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Blog Archive 2 -
- MUSINGS ON ART AND LIFE - a weekly blog -
Blog Post no. 11 Thursday April 21st, 2011
Studying Art at DTUC
Looking back on my time spent as a young art student at this small and vibrant art school I am reminded how lucky I was to have been there and how much I enjoyed the whole experience. The David Thompson University Centre was located in the beautiful heritage city of Nelson in the Kooteney region of B.C. Canada. It operated from 1977 - 1984. I attended from 1980 - 84 (more than 1/2 its existence) and was there when the Provincial Government closed it down - a very sad day indeed. During its run, DTUC was not only the cultural heart of the community and the region but also the training ground for many artists of all disciplines from across Canada. It only became fully apparent to me later, how rich and creative an atmosphere it was - to be surrounded by not only painters, but also writers, musicians, photographers, potters, printmakers, actors and dancers. One can only imagine the greater cultural impact the school could have had on so many more artists if only it had been allowed to flourish and establish a stronger artistic tradition.
In my time at DTUC you could feel the momentum growing as student enrollment increased every year. A visiting artist program brought in many well known and established artists who gave great workshops, lectures and performances. The student union building and its pub were the heart of the campus and I remember many memorable nights there, attending openings and listening to great musical performances and poetry readings by students, faculty and guests. The campus itself (still there) is situated on the slopes above the city and has a commanding view looking north up Kooteney Lake. All together is was the perfect stage and backdrop for an arts education.
As a young person seeking inspiration and adventure I couldn't think of a more perfect place than Nelson to study in, nestled as it is in the mountains and along the shore of Kooteney Lake. The city is home to around 12,000 residents and ranks third in the Province for the number of heritage buildings it contains (behind only the much larger Vancouver and Victoria.) The beauty of the area and the charm of Nelson instantly captivated me and before long I fell in love with the place. I have many wonderful memories of my time spent there and of the many fellow students, staff and instructors I met in those four years at DTUC. Many times I have been reminded of how pivotal this time was in my life and of how important it was to my development as an artist. Indeed this is where I began the long creative journey that I am still on to this day.
Blog Post no. 12 Thursday April 28th, 2011
From DTUC to UVIC
Last week I wrote about how my decision to study art in 1980 had taken me to Nelson B.C. and the campus of David Thompson University Centre (DTUC). This school was affiliated with the University of Victoria and I was working towards a UVIC degree in Nelson. As students at DTUC we could decide after two years to either switch to UVIC to finish our degrees or to remain in Nelson. I was enjoying my time at DTUC so much that I chose to finish there. Unfortunately the Provincial Government of the day decided to close down this wonderful art school and I was forced to finish my bachelors degree in Victoria after all.
Though I was very disappointed at the closure of DTUC, I was also looking forward to living in the beautiful city of Victoria and getting a taste of life on a much larger campus. It was definately a bit of a shock to attend academic classes of several hundred students in very large lecture halls. This was a sharp contrast from my English class at DTUC for example, that had nine students in it and if the weather was nice - were often held outside on the campus lawn with a stunning view of Kooteney Lake below us. Life as an art student was definitely different at UVIC compared to DTUC. I made the most of my time in Victoria (a city that I love) and ended up producing some paintings that surprised even me.
There were only a handful of us former DTUCers there at UVIC that year (1984/85) and I believe we injected a lot of life into the art department. I was the only one of us working towards a bachelors degree and although my marks received in Nelson were high enough to allow me to enter the honours program, there were those among the faculty at UVIC that were determined to deny my access because I had not taken all my classes there. Somehow my academic achievements at DTUC were seen as inferior. Well as you can imagine, that did not sit well with me. I was very proud of DTUC and of my marks achieved there. I was not to be denied, and went straight to the Dean of UVIC who agreed with me, and promptly accepted me into the honours program. This did not go over well with some faculty in the art department who never spoke to me again that year.
I carried on however and very much enjoyed my last year of study. I met other faculty who were inspiring and encouraging, and I enjoyed greatly, the comradery shared with other students in a common studio. I ended up highly valuing my experience there. In the end I received a bachelors degree of Fine Arts with honours from the University of Victoria - an achievement that I am very proud of. When I look back now on my art education, it is my time spent at DTUC however, that I consider to be the most important part of my art training. Not only did I spend much more time there but there was something special about a school that had art as its focus. You had the sense that Art was important. I will always remember fondly, my time at DTUC and will always have a part of my heart in Nelson.
Blog Post no. 13 Thursday May 5th, 2011
Letting Go of a Painting
Whenever I work on a painting I am determined to make it the best it can be and I don't put my name on it until I'm sure it's done. Over the years, I've come to realize that some paintings are easier to finish and "let go" of than others. Those are the ones that seem to fall out of me, almost effortlessly. Others are more difficult to call finished, seeming to call out for more. Just when I think it's done, I see something else I could add. At some point I have to say "that's it, no more." I then sign it and put the piece away so that I can't see it anymore.
In many ways, my paintings could be viewed as never being finished. Instead, they are really to varying degrees, in a state of incompletion. I know there is always more I could add, but I must be careful. Going too far can often take the life out of a painting and cause it to lose certain positive qualities that initially were there. Sometimes it's about what was left out rather than what was put in. That sense of incompletion can make a piece seem more alive somehow, as though it's in a state of flux.
Perhaps the difficulty I sometimes have in knowing when to stop working on a painting comes from the fact that I'm having so much fun that I don't want it to end. Like when you are visiting with a friend and you suddenly realize it's getting late -" wow how time flies, I wish I didn't have to go." It's much the same with me and painting. Often when a piece is complete, it very quickly leaves the studio to a gallery and I never see it again. Knowing this, I have often taken a little more time on a painting just so that I can enjoy it and the process of creating that I cherish so much, just a little bit longer.
Blog Post no. 14 Thursday May 12, 2011
Inspired by the Land
I am the only one in my family born in B.C. My brother and parents are all from the prairies. My father tells the story of walking with my grandfather through the snow and howling wind of a Regina winter - Grandpa turns to dad and says, "We've got to get out of here". Not long afterward, they all did, moving west to B.C. the year before I was born. My father asked me one day a few years back if I was happy to have been born here and I emphatically exclaimed - "Yes."
I love this land and hold dear my connection to it. I feel truly lucky to live in a place of such abundant natural beauty, a place of untamed mountains, towering forests, pristine coastline, - of crystal clear rivers and streams. As an artist who draws inspiration from nature I am blessed with a never ending vista of possibilities. From an early age the natural world has been a source of adventure and discovery. Upon becoming an artist I made it my lifes work to proclaim my reverence for it.
I know that I am not alone in feeling a strong connection to the land of my birth. My love of place is not unique or special but a natural response to the visual magic of our world, wherever we experience it. If I had of been born anywhere else, it would be that landscape that would be etched in my psyche. This is as it should be, for I believe it is a universal human impulse to revere and give voice to the land that first touches us.
Blog Post no. 15 Thursday May 19, 2011
Inspired by the Land 2
To this day, if I am in the forest and I catch the smell of cedar in the air I am for a split second transported back to my childhood. At an early age the West Coast landscape became part of me as I discovered the pure joy of playing and exploring with friends in the forests near my suburban home. What I found there was an unparalleled sense of freedom and a connection to a world much older and more mysterious than the built up world around me. Experiencing these wild places felt like a connection to history - somehow they had always been there. I though they always would.
It was with a profound sense of loss and sadness that in my late teens, I watched these islands of nature from my youth relentlessly fall to the chainsaw and the bulldozer. These special places (to me), were to disappear, replaced by more houses, roads and shopping centers. I think it was at this time that I first started to recognize the deep affinity I had for nature. It took losing my favorite childhood playgrounds for me to truly realize how much it meant to me.
With this growing recognition of my reverence for nature, there also came however, the realization of how little of it I had ever actually experienced and of ultimately how unconnected I was from it. I didn't really know it at all. A deep seeded desire to change this fact soon led to me on a path of exploration and adventure. I needed to get out and see more of B.C. I needed to step out of my comfort zone and glimpse a world I did not really know. In the next few blogs I will talk about some of these experiences and why they were important to my artistic development.
Blog Post No. 16 Thursday May 26th, 2011.
Inspired by the Land 3
From the lower mainland neighborhood that I grew up in you could see the mountains. I already knew from family car camping trips to Saskatchewan, how breathtaking beautiful the landscape of Western Canada was. I wanted to see more. As soon as I had a car (my first was a 68 Ford Falcon) at age 16, there was no holding me back. On many weekends, I headed out with friends into the mountains to camp, hike and explore. What I found during these outings was a chance to satisfy not only an inner urge to see more of the world around me but also a desire to know the magic that experiencing the wonders of nature can offer.
Though I had not yet decided to pursue a career in art, these outdoor experiences helped to steer my fate in that direction as I began to sketch, photograph and paint some of what I found inspiring. Perhaps not surprisingly many of the things that inspired me then are what still inspire me now - our amazing waterways, mountains, forests, ocean, sky. From these small adventures I began to realize that there was so much more out there, so many new places to find inspiration. I also began to realize that in continuing to seek these inspirations I could combine my love of nature with my love of art.
In the year before art school the adventures began to take new shape as a couple friends and I decided to charter floatplanes and helicopters to fly us into the mountains north of Squamish and Pemberton to camp and explore. These trips were to take me to a new level of appreciation for the amazing landscape that we are blessed with here in B.C. To hike among cloud draped peaks and glaciers was such an awe inspiring experience that it only strengthened my desire to seek more. I knew now what I wanted to do with my life. My voyage of discovery was just beginning.
Blog Post no. 17 Thursday June 2nd, 2011.
Inspired By the Land 4
When I decided to study art in 1980 and headed out to Nelson, I left behind a lot of things. One of those was the “outings” into the wild (certainly the ones requiring aircraft) which were mostly put on hold for awhile as I concentrated on my studies. Over the ensuing years, I slowly lost touch with the friends I had explored with. But this new adventure, into the mountains of south eastern British Columbia was to be a natural extension of those previous trips. I could have studied closer to home, but my recent experiences on the land inspired me to want to get out of the lower mainland and see more of this wonderful Province. Nelson and the Kootenay Mountains sounded like the place for me.
After selling everything I owned except for my 49 Ford pickup, I loaded my worldly possessions into the old beast and headed out into the mountains. That eight hour drive on Highway 3, (the Crowsnest) would be repeated many times over the next four years. It has now gained near mythic status in my memory. I just love this drive. From the lush farmlands of the Fraser valley to the desert of Osoyoos on to Grandforks and boundary country before finally coming to Nelson, this route never fails to inspire.
My travels through Southern B.C. to Nelson continued to reinforce my love for this land.
Over my four years there, a few outings into the wilds near Nelson were to continue to feed my wanderlust. A couple of camping trips into Kokanee Glacier Park were standouts. I’ll never forget seeing very fresh Grizzly tracks in the snow. After the closing of my art school I left the Kootenays for Victoria and the coast - back to a more urban existence once more. It would not be long after graduation however, that a decision was made that would start me on my greatest adventure yet. I wanted to really get out on the land and I needed to challenge myself. I was going treeplanting.
Blog no. 18 Thursday June 9th
Inspired By the Land 5
In the spring of 1986 after purchasing the tools of the trade (a shovel and bags), I joined a tree planting company and headed into the interior of the Province east of Prince George. I had everything I needed to camp packed in my truck (1980 Ford this time) including my sketch book and watercolours. We were going to be living for six weeks on the Bowron River north of Bowron Lakes Provincial Park and working in an area that I would soon find out was one of the largest clearcuts in the world. There must have been 25-30 of us there that spring, living, eating and working side by side and I enjoyed greatly the comradery we shared, the laughs and the music around the fire at night.
Over the next two seasons there would be other camps from Vancouver Island to northern B.C. I even got to take to the air again as we flew into one camp on Williston Lake, the largest in the Province and located in the magnificent northern Rockies. We flew in a shiny aluminum, twin engine 1958 Beach 18, which looks like an old World War Two bomber. We took turns climbing into the glass nose of the plane (where the guns would have been) and took in the incredible view as we flew out of Mackenzie and traveled the entire length of the lake. We landed (non too soon for some of us) on a dirt strip in the middle of nowhere. It was a spectacular place to live and work. I particularly remember one of our rare days off when a dozen of us walked out of camp and climbed (eventually through snow) to the top of one of the mountains looming above us. The view from the top (which I sketched) was so awe inspiring that it would later become a large painting. I was getting just what I came for - nature in all it’s glory.
I also got a first hand look at the inner workings and impact of one of B.C.’s major resource industries - forestry. All the land we planted was first burned to wipe the slate clean for all the little seedlings. One day I saw first hand one of these burns and I will never forget it. The fire is ignited by dripping burning napalm from a helicopter in a very large (km wide) circle. This creates (if all goes according to plan) a firestorm that burns to the middle and rises in a mushroom cloud thousands of feet into the air. Within days we would be planting in these areas - still hot and smoldering in some cases. It made for a very surreal landscape - a landscape that months later would inspire my first major painting since graduation from art school. (click here to view).
These experiences were to go a long way to filling the void I felt I had when it came to my connection with nature. I was starting to feel like I could consider myself somewhat more worthy of claiming to capture with feeling and knowledge, the landscape around me.
Just as I began to think that perhaps I had gotten what I came for and it was time to move on, an opportunity would arise as a direct result of my treeplanting experience that would take me beyond any other experiences to date. I was going back out on the land, this time - looking for gold.
Blog no. 19 Thursday June 16th, 2011
Inspired By the Land 6
Upon returning from the spring treeplanting season of 1987, I received an offer of employment from a geophysics (mining exploration) company. They needed someone to not only work in the field but also be in charge of building a new fly in camp in Northern B.C. Because of my camp experience and my carpentry knowledge they asked me if I was interested. My answer was - “I’m your man”. I was excited at the prospect of this new adventure and a chance to see more of Northern B.C. In late July of that year we flew out of Vancouver in an old four engined airliner that had half its seats pulled out to accommodate all our gear and eventually landed on the “Sturdy Strip”, a gravel airstrip on the Toodoggone River east of Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park. The landscape was truly stunning - broad open valleys rising through scrubby mixed northern forest to jagged mountain peaks.
After a few days of building our collection of half a dozen 2x4, plywood and tarped shelters that would be our homes for the next six weeks we (there were about 15 of us) began to plan our work schedule. Most of us, including me, would be walking out of camp everyday and performing what I was soon to find out was the least glorious job in the geophysics world - dirt bagging. We would walk long, previously surveyed lines, through the bush of the lower mountain slopes and collect bags of mineral soil every 50 meters along these lines. It was hard work but somehow the beauty of the surroundings made everyday an adventure. There were also two geologists in camp and we dirt-baggers would watch with open envy as they would fly out everyday by helicopter to take rock samples from the high slopes and peaks.
It soon became apparent to our crew chief that one of the geologists was having difficulty completing his tasks. I was asked if I would be interested in working with this geologist to help him bring back his rock samples. Basically, I was to be the mule. Of course this was an easy decision and I subsequently went from the lowly dirt-bagging crew to flying out every day to the high peaks. I couldn’t believe my good luck and the amazing experiences that where to become a daily routine. I had paid pilots to take me into similar terrain and here I was now being paid to go there. The deep seeded thirst I had to see more of this glorious Province, the thirst to seek a connection with nature that I felt I lacked was truly being quenched. Never before had I experienced this level of excitement and wonder - of beholding such majesty so intimately. Armed with a camera and a small sketch book I began to (when possible) document some of what I saw and felt on these daily outings.
Next week I will talk more about this experience, about what I learned and how this time became perhaps my single most important and inspirational foray into the wild.
Blog no. 20 Saturday June 25th, 2011
Inspired By the Land 7
Flying out of our camp on the Toodoggone River everyday to the high mountain ridges was like living a dream. For most of our days working that August and early September of 1987 the weather was glorious and the flying conditions excellent. The experience of actually flying in the mountains, along ridges, over saddles and down slopes was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. It was also fascinating to me to start to really look at the land through different eyes, to learn more of how the earth reveals its secrets, the secrets that would lead us to what we were looking for - nickel, copper, silver and the big prize, gold.
The slightly out of shape geologist that I began working side by side with everyday, turned out to be a very interesting character. His name was Mohammad and he grew up on the streets of Beirut Lebanon before coming to Canada as a young man. He had studied Geology and Film in Montreal and was in western Canada for the first time. He had never been in the mountains before and was in total awe of what he was seeing. I remember one day in particular where we were flying along a high ridge that was as narrow as a knife edge. There was no space for the chopper to land, so the pilot hovered a few feet above the ridge and yelled “jump”.
Mohammad looked at me with terror in his eyes and I too felt his fear. We opened the door and climbed out on the landing bar and both jumped at the same time. We hit the ground and instantly lay flat on our bellies as the chopper banked away and left us with only the wind to break the silence. Neither of us moved as we lay there face to face. Finally Mohammad said “My Mother...she would not believe this.”
We spent our days walking the high ridges and alpine meadows surrounded on all sides by breathtaking views of endless peaks and valleys for as far as the eye could see. The animal trails that we traveled and that ran along every ridge were constant reminders that we were not in the land of humans but in a land where nature rules supreme. I still have a beautiful little Caribou antler that I picked up along one of these trails. We also collected many rock samples and made notes of interesting formations. We talked about minerals, we talked about art, and life. My artistic heart was soaring as the experience seared me to my very soul. To this day I can close my eyes and be transported back, to once again smell the pure mountain air, hear wind over rock and see sunlight streaming through fast moving cloud. I remember one day sensing Mohammad’s unbridled excitement as we entered a mysterious and massive bowl with huge vertical cliffs of polished black stone on all sides. We were in what he determined was a meteor crater. I’ll never forget the sense of awe and wonder that I experienced that day, as I explored this eerily strange landscape and felt a connection to time and space beyond this world that I had never felt before.
Over the next several years there would be many other interesting experiences working in geophysics but non would fully compare with this one - my very first. I will carry with me forever the sense of overwhelming awe and wonder that this experience instilled deep within me. I felt that I had come full circle - that the longing that I had had for so long - to touch the soul of nature, had finally been achieved. Eventually after more than a decade had passed, I produced a couple of paintings based on photos and sketches from this trip - click here and here to view these pieces. What I took away from the whole experience and what was to remain in my approach to painting landscape to this day was a heightened sense of reverence for this land called British Columbia.
Next week I will talk about another geophysics experience that was very different from this one. It was the one that challenged me more, both physically and mentally, than any other - surviving five weeks living in a tent with two others and working in the -20 to -40 degree cold of a Northern Manitoba winter.