Deep in pink snow

pinksnowLike walking on pink snow, I thought, as my feet padded over a bed of petals under a cluster of Kwanzan Flowering Cherry trees. Here in Victoria, we get more pink snow than white; from February until May these blossoms drift in eddies from their fruit tree homes and fall gently to the ground.  And then I remembered an old book from my childhood, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Sally and her brother were clearing snow outside when the Cat in the Hat ambled by. Even though they remembered the havoc he created in the first book (The Cat in the Hat), they unwisely let him in the house to get out of the cold, where he ate cake in the bathtub, leaving a pink ring. When he tried to clean the bathtub ring, he made things worse: he transferred the pink stain to the mother’s white dress, the father’s shoes, the rug, and the bed. The big Cat asked for help from little cats A, B, and C (who live under his tall hat), but they spread the stain further, onto the white snow outside. You may have read this book, which culminates in “Voom,” an amazing magical cleaning agent under the hat of microscopic cat Z that wiped the snow pure white. But only after all the other 25 alphabet cats plus their leader had transformed the snow into a bubblegum-pink blanket across the yard.

I recalled the book and the image of pink snow not with pleasure, but with disquiet.  I realized that when I read that picture book, published the year of my birth, I used to feel not delight but worry. That huge anarchist cat was threatening, not fun or jolly: he initiated chaos. His swirl of pink filth grew unbidden, and I had no control over it. How scary to watch the malevolent pink stain spread like bacteria over everything inside and outside.  What a revelation to have bodily sensations—a clenched stomach and light fluttery heart—when I remembered the growing pink stain and my helplessness in the face of it. And then when the problem was solved—voila!—by Voom, again I had no control over that; it was simply something that happened out there in the world. It didn’t matter that order was restored as if the stain had never happened. What I remembered was feeling not relieved, but disturbed and powerless.

As children, we have no control over the big Cats out there—they do crazy stuff and all we can do is feel our fear and anxiety as we watch events unfold. I am reading a book, Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth, that perfectly captures a child’s experience of being swung around like a leaf in a windstorm. As an immigrant Austrian Jew in the Lower East Side of New York City, David is manipulated by other children, criticized and beaten by his father, and abused and chastised by his rabbi, leaving him terrified and untrusting of the world. Only his mother Genya provides solace. Roth’s skill is in bringing us into David’s life so we feel the terror of events and his despairing existence. Once he wanders away from home and gets lost, ending up in the police station among Irish cops:

“He understood it now, understood it all, irrevocably, indelibly. Desolation had fused into a touchstone, a crystalline, bitter, burred reagent that would never be blunted, never dissolved. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Wherever you look, never believe. Whatever anything was or did or said, it pretended. Never believe. If you played hide’n’-go-seek, it wasn’t hide’n’-go-seek, it was something else, something sinister. If you played follow the leader, the world turned upside down and an evil face passed through it. Don’t play; never believe.”

Part 2

Recently I rediscovered How to be an Explorer of the World (2008) by Keri Smith on my bookshelf. Smith writes, “at any given moment, no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting.”  I decided to do experiment #33, arrangements, with pink snow. I was interested in pink snow as a thing. There was the idea of pink snow from a children’s book, then there were the pink petals under my feet.

The next day I took my cloth bag to work and gathered handfuls of petals from the ground. They were soft, buttery, and damp. The petals were attached to bits of brown detritus and mixed with long pine needles from a nearby coniferous trees, so I scooped them up all up together. Smith suggests explorers do lots of things with the materials they gather: stretch them out in a long chain, use them to cover a book, freeze them in ice.  I did different things with my petals. I shaped them into a circle, a heart, and face. I placed some in a plastic zip-lock bag with purple ink and smooshed the mess onto paper. I placed a handful in a mason jar full of water and kept it for a couple of days.  I suspended a round crystal over the mound of petals on my floor. I’m not sure why. . . I was just playing.  I realize I have a strong belief in the goodness of play and creativity.  And I have a need to play creatively. I used to think that play had to be for something; now I know it doesn’t have to be purposeful. Just play. Just believe.

Now to clean up all the old petals.

 

 

 

 

 

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A play date with poetry

Sometimes I like to plan whimsical dates with my husband, to plant an hour or two with small surprises. You never know what you’ll find, what tiny miracle may blossom before your eyes.

One weekend in March, I arranged such a date.  We headed downtown, and as we started to walk Victoria’s chilly streets, I pressed a five-dollar bill into Michael’s hand.

“We’re looking for street musicians and we’re going to give them money. If they’re good. Maybe even if they’re not.”

We found neither good nor bad musicians. Instead, we found a lone artist in front of Munro’s Books replicating famous paintings in jewel-coloured pastels, brightening up Government Street. That day he was drawing what looked like an Alphonse Mucha head of a woman juiced with lots of reds and oranges.

We admired his skill, and my husband placed his $5 bill in the hat. Next we headed up to Russell’s Books, second floor, poetry section.

“You have $10 to buy a book of poetry,” I told Michael.  We stood side by side, pulling out slim volumes, one after the other, reading lines, testing their merit. Did we feel something, see something? Was there language that lifted us out of ourselves?

We finally settled on our books and headed to Chapters, second floor, Starbucks. I bought us coffee and we sat perched on stools overlooking Douglas Street. We sliced apples and cheese and shared a little picnic there.

“Now,” I told him, “I’ll read my poem into your ear, and you’ll read yours into mine.” I can be very bossy. When I was 11, I used to corral the neighbourhood children into our basement and set up “school” where I could be the teacher, telling them what to do.  I am lucky that Michael is very tolerant and accommodating of my “play dates.”

Michael placed his mouth close to my ear and read Marilyn Bowering’s “Three Swans and an Owl”: “I remember three swans,/with black ribbons in their beaks,/that flew from the loch by the crags…” My favourite lines were “I remember the swans in the ache of winter,/ their crystal bones primed with light/ as they fly, black-mouthed with signs.”

I then leaned into Michael’s side, standing beside his stool as the cars zipped below us and all around us people jostled and chatted. I read to him a remarkable glosa by P.K. Page, from her book Hologram, and I was hooked. When we got home, I sat on the couch and read all 14 poems.

Published in 1994, Hologram comprises 14 glosas, a complex form dating back to the late 14th, early 15th century used in the Spanish court. First you take an opening quatrain written by another poet. You write four ten-line stanzas, the concluding lines taken consecutively from the quatrain. Each stanza’s sixth and ninth lines must rhyme with the borrowed tenth. Page explains in the foreword how she struggled to master this form. First the choice of lines from another poet is difficult. Lines cannot be enjambed; they must be or appear to be end-stopped. And then you must make everything run smoothly; the borrowed lines have to somehow match your own sensibility or run parallel to it in some way you can work with. She makes the distinction of doing this as an exercise—which anyone can do—and actually catching some light or brilliance in the borrowing and crafting anew.  She uses wonderful quatrains from Bishop, Rilke, Lawrence, Eliot, Serafis, and others as the basis of her glosas.  Here is a sample poem “Autumn,”her borrowing for this one from Rilke.

I was fascinated: I had to try this form. I finally found four lines, quite plain and domestic, from Denise Levertov, whom I love. Her poem “Invocation” is for a house that the speaker is leaving, but hopefully will return to. Using an old house and Levertov’s lines as the foundation, I wrote a poem ostensibly about an old man leaving his farm, but really about the “the art of losing,” as Elizabeth Bishop describes it in “One Art.”  All that we must lose as we grow old: homes, memories, strength, possessions, people…

“His life, a house” definitely falls into the category of exercise (quite a tortured exercise in trying to rhyme with serapes and thus an ignominious ending), but I’ve enjoyed heralding the beginning of poetry month with this attempt at a glosa.

 

First, here is the foundation of my “house”:

from Denise Levertov’s “Invocation”

Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

And here is my glosa:

His life, a house

Dusk breaks the glowering sky with
light as he ambles up the steps
now stooped and slow. One last check to see
the floors all swept, swallows looping
by the naked windows. Oh! phantom
shape in the pasture, lone sheep that roused
him late one night, his gentle hand tugged
at tiny hooves descending, a breech that Easter.
No more a farmer? His mind bargains like Faust.
Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.

Upstairs he climbed to fathom forty years
of sleeping here. The bedroom’s quiet now,
silent but for sighs, his own, yet echoing her
pleasure. Sharply angled ceiling stained
from rain, but smoke and jazz used to fill
this space. This is what we meant
when we spoke of love: the low vibrating
line of deep contentment thrumming
underground, through a marriage spent.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.

Placing pulsing hands upon the sill,
Looking past the sedgy pond to where
two horses graze, but only in his mind.
He strides along the edge and checks electric
fences, smells the turf, feels such a well
of joy throb here, welcome, automatic,
his response to being outdoors, to being
of use, to being a man. His palsied
hands fall to his side. The house is static.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.

His life a house shorn of all goods.
Drapes once protected him from night, from
fears, from cold. Now curtains gone, the winter
sun burns in through gelid panes of glass
and touches wooden floors. No carpets here
to soak up all remembered laughs and happies,
his life an unprotected, wind-lashed house.
No cloth, no coverings but only he, Lear-like
upon the hearth, exposed from head to naked knees.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

oldman

 

More sequential art: Athena’s Thigh and The Facelift

My online comics class is going well–a great group of creative people sharing work and learning from each other.  Check out the online classes offered at Sequential Artists Workshop if you want to know more. Tom Hart is an inspiring leader/ facilitator and he offers sliding scale tuition.

Here are two more pieces. The first strip is from our homework about “Birth, bodies, and death.” Our prompt was to start with a body part. . . . you’ll see.  And the second one, “The Facelift,” continues with my earlier strip and gives a voice to the dead addict.  IMG_2192IMG_2193IMG_2194IMG_2195IMG_2196IMG_2197

 

The Facelift

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Pottery conversation part two: “It felt spiritual, that moment of centering”

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Last week my sister told her story about being a potter. This week, my husband Michael Carpenter talks about his experience.

Michael’s story

I had no frame of reference in my family to help me become an artist.  I had some kind of urge to do creative stuff, but I couldn’t draw or paint ‘cause I thought you either had talent or you didn’t so I learned to do beadwork when I was still in my teens on a little weaving loom and make strip things, and I could take graph paper and map out what I wanted it to look like.

When I was married to Linda, she took a graphic design course then went to work at the newspaper doing graphic design. She’s a very good, very talented artist, she could draw so well. Anyway, I just felt like I wanted to do something creative so I started doing pottery, and we did it together, we took some classes. I wanted to throw on the wheel, that was my thing, so I started learning how to do that. And then I worked for this place that made trailers, I was a welder, and I used to weld the trailers together, and they all hated me because I was a hippie-poet, and they gave me all the crappy jobs, like climbing under the trailers and welding the leaf springs, which made the cattle shit ignite and run down onto my head.

So the boss asked me one day, do you really want to do this? And I said no fucking way. So he laid me off and I got Unemployment Insurance and I took about nine months taking all kinds of pottery stuff. I took classes from this guy Mel Bolen, who is still making amazing pottery and classes from Stan Tanawa, who is famous and did a big mural at Chemainus, and is still one of Canada’s foremost potters. And I learned how to throw. I sat in my backyard at the potter’s wheel and every time a pot would fall apart, which was every time, I’d throw it at the wall of the house.  And by the end of the day I’d be swearing and cursing and there’d be clay stuck all over the house and I’d hose it all off and put it back together again, and eventually, I got to the point where I could throw and do some hand building, but I really wanted to throw pots.

Throwing pots: It felt spiritual, that moment of centering when the bub-bub-bub-bub became a hmmmmmmm. It’s a hum, it’s a hum when it centres and it’s all wet under your hands. It’s amazing.

Kathryn: For me it’s not a hum, first there’s a noise, then it’s silent. It’s magical.

Linda and I did a lot of work together, we did a lot of collaborative stuff; she’s very talented, then I went and made raku. I discovered raku firing which was totally cool. And I really liked how direct it was. You build your kiln out of bricks in the woods, and go get an old propane torch that makes it work and stick it in a hole in the side, and put the pots in it and fire them up and it happens fast. You pull them out before they’re even finished. And they’re still glowing and you take them, and ignite them, and put them in a big bucket of sawdust and it creates this reduction atmosphere and makes metal and stuff grow on the surface. But what I really wanted to do was be an artist. I really wanted to make pictures. I didn’t really want to work three- dimensionally.

When did you realize that?

Well I kept saying to Linda, I can’t fucking draw, and I am looking at these pots, and I’m going, I wanna decorate them, and she said anybody can draw, and I said no you have to be an artist to draw, and she said, no, it’s all practice.  She said you just start to make lines. It’s not talent. She said figuring out what you want to do and having a vision for your work, and thinking of original things, that’s the talent part. the rest of it is hand-eye coordination and anyone can learn those skills. So I got a sketchbook and I started drawing designs and tried to figure out what I’d do to make on pots, so then I started decorating. things with wax resist, this one, and the tree, and this one.

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This one, and the tree. Quite lovely, Nice flowy lines. I went wow, well that’s all cool, and then I just wanted to make pictures, I wanted to draw, I didn’t really want to work three-dimensionally, so I started drawing and painting and doing more of that stuff. And the pottery kind of just went away.

I was trying to figure out if I should go to University. I’d been doing the burning shit-welding, which was not on, and I’d been spending the last nine months making pots because I thought “oh, I’ll be a famous potter and I’ll make money,” and I was trying to figure that out and then I realized I was making pieces that were lovely, some of them, and having people admire some of the art pieces I was making, but nobody wanted to buy those – the only things anybody wanted to buy were coffee mugs. And I said to myself one day, what’s the difference between welding trailers or any other manufacturing job and making coffee mugs? And I thought, nothing—this is manufacturing. Thirty years from now I’ll hate my life. I’ll be pulling coffee mugs off the hump, because that’s how you make them, you make a big hump of clay, you make a lump, you make a mug, you cut if off, just keep pulling them off but that’s not what I wanted to do.  So I went to University.

Pottery conversations part one: The value of a negative teacher

 

By Madeline Walker with Kathryn Walker and Michael Carpenter

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“Through the sense of touch, I could access my creative energy because it undercut the critical, judgemental part of me.”

We sat in the cool dim dining room around the teak table, my sister, my husband, and I.  The conversation was about their pottery connection. In his early twenties, my partner Michael was a potter. Many of his creations sit on the shelves beside us, blue-green raku pots, a roughly built bowl, an elegant grey vase.  My sister was a potter in her early twenties. I have only a few of her things—a blue-glazed jug that would be at home on a French peasant’s table.  A candle holder, a built pencil holder with diagonal lines scored on the side. Most of the other things she had given me were broken over the years.

Thick foliage from the backyard threw green coolness into the room. We felt rather than saw the July light flickering on the deck.

“I’m kind of amused. I’ve never really thought of Michael as a potter” my sister Kathryn said, “I knew he made pots, but we’ve never really talked about it.” Michael and I have only been together six years, so it wasn’t surprising.

“No,” said Michael, “we’ve never had a conversation about glaze, about what makes things crackle, about what cone we fired our kilns to.”

“Yeah, or about bisques,” Kathryn murmured. “About whether this is a good mug or not.”  She lifted her coffee cup from the table, a slim green-glazed mug we’d bought from a couple of production potters at an Artisan’s Fair three years ago.

It’s so strange, really, that these two—born only a few years apart—had each chosen that same path at around the same time, in the 1970s, one in Manitoba, and one in Ontario.

A twist in Kathryn’s case is that the occupational surname, “Potter,” is our paternal grandmother’s maiden name—she was Marguerite Potter. And my youngest son now bears Potter as a middle name.  So I wondered about those ancestors of ours, the Potters, making vessels in England before they came across the ocean to finally settle in Oklahoma.

Kathryn’s story

“Why did you want to be a potter?” I asked my sister.

“When I was about seven, I wrote in a book that I wanted to be a famous artist.  I didn’t work in clay, but I drew a lot, and I had some talent. I took an art class at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Do you remember that? We sketched statues.”

“I do remember that. The classes were in the basement of the old Art Gallery of Ontario.”

“So Mom recognized that I had some talent, but her message was that you can’t be a week-end artist, you have to do it all the time or you won’t be successful. So I stopped doing art, but I was still drawn to it. Later, I took a sculpture course at Central Tech, but I was bored silly trying to reproduce an exact copy of someone else’s figure in clay.

So I went to pottery class instead. All he did was – he gives me this ball of clay. ‘here, make something.’ So I started playing with it, and I had an epiphany. The sense of touch is one of your most primal senses. I just totally got into the zone.  Which was great when you’re that age because I was so self-conscious. I totally forgot where I was.  I made a squat little curvaceous pot, just a pinch pot. And I thought ‘Wow, I love this, I can do this.’ An awesome feeling. Through the sense of touch, I could access my creative energy because it undercut the critical, judgemental part of me. The wire of the judgemental part didn’t go down there. I reconnected with my creativity. In that class I made a piece called ‘The Scream,’ which was very powerful. It’s a person’s head, cast in plaster, screaming.”

Our mother has “The Scream” in her living room. Whenever I visit her in Toronto, I look at the wide, silent mouth, the suffering eyes, a sculptural version of Munch’s painting.  And I think, ah, to have created this, my sister knew suffering.

Kathryn continued: “I decided I wanted to learn pottery, so a friend knew someone named Yanya, South African. This tiny lady, a crazy chain smoker. She lived in High Park and was a potter. She sold her stuff all over the place. Her stuff was all functional, really it wasn’t very good, I realized the longer I was there. But the thing about her was she had a will of steel. And we were raised with nobody saying no to us. I don’t know why she appealed to me. The first class I went to, it turns out I was the only student. She was such a bitch, she couldn’t attract students. She said ‘I guess you thought you were going to make a pot tonight. Well you’re not. You’re going to learn how to do this, spiral wedge.’”

I looked quizzically at my sister. What’s spiral wedge? “So you get the air out of the clay. You work the clay on the diagonal—more efficient. She taught that to me, and I am grateful.  Yanya thought she was Bernard Leach, a famous British studio potter, and I was her devotee. At the end of the class, in her low ceilinged basement, she said ‘well, I guess you won’t be coming back.’” Kathryn laughed.  “And you know what, if she had been nice to me, I wouldn’t have come back. But I was challenged. I thought ‘fuck you’ I am coming back. Yeah – that’s what you think.”

“I’m like that too,” I said. “In my first graduate class, in African American literature, the prof was complaining about how students never read everything on the syllabus, how lazy they are. And I thought – well I’ll show you: I’m going to read everything. And I did, and he eventually hired me as his research assistant.  So we’re kind of alike in that attitude; when we are challenged, we think ‘I’ll show you I can do it.’”

“Yeah, so I went back and she never had any other students. She lived in this big house. I rarely went upstairs, but the whole house stunk of cat pee, cat spray, and cigarettes. She had hairless cats, the most bizarre looking things—have you ever seen one?”

“I think so.”

“Yanya was so opinionated, you could not argue with her. She was very critical of what I did—‘you did it wrong, do it again.’ I hated her, but I realized I was learning. I learned how to mix glazes. And she was so rigid, it gave me boundaries. Instead of the guy saying ‘here, make something.’ It was a system, she taught me a system. I learned how to be a functional potter, and I learned I didn’t want to be a functional potter. I also learned I have a very good aesthetic for clay, but that I’m not fast. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t like it enough to do it.”

“Did you ever make any money at it?”

“No. But I was Yanya’s assistant, so I got to use the studio for free.”

“But I remember you selling some of your pieces.”

“Well, I stayed there for a few years then I decided to start my own studio. That was when I was living on Beverley Street. I bought a kiln and put it in the basement. And Yanya, she never wanted to see me again, she was so pissed off. She thought I would stay there forever, putting handles on mugs, trimming stuff, putting her stamp on everything.

I never did very creative stuff there because she thought it was weird. And her stuff was heavy. She created her own glazes; every potter has her own glazes. But she was a good teacher for me, a negative teacher, and she taught me how to wedge.

In my own business, I could never figure out how to how to charge for stuff. I’d charge too much or too little and it was anxiety producing. But I realized I liked making things that you could use, but you didn’t have to. I liked making sculptural things. I made some interesting stuff, but I would let people interrupt me. People were constantly coming down to the basement, to my studio.”

“I had a lot of your stuff you gave me, but I broke most of it.”

“That’s the thing about pottery.”

“I decided I needed to be in a social context. Working alone in the studio didn’t work for me. So I sold everything and I dropped it.  But, I still feel like that’s my medium, I could plug right back into it.”

“Right –feeling the flow the positive psychologists talk about. I feel that when I am writing.”

“I was hoping Michael might collaborate on something to do with pottery, but he says he’s done with it.  But for me, I don’t feel like I’m done with it. It’s something I can explore more. The fact that you do need all this equipment and it is so physical, that’s attractive to me. It’s a full time job. I don’t know that I would have the energy.”

“There’s pottery collectives.”

“Yes, just to be part of that. It would give me a social context.”

“What’s your favorite piece that you ever made?”

“There’s a pot in my friend Ken’s garden that I built up with slabs. It’s a sleeping face, carved. When the clay is leather hard, you carve it, dry it, bisque it, then paint it with manganese. Brownish black, with a bit of sheen. It’s big –so it could be used as a vessel.  I think it’s still there, in his yard.”

I turned to face my husband, who was sitting quietly, listening.  “And you,” I said, “how did you start making pots?”

Michael told me his story, but that’s for next week.