This Essay was first published as part of DEVOTIONS, an exhibit curated by Bryce Kanbara for the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant.

Somnium in Offertore (Closeup)
Closeup: Organ pipes hover over a mountain in a collection bag, from Somnium in Offertore

Spun through the etymological wash, “DEVOTIONS” yields a dark (and delicate) set of threads. Like its Latin-rooted siblings, the word enjoys a peculiar dead-language gravitas. But even after we dig it out of its grave, “De Vovere” carries along with it the sense of a sacred vow, enveloped in the shroud of a distant churchy aura. Ancient incense wafts into view, and someone rings a bell: the cue to unfurl an enormous roll of papyrus. Coven(ant)s are made, curtains are drawn (and torn), and ram-skins are dyed red. In the middle of it all, one can only discern the backs of people’s heads: hundreds of fixated heads, drawn to the altar; the censer; the pulpit.

For my part, I have not inherited the 10-day week of the Xia Dynasty, nor an Orthodox procession, nor either any particularly pungent brand of holiness: but for the simple bookish strictures I did receive, I remain, somehow, grateful. Text and texture emerge together from an underlying rhythm; a more ubiquitous pulsating; a more original source. The water of life is an undercurrent, that has made the strangeness of ritual seem almost natural. The river delta, the burning bush, the sunflower’s spiral have become mirrors: their brushstrokes articulating an understanding of the human patterns and hierarchies in which I (at times inadvertently) partake.

Of course, many of our oil-oriented rituals are laden with danger. It’s disconcerting to think that they are on some level, inevitable. But I do find a level of agency restored, when I think about spiritual commitment and practice in primarily aesthetic terms. If you’re made in the image of a Creator, that remains a creative calling. So, in recognition of the wellspring that fuels these devotions, I celebrate the way they are echoed in the same unyielding tedium, the same familiar faces, the same relentless pattern, the same painterly lines, the same waves, that even now are washing up onto the (same) Ontario shore.

Waves, like church pews (and the people who fill them), insist on recurrence. Like Mendeleev’s table, they are periodic. The more rambunctious among them relish a good crash on the beach, whilst the timid approach meekly, but with well-articulated nuance. Are they really enjoying themselves? Or is it a kind of slavery? A helpless tossing, kowtow to the going rate of knots? Perhaps that frothy unleashing of fury is after all a kind of faultfinding. Shall we blame the wind?

In a world full of kitsch and cruelty and pretence, it’s awkward enough without a Nor’easter up your shorts.

Hung on a Brabantia rotary dryer, a week’s worth of laundry will not blame the wind; will not despise the “biggest fan” devotion of a single mother to her young rascals and their formerly white socks. Neither will the Maple seed blame the wind, though whirling (reprobate) into a sidewalk crack. Whether destined for mere saplinghood (or more), participation was salvation enough. Neither will Melancthon’s wind farm blame the wind, though I’m sure it has its (de)tractors. And the circus pinwheel? Okay, maybe the circus pinwheel should blame the wind. In a world full of kitsch and cruelty and pretence, it’s awkward enough without a Nor’easter up your shorts.

A pretty good rhyme from the 2014 edition of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter
A pretty good rhyme from the 2014 edition of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter

Organ pipes remain blissfully unaware that the sort of wind they celebrate is artificially generated. But pipes are easier to photograph than tornadoes. So I give them the benefit of the doubt, and let the blower-motor justify their diverse kinds of presence. Some assert a divine dominance, expressing a sheer capacity to extract minerals from deep rocks; to penetrate fog; to rattle a spine; to “let our voices shake the ground”. Others rather call to mind the sigh of a collective breath: pithy, particular, potent: Reformed yoga masters. And the Vox Humana, poignantly perched above the preacher, are ordered stepwise, a kind of mountain range, forged by the forces of church music politics, and the grit of Dutch immigrants.

If the pillars of the earth hold few answers to our arguments, it’s because they do not very much care.

People (and their ideologies) migrate on the surface of a more substantially tectonic planet. When theological upheaval brings with it a very real (human) cost, I yearn to wander away, to be alone, and to look “unto the hills”. There’s nothing like the perspective of an eon-spanning “groan that words cannot express” to still the soul. If the pillars of the earth hold few answers to our arguments, it’s because they do not very much care. How can I have even a petty conversation with a coolie? Four and a half billion megapixels would scarcely be enough. In the face of deep time, my Camera (and even Adobe Photoshop) hangs pathetically limp. I sigh, and settle for the more accessible Manitoulin Island and Misery Bay: a rare, glacier-scraped alvar ecosystem that doubles as a dance floor. We still stand at opposite ends of the Holocene, so I cannot mock this pock-mark park. But compared to the Rockies, it’s a lot closer to home.

Flowtotiller, 2014, Trumpetflower seed pod husks

There are other forms of groundedness too, unbothered by epochs or monumentality or predestination. A Caledonia Trumpetflower burns out bright, the fickle production of months that I can number on one hand. It’s a flicker, fired up for a while, and then … ? Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras Brahms reiterates. But I sense no resentment from the fallen seed pod husks that, after a long winter lend their curvature to an aqueous circular fugue arrangement in a Rubbermaid bin. Maybe the coinciding of Easter with spring is a coincidence. I’d say it’s still appropriate, at this time of year, to make art that appears to rise from the dead.

For some, this sort of bravado hinges on the words of dead men from the 16th century. Personally I have my doubts about lawyers from Geneva. But sometimes I’m surprised by the kinds of life that thrive within very particular boundaries. The Belgic Confession of Faith refers to the natural world as a book “of so many letters”. This is admittedly an imposition, force-fitting nature into the devices of cover, spine, table of contents, introduction, and conclusion. What does nature care about books, or the gaudy things we fill their pages with? I don’t know about chickens and eggs, but trees do precede paper and ink. Still, I see it as more than lip service when a document concerned with the primacy of the Word also acknowledges God’s world. Maybe it’s only a crack in the sidewalk. And maybe that makes me an sapling. It still remains a concrete 21st century opportunity.

I don’t know about chickens and eggs, but trees do precede paper and ink.

I conceive of the opportunity as sculptural: both additive and subtractive. The meandering river, even as it erodes away its banks, is also busy carving out new channels; tracing out new trajectories; mapping out the markmaking of tomorrow. Yes, the (eventual) oxbow lake comes at a cost. But then, what kinds of biodiversity does this lively negotiation enable? The ends and the means (inter)twine, like threads in a Digital Tapestry.

Skunk Cabbage Closeup from Somnium in Offertore
Skunk Cabbage Closeup from Somnium in Offertore

Skunk Cabbage is my favourite: the antithesis of straight; twist(ed) and shout(ing); generating its own heat; melting ice and snow; flowering in February; delightfully deceptive; sporting a pollination strategy that operates on an olfactory lie; feigning to be dead flesh. Yes, that will attract a few bugs, and maybe something larger: bait and switch. For Exhibit B, “wait and twitch” we have only to meet battlemaster Killdear. That wing isn’t really broken. It’s only a decoy.

God, it’s a crazy world, isn’t it? While Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” here I am, trying to find a place for all these weird photographs. Digital collage is guided by the obsessive delusion that everything must somehow hold together. It is the rash assumption of wholeness, in total disregard of Yeats and his falconer.

It is a vigorous and human verticality.

Flying further up the forested riverbank we see trees reach competitively upward, each eager for light, fearful about getting left in the shade. It is a vigorous and human verticality. From these sparring spruces, is hewn the woodgrain of a church pew: derivatively rigorous, but still ablaze with (communion) shot-glasses and songs; a voice of fire that goes on giving back to the taxpayer. I think I’m devoted to this playlist. I’ve (still) got it on repeat.

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