Passion and Work

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, published by Alfred A. Knopf

Julia Child
photo: Paul Child

I waited six weeks to receive an email from the Vancouver Public Library that the book I had reserved was waiting for me at my local library around the corner. I was in luck–it was a Thursday night, which meant the  library was open late. I could nip out before dinner and grab my precious object tout de suite.

Running all the way, I enthused to the librarian about my excited anticipation to read Julia Child’s already iconic biography, My Life in France. From the first page I knew I would not be disappointed. I’m half way through, and already mourning the event I know is coming––when I reach the final page.

Ms. Childs’ engaging story of her journey to becoming herself through her love of French cooking, and her descriptions of an American woman living in France in the 1950’s is an entertaining and delightful read.

Here is an excerpt describing a philosophy on cooking the lowly scramble egg by Chef Bugnard, one of her instructors at the Cordon Bleu cooking school:

His eggs were always perfect, and although he must have made this dish several thousand times, he always took great pride and pleasure in this performance. Bugnard insisted that one pay attention, learn the correct technique, and that one enjoy one’s cooking––”Yes, Madame Scheeld, fun!” he’d say “Joy!”

I am not the most adept of cooks; though I love eating, I’m the type who can make a decent meal when called upon, but most of my artistic energy goes into work in the studio. Reading My Life in France has me thinking that maybe I should sign up for that cooking course; I might actually enjoy myself.

Go, go at once, dear reader, and get yourself a copy of this wonderful book.

Only connect: Funding art during a Depression

Rothko at Tate Modern, London, UK
Rothko at Tate Modern, London, UK

I find it downright puzzling that the British Columbia government has decided to cut more than 85 per cent of provincial arts funding in the next two years. Admittedly, there is indeed an economic “recession”, but I propose that now is the time to invest in cultural workers, not dismantle what has lovingly and laboriously been built up.

The provincial government’s cuts to the Arts are a very shortsighted strategy, since the arts are literally a money magnet. According to statistics from the Alliance for Arts and Culture, 5.2 billion dollars is raised by British Columbia’s arts, culture, and heritage industries alone.

Anyone who has travelled knows that cities such as London, Paris, and New York are not visited for their scenery or business connections alone; their theatre, visual arts, literature, design, and fashion are at the core of what makes them such vibrant places in which to visit, live, and work.

In the United States, the Federal Government is actually increasing their investment to the Arts, in order, as stated in their Arts and Culture policy, “to remain competitive in the global economy”. Their policy includes increasing funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, promoting cultural diplomacy with other nations, and publicly championing the importance of art education. Studies in Chicago have domonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the United States’ Federal Arts Project funded out-of-work artists and provided art for non-federal government buildings: schools, hospitals, libraries and the like. The work was divided into art production, art instruction and art research, providing an income for out-of-work artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Louise Nevelson, and Philip Guston.  These artists went on to make history. Imagine a world where these talented individuals weren’t given a leg-up at a crucial period in their development?

Interestingly, these artists are now shown in major museums which attract visitors from around the world to the cities in which these museums are situated.

I strongly recommend the BC Government rethink their devastating cuts to the arts, and I propose that now is in fact the time to invest in the arts, fostering the work they have already begun with the exciting Cultural Olympiad.

Premier Campbell & the Arts
Premier Campbell & the Arts (by Raeside)

The Pleasures of Art

In these difficult times, looking at and making art can help us get back in touch with the best things that humans are capable of–– a sense of play, a sense of excitement in the creative act.

The following excerpt,  from David Hockney’s book, That’s the Way I See It, reveals the artist’s philosophy on viewing and making art:

I have always believed that art should be a deep pleasure. I think there is a contradiction in an art of total despair, because the very fact that the art is made seems to contradict despair. It means at least that you are trying to communicate what you feel to somebody else and the very fact that you can communicate it takes away a little of the despair. Art has this contradiction built into it. All one has to do is look at its history.

A few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York there was a show of Fragonard. He is an artist who has been thought sometimes to be much too pleasurable, much too playful, much too sweet to be serious, and certainly in the early nineteenth century that’s how he was dismissed. It was only the Goncourt brothers who started looking seriously at his paintings and buying them.

Today we see him differently. To me Fragonard is a wonderful artist. I think you can’t have art without play; Picasso always understood that. I think you can’t have much human activity of any kind without a sense of playfulness. Someone once criticized my work, saying it was too playful. I said, That’s hardly a criticism at all, that’s a compliment. I do see it as a compliment because I believe that without a sense of play there’s not much curiosity either; even a scientist has a sense of play. And that allows for surprises, the unexpected, discoveries. Anybody who gets good at it knows that. You can use it. I use it. People tend to forget that play is serious, but I know that of course it is. Some people have got the idea that if it’s boring it’s art and if it’s not boring it’s not art. Well, I’ve always thought it was the other way round. If it’s boring, more than likely it’s not art, if it’s exciting, thrilling, more than likely it is. I don’t know of any good art that’s boring, in music, poetry or painting. Isn’t that why Shakespeare is so exciting?

You can find more information on David Hockney on the Artsy website.

Text excerpt from That’s the Way I See It, page 133 © David Hockney

The illustrated woman

Maira Kalman
Maira Kalman

In her heart-warming book, The Principles of Uncertainty, Maira Kalman reveals emotional depth and a quirky wit. In an excerpt posted on the New York times website, she suggests ways to ponder the pursuit of happiness.

An illustrator, author, and designer, Kalman is widely known and loved for her children’s books such as Ooh La La, Max in Love, and her brilliant illustrated update of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Hear Maira talk about her life and work in a video from the public speaking series Ted Talks:

Jay Isaac and finding a new way

Jay Isaac
Jay Isaac

Jay Isaac is a Canadian painter who is carving out new territory by revisiting old approaches; he is making paintings of humble things, such as the view out his window.

I have not met Jay, but I first saw his work in a group show around 2002, at Vancouver’s Third Avenue Gallery. It was a picturesque view of a swan in a pond. I was struck by the voluptuous paint surface, the simple, endearing subject matter, and what came through to me was the sheer joy of painting. What’s more, dare I say it was beautiful? I still regret that I was not able to take it home with me, so I could enjoy it everyday.

A very interesting review about Jay and his work can be found in the current Border Crossings magazine, and you can also find him in the Magenta Foundation’s new book, Carte Blanche Volume 2: Painting.

Jay Isaac will be exhibiting his paintings at CSA Space in Vancouver (see Blogroll) opening May 1st. If you will be in Vancouver, this should be well worth a visit.

It’s never too late to create

In the current climate of young, new, hip artists with fabulous conceptual savvy (and some of them truly deserve the attention), let’s not forget artists and writers who came to their best work later in life, through trial and error.

Philip Guston, 1972, Painting, Smoking, Eating. Oil on canvas 196.8 x 262.9 cm Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Philip Guston, 1972, Painting, Smoking, Eating. Oil on canvas 77 1/2 x 103 1/2 ins, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Think: Louise Bourgeois today in her 90’s, Cezanne in his 60’s, Philip Guston in his  late 50’s,Virginia Woolf in her 40’s. Says Robert Frost, who wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when he was 57:

…it is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy.

Read more in this Los Angeles Times article by David Galenson and Joshua Kotin: It’s never too late too create

Half-empty, or half-full?


Half-empty, or half-full?
Photo: Derek Jensen

Fed up with the doom and gloom about the recession, global warming, and rising terrorism? Since they probably aren’t going to go away, perhaps you should read  The Optimist, a new book by Laurence Shorter.  Over three years, he spent time finding people who make the best of their time on the planet, including Richard Branson, Mick Jagger, and Desmond Tutu.


In his research, he discovered that “optimism” is actually misrepresented. A word coined by 17th century philosopher Leibniz, its original meaning was actually “optimal”, to signify the perfection of the universe as it is now–in other words, being in the moment, and deciding to accept things as they really are.  

Interestingly,”Martin Seligman, in researching this area, criticises academics for focusing too much on causes for pessimism and not enough on optimism. He states that in the last three decades of the 20th century journals published 46,000 psychological papers on depression and only 400 on joy.” (Wikipedia).

Interesting, n’est-ce pas?

Thinking about new paintings

royalmail“Voyages en Zigzag” is the working title to my next show, which will be in November 2009 at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto. This time, instead of working from photographs from my travels, I will stay at home (this is the era of a new restraint, n’est-ce pas?) and collect jpegs from friends and acquaintances in my computer’s Inbox. It’s exciting to see a big download coming through the internet line, a good indication that some new, delicious images from someone’s holidays are about to land.

Just received some nice photos from my pals Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, (shameless name-dropping) who have become quite the jet-setters with animation festivals and such. I also have been fortunate to get permission to use the photos of a quantum physicist who posted his delicious images of Russian palaces on Flickr. I love the notion of a guy who deals in particle theory sending me pixels of objects through the World Wide Web, and then me translating them into paint.

Optimizing the Studio

The New Year has been a great time to re-evaluate my process, and think about how to optimize my painting time. Number one: re-connecting with the fact that I have always known I prefer painting on the slick, fast surface of wood to rough canvas. So I’m going to shed all my canvas stock–studio sale, coming up!t

I’m about to move to a new, bigger, cheaper studio on the east side of Vancouver–yey! Moving is disruptive to the painting process, but a great time to clean out the clutter, streamline my art supplies, and think about the new work I am planning. I anticipate an explosion of new energy once I get set up and painting again, and looking forward to having a dedicated drawing table separate from my painting table so I don’t have to spend energy reconfiguring the room, and I’m plotting to get a comfy couch (from the free site on Craigslist) so I can really rest when I need to take a break. Right now I have a hard, unforgiving chair, and it’s really no fun. Even though I love it, painting is hard work, so I’ve decided I need to make my time in the studio as pleasurable as possible.