playing in the park

Between downtown Victoria and the sea, at the end of the highway that runs from the very East of Canada to the very West, lies Beacon Hill Park. A public park since 1882, it was one of Emily Carr’s favourite painting locations. A fitting spot then, for a bunch of ex-studio buddies to play in the dirt and make some art.

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We had come to investigate soil. Because it is the foundation of terrestrial life. Because without it we would have no plants, no food, no park. And because place is central, one way or another, in all our work and place begins with the soil under our feet.

We started by each choosing a spot that appealed to us, and taking ten minutes to use our senses to fully experience the place. We smelled the pine resin, felt the rocks and grass, watched pine needles falling in the sunlight, and pressed our hands against the cool, damp soil. We wrote down words and phrases that came to mind. We made impressions of soil and plants and wood on paper. We stopped our lives for that short period of time and sat with being where we were.

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Then we re-grouped and shared what we had found. Each one of us had discovered something special and unique – and each of us had enough observations and thoughts to keep us going for some time.

With our discoveries in mind we settled down to a bit of drawing and painting. making “starters” – work that you can put aside to finish later, or use to inspire another piece.  A starter is a great little thing to do, because there is not pressure to make something perfect, so it’s easier to be spontaneous. And of course, we each came up with something different.

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Thanks to Jessica Jean, Mary, and Brenda. You gals rock!

in/visible

The past six months I’ve been in the studio more than on the beach, drawing, stitching and printing. On Friday some of this work was unveiled at a solo show at the Slide Room Gallery in Victoria BC.

Here are some installation shots of the show:

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“grass” 2013, tar paper, chalk, (110” x 40”.)

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“grass” 2013, tar paper, chalk, (110” x 40”.) Detail.

“field” 2013, wood, card, paint, white charcoal, (74” x 40”.)

“field” 2013, wood, card, paint, white charcoal, (74” x 40”.)

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“mean what you say”, 2014, paper, paint, wax, thread, (15” x 18 ½”.)

“mystery of stars” 2014, styrofoam, pins, beads, (dimensions variable.)

“mystery of stars” 2014, styrofoam, pins, beads, (dimensions variable.)

“here they have blown away” 2013, wood, chalk, (42” x 36”.)

“here they have blown away” 2013, wood, chalk, (42” x 36”.)

“treasure” 2013, paper, paint, wool, (16” x 19 ¼ ”.)

“treasure” 2013, paper, paint, wool, (16” x 19 ¼ ”.)

“turn to sky” 2013, wood, conte crayon, (24” x 24”.)

“turn to sky” 2013, wood, conte crayon, (24” x 24”.)

“states of existence” 2014, paper, pencil, wax, (dimensions variable.)

“states of existence” 2014, paper, pencil, wax, (dimensions variable.)

“chasing sun” 2013, oilcloth, chalk, (18” x 18”.)

“chasing sun” 2013, oilcloth, chalk, (18” x 18”.)

As you can see, these pieces are something of a new direction in my practice. The statement I wrote for the show explains what’s been going on:

          “I cleaned ocean debris from beaches for four years. It was physically demanding and repetitive work that often seemed futile and made me feel invisible. I knew the next tide would bring more debris; that I would never be able to take it all away. I needed to do something with visible results. So last summer I took some chalk and invented a new action for myself: row upon row of small white lines covering a schoolroom chalkboard.

          This series is about repetitive, sustained action. I make drawings and prints composed of hundreds of lines, dots and circles, using everyday materials such as found wood, discarded paper, Styrofoam meat trays, sewing thread, and chalk. They are made by repeating specific actions – drawing a dot or a line, sewing a stitch or pressing down an ink-stained stamp. I play with notions of visibility and invisibility. Repair stitches and rough edges are left in place as evidence of making in some pieces. In others, the marks build up until they obscure themselves.

          Much of the work requires a level of endurance that creates a tension between the effort involved and the quality of the material used. Like cleaning beaches, it is an attempt to establish some kind of order. The resulting marks, be they permanent stitches in a piece of paper or easily-erased chalk on wood, resemble a language or counting system. In them I see the history of my actions. I see myself.”

James Bay, 2012-2013

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During the year that I lived in James Bay, I spent a lot of time on the beach. On one particular beach in fact, a modest and often overlooked beach, the beach at the end of my road.

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If you like a beach with lots of stuff on it, this is a good beach – All year you can find plenty of driftwood and seaweed. I love seaweed.

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In the spring and summer, when the tides are lower, you can walk out along the base of the breakwater and find all sorts of creatures that, until now, were hidden by the sea.

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And dead crabs.

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Then the jellyfish start to arrive.

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The polystyrene arrives every day. Just look in the seaweed along the wrack line:

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Where you might also find this:

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And this:

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The driftwood also collects interesting items:

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And if you scrabble around a bit where all the small pieces of driftwood collect at the back of the beach, you can always find plenty of polystyrene. I tried to clean it all up but there is so much, and the pieces are so small, I gave up.

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As these photos suggest, most of the debris I found on this beach was small. Small enough to fit into jars, in fact. Which is what I did. Here are the jars in my studio.

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There are 76 jars. Each one has a note with the date I collected the debris, and sometimes a reminder such as “just what was in front of me.” (Which means what I found on front of me as I was walking along the beach without actually going and looking for debris.)

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I find that people love to pick up the jars and peer into them. The glass, and maybe our association with jars and specimens, creates a distance that makes the debris fascinating. Better than actually finding it on the beach, perhaps?

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Now I’ve moved, so my “new” beach is Ross Bay. Equally lovely and very different.

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drawing lines in the sand

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I have moved again, and no longer have the sea at the end of my road. Before I left, stormy weather deposited sand all over my once-rocky beach. And almost immediately the neighbourhood kids started to take advantage of this new drawing opportunity.

I decided to join them. In the studio I have been drawing by repeating the same marks over and over –  just as when I clean a beach I repeat the same gestures to pick up debris. I decided to take this drawing back to the source. So I picked up a stick,

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and started to draw. I wasn’t counting the lines, or drawing with any preconceived plan. I was just drawing. And like beach cleaning, this turned out be hard work, requiring a few rests. Once I had a drawing I was satisfied with, I stopped, and went up to street level to get a better look.

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As one passer-by commented, it does look a bit like I was trying to drawing the USA flag. Someone else asked me what it was about, and seemed satisfied with my reply, that is a way to make my beach-cleaning, and the debris I find visible. a kind of counting, if you like. The crows seemed to like it. Smart birds, those crows.

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On moving day itself, I snatched a few moments from the chaos in the apartment. At the beach I started to draw again, but this time I had no camera with me. There was one other person on the beach, taking advantage of a calm morning to write in her journal. She asked me what the drawing was about. This time, it was about saying goodbye. I came back later to see what the the tide had left.

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Circles seem an appropriate image to have used. I was closing the loop on a year of visiting and cleaning the same beach. And circles are more fun than lines to draw. They are seems more organic, more inclusive:

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I have not moved far. (And in Victoria, you are never very far from the sea.) In the meantime, I am discovering a new neighbourhood, one of hills and oak trees set on wide streets. I like it.

 

“does it have a meaning or is it just art?”

Clare Thomas:

Here’s a post from May, from my other (not very active!) blog. Taking my art back to the beach ……

Originally posted on Clare Thomas:

After wrapping debris with members of the public at a downtown mall recently, https://cleaningbeaches.wordpress.com/ I decided to go back to the beach.

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I left the sticks in place for a couple of hours, and was pleased to see they attracted some attention. Having placed them at random, they reminded me a little of Louise Bourgeois’s early wooden sculptures: standing together, but are they connected? (http://arttattler.com/archivebourgeois.html)

A group of students asked me what the sticks were all about. One girl asked me the question in the title. To which the answer is, of course, “yes!”

 

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never the same beach thrice

It was a grey day – grey clouds hanging low overhead and a still grey sea. In the water I found seaweed.

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And on the beach I found logs.

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And walking between the two I found the usual mix of things lost, dropped and forgotten.

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And clambering over the logs and looking down, I found more.

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Two days later the weather promised by the clouds had hit big time. Stormy weather,

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and a broiling sea.

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No point in picking up beach debris in this weather, just enjoy it. There were brief moments when the clouds parted, but the waves kept on coming:

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This wave drenched me and my camera:

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And when the storm moved on it left behind a sea made of liquid diamonds,

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and a beach piled high:

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And in this new mix of seaweed and wood, the usual polystyrene.

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And what might be the most useful thing I have ever found on a beach!

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wrapping in the mall

photo by Goolita Wadia-Shave

photo by Goolita Wadia-Shave

Over the weekend I left my artist’s bubble – and the beach – and went to the mall. I had entered a couple of photographs to the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria’s annual LOOK show, and was asked if I would like “to give a demonstration”?

So here I am with my table set up for wrapping, talking (as usual!) with Jennifer, who was running things for the day. The show is an Aladdin’s cave of art in two empty shops on the 3rd floor of the Bay Centre in downtown Victoria. And I had plenty of “customers” wander in and do some wrapping.

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Here’s Goolita, who was volunteering for the day, holding her wrapped thingy, and standing next to her lovely painting of a doorway.

Also volunteering, was Verna, http://www.vernastone.com/artist.php?xyz=1551 who wrapped a piece of nylon mesh:

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Lots of people stopped to look at my wrapped pieces of beach debris and talk, particularly families with kids. Whilst the adults all got the idea of transforming trash into something special by wrapping it, the kids were attracted by the brightly coloured wools in my basket. They all thought carefully about which piece of beach debris to wrap, and they all picked up the knack of wrapping quickly, regardless of age.

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This time, everyone got to take their new treasure home. And I had time to wrap a few new pieces myself.

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repetition, repetition, repetition

“We repeat with our bodies the actions over and over again… Often the revelations happen when we have forgotten the vision altogether. All we remember is that we have work to do. The work precedes the vision; creates the vision.” *

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* Bryan Saner, quoted in “Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology and Goat Island” by Stephen Bottoms and Matthew Goulish, 2007.

the importance of paying attention

I am learning to paint. In oils.

It is such a huge departure from my usual practice that there are days when I am amazed by the sheer audacity of applying paint to canvas and calling it work. The audacity of creating art that has nothing to do (yet) with cleaning beaches, or ocean pollution.  The audacity of creating an image for no reason other than the desire to do so, and the even greater hope that someone else will want to look at it.

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There are also days when I literally want to weep from frustration. Because I can’t make the paint do what I want it to do. because I can’t see what my painting instructor tells me is there. Because I want to be able to do it now, and my way, without having to go through the exercises that will allow me to learn what he is trying to teach me.

He must be a patient man, this Jeremy Herndl. (You can see his paintings here: http://jeremyherndl.wordpress.com/.) I like his teaching style. Most of all I like that he says painting is about paying attention. It is about looking at a thing, or a view, or a person and seeing what is really there. Of taking the time necessary to be able to really get to know something. And then doing the work of making the paint express that thing, so that anyone looking at the painting can see the tree-ness of the tree or the stone-ness of the stone; can see – and believe – the colours that exist in a white egg. (Not quite there, yet!)

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I thought I knew all about paying attention. After all, my work takes me to the beach, where the sea literally forces me to pay attention to it. To the roar of waves of a windy day, the tinkling of rolling pebbles when the sea is calm. To the crunching of rock and sand beneath my feet and the smell of seaweed. To the tears the wind pushes from my eyes and the taste of salt spray on my lips. To the tide coming in and the tide going out, and the cries of gulls wheeling overhead. To the blue-green-grey-white-black of the angry-lazy-full-dancing-raging sea on different days. And each time it is a new sea demanding my attention.

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And isn’t cleaning beaches all about paying attention? Paying attention to the stuff we’d all rather not think about? Getting down on my hands and knees sometimes, to pick out the teeny-tiny pieces of plastic, or polystyrene, that I would prefer to ignore?

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And there’s the rub – paying attention takes effort. Perhaps you will need to get down on your hands and knees. Perhaps you will have to stare at an egg for half an hour trying to figure out what it is you are actually seeing. Perhaps you will have to shut up and let someone else guide you. You may not succeed. You might end up noticing things you’d rather not. And once your understanding of the world has been expanded, you can never go back. Paying attention is a Pandora’s Box, and there’s no knowing what will come out when you open the lid. It is an audacious way to live.

But you can be sure that your life will be richer for it. Noticing a piece of netting washed up onto my favourite beach a few years ago, and paying attention to it, set the course for my practice and quite literally changed my life. I have always loved feasting my eyes on the world around me but now, thanks to a couple of months of painting classes, the world I live in has become even richer than before. Looking – even watching telly – has become a feast of shades and hues, of highlights and shadows. So just as I now can’t walk along a beach without seeing the debris scattered along it, I can now see colours where before I just saw light and dark. When it comes to paying attention, I suspect that I still have a lot to learn.

 

Who you gonna call? No-one.

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What do you do when there’s just too much debris on the beach to deal with on your own? What do you do when something washes up that is just too big and heavy to move?  This Styrofoam  – or polystyrene to my British readers – washed onto our local beach today. It had broken off a floating dock that, along with a buoy, a boat and a floating device made out of two old tires, turned up in the bay last night. The dock is made of foam and concrete, and by this afternoon it had wedged itself onto the rocks at one end of the beach.

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Clearly, the longer the dock stays there, the more it’s going to break up. The solution is obvious: move it out of the water and up the beach past the high tide line until it can be disposed of. Except that on five sides the dock is concrete – which is what you can see in the photo. (The Styrofoam is underneath.) Which means it’s heavy. Too heavy for me, and too heavy for a friendly Australian bloke who tried to help. Too heavy for two geezers with bad backs who were passing by.

On the other side of the breakwater you can see in the first photo is the Victoria Harbour. So I tried the Harbour Authority. Their maintenance people didn’t want to get involved because the Harbour Authority only has jurisdiction up to the breakwater and if they got hurt … well you understand. Beaches are a federal, (or central government,) concern. The very helpful receptionist in the Harbour Authority office tried Transport Canada, but they weren’t interested.

So I tried the Pacific Pilotage Authority, since what they do is steer ships in and out of the Island’s rather treacherous waters and the dock might pose a hazard to shipping – and their office is right by the beach. The dispatcher was very kind, and lent me his phone. I phoned the City of Victoria but they will only move items that are above the high-tide line. The Coastguard only deal with pollution if it’s oil and the number they gave to report a shipping hazard was no longer in service. The dispatcher’s advice? call Uncle, give up. He’s seen it all before, welcome to modern society, where nobody wants to take responsibility for anything..

So, in the capital of Vancouver Island, a city powered by tourism and government on an island which will be one of the first ports of call for the debris from the Japanese tsunami, there is not one authority that wants to keep our waters safe and our beaches clean from plastic pollution. There is no one number to call.

So what to do? I went back to picking up the polystyrene, and later my husband joined me.

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Together we picked up quite a lot of the stuff….

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….though with polystyrene, there’s always as much left behind. And by tomorrow there may be a whole new bright white wrack line on the beach. So when I got home I called the local TV channel. If they are interested in running the story, they’ll call me tomorrow. Which is the most positive response I had all day.