Monday, December 21, 2009

ON FINISHING A BOOK
Since 2001 I have carried Paraskeva Clark in my thoughts and in my heart and mind. Almost everything I read was through the lens of thinking about her. The art exhibitions I saw were through the prism of thoughts about this artist.

Then in the last few months I was focused on the production process of "Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark" - working with my editor; checking the copy edit; proof reading the whole book; checking the index; checking the end notes; checking the photos and reproductions of paintings; checking the final proofs of the entire book. Soon came the realization that the book had gone to the printer. Nor more changes. That’s it. Whatever I had written, that’s what would go out into the world. Too late to do any more work on this book, the love of my life for eight years.

When I saw a copy of "Perfect Red" for the first time, I was thrilled. It is beautiful. I rubbed my hands over it, I smelled it, I took off the jacket to look at the cover and the spine. I loved the red lettering on the black spine. I leafed through it, read the introduction (thought it was good), looked up names in the index, examined the photos, looked at the paintings, flipped through the book to read snatches. All those words I had tapped out on my computer were now a book. What a miracle! No, not a miracle; it was fun and it was work, a work of love.

Now what? The constant pile of notes to remind me to do this or that are gone. My desk is clear. The shelf of frequently used reference materials now holds books that I couldn’t fit on my shelves. I feel as though something big is missing, some pleasure I had all those years. I feel a sense of loss, but at the same time I feel a sense of pride and joy as I hold memories of people I met, people who have enriched my life; memories of days spent poring over documents about Paraskeva Clark’s life, her baptismal records, her hand-written lectures, her correspondence - and on and on - reading articles on Canadian art of her era, books on Russia, on the Spanish Civil War, and looking at her paintings.

What remains of those eight years is my reservoir of memories and, most important, the book. (People I meet, as well as friends, tell me they are reading my book and enjoying it. How rewarding!) Now suddenly Christmas has come. Next will be a New Year in which to discover what lies ahead.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On the 26th of November, my Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark was launched at Libby’s of Toronto. I was completely astounded by the number of people who came and their excitement and interest in the book. What a gratifying experience! Perhaps the best way of conveying what the evening was like is through the photos taken by my husband, Loren Lind and my son, Gareth Lind.

Gavin Miller, who was at my launch and was Paraskeva's neighbour when he was a boy taped John Libby's introduction and my short speech.
You can listen to this part of the event at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTJhQNTFFFA

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On the 26th of November, my "Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark" was launched at Libby’s of Toronto. I was completely astounded by the number of people who came and their excitement and interest in the book. What a gratifying experience! Perhaps the best way of conveying what the evening was like is through the photos taken by my husband, Loren Lind and my son, Gareth Lind.

Gavin Miller, who was Paraskeva's neighbour when he was a young boy, taped the introduction by John Libby and my short speech. You can listen to these at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTJhQNTFFFA

Monday, November 16, 2009

More on Robert Irwin and “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”

For Robert Irwin, the California artist I mentioned in an earlier blog, at a certain point in his career following his curiosity became more important than his ambition, and according to Lawrence Weschler whose interviews are the “meat” of this book, Irwin has continued on that path.

In the 1960s, he encountered so many questions in his work and these questions drove him in his investigations of painting. He realized that our culture is geared toward answers, not questions, and it is performance that counts. As he said, “I find it very precarious for a culture only to be able to measure performance and never to be able to credit the questions themselves.” (page 90) Irwin pursued answers to his questions in painting and when he made a discovery he moved on to something else, to the frustration of his dealer who had to educate his public all over again when Irwin’s painting changed dramatically.

Over the years, periodically Irwin took a break from the world, and by all appearances spent time doing “nothing,” but the way I see it, he was allowing his whole being to reconstitute. He seemed to be really good at knowing what he needed to do at any given time.

I’m skipping huge swaths of his career, but eventually Irwin realized that he did not want his painting to be a metaphor for something. He did not want viewers to look at it and say, oh, that reminds me of a tree or a this or a that. He wanted his work to be IT, to be a presence for the viewer, and not a metaphor for a presence. He began working in empty rooms, and worked meticulously on the surfaces of the walls, creating spaces that reacted to light in certain ways. He used natural light, electric light and/or scrim as a medium to create a certain kind of atmosphere and light. Many people would go into these spaces, and turn around and come out because they thought the room was empty. For the people who could actually “see” and not just “look,” these rooms became an experience in perception of something they had not experienced before.

Eventually Irwin began making proposals for installations and works in public spaces. If the photos in this book are an accurate indication, one of the most spectacular of his works is the Central Garden at the Getty Center in California. He chose hundreds of grasses, flowers, shrubs, trees and ground covers to sculpt a landscape that included paths and water running down a slope to a pool at the bottom. It was enormous undertaking, but he was not content to simply design this garden, but he was present daily to work with the people doing all the landscaping and planting.

The people in charge of the Getty wanted to put up a plaque, and Irwin resisted. In the end, he agreed to the following inscribed on a pair of little stones: “Ever present, never twice the same” and on the other side of the stone “Ever changing, never less than whole” along with his name and date - Robert Irwin December 1997.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

International Festival of Authors

The annual International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront is such a splendid source of pleasure and inspiration, whether you are a reader of books or a writer.

I attended four of the “Round Tables” of the festival, groups of writers talking about the writing process and their own books. I particularly enjoyed sitting in on the conversation between three authors who wrote books in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, edited by John Ralston Saul: Mark Kingwell (biography of Glenn Gould), Daniel Poliquin (biography of René Levesque) and Jane Urquhart (biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery). The conversation was moderated by Charlotte Gray who wrote a biography of Nellie McClung for the series.

It was fascinating to see how different each of the people were who were the subjects of the books. What they all had in common, however, is a struggle with a religious heritage, which had an impact in their emotional life and in their relationships with people close to them. This Penguin series is making a contribution to the discourse on Canada as a nation made up of people who are full of contradictions and care about contributing to the world through self-fulfillment.

The most memorable part of the ten-day festival for me was the opening night, a PEN Canada Benefit, a conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro, moderated by CBC host Bill Richardson, who I think has the funniest sense of humour on this earth. Athill (age 92) and Munro (age 78) had never met until last week, as they admired each other from afar.

Athill began working with André Deutsch when he founded his publishing house in the 1950s until the company ceased operation in the 1980s. She was the editor for such writers as Philip Roth, Jean Rhys and Mordecai Richler. She has written several novels, but during the last years she wrote her memoirs. Her “Somewhere Towards the End” is a brilliant book that does not shy away from what it is like to be old. She is sharp-witted and has the ability to marvel at what life brings to an individual, and yet sense how enormous is the whole of humanity on this planet.

Alice Munro, the eminent short story writer, once said that there is no such thing as an ordinary person, that everyone is fascinating. Even the most boring person is interesting if you are able to really see her or him.

Hearing these two women talk to each other, I felt I was in the presence of great wisdom, even though they both claimed that in their old age they do not feel wiser, but calmer.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

ON ROBERT IRWIN, CALIFORNIA ARTIST

I am reading a wonderful book called "seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees - Over Thirty years of Conversations with Robert Irwin" by Lawrence Weschler. Irwin is a California artist whose early work in Abstract Expressionism attracted the attention of art critics and galleries.

During his high school years he was fascinated with cars, and worked on cars with a Zen-like intensity. He would finish and refinish small sections that no one would ever see. Later, he pointed back to these years as the beginning of the care he put into his paintings as a mature artist. When he was young,he travelled around Europe for a time and ended up on Ibiza, a small island on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. There he spent eight months living alone in a small cabin, not talking to anyone.

He described what happened on Ibiza, saying that usually when you get bored “you plug yourself in somewhere: you call somebody up, you pick up a magazine, a book, you go to a movie, anything.” These things help to form your identity and the sense that you are alive. But he did none of that, and as he put it, he pulled out all the usual plugs and at first it was painful, having none of those distractions. But when he got all the plugs pulled out, it became “serene, it’s terrific. It just becomes really pleasant, because you’re out, you’re all the way out.” He was no longer thinking about things in the usual sense, but his thoughts became pure ideas, “stripped of any worldly ambitions or motives.”

After this experience, Irwin went back to his normal life in California, got married and continued making art and building up his reputation. In 1957, at the age of twenty-nine, he had a show at the prestigious Felix Landau gallery in Los Angeles and he had a chance to have a good look at what he had been doing. When he saw all his work hanging, he realized the paintings did not hold up. The opening was painful because the people who came told him how wonderful the show was, but he knew in his heart his paintings were worthless to himself. He stopped doing what he had been doing. That was the beginning, he said, of his real education.

It took ten or twenty year before Irwin absorbed what happened to him on Ibiza. He began following his curiosity with an intensity and persistence that he has continued to this day. The way I read Irwin, it seems to me that grappling with “root questions” about ”basic relationships of the three or four primary aspects of existence in the world: being-in-time, for example, space, presence” freed him so that he was able to push way past where he had gone with his art in the past.

I’m only a third of the way through this book, but one of the pleasures of it is discovering how this artist thinks. He is so articulate and clear about himself and his work that he is able to let us in on how he evolved from when he first started working as an artist to the present, though I have not yet read to the point in the book that goes into his later work. I like the format of the book, the way Lawrence Weschler ties together the long quotes by the artist. I had expected the book would be in an interview format, but Weschler is adept at tying together and illuminating Irwin’s accounts of his life and work. More about this book as I continue to read.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mary Meigs

Mary Meigs was an American-born Montreal painter and writer, who died in 2002. She wrote as though she were painting;in her books she delineated her own character and those of the people with whom she had close relationships. I am really taken by her her journals and autobiographical writings.

I’ve just finished reading her "The Medusa Head", an autobiographical work that focuses on herself, her partner Marie-Claire Blais and another woman she calls “Andrée” with whom they had a brief relationship. Her understanding of herself and her two lovers is astounding and she writes with an openness that I admire. Meigs was very wise, and I am happy that she left behind for us at least some of what she discovered. Here is a short excerpt, an example of how she articulated one aspect of being an artist.

“One is perpetually walking the tightrope between selfishness and generosity, the generosity that comes from a state of awareness of others, and an artist’s selfishness - the holding together of the conditions necessary to be an artist.” (p. 105 The Medusa Head)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Too Fast

Deborah Windsor, the Executive Director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, wrote a short article in the Union’s magazine, “Write,” about the difficulties of adapting to the new technologies. She said she likes the old way of doing things, and she admitted that’s a problem. I’m with her - I still like paper and the old ways of putting a book together. At the same time, I see the huge advantage technology has brought us. For myself, I would like technology to slow down.(But don't take away my computer!)

Around the same time I read Deborah’s little article, I heard a feature on CBC about the rapidity of developments in the field of technology. In the past, there was a greater time lapse between major inventions. Now, time between the invention of each piece of technology is much shorter. I’m curious how this pace of change will affect the human race over the long haul.

Sometimes when I am flying, I think that human beings weren’t “made” to move this quickly, and weren’t meant to be hundreds of feet off the ground. I’m more earth-bound than most, perhaps. It’s not for nothing that earth day and my birthday are the same date!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Putting a Book Together

16 September, 2009

I spent yesterday afternoon at Cormorant Books working with the production manager, Barry Jowett on the placement of images for "Perfect Red," my biography on Paraskeva Clark. Because of budgetary constraints, the photos and paintings will be in three sixteen-page signatures in the book, which means the images will not appear with related text, but they will be gathered into sections (signatures) inserted at certain places in the book. Placing images in signatures instead of scattering them throughout the text costs as much as $15 per book more to produce because heavier paper must be used throughout, not just on pages where images appear. Heavier paper is used for the signatures and lighter, less expensive paper is used in the rest of the book. Would you pay $15 more for "Perfect Red" to avoid having to flip back to another part of the book to look at a painting about which you are reading? I doubt it, but I wish you would.

A book on art and artists is so much more satisfying, more beautiful and so much more unified when the paintings and photos appear within the text where they belong.

I understand that publishers must stay within their budgets to keep down the prices on books or they won’t sell, but I can’t avoid feeling frustrated with yesterday's process. The three sixteen-page signatures, a total of forty-eight pages, do not give us enough space for all the paintings and photos that must be included in the book. I came away desperately wanting another signature for the rest of the paintings, but I am not sure it will be possible to add another signature because of the additional cost. If not, Barry and I will have to go back through the whole process again to place the images, and many will have to be much smaller. I don’t like these compromises.

All this makes me feel like railing against the values in our culture: art, which feeds the spirit, is not seen as an essential part of our lives so artists and writers constantly are stymied in the process of giving what is their to give to society. The dominant attitude in our consumer culture is that if something isn’t cheap, well, it should be cheaper. What does this generalization have to do with my work yesterday? Think about it and let me know.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On the Credit River in the energetic little town of Erin, Ontario sits the Porcupine’s Quill, an equally energetic press where Elke and Tim Inkster live and work. These two people, recipients of the Order of Canada on Canada Day 2008, spend long hours typesetting, and printing and binding the books they publish. (An aside here: how does it happen that someone with the name of “Inkster” becomes a publisher who prints books?)

When I visited the Inksters last week with the purpose of checking over my Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971, which they are publishing later this year (date not yet set), Tim gave me a tour. I was astounded how tidy the whole establishment is. In my many years as a freelance book editor, I’ve been in and out of publishing houses countless times and I cannot remember any publishing house this tidy. In fact, what I remember is general chaos in many offices. Not Porcupine’s Quill! When I commented on this to Tim and Elke, they told me that when you are small everything must have its place.

Perhaps PQ is small, but its award-winning history is admirable, as is its commitment to careful production of its books. The books are printed on a Heidelberg Press that is nearly forty years old, using only high-grade paper. The Inksters put the books together with sewn bindings - now rarely used in publishing fiction - as opposed to glueing, which is not nearly as durable. They have a 1907 model Smyth national book sewing machine that appears to be in great shape, much older than it looks.

That the proprietors of Porcupine’s Quill publish books because they love them is obvious. So today I write in praise of publishers who love books.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Earlier this month I worked with my editor to prepare “Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark” for publication. Many people do not realize the importance of an editor in writing a book, but I worked as a book editor for many years and learned to appreciate the benefit of a good editor to a writer.

When you are immersed in researching and writing, especially in a project that stretches over a number of years as does writing a biography, you are so intertwined with what you are doing that most of the time it seems impossible to look at what you have written from any other perspective than your own. To have another person, an experienced editor, read your writing and comment on it is an extremely helpful process. An example of this is what happened to me on the last chapter of my book. I was discontent with the way I had written that chapter, but I was stuck and could not think of a different approach for the conclusion. (One thing I learned again is that the most difficult parts of a book are the beginning and the ending.) I asked my editor, Ruth Bradley-St.-Cyr, for some suggestions, and her questions and ideas helped me look at the chapter in a different way.

We did the editing for Perfect Red totally on line. Ruth would send me her work by email, and by using the tracking and comment features in Microsoft Word I could see exactly what she had changed or added, and then I could respond to that and send it back to her. This was my first experience with electronic editing, and to my surprise it worked really well (I’m a paper lover and my Joyce Wieland biography published in 2001 was paper all the way).

I enjoy the editing process because it is a creative, collaborative effort. The editor might suggest something, and simply this other point of view releases my thought process so that I can think about I wrote in a new way. What I then write is not necessarily what the editor suggested - it might follow on the editor’s idea, but it might be something totally different, but I could not have written something new without her input.

So today I honour all good editors who make good books better!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In January 1983, I sat on a backless bench at the Art Gallery of Ontario watching the film, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady. The feisty old woman in the documentary fascinated me. I jotted down some notes and stuck them into my files. Paraskeva Clark (1898-1986) now had her own folder in the top drawer of my filing cabinet.

Fast-forward to the year 1999. About six months before completing a major project of researching and writing the biography of Joyce Wieland (Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire, 2001) Paraskeva began sitting on my shoulder and wouldn’t leave. I could not stop thinking about her. I discovered that her papers were housed in Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and I also learned that there were many people who knew her who were available for interviews.

This is how I began my years of exploring the life of Paraskeva Clark, a scrappy, gutsy artist full of contradictions. My book on Clark, Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark will be published in November by Cormorant Books (www.cormorantbooks.com).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Recently I read an article about biography by Terry Eagleton in an old Harper’s Magazine (November 2007) - “Buried in the Life: Thomas Hardy and the Limits of Biographies,” a review of two Thomas Hardy biographies, one by Claire Tomalin and one by Ralph Pite.

Eagleton says that everyone must be born and almost everyone has to be educated, oppressed by parents, plagued by siblings, and launched into the world...” and so on. And at the end of all this we expire, he says. Using this template, he points out that biographies are based on biology.

When I read this, at first I thought he was totally knocking the genre. As I read on, I realized that what he is asking for is biographies that do more than just tell what a person had for breakfast, because for example, what Jane Austen had for breakfast “throws exceedingly little light on the fiction.” He makes a case for doing more than just giving a “blow-by-blow record of “what happened just after noon on July 21, 1889, and then what took place two hours later...” because this kind of writing means “the art gets buried in the life.”

Eagleton made the case that a good biography portrays the times in which a person lived. I agree, and this is what I love about reading biographies. Years ago I read Kathleen Barry’s Susan B. Anthony: Te Biography of a Singular Feminist about this courageous woman who was a leader in the United States in the nineteenth century women’s movement. This book gave me a picture of nineteen-century American culture. It is a good example of a portrait of a person that expands to encompass the world in which she lived.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Over the years since the publication of my Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (2001), I have been working on the idea of selecting Wieland’s drawings and journals in the archives at York University where I did my research. Called Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971, this volume will be published in November by Porcupine’s Quill, a small press in Erin, Ontario, which is about a twenty-minute drive from my home. Erin is a lovely little town and the presence of Porcupine’s Quill gives it a special charm - not to mention the wonderful bakery in the same block.

I made selections in which one can see how Wieland's identity and her thinking, especially about the world of art, developed in an era when few women were working as artists, a period of time when female artists were not taken seriously. Almost all of the writings and drawings in this new volume - cartoons, sketches, journal entries - have not been published or exhibited before. Wieland’s strong stance as a feminist and a Canadian citizen who was engaged in the world around her run like a thread through her work, and all with a great sense of humour.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

30 June, 2009

I had a holiday near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. That area is a high-energy geological wonder. The explanation given in the brochures about the area tells us that the bedrock was formed 380 million years ago when two ancient continents collided. This collision created such heat and pressure that parts of the continents melted and formed a molten mass under the surface of the earth. The magma cooled over time to form igneous rock granite. The millions of years of weathering and glacial activity resulted in the surfaces of rock on which the hundreds of tourists walk when they visit Peggy’s Cove.

One can walk through the barrens of the area on designated paths among the low-growing greenery. The residents of the area urge us tourists to respect the terrain and not trample around on the growth that covers the surface of the soil. The carnivorous pitcher plant is one of the flowers that totally captivated me. All I could see at first was a deep burgundy coloured flower on a tube-like stem that curved at the top so that the blossom turns to face the ground. It wasn’t until later, when a local resident told me about the leaves, that I saw the foliage low to the ground. The leaves collect rain water, insects fall into the water, drown and - yummy! - the plan has its dinner. The plant slowly digests the insects. Amazing!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Monday, June 8, 2009

In May I went with a friend to Chicago to visit the Chicago Art Institute, which has just opened a new wing, a light , airy addition. Chicago is a beautiful city , exhibiting a delightful mix of architectural styles that can be seen by boat on a river architectural tour. (Do I sound like a promo?) I especially like the Art Deco buildings.

Millenium Park in downtown Chicago must the be the pride of the city, with its "bean," a shiny reflective huge sculpture named Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Photographing it is great fun. I think it's a wonderfully successful scultpre everyone can enjoy, from a two-year-old who stands against it and sees herself, to a ninety-year-old using a walker.

What stands out for me from my three days in the "windy city" is the exhibition at the Art Institute of Cy Twombly's work, the American abstract painter who during the last few years did a series of peonies. Also exhibited in the show are calligraphic works, huge gestural markings that seem to be language from somewhere in the depths of Twombly's many years of experience and wisdom. Those gestural forms have stayed with me for the last two weeks, as have the peonies, large dripping abstract forms that delight my visual memory.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More on my reading of Women Between by Verna Reid.

In Verna Reid's exploration, she discovered four themes common to the work of these four artists: home and mother; body; nature; spirituality and aging. Reid uses these four aspects of artistic practice as the structure for her book.

Within this framework the author shows how the four women weave together the separate parts of their lives. The ordinary routines of daily life, and relationships with the people close to them, form a large place in each of their lives, alongside their painting and/or writing. Three of the women - Mary Pratt, Aganetha Dyck, Sharon Butala - are still working today and each one maintains a strong passion for her art as she ages. Sadly, Mary Meigs died in 2002.

At the end of each chapter, Reid writes of her own experience of the same issues the artists face, what she calls "Reading as Daughter, Sister and [in some chapters] Mother to the Text." I like this personal aspect of the book. I feel myself responding not only to the artists, but also to the author. I admire her careful research, her intelligence and her openness in sharing how she entered into the stories of these artists' lives.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

17 May, 2009

My current reading is the book, WOMEN BETWEEN: CONSTRUCTION OF SELF IN THE WORK OF SAHRON BUTALA, AGANETHA DYCK, MARY MEIGS AND MARY PRATT by Verna Reid. The author chose this title because these four artists are in the transitional generation "occupying the space between the traditional world of their mothers and the postmodern world of their daughters." Reid is also of that generation.

Societal expectations figure large in the lives of these four Canadian women. They all four experienced ambivalence about modelling their lives on their mothers' lives because of the narrow parameters the previous generation set for women. One of the aspects of this book that fascinates me is that, in fact, it is about five women, the fifth being Verna Reid herself. She acknowledges this, and it is her own experience that gives an immediacy to her writing.

More on this book another day.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


14 May, 2009
My biography of Russian-born Toronto artist Paraskeva Clark (1898-1986) will be published in November by Cormorant Books of Toronto.

One of the many things I enjoyed about writing this book was learning about her native land and her city, St. Petersburg. This is a society that from its beginning was saturated with tyranny and subservience. The city was built by peasants. Peter the Great combed the countryside and forced inhabitants to dig out the city he dreamed. Many of these poor workers dug up the soil with their bare hands and carried it in their aprons.

A city with a history like that cannot easily give up the tyranny of the tsars, which had continued on and on over centuries, finally shattered by the 1917 Revolution, and then, wouldn't you know it, the tyranny continued under a different name. How strange are we humans, who think we improve our situation only to continue the nastiness that was in our history. It's not only the Russians who have done this!

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