The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.


As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

Road(s) I’ve Taken

I started a business this week. You can “like” the facebook page here if you wish. Actually, I would really like that. But don’t worry, this blog is not going to turn into a sales pitch for it. I hope that’s the most market-y I ever sound on here. But since it just launched and I’m  excited about it, I wanted to share it with all of you and hope you’ll share it too!

I’m also mentioning this news because its origins fit with the theme of this blog. Bear with me, it takes a bit of background to get there. So I have an English MA and a Bachelor of Humanities. I had never planned on starting my own business. Without telling you the whole story of how it came to be, I’m just going to tell you the important part.

The road to this entrepreneurial decision was one of those “as way leads onto way” kind of journeys Robert Frost talks about in “The Road Not Taken.”

And as Kid President famously says, the way isn’t always that easy. “Rocks! Thorns! Glass! Not cool, Robert Frost!”

What’s also not cool is a road that doesn’t go straight. Meandering, scenic roads are pretty to drive on but as a metaphor for life, they’re not that desirable. I wanted/expected the road after finishing my liberal arts education to be straight, or at least straighter. To lead progressively from one thing to the next. Linear career motion.

But it hasn’t been. I’m sure people warned me about this along the way, but I don’t think it ever really sinks in until you’re on the other side, out of school and facing that reality. (I’m talking from my own experience and those of many of my peers). I’m gradually becoming okay with that reality now, and I wouldn’t have changed what I took in school because I love what I learned, but I wish there was a bigger emphasis in university and the outside world about the likelihood and legitimacy of a circuitous road for those of us with an arts background.

The reality is arts programs don’t take you from education to career in the same way that an education program takes you to “teacher” or a nursing degree takes you to “nurse.” I have siblings in both these professions which has highlighted our very different trajectories. Maybe A = B for some people and that’s great, but maybe it’s also great when A ≠ B, which I’m still figuring out.

Anyway, I said this would somehow fit into the theme of this blog so here’s the loose connection. All of that was really preamble explaining why the UBC Faculty of Arts Buchanan Courtyard Renewal in 2011 deeply resonates with me. 26 quotations in different languages span the floor of the pond. It’s not just the words that speak to the value of an arts education, it’s the form they take.

UBC Buchanan Courtyard with concentric rings of quotations. Photo by Bob Matheson

I didn’t go to UBC but I appreciate what Susan Mavor, one of the principals at Public Architecture + Communication that designed the pavilion, said about the pond:

The idea was to ‘physically express what an arts program is’–not an A-to-B linear path but a circuitous journey. [quoted in Canadian Architect]

There’s somebody who gets it! What an encouraging space for arts students who walk by each day on their way in and out of classes, as they sit on the wood-and-concrete benches or study underneath the High Modernist arms of the pavilion structure. It’s one thing to hear brief comments from profs that an arts degree may require more creativity with your post-school plans, but it’s another thing to have this reminder sandblasted into your faculty’s physical DNA. This space says it’s okay to take that non-linear road in the yellow wood. Whether the students are conscious of this or not, I don’t know, but I do know space also functions on a subconscious level and I think there’s something to this idea of surrounding arts students with a message of this kind.

So I’m curious – what shape has your post-school journey taken?