The Writer

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In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

By Richard Wilbur

A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

I’m rarely ever one of those people who see things as soon as they’re open (whether it’s movies, plays, exhibits, etc.), but it just so happened that I was in Whistler the 2nd weekend since the Audain Art Museum opened, and so I visited it, and I’m glad I did.

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I was a little put off by the steep admission price ($18) but was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a lot more art inside than I was expecting, even though the 2nd floor wasn’t open to the public yet. The permanent collection comprises 14 000 square feet and the temporary exhibition space (currently showcasing Mexican Modernists) has a generous 6000 square feet.

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I spent about two hours in these two sections, with the majority of that time in the permanent collection. One of my first thoughts: “Wow, this is a lot of art for one individual to own!” The artworks are curated from the private collection of Vancouver homebuilder and philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa.

I’m thankful they’re sharing their collection with the public. It’s quite diverse, in media and time periods.

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When you first walk in to the permanent collection, you enter The Art of Coastal First Nations, a gallery full of masks and an impressive floor-to-ceiling wood sculpture called The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) by James Hart that expresses traditional Haida beliefs.

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Passing through this room, you then find yourself in the Emily Carr and Art of the Coastal First Nations gallery, where dozens of paintings by the famous BC artist are displayed, along with objects from the Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations that she may have encountered on her trip up the coast. On the didactic panel, it says, “Emily Carr paved a different way for many Modernists to experience and depict the British Columbia landscape.”

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On display are Carr’s quintessential dark, brooding forest scenes and her more colourful trees and seaside images, which are actually my preferred ones.

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From here, the next gallery is E.J. Hughes and Depictions of Place. I had never heard of Edward John Hughes (1913-2007) before, but this is the only single artist room in the Audain Art Museum. Hughes is known for his distinctive, colourful depictions of maritime life on BC’s coast, blending the natural with the industrial.

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What came next was my favourite gallery: Exploring Land, People and Ideas. Even though the permanent collection is divided into galleries so you can do bits here and there, there was a strong chronological and historical flow to it if you go from beginning to end. The works in this section reflect the Modernist movement sweeping through the Western world leading up to WWII. Artists explored new modes of expression in the 1920s and 30s, such as “the spiritual aspects of nature and how to represent, in art, a personal response to the vastness of British Columbia” (didactic panel).

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Winter Landscape by Gordon Smith was one of my favourites . . .

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. . . as well as this mesmerizing Jack Shadbolt painting called Butterfly Transformation Theme (1981, 1982) which very much reminded me of his similarly vibrant wall-length work at VGH.

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I also like the Mondrian-esque qualities to this oil on board, Comment on Horseshoe Bay by Charles Bertrum (B.C.) Binning from 1949.

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Step into the next gallery, Photography and Vancouver, and you have firmly landed in modern/postmodern BC. It is the 1980s and Vancouver is at the forefront of Photo-conceptualism, a blend of photography and idea-based art. Artists shown here include Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, and Jeff Wall who turned to the city as their subject and sought to communicate larger ideas of its changing political, social, economic status through the camera lens.

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I like the ephemeral, poetic quality of Schoolyard Tree by Rodney Graham, which kind of looks like a heart (and no, I didn’t take this picture upside down).

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Last, but certainly not least, comes Art of Our Time, celebrating BC’s thought-provoking artists and the different forms they use to express their ideas, whether it be through newer forms (like photography) or classic forms like painting, sculpture, installation, or what I like to call “classic with a twist.” Among the artists featured here are Dana Claxton, Brian Jungen, Tim Lee, Landon Mackenzie, Sonny Assu, Arabella Campbell, Attila Richard Lukacs, and Marianne Nicolson.

Grande-sized coffee cups take on new meaning in this copper installation 1884-1951 by Sonny Assu:

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Marianne Nicolson combines glass and wood in this sculpture Max’inus – Killer Whale (Fin #2):

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Pictured in the foreground is a pyramid of snowballs (bronze with white patina) stacked up like munition. It’s called Arsenal by Gathie Falk.

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Brian Jungen’s towers of golf bags are one of the more obvious examples of “classic with a twist”—a contemporary take on the totem pole:

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And that’s a quick tour of the permanent collection in the Audain Art Museum.

Would I go back again? Absolutely. My days of snowboarding are over so it’s nice that Whistler has an art destination of this calibre to give me another reason to visit.

How to Save a Life

A friend dubbed March “Giant Russian Novel Month” and challenged anyone who wants to join her in reading a giant Russian novel. I chose Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

[this review contains spoilers, as usual, so here’s your warning.]

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This psychological novel quickly swept me up with its cat and mouse, murderer/detective game, kind of along the lines of Tom Hanks and Leonardo diCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. The protagonist is 23-year-old Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished but talented student in St. Petersburg who murders a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. Even though he is poor and has dropped out of school, he doesn’t do the crime for the money. The few trinkets he steals from the pawnbroker, along with her unopened purse, he hides under a rock.

It was the perfect murder with no evidence to catch him, yet Raskolnikov is tormented by his conscience. I think this is the punishment the title refers to more than the legal punishment that comes at the end of the book. It’s almost like Raskolnikov wants the detective Porfiry, who’s been assigned to his case, to come right out and accuse him—to put him out of its misery. And yet Raskolnikov lives off of secrecy and deception. Hence the cat-and-mouse-game.

Raskolnikov finally confesses the murder to Sonya. Sonya is a young woman, deeply religious, who is forced into prostitution to keep her highly dysfunctional family afloat (three young siblings, an alcoholic father, and a raging stepmother). It is her family that Raskolnikov gives the last of his money to (not the stolen money) when he hears about their suffering. It is one of his few beautiful acts throughout the novel, complicating our aversion to him.

Incidentally, Sonya is a fascinating character in the novel because her prostitution is consistently separated from her character. Somehow, the dehumanizing transaction she’s in has not tainted her pure spirit. She’s a Christ-like figure, actually. Her role made me ask: Can you be involved in something like that and not have it define who you are? I think yes. Can the same thing be said for Raskolnikov?

Raskolnikov is one of those bright young intellectuals who gets carried away with a theory that has no grounding in reality (characters refer to him as a “monomaniac.”) He divides the world into two groups: ordinary and extraordinary men. According to him, extraordinary men can step over the law (even going as far as murder) if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose. Their brilliance allows them to think new thoughts that the majority of people don’t understand, yet in stepping over certain obstacles, they do something “salutary for the whole of mankind” and gain glory. Raskolnikov cites Napoleon Bonaparte as one of these extraordinary men. As you can imagine, Raskolnikov believes himself to be one of these men, too.

He justifies the murder, saying, “It wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!”

And when he does admit he killed a human, he tries to minimize his crime:

“I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, nasty, pernicious louse.”

“A human being—a louse!”

But then he admits to her that he’s lying. “I’ve been lying for a long time.”

Raskolnikov is one of the most conflicted characters I’ve encountered in literature. He doesn’t know what’s up and down, and how can he if he’s been lying to himself so long he can’t tell the difference between ground and sky?

When his sister Dunya finds out about his crime, she asks another character in the novel, “How can you save him?” And then the follow-up question lurking in the shadows: “Can he be saved?”

This seems to be the question Dostoevsky is asking throughout Crime and Punishment.

Even after Sonya urges Raskolnikov to turn himself in (which he eventually does), he still isn’t remorseful. Remorseful that his theory about being one of the extraordinary men didn’t turn out as he expected, yes, but not remorseful for murdering two humans. It’s almost like he’s mad his conscience works so well, that it won’t let him carry on with his life unhindered.

Of course there is a problem with him if he had.

I was still left wondering if Raskolnikov is repentant when we see him, in the epilogue, working at a labour camp in Siberia (he was given 8 years). Sonya follows him there on her own volition. In a beautiful scene at the end, he throws himself down at her feet, weeping. She realizes he loves her, at last. She’s loved him for a long time already.

In rereading this scene, I wonder if Raskolnikov’s repentance is implied in his ability to love Sonya, because it’s difficult (I’d say impossible) to love another if your heart is hard and closed.

Indeed, Dostoevsky gives us his answer to Dunya’s question in these lines:

They wanted to speak but could not. Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but in those pale, sick faces there already shone the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life. They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

For a man who used words to lie and reason his life away, Raskolnikov’s silence and tears are perhaps the truest response he could have.

After his epiphany with Sonya, Raskolnikov returns to his barracks, lies in bed and thinks: “Did not everything have to change now?”

I wrote in pencil in the margin: yes.

Connecting the Cougar and the Bison

I was reading E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End when the Graeme Patterson exhibit Secret Citadel opened at the Surrey Art Gallery.

I never thought these cultural artifacts would have anything in common—a classic book written about turn-of-the-century English society and a sculptural installation containing detailed miniature scenes by a contemporary Canadian artist.

But, in an odd way, they did. They both talked about the end of friendship.

I was at the artist’s tour of Secret Citadel as Patterson led the crowd around his chronological work that starts with complex miniature versions of his and his childhood friend Yuki’s homes in Saskatchewan.

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“The Mountain”

Then Patterson walked us over to two life-sized bunk beds called “Camp Wakonda.” Two boys play archery on the top level. On the bottom, a car crashes with a school bus and erupts in flames.

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“Camp Wakonda”. Installation image at Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo by Mike Lalich.

In an interview with The Now Newspaper, Patterson says:

“It speaks about adolescence and destruction and where friendships go to die. I had a car accident with a van when I was 16. No one got hurt, but a friendship was basically ruined. It was my fault…. There was a lot of guilt and this is the semi-fictional spark that ignites those memories.”

Turns out Secret Citadel is all about Patterson’s friendships—not just with Yuki, but all his male friends at some point in his thirty-something life. That’s why he puts animal heads (a cougar and a bison) onto two human figures as a broader form of representation. You see these masked characters jumping on a trampoline as children, wrestling each other in adolescence, and drinking in bars alone as adults.

It got me thinking about the unfortunate ways that friendships die.

In Howards End, two close sisters with liberal values, Margaret and Helen, become torn apart when Margaret gets engaged to Mr. Wilcox, a rich older widower who represents a system and values so different from their own—capitalist, rational, unfeeling.

While there are multiple tragedies in the novel, the dissolution of the sisters’ friendship was the sharpest to me. Helen cannot like Mr. Wilcox and tells Margaret so. She dislikes him even more when she finds out he had a mistress in his first marriage. This mistress is now the wife of Helen and Margaret’s friend Leonard, who is impoverished due to some ill-timed business advice that Mr. Wilcox gave him.

After hearing the scandalous news, Margaret resolves to forgive her fiancé and stay with him. Helen, however, runs away to Germany and avoids Margaret, barely replying to her letters.

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“Player Piano Waltz”. Installation image at Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo by Mike Lalich.

It was at this point in the novel where I really started to care about the characters. The sisterly affection that seemed so cemented began to crack. They became the estranged friends in Patterson’s final sculpture, “Player Piano Waltz,” shown in separate window frames drinking in a bar alone and riding an elevator up and down from their bachelor apartments as a haunting melody plays on the keys below.

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“Player Piano Waltz” (detail) via NGC Magazine.

All of us can relate to these characters even though Patterson is speaking from his own experience. Friends we once cared for are now close only in memory (or via Facebook status updates). Maybe the relationship ended over a specific disaster or it was subject to the drifting tides of time, place, and circumstances. Both are sad. But since the latter is an inevitable part of growing up, the former feels especially tragic—when two people don’t have a “natural” reason to be friends anymore.

Refreshingly, Forster takes a similarly tragic situation threatening two sisters’ friendship and offers us a different resolution. The picture closing Howards End is one of unexpected community. Two fragmented houses are reconciled under one roof thanks to Margaret and her ability to bridge the softened Mr. Wilcox with the pregnant Helen who ran away because she was carrying Leonard’s baby.

Margaret’s thoughts about marrying Mr. Wilcox strike a surprising resemblance to the anthropomorphized cougar and bison in Secret Citadel:

“Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.”

And then comes her insight that sums up the theme of the book:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

Forster’s novel shows a believable and beautiful example of what can happen when there is a willingness to connect. Margaret’s language implies we are fully human when we do this—when we choose to connect our lives with others by loving, forgiving, and showing grace, even to those who see things so differently from us. When we love, we’re building a bridge towards wholeness, offering a picture of the world as it could be.

It made me wonder what the narrative arc of Patterson’s tale would be had his friend forgiven him for the car crash. Certainly there would still be bittersweet moments, but maybe a friendship wouldn’t have been relegated to the secret citadel of memory. Maybe the cougar and the bison would take off their grudges, resentments, and hurts they wear like masks, step across the room, and drink a pint together.

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Graeme Patterson: Secret Citadel runs until March 20 at the Surrey Art Gallery.

Our Little Sister

I mentioned last post that I saw a wonderful movie at the Victoria Film Fest earlier in February—a movie I had no expectations about and which completely surprised me with its understated beauty.

Our Little Sister is a 2015 Japanese movie by Hirokazu Kore-eda about three sisters in their 20s who live together in Kamakura and take in their 13-year-old half sister after their father dies. In Japanese, it’s called Umimachi Diary which means “seaside town diary.”

It’s a quiet film that relies on subtle storytelling and believable characters to give it it its emotional depth. None of it feels sentimental and none of the four sisters conform to easy stereotypes. Each sister was her own character and got fairly equal screen treatment, which I felt was a wise move.

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The sisters live in their grandmother’s house that they refer to as the “girls’ dorm.” Sachi, Yoshina, and Chika Kouda have grown up in this home by themselves. The eldest, Sachi, inadvertently became the mom to the younger two after their father had an affair and their parents divorced. Their father remarried, having another daughter Suzu. The girls’ mom had some sort of breakdown and left them shortly after their father did.

The three Kouda sisters meet their half-sister at their father’s funeral (whom they hadn’t seen in 15 years). They take Suzu in because her stepmother is not a great caregiver (Suzu’s mom had died earlier), and Suzu is happy to join them. She is a gentle and sweet presence in their lives and they love looking after her, but her addition in the “girls’ dorm” also brings up a lot of memories and unhealed wounds from the past.

I love that the sisters felt so human, so nuanced, so relatable. Having a sister myself, I found a lot to identify with, but you don’t need to be a sister to appreciate this film.

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Sachi is responsible, loving, cautious, lonely, and, as it turns  out, still angry at her mom and still so eager for her love. She is a senior nurse in palliative care at the local hospital, unhappily involved in a relationship with a married man.

Yoshina (Yoshi) is the high-heeled wearing reckless middle sister (not that reckless, she just drinks too much) and isn’t afraid to confront people about their actions (like her older sister’s pent-up anger). She has a decent job at a bank. Her compassion is really poignant closer to the end of the film when she has to consult clients about filing for bankruptcy and asks Sachi for advice about how to do her job well and not bring it home with her so much.

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Chika is the somewhat nerdy and free spirited youngest child who, according to the other two, has “weird taste in men.” She works at a sports store and is the peacemaker when familial tensions get tight. But her depth comes out too, like when she wants to know from Suzu what their dad was like. None of the other sisters ask Suzu this, even though they’re all yearning to know. It’s not surprising that Chika forms the closest relationship with Suzu, being the closest in age.

Suzu is quiet, thoughtful, and wise beyond her years. You feel her tension of being caught between sisterly love and a heightened sensitivity about her very existence bringing pain to those she loves: “Someone is always hurt, just because I’m here.”

This is a movie that made me laugh and made me weep. I was watching a family that was beautiful and messy and full of joy and sadness and everything in between. All those ideas were wrapped up in the recurring motif of cherry blossom trees, symbolic to Japanese culture of the beauty and fragility of life, the acceptance of loss and the hope of new growth.

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Valentine’s in Victoria

Thanks to Miss604 and the Victoria Film Fest, I won a trip for two to Victoria last weekend, which also happened to be Valentine’s Day weekend. I’ve never won something like this before, so that was particularly exciting and it came at such a great time for the Artist and I.

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Part of the getaway package was round trip flights by float plane, which I’ve wanted to do ever since seeing Reese Witherspoon reject her opportunity in Sweet Home Alabama. (what was she thinking?!) This was on the Artist’s bucket list too, and we both loved it.

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The plane fit 12 people plus the pilot. We sat at the back and watched as our beautiful city faded from view—the downtown office towers, Lion’s Gate Bridge, Stanley Park, UBC. And then we oohed and ahhed as we flew low over the Gulf Islands, trying to identify which ones we were looking at. If you don’t like a lot of turbulence, a float plane is probably not for you as you do feel every dip and turn that much more than on a regular plane, but as someone who loves that sinking feeling you get from roller coaster rides, I was totally in my element.

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We landed in Victoria Harbour just 30 minutes from when we left Vancouver. How fast is that?! SO beats taking the ferry. And then we walked to our hotel, none other than the iconic, Edwardian, château-style Empress Hotel built in 1908 and designated a National Historic Site of Canada. To say we were excited was an understatement!

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The hotel is beautiful, inside and out. And the staff there are so delightful. They asked us if we wanted a romantic room in the turret with a round bed, and we were like, “Yeah we do!” Can’t say I’d ever seen or known round beds existed before this trip! We stayed in the turret at the back of the hotel on the 7th floor. The only unfortunate thing was that the Empress is undergoing major construction right now so the central facade that is normally covered in ivy and shows the magnificent letters of the hotel name was hidden under  a large white sheet with a printed facsimile of the exterior.

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love this arched hallway!

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view from the window

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That’s our room up in the turret with the blinds drawn

Staying at the Empress was ideal for walking around downtown because the hotel is situated right there, in the Inner Harbour.

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You could tell love was in the air that weekend, from the decorated lampposts to the rose salads at Wild Coffee and the “kissing bench” that we couldn’t resist😉

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In the evening, we saw Our Little Sister at the Victoria Film Fest, a simple yet beautiful Japanese movie about sisterhood that was one of the best storytelling I’ve seen on cinema in a long time. (I’ll save my thoughts on that for another blog post because it needs more space than this).

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Before we left on Sunday afternoon, we took a stroll to colourful Fisherman’s Wharf and saw some seals putting on a show for the crowd.

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It was a wonderful way to spend Valentine’s and we are so grateful for the generosity of all who were involved!

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