Reading back the post below yesterday, I was suddenly afraid that I had given the impression that I am trying to move away from illustration, that I think illustration (particularly children’s illustration) is a lesser art form. Nothing could be further from the truth. I LOVE ILLUSTRATION!!! I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day! I think there is more creativity and imagination and humour and grace and presence and more wonderous, wonderous stuff going on in the world of illustration than in the whole of the art world today. Illustration is everything I want to be about and I get a special secret thrill everytime I say out loud that I’m an illustrator. I think illustration is the most important form of communication out there. It crosses so many barriers and boundaries, It has none of the pretension and vanity of “fine art” and yet every bit of the beauty and the power. Illustration rocks. Illustration is where it’s at!
What I was trying to express is my own frustration with my illustration… that I personally haven’t been pushing it far enough, experimenting enough, exploring it enough, investing myself in developing it enough, stretching myself conceptually. That I have been playing it safe, doing work that is middle of the road and not as visually or conceptually challenging or expressive as it could be. Instead of approaching it like capital A Art as I should, I’ve been approaching it too much like a regular design job. I want to invest my illustration with much more of ME… to use every ounce of skill I can muster to create illustration that operates on the same level as the hundreds of illustrators out there today who just awe me.
And beyond that, I was trying to express my desire to live a completely authentic, creative life. That is the direction in which I aspire. This is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. It colors everything for me. I just feel i haven’t been living it loudly or completely enough… I feel like I need to push to the next level or I’m going to stagnate. And I need to start by doing much more personal work than I have been doing and taking that as seriously as work that I am commissioned to do.
I would like to do some more traditional media… return to painting. And I would like to do some gallery work, but illustration will always and forever be the be all and the end all to me and I’m so incredibly fortunate to be able to devote my working life to that fine pursuit.
Last night, almost accidentally and well after midnight (if 12:30 qualifies as well after midnight, which I realize now it probably doesn’t, but things always sound more profound and romantic if they happen well after midnight) I stumbled on a documentary about Canadian Women Painters, particularly Prudence Heward and the women of the Beaver Hall Group.
It’s horrible, but true… there’s something in me that generally revolts against anything too overtly Canadian. And I’m not alone in this kind of typically Canadian self-loathing. As a country, we have much to be proud of… Canada has produced a staggering array of important artists and we have a mostly (but not entirely) honourable history. But there’s an odd kind of deadly earnestness the Canadian government (and most particularly The CBC) employs whenever they attempt to promote Canadian culture or Canadian content that makes me squirm the way you did during the sex education unit you were forced to endure in 7th grade. I blame those awful Heritage Minutes . And Anne Murray. There is a limit to how much one person can be subjected to “Muskrat Love” and maintain only benevolent feeling about Canadian Content rules, and I think I surpassed my own personal limit around the age of eleven. (aside: I have just discovered the term Cultural Cringe which sums up the phenomenon beautifully. What would I do without Wikipedia?! )
But I’m meandering off on a whole ‘nother tangent here. Let me correct course. Suffice it to say that when I realized I was about to voluntarily subject myself to a bout of Canadian content, I almost changed the channel. But then the painting below flashed across the screen and I put down the remote. I knew I was tuning in for the entire duration.
Years and years ago, my mother gave me an address book featuring paintings by various Canadian women artists and this image was my favourite, Rollande. How fierce and striking and powerful she is in her pink apron. Look at her strong posture, her capable hands browned by the sun, planted on her hips. Look at her face, defiant, almost scornful, full of thought and humanity and maybe a bit of sadness. An honest, handsome face. A face that never failed to stop me in my tracks every time I flipped through that address book.
It shames me, frankly, that I never looked beyond that page in my address book. I never looked up Prudence Heward, i never investigated the artist, sought out more of her work, read her bio. Truth be known, even though this image is indeliably tattooed on my brain for all time, I never even made note of the artist’s name. Sickening really, appalling. I fill my brain with useless, anaesthetizing crap like how many times Suri Cruise’s mystery mug has been retouched before debuting in Vanity Fair magazine and the latest banal trials of Lindsay-Jessica-Paris-et al, but I can’t be bothered to research a painting that takes my breath away.
Ultimately, the entire film shamed me. To explain everything about the film would take too long, so I’m going to lift liberally from the good old CBC and this article to tell you that the Beaver Hall Group was an exclusively anglophone group started in Montreal in 1920 which eventually devolved into a group of nine women (Prudence Heward, Sarah Robetson, and Anne Savage were the primary focus of the documentary I watched.) What was most intriquing to me, most enlightening and most… well, shaming… was the fact that these women pursued artistic, creative lives in a time when women weren’t really encouraged to forge such bold and courageous paths….“Many of the women came from Montreal’s WASP ascendancy, with family houses in Westmount, summer homes in the Laurentians or on the Ontario lakes and art lessons at a posh girls school called Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s. Others scraped by in genteel poverty, particularly once the Depression hit. All of the women more or less conformed to the levels of propriety expected of their sex and class. When Prudence Heward studied in Paris at the Académie Colarossi, for example, she felt obliged to stay at the fashionable Hôtel Lutetia, far away from the bohemian garrets of her fellow students.”
And yet their art was nonethless provocative, daring and modern, even while they continued to conduct themselves with the decorum demanded of the age. Again, I borrow heavily:
“Though they might have conducted their private lives with strict rectitude, the women took risks in their work. In an atmosphere still generally hostile to modernism, they often used dark, heavy lines and patches of pure pigment. In 1926, the Montreal Daily Star’s Morgan Powell — clearly the Quebec equivalent of Toronto critic Hector Charlesworth, who liked to bear-bait the Group of Seven — denounced paintings by the Beaver Hall women, saying they were “marred by crudity of colouring, harsh tones, and neglect of drawing.”
Now that the shock of post-impressionism has worn off, it’s hard to reconcile this kind of scorn with these gorgeous, gentle landscapes. Walters points out that the Beaver Hall artists were never drawn into the Group of Seven’s nationalist obsession with rugged and remote nature. They held more to the Quebec tradition of painting inhabited environments, often depicting streets, houses, farm equipment, at least some trace of human presence…. The Beaver Hall Group also excelled at figure painting. Heward’s At the Theatre focuses on the pale backs of two women who are obviously more accustomed to heavy wool coats than revealing evening dress. They look endearingly vulnerable — so exposed, so chilly, so Canadian somehow. The group often expressed these kinds of Anglo-Saxon attitudes, painting with emotional astringency, tact and reserve.
Occasionally, the members dallied with more scandalous subject matter. Lilias Torrance Newton’s Nude in a Studio, which depicts a woman wearing nothing but green, open-toed shoes, managed to get itself banned from the Art Gallery of Toronto (later the Art Gallery of Ontario) in 1934 — 69 years after Manet’s Olympia caused a fuss in Paris….. While the nudes grabbed headlines, in hindsight it is the group’s portraiture that seems the most revolutionary. Psychologically incisive and emotionally generous, particularly in the treatment of women, these paintings are not ingratiating society portraits but specific descriptions of character and social circumstance. The subjects are often guarded, bored or defiant. They can be disconcertingly direct (Torrance Newton’s Martha) or so inward-looking they’re scarcely aware of the viewer (Emily Coonan’s Girl in Dotted Dress). Several of the Beaver Hall women also offered rigorously unsentimental paintings of children. The youngsters in Heward’s Sisters of Rural Quebec exhibit spooky, Dakota Fanning-like self-possession.”
“Their lives as unmarried women were in one sense constricted — it was considered improper for single women to travel alone, so the artists’ close alliance was as much a professional necessity as a personal choice. In another sense, the Beaver Hall women gained the strange, subversive freedom of spinsterhood. Often unnoticed themselves, they were free to notice others. This quality of observation — partaking of the same tart but empathetic tone that animates Jane Austen’s novels — is perhaps what made them such astonishing portraitists.
Just because these women didn’t enter into traditional marriages didn’t mean they were free from domestic responsibilities. Lockerby helped run a household of sisters; Henrietta Mabel May delayed her education to care for nine younger siblings; Sarah Robertson looked after her difficult, domineering mother; and Collyer kept house for her father and brother. These women studied, taught, volunteered and still managed to create landmark Canadian art works.
It is probably this staunch hard work that inspired the passage on Walters’s dedication page. She quotes from a book on successful dairy-farming written by Heward’s doughty grandmother, Eliza M. Jones, in 1892: “…to my sisters in toil, the tired and over-tasked women, who are wearing their lives away in work which has little hope and less profit.”
So here’s the shameful part… these women persevered and succeeded against all sorts of familial obligation and societal restriction, forging ahead with clear minded intent and determination, making their vision known while squat in the center of 2006, I flop about moaning about how busy I am, making all sorts of lame excuses to myself about various (largely imagined) impediments to my progress as an artist, knowing all the while that these excuses are all the worst kind of B.S. and almost entirely self-imposed and yet letting myself believe that because I regularly beat myself up about this particular grave fault, that that somehow absolves me of the crime I regularly commit against myself.
Because, let us be clear… any limitations on me are entirely self-imposed. I have every advantage… I have the education, the encouragement, the freedom, the support, the talent, the tools, the everything I need to forge forth and make capital A Art…. I just don’t. I hold myself back, I limit myself, I squish myself into teeny little boxes no one expects me to fit into. I make excuses. I blame my denist appointments, my committments to my clients. I blame the weather, my studio floors, my horoscope, small Polish men invading my house with carpet and staple guns. I blame time, I blame a lack of inspiraton, I blame the general ennui of living in the blank ‘burbs of Toronto.
That I do this to myself comes as no surprise. I’ve known this for a very long time, have lamented at length to anyone willing to listen wondering WHY, why, why I do this to myself, hold myself back like this, fail to live up to my potential. Maybe some of it is societal, maybe some of it comes from some deep-seated need I have to blend into the background, whatever. Maybe I’ve simply become complacent. No, I know I have simply become complacent. When I was younger, I was bolder… more willing to take a risk, reach out, explore, dare to be different, to be seen.
A lot of it comes from the fear that I am maybe not as good as I imagine I am, the fear that I have nothing new to say, nothing of value to contribute. It’s easier to interpret other people’s stories than lay out your own for all to see (and critique), it is easier to interpret other people’s ideas than to harvest your own. It is easier, safer, quieter, less challenging, less provocative to clothe yourself as a humble children’s illustrator than to express ideas that are dangerous… or worse, reveal yourself to be someone who does not have any dangerous ideas… just bland, overwrought whimsies that are neither original nor challenging nor even particularly interesting.
The thing is, I can wring my hands all I want, asking why, why, o, whywhywhy do I do this to myself time and time again, why am I holding back, what am I afraid of and I can go on doing this forever and ever amen… but in the end, it really doesn’t matter why. Continual exploration of all that is not going to get me anywhere, because really, there is nothing deep and dark and traumatic to reveal and solve here and I know that already. Everyone should be as fortunate and blessed as I have been thus far and honestly I wish they were. None of this agonizing matters at all. It just doesn’t. It’s really just more excuse making.
What I need is to just get over myself already and just bloody DO IT.
And last night, that was made more clear to me than ever.
So… you know that voyage of self-discovery i’ve been yammering about for the last forever? Well, last night, the ghost of Prudence Heward handed me my ticket.
Their constant conversation was matched only by their constant motion. Motion and busyness which made my extreme desire to just flop on the couch with a magazine and a bowl of ice cream next to impossible. So I spent the week trying to look heavily engaged in various wifely activities whilst attempting to keep Finny J. corralled. She finally gave up trying to interest them in her ball and much battered bunny toy on the morning of Day 4, but would attempt drive by lickings anytime one was crouched in the vincinity and looking vulnerable. In Finn’s world, anyone hovering close to her eye level is in dire need of a good round of fetch and a tongue bath. Neither B.O. or language present any kind of barrier.
But today, I have my house back. All to myself (and Princess Poutsalot, but of course). And I gotta tell you… it feels good. It feels absolutely excellent! Add to this the fact that I actually feel autumn in the air for the first time, that it is crisp and cool and breezy and yet sunshiney all over, that I found the PERFECT acorn today, that I’m entertaining fantasies of cinnamon apple cake with lemon sauce, that I have new and wonderful flooring and sunflowers on my coffee table… add it all up and I am pretty much in seventh heaven today.
So… round one is finished! All the flooring in the entire house (with the singular exception of the ceramic tile in the entry way) has been replaced with lush new stuff and order is somewhat restored. Yippee. I will post pictures and details later (my camera batteries are charging and it takes forever!). Next, we are planning to have plantation shutters installed on three quarters of the windows (the others have acceptable window treatments) and have the whole interior repainted. And buy some new furniture and replace some light fixtures and cupboard pulls and such. We are also planning to build some sort of deck out in the backyard, but may wait on that until Spring. We were considering installing a gas fireplace in our living room, but I think we’ve decided against that in favour of a large high definition LCD flat screen teevee. This is something that Johnny Television has wanted for eons and as most of the renovation has been all about my wants and desires, I think it’s only fair he gets his luxury item too… right?
P.S. Due to an ungodly amount of comment spam I’ve been receiving, I’m switching on some comment controls. You are still welcome to leave a comment, but the first time you comment, it will have to be approved by me before it will show up. I’m not sure, but I think after you’ve been approved once, any subsequent comments you make will post automatically. Hopefully, this will cut down on that hateful comment spam.
sigh. Okay, all that self-discovery jazz I was spouting earlier? hmmm… well….. haven’t quite gotten there yet. Nope. Self-discovery and fun have been postponed due to work, work and yay! more work, plus some major home renovations which currently have my entire household in an ungodly state of disorganization. But do not despair… all will be put to right soon. Patience, my pretties, patience!!!