Happy Birthday (Mister / Darling)

When airplanes (in literature and song) fall from the sky, there is liable to be some manner of “Happy Birthday” whether your name is Conor Oberst or Salman Rushdie, whether you perish or are reborn. Even if another name or fate possesses you, there may yet be candles and cake.

To demonstrate, I have interwoven selected words from Conor Oberst’s “At the bottom of everything” and from (the audiobook of) Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses“.

Oberst: “There was this huge Mechanical Failure and one of the engines gave out”
Rushdie / Narrating: “Flew too close to the sun is that it?”
Oberst: “And they started just falling and 30 thousand feet.”
Rushdie / Chamcha (trying to reason the miracle out of existence) “God, we were lucky, he said, How lucky can you get?”
Oberst (strumming percussively): “It’s a birthday party. It’s your birthday party: happy birthday darling.”
Rushdie: “Born again, Spoono, you and me. Happy birthday, mister; happy birthday to you.”

Oberst, having published his song “At the Bottom of Everything” in 2005, follows chronologically after Rushdie’s 1988 Satanic Verses, but perhaps both the artist and the author exist rather in the imaginary place that might be described as a perpetual birthday.

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Dregs and Legacy

Dregs. Leftover (cocoa) bubbles in a cup. Satisfied traces in a swig-wake. Just accidental patterns? Or is there art(fulness) in what you leave behind? Our legacy of consumption isn’t merely a hot button issue. Every slag story is also about nourishment. There’s more here than a byproduct: it’s also the proof of savoured pudding.

Historically, our social, political, and cultural leaders each drank deeply from the nourishing fountains of their time: family (or lack thereof), place, inner persona, outward pomp. So what’s left in the cup after that final, satisfying gulp? What can you see in that circle (or square) of hot chocolate, tea, beer, mineral or pulp? What crystallizes into view at the bottom of everything?

I really like the layers in this image. Each swallow, having lowered the liquid level by requisite millimeters, has made its own foamy cocoa-mark on the mug’s vertical gradient. But what really makes this a geological experience is the apparent crackle of dried mud at the bottom. This is truly a draught-turned-drought.

Picture these fissures slowly forming: the mug left on a desk in the wee hours of the morning, witness to the weak whittling of a man with a deadline. The mug (weeks later) still sitting tight, now lost behind stacks of paper, succumbing to dehydration. The porcelain polish finally peering through the barren bark. Abandoned. And yet: what a vigorous life this creature is privy to!

What really makes this a geological experience is the apparent crackle of dried mud at the bottom.

And that’s the humanity of it. What I see in the dregs is evidence of hands and heads and hearts of all sorts. And there are all sorts! The engaged and employed as well as the arrogant and empty. Some dregs commemorate brain cells agonizing over determinism and technology, over diamonds and skulls, over Kermit the frog. Others mark a desperate drowning.

  • Which particular chamomile leaves induced the necessary calm to craft the great nonviolent social movements?
  • What kind of sweet residual communion wine might mark the aftermath of ritual bliss?
  • What foamy remnants of one too many beers might have observed the murder of a spouse?

Dregs are a kind of leveller. We’re all thirsty for something, and have all known both satisfaction and its opposite. Many a refueling (or remushing) of mind has had to do with the draining of a draught. What we end up doing with those legacies is up to us.

Beyond the flourishing finality of a deep, guttural “Ahhhh”, and the loud heavy-fisted plunking of pewter on hardwood, our tales seem often to trickle away in dishwater. Even heirloom china, carefully handled (in and out of its crystal-cabinet home) is all too often found in shattered remnants on the floor.

But the human vessel?

At the bottom of our own earthen souls, we seems to have every lingering intention to endure.

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The Hidden Holy

On the heels of Scrapin’ the Wasteland, Stephen (my gracious host) introduced me and my work to more people in his Waterloo neighbourhood. One of those people is David Knight, a pastor at Lincoln Road Chapel. In addition to having written a fabulous book about water in the Bible, David recently hosted the seminar Our Father’s World: Discovering the Hidden Holy in Creation, featuring keynote Ed Brown, from Care of Creation. He also invited me to exhibit my artwork.

David Knight is pastor at Lincoln Road Chapel and author of Downstream from Eden

Hope, in the arena of human environmental impact, is scarce. So I figured this would be a great moment to reflect, in a Christian context, on how we’re not simply fated to be destroyers and eroders of the earth, but also people who uphold creation though creativity. I decided to bring along a series of works (shown on easels, above) that address the complex interweave of humans with their environment. Helping me with the setup was Aimie, who also happened to express most strongly the kind of connection we were forging:

Your pieces express a strikingly poignant message. I would encourage you to display them.  At the risk of overusing the word poignant, I do believe that they capture the essence of what this conference is about.

Probably my most eco-oriented piece continues to be “Meander” a 4-foot square montage that coerces together the Big East River (at Arrowhead park) with an assemblage of truck tire pieces, gathered from the Michigan Interstate. I observed again the relevance of the river’s insight: even though the forces of erosion are destructive, they also carve out new possibilities. I apply this to the environment in this sense: even while our burning of fossil fuels continues to ravage the air and the water, it also makes possible the meeting of the kinds of creative forces that will eventually solve the problems we face. It’s not a self evident beauty, but it is a hopeful one, and that’s where I have to rest my confidence.

Ed Brown’s seminar went into statistics about overpopulation and the dramatic negative effects of human ambition on the climate. Fear, of course, is rarely sufficient as a catalyst for action. It helps, therefore, to speak the language of the particular community you want to mobilize. As it happens, Christianese does not easily play host to ecological concerns. There’s a long history in Christendom of environmental neglect. Thankfully there are plenty of exceptions, such as this ecumenical formulation from the late 1990s, which can only be described as repentance:

Biblical statements, such as “to have dominion” and “subdue the earth”, have been misused through the centuries to justify destructive actions toward the created order. As we repent of this violation, we accept the biblical teaching that people, created in the image of God, have a special responsibility as servants in reflecting God’s creating and sustaining love, to care for creation and to live in harmony with it.

What Brown essentially did was to make Creation Care a gospel issue. If our relationship with God and others is to be healed in Jesus, then so too must be our relational configuration with the creation itself. Amen.

Ed Brown, from Care of Creation network, spoke at Lincoln Road Chapel in March 2015
Ed Brown, from Care of Creation network, spoke at Lincoln Road Chapel in March 2015

arocha_canada_logoAlso present at the conference was A Rocha Canada, a boreal manifestation of a broader environmental stewardship network. As it happened Peter Scholtens (a former teacher from my High School days) has been involved with A Rocha for years. Great to discover that the world is still small!

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Jordan Art Gallery

Gyres in Jordan

Jordan Ontario is nestled in the heart of Niagara’s wine growing region – and thus is home to plenty of spiralling grapevines. This May, I’ll be exhibiting some my own favourite spirals, drawn from the last several years’ work. These will be familiar pieces for some of you. For others I hope it will constitute a new way to gyrate!

Gyres opens at the Jordan Art Gallery on May 9th, 2015

Opening: May 9th 2015, 2-4pm (Talk with Q+A begins at 3pm)

Find further information on the Jordan Art Gallery Website.

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Canada Geese

Moving water does not readily solidify. And so even as frozen pipes fail to deliver a Caledonia morning shower, another nearby trickling flow persists. Downstream from the Grand River Dam, the year-round H2O movement facilitates feathered huddles of Februarian resilience. Canadian as I am, I can’t say I’d easily call these frigid waters home (cold and comfort from my perspective remain oxymoronic). But for these Geese, even the subtlest stream is sufficient impetus to stay.

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Scrapin’ the Wasteland

scrapin’ the wasteland

Earlier this year, my friend Stephen Svenson hosted “Scrapin’ the Wasteland”, an evening of art, song, and ice-capades (and a combination of my Landscrapes artwork with C.D.’s album, Love in the Wasteland. My foray into C.D.’s world went something like this:

It takes a certain kind of tenacity to insist on “love”; to know the language we use is inadequate, but to go on using it as if it was. On the other hand we don’t know what a wasteland is unless we’ve understood alternative(s).

He responded by quoting T.S. Elliot, or someone else poetic (I forget who). But aside from sharing in Elliot’s bravado with the whole two-letter-initial thing, C.D. is the most laid-back soul you’ll ever meet. He’s been working on something called the perpetual peace project. To me, perpetual peace is as ambitious and foolhardy and beautiful a thing as anyone can attempt. C.D.’s music is produced on a First nations label. Aside from noting that the event was technically being hosted on native land, the intermingling of our stories was not limited to the disappearance of the Buffalo, but also celebrating what humans can achieve when they link arms. Do join in the fun and give his songs a whirl!

With temperatures as frigid as they were, most of us frolicked inside. There were a lot of memorable conversations, and a general atmosphere of frothiness and conviviality: what the Dutch would call “gezelligheid”, and what Sven couldn’t help but calling “collective effervescence”, in the spirit of Émile Durkheim (that’s him in the French mug at the top of this post).

Charlotte resonated with the artwork and its approach to complexity. “You managed to mix many different elements, symbols, images into one cohesive and organic form,” she said. Charlotte also spoke about her own interests in evolutionary biology, which I found fascinating:

I’ve been reading a lot of about evolutionary biology (always been an interest, but now reading more deeply). I believe I love it for poetic reasons. I can be reading about chemical processes and genetic patterning and I barely understand it, but it doesn’t seem to matter since I think it is the poetry of it that I love.

As it turned out, the poetics of deep time wasn’t yet finished (scrapin’ its way across my geological radar). Eugenie, too, noticed the proliferation of spirals in my work. I wound up photographing her marvellous ammonite specimen later on. As far as I can gather, this is a rare “agatized” fossil, formed under the unique conditions (Apparently all those compartments shelter the chemistry so that it can really billow into beauty. It’s also the product of several hundred million Madagascar years, and a sharp saw:

Speaking of crystallized gorgeousness, Isaac will tell you things about crystals that may blow your mind (or make you second-guess your sanity, take your pick). His collection as well as his general buoyant demeanour added an invigorating element to the space. All in all, this was a memorable mingle. It was especially lovely to see Corrie (dear friend living in Victoria) and Kristie (spunky/fit/awesome KW Nia chick). Conclusion: I highly recommend hosting an art and music party at your house, (or other venue). I will supply the art if you’re game.

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Institutional Memory

If you’re familiar with Cardus, you’ll have come across an issue or two of Comment magazine, which in its Winter 2014 incarnation features my work, Burning Bush on the front cover. Here’s the image in print adjacent to its aluminum counterpart. Does “Redeeming Conservatism” sound a bit heavy? It does to me. But if, as James K. A. Smith asserts, “there is something worth conserving“, then I hope my own reflections (from the issue’s back cover) also conserve an element of whimsy:

Artemisia Cana, integral to steppe ecosystems, is an institution. Timeless erosion-stopper and tireless nourisher of desert creatures, the benevolent ubiquity of Silver Sage is topped only by grey hair. Scathed by the fires of colonization and drought (but persevering anyway), he’s a resilient ascetic: one who drinks from deep roots; a keeper of the good; a bush not consumed. And yet the plains bison (though similarly hoary and conservative) did not fare as well under fire, succumbing to the herd mentality of lowercase (armed) sages on horseback. Now a mere 300, reintroduced of late to Saskatchewan’s grasslands, smoulder in a mythic wild. As the zealous smoke clears away, a calf cavorts in the dust, raising new plumes of questions, quite possibly prophetic. Parks Canada is well funded. Does there remain, even now, a song to sing, to the tune of “do not destroy”? Take off your shoes. We’re going to stay here a while.

Artemesia Cana - Silver Sage
Artemesia Cana – Silver Sage

If you’re still tracking, this is as much a game of eye-spy as ever. Silver sage is easy enough to spot, but for those wondering where the buffalo appear in this image, I’ve taken this opportunity to clarify. In the inset image below, I’ve isolated one of many layers in this photo-collage. It’s the layer that includes buffalo skulls, here used as a painterly device to create flames. In the final version, they’ve faded away, much like the creatures themselves.


Burning Bush is one of several works that resulted from a trans-Canada research trip I made in the summer of 2012. While it was first shown as part of my solo exhibit, LANDSCRAPES, at the you me gallery in February 2013, the work has been the locus of several other conversations.

Stained glass window ornament, Goos Vreugdenhil, Steenwijk, Netherlands, 2007.

Especially memorable to me was the acceptance of Burning Bush into the inaugural exhibition of O Ma Noot Gallery’s at Beth Jacob Synagogue. Rabbi Dan Selzberg, had initial (understandable) reservations about the appearance of the word(s) “EV-AN-GE-LIUM” visible in appropriated stained glass at the core of the bush’s burning. Rather than provoke, however, the image became a point of departure for further reflection and conversation. The theme of the show, “…and you shall tell your children” resonated with me as it was oft repeated during my own upbringing albeit in a non-Jewish context. We discovered that we shared in common a commitment to the wellbeing of the next generation, and an awareness of the importance of (religious) institutions in making that covenant concrete.

Image: Jane Ash Poitras, Buffalo Seed. Mixed media, oil on canvas, 2004.
Image: Jane Ash Poitras, Buffalo Seed. Mixed media, oil on canvas, 2004.

Since exhibiting the work again at Glenhyrst in 2014, I’ve continued to wrestle with the tensions in the work. How could I possibly justify the bringing together of tree roots along the Seine, inverted parliament buildings, injection-moulded footwear, and a map of Manitoulin island? Are these really my own stories to tell? Can I own an idea, simply by having crossed paths with it? Shouldn’t I rather defer to someone like Jane Ash Poitras, whose Cree heritage gives her more of a right than I’ll ever have to speak about the buffalo in terms of genocide? How can I even begin to speak when the entire image-borne story is so latent with perpetrated loss? On a recent visit with my brother to the Royal Ontario Museum, I was struck by the power and looseness of Poitras’ collage works. She says: “I think that the role of an artist today is to become free, to transcend. Then they can transform, enlighten, and become empowered.” These words ring true for me, but in ways that I haven’t yet unearthed. I often feel only a palpable lack of awareness.

What I keep coming back to is the open, curious nature of collage. It seems to be a place not only to juxtapose, but to collaborate: an imagined landscape where new languages can be invented and word games can be played without apology. Scissors and glue will always remain charged with the institutional memory of more insidious weapons. But if we move ahead as collaborators, we just might begin to collage together a future.

You can buy prints of Burning Bush.

Zoom in (use your scroll wheel):

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Silver Planets

What happens when you hang your world on imagination? This past summer, Phil, RobJulia and I got busy at Silver Lake (near Kincardine, Ontario) in an effort to orchestrate discovery. With so many eager hands and bright minds around, we couldn’t help but be optimistic. Was this the stellar stewardship of truncated icosahedra? Or simply the beauty of an organic solar system? Whatever it was, the next generation of terraforming urban planners appear to have it confidently together.

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