About Charlene Kwiatkowski

A lover of cities, I write about urban spaces as visual and literary texts

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Some voices you can’t get out of your head. After recently reading John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s unforgettable voice is ringing in my ears.

YOUR MOTHER HAS THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOTHERS.

GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.

FAITH TAKES PRACTICE.

John Irving said he chose to write all of Owen’s speech in capital letters because he had to have some visual way of setting apart his unique voice on the page. Owen’s Adam’s apple didn’t move when he spoke, and so his voice was stuck as in a “permanent scream.” Owen’s best friend and the narrator of the story, Johnny Wheelwright, opens the story this way:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Owen often wonders why his voice doesn’t change. We don’t find out till the end of the story, but there is a very good reason for Owen’s voice sounding the way it is—a reason he attributes to God’ s plan. Owen’s voice is just one of the many mysteries the reader is confronted with in the early stages of the novel that Irving expertly and unexpectedly ties together in the end.

In writing classes I’ve taken over the years, teachers have said to look out for physical traits of characters, such as a scar or birthmark, that the author draws our attention to as we’re reading. It’s for a reason. Owen’s short stature (everyone loves lifting him up all the time) and his voice set Owen apart right away.

Irving continues this theme inwardly too. Owen stands out for his unwavering faith in God from such a young age. How many 11-year-olds talk about being God’s instrument? That their life is part of God’s bigger plan?

It’s hard not to like Owen Meany but it’s hard to like him too. Irving summarizes this tension in his Afterword:

Owen’s voice is irritating, not only because of how it sounds but because of how right he is. People who are always right, and are given to reminding us of it, are irritating; prophets are irritating, and Owen Meany is decidedly a prophet.

When I was reading the novel, I didn’t think of Owen exactly as a prophet, but now I see that Irving was dropping hints of this along the way. Owen foresaw the future, including his death; he had visions that reality would imitate; he wasn’t afraid of telling the truth. His unique voice would become “institutionalized,” when he and Johnny attended Gravesend Academy for boys and Owen wrote a regular column for the school newspapers under the pen name THE VOICE. His words were always in capital letters, of course. Johnny reflects, “The Voice expressed what we were unable to say.” I think Owen’s voice functions as a conscience too.

What made this novel a delight to read, and why I would read it again, is because Irving connects everything so well, though of course you don’t realize it until you’re finished.

Owen playing the part of the Christ child in the Christmas pageant makes for a very comedic scene early in the novel and emphasizes how small he is—i.e. he can fit in the manger. Not until the end of the novel, though, do you realize how symbolic this role is in light of what his parents reveal to Johnny.

There are many symbols in A Prayer for Owen Meany and none of them are thrown in half-heartedly. A dressmaker’s dummy, a stuffed toy armadillo, and Watahantowet’s totem become powerful, armless images of suffering and submission.

Even the ridiculous slam-dunk that Owen and Johnny practice countless times to do in under 4, then under 3 seconds has a very serious purpose.

“I may use you in a game, Owen,” the coach said, joking with him.

IT’S NOT FOR A GAME, said Owen Meany, who had his own reasons for everything.

Indeed, John Irving had his reasons for everything too. The story is long (about 600 pages), but it is well crafted and held my interest. The highest praise I could give an author is making me feel their character was real, that I actually knew this person from spending so much time on the page with them. Owen is whom the story is named after, but Johnny was just as real to me. His loss felt like my loss. His gut-wrenching prayer that closes the story felt like my prayer.

Wandering through Waco

Normally when my husband and I visit his family in Texas, we stick to Houston and Austin (where they live). This past Christmas, however, we had some more time to visit close friends in another, smaller city of roughly 130 000: Waco.

I didn’t know much about Waco but when I told other people I would be going there, they were quick to jump on David Koresh’s cult that left 80 people dead in 1993. Apparently the rural complex at the Mount Carmel Centre just outside Waco attracts many tourists to this day. We did not go there.

Instead, we went to a site in downtown Waco that is emblematic of how the economy of the city has changed in the last few years, giving it a better reputation and thousands of tourists each year: Magnolia Market at the Silos. This food truck park + garden + bakery + antique stores + seed supply store sprawls across two and a half acres under two grain silos. The market is the result of the success of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s hit HGTV show Fixer Upper.

Unlike most of the world, it seems, I had never heard of this couple, nor their famous show. I toured their big warehouse full of farmhouse chic furniture and home goods, but I honestly didn’t find it much different than similar home stores in Vancouver. But I was told Joanna Gaines was the one who made that barnyard look famous (shiplap, anyone?), so what do I know?

Speaking of fixing up homes, we stayed in one (not by Chip and Joanna), but by East Waco entrepreneur and community activist Nancy Grayson, who also runs the Lula Jane‘s bakery just down the road on Elm Avenue. You can read more about her and the bakery in this article. The Airbnb, called “The Peach House” was fabulous. I loved all the details of this fully restored house, including the door knobs, the sun room, the original wood floors. And what’s a better welcome than freshly baked goodies waiting for you?

I learned this style of a house is called a “shotgun” house. Why, you ask? Here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say:

Shotgun houses may have derived their name from that room format, as it was sometimes said that a bullet shot from the front door would pass through the house without hitting anything and exit through the back door.

These houses originated in the Southern United States and were the most popular style from the American Civil War to the 1920s.

The house is within walking distance to Waco Suspension Bridge that opened in 1870 and was the first bridge to cross the Brazos River. A steel cable suspension bridge, it became the prototype for other suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge (I included a photo of that below to compare the two). Originally it was open to traffic (beginning with cattle, then stagecoaches, etc.) but now it’s only a foot bridge.

Just a little ways down Brazos River is another beautiful bridge: The Washington Avenue Bridge built in 1902.

As you may know, I have a thing for bridges so it was delightful to come across these two in Waco (we were only there for a day though, and catching up with friends was more important than seeing ALL THE SIGHTS). For instance, we didn’t go to the Dr. Pepper Museum. The drink was invented in Waco, but seeing as I don’t like that drink anyway, I don’t think I missed much.

I’ll leave you with a few other notable downtown buildings: McLennan County Courthouse and the ALICO building, a 22-story office building, the tallest building in Waco and the second oldest skyscraper in Texas. Like the Waco Suspension Bridge, these two buildings are also on the National Register of Historic Places.

All postcards found on Wikipedia, sourced from the University of Houston Digital Library.

Missing the Point

The day after Christmas, I sat in a dark room staring at 14 large canvases painted in deep purples and blacks, hung in an octagonal building known as the Rothko Chapel.

I grew aware of this chapel because of a poem by Jesse Bertron in Ruminate magazine titled “Outside the Rothko Chapel, Where Big John’s Eyes Appeared upon the Canvas on the Eastern Wall.” It was one of the best poems I read this year. The speaker talks about taking a group of young students to visit this interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, which also serves as a public art installation and centre for human rights. He notes the kids’ boredom and reflects on the differences between a museum and a church, between watching and being watched. I had a long discussion with friends about whether the poem is cynical or hopeful, and I lean toward the latter. It ends with these lines:

I know now what they know, to know you’re being watched
will never satisfy.
 
Once you know somebody’s watching, how you long
for them to speak to you.

This poem was hovering in my mind as I sat on one of the austere wooden benches looking at the art, opposite other people doing the same thing.

The 14 paintings depart from Rothko’s earlier canvases featuring horizontal planes of colours with soft, blurry edges, such as this one I saw at the Seattle Art Museum.

Mark Rothko, #10, oil on canvas, 1952.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter whose objective, like other colour-field painters, was to show the human connection to the sublime, the primordial, the cosmic using large, meditative planes of colour. Yet Rothko rejected this label, as you’ll read below.

Talk about pressure to break down and cry! To not miss the point! On going to the Rothko Chapel, I wanted a spiritual revelation like many others have had viewing his work. These are the thoughts that flitted through my head instead:

This is much heavier than I expected. Thank God for the skylight. Wish I had come on a sunnier day.

Where do I look? There are so many canvases, which one do I choose?

How long are the attendants’ shifts? They must be super spiritual from being in this space for so long. I wish I could ask them what they see but is talking even allowed?

The kids in Bertron’s poem stayed for half an hour. I don’t think I can last that long and I’m an adult who works at a contemporary art gallery. What’s wrong with me?!

Should I sit on the bench looking towards the centre to see the whole room, or should I sit facing the outside and focus on one painting?

Is that the outline of eyes in the upper right corner of the canvas? Yes, I think I can see something there. Wait a minute, do I really see something or am I just pretending to see something?

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Apart from showing how expectations did not match reality, I write down these thoughts in hopes of breaking down the elitist mystique that often comes with viewing modern art. It’s easy to look at others in an art gallery and assume they “get” the work because they look really serious and are nodding intently, as if revelations are cascading over them like a baptism.

I thought that about other people in the Rothko Chapel, and maybe they thought that about me. The truth is, I found the experience quite self-conscious, concerned with having the right etiquette and seeing the right thing that’s supposed to appear to help me decode the paintings.

And I had to keep correcting myself: Maybe there’s not something to decode. Maybe this is my brain wanting to rationalize everything, to understand and move on, and maybe Rothko was trying to get people like me to sit in the discomfort of the dark and just be. And I was missing the point terribly but then I would just strive harder to get the point, which seemed counter-intuitive and so my thoughts kept spinning round and round until I felt dizzy.

I expected instant gratification, but like any spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, worship, etc), I get the sense the Rothko Chapel requires repeat visits. I talked to one local afterwards who said she keeps going back because the light is always different and can really make the canvases come alive.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of revelation Rothko had when painting these works in his New York studio. He never got to see them installed as he committed suicide after finishing them. They were his swan song.

Even with all my self-consciousness, there were some references that came to mind when viewing Rothko’s works as it’s natural to interpret things, to find meaning.

The two sets of triptychs, where the outside panels are hung at a different height from the centre panel, immediately reminded me of church altarpieces. The one at the front of the room, however, has three panels evenly hung, with the centre panel a lighter shade than the others. If there is a main work of the chapel, this felt like it. Knowing that Rothko was influenced by Christ’s Passion (and some interpret his 14 paintings as the Stations of the Cross), I pictured these panels as the crucifixion scene: Jesus in the centre, flanked by the two thieves.

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Opposite this work is a single canvas that also stands out because it has an obvious colour variation. The bottom quarter is painted darker with a frame running around the edge and proportions that evoke the painting of Christ’s death and entombment by Masaccio that I saw in Florence last year.

Back wall of Rothko Chapel (see painting between the two doors). Photo by Hickey-Robertson, courtesy of Rothko Chapel.
Masaccio, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John, and Two Donors, fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca. 1425.

Maybe these interpretations are all missing Rothko’s point but for someone who strives to do things right and meet other’s expectations, perhaps missing Rothko’s point is just as necessary to experience the work genuinely. That and going when the light is shining.

Making a World from Memory

We don’t go to Vancouver’s Eastside Culture Crawl every year, but when my husband and I do, there’s one artist we always visit. Actually, she was the only artist we visited this year. Because let’s face it: the Culture Crawl can be overwhelming. One year we did as many artists as we could in the labryinthine Parker Street Studios and agreed to not put ourselves through the crowds and chaos again.

So it’s a good thing our favourite local artist has a live/work studio in Railtown that’s relatively calm in comparison.

Galen Felde’s studio

Galen Felde is from Vancouver and uses acrylic paints to convey landscapes of memory. She’s also branched out into installations. The first thing I notice about her work is the light. How it filters through a tree; how it bathes a bridge; how it ignites a blade of grass or a telephone wire.

(right image) Galen Felde, Mastodon No.1 , acrylic on panel,  46″ x 46″.

Her work reminds me of Impressionism. Although based off real scenes and photographs, Galen’s paintings read like dreamscapes. She talked to us about how she combines multiple photographs together in her mind, or relies on memory to fill in the gaps. I get the sense she is more concerned with the emotional truth of a scene, rather than its physical attributes. 

This is what she writes on her website:

Galen Felde‘s work focuses on human and environmental interdependence and issues of empathy. Tangled branches, leaves, light particles, architectural elements, wings and wire… are some of the key elements, magnified, distorted, layered and sculpted to form the substructure of Galen’s paintings in her exploration of impermanence and our awkward relationship with origins, adaptation and alteration of the landscape. Characteristic use of trace images and skewed focus suggest the construction of memory, the resonance of absence and the process of release.

Galen Felde, Song for Sleep, acrylic on panel, 24″ x 60″.

Take the above painting, for example. It’s called Song for Sleep: Water Paths. (By the way, her artwork titles are exquisite, poetic. Some examples: Dream Cache, Sonnet for Lost Pine, Long Awaited: Heart Song, The Long Reach Back, to name a few).

Galen told us this painting was inspired by the wetlands around Killarney Lake on Bowen Island. “Have you been there?” she asked us. “No, but we’re actually visiting friends there tomorrow!”

She told us to look for the stream running under the boardwalk and to notice how there’s not a tree in the “real world” version like there is in the centre of her canvas. In her mind’s eye, though, there is. 

I put “real world” in quotation marks because doesn’t the world of memory feel real, sometimes more real, than objective facts? This comes up frequently in discussions with my siblings around a childhood event. “That’s not the way I remember it!” one of us will interject as if there was one objective version that should all be implanted in our minds. This real world of memory reminds me of something the late Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet:

When someone comes into me when I’m deep in writing, I have a moment of frightening transition when I don’t know where I am, and then I have to leave the “real” world of my story for what often seems the less real world, the daily, dearly loved world of husband and children and household chores.

I love how she turns the “real world” on its head. L’Engle goes on to say, “It is through the world of imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.”

What Madeleine L’Engle does with stories, Galen Felde does with paintings. Both artists construct a world undeniably real to them through memory and imagination, in hopes this world will speak truth to the person reading and viewing on the other side.

It’s worked for me.

Trail around Killarney Lake

Places to Play

Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors. 

Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.

In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.


I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me. 

Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares. 

Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.

Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!

Father and Son

How many people do you see in this public artwork?

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It took me a moment to notice the boy on the right, surrounded by water.

Fascinating, I thought, as I then went on to explore the other public artworks in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

It was only when I came back to this spot and had some time to waste while waiting for a train to pass, that I noticed the sculpture had changed.

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And I became even more interested in this sculpture.

I saw a lot of public art in Seattle last weekend while I was there for an arts marketing conference. It’s not difficult. As one of the tourism brochures states, “From the moment you set foot in Seattle, you can feel it: art is everywhere.”

Seattle, like Vancouver, gets a lot of rain, so it’s unsurprising that there are many references to raindrops and umbrellas. The raindrop seats in the bike rack shelter at McGraw Square were fun to sit and twirl around in, but the story doesn’t go much deeper than this. Same with the inside-out, wind-blown Angie’s Umbrella that marks the end of Pike Place Market and the beginning of Belltown. It’s visually appealing, but it doesn’t tell much of a story other than it rains a lot (and a quick Google search reveals that it’s named after the artist’s mother, just because).

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This Red Popsicle standing 17 feet tall is fun, playful, and intriguing with how it’s leaning on just one of the wooden sticks. Public art can be as simple as this—something to brighten your day as you walk along—but there’s a reason the fountain artwork in Olympic Sculpture Park stayed with me and easily became my favourite piece that I saw in Seattle.

It tells a story. There are layers of meaning. Even the title of the piece, Father and Son, suggests this. It clues the viewer in to the relationship between these two life-sized figures. I found the artwork heartbreaking yet hopeful.

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It makes me want to write a poem—how father and son keep missing each other, exposed at different times. Yet they continue to try.

Public art always has its critics, and nude artworks seem to heighten that. Father and Son was no stranger to controversy. I was saddened to read in this article from Seattle Times writer Danny Westneat that critics interpret the figures’ relationship as pedophiliac. Why does nudity get automatically read as sexual or erotic? Do we have that reaction to Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures?

This artwork has an interesting backstory. It was the result of million-dollar gift to the City of Seattle from the late Stu Smailes who stipulated in his will that the money be used for a fountain featuring one or more realistic nude male figures. The City handed it off to Seattle Art Museum who commissioned French-born, New-York based artist Louise Bourgeois.

So Bourgeois had boundaries to work within. She placed two nude male sculptures on separate platforms, with alternating cloaks of water falling first on one, then the other at hourly intervals. The nudity makes complete sense to the story she’s telling about the relationship between father and son. They are both reaching for each other across an 8-foot gap, alternately exposed and revealed. Alienated but attempting connection. Nudity is about vulnerability, she says.

Sure, the artist could have clothed the figures, but it wouldn’t have been as evocative, especially since the masculine script embedded in western culture is to be tough, strong, and not show emotion. Keep your layers on and your walls up. Known for her unsettling sculptures, Bourgeois is pushing back on this narrative. Also, how many artworks do you ever see of a father and son? Mother and child, certainly (I’m thinking of all the Virgin with child paintings I quickly grew tired of in the Louvre or Uffizi), but where are the fathers with their children?

In the same Seattle Times article, I appreciated what other Seattleites wrote in to say about the artwork when it was proposed:

“This sculpture just left me feeling like I wanted to scream — LET THE FATHER SHOW LOVE AND STRENGTH TO HIS SON!”

Another e-mailer said he saw hope in the notion that a father and son would attempt that reach.

“If it was a statue of me and my father, we’d have our backs turned to each other.”

If an artwork can evoke these kinds of responses, wow. That’s a powerful piece.

I’m reading Ruminate‘s Exposure issue right now and the artwork and writing inside echo these two nude figures standing in the fountain. The sheets are pulled back, arms outstretched, a gesture that asks: do you see me?

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