We Make Stuff

The artist’s vocation is to send light into the human heart. – Robert Schumann

We Make Stuff Vol. 2 compiles 100 artists working in Vancouver and celebrates what they make. Celebrates the vocation of the artist—a vocation often misunderstood and under-appreciated. There are painters and chefs, breakdancers and filmmakers. Musicians and poets, social entrepreneurs and swimsuit designers. They’re your friends, your family, your coworkers, your bosses. And they show us that there are so many ways to make something beautiful and meaningful in the world because our culture needs that. You and I need that.

An example of the beautiful two-page spread for each artist. This artist is my coworker whose art hangs in the Vancouver Public Library!

An example of the beautiful two-page spread for each artist. This artist is my coworker whose designs are hanging in the Vancouver Public Library for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

My artist-boyfriend is also in the book, and I know I am rather partial but I do think he makes beautiful paintings. This book is a great way for him, and 99 others, to share their art with a wider audience. To spotlight the artistic vocation. To join with others who are making stuff and to inspire others to look at our world in new, fresh, and hopeful ways.

But making a full colour coffee table-style book isn’t cheap. They need to raise $38 000 by Oct 15 for the book to even go to print.

There’s only 3 days left of their crowdfunding campaign and they still have $14 000 to raise. Will you consider giving to this project so that these 100 stories can come to life? The soft-cover edition is only $35. It also makes a great Christmas present for your art-loving friends & family! (Note: If they don’t raise the minimum $38 000 by Oct 15, the book will not go to print and you’ll be refunded for your contribution).

Let’s send some light into the human heart! Contribute here.

Words and Pictures

(warning: there are spoilers in this review, like all my reviews)

Words and Pictures posterHow many times do you get to watch a movie filmed in your city featuring a character who loves words as much as you do?

Yes, I’m a writer and a sucker for teacher movies to begin with, but Words and Pictures is worth the view. Clive Owen plays a quirky English teacher (Jack Markus) at a private school (St. George’s, Vancouver) who laments his students’ lacklustre appreciation for words. He was a former literary star but can’t find the fire to write anymore. He’s also an alcoholic.

english classJuliette Binoche is the reluctant new art teacher (Dina Delsanto) who comes to teach at the school only because she cannot paint full time because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Her quick wit and stoic attitude matches the cane she wields, and she proves a formidable foe for Mr. Markus who declares a war of “Words vs. Pictures” in an effort to inspire his class and prove that words hold more weight than pictures. Delsanto takes up the challenge with her art class and the fun begins.

I say fun because their rivalry is fun and geeky and you know exactly where it’s headed. I learned a lot of 5+ syllable words because Mr. Markus incessantly challenges his colleagues to come up with an equal number or higher syllable word for a word he gives. “Antihistamene.” “Interdenominational”, etc. Delsanto is the only one who plays his game back (and beats him). “Feasibility.” “Anti-egalitarianism.”

rivalryBut the movie had a lot more depth than mere workplace fighting/flirting. The fact that Jack isn’t the school’s literary star anymore and in danger of losing his job creates a lot of pathos. When one of the members of the school board tells him to try and “just be who you were,” Jack replies, “Nobody can.” That was probably one of my favourite lines.

Delsanto also had a great line related to her past. She forms a special bond with one of her art students and tells her that before her arthritis, she learned to paint what she can see, but because of her limitation, she’s now learning to see what she can paint. We witness her gradual journey of moving from portraiture to abstract art as she can no longer hold small brushes to do delicate strokes. She eventually fastens mops from pulleys attached to the ceiling and uses them to spread paint onto the canvas lying on the floor. The result is incredible—especially considering that Juliette Binoche painted all the pieces herself, on camera, and in just a two-month period. Talk about a talented woman. You can read more about that process here.

painting with mopsWords and Pictures brings up questions of education, bullying, alcoholism, limitations, inspiration, forgiveness, desperation, love, and so on. A few times throughout the movie, I remember thinking, “This is a lot sadder than I had expected.” I liked being surprised though. One critique I will make is that the ending—the “Words vs. Pictures” school-wide assembly was a little anticlimactic, especially from Mr. Markus. You’d think he’d have finally written a poem of his own, but he doesn’t. We still don’t know about the future of his job situation, but I guess that’s less important than knowing if he and Delsanto are together (which of course you do know; this is a romantic comedy after all).

the kissWatching this movie in Vancouver and seeing shots of the Fraser River (where Delsanto’s studio is), Wendel’s Coffee Shop in Fort Langley, and St. George’s School in Vancouver added that much more enjoyment to it.

If you’re a writer or an artist, this one’s definitely for you. And even if you’re not, I think you’ll like it too.



Making Miniature

This past week I stepped into a miniature world: the world of Joseph Cornell, the world of boxed assemblages. Having never heard of him but curious about the small but complete worlds he made, I came out to learn about an artist and style that hadn’t crossed my path before.

Joseph Cornell, 1971

Untitled (Pink Palace). 1946-48

The Art of Joseph Cornell was a community event hosted by a group of people at my artsy church, led by Shari-Anne Vis who is also one of the members of a bi-monthly arts group I am part of in Vancouver. We spent the first part of the evening learning about Joseph Cornell, a 20th century American pioneer of assemblage and filmmaking, followed by an hour of making a boxed assemblage of our very own, inspired by his work.

Untitled (Pharmacy). 1943

Shari introduced us to the ideas of Constructivism and Surrealism that lie behind Cornell’s projects. The boxes themselves are smaller than the photographs suggest–only a foot or so high and wide. They are filled with found objects—the old, the discarded yet still beautiful that, according to this website, were the result of trips to New York scouring old bookshops and thrift stores looking for souvenirs, old prints and photographs, trinkets, music scores, and French literature.

Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea foam and billowy cloud crystallized in a pipe of fancy. – Joseph Cornell

Untitled (The Hotel Eden). 1945

Untitled (Soap Bubble Set). 1939

Objet (Roses des Vents). 1942-53

Many of Cornell’s boxes have moveable parts, making them interactive, childlike, playful. Apparently for his last major exhibit, he installed his boxes at a child’s height and served soda and cake for the opening reception. Sounds like a cool guy. He often organized his boxes around a theme: the Aviary boxes, Pink Palace boxes, Space Object boxes, Pink Palace series, etc.

After the presentation, we discussed Cornell’s appeal and questions like Why work in miniature and 3-D? Some thoughts we came up with:

  • feels more real, invites you in—especially if you can play with the pieces
  • it’s less intimidating to look at and enter something small
  • the juxtaposition of everyday objects in a confined space makes you consider the objects in new ways
  • you have to look closely to catch all the details
  • the boxes may be small, but they’re complete—whole worlds in themselves. You’re zooming in and zooming out at the same time
  • when you’re forced to work in a box (literally), a surprising amount of creativity can flow from all the permutations that can happen. As another friend & artist says in this short documentary, “I think boundaries are really important to having a sense of creativity and freedom otherwise it’s too wide open. . . . If there is no frame and if there is no context, you’re left with nothing, and I think it’s pretty hard for people to create something out of nothing.”

So with those ideas nesting in our minds, we got to work for 60 minutes using the materials provided for us. I was astounded at the variety of assemblages people came up with out of the same materials and in such a short amount of time. Some really, really beautiful pieces I would hang in a house. I don’t classify mine in quite that same category, but the process of making it was tremendously fun, maybe worth more than the product. My shout-out to Cornell was the unglued pieces of the pine cone and almonds sitting in the petri dish that can be taken out, played with, rearranged. As someone at my table suggested, I could replace the almonds with small candies at Christmas time, like presents under a Christmas tree. Who knows? The possibilities are endless.

Lost at Play. 2014

Crawling with Culture

Today was an art-filled day roaming around East Vancouver, visiting artists’ studios as part of the 17th Annual Eastside Culture Crawl—a three-day visual arts, crafts, and design festival. It was my first time going and there was so much to see, you couldn’t possibly visit the 300+ artists all in one day, let alone three.

So much culture and so little time.

But what I did see was wonderful. Here are snapshots from the day’s crawl in the Strathcona neighbourhood, East Hastings, and Railtown.

This colourful studio in Strathcona showed the work of assemblage artist Valerie Arntzen:

art studio of Valerie Arntzen

K eye D by Valerie Arntzen

Walking into her studio was like walking into a collector’s shop jammed from floor to ceiling with drawers and cupboards containing trinkets and treasures—discarded and found items that are given new life in playful and surprising ways. Birth of Jazz below, for example, features four clarinet horns, a globe, and sheet music.

Birth of Jazz by Valerie Arntzen

Parker Street Studios (from which the following picture was taken) was the hub of the Crawl with dozens of visual art, crafts, and furniture studios spread throughout the floor floors of this labyrinth-like space.

Here are some sculptures from David Robinson, whose miniature and larger-than-life size figures always seem to on the edge of something—hanging from a precipice, fighting the balance between life and death.

Chair by David Robinson

Many of his miniature pieces are actually maquettes (preliminary models) for large-scale versions.

Arc (Maquette) by David Robinson

Chair (Maquette) by David Robinson

Thompson Brennan‘s wonderfully-titled exhibit, Dirty Pretty speaks for itself. Reminds me of the “garbage to gold” idea I’ve written about before.

Last of all, but perhaps best of all, was walking into the studio of Galen Felde in Railtown. Her light-infused, dissolving landscapes felt like poetry—like holding onto a dream in that liminal space between sleeping and waking.

These two are called Sonnet for Lost Pine (No. 2 and No. 3):

Resource by Galen Felde

Gauze Between Us by Galen Gelde

If you live in Vancouver, you still have one day to soak in all this art and culture at the Crawl, so catch it while you can!

Here Comes the Revolution

As you’re making your way from Waterfront Station on Cordova Street to the underground platform for the Canada Line, a wall of poems meets your eyes. Like a list of flights at an airport, or arrival times of the SkyTrain line, these lists of ordinary and extraordinary things are paired with specific times in no apparent order. 6 minutes and 43 seconds until desire. 3 minutes and 4 seconds until the sun. 7 minutes and 48 seconds until the revolution. Alex will show up in 3 minutes and 22 seconds; Larry’s a little faster at 2:06. Is he the special boy in the line above?

There are so many arrangements and re-arrangements to be made from these simple, profound lines. They stop me every time. They make me think twice about the transit I am about to hop onto. Am I really waiting for the train or am I waiting for something else? What am I counting down? And is there panic or is there excitement? Do I want goodbye or do I want to squeeze out the night?

When I stopped to take photos, it was late evening. There were still enough people walking by that it was difficult to get the empty shot below. Since the font on the plaques is a very faint white, they’re difficult to read unless you stop. No one was looking at them until I got out my camera and started taking pictures. And then it seemed everyone walking by was looking. Was noticing.


I remember walking downtown on Canada Day. My friend and I passed The Province building, looked up at it, and, at the same time, backed away in panic. The angle we were looking from made us convinced it was going to fall, like Chicken Little and the Sky. I’ve never been that tripped out by a building before. It was the weirdest optical illusion and we kept looking, wondering how can this be? I’m sure we looked strange with our necks cranked upward but then we started seeing other people walking by with their necks cranked up too. My friend and I looked at each other and smiled: we had started something.

(Here comes the revolution)

I recently did an interview with a contemporary painter who said art is about teaching people to see. To really see. To stand under or stand in front of something and let the work move you. After the SkyTrain and Province skyscraper experience, I’ve come to think maybe it’s not just artists who can teach people to see. Maybe there’s space for in-between people to draw a line of attention that connects eyes of see-ers to things waiting to be seen. By simply looking at something a little out of the ordinary and a little magical—and stopping for it, maybe regular people like you and me are more noticed than we think. Maybe we can direct eyes; teach people to see.

See differently, see past, see better, see through, see ourselves, see anew.

Entertain Me?

I’ve heard art described as many things, but never as a game. Glenn Brown’s lecture at Emily Carr last Thursday night changed that.

Emily Carr University of Art & Design

He chooses titles that play games, that aren’t clear at first. The visual elements in his paintings play games too. He purposefully chooses colours that don’t match (like reds and greens) because “visual clashes animate a painting. They create an exciting game.”

Spearmint Rhino by Glenn Brown

When asked about his heavy use of religious symbols, he openly concedes his indebtedness to religion and how it has influenced the history of painting, but, in the end, “religion is just an interesting game played by society.”

Later in the talk, Brown said a good painting makes your eyes play ping pong, causing them to bounce from one corner of the canvas to another. You can see this in A Sailor’s Life, an upside-down and distorted version of Van Gogh’s Marguerite Gachet at the Piano. Brown’s version has a random black dot near the tip of the hands for no other reason than to draw the eye and deflect it.

A Sailor’s Life, like War in Peace and the majority of Brown’s paintings, have objects “lost in space and time–a state I like my paintings to be in,” he says.

War in Peace by Glenn Brown

Brown is a British painter who does reproductions, meaning he takes other people’s work and manipulates it in some way. I immediately thought of the quote about how good artists copy and great artists steal other people’s work, and he even mentioned it during his talk. “That statement is obviously something I’ve taken to heart.” The audience laughed.

After showing a bunch of paintings done in green, he said, “I once heard green paintings are the least popular to buy. So I started making a bunch of green paintings. I always wanted to do the opposite of what was popular.”

Star Dust by Glenn Brown

This desire to be different permeates Brown’s work. He’s also done sculpture, and what are you not supposed to make sculptures out of, he asks? “Paint. So what do I make my sculptures out of? Paint.”

Woman by Glenn Brown

This mindset explains why he paints old men instead of young female nudes, and why, when he began painting in the 1980s, he did the opposite of what was popular at the time, which was expressionism. His work hangs in the balance between figurative and non-figurative, female and male, beauty and the grotesque (but mostly grotesque).

Brown loves the idea of tension (the glorious and grotesque; beauty & decay; visual tension, clash of different centuries and sensibilities, etc) and I can’t help thinking about how his own work embodies it. Painting upon painting depicts his credit towards the art that’s come before him (much “high art” from his time working in the Tate Gallery in London, but also “low art” from sci fi illustrators), and so he says of his work, “This is my way of saying I can’t have an original thought. None of us are really individuals.” He brings this up in the context of poststructuralism. And yet he wants to do something different than other artists. He himself alluded to this tension during the question and answer period, and I appreciated his thoughtful reflections on why he does what he does.

There is often so much mystique about artists’ creative processes and what they want to say, but Brown was candid about how and why he creates. He manipulates images on Photoshop first before sketching them out and painting, and he even showed us some of these preliminary images. This honesty extended to his articulation of what he wants his work to do: to make people look at paintings; to make people interested in art (his approach to doing this is to make people feel a bit awkward and unsettled). His role as artist is to provide entertainment, which he says shouldn’t be such a dirty word in our society.

Zombies of the Stratosphere by Glenn Brown

His photorealistic surfaces and their ‘lost in time and space’ look are not that far from sci fi or fantasy novels, which also entertain us by helping us escape. And yet other paintings of his are very “this-worldly,” depicting everyday objects in a state of decay. He “just wanted to remind everybody of that,” he says when he showed us Burlesque. Although Brown is not concerned with beauty, he did let slip a couple times about objects being “beautiful in their decay.”

Burlesque by Glenn Brown

Although Brown’s paintings are interesting to look at, I’m not sure the idea of art as a game is ultimately that winsome for me. I think that would get old fast. I want art to do more than move my eyes in a visual game of ping pong. I want it to move me. Body, mind, and soul. To connect the visible with the invisible.

Brown wants to make people to look at art in whatever way they will notice it because “these paintings don’t exist until someone sees them.” This was a really fascinating comment. He’s not one of those painters who paint just for themselves and don’t care what anybody else thinks (if that’s even possible). He frequently discusses his ideas and sketches with others before launching full-speed into a project, and he credits his time at Goldsmith College in London for helping him see art as a collaborative process.

Art needs an audience. What will it say if it has no one to say it to? Even if the picture makes you escape, makes you cringe, makes you feel awkward or makes you feel death, Brown’s work has something to say about being human and being in tension. So . . . entertain me? Move me? Or both?