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.


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: 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!)


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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


….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.



small treasures

There is a tendency, when you live a block from a beach, to keep your eyes on the horizon. Especially when the horizon includes snow-capped mountains.


But, as every archaeologist knows, to find treasure you have to look down – and pay attention to what’s on the beach. You might find something special. Like this:


Or this:


You might even run into this little guy:


Who will remind you that the beach is connected, not just to the city behind it but also to the rest of the world, the world beyond those mountains. This is the story of the things left behind, and the things washed up.



And there is, dare I say it? a sense of excitement in discovering these things. I know they are trash, and in a perfect world they would not be there. You may wish to look for consolation in the receding tide and the deepening sunset.


Whose colours are reflected here:


and also here:


And even here:


It’s a beautiful world.

welcome to the right place

So I’ve moved, or rather I have returned: from one west coast to another west coast. The West Coast. Vancouver Island to be exact. Here is my new place of work, the beach at Ogden Point in Victoria. The commute is short – it’s at the end of my street. The sky is big and the sunsets are awesome, and the rubbish, well the rubbish is there if you know where to look.

It’s a modest little place, really. Just a few metres of rock, pebbles, sand and the ubiquitous driftwood that is found all along the West Coast. Most people walk right past the beach on their way to the breakwater – a favourite walking and running spot for locals and tourists alike – or the cafe.

In fact, it is so modest a beach that, when I first got here, I thought it wasn’t “good enough” to be a beach cleaning beach. It was the beach that I went to the most and being there felt right, but somehow that didn’t seem to be enough. It was as if I needed somewhere bigger, more important. So I could say “look at what I’m doing,” as loudly as possible and to as many people as possible.

So I set off on my bike and rode up and down the very scenic coast road that hugs the edge of Victoria looking for a more important beach. And yes, there are other beaches that are grander.

And there are special places, where you might want to sit and think for a while.

But I was looking for a beach to clean. And after all that looking I ended up where I started, where I wanted to be all along, at the beach at the end of my road. A modest place for a modest endeavor.

Because I knew, if I was being honest with myself, that I was looking in the wrong places for the “right” place. And in a wonderful synchronicity, just when I needed it, I read the following quote in a friend’s post on Facebook: “Your vision will become clear only when can look into your own heart. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” (Carl Jung, 1875-1961.)

So I knew what I had to do to find that thing that I could do. I had to look into my heart. Never mind whether or not anyone was going to notice. Never mind the grandiose dreams of fame and success. Stop looking outside for affirmation, look inside for the truth. And my heart was saying, “clean this little beach.”

In the fallout of ending the MA, (what one friend described as “falling off a cliff;) in the trauma of moving away from Cornwall and of leaving my family once again, I needed something meaningful that I could do, something that would ground me in the midst of change. So I follow my heart. Doing this modest work feels right. When I clean this beach, I feel returned to myself.


(My thanks to Jan and Shigenori for their contributions to this post.)



art imitates life sometime

It’s been three weeks since I took down my MA show. It was a simple job: remove a pile of beach rubbish from the floor and take the art that had been made during the show down from the walls. This was the scene as I walked into the now-empty exhibition space that Sunday morning:

You can’t see all the rubbish on the floor in this shot but you can see most of the work: after two years of answering the question “do you make anything with the rubbish you find?” with a “no, not really,” my final show was a show of art made out of the rubbish I had found. I had not intended it this way, but my work has a funny way of  taking me in unexpected directions – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have had to learn to accept what is already happening rather than fight against it.

Earlier in the summer, I started modifying some of the plastic I had picked up on beaches, using yarn to wrap it or to knit cosies for it:

It was my tea cosy that got me started – by turning my hot, hard teapot into something more soft and well, cosy, it was not just keeping my tea warm, it was transforming the teapot itself. Maybe I could do the same with all the rubbish I pick up? Maybe, with the help of some wool, I could make it into something less sinister. Maybe I could make it into something valuable, or highlight the inherent value in a piece of plastic that we choose to ignore when we throw it away and call it rubbish.

So I started knitting, and wrapping. I even knit some bags to put rubbish into, a bit like the bags (or “pockets”) that people used to hang off their belts to carry money, or herbs or sacred objects.

I knew these would make good pieces for a show, but it was only when I showed the pieces to others with the pile of rubbish I was making them from right next to me, and they all insisted the pile of rubbish stay, that I settled on the show format: I would sit in the studio, wrapping and knitting and adding the results of my work to walls behind me until, with luck, two walls were covered in brightly coloured pieces of wrapped and contained plastic.

But it didn’t happen like that. The first day, I sat and wrapped rubbish, and added it to the walls behind me, just as planned. But on the second day of the show my friend Linda visited with her two kids, Sam and Amelie. Now I know they love art, so I asked them if they would like to wrap some rubbish – and before I knew it, the kids, Linda, my husband and son and a lovely stranger were all wrapping away!


Well, they really started something, and in doing so changed the show completely: for the rest of that day and the following two days we had all manner of people wrapping rubbish, banging nails into the walls, and hanging their work. The show was itself transformed from being a performance to being a collaboration, a shared project.

It also went from being serious to being fun. Everyone agreed that wrapping is therapeutic. Many people – including Dani, whose own excellent show was in the opposite corner – wrapped several pieces of rubbish. (That last photo is of Dani proving me wrong by wrapping a nurdle.)

Some decided against using the wool I had provided and wrapped plastic in nylon rope from the rubbish pile itself – wrapping rubbish with rubbish.

One person decided to make a garland using the rubbish instead of wrapping it, whilst another decided to embellish her wrapped piece with a tail of rope hanging down to the floor.


In other words, once I opened the show up to others they made it their way. Which is exactly as it should be.

What you saw in the first photo, then, are pieces of rubbish wrapped and otherwise embellished by myself and the friends, acquaintances, relatives and complete strangers who came to visit, talk and wrap during the four days of the show: 155 pieces, of which almost a third were not made by me.

And more, those 155 pieces are the result of a performance that turned into an experiment in making art: making art out of rubbish; making art out of conversation; making art out of having fun; making art out of a simple desire to take what we find in the world and make it special. Making art for and by everybody.

(My heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped and participated in the show: to Harriet, Steve, Bowen and AP who helped set up; and to Linda, Amelie, and especially Sam, for shaking things up.)

I say I want a revolution ……

Last week four mothers, Tina, Bibo, Judy and myself, and some of our children, gathered together. We played with the kids, cooked sausages and cleaned up. No one got paid for any of the work they did. Nothing special, there.

Except that the cleaning up we did was cleaning up after others. Oh, come to think of it, nothing special there, either. In a society that places no little or monetary value on the role of women as mothers and homemakers, “women’s work”, whether in the home or out of it, and whether done by women or by men, is still undervalued: There is nothing glamourous or enviable about a cleaning job.

Oh, I know, we cleaned up at the beach! That’s special isn’t it? Well, considering we were the only people doing it I’d have to say yes, it is.

Here’s Tina putting a piece of rubbish Tom picked up in her bag, whilst Otis and Bibo look for more. Tom looks pretty pleased with himself, and so he should – he and his brother picked up a lot of rubbish that day. Here’s Otis and Bibo, with a little something Otis found:

And in case you’re wondering, my child is grown up, Tina’s two girls were on their way with one of their grannies, and Judy is Tina’s mum (and the other other granny.) Three generations working together. I like that.

You’ll notice Tina’s attire is, shall we say, special? Red superhero pants, worn over your clothes, thank you very much! Bibo and Judy and I also wore them, but a combination of dead camera batteries, clothing choices and childcare responsibilities mean that I got to take all the pictures, and Tina’s pants came out the best.

The superhero pants were Tina’s idea: a way of having fun and drawing attention to what we are doing. Imagine if everyone who went to the beach put on red superhero pants and cleaned up, even for five minutes? We’d have a revolution on our hands. And we’d be having fun, too. Hey! We could call it art.

In 1969, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote, in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, “the sourball of every revolution: After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” She decided that she would no longer separate the cleaning up, or maintenance, work she did at home from her art work. Since 1977, she has been artist-in-residence with the New York City Sanitation Department, where her work aims to make clear the social and environmental implications of waste management.  By personally thanking each of the 8,500 New York City sanitation workers, and creating a visitor centre at a garbage depot that allows people to actually see their trash being processed, she brought New Yorkers face to face with their own trash, and to the people who clean up after them.

By putting on red superhero pants on a beach in North Cornwall and picking up rubbish, perhaps we can do something similar, if on a somewhat smaller scale, to Ukeles: Perhaps the other people on the beach will wonder about the crazy women with red pants on over their clothes. Perhaps when we do it again, more people will join us. Perhaps someone reading this post will decide to put on a pair of red superhero pants and go clean their local beach, or park. Remember, you can do anything if you call it art!

And it is art: it is art because we are challenging norms about acceptable behaviour. It is art because by cleaning up the beach we leave it transformed, if only for a short while. It is art because we are wearing red superhero pants, and having fun, and getting our children involved. It is art because we have decided to make art a reflection of our daily life, not something we do “on the side.” It is art because we say so.

So, yes, I want a revolution. I want a world in which the job of caring for the next generation and cleaning up after others is valued, in which “women’s work” is no longer a pejorative phrase. I want a world in which everyone cleans up, even after others. I want a world in which individuals don’t litter and manufacturers don’t dump, and plastic doesn’t end up in the ocean or on the beach.

I want a world in which life and art are one and the same.


for all who pick up after others ….

Gods of Small Things

You, who live by the sea, it is

a small thing to close your gate behind you and

head to the beach. And once there, it is

a small thing to walk into the cold water or

lie on the beach, feeling the press of pebbles.

And once you have sunned yourself enough, and

let your body float in the sea enough, and

sunk your feet into the sand enough, it is

a small thing to pick up a few pieces of plastic, or foam

and take them away with you.

If we have souls, surely your soul will remember

the touch of air and water and pebble and

hold them for dark days later.

And if there are spirits, surely they will see you and remember

that you took care of something greater than yourself.

And if there are gods of small things, surely what you have done

will sustain them for just a little longer.