Saturday, October 25, 2014

Time to Reflect

I have to admit that I've not fully succeeded in getting back into my delicious rhythm of writing.  My first week back from Italy was basically a write-off because I really struggled with jet lag and because I had so many little things to take care of after falling out of the real world for a couple of weeks.  Then over Thanksgiving weekend, I obviously cooked a meal with more food than anyone needed (though the leftovers were glorious), and spent quite a lot of wonderful time with Bill, walking the White Butte Trails and driving to Assiniboia to revel in the fall landscape and see the room full of Group of Seven paintings and the new exhibitions at the Shurniak Gallery. Believe me, it was worth the trip and recharged something that had run down after nearly two weeks in Italy.  A sense of space, perhaps, that echoed the rhythm one might want to create in a life. 

As well, in the twenty-first century, we have perhaps learned not to ignore weather--its woes and its delights.  It just seemed silly not to go for long walks and recharge.  When the seasons change, I'm particularly aware of nature teaching me to see.  We had a wet, green year and were enveloped in a green world, even in the city.  With that much green everywhere, we don't stop to notice a single tree, much less a handful of leaves.  For me, when autumn comes, with its association of a new [academic] year, even now, the slight melancholy I feel from the shorter days and the softer colours, many of them bleaching toward grey or brown or soft gold, is tempered by my sense that the natural world is asking for my attention in quite a different way.  I'll hunt through the bleached golden grasses on the creek bank for hints of colour, and find berries clinging to branches of greygreen leaves.  Or I'll notice a row of trees I've walked by dozens of time this summer on my way to the creek, for the way they seem to be both resisting and giving in to time, changing, but changing more slowly than the trees around them.

I might jog my route a little bit from A to B to drive past the one flaming maple tree I know in my neighbourhood. Each glorious day of this remarkable fall has been grasped by most of us, knowing that quite another kind of seeing (and feeling) is around the corner when the only colours in nature are the neutrals of the branches of trees and shrubs and the various shades of white that snow can be--blue in the morning and night, pure white at noon, but with shadows of a colour I can't quite name.  Later rather than sooner, the widening days will encourage us to watch the tips of tree branches for signs of spring.
 One routine I've kept from my former life is early morning breakfasts with friends. This last Monday, Katherine and I had our usual breakfast and found ourselves--not surprisingly--talking about the effects of nature and art on our daily lives. Psychologists have learned that our deep attention on any task is limited. Attention is like a muscle:  it gets fatigued when it's pushed to its limits. What such stretched attention wants is something more fluid than, say, the next rigorously-organized paragraph on Woolf's use of narration in Jacob's Room.  Two of the best ways of recharging are to turn to the natural world or to art.  Both offer visual riches; neither dictate where you should put your attention, but allow you to wander at your will through the worlds they create.

But one of the reasons that my "creative practice" calls for walks is that these moments of less focused attention are sometimes better times for solving the problems that my attentive mind can't. Art and nature are, for me, prompts for reflection.  Some of that reflection is on the season itself; some of it is inevitably on the nature of time and how I want to negotiate my allotted portion.  Sometimes I reflect on the news and what it really might be telling me about how it is with the world. [What is really the meaning of this week's two murders of Canadian soldiers?  Does it have anything to do with ISIL or Muslim beliefs, or is radicalization simply the latest trend followed by young men who can't figure out their place in the world?  Why isn't anyone talking about masculinity as we reflect on these events?]  Sometimes I replay scenes from a movie (Bill and I saw The Judge this weekend, and I highly recommend it) to find the quieter echoes or the underlying connections beneath the noisier tensions of plots.  Sometimes I simply give myself over to joy:  this fall has been a wonderful time to do this.  If, as I believe, it is as rational when you wake up every morning to conclude that the world is well and truly fucked as it is to believe that another miraculous day has arrived, nature tends to come down on the side of optimism and joy.

This month, the Literary Review of Canada contained an essay written by Robert Sirmin about his time as director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts.  Sirman is certainly optimistic about the arts.  He is not, however, as optimistic about the world.  Let me close by quoting from his essay:

"Artists are specialists in the application of all forms of human intelligence, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic or emotional.  Their work inspires the reflection so needed to make sense of the complexity of our lives.  Artists may not be the creators of the city or the faith or the imagination, but they are critical to their animation and vitality, and through their reflective capacity help each of us better understand who we are and what it means to be human.  

"I am convinced the arts serve an evolutionary purpose, and that there is nothing random about the global ascendance of artistic practice.  The future of the human species, if not the planet, is increasingly at risk.  Reflective capacity contributes to adaptive capacity, and adaptive capacity offers an evolutionary advantage critical to survival....Consensus is mounting that the survival of humanity is inextricably linked to an enhanced sense of collective responsibility that can only come about through a radical change in consciousness, the kind of change in consciousness that is the hallmark of all great art."

Nature, of course, doesn't have the same purposiveness of art:  it doesn't necessarily prompt us to critique our treatment of people who are different from us or to consider how democracy, in a time when campaign contributions have such an impact on the outcome of an election, can keep its integrity. But maybe, in prompting us to look at it more carefully, it makes careful observers--certainly the first step of any creative process--of us all, and prompts us to think about the more philosophical issues of time and change and our place in this miraculous world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Craftsmanship, revisited in Venice and Ravenna

I began the first of three blog posts on craftsmanship quoting the didactic panel next to Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC:  "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." I wrote in that post of the lore of craftsmanship that was part of knitting, quilting, ceramics or woodworking, suggesting that one of the qualities of craftsmanship was its relationship to time.  The practice of a craft--ceramics, for example--is founded in the rituals and practices of other ceramicists who have gone before.  I also suggested that craftsmanship is timeless, insofar as the maker is not concerned with how long it will take to piece that quilt or make that Shaker box, but with how well she or he is doing it.  Bill Reid's words, even after my trip to Italy, still seem like the right place to begin this conversation.

I realized, after my time in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, that I have made unarticulated assumptions about craftsmanship.  In particular, I have tended to see craftsmanship as part of a minimalist aesthetic, one that you can see in a piece of well-turned wood or a mellifluous sentence.  Craftsmanship, I think I would have said, is present when the simplest, most elegant solution to a maker's problem is brought to bear.  This is ironic, given that most people who aren't quilters tend to see quilting as a practice of buying perfectly good fabric and cutting it up into tiny pieces to sew it together again.  Some of my quilts are simple, like the Amish ones.  Many of them employ colour and pattern and design in ways that are less than simple.  And then there's my penchant for knitting complicated lace, particularly when I can't sleep.  I think my error is the product of nostalgia, of the notion that the times when the lore of a craft developed were simpler times.  Someday, though, there's going to be a Ph.D. thesis on the craftsmanship of the effective tweet or the engaging computer game or the most elegant Ap. Or at least an essay.

The Basilica de San Marco, was (finally) consecrated in 1093, and is an example of Italo-Byzantine architecture--and of Venice's historic connections between "east" and "west."  Every surface is decorated.  The walls and the vaults that hold up the domes are the simplest example of such decoration:  marble with complicated patterns has been cut in sheets and re-assembled on the structure to create complex patterns.  The floor of the enormous church (of which I have a good dozen photographs because they are a great sourcebook for quilters) is entirely made of inlaid stone, one pattern butting up against another.  The capital of every column is carved and often painted gold.  Some columns in lesser-used areas are carved into a wood frieze that twines around, with hundreds of people and animals in each column:  they are an encyclopedia of human experience, showing a knight in armour, a shepherd carrying his sheep, a man hanging himself.  Those found at hand height are lightly worn where people have touched them as they passed, adding another layer of the human.  The ceilings are covered with mosaic figures, most of them in a simple gold ground.

I would have expected to be overwhelmed with the relentless decoration, longing for a simpler structure of Palladio, for example.  But I was uncharacteristically entranced.  Veronica (whose photographs you see here, except for mine of the floor) put my reaction well.  For the most part, one thinks of places like St. Mark's as expressions of "the greater glory of God," yet what one often experiences is the glory of the human:  of our inventiveness, of our delight in craftsmanship, of our sense of the human, of our attempt to reach toward the divine.  You could feel, in this space, the makers' delight in invention, in the craftsmanship necessary to give voice to that inventiveness.  You could feel their sense that they were making a world apart, but a world so rich with echoes of our own world that we would see the connection between the daily and the spiritual.

Perhaps this is because craftsmanship threads together the traditions from the past, the present engagement in the making, and the imagination's vision.  There is something timeless about craftsmanship, but it's not necessarily the timelessness of elegance or simplicity.  The photograph below is of the ceiling of the Basilica of Saint Vitale in Ravenna, built in 527, half a century before San Marco.  We were told by guides that Italian birders who happen to come in with their binoculars can recognize birds on this ceiling that are still alive--so detailed and accurate are their portraits.  These earlier Byzantine churches require an enormous amount of time to unfold.  You have to be willing to stand there, letting the detail and inventiveness work on you.


Many sections of mosaics can be read for their "plot," like the small piece you see at the left.  We see a newly-born Christ Child sitting in his mother's lap, surrounded by angels.  We know what this depiction means.  But if you let the craftsmanship and inventiveness work on you, you will begin to see that each facial expression is quite different, that each of the virgins (You can see one of them below) to the left of this panel has both a different facial expression and her robes are made of a different pattern of draped material, and somehow this is composed of pieces of stone or glass about half a centimeter square.  Then you begin to see the flowers, the abstract designs that embrace every arch and window well, all of which are different.  The invention is astounding.

Standing in these fifteen-hundred-year-old buildings made me see that craftsmanship is timeless in yet another way.  Yes, it speaks to the past traditions, the current practice, the vision for the future.  And yes, the craftsman is not thinking about time but about using their craft skillfully.  But appreciating craftsmanship also takes time.  Interestingly, the days Veronica and I spent looking at mosaics or at art seemed longer than other days, particularly when we sat down for dinner and thought about the day.  It seems that the time you spend allowing a work of art or craft unfold its complexity is time given back to you twicefold--at least.  It's time spent engaged with another sensibility, another worldview, another mind, another delight, and your world and life expand to encompass it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Improbable City

In spite of Venice's long history as a republic, as a naval power, as part of an important trade route between the Muslim world and Europe, it remains for me an improbable city.  Whoever thought of building a city on 117 islands divided by 177 canals and joined by 409 bridges? There are no cars in Venice, making it a wonderful place to wander and get lost.  But everything needed by everyone living or visiting there must be brought in by boat:  the flour you use to make bread, the bottles of wine and water consumed by 50,000 visitors a day, the needle and thread you need to tack up your hem, lest you look unfashionable in this very fashionable city, the ribbons and sequins used to make the masks that fill shop windows.  I didn't know whether to call it the city of masks or the city of layers:  it seemed open and closed, beautiful and severe; its buildings were constantly falling apart and being repaired, revealing how many layers held the structure together.

Our arrival was equally improbable.  Late in the afternoon on the first day of fall, Veronica and I were floating down the Grand Canal in the boat that connects the airport to the city, observing how ceremonious the palazzos on the canal looked:  most of them have a second- or third-storey balcony that would have allowed onlookers to feel part of a parade or a party floating down the canal.  Behind us to the north, dark clouds rumbled and then flashed, so the Alilaguna employees set about creating a waterproof cabin for themselves (we were already under cover) and ensuring that luggage still out on deck would be out of the rain.

We seemed to move just ahead of the storm, which arrived just as we reached our small bed and breakfast, pouring down rain and hail.  Alas, our host wasn't there, so we stood in the rain for about half an hour until the woman living two doors down, who had tried to contact the B&B owner by cell phone, trudged toward us once more in her housecoat and slippers, which sloshed more each time, with a torn envelope on which she laboriously wrote down the phone number written on the brass address plaque, and went to give him, we suspect, a piece of her mind.  On each of her helpful incursions into the rain her Italian burbled faster and faster, in spite of the fact that we'd told her, in our pigeon Italian, that we didn't understand anything she was saying.  He arrived ten minutes later, but we were both soaked.  Water had even permeated the zippers of our luggage.

Once inside, our clothing strung around the room to dry, we found clothes we could wear to dinner, and had a pleasant meal at a small restaurant in Campo Santa Margherita.  We decided that we were not quite warm enough for the tables outside, and so took the last tiny table indoors in the crowded restaurant.  Fairly soon, the waiters started moving those stalwart souls who had been eating outdoors into the restaurant and closing the glass doors to the patio--to some applause.  We all moved our tables a little closer together to accommodate everyone.  Someone began to whistle "Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer," which we thought a bit silly.  From inside, we watched the lightning illuminate the other buildings on the square, turning them into the backdrop for an old black and white movie that has a small lighting budget.

When we left, we walked out into two inches of hail.  Picking our way slowly through the slippery streets, we were told by an elderly German gentleman, though in English, the lingua franca of Venice, "Please be careful.  Be very, very careful," as we climbed the steps to the small bridge we needed to cross to our bed and breakfast.  The next morning, the sky was blue and late summer weather had returned, though small piles of hail remained where shopkeepers had swept it away from their doors.

The trick to navigating Venice, which seems to have filled, higgledy-piggledly, each of its 117 islands with buildings that would fit, wasting the least amount of space for walking, is to figure out the clearest path between where you are and one of the major bridges that crosses the Grand Canal.  On our first day, we made for the Ponte dell'Accademia, which would take us to Campo San Marco.  On our map, the path looked like a set of arbitrary squiggles, but if we exited Campo San Barnaba at the right spot, we joined a whole parade of people going the same way at a leisurely pace.  This was also true of our attempt to navigate between our B&B and the Rialto Bridge.  The important thing was to discover where you exited the squares where restaurants and cafes spilled into the streets, squares filled with pharmacias, with small shops selling masks or herbal soaps or groceries, with children playing with scooters or balls.  Other than that, you followed the other tourists as they wended their way through the small shops selling Murano glass, leather, hand-bound books, and high fashion.

But, I asked myself stubbornly, what if you had arrived after dark, sleepless, and left your hotel at 6:30 a.m., before the tourists were out, looking for breakfast?  How would you possibly find your way, if there were no tourists to follow? Asking this question reveals another rule for navigating Venice.  Follow the small shopfronts, many of which are beautifully designed.  If you are tempted to go down a street like the one above looking for a quicker bridge to the next island, resist that temptation.  Even if you can find several bridges, it will have a dead end, bringing you face to face with Virginia Woolf.
The area around the Rialto Bridge is one of the major shopping areas, with its own H&M, Max Mara, and Disney store, as well as the obligatory Prada and Armani.  Having walked there, stopping to look at several small churches, we were soon inundated with tourists and their ennui:  "What is the perfect thing I can buy that will encapsulate this moment, and can I get a deal on it?"  Attempting to elude this crowd, we wandered farther eastward, hoping to find a parallel route back to our B&B.  After several dead ends like this one, we found a track that looked more promising, giving us a couple of bridges to cross on to other islands, bridges on the stone walkways more or less in the direction we wanted to go.  (This was before we'd figured out that one needed to follow the small shop fronts.)  We finally came to a dead end in a square surrounded by large old apartment buildings, full of children playing, dogs barking, mothers talking.  Not a tree or a plant in sight.

Because I'm working on poems inspired by Veronica's photographs, and because Veronica is very much an urban photographer, I've been reading a lot of theory about cities.  Most recently, I've been reading Jane Jacobs's groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  In her introduction, she writes "I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things:  for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are narvelous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centers; what, if anything, is a city neighborhood, and what jobs, if any, neighborhoods in great cities do.  In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practice in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes" (4).  I particularly tried to keep in mind Jacobs's notion that cities are not works of art, that they do not have to be beautiful.  But try as I might, and no matter how heretical it is, I had some questions about the way Venice had been "planned."

Most of the campos have no trees or benches, so that although they create a place for children to play and for people to meet and chat, little in their structure encourages this--except that there's no place else to do it.  When the squares do have benches, these are almost always full.  I wondered whether the small cafe and restaurant owners discouraged benches so that people looking for someplace to sit would be more likely to buy a cappuccino or a piece of pizza in order to be comfortable.  The square surrounded by apartment buildings seemed, in Jacobs's terms, to be "working."  People were clustered around talking and the children were shouting and running.  There are no cars in Venice, so children and the well-behaved medium-sized dogs Venetians seem to prefer are not going to be run over.  But I can't help wondering what it says about Venetians' sense or pride of place that no one had bought a couple of large pots and put in a few trees that would provide some small shade for a couple of benches placed face to face.  What does it do to a child's notion of play that it takes place on stone, surrounded by stone--all of it (in this case) dark grey?  Where are the ants, the dandelions?  Perhaps I am imposing my own sense of nature deficit disorder on people who do not feel this at all.  Like all of us, they regard their lives as relatively normal.

Certainly on the smaller island of Venice's southern edge, Guidecca, home to a couple of Paladian churches we went looking for, plants are an important part of the aesthetic, and there the more modern, less crowded areas are filled with greenery in pots.  When I mentioned my concern about Venice's severe setting for its lovely architecture, she pointed out that in North America, we have an almost luxurious amount of space. 

I left Venice with quite a bit of ambivalence.  Touted as the world's most romantic city, it is made largely of stone and water.  Its streets can certainly be described as quaint, its architecture majestic.  It has been, in a day of brisk trade coming from the East, the richest city in the world.
It is in some ways eerily quiet and noisy:  there is no traffic noise at night, but private conversations echo down the stone walkways and give you melodic snatches of other peoples' private lives.  People gather, of a Friday night, in their local bar/coffee shop to trade gossip and complaint.  But its green shutters close off everything to the street.  In all my time there, I never saw a family sitting down to a meal or conversation.  Willing to talk to a complete stranger on the water bus about life, the universe, and everything, they nevertheless--perhaps in self-defense, close their lives off to the stony streets.