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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Of Light, Shadow, and Context

I recently read some of my poems at The Writer’s Studio monthly reading series at Cottage Bistro.

One was about an artwork the Artist and I stared at the longest out of all the art we saw on our Europe trip last fall: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, a Catholic church in Rome decorated in the ornate Baroque style.

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At the reading, I mentioned how we typically enjoyed the experience of seeing art in churches more than in museums and galleries for a couple reasons: 1) churches were often less crowded 2) there’s something significant about seeing art in the context it was made for.

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Take Caravaggio’s painting above. The Calling of Saint Matthew is one of three paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to make for a chapel, off to the left side of the nave, dedicated to the disciple. A dramatic swath of light cuts across the canvas, mimicking the way the natural light from the chapel falls on his painting—something Caravaggio was aware of as he was making the work.

Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow) got me noticing dramatic plays of light and shadow across the canvas of Rome.

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I’ve begun thinking about other artworks we saw in churches that wouldn’t be the same if we had seen them on the nondescript walls of a museum or gallery.

The photograph above shows a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s soaring four-columned bronze canopy (called a baldachin or, as Rick Steves refers to it, “God’s four-poster bed”) that sits above the altar and below the dome is one such example. As soon as you walk into the massive cathedral, there is so much height and width to feel lost in (it covers 6 acres!) But the relentlessly long nave acts like the shaft of light in Caravaggio’s painting, leading your eye to a focal point.

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This seven-story bronze canopy hovers over the Eucharist table, emphasizing the significance of this sacrament and enveloping it in a kind of “holy space” if you will. You get a sense of how big this sculpture is for it not to look dwarfed in the largest church in the world. The canopy connects the congregants gathering around its base to the dome above, lifting your eyes, as cathedrals brilliantly do, towards heaven. The bronze and gold also draw your eye to Bernini’s similarly coloured sculpture in the apse behind, enshrining the chair of St. Peter and the alabaster dove window that turns natural light into artificial rays of gold.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was a treasure chest of artworks and our favourite place for viewing art in Venice. The heroic-scale Titian painting behind the altar beckons you closer, the light flooding in from the windows amplifying the light of glory the Virgin is ascending to.

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Titled the Assumption of the Virgin, this artwork is infused with energy and motion. All gestures lead your eye up—from the earthbound apostles with reaching hands to the putti’s arms holding the cloud and to Mary’s raised arms. Notice how the colours do this too. Titian forms the base of a triangle out of the red-clothed apostles on the ground (Peter and John), with Mary in red as the apex, emphasizing her translation from earth to heaven.

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Photo by Didier Descouens from Wikipedia.

Even the shape of the painting, with its rounded top, mimics the choir-screen arch you see when standing in the centre of the nave. So much intentionality. I love this consideration between art and space and wish the experience of stepping into modern churches was as inspiring.

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What art have you seen that wouldn’t be the same in any other space? Maybe you’ve come across it in a church, or maybe it was in a gallery or museum. I’d love to hear!

Finding the Silver Lining in Florence

Florence was our least favourite city visited on our European trip last fall. I say that reluctantly because of its fame and hey, it’s Europe and aren’t all European cities supposed to be charming? But when we divulged this opinion to other travellers near the end of our journey, it turns out we weren’t the only ones.

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View of Brunelleschi’s dome and the terracotta roofs from Giotto’s bell tower

After coming from the delightfully colourful Cinque Terre, we found Florence uniformly dull. Brown as far as the eye can see (except for those hills in the distance). And no green space. I suppose it also didn’t help that Paris was our introduction to Europe where patches of green abounded and the Seine was as animated as a grand boulevard. Hardly anyone walked along the Arno, and it seemed more like a ditch than a river in some places.

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Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River. I do love the light in this photograph though.

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Ground and building blend into each other at Pitti Palace. Also, where are the benches?

Negative comments aside, we did enjoy Florence for its art (and gelato). This is the place to see Renaissance art. I’ll highlight a few works we stared at for awhile.

Michelangelo’s Deposition (or Florentine Pietà)

Florence is a crowded mid-sized city. We noticed the tourists here more than anywhere else on our trip. So when we had almost ten minutes alone with this sculpture in the Duomo Cathedral Museum, it felt nothing short of miraculous. Depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross, Michelangelo’s figures encircle Jesus’ limp body slumping towards earth—the pained Virgin Mary on his left, a mysterious-looking figure above (believed to be Nicodemus), and a very dwarfed Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right. All four figures look a different direction, in their own worlds with grief, yet your eye tends to circle the group counter-clockwise, starting in the middle with Jesus’ serpentine form. The work is captivating in its gravity, how three figures struggle to support the weight of a dead body. Interesting to note is that Michelangelo is said to have carved his own features into the face of the hooded man. This was his final sculpture, and he never finished it.

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Duomo Cathedral formally launched the Renaissance in Italy. They were so popular he was commissioned to create this second set depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The originals are in the Duomo Cathedral Museum. We had great fun studying and guessing, along with another keen tourist, which story each panel depicted. I love how Ghiberti packed so many narrative details into the tiny frames, showing off the new technique of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi and employed by Masaccio. For example, look at the depth of the space in the bottom left panel, showing Isaac blessing his younger son Jacob.

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A replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the east doors of the Baptistery

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Ghiberti’s original two sets of bronze doors in the Duomo Cathedral Museum

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The Baptistery with Giotto’s Bell Tower on the right in the background

Michelangelo’s David

He’s situated like the bride at the end of a church aisle. I felt so much expectation walking towards him, and for good reason. Everything about this sculpture is big and invites a full walk-around: What’s that expression in his eyes? Is this before or after the battle with Goliath? How does that sling work? This masterpiece is the reason to go to the Accademia Gallery.

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

We saw many Annunciation paintings on our trip. This is one of my favourites because of its simplicity and how the artist, a Dominican friar, situated the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a vaulted space very similar to the architecture of the convent he lived in—San Marco. No gilded hall pregnant with symbols, just a bare room emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness. The figures mirror each other in terms of their folded hands and bent torsos, a posture of divine submission. In religious communities, artwork like this aimed to enhance a life of prayer and contemplation for the friars. There’s also something special about seeing artwork in the location it was made for (usually a church or in this case, a convent) and beats the walls of a museum almost anytime.

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This work is the first thing you notice when you enter the dormitory of San Marco

More artwork to come in another post. Have you been to Florence? How did it rank in your books?

Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

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Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.