The tools we have to hand

20258081_10154588033600964_1306340685664480_n.jpg‘Todmorden’ by STEEN (used with permission of the artist – and the proud owner – ME!)

I’m not sure where the summer went – although, if we’re honest, this wasn’t the best of the best that we’ve come to expect ’round these parts. Still, there is something always-melancholy about Labour Day weekend. It’s been more than a few years now since I’ve returned to school, and I find myself missing the preparations involved in getting back into the classroom at this time of year more than at any other.

In retrospect, the past few months have had a melancholy tinge about them. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will, but I’ve been struggling with envisioning how this next part of my life might go. I don’t feel like I’m living up to my potential – however that may or may not be quantified.

Some of that reflection stems from missing my parents. It’s not a feeling that even really goes away, but their absence has seemed greater to me over the past little while. I’m not sure why that is – something I’m still trying to figure out – but it’s left me questioning a whole lot of stuff that I had fallen into the habit of taking for granted.

Couple that with the anxiety-causing nonsense to the south of us – and elsewhere in the world – I’ve been feeling like I need to get back to doing something that will permit me to make a move toward positive change. I’m still sussing out the parameters of that – and what such a move might look like, ultimately, but it is a work-in-progress.

A number of years ago I began following the FB artist page of a friend from the old ‘hood. The evolution of his work has been hugely interesting – and incredibly inspiring. Back in the Spring he exhibited at a gallery down on Queen West, and a couple of my friends and I went to check out the work we’d been seeing live-and-in-person.

I was blown away by both his vision and the incredible detail he inserts into every piece of art. In talking with the gallery owner, I started to think seriously about undertaking a commission – in support of Brandon’s continuing growth as an artist, but also as a tribute of sorts to my parents.

Dad was a great patron of Canadian art and artists. His collection of Inuit sculpture sits in my living room – in some cases, accompanied by letters from their creators. I remember being with him when some of the purchases were made. I feel a fair bit of ownership over one piece, in particular, since I fell in love with it from the moment we entered the gallery in Old Quebec.

Rather quickly I made the decision to begin the commissioning process, and Brandon and I had a wonderful chat – after many many years. He visited the house, and photographed some of Dad’s collection, and, over the course of another great catch-up session, gleaned a whole lot of remarkably keen insight into me and my family.

The result is at the top of this page.

I grew up within spitting distance of Todmorden Mills – in the Don Valley, and I live, currently, not that far away. I can catch a glimpse of the spire when we pass through the Prince Edward Viaduct on the subway commute every morning. It’s been a landmark in my life for as long as I remember.

The image on the large wall is Brandon’s representation of my favourite of Dad’s Inuit sculptures. Mom and Dad’s names appear in the graffiti. My little lost Dude smiles at me from the window. The centre mosaic of Grandpa’s ceiling at the ROM runs up the spire. My love (seemingly misplaced, this season), of my hometown Jays. Even the Spaghetti Monster is there – as a giggling nod to my personal (lack of) beliefs.

I continue to be stunned every time I look at it – and the glow I still carry from being privileged enough to be able to have participated in the process (in however minor a manner) of the creation of something so beautiful and so meaningful is a fully-realized reminder of the many great opportunities provided to me by my upbringing and the strength of those personalities that I’m lucky enough to call my parents and grandparents.

That wonderful experience is one element of this latest quest I’ve undertaken. I’m looking for new directions, career-wise, and questioning whether it is time that I get back into the world of pedagogy.

I’m trying to write more – some freelance articles that take me back to esoterica of my academic life, and (per always) the fiction projects that seem to change course every time I give them some time and (attempted) focus.

That last bit meant that I had to attend one completely practical matter. I needed a new laptop. If you go back through colemining posts, you might recall that my MacBook died, oh, close on three years ago now. Since then, I’ve made due with a hand-me-down I inherited when we lost Dad.

I never seemed to be able to just go out and make the purchase of the better tool – one that could hold a battery charge, that didn’t freeze if I had too many widows open at once, and that I could bookmark for ease of research and reference. I admit to being a master of procrastination when it comes to certain things (the things I just don’t want to do, for example), but my unwillingness to commit and purchase the new computer was starting to seem a wee bit pathological.

I bit the bullet a couple of weeks ago – largely because we were heading to the cottage and I wanted access to all the music that lives in iTunes but has been unaccessible to me for the past three years – since iTunes was another thing I refused to install on Dad’s laptop. He had his own account, and it felt like I’d be erasing something of him, if I replaced it with my own music.

A computer is a tool – I certainly do my best not to be chained to mine – but the reality is that the one I had been using had outlived its efficiency and efficacy. But it was Dad’s. As much as I LOVE my new tool (it’s SO fast! And I missed MacWorld. Regardless of what haters might say, it’s the best tool for the uses to which I tend to put the thing), the old one still sits on my desk, waiting to be wiped and recycled.

I’m not there yet.

It will likely sit for a time, still, until I’m ready to go through the files and revisit the ways in which Dad used it as his tool for so long (he may have been almost-74 when we lost him, but he was more computer-savvy than a lot of folks my age).

I’m trying to focus on the many – less-tangible, but far more important – tools that were bequeathed to me and my sisters by our parents and grandparents; the history and the wisdom and the experiences that helped in the making of us. Those things that have helped to create – and allow us to create new history, experiences, and, hopefully, wisdom, as we take up the tools we find along our own paths.

Brandon used the tools he has to hand – his talent, his discipline, his insight, his vision of our world – to complete a creation of beauty and remembrance for me and my family to treasure and pass on to those who might come after us. I will never be able to thank him enough for employing those tools as successfully and beautifully as he has done, for the delight of all of us.

My toolbox includes such things as a knowledge of the lessons of history; the importance of art of music, and the human expressions of our shared stories; the deeply-held belief that these arts and stories are the most important things that describe and define the reality that we are all more alike than different; an inclination (compulsion?) to string words together; and, if I’m honest with myself, the ability to teach about some small aspect of all of the above.

Those are the tools that I’m working to pick up again. They might be slightly disused, but I believe they’re still serviceable. I have an amazing example, now living on my wall, providing me with constant inspiration about what is possible when tools are turned to intended- and best-use.

Brandon Steen’s next exhibit is at the Elaine Fleck Gallery, 1351 Queen Street West, November 1-30.

Regarding the inherent value of creativity and art

That first couple of days back to the grind after a long weekend can certainly be, well, grinding.  This is sort of where I’m at right now- feeling like there are gears rubbing together to their detriment rather than as an effective means of propulsion.  It’s likely not helping that we got MORE FREAKIN SNOW yesterday, but today the sun is shining and the temperature has crawled above the freezing mark, so I’m trying to let that inspire me to get some work finished up.

February is my least favourite month- for any number of reasons, but most of all because- despite the fact that it has the least number of days- it seems to be the lo-o-o-o-o-o-ngest by far.  And it’s generally cold.  And slushy.  And overcast.

I know.  Complaining about the weather is a particularly futile exercise, and I’m really trying hard to get off the complaining-to-no-purpose train.  If I have a complaint it should be about something tangible, and about which I should be able to do something.

2014 is the year of change and action, after all.

Anyhoo.

I saw two movies at the theatre this weekend and finished a couple of books- so I admit to having had more than my fair share of leisure time mixed in with the usual running around and seeing to responsibilities and proactive measures to affect the change I’d like to see, both in my own life and in the world as a whole.

As it turned out, both films very much jibed with the way my thoughts have been cycling lately.  Creativity and art and expression and music and magic and wonder… we NEED more of these things.  And yet, those who undertake these most important human constructions and creations (and those who pursue studies about these most important human constructions and creations) are told- over and over and over again- that there is NO PRACTICAL VALUE in doing so.

Really?  Really!?!?

The first movie was just for fun- but turned out to be more than that.  The Lego Movie featured a pretty cool message- about the need for creativity and the desire to work outside of pre-ordained and restrictive societal norms.  That cookie-cutter buildings, ‘reality’ television shows about the banality of life and prescribed over-priced coffee may resonate with the lowest common denominator, there remain those among us who strive to create things of beauty and value- and that those things can be at least as practical as those that are mundane and conformist.

I loved it.  It was fun and it was clever and it hit all the right notes.  I can’t get that freakin Everything is Awesome song out of my head, but this is incidental.

On Monday we opted for something a little more serious but, interestingly, along the same lines.  The Monuments Men tells a mere slice of the story of the quest to recover art and artifacts stolen by the Nazis over the course of World War II.

I’ve seen a lot of not-so-great reviews of the film and, honestly, not one of them remotely deterred me from checking it out.  For one thing, how do you not love that cast?  And the idea behind it (the movie and the real life events that the movie is based on)?   That crushing the Nazi onslaught and ridding the world of the repulsive ideology that drove the power and land grab- evidence of some of the worst of humanity- would have been an incomplete victory if they had been able to destroy the art that is an expression of the best of humanity?

That.  Exactly that.  How AWESOME and inspiring and affirming is that?!?!

Some have called it ‘preachy’ (ineffectually preachy, actually).  Others suggest that no work of art is worth a human life.  Those who lost their lives (or risked imprisonment as collaborators) in the pursuit of the preservation of some of the greatest art known to humanity begged to differ.  They understood that destroying that which defines us as human- those creations of beauty and insight and appreciation of our world and history and stories- leaves us bereft of a vital element of our shared experiences.

The movie also served to pique my curiosity about the subject and the events and the history of this group of scholars and artists, who, like me, see incredible value in the great works we leave behind us.  The Monuments Men website offers all kinds of resources for education about the men and women of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) who succeeded in saving so many of Europe’s great cultural and artistic achievements.

I am, primarily, an historian.  I learned about World War II- mainly about Canada’s involvement and through my studies about the Holocaust (from a Religious Studies perspective, for the most part), but the story of the preservation of our art and culture- and the ideology and spirit behind those who successfully emphasized the NEED for the preservation of the art and culture?  This is a new and wonderful lens into an important battle that was fought and won through sacrifice and determination.

In a society that is increasingly determined to insist that everything is disposable commodity, the actions of these men and women- scholars of art and architecture and literature and history- as presented for the popular media in the form of a Hollywood movie (a sincere thank you, Mr. Clooney) is incredibly timely and important.

With every ongoing conflict and new outbreak of violence in the world we are in danger of incrementally losing our shared humanity.  Not just through the egregious and shameful disruption and taking of innocent lives, but through the destruction of our shared history and its important remnants- be they literary, artistic, historical or architectural.

I cried when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Syria’s ancient treasures- along with its people- are being systematically destroyed, just as happened in Iraq over the course of that ‘conflict’, in the name of political and religious ideologies that are all about power, influence and economics.  Please note that the ideologies driving these wars and atrocities are being enacted IN ALL CASES for the benefit of the few without consideration given to the lives and heritage of the many.

I loved the movie.  I’ve bought the book.

Some reminders for those who persist in refusing to see the necessity of the Humanities.

I have some reading to do.