Athabasca Falls

In, Out, Up, Down

Neither the carriers of a Christ-yoke, nor the navigators of heavier spiritual paths, ever quite escape the ego on this side of (the) Jordan. Nietzsche might see the ego as an opportunity (and I sympathize with the will to power), but for the rest of us power is suspect, and the ego remains a human problem. To disconnect from the ego, we (seek to) reconnect with the Divine. Easier said than done, as omnipresent beings tend not to publish their GPS coordinates. So where are we off to?

“Love the world as your own self.”-Lao Tzu

Eastern mystics recommend an inward orientation: “Seek the divine inside yourself”. I find echoes (of this posture) in the urgings of the self help universe to “seek within”, in Obama’s impetus to “be the change” and in the claim of Jesus, that “the kingdom of God is within you“. The urge to turn inward also aims to amplify a divine core. “Namaste” drives away the ego by excluding it from the field of vision.  When one says “the divine light in me honors the divine light in you”, no mention is made of darkness. We assume one another to bear in completeness (the image of Christ).

On the other hand, it’s a risky business, to carry divinity around. The ego may well claim (divinity entirely for) itself. And so, Christians have also been known to insist on a Creator / creature distinction. Your separation from – and dependence on – God is real, and humility is therefore natural. God is sovereign, but you are Just a Reflektor.

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“Thought you were praying to the resurrector; turns out it was just a reflector. (Just a reflector)”-Arcade Fire

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The wisdom in this kind of self-emptying, is to seek God not only within, but also without: looking outward but also and especially upward. Enlightened persons are said to have reached a higher state. Numinous experiences on mountains (and with burning bushes) are echoed in all kinds of texts, including the Hebrew “unto the hills“. Rudolph Otto’s “wholly other” is far above (my) petty humanness. Interestingly, when Jon Foreman looks at the Stars, he claims the dual benefit of not only seeing “someone else”, but also of feeling “like myself”. Credence to the vertical.

“Do not love the world”-Jesus

It seems that self-empowerment and self-emptying wind up being very close to the same thing. Whether you actively exclude the ego, or fill up your heart-home with suficient goodness to crowd it out by default, the cow poop seems either to sublimate either way. By the time it traverses the Athabasca falls, you won’t be able to find it back.

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Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae

Cedar-Apple Rust

With the month of May having expired, I picked up my Gyres artworks from The Jordan Art Gallery this week. Though conversations with George Langbroek tend to fruitfully peel away the hours, I got away in time to stop by at Balls Falls Conservation Area. Distracted by sights and sounds near the trailhead, I did not even make it to the falls! Alongside an uncommon abundance of bird species (including bluebirds, woodpeckers, and various other musically-astute finches), I took note of a bizarre community of squid-like entities that appeared to burgeon on several of the Balls Falls cedars. What are these that are arrayed in orange robes? And from whence came they?

Mom, do we come from spores?

It turns out that Cedar-Apple Rust is a wind-borne fungus that alternates in its choice of host. Depending on the position of its lifecycle, you might find them attached to either a cedar or an apple tree. In an apple year, it manifests simply as leaf spots. But in a cedar year (especially after a late spring rain) you get these otherworldly growths. I can’t help but envision their tentacles as part of some underwater steampunk fiction. But for now, just enjoy the orange glow:

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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“.

TRANSCRIPT:
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

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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easels

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.

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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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Hone

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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durkheim

Scrapin’ the Wasteland

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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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