Contributed by Al Skaw
I am not a writer, I am a painter, so a writing exercise such as this is somewhat left of field for me. Did I say left of field? No, it’s actually much more than that. One of the most famous painters of modern times, Henri Matisse suggested that artists should have their tongues cut out so they didn’t have to say in words what their work was saying in paint. Fortunately, (at least for me), I never felt the need to follow his advice. In all the years I have been exhibiting my work I have deliberately avoided creating art that required an essay to explain what it is about. The mantra in the art world today is no longer “seeing is believing”, it is “believing is seeing”. All that to say that I have now finally settled to the keyboard with a glass of wine as my only distraction.
I haven’t mentioned that while I was tasked to write this essay, I was also given instructions on subject matter.
“Don’t be maudlin”, Shelly admonished me as I began. “This is meant to be positive space”. Okay…
I am not known for my tendencies to be a Pollyanna, but I assured her, I shall be as bright and positive as possible given the circumstances. Initially, I thought I could write about the trails through the forest that we cover on nearly a daily basis as we walk our dogs. I often take my sketchbook with me as I walk and my two pups patiently wait for me in knee deep in snow while I finish my drawing. I think one day they will suffer frostbite for the sake of my art.
But as always when I am trying to create, whether at the easel or at the keyboard, I look for distractions, so trails aside, I take a mouthful of the aforementioned red wine, it is Stags’ Leap, a glorious cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley. I turn my head to examine a squirrel on a snowbank only feet from the dining window. What is he chewing on… I access the CBC on my computer for a little background music only to hear the staccato voice of a news reader telling me that by mutual agreement, Canada and the USA have agreed to close the border. Like most people, I’m beginning to feel I’m living in a science fiction movie.
My telephone rings..
… it’s my art dealer, the owner of Wallack Galleries. She is calling to inform me the art supply shop and gallery is closing for the foreseeable future. I was expecting this, many public and commercial galleries have closed in recent days, not only here, but around the world. At first, only a trickle, but now a flood. We spend most of our time on the telephone discussing the absurdity of the current situation but we both agree, it will probably get worse. We agree that everything now is different. We don’t quite know how, only that it is and that life as we once knew it has changed. She doesn’t know when the gallery will open again but we promise to speak to one another once a week or so. She “will keep me posted”, she says.
Stay positive I tell myself, stay positive…
I have been reminded frequently enough of the vicissitudes and vulnerabilities of my age (68) during the recent onslaught of Corona Virus news over the past two weeks, and because of it I am already nostalgic for my previous life.
That is, my previous life only three weeks ago…
On Monday of this week, I walked to Cafe Molo as I do every morning hoping to make it there early enough to catch the table nearest the fire. Regulars will know which one I mean.
As I walk down the hill and turn the bend on Rockhurst, the village comes into view and I check the Molo chimney for smoke. Walter comes in early to get the fire going and will always pass a few pleasantries with me and the other locals before he departs to attend to his own life and that of his darling partner Dianne. She has been ill recently, but “She is making great advances!” Walter announces, and he will beam as he says it.
I have spent the last decade of my life in Wakefield and am often thankful for the friendship and community spirit shown here, by businesses like Cafe Molo. The people who inhabit them and those who own and work in them often remind me that I am human and require humanity to survive this new technological age.
Did I mention that I love their coffee? Well, at the moment – “loved” – temporary past tense. As the village came into view on Monday morning, there wasn’t any smoke from the chimney. Cafe Molo has closed due to the “social distancing” practice that we all must currently live by.
I want all those there who have given me years of service and friendship to know that I miss them and that I am suffering withdrawal symptoms.
Unfortunately, many other businesses, commercial and public in our community have suffered the same fate.
It has brought to mind my Austrian grandmother telling me stories about the difficulties and uncertainties of life during the Spanish Flu pandemic. She very nearly succumbed to it as did so many others as Europe ended the second decade of the twentieth century. She was only young, but her memories of it were quite vivid.
During the early years of WW1 and all through WW2, the population of Europe was able to find succour, inspiration and hope through cafe life, music, theater and all the other forms of the arts. Large numbers of people gathered together to listen to an orchestra or to watch drama played out on a makeshift stage which provided the audience with relief and a sense of community. During the wars the arts provided that swoon.
Spanish Influenza though, I remember her telling me, was different in that it made her feel very much alone. Public gatherings were discouraged if not completely banned. The orchestra could no longer be listened to collectively with safety and so, they no longer performed.
In these next few weeks or even months we will have to adjust our lives accordingly.
And so, what to do? What is the “bright side”…
As I mentioned earlier, I am an artist. Artists nearly always work in a solitary environment. We require an audience to display our talent but we require solitude to create. So in a time when we can expect to spend much more time on our own, I can perhaps offer some advice. Spring is nearly upon us in Wakefield and as temperatures climb, grab a basket, fill it with your favourite foods and picnic with your family. And as you do, take special notice of those subtle colour changes that occur quite quickly as the warm air replaces the cold.
Become creative, make something that will give someone pleasure…
Read some of those classics you were meant to read at school but never got around to. Pick up a book of poetry and don’t worry if you don’t understand what the poem exactly means, that isn’t important, curl your tongue around the words as you read them aloud, believe me – the meaning will come. Make a drawing and give it to the person you love, become musical and pay particular attention to the beauty of the wildlife in and around Wakefield. Take up a musical instrument and learn how to play it. When you can, practice with animals as your audience. They love music too you know, and I believe they can also be quite musical.
They say, “don’t sweat the small stuff”. How wrong could they be… This virus is so small as to be invisible and yet, we have been forced into an obsessive compulsive behavior that insists we constantly wash our hands in an attempt to wash it off. Only this morning, I heard a commentator say that he has washed his hands so frequently in the past few weeks that the answers to his 8th grade history test were revealed. It made me laugh.
Given our new rules of social distancing, there will inevitably be those who feel more alone than others. For them, I offer this, a paraphrase of something I read some time ago: The legacy of art of all types is a universal condition. When absorbed, it provides bonds between us, so that to be alone in the world is not to be alone at all. You may not be able to attend a concert or go to an art gallery in the near future, but avail yourselves to the beauty that is available on line. It will remind you that you are not alone in the world after all.
Thanks again to all of you who make living in Wakefield such a unique pleasure. I hope to join you again soon at that table by the fire. Until then, this old Australian painter wishes all of you bonne chance et bonne santé.