Thursday, November 3, 2011


What do Halloween, the World's Series, my cat Sheba and art critic Dave Hickey have in common?

A celebration of play, of playfulness.  Play, particularly play that is purposeful and rule-bound, is often thought of as one of the things that makes humans different from the rest of the animals, but two of my cats, Sheba and Ivy,  have both challenged this idea.  Each of them created "rules" for their play that made it more challenging.  Sheba's idea of a good time is to bring me one of her crinkly mylar balls, drop it at my feet, and go stand in front of one of the chairs in the living room.  The rule is this:  when I throw the ball, she'll be standing on the floor.  But by the time the ball is over the chair, she'll be in it and will bat the ball off somewhere else that makes it interesting to scuttle and chase.

Even if we're not cats, we need to play.  Play allows us to make things complicated, to ask "what if?" to stir things up a little, even to translate one inexpressible perception or feeling into another that comes closer to expression.  Play seems to be very close to both art and craft.  In fact, the kind of play we do may determine whether we're working in the arts or the crafts.  The crafters will kill me (but leave a comment below before you do), but I'd say the play of craft is more whimsical and less risky.  It doesn't take itself terribly seriously.  You can knit socks for sign posts, or cover a bus in knitted graffiti without saying anything in particular, or with the intent of leaving a trenchant message.  "Content" isn't a big deal; meaning is even less than a big deal.  Just have fun, and leave a trace of that sense of fun on the world.  Google "guerilla knitting" and see how much fun people are having.  Some of the fun has meaning, but it doesn't worry about meaning.

Of course, Halloween costumes (given that mothers don't always have time and expertise) lean toward the commercial:  there are Supermen and Spidermen and the easy ghost. But my colleague Medrie is an ace seamstress and her son Rowan has an outside-the-box imagination, so he was a Jedi-Triceratops.  That is, he had a wonderful dinosaur costume but also carried a light sabre.  Apparently the original "guising" or wearing of costumes stems from a time when it was believed that souls wandered the earth, some of them seeking vengeance, until All Souls' Day.  The living dressed up so they wouldn't be recognized by the vengeful (not the Grateful) dead.  I'm having trouble following the line from this Sixteenth-century practice and a kid in a triceratops costume, but maybe I'm not being playful enough.  Perhaps one affirmation of life is play.

What is certain is that even as adults we need to play.  In a walk down Thirteenth Avenue on Tuesday (my brain, exhausted with aesthetics, was offline, so I needed to walk), I stopped into Paper Umbrella, a place that encourages play in wonderful ways.  The little easel by the desk had a notice about a Saskatchewan Bookbinders and Book Artists' event, so we talked casually about how much people need to be creative and playful.  He told me that there are quite a number of groups that meet to encourage play, one of them devoted entirely to paper.  Trying to find information on the bookbinders' event, I ran into another one also occurring this weekend.  So you can take your pick and go to the True Knit Art Show 3:  Craftermath  on this weekend at the Riddell Centre, offering us "renegade art and craft from great local artists."  On the same day, the Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists' Guild will have a show of hundreds of handmade books at 42 McMaster Place between 1 and 4.

The quilt at the top of the post is called "Sunflowers in the Night Garden."  It was made for my wonderful sister-in-law, Gloria, who has this thing for sunflowers.  But of course play, as Rowen well knows, involves doing something differently; it's a kind of jazz riff on the world of appearances, the world of stereotypes and cliches.  So I couldn't just make Gloria a quilt that looked like real sunflowers, straining, as they always do, toward the sun;  I wanted to think about sunflowers at night.  And instead of trying to make fabric look like real sunflowers, I used a traditional Mariner's Compass pattern to simply suggest sunflowers.  Your eyes have to play a little bit as you look.

This is one of my more recent "what if?" quilts.  The pattern is a conventional "log cabin," which usually begins with a red square in the middle and then builds up the block in strips of light or dark fabric.  As the name suggests, it's a very North American design, most often made in bright calicoes.  But what would happen if I combined the American design with the softness of Japanese fabrics? 

In a recent post, I tried to wax eloquent about the fall colours I was seeing.  I even tried taking photographs, but they were, as photographs, too washed out.  So I asked another "what if?" question.   What if I used an American block in a really small scale (the round object is my thimble, so you can see how small the pieces are), along with the soft colours of Japanese fabrics to explore the way you need to see the landscape this time of year?
In his essay, "Frivolity and Unction" (I almost typed that "fun/ction") Dave Hickey talks about a 60 Minutes episode where Morley Safer takes on the pretentiousness of the art world in a Sotheby's auction room.   Apparently Safer's critique was way off base, entirely uninformed, and created quite a righteous stir in the art world.  He queried things like the "emotive content" of abstract art.  But Hickey was okay with it.  In fact, he thinks the art world might be better off if it were a bit more playful.  "We could just say:  'Okay!  You're right!  Art is bad, silly, and frivolous.  So what?  Rock-and-roll is bad, silly, and frivolous.  Movies are bad, silly, and frivolous.  Basketball is bad, silly, and frivolous.  Next question'?"  He thinks that if we take art off its pedestal, next to other things we value, we could talk about it a little more vigorously, a little more adventurously.  It art isn't on a pedestal, we don't need to be qualified specialists to talk about it.  Might that not get a more democratic, more playful conversation about art going?

I took the photograph of that wonderful horse at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this summer. 


  1. "The motive for metaphor, according to Wallace Stevens, is a desire to associate, and finally to identify, the human mind with what goes on outside it, because the only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part ... we are also a part of what we know." Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination.

  2. Wow! Northrop Frye is pretty heavy for a sketchy post on play, but I'll take it. I love this series of lectures of his, and his phrase "The educated imagination" speaks of one of the things I value most in the world--as well as the reason I teach English. Thanks for responding, Michelle.

  3. Of note is his work with the late Amy Winehouse on "Body and Soul," a heartbreaking, apt tune for the chanteuse's final recording. Both are in their element, and the result is fraught with unrequited longing and slow-burning desperation. It is a fortunate teaming of two great talents bathed in instant pathos in its reminder of how fleeting art, like life, can be. Winehouse's voice was a fine instrument indeed, and "Body and Soul" showcases it.