Friday, November 23, 2012


In Monday's Globe and Mail, as part of "the weekly challenge" feature, Courtney Shea wrote about a week's experiment meant to challenge her relationship with clothing.  She wore the same clothes for an entire week. Shea wisely chose a comfortable jersey dress that could be dressed up or down with accessories and that could be quickly washed.  Except for one colleague who asked "What's with the dress?" no one seemed to notice or to comment.  For Shea, this experiment had ethical overtones:  According to To Die For:  Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? most North American and many European women buy half their body weight in clothes every year and own four times as many outfits as they did thirty years ago.

I've flirted with minimalism over the years.  My first husband and I started our home in the early seventies, an age of slender glass canisters and sleek white china.  Perhaps most radical was our crystal, which, unlike any we received when we were married, lacked the curving almost human profile that has been traditional for centuries.  Ours was completely straight, and had a thick bottom rather than a slender stem, a single drop of air trapped in the base.  When we separated thirteen years later, I began an anti-minimalist rebellion, buying myself Christmas presents (to unwrap alone while my daughter spent the day with him): antique pillowcases with hand-knit lace, and china teacups, many of them, I now confess, appalled at my choices, pink.  These are slowly making their way into the annual Cathedral Village Arts Festival garage sales.  I can only give up so much of my past at a time.

Since our renovations, Bill and I have put things back into the rooms we emptied with more thought for what we value.  There's more art on the living room walls, but fewer quilts in the upstairs hallway:  I don't want to muddle the walls' serene pale blue.  Moving back into the kitchen, I put tools I seldom used into a box, with the promise that only if I used them six months after the reno was finished would I let them back into my drawers--which are now much clearer, though not up to IKEA standards.  My food processor and my blender are in cupboards, so I have a much clearer and more pleasant space to work in.  I had no idea how infrequently I used them.

The delight I feel with an emptier closet or clearer drawers or a blank walls that have only slices of sunlight or shadows of tree branches for their decor has drawn my attention to the fact that many of my happiest hours, weeks, or even months have been spent in spaces that looked very like Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond.  My first experience was my dormitory room at the University of Michigan, a small room with lead-paned windows that cranked outwards and that I kept open for most of the winter because the dorm was hot.  I also stored my bottle of port, bought to help me sleep, on the stone window ledge, six storeys up. A bookcase, a comfortable chair, a bed, and a desk:  what more do you need to explore the world of ideas other than simple furniture, a library card and challenging classes?  An electric typewriter and some paper, perhaps.

My two weeks at the Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, which the University of Saskatchewan has decided to close, may have appeared to an outsider to be a "retreat," but how can you explain the remarkable  inner voyages you can take when the encouraging layers of history and creativity all around you seem to speak every time you mind stills for an instant or trips over itself, momentarily lost?  In the workroom of my cabin, with its eight windows looking onto the lake and the boreal forest, I had a small yellow table splattered with paint and ink, traces of past inhabitants, probably artists or scientists--who really are fellow travellers, both of them attuned to wonder. I knew that Clement Greenberg and Barnet Newman had spent time there, that it had been a place for the Regina Five to gather, that Dorothy Knowles and William Perehudoff had found peace and inspiration there.  One of Greenberg's main tenets was that a painter's canvas was simply a flat space:  how vigorously Perehudoff and McKay challenged and realized that idea.  At the same time, can you think of two painters more radically different than Barnet Newman and Dorothy Knowles?  Here is one of the paradoxes of minimalism: that these simple cabins can give rise to such exuberant variety.

The monastic rooms at St. Michael's Abbey, where I spent a wonderful Sage Hill Writing Experience, similarly have a calm, supportive aura. The cabins in the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre for the arts also resonate:  they have guest books for everyone to sign so that there is a kind of narrative linking the creative lives of the people who thrive there, whose work thrives there.  Yet this is a space devoid of your personality:  all I brought was a computer and a guitar.  I think it's that absence of self that's liberating in some almost Buddhist way.

I'm quite sure that minimalism can give rise to creativity, whether it's Thoreau's simple cabin on Walden Pond or Turner's eyrie at Petworth, which I've always envied.  Though realistically one needs to realize that the rigours of simplicity don't suit everyone.  Consider the studios of Picasso or Cezanne, full of props and ideas.

But I can't quite work out the relationship between the aesthetics and the ethics of simplicity.  In some ways, those who have chosen very simple lives, people like Thoreau or the monks at St. Michael's Abbey, conceived of an ethical component to simplicity that is almost Buddhist:  mindfulness, the freedom to reflect, observe, and imagine, they might say, is gained by a certain detachment from things, even while the simplicity created by that detachment is frequently beautiful.  There's also the practical fact:  if you're not interested in amassing things, you can work less and create or reflect more.  But David Claerbaut's video, "Sunrise,"which I wrote about last February, makes it quite clear that minimalism requires a lot of upkeep and can be both beautiful and alienating.  Frequently the most elegantly simple clothing is also the most expensive.  (Though jewelery these days is opting for the baroque and extravagant, almost as if it's flying in the face of the economic downturn..)

 "Less is more" pronounced Mies van Der Rohe, as he stripped down the high rise.  "A house is a machine for living," observed Le Corbusier as he built homes like the Villa Savoy.  My daughter, Veronica, who has studied "Corb," tells me that aesthetically appealing and simple spaces were both quite expensive and not very home-like.  He had hoped to help us strip down our own lives to what was important by providing a visual corollary for us to contemplate.  At the same time, however, there's no place to comfortably sit and contemplate in his houses; he's always moving you on to the next task in its perfectly-defined and designed space. He has not designed the modernist version of Thoreau's cabin at Walden.

I confess I love winter.  (Don't tell Bill.)  I love its minimalism.  I spend autumn engrossed in searching out the truth of the subtle greyed colours and the complex textures of trees, shrubs, grasses that have dried or lost their leaves.  Some days it is a stretch to see the beauty that I somehow cannot live without, cannot stop searching for.  Then one morning I wake to a new-made world.  There is a white harmony in the naked textures and more space to breath in the chilly air.


  1. I don't know what to say about this entry except that I liked it. It's a pleasure to get a glimpse of your life and perusings. I love winter too. It's a beautiful season.

  2. lovely post. i've also been embracing the minimalist aesthetic more and more. and i do try to enjoy the grey and white of winter. thanks Kathleen.