4 cup teff flour
1/2 cup millet flour
1 cup rice flour
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder (try Green and Black's organic0
1 Teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder

Mix dry into wet. Add 2/3 cups chocolate chips. Place into greased muffin tins. Put one large walnut on top of each muffin. Bake at 350 for twenty minutes or so. These muffins are very moist and are best if kept in the fridge after cooling. As with all gluten-free baking, the shelf life is short, so I often freeze half the batch.