Love in the Rain

On our first night in Paris, my husband and I took an open-top boat ride along the Seine. It wasn’t long before the sky dumped sheets of rain on us and the wind gusted so strongly it flipped our MEC umbrella inside out, rendering it useless the rest of the trip. We were soggy, jet-lagged Shreddies arriving home to our Airbnb. Welcome to Paris.

Before the rain…(I don’t have an “after” photo).

One of the many bridges we cruised under was Le Pont des Arts, more commonly known as the “love lock bridge.” Many cities have their version of a love lock bridge, but Paris is perhaps the most famous. With close to a million locks hanging from the grilles, the City of Paris decided to remove them in 2015 after part of the railing collapsed under the weight (about 45 tonnes). They replaced the grilles with transparent panels.

Above you can see the transparent panels, but you can also see people’s determinism to continue the love lock tradition, which started in Paris around 2008. (This photo was taken in 2017.) Although you would think Paris would be the origin of this tradition given its moniker as the City of Love, it actually began at Most Ljubavi (“Bridge of Love”) in Serbia during WWI. You can read the story here, which is actually more tragic than romantic. Now locals and tourists alike attach padlocks to bridges around the world and throw the key into the water—a contemporary urban ritual for couples to declare their love and its permanence.

(FYI, it is illegal to put a lock on a bridge in Paris, though how strictly this is enforced is debatable given the picture I took above. For the record, we did not add one.)

A year after the grilles on Le Pont des Arts came down, a love lock sculpture in Vancouver went up. Couples had been affixing padlocks to Burrard Street Bridge, and for the same structural reasons as the City of Paris gave, the City of Vancouver also said no, this can’t go on. They did; however, provide an alternative: a public art sculpture that could hold the weight of thousands of padlocks.

You can see Love In the Rain (2016) by Bruce Voyce if you visit Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver at 125 metres above sea level. The public chose this location from a number of recommended sites and it seems symbolic of love at its peak. (I’m sure this has been the setting of countless proposals—the first lock attached began with one).

Best view of Vancouver from Queen Elizabeth Park
Incidentally, my parents took their wedding photos in this park.

Four sets of couples embrace under umbrellas—their stainless steel frames the hooks on which the locks hang. A receptacle is located on site for people to throw their keys into (very Vancouver), with the purpose that the metal will either be recycled or melted down to use as part of another public artwork.

The human forms are meant to be ageless and genderless. The work “celebrates the shelter that love brings and the union that it forms,” according to a Park Board press release. On the artist’s website, Voyce writes that his sculpture “embodies love in the temperate rainforest.”

The umbrellas make the piece, in my opinion. Not only do they add height and visual interest, but they contextualize the artwork, answering the question, why this public artwork here? If Paris is the City of Love, Vancouver is the City of Rain.

I cannot help but think of a line in my own wedding vows: “to shower love and forgiveness like Vancouver rain.”

Now I am wondering for how many other couples is love linked to rain, fitting together like lock and key?

Do you have a “love in the rain” story?

A Tale of Two Trees

I live near Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. When my daughter was young enough that she was taking her naps on me, I often walked its paths, reading the odd gravestone, admiring the beautiful trees, composing poems in my head. Now my daughter takes all her naps in a crib and I leave her with my husband to run those paths, admire the beautiful trees (especially this season), and compose poems in my head.

While there recently, I ran by some art installations that compelled me to stop. Two trees: one dressed in red, the other in white.

The first tree is called REDress and brings attention to the 1200+ missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. It’s a response/continuation of artist Jaime Black’s REDress project, in which she hangs red dresses in various public settings. She writes on her website:

The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.

It is not an accident the dresses are red. Red is for blood. Red is for love. Red is for anger. Red is for warning. Red is for stop, look, pay attention.

The other tree’s branches hung with white baby carriages, fabric stitched taut over stick frames, weightless and rocking in the wind. The installation was next to the infant’s cemetery, where each stone in the river commemorates a baby lost. There are many stones in the river. The oldest one I saw was inscribed with the date 1902.

It is not an accident the carriages are white. White is for innocence. White is for milk. White is for purity. White is for a fadeout screen in a film. White is for ghosts. White is for baby shoes. White is for a blank page, an empty photo album.

Two trees dressed in grief. People have remarked that running through a cemetery is creepy. I have never experienced that feeling until the day I saw those red and white trees in broad daylight. They were haunting.

They have become more haunting after reading theologian James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone connects the cross Jesus died on with the trees that thousands of Black people died on in the United States because of white supremacy. Cone writes:

The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.

While not ignoring the historical and theological differences between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone concludes:

The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.

These are powerful, haunting words. Reading Cone’s short and accessible book (for non-theologians like me) was illuminating, horrifying, and necessary. Just like the red dresses and white carriages render presence through absence in Mountain View cemetery, Cone writes for America (particularly Christian America) to remember what it has all too easily forgot, ignored, or even justified.

He reminds us of the strange fruit hanging from trees that Billie Holiday inscribed on the ears of anyone who listened to her sing this indictment.

Listening to the song and looking at the cemetery tree photos, I wonder what the late Cone would say about Canada’s collective violence towards our Indigenous peoples, people we have sought to kill, assimilate, dehumanize. We have our own strange fruit, our river of stones, our Highway of Tears to reckon with.

Of Mother and Child

In light of Mother’s Day recently, I’m revisiting artwork of mothers and children. This relationship is on my mind a lot as a new mom myself, but also because I was gifted this wonderful book of poems for Mother’s Day from a close friend:

Written by Vicki Rivard, the poems land like small, soothing balms to cracked hands. They are sometimes shockingly short. I kept nodding along to the words. Yes, THIS! This is what I need to hear! This is exactly how I feel too! Here’s one example:

the baby rocks the mother too.
her whole world,
in fact.

– epicenter (from Brave New Mama by Vicki Rivard)

I think of this poem when I look at Berthe Morisot’s painting Le Berceau (The Cradle).

Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau, 1872, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

This is my own picture of the painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’m trying to remember what I liked about it enough to snap this photo back before I knew what this earth-shaking experience was like. Maybe because I could recognize a sacred moment: the sleeping babe and the mother who has eyes for nothing else but her child. She is enraptured with this creature, but now I wonder if there is perhaps doubt and fear and anxiety there too. What mother doesn’t cycle through all the emotions?

Mother and child are each other’s worlds. Enmeshed. Interconnected. Morisot shows this by having the mother (Morisot’s sister) and baby make the same gesture with one of their hands: rest it by their face. This creates a diagonal line between mother and child. As the Musée d’Orsay describes in the link above, the diagonal line is further emphasized by the angle of the curtain in the background. In her other hand, the mother holds the bassinet’s veil, putting a screen between the viewer and her child. I love this subtle but powerful gesture. It says everybody out; I’ve got a baby to learn.

Another mother/child Impressionist painting that been a long-time favourite is Coquelicots (Poppy Field) by Claude Monet. This painting is also found in the Musée d’Orsay and like The Cradle, it has a strong diagonal composition. The diagonal runs between the mother and child pairing in the background to the one in the foreground. They are the same mother and child, Monet’s own wife Camille and their son Jean.

Claude Monet, Poppy Field, 1873, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

I’ve always thought it was a bold move to portray the passage of time not through changing scenery but through human movement. Mother and son enjoy a leisurely walk through a poppy field, starting on the crest of a hill. By the time they reach the base, the mother has opened her parasol and her son has picked a bouquet. The viewer’s brain fills the space and time in between, imagining their stroll: boy running ahead a bit, stopping every so often to pick the poppies; Mother getting warm, relishing her son’s delight with the flowers, how they are almost as tall as he is, how he has grown so quickly. Wasn’t he just a baby? Oh what they say is true, I know now: the days are long, the years are short.

It’s impossible to think about mother and child paintings without at least one of the Virgin and Christ Child coming to mind. I saw more of them than I ever wanted to in The Louvre, many with golden halos and unrealistic faces. But that’s not the case with The Virgin and Child drawing by Raphael that I visited in the British Museum last spring.

Raphael, The Virgin and Child, 1510-12. The British Museum. (this is a postcard from the gift shop)

I marvel at Jesus’ fleshy plumpness and think good job, Mary! And good job Raphael—you made him look human. Jesus’ stance is so babylike, leaning in to his mother, his safe place, unlike many Virgin and Child paintings that make Jesus look like a grown man—stiff, formal, and wise beyond his years. Here, he looks like a regular baby. But of course he’s not just a regular baby. Mary cradles him but her eyes betray that they are somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the future and what makes her son different.

The curator of the British Museum writes:

The slight turn of the Virgin’s head away from her child and her lowered eyes eloquently convey a sense of the burden she has to endure, her thoughts clouded, even in moments of such intimacy, by the knowledge of her son’s fate. Such telling details give the composition a psychological depth not found in the quattrocento sculptural models on which it is based.

– British Museum website

Back to Impressionist depictions of mothers and children, I turn now to an American, Mary Cassatt, who has a painting that rifts off Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Christ, such as the one above.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), 1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This painting, titled Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) is at The Met in New York. The curator writes:

Here, Cassatt underscored the importance of the maternal bond by evoking religious art. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo. 

The Met website

The contrapposto stance originated with the Greeks but is famously depicted in Michelangelo’s David. Contrapposto means “opposite” and refers to the way one leg carries most of the weight, while the other is bent.

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04. Accademia Gallery.

Unlike Raphael’s drawing, Cassatt shows an older son looking away, while the mother’s gaze is fixed on her child. While Cassatt’s painting lacks the psychological depth that Raphael’s and Morisot’s have, I appreciate that Cassatt elevated the mother/child relationship, recognizing that these tender, ordinary interactions are important and worthy of being immortalized on canvas.

In a similar way, I am doing this (or attempting to) with my writing. Being a mother has given me a new range of experiences to process through words. I wrote one such poem called “they say you will teach me more than I will ever teach you” when I was pregnant and had the pleasure of finding out this past week that it was the winner of a poetry contest put on by Pulp Literature. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she is old enough to understand.

You can hear me read the poem on the video below—the announcement of being runner-up comes at 23:54 and my reading at 42:26.

Artists, Fairies, and the Old Man on Skye

The Isle of Skye is a wonderful corner of the world. My husband and I stayed in an old stone farmhouse for 3 nights on the most scenic part of the island—the Trotternish Peninsula.

A car is a must on Skye. The island is a lot bigger than you may think and due to the abundance of single track roads, a car is a lot more manoeuvrable than a bus (my parents went to Skye several months after we did and unfortunately couldn’t see some places because there was no room to park, even though their bus was on the smaller side).

The Trotternish Peninsula is the northern part of the island and contains a bucket list of tourist sites: Kilt Rock, Lealt Gorge and Falls, the Quiraing mountain range including the distinguished rock formation The Old Man of Storr that we climbed to, along with everyone else. The Old Man of Storr was created from an ancient landslide. The word “Quiraing” is Old Norse for “round fold” and apparently was used to conceal cattle from Viking raiders.

The Quiraing is a popular yet difficult hike. You can see it in the distance on the left.
Hubby going up to the Old Man of Storr, what looks like a jagged finger from a distance.

It was quite the scramble to actually touch the base of this famous rock. One of us could do it; the other was pregnant and got halfway up before she realized her travel insurance probably wouldn’t cover “rock climbing” and so decided to play it safe and snap pictures instead.

Another distinguished rock formation near the Old Man of Storr.
Proving how windy it was up there.

The views along the way overlooking lochs and the islands of Rona and Raasay between Skye and the Highlands of mainland Scotland are stunning. Here’s one of our favourite pics of us with that incredible background.

Even though we didn’t hike the Quiraing, we got to enjoy it every morning and evening from our farmhouse in Flodigarry, the second oldest dwelling in this rural village. I woke up one morning with the sunrise and sat on a grassy nook near sheep and lambs, soaking up the quiet, remote beauty of this place.

Our next door neighbour was the Flodigarry Hotel where we splurged on an anniversary dinner one evening.

The owner and host of our farmhouse was artist Morag Archer who showed us her mixed media collages inspired by this landscape as well as the landscape of memory. She shows her work at the Skyeworks gallery in the main town of Portree, but we bought a small painting off her directly and love looking at it every day from where it hangs in our kitchen.

Mixed media artist Morag Archer with her collage artwork

She talked about how croft houses often appear in her work— those tiny white dwellings especially found in the Highlands. Crofts are units of land (usually about 12 acres) that people share for common grazing, and which were traditionally rented from a landlord. Multiple croft houses exist on this shared land, usually white with thatched roofs like you see in her artwork.

I love how she uses all sorts of ordinary things—including gold foil candy wrappers—to create her collages.

The great thing about staying at a local’s place is learning about hidden gems. Even though we did hit the main sites (see below), we also ventured to Loch Sheanta or “the enchanted loch” because of her. This lake was believed to have holy water that could cure any ill. It was a gentle 15 minute descent to this spot that we had all to ourselves. I’m not going to describe where it is so that it stays hidden and you have to ask a local yourself! (you can probably google search it if you’re really dying to know).

The crystal clear Loch Sheanta
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s the aptly named Kilt Rock whose parking lot is flooded with buses.
Same goes for Lealt Gorge and Waterfall—striking scenery that’s well worth a stop though.

You may have heard about the fairies on Isle of Skye. There are two spots named after them (their role I’m not quite sure of, other than these are places of whimsy and mystery and are thus suited to legends about fairies). According to the Isle of Skye website:

Skye has a long history involving the Fairys, most of which is related to Dunvegan Castle and their ‘Fairy Flag’. The Fairy Glen (much like the Fairy Pools in Glenbrittle) has no real legends or stories involving fairys that can be traced. The simple fact that the location is unusual so it has been given the nickname Fairy Glen.

isleofskye.com

The Fairy Pools are like a musical crescendo of crystal clear blue pools along the River Brittle. You can cross them, swim in them (though they are extremely cold), walk alongside them, hang out by them. There are so many along the path it wasn’t hard to find a private one to enjoy.

We preferred the lush green, magical landscape of The Fairy Glen full of miniature hills, stone circles, and a rocky outcropping you can climb for a spectacular view. I love how it appeared out of nowhere too—very inconspicuous, hidden among farmland. The rings of stones you can see in the photo isn’t the work of fairies, unfortunately, but tourists who have moved the rocks into circles and have been encouraged by tour guides to leave a coin or token. Locals naturally prefer to keep the setting as is.

On that same Isle of Skye website, I learned more about the rock formation below concealing a cave that my husband and I squeezed through to stand at the top of like these people:

One of the hills still has its basalt topping intact which, from a distance, looks like a ruin and has been called (inexplicably) Castle Ewan. It is possible to climb to the top where there is not much room, but does have wonderful views. In the low cliff behind Castle Ewan there is a very small cave where it has been said pressing coins into cracks in the rock will bring Good Luck.

islyeofskye.com
Looking out at the billowing landscape from Castle Ewan. All the creases and folds remind me of a pillow or duvet I want to jump into.

We arrived on Skye by ferry and left by bridge so we could stop off at what Rick Steves describes as the most photogenic castle—Eileen Donan.

We said goodbye to this enchanted landscape and hopped in our car to the more prosaic town of Inverness. I looked up the word “prosaic” to make sure I was using it right and the dictionary came up with “commonplace, unromantic.” I snicker as I recall car adventure #2 that happened there: our 2nd flat tire, on our actual anniversary, an hour away from Inverness next to nothing but a whiskey distillery that wasn’t open (much to my husband’s chagrin) and me going pee behind some trees off the highway every few minutes because my pregnant bladder required frequent emptying and for dinner, eating granola bars and crackers and whatever other snacks we had in the car while waiting three hours for a tow truck to rescue us. Maybe not commonplace, but yup, definitely unromantic. On the glass half full side, an unforgettable anniversary.

Gazing at Glass in Durham Cathedral

On our way to Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District, my husband and I stopped in the small town of Durham to see their towering, world-class cathedral.

Elvet Bridge in Durham

Durham Cathedral is a great example of Norman or Romanesque architecture. It was built to house the shrine of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne. The cathedral you see today was erected over St. Cutherbert’s tomb in 1093 and completed in a remarkable 40 years.

Durham Cathedral

There’s another famous figure associated with Durham Cathedral: The Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk who wrote the first history book of England. Fun fact: his Ecclesiastical History of the English People was the first work to use the AD dating system (anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord or when Christ was born).

Tomb of Venerable Bede in the Galilee Chapel

Romanesque or Norman Architecture

Rounded arches and vaults are characteristic of Romanesque architecture (meaning “from Rome”). In Britain, however, it’s more common to call this architecture “Norman” because it was the Normans who came to England from Normandy (France) who introduced this style.

Compared to the Gothic-style York Minister I blogged about last week, Durham Cathedral impresses you with its bulkiness and solidity. You can immediately notice the difference. There’s a weight and heaviness to the nave with those chunky stone pillars that you don’t experience in the lighter, airier York Minster nave. Because churches in the Romanesque period were made of stone, they had to be very thick and the windows small to prevent the building from collapsing. Over time, a leaner style was achieved that led to the Gothic style of ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and pointed arches.

Geometric patterns were common Norman decorations and I enjoyed spotting different markings in the stone pillars of the nave (e.g some had a chevron pattern, others a honeycomb).

Durham Catheral’s website states that during the monastic period (1093-1539), the walls would have been painted and the windows filled with stained glass. After the Reformation, however, the walls were all whitewashed and the stained glass removed. The stained glass you see today is almost all Victorian. I wonder if this section below is a remnant of the monastic wall paint showing through like old wallpaper.

Stained Glass Windows

My favourite part of Durham Cathedral isn’t the architecture but the numerous stained glass windows that give more colour and life to this dark and sombre structure.

Of course there are the classic stained glass windows showing Biblical scenes like the crucifixion:

The Rose Window and 3 stained glass windows above the Chapel of Nine Altars

. . . but you can see those in practically any cathedral. What’s different about Durham Cathedral is its abundance of contemporary stained glass windows and how well these modern artworks complement the traditional ones and even combine with them in such a historic building.

The millennium window

The Millennium window is a great example of an artwork blending classic and contemporary motifs. Installed in 1995 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of St. Cuthbert’s shrine arriving at Durham, it begins with imagery of St. Cuthbert’s tomb and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, moving through England’s history with depictions of coal miners, cows, and a computer (bottom left) printing out a 12th century account of moving St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

The TraNSfiguration window

I couldn’t make out many scenes in The Transfiguration window, but I loved the use of the orange and blue complementary colours centered around a swath of blazing light. The window seamlessly integrates representational figures in the lower half with abstract representations in the top half. It was designed by Tom Denny and contains Biblical stories and scenes from Durham’s history.

The Daily Bread window

The Daily Bread window was a gift in 1984 from Durham’s Marks & Spencer department store, of all places! Mark Angus is the artist. It’s a modern interpretation of The Last Supper seen from above. I had a wonderful chat with an elderly docent about this window, where he asked me questions to help tease out more of the meaning. Instead of literal people, the artist represented the apostles as circles resembling worlds with their own colours, uniqueness, and personalities.

“Which one do you think is Judas?” the docent asked me.

“That dark greenish black one on the left.”

“I would agree. And notice how it’s painted further out than the other circles are, as if he’s in the act of leaving the table. And which one do you think is Jesus?”

“Centre bottom.”

“The brightest one. What do you think the green and blue colours refer to?”

“Water and land?” I venture.

“Or earth and sky with stars twinkling in the night, emphasizing that Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And the colour purple?”

“Royalty.” I gaze more at the wave-like pattern in the background and it brings to mind folded clothes or the loose robes that hang from the cross at church after Easter.

I loved looking at this painting of the Last Supper because I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s simple yet rich with symbols. I also love that I got to talk about it with someone who’s probably looked at it a hundred times and who deepened my experience by sharing his insights with me. There are often docents posted in galleries and museums—if you get a chance, pick their brain because they have a lot of knowledge and are usually happy to share it!

Another moving artwork in Durham Cathedral: this sculpture of The Pieta by Fenwick Lawson. It breaks with tradition by depicting lying at his mother Mary’s feet instead of in her arms.

Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent

Amsterdam was a great place to finish our month-long European vacation of fall 2017. It was friendly, walkable, and people spoke English—three important factors when you’re running out of travel steam.

My husband and I spent our last night in Europe at the Van Gogh Museum. It felt like a fitting ending to our beginning in Paris where we saw his works at the Musée d’Orsay and snapped a picture of the dried sunflowers hanging from the shutters three stories up above the blue door of this apartment building in Montmartre. The flowers mark the spot where Vincent lived for a while with his brother Theo. You have to look very closely to spot the sunflowers.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait,1889, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

27 days later with approximately 3000 photos on my camera, I decided to spend our last European night simply enjoying the artwork in the Van Gogh Museum without a lens in front of my face.

It was an interesting time to be in Amsterdam because the hand-painted film revisiting the cause of Vincent’s death called Loving Vincent had just released and there were advertisements for it everywhere, including this one just outside our Hotel Museumzicht.

We contemplated going to see it in Amsterdam (how cool would that have been?) but alas, we ran out of time. We saw it when we returned to Vancouver. That same fall, I read The Letters of Vincent van Gogh that I purchased at the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve been meaning to read them ever since I heard Matthew Perryman Jones’s song Dear Theo several years ago that I link to here.

The letters are a work of literature in their own right, let alone a fascinating journey into the struggles of one of the greatest modern painters. I loved seeing his sketches for what would become his iconic paintings and reading his intentions behind them. Take his Bedroom in Arles, for example:

This time it’s simply my bedroom. Only here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.

16 October 1888, Letter to Theo
Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, 1889, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

All of this Vincent immersion led me to reevaluate what I thought about him. I wrote the article “Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent” shortly after. It’s only now been published, but it’s published nonetheless and I’m thrilled to share it with you over at Still Point Arts Quarterly.

I’d love to hear what you think and what your relationship is to this much discussed artist. There’s definitely no shortage of art about him, which says something in itself. Beauty begets beauty. Next up on my Vincent journey: watching this film.