The ART of Living

28 03 2012

My friend Cathy loaned me a book called Provence Interiors.  With the weather turning cold again, I get to sit down by the fire, wrap up in my wool shawl, and turn page after page of this gorgeous book and dream.

The French are masterful artists, even in the way they live.  Their interiors have a worn, carelessly thrown together look that is spontaneous, inviting and homey.  The rosy-coloured plaster may be chipping and the white slipcovers a little bit loose-fitting, but in the hands of the French, the imperfections somehow add to the charm.  Life slows down in these rooms.  I want to walk right into them.  Is it that the French have been immersed in art for so many centuries that the artistic flair has become a national birthright?  Art exudes from their hands, and from every little crack and cranny of their homes and of their lives.

Once, I was an au pair girl in Paris. Browsing through Cathy’s book brings it all back with a whiff of nostalgia.  That was well before cell phones and PC’s invaded our silence and strained our relationships.  For me, at 18, the French devotion to art came through in the way fresh flowers bloomed on Madame’s paper-strewn desk.  It was visible in the presentation of delicious food, splayed out on large platters and in the dinners which were long, and lazy.  Art was everywhere in the streets of Paris: in the cafes and in the little parks and gardens, where carefully dressed people just enjoyed the sun and chatted to each other or watched passers-by or pigeons.  People sauntered through Luxembourg Gardens and stopped to watch the children sail the brightly painted boats in the pond.  Art was in the way the French greeted each other.  Even shopping for food was a slow, daily ritual as the shoppers pulled their plaid canvas shopping bags on wheels from fromagerie, to epicerie, and to the divine-smelling boulangerie.  (Oh to sink my teeth into a croissant aux amandes!)

As I look back from the vantage point of 34 years later, I don’t doubt that I am romanticizing the French experience.  Nonetheless, life seemed dignified and slower in their art-permeated culture. There seemed to be time to constantly rediscover the world and to be enchanted with it.   I think the French would agree with me stating that art is not necessarily something you can touch or hold.  Art is a way of seeing the world.    It is having a deep, appreciation and reverence for the simple things in life.  It is the opposite of busyness and noisiness.  It is taking the time to see that even “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” (Walt Whitman)

I have found that a very good way to start cultivating the art of living fully and creatively is to pick up a pencil and a sketch pad and just start slowly and silently drawing whatever surrounds you, giving it your full attention.  You don’t have to be an artist.  In fact, don’t even think about what your drawing will look like.  The more you do this, the more staggering the simple things in life become.  Life springs wide open with endless possibilities, and you, like the French, will respond with surprising creativity in all aspects of your life.

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Drawing the Line

21 03 2012

Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.  G.K.Chesterton

Jane is a tiny Mennonite woman who would disappear in a woman’s size 8 dress.  There is more energy packed into that wee, bony frame than you would find in a busload of grade 7 boys off to Canada’s Wonderland.   She is using that energy to make the world a better place.

Jane walks six kilometers to work each day where she manages a 10,000 Villages store. When she comes home in the afternoon, she usually has guests from all over the world who are eager to have supper with her, for she cooks better than Julia Child ever did.  And I’m not talking about just a few guests.  Often her husband has to expand the table with a 4X8 ft piece of plywood to seat everyone. She grows a huge garden as well.

There is a very specific reason why Jane comes to mind as I write this post which is a conclusion to my earlier blog, A Freeze on Freebies.  Jane believes strongly in fair trade and buying local.  Not just in her own personal business transactions with the local farmers, artists and suppliers, but in her professional life, too.  Whenever possible, she buys everything locally.  Her store is entirely a fair trade store. When this was not enough for her deep-seated sense of justice, Jane made her whole town into a fair trade town recently – the very first in Ontario.  

Everyone in her town knows Jane and everyone loves to do business with this generous soul who happily pays the extra cost to support local business.  It has paid off.  Her community is flourishing.  Jane is the recipient of many community awards.   Though a humble, giving soul who normally would shy away from the limelight, she has become a sought-after speaker throughout the province.

We can learn a lot from Jane and from her fair trade community.  We can start with seeking out local talent and honouring it, not exploiting it.   That means, it’s high time to dispense with the traditional, charity-sponsored art auctions, where art that has been donated by the starving artist is auctioned off to generate funds to support a charity or organization.  It’s a lose/lose kind of game.  The art never fetches the true value of the item auctioned off, because people come to an auction more to get a bargain than to support a charity.   

Charity art auctions just don’t work for artists.  That promised “great exposure” is ultimately detrimental to the artist who risks losing the confidence of previous customers who have paid full price for her art.  Furthermore, art going for bargain prices at an auction is a humiliation and a discouragement to the artist, as well as a loss to the charity. 

Why not hold a new kind of fundraiser art auction where everyone involved wins?  One that brings dignity to the artist, funds the charity and gets the purchaser a work that he really values (because he paid a decent price for it.)  Instead of asking the artist to donate her work, have a rich patron, or corporation, buy the art from the artist, then he can afford to donate it to the charity for auction.  (Just make sure there is a reserve price attached to it under which it cannot be sold.)  Such a person could benefit from a tax exemption for charitable donations.  This way everyone wins.

Paying for the art is supremely important for several reasons.  The artist is probably living well below the poverty line, so you are already supporting a needy charity right off the bat, before the auction even begins.   Selling thrills and encourages the artist to forge ahead in her art, to grow and blossom.  When the artists in a community feel valued, supported and happy, rather than exploited, the whole community benefits.

The old way of targeting artists again and again for freebies is exploitative and out-of-date.   Some things need to change.  We artists are used to drawing lines.  We need to draw the line when organizations come knocking at our doors for freebies.  We would rather give a donation of money, like everyone else, than let our art go for free.  

I think of what Jane has done for her community.  It was by paying cheerfully a fair price.  There doesn’t have to be any losers.

I would like to hear your suggestions, dear readers, on how to respond fairly to fundraisers.  How can we establish fair trade in our own community, particularly in regard to supporting the arts?

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The Real Thing

7 03 2012

My home is filled with beautiful and strange works of art that I have collected over my fifty years of life.  Nothing very big.  Each one is precious to me and carries a story with it: the little hand-painted tiles I found in an ancient bazaar in Iran, the oil painting that I purchased on an island in the Dnieper River in Ukraine, the painted, basswood toucans that my husband and daughters made for me one Christmas when cash was low, my Schwartz-Buenemann paintings, one of which my husband obtained as payment for carpentry work.  ( I now paint with her oil paints.) These are just a few.

As the years go by, I like them more and more, not just because of the happy memories they evoke, but because they are beautiful and real. They are not perfect, thank goodness.  The burn marks and the firefighters’ water stains on my icons from Sidney, Nova Scotia, tell a tale of these paintings being snatched out of a burning church.  The flaws make them more beautiful.   The artists’ hands held the works of art (maybe even dropped them), carved, chiseled, sewed or painted them.  In most cases, I have visited with the artist, held those toiling hands in mine, and  become friends with them.  They’ve helped me to be real and genuine, accepting of my scars, and not just a copy of someone else.

So, when a friend suggested that most people would prefer to buy a reproduction at Walmart for $6.99, than pay hundreds or thousands to get an original work of art, something in me protested very strongly.  It’s like asking someone if they prefer receiving a form letter or a personal handwritten letter.  Better yet, it’s like asking if you would choose to watch a documentary on Tuscany ahead of going to Tuscany.   There are ways of getting to Tuscany on the cheap (I’ve done it.), and there are also ways to collect original art, without spending a lot of money.  In this blog, I wish to dispel the notion that original art is reserved  for the rich.

Original art can be affordable if you buy small items and if you buy from unknown or undiscovered artists.  Buy art that you like.  Don’t buy the name.

In many cases, artists are open to you paying for their art in installments.

Some artists are happy to barter their art for other goods and services.  In the past, I have traded my paintings for a holiday at a fancy B&B, dental work, bushels of fruit and vegetables, a private quintet concert in my home, and other works of art.

If you can’t afford the art you like, just start saving.  If you really want something, you can usually find a way.   I wanted to buy my husband a soapstone bear for his 50th birthday.  I had to save and wait for several years, but the sacrifice made it even more special the day I brought Frobisher home and gave it to him.

Hand-pulled prints, such as lino-block, or wood-block prints are generally cheaper than paintings or sculptures and are wonderful works of art to collect. All of my early art purchases were lino-block prints.  Some came from thrift stores.

Art collecting takes you on countless adventures as you track down treasures in little galleries and studios or second hand shops in out-of-the-way places. You get to know your area.  You meet inspiring people. You find out a lot about art.  You support your local economy and build community. You feel alive.

Go to local arts councils and studio tours and find out where the artists are and what they are creating.  You will find that there’s a great deal to explore right in your own back yard.  You might not need to go on that cruise after all and you can save yourself a ton of money.

The $6.99 will get you nothing more than a fading poster and a cheap frame from Walmart.  Original art will open doors for you and give you much pleasure and a lasting legacy.   Choose the real and the genuine.   You’ll catch the spirit.  Happy Collecting.