Saturday, 19 January 2013

Eight Months and Change:"for one more day"

Vancouver Art Gallery, the old courthouse.

"Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so , then you know you can go your whole life collecting days and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back."  Mitch Albom, "for one more day", Hyperion Press, New York, New York.  2006

"If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride" is a favourite saying of mine; every time I get dreaming about all the "what ifs" in life, I usually chastise myself by repeating that little truism until I finally understand that dreaming and wishing are best left for other people. In my life, it is best to just accept the reality that I am not terribly handsome or talented, I have not one ounce of charisma, and my daughter is never coming back for even a moment, much less a day.

 Still, in the wee hours of the morning, when the house is nearly silent, so quiet that the background noise of the filters on the fish tanks becomes a virtual waterfall to my vigilant ears, I sometimes ask myself "what if?".

There are just so many days with my daughter I would pick for a "do over". In fact, right now I would take any and all of them. On the other hand, if I had to make a choice, it would have been one of our "museum" days; those were all ours and ours alone.  On each of our museum days there was a sense of timelessness; the outside world and and its constant rush to the next new thing just disappeared. We two were an island unto ourselves, comfortable just to enjoy the art, artifacts and each others company. 

We fell into having museum days early on, just after we moved to Regina.  I was temporarily unemployed at the time; I had foolishly decided to pack veterinary medicine in and join the RCMP to follow my teenage dream. I had moved the entire family to Regina without any "plan B" (typical of me back then) and, as a result, I had gained three things quickly: a new home, a large mortgage, and all sorts of free time as the RCMP pondered whether I was worthy of their attention. I did not gain a job, and, as it turned out finally, because the RCMP finally decided I was not appropriate for their organisation.  "Too decision oriented" was their final decision. Anyway, I had to fill those days with something, so I explored Regina with my faithful side-kick Calista.

What do you do with a busy four-year old and tons of time on your hand? You visit the Royal Saskatchewan Museum...repeatedly.

As Calista grew up we kind of fell into a pattern of taking in every art show at Regina's Mackenzie Art Gallery on South Albert, just a few blocks away from the provincial legislature.  All our trips there were planned weeks in advance and were special days just for us; Roni did not have much interest and was just as happy to have her own special days with Calista.

 Now, the question becomes, which  day do I select out of so many?

 I don't: I create my own special day because this journal entry is all about "what if?"

 On the other hand, I do need some basis for reality, so I will borrow from two days spent at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 20007 Calista and I took in the special showing of "Realism through Surrealism" or, easier to say, "Monet to Dali". It was a big show covering the pivotal years in art from the last quarter of the 19th century into the first quarter of the 20th. Paintings on display included many from masters recognisable to everybody; even convicts on death-row know the names of Monet, Van Gogh, and Salvador Dali. They might get Monet mixed with Manet, but that's OK; they were practically contemporaries.  The second show we enjoyed at the VAG was the 2009 show "Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art". Again the show was extensive, covering both art and artifacts of the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, with numerous works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. It was not until just now, as I prepared this journal entry, that I saw how these visits influenced my "darlin' daughter" (now there is a term stolen directly from Kelvin Orr; the older I get the more like my father I become).

"Morisot" by Manet. He was
a "Realist" who sometimes did
"Impressionist" style paintings.
"Low Tide at Pourville, Near Dieppe" by Monet.
He was an "Impressionist" who sometimes painted
"Realist" style paintings.

The Vancouver Art Gallery occupies the impressive old neo-classical former court-house seated right in the heart of Vancouver's downtown core.  While certainly not as visually stunning as the Arthur Erickson designed glass and concrete mountain that now serves as the provincial court-house, there is a real sense of history and grandeur about the hundred year old domed building that houses the art gallery.  I suspect that both criminals and witnesses alike approached the old building with trepidation as they mounted the long, stone stair case and entered the imposing front doors. In truth, our visits to the art gallery were as much to enjoy the impressive old building as they were to take in the art.

Of course, when Calista and I visited any art gallery or museum, there was always the problem of what to do with the rest of the family.  Roni, while refined and artistic in her own right, would rather visit a dentist for a root-canal rather than stroll through a museum. She just does not like "old" and enjoys photographs of art in books as much as seeing the real thing. I could explain to her all day that they just do not compare, but she just smiles and nods, sure that I am just trying to talk her into another tedious three hour tour. In 2009 we had the added issue of Calista's current boy-friend  being with us in Vancouver (a real mistake for all you parents of teen-aged girls; never take boyfriends anywhere with your family.  Maybe to the taxidermy shop to have them stuffed and mounted.).  Our solution was pretty simple that year: the boy got left behind to sleep, eat and entertain himself (easy to do; watching paint dry was probably  breath-taking for that genius) and Roni came with us as far as the Eaton's shopping centre across the street from the gallery. There is nothing like a little retail-therapy to stave off boredom.

If Roni were writing this journal, her perfect day would have been the exact reverse; I would be sent by myself to the museum while she and Calista shopped the mall barren.  We, of course, would then meet at Starbuck's after to exchange tales of the hunt, their stories likely much better than least from Roni's point of view. Calista always remained neutral. She never really chose between Roni and I; she was always true to both.

At the core of the old court-house is a traditional rotunda that extends up to the top floors of the museum. Around this core lies the old stairwells, now filled by escalators, that gave access to each floor. In 2009 the centre of the rotunda was occupied by what I guess could be called a sculpture; "ought apartment" by Reece Terris. It was a multi-level series of apartments each depicting a different decade starting about 1950.  Calista loved it but I found it a little disturbing: half the furniture in the exhibit could have come right out of any of the homes I grew up in.  Heck, I am sure one of the light fixtures from the "seventies" apartment came right out of my parent's cabin by Okanagan Lake.  I think that is the first time Calista looked at me as "old"; my life had been included in a museum.

In 2007, the Vancouver Art Gallery was filled with paintings from the Realists through to the Surrealists. Calista and I had a prior history with the "Realists" and the "Impressionists", having taken in smaller shows featuring both of those movements back in Regina.  At one time Calista could name almost all of the famous painters from the "Impressionist" movement, though by 2007 the only name she could immediately recall was Monet, the original "Impressionist".

An unappreciative art critic of Monet's era had coined the term in a disparaging critique after the unveiling of Monet's painting "Impression: soleil levant". The "Impressionists" departed from the earlier art standards by dispensing with details and hard lines and concentrating on the interplay of light and colour within the scene they are trying to depict. The paintings, typically done out-of-doors, were done quickly with bold, short, heavy strokes, thickly applied ("impasto") brightly coloured paint. Calista loved the bright colours; she adored Monet and treasured a poster I had given her for Christmas years earlier.  We still have that poster dry-mounted and hung in our spare bedroom. A framed art card of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" still decorates her bed-room (Van Gogh, strictly defined, was a "Post-Impressionist", but why split hairs?)

One of the "Waterloo Bridge" paintings done by Monet during
his London years. This is the poster that hangs in our spare room.
"Ink Nation HDR" by Calista: Impressionist painting by
camera; its about colours and light.

The designations of Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are so arbitrary that each painting has to be judged independently rather than just assuming that a painter  can be comfortably grouped with one movement or the other.  While Calista probably had an idea of what each group stood for (she was the one who pointed out to me that Van Gogh was properly called a "Post-Impressionist"), back in those days the only painting I knew was "Traditional", "Impressionist", Salvador Dali and Picasso.  Everything else was pretty much a mystery. I now realize that most modern painters have had a go at any one of a number of styles and the entire grouping system is pretty much a sliding scale rather than a definitive pigeon-hole.

 As a rule of thumb, the Realists painted common subjects as realistically as possible, a departure from the idealized, symbolic paintings of the traditional past. The "Impressionists" went one step farther and tried to catch the transient nature of this world by painting quickly to get the overall "impression" of the scene.  The "Post-Impressionists" pretty much diversified into any number of quite different styles as they tried to re-invent painting altogether. For me, it all was a moot point: I had two categories: art I understood and art I didn't understand. Calista liked it all.

Probably the most memorable paintings of the 2007 season were the Van Gogh paintings. They proved to me that looking at a photo of a painting is not looking at a painting.  The bright vibrant colours of Van Gogh are diluted and the thick, impasto texture of his broad brush strokes disappear in a photograph. Calista must have stood for ten minutes in front of Van Gogh's "The Poplars at Saint-Remy" as she absorbed the vibrancy of the master's painting. Both of us could have enjoyed those moments in silence much longer, but time and tide waits for no man and the gallery was crowded that day.
Van Gogh's "Poplars". This photo does not
even come close to the real thing. Never pass
up a chance to see paintings in person.

We had our humorous moments too, punctuated by a derisive snort by my little princess. In the Surrealists gallery, towards the end of the tour, was a painting by Chaim Soutine called "Still Life with Ray fish".  I recognized the subject and blurted out that it looked identical to a still-life painting done by Chardin over 150 years earlier. The American tourist standing next to me was suitably impressed and must have thought I actually knew my topic. Calista looked at me out of the side of her eye and asked if I had read the index card right below Soutine's Surrealist homage to Chardin.  I swore I hadn't, but I'm not sure she believed me since it was about the only intelligent thing to come out of my mouth all day.  I had already made an ass out of myself by loudly exclaiming that I finally understood what Picasso's "Blue Period" was all about. As far as Calista was concerned, she could dress her dad up, but you just could not take him anywhere cultured.

Chardin"s variation of "Still Life with Ray fish
Soutine's version as seen "through the looking glass.

Picasso's "La Vie": Ok, so now
I know why it was his "blue" period.
This was before he started painting while
wearing a kaleidoscope.

Of course Salvador Dali is probably the best known example of the Surrealists. Calista liked his work but felt that it was more "comic book" than painting.  It's kind of funny though; reading about Dali you realize that he was a bigger than life cartoon character; pretty much like that girl I knew and loved so much.  We spent a fair bit of time in the Surrealist gallery, at the expense of most of the "Avante-Garde" paintings and all the sculptures (with the exception of a variation of Rodin's "The Thinker"; I was disappointed until I realized the small version on display was just one of many copies Rodin completed in his career). One of the Surrealist paintings Calista and I really laughed at was a homage to Manet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" by Max Ernst; it involved a scantily clad flat-fish with big, nasty sharp teeth and an egg plant.  Both of us assumed the artist had smoked a lot of herbs while painting that piece.

Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe"
Since Manet was a Realist, we
must assume women actually
dined naked in France back then.

Max Ernst's version "Dejeuner sur l'herbre": maybe he smoked
some herbs?

Calista's version of Surreal: Time Travel

Time Magazine's "Dali". Done "old school" with black and
white high speed film, many, many takes, a patient bunch of cats
and a crazy Salvador Dali.

In 2009, Calista and I enjoyed paintings from the other end of the spectrum: the master works of the golden age of Dutch Art. The subdued palate, the extreme life-like detail and the ultra-smooth texture of the Dutch works were such a departure from the previous showing.  At the time I thought all I was doing was exposing my daughter to history and great art, but now, with the 20/20 vision that a retrospective view affords all of us, I now see that she was learning classic composition and attention to detail that appears in so much of her own work. This one trip, of all of our museum visits, shines through in her photography and I am just so glad we took that time.  Even if it cost me a fortune because Roni was enjoying some aggressive retail therapy over at the mall as we toured.

Willem Claesz-Heda 1634.
 "Still Life with Beer Tankard"
Calista Jasmine Fleming 2009: Still Life with
Wine Glass and Grapes.

Meindert Hobbema 1666
A Watermill

Calista Fleming 2011
A Waterfall.
Rachel Ruysch 1716
Still Life with Flowers.
Calista Fleming 2009: Still Life with Rose Petals. It's a photograph.

Vermeer's "Delft" 1661

Calista's Vancouver 2009.  This would be her "Blue Period"....or it was just cloudy that day.  I have this framed in my office.
Gerrit Berckheyde 1672 Town Hall on the Dam,
Calista Fleming 2009: Parliament Buildings on the Lawn

Rembrandt 1661Self-Portrait

Calista 2011 Self Portrait.  Way prettier than Rembrandt and
almost 500 years younger.

Jean Baptiste Greuze 1800 (French)
"L'oiseau mort"


Calista Fleming 2012
"Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk"

While actually seeing paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer (and lots of others too), perhaps the most exciting thing at the gallery for Calista was the full sized "Camera Obscura" the VAG had created at the end of the tour to demonstrate one way the Dutch masters had achieved such realism in their paintings.  Calista had actually experimented with a simple camera obscura in her introductory photography class back in Regina so she understood completely how the technique worked. Since many of her own paintings in her art classes were traces using a modern version of the camera obscura (a projector) she did not consider the technique "cheating" in the least. Opinions differ, but both Rembrandt and Vermeer are still considered the pinnacle of the Dutch Golden Age while nobody remembers their detractors anymore. Calista spent nearly half an hour examining the two rooms that formed the "camera obscura". I just played and did goofy poses trying to get a laugh out of my serious young daughter. She finally forced me to move along elsewhere while pretending she didn't know me.

Camera obscura. That's me, dancing on my head.

In 2009, once we left the main exhibit, we toured the rest of the Vancouver Art Gallery. I never felt I had properly visited the gallery unless I had spent some time with the Emily Carr collection. I find some of Ms. Carr's depictions of the wild BC coastal forest to be so vivid that I can practically smell the rotted cedar and the salty air. While I now live in the middle of that rain forest, at the time we were simple prairie folk and there was almost a mystical, religious feel to the Carr exhibit. With Calista in mind, I also wanted to take in the photo exhibition by Anthony Hernandez, a street photographer famous for catching the urban blight that was Los Angeles through the seventies and eighties with candid shots of the city dwellers.

Mr. Hernandez has a message and I am sure Calista understood with her photographer's eye and artist's soul, but for me his work fell into the category of "art I don't understand".  It's kind of like most of the Avante Garde school of art or anything by Jackson Pollock: it's all really good, but just not for me. I am kind of a caveman; I get the charcoal paintings of buffalo on the cave wall because it's  a simple statement: catch big critter, kill big critter, and then eat big critter.  For my art, you need to keep it simple because I just not that complicated. Calista, on the other hand, was complicated and becoming more so with every passing month.   I still believe her art would have hung on the big gallery walls somewhere if she only had her chance. But then, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

If I had just one more day, I would see all those art pieces again with my Calista. We would gaze in wonder at Van Gogh, laugh at Dali, covet Monet and excuse ourselves for mistaking him for Manet. Calista would once again analyze and re-analyze the camera obscura as she built one for herself in her imagination.  We would discuss the composition and lighting of the Dutch masters and dream of being able to compare them to the Venetian masters in person, in Venice, together. I would talk to her one more time about how I would just love to see the Caravaggio in the Irish National Gallery and she would remind me that I was talking about a different nationality from an earlier era. I would just love to have my Calista back for just one day, if only to hear her tease me again about what a hopeless red-neck I can be from time to time.

We would finish that "one more day" by meeting Roni at the Starbuck's in the Eaton's Centre (now a Sears I think, but we would make it Eaton's again, because in my "one more day" everyone gets a mulligan).  I would pretend to complain and maybe have a fake heart-attack over all the money Roni had spent shopping, Roni would rant at me for having bought yet one more art book (two in this case, since we decided to have both the 2007 and the 2009 exhibitions in our "one day"), and Calista would sit between us, never taking a side but being absolutely loyal to both. Things would be as they should be and all would be right in my world.

But wishes aren't horses and beggars can only walk.  Dreaming is for dreamers and it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. Calista tried to teach me that, but it was a good lesson that fell on deaf ears.

It was a cold day in Powell River, Catmas was just a few days away and she wanted to get sun-rise at the airport.
She found frost on the Smart Car instead and then came back to bed.

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