Tuesday, February 26, 2019

On Being a Colossal Failure - and Growth

Every great story has a crisis in the middle. Well, maybe many crises, actually: a rising crescendo of trips and falls and failures and flat-out terrifying leaps of insanity that land the protagonist smack in the middle of chaos or terror or hilarity, and then they learn something, and there is a conclusion, and we finish the story wiser than we began it. Hopefully.

Let me tell you one of my stories. This one began in 1993 when, at 17,  I went to the Netherlands, heart full of love and head full of dreams, hoping to become an artist. With the encouragement and guidance of my uncle, I took my portfolio and Canadian grad transcripts into the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in the Hague, the Netherlands, and walked out with a hearty invitation into the second year program. They loved me so much they put me into second year!! Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

My parents dug deeply and funded my great adventure, and I moved to the Hague in September, 1994. I was 18, and had rarely lived outside of the rural island I grew up on, apart from a year in the rural Shuswap, and short trips to the suburbs of Vancouver for family visits. My uncle picked me up from the airport near Amsterdam and brought me to the room he had arranged for me in a small flat in the Hague. Nobody else was home. The room was tiny. About eight by ten feet, with one enormous ten-foot-wide window on the side that faced the street. There were blinds, but the street-lights, the tram-lights, the sounds of trams and cars and scooters and sirens and drunken wee-hour partyers, the many neighbours all sliced upwards through those blinds and reflected off the ceiling to where I lay on the floor, huddled in a blanket on the folding mattress my uncle had given me. I cried so long I couldn't sleep.

At midnight on that first night my first room-mate walked into my room, introduced herself as Margriet, but said I could call her Daisy, if I wanted to, and I could use her dishes until I got my own. I was alarmed, but she became my first friend in that new and terrifying city. The first piece of news I read there described various female body pieces found in a garbage can in the park just a few blocks south of my new home. In the two years I lived there, I never went to that park.

I picked myself up in the morning, shopped with my cousin for essentials, as we were both setting up our new residences in neighbouring cities, and argued lengthily over who would buy the few white and orange cups, and whether each would look better with wine, beer, water, tea, and milk in them. My parents funded this shopping trip.

My tenure in the Netherlands was wonderful and terrible; I made some dear and treasured friends, and connected with my Dutch family in a way I never would have managed had I not lived there. I learned to speak Dutch, to cook and clean for myself, to live on very little income, and to find and create work for myself in a complex city that, at first, was completely foreign to me. I fought off a rapist in the middle of the night and then used my wits to force him to walk me to safety. I became courageous. I became an adult. It was perhaps the most powerful time of my life, and I have my parents' open minds and generosity to thank for it.

Me at the Royal Academy, 1996 - photo by A. van der Vlist
Art school, though? Well, I learned a few things, among them some basic printmaking skills that have stayed with me throughout my career, and the basics of oil painting. But mostly, after one and a half years, I learned about failure.

I majored in drawing and painting, and that department was set up like an open studio, where each student had a personal work area, and we gathered in some common spaces for lectures, lunches, and hashing out our ideas. As a working group it was great, but there was little support from professors. They wandered around and gave critiques irregularly, but basically in third year we were expected to self-direct and develop a practice. At the time I was working on womb-like forest paintings and abstractions of the same. I was working through feelings of homesickness for my forested island home, while living in the most urban environment I could imagine. While I lived in the Netherlands, a news story came out about a homeowner accidentally cutting down the last bit of indigenous forest. It was not the home I knew and longed for, and art is always a form of therapy.

So in early 1996, as I was deeply entrenched in this visual exploration of my heart's home and longing, the professors came around for the quarterly review, and requested that I come to the back room. But why? Don't we need to be in the vicinity of my work? Nope. They had only one pertinent question: Who were my influences?

Well, that was easy enough, I thought. I told them that probably my greatest influences were Georgia O'Keeffe, Emily Carr, and West Coast indigenous art.

They looked at each other knowingly, and flatly explained that while Georgia O'Keeffe is marginally acceptable, Emily Carr is "kitch", and "Indians don't make art". I can't remember anything I said after that - I'm sure it was useless. My mind was numb. They told me that since I was painting landscapes I should learn to paint like real landscape painters. They told me to get a print of a particular city landscape by Camille Corot and replicate it, stroke-for-stroke, until I had learned what a landscape should look like. I tried. I really tried. I laboured for weeks on this painting of two damn monks standing on a pale terrace overlooking a washed-out Italian cityscape. But the glowing ball of fire in my chest that brings me to paint had died. I was an empty shell pushing meaningless lines of paint onto a barren panel, and nobody - not even the professors - came to talk with me anymore. Until they did.

Sometime that spring the professors returned, ominously as a group, again, to give me an ultimatum: My work was going nowhere. They were going to give me a "Fail" for the year. My only alternative was to leave the school early and they would give me an "Incomplete", instead. With a newly blossoming relationship, a desperate homesickness, and a ticket home to Canada waiting to be used, I left. I went home knowing I had let my parents down, wasted their money, and caused them and my whole family irreparable shame. I soon discovered when I tried to continue my studies in Canada that an "Incomplete" is essentially the same as a "Fail", and I was unable to enter a Canadian university until I'd raised my grades by attending college. I was, truly and wholly, a failure.

Obviously, passion is a short-lived endeavour, as living generally requires a more moderate approach, and my passionate self-loathing waned over the years I attended school in Canada, married and learned to keep house, and eventually raised two children. This is the denouement of my story - the slow tumbling resolution to the crisis of my great failure. There was never a moment where I became un-failed or wildly successful. Never any particular redemption, although installing one of my works in Amsterdam last year did feel like a healing salve. The visceral memory of my firm kick out the door of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts gave me a whole lot more self-reflection, upon which to build a fire. I have now returned to my art career with a great but less fragile ball of fire in my chest. If I hadn't failed so colossally and grown to discover the beauty of it, I never would have arrived here. And perhaps I never would have laughed when my son sadly announced to us that he had received 38% on his math test.

My son Taliesin failed his math test. Colossally. So badly, in fact, that the online school he took it with is allowing him to rewrite it. It was nothing like the 15% I vividly remember receiving on a math-test, myself, but he, having held off telling us out of shame, was surprised that we just smiled and laughed about it. I imagine this single test failure to be just one small but positive experience in Taliesin's journey into academia. Go forward with courage, my love. May you live many adventurous stories, and may you overcome much greater failures than this one!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Working Class Heroes: It's Up to Us to End Capitalism

Markus aged 18
First there was the Universe. Then there was Markus. From then on this planet (Earth) was one of the most important things in life (his life). Then he went to SMU. This in and of itself was not very important - but while going there, he noticed many things about life which he did not like. These were mainly small things, such as holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, acid rain and projected populations for Earth. Having decided to change all this, he found that he already had the solution; the only problem was that he would have to become a V.V.I.P. (very, very important person) in the scientific field to implement it - and to know just about everything there is to know about this world. He is planning to start by learning everything about engineering or computers, and continue from there.

That's an excerpt from my partner's grad write-up in his 1988 school yearbook. He tells me he must have just finished reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and adapted his writing-style, accordingly. He also tells me it sounds pompous. My partner is anything but pompous. He's just lost all the confidence he had in highschool; he doesn't think he can save the world, anymore. 

The list of devastating global circumstances facing humanity has played out even faster than we 80's kids could have imagined, and we feel helpless. My partner did go on to study physics and engineering, eventually getting his degree in Computer Science. He now goes to work every day, finds, fixes and creates bugs in software that is used all over the world for resource management. Some of this 'resource management' is towards protecting the ecological welfare of the planet; a lot of it is simply management for destructive capitalist ventures. My partner does whatever he is told to do. Then he comes home exhausted, eats dinner, pets the dog, plays accordion, and goes to sleep, only to get up in the morning and start again. On weekends and vacations he sometimes makes adventures to soothe his tired soul; mostly he works at replacing our old house with less mouldy materials, hoping that at least his efforts will provide shelter for his family. Dreams of saving the world went away a long, long time ago. Shelter and survival in the capitalist world is his current goal.

Does it sound like drudgery? He would say no. Because he's living the dream we were all fed as children, and in fact he's doing better than that: He's raising free-thinking unschooled children in a park-like setting, hoping they'll have the guts and wherewithal to follow their own dreams in a way he never managed to do.

But wait - that's what his parents were doing too! They sent him to the best school they could find, where he learned to fly airplanes, wear a suit, and feel confident that he really could grow up to be a very, very important person in a scientific field and change the world. But he didn't. Why not? 

No Time Instead of It All (Markus aged 49)
Why do all of us hope that our children will grow up to change the world, and not change it ourselves? Somehow we seem to feel that we can trudge into the capitalist system that requires our compliance and still raise kids who will magically end up elsewhere. Why on earth would they? We ask our children to follow their hearts and at the same time we tell them to follow our culture's mandated path to adulthood. We expect them to be different and brave and to change the world and save us from the disaster that capitalism has caused (seriously - if you haven't already, go read that article and watch the video), but we're too afraid to get out of the system, ourselves. They will be, too.

John Lennon wrote in his song Working Class Hero: (full lyrics and song video here)
When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can't really function you're so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Our kids follow our lead. Unless we break this cycle, our children, like us, will reach adulthood and discover that the only feasible path is the one their parents took, and they will have children themselves, and they will hope that their children will save them. And with every generation the outlook is bleaker, and with every generation we hope the next will save us. 

Capitalism is killing us. Our school system is part of it. Our work ethic and career paths are part of it. Our diet and housing and everything that we consider to be essential is part of it. These things need to change, and we need to change them. Not our children or our children's children. There is no more time for us to live in fear. And there is no point hoping that the few brave souls who unschool their kids or drop out of the system or attend rallies will do the work for us. There will be no new reality until we all jump on board. We are killing ourselves with capitalism and we have to stop, now.