Monday, June 20, 2011

Creativity on the street

Spring in Regina is a time for thinking about creativity, about art and craft.  In spite of unfriendly, wet, changeable and challenging weather, Thirteenth Avenue filled up in May with curious, cheerful, friendly people who promenaded and bought everything from dog biscuits to handmade soap, from remarkable inventive jewelery to ceramics that asked questions about what pots are really for.  What are we looking at?  And what are we looking for?  (These are two different things.)  In part, we're looking at a community, at a particular kind of community, one that works very hard all year to mount the Festival, and we're implicitly sharing and applauding those values.  And as we troll the streets, nodding to one another and petting one another's dogs or admiring children's painted faces, we're creating community; we're coming out of those claustrophobic houses that kept us warm but gave us cabin fever to celebrate and admire what other people made during our brutal, cloudy winter.

Making things:  jewellery and dog biscuits, baked goods and the pots to we serve them on, knitted sweaters and ironmongery for gardens.  There have been times in my life when making things got me through.  Deeply depressed, I could nevertheless promise myself to knit five rows in a simple sweater, to end up knitting ten and feeling that I was quite a bit more competent and in this world than I had thought I was.  What is it about making that disciplines us all winter and brings us out on a rainy street in the spring?  In part, it's the self-respect that comes with craftsmanship, that hunger to do something well--no matter how simple--that I spoke of in my post on Craftsmanship (December 5, 2010).  Let me quote Bill Reid again, because his words are so central to this idea:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."  There's an implicit self-respect and self-reliance in making something and feeling that you've made it as well as you can, given where you are in the journey toward becoming a craftsman.

We think about creativity again in later June at Bazaart, but here the dynamic is a bit different because this is a juried event.  No dog biscuits.  Some of the artisans query that fine permeable line between art and craft.  And as I people-watched for a while, I noticed that there's a curiosity here that is different from that you see on Thirteenth Avenue, where people seem to be wandering in a colourful, playful market.  At Bazaart, people can't quite decide whether they've walked into a gallery or a shop.  I think it's an ambiguity that's quite good for us, that challenges our preconceptions.  It must be hard for the artisans, though, to be told their work is wonderful, only to have a sympathetic and potential buyer simply drift away.  For many of them--certainly for the young ceramicists in the MFA program here--Bazaart is their bread and butter.

Because one of the main characters in the novel I'm working on, Soul Weather, is a potter who's just graduated from U of R with an MFA, I've been talking to ceramicists and even taking classes.  I'm hopeless at a pottery wheel, but at least it gives me a sense of how challenging throwing something as simple as a mug (never mind a teapot) can be.  As a result, I found myself this fall on Jenn Mapplebeck's thesis committee, which taught me a great deal about the creative process.  In my earlier blog on Craftsmanship, I suggested that one of the tidy but problematic distinctions between art and craft was that we use craft in our daily lives, but that art seems to stand apart.  Another distinction I could make is that craft emphasizes the making and the tradition of craftsmanship behind each work.  Art, while it still needs to be well crafted (an assertion some curators would find problematic and only reflects my own taste) also needs to have a new idea.  In the language that is often used now, particularly about traditional crafts like ceramics, a piece needs to "interrogate" the very foundations it's predicated on.  Thus Jenn's teapot at the top of my blog is long past pouring tea; rather, it gestures towards the still life paintings and the compositions in those paintings called vanitas, and reminds us that even things have lives and that these lives take surprising turns.  Other works, like the teapot and stand on the left, teem with life.
You can see one of Jenn's interesting "interrogations" in the work above.  On the bottom shelf, you see an example of traditional lattice-work as it finds its way into ceramics.  The planter and lattice on the right bottom shelf looks perfectly conventional.  You put a plant in the cup beneath and it twines up the lattice.  On the left of the top shelf, you see a latticed box:  though it might not hold small things, it doesn't surprise.  Yet look at the vases and teapots behind.  While we recognize their forms, their use has been challenged.  Apparently the question Jenn most frequently gets asked is "What is it for?"  Because of course, craft has to be useful.  They're satisfied, though, if she simply says "For looking at." 

And here we come to one of the most important qualities I think a work of art should have--as well as an answer to why we put up with crazy wind out on the front lawn of the MacKenzie Art Gallery or dodge the rain at the Cathedral Village Arts Festival.  I think art asks questions and forces us to engage in a conversation--even in the minimal conversation about what Jenn's lattice teapot is for.  And the moment we start asking questions and having conversations, we've created the community we need at the end of a long, isolating winter.

If you want to contact Jenn about her work, you can reach her at

In the meantime, you might want to read this interesting article in Britain's Daily Mail on how good quilting is for us.  It exercises everything from our visual aesthetic sense to our math and problem-solving skills.

I'm planning another post soon on "Creativity on the Street," but then I want to talk about gardeners and the outside-the-box creative things being done at Regina's Food Bank.


  1. Kathleen,

    Read the Daily Mail article on quilting and I like your suggestion (and it seems there's evidence to back this up) that quilting satisfies many parts of us. Perhaps that's why I've had this massive craving for some time to sew again and maybe make my own clothes, quilts, et al. But lately I've been having the same experience with cooking.

    I couldn't even boil an egg before (really), but this past January I began the process of reading, learning, and experimenting not just with cooking, but with nutrition and how I think about food. I cook all the time now (I get a bit obsessed sometimes) and I find that it satisfies both sides of my brain because it combines everything from science and math, to craft and utility, and even a kind of artistry. It is, as you said, that feeling of something being well-made, of having crafted and created something with your own hands.

    And the best part? You get to eat your creations afterward! Or, curl up with them on miserable Saskatchewan days.

    What do you think about the cooking idea? I'm still a newbie, and since you've mastered at least one Julia Child recipe, you've got more clout in this area than I do.


  2. Brooke--
    At the end of a long, hard day, Bill says "You're tired. You don't want to cook." But cooking is exactly what I want to do. I've even taken to making most of our bread.

    Cooking, like many crafts, is wonderfully physical. Perhaps that's what draws me to it at the end of a day in my head. But it's also creative: you have to work within the parameters of recipes and what's in your cupboard. Sometimes the mood and feelings of the person you're cooking for comes into it. Because cooking, especially for others, is generous, you want to take them into account.

    I have some old cookbooks from the fifties. You can't imagine the 201 creative and complicated and time-consuming things you can do with Jello! I've often thought these recipes were a kind of sublimation for bored women. Now your question makes me want to see them differently.

    Is cooking a craft? Absolutely. Is it an art? Sometimes--though I'm not quite sure where its idea is. Though it certainly creates conversations. Do you know Isak Dinesen's "Babbett's Feast"--either the story of the wonderful film? Its premise is that you can take a cantankerous Puritanical group of people used to sniping at one another about their relative purity of doctrine and actually get them to talk generously to one another if you give them lovely food. I think Dinesen is right.

    Woolf also talks about the importance of cooking to the way we think in "Room of One's Own." In the afternoon, she dines in the rooms of a young man at Oxbridge off lovely sole and partridge and various wines; she tells us it light something in the spine that mnakes wonderful conversation possible. Later that evening, she dines at one of the women's colleges in Oxbridge off beef and prunes, and the effect is definitely not the same.

    So keep cooking. Julia Child didn't call her work "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" for nothing. Believe it's an art worthy of your attention. Why not? The result is pure pleasure, and heaven knows we need enough of that.

    Want bread-making lessons?

  3. Kathleen,

    Having been so out of touch with cooking and food for so long I wasn't aware of this whole "foodie" debate that's been happening over the past few (several?) years in food writing and journalism. There are people who take food and cooking very seriously and elevate it to an art form, and then there are others who are just sick of all these food nuts (pun intended)!

    I don't think that cooking is an art in the same way as painting, literature, film, music, theatre, dance, and so on. Food, above all else, functions to serve our basic biological needs: we need it to survive. We don't need art to survive, or not in the same way we need food anyway. However, the same characteristics that govern art are present in food and can be exercised and enjoyed through cooking - form, shape, color, line, depth, texture. All of our senses are engaged when we cook, which is why the word "sensual" is often used when describing food, and is, as you said, pure pleasure.

    I've always appreciated food and the artistic part of it, despite being a complete dunce in the kitchen. But recently when I cut an avocado in half I was completely stunned at how beautiful it was - how the color seamlessly darkens at the outer edges; the smooth and creamy texture; that perfect seed in the center. And of course the taste is just too good. I understand why so many artists have shown their love for fruit and food in general, especially in those still life vanitas paintings. They are reminders of death, but more so of the life cycle of things, and the "still" beauty in the everyday that we often miss.

    I would love bread-making lessons! And that Jello cookbook sounds like really good kitsch! It probably was made for bored 50's housewives, but since we're mostly liberated now we can have fun with it, right? I will check out "Babbett's Feast" - it sounds wonderful - and Woolf's text, which I am familiar with, although only as a feminist text.

    You must watch this scene from the film I AM LOVE (2009). Tilda Swinton getting seduced by food. A perfect capper to the conversation.