roots, deep and otherwise

Had a fabulous time at the Deep Roots Festival in Wolfville. Some amazing musicians, and the magic of spontaneous on-stage collaborations (particularly the late night sessions at Paddy’s) really left me breathless. Going to this fest was all about taking a chance on the music – there were many performers I had never heard before – and I was more than pleasantly surprised in many cases. Particular highlights, of new-to-me music: Coco Love Alcorn, Ari Hest,  the madness of Steve Poltz, The Sultans of String. And (of course) Joel Plaskett was excellent – I really enjoy his live work. All brilliant performers, and terrific musicians.  Wolfville itself was a delight; friendly, welcoming people, beautiful old houses and buildings, fall colours starting to come out on the maples and other trees. A completely brilliant way to spend a weekend.

One of the many things that struck me at Deep Roots was the love and pride people had for their town and their festival; the festival is aptly named. This is something that has become very evident in the last few months out here in Nova Scotia: the incredible support and pride people manifest for initiatives, and for individuals/artists from the area. I see this not only in the support for the musicians, but in the way art and artisanal work is positioned and promoted in the galleries.  In part, because that support is demonstrable – there appears to be a greater tendency out here for people to really come through time and again for artists they appreciate, particularly if they are ‘home grown’. This support is predicated on the conviction that what is being produced has inherent worth – and doesn’t need to be compared to work being produced elsewhere in the country or the world to have value – it could be and often is, and stands up just fine to the comparison, but it’s not necessary to prove its worth. The other side of that coin is that it may well be more difficult for someone new to the area to break into the market in any meaningful way; the dues might be long in the paying, but the reward certainly is palpable. I honestly don’t know how accurate these observations are, but as someone who is ‘from away’ this is what I have read in the cultural communities so far.

These observations do of course lead me to contemplate my understanding of ‘home’ and my sense of place as it pertains to my work in particular, and my sense of identity in the larger scheme of things. What does it mean, precisely, to have a practice that is informed by 40+ years on the Prairie? My sense of space and what it means to be contained is certainly informed by that experience … perhaps my understanding of what it means to be exposed – or more correctly, how exposure can be signified and understood – is perhaps predicated on the experience of being a small body in (at times) vast-feeling, flat, open places. So that hiding or obscuring things is more a matter of building up flat-ish layers or skins to protect or hide things, and an awareness that on some level, nothing can ever be completely hidden. The ocean has a similar sense of vast flat space, but there’s also the unavoidable depth to be considered, and the liminal space of the shoreline, with nooks and crannies of stone and layers and layers of sand and gravel on the beaches. So there’s immediately a completely different sense of what physical exposure (and protection or hiding) is here – how those concepts operate in space. 

Here too, I have to consider how my understanding of human relationships has been informed by that sense of Prairie-born space, and how that in turn shapes my work.  It’s not a compact place; with the exception of the urban centres, there’s more than enough space on the Prairies in which to be alone, or to feel isolated for that matter. Distance measured in hours between places, between people. Grids of township and range roads marking off space, but not necessarily connecting much of anyone to anyone else, and that only relatively recently … Alberta’s centenary just passed in 2005. We are all ‘from away’ out west; comparatively few born there (and fewer still stay), while the great shift of population in recent decades has been to the Prairie, to Alberta for jobs, but not for a ‘home’.  So,  out west the investment doesn’t run as deep for most, perhaps, as it does for people who have lived generations and centuries in the same place, and have built on (and over) long-laid foundations. So I wonder what it means to have roots in a place where so few stay, and where one can be considered a local by virtue of a few years residence?  I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

flux, and watching the dust settle

Finally starting to feel somewhat settled, in this, my temporary home city of Halifax. The summer – and fall, thus far –  has been a fabulous, hectic adventure of arrival, travel, and settling in. So far, we have been to the Stan Rogers Folk Fest (mudfest!), the UK and Ireland for field work and family visit, Newfoundland, and will be heading off to Wolfville for the Deep Roots Fest this weekend. That’s a lot of miles since July 1 when we landed. In between times, I have been walking the city, getting to know it as a place I live (as opposed to a place I am simply visiting), and working on the two collaborative projects I have on the go with Catherine Own and Kristen Hutchinson.

It has been the ‘in between times’ – the time I have had to spend living here in this space and this city and working – that has been most interesting and telling so far. We are living a spare existence here – a very compact living space, with very little in it that is ours. But for me this is the perfect mode of existence for this year and the work we both have to hand. The move and this sabbatical have been about getting back to what’s essential to each of us, and to the two of us as a couple. The process of preparing for the sabbatical became a joyous purge, a letting go of all that was non-essential; moving from a 4 bedroom, 3 story house to a 1 bedroom apartment had a that effect purely in practical terms, of course. But that process of choosing, of being absolutely conscious and active in selecting what to bring and what to leave (or get rid of) had the most liberating effect emotionally and psychically as well. I know I was going to a place where I didn’t want to carry a great deal with me in any sense; I wanted to bring only those tools and necessities of life that were truly important for my well being, and leave the rest behind, to leave the space I need to make the most of this year away.

I find myself working in a totally different way than I have previously, as well. In part this is purely practical: I am forced to change materials and methods due to the limitations of the space we live in and the absence of studio space. But I am seeing there is more to this than simple practicalities the longer I work here. The change in venue has forced a stripping down, a spareness to my work, that I am just beginning to appreciate. It’s forcing me to be even more conscious of the choices I am making  – image selection, placement, composition –  and in a different way than I am when I am working with the wax and the plaster. These images I am working now are all semi-transparent – single skins – so all is revealed in the single gesture of printing to the panel, whereas the collage/construction work that I have been doing for the last couple of years has relied on virtually the opposite approach: building up and hiding objects and images, re-revealing certain elements.  I have absolutely no idea how this year-long method of working will impact my practice over the long term, but that’s part of the beauty of being here: I really don’t know anything, and I don’t know how it will all turn out. It’s this state of flux that I am really appreciating as the days pass; it really is all process, and not product.