Saturday, 28 November 2020

Measuring Success

Written Saturday, November 14, 2020

Art is kind of a strange business. In fact, simply associating the words "art" and "business" is a bit strange in itself. However, for those of us who make art from which we derive some sort of income, business is part of the picture.

The question I want to explore today is how do artists define their success? Coming from the perspective of a working artist, here are some of my observations:

The simple answer for many is that success is measured in terms of sales. While this is a system everyone fundamentally understands, there are some tricky nuances. For example, at art fairs I have observed sales-aggressive artists steamroller over neighbouring artists to attract the attention of potential buyers. In the online setting, some have been known to hijack social media threads to bring attention to themselves. They might choose to only participate in exhibitions or events that have the potential to generate sales. To keep their sales up, they may focus their art on subjects or colours that are in keeping with decorator trends, or they may poach styles, techniques, and/or imagery from other artists. These actions ensure they won't win any popularity contests among their artist colleagues. However, if one uses sales to measure success, they are clear winners.

Some artists are award oriented, measuring success by the display of certificates on their wall. Seems like a simple system but once again, it's not without pitfalls. I have observed artists exhibiting the same work over and over again in different shows - sometimes for years - repeatedly earning accolades. They may not be producing much new work and/or they may be so focussed on winning that they are inhibited from exploring daring new artistic possibilities. They may also inadvertently limit their scope by only participating in settings that hand out honours and thus miss out on other types of opportunities. However, judging by their accumulation of award certificates, they are clear winners.

Some define success by bestowing their wisdom on others either through formal teaching or by sharing information by some other means (such as a blog 😉). Others may define success through their own accumulation of education, the names of the illustrious artist-instructors with whom they've studied, or perhaps the credentials they have earned. Learning, whether approached as teacher or student is fundamentally important to us all, so why wouldn't it be a measure of success to be an applauded instructor or, for that matter, to be on the receiving end of wisdom from an esteemed art maker? While some can balance teaching and learning, the lines can become blurred to the point where the artist may ask themselves "Am I more teacher than artist?" or "Am I developing my own original artistic voice or am I a disciple of some other artist?" 

And then there are others who measure success by the satisfaction they get from making art, the fulfillment of that inner urge to create and set free the artistic voice within them. The simple (or highly complex) act of making art is their measure of success. 

I maintain there is no a clear way for artists to truly define success. I've been at it for a good, long while and I've produced some art that's been profoundly satisfying (not to mention some I've enjoyed shredding). Making art hasn't made me monetarily rich but I've earned a decent income. I've shown work all over in a wide range of settings with diverse bunches of art-makers. I've been fortunate to win some awards here and there along the way. I've known the joy of teaching and of reveling in those "ah-ha" moments when a student perfects a skill or grasps a tricky concept. I've had some formal art education, earned some credentials, and learned techniques and tips from inspiring individuals. Each of these experiences has offered some sense of achievement but none completely define me or my art, both of which will always be works in progress. Nor do these experiences offer a yardstick by which to measure the success of what I do. In my mind, success as an artist is not tangible. It has more to do with an inner sense of satisfaction.

Today, during the Mayne Island Fall 2020 Studio Tour, on a cold, damp November day in the midst of a global pandemic, I opened my little art studio. 

I donned my mask, sanitized my hands, bundled up, and from a spot just outside my studio (it's too small inside to allow proper social distancing) I welcomed a steady trickle of visitors. Some were aspiring artists interested in learning, some were shopping, some said they were impressed by my art, some simply chatted, some said very little, and others I'm quite certain had come just to look at my artfully built studio. I sold a few things and I had some excellent conversations with new acquaintances and familiar friends alike about art, island life, and other topics. In between, while warming up indoors, I attended to email and did a bit of bookkeeping. I also observed the goings-on of birds - pine siskins in the trees above the studio, juncos in the birdbath, hummingbirds at the feeder - as I took time out for a cup of tea. 

After closing the studio and before November's early darkness set in I entertained Lily with some ball-throwing. All in all was a very satisfying day.

And that's how this particular artist measures success.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Sometimes it takes a pandemic...

We've all heard the saying that "change is the only thing constant in life". Change has certainly been my seemingly permanent sidekick for quite some time now. It has ebbed and flowed around me like the sea, and in the past few months the tides of change rose high as I pulled up stakes and moved house...again. But unlike the last momentous upheaval just a few years ago, this time I have, for want of a better word, "consolidated". As of September 1st, 2020, I became a full-time Gulf Islander. My nifty live/work townhome on the mainland now belongs to someone else.

A glimpse into my mainland studio.

There's nothing like a global pandemic to help one come to terms with priorities. I have loved my little place on Mayne Island, with its dilapidated cottage and rustic amenities, its towering evergreens and sunny meadow, since first I laid eyes on the little piece of paradise six years ago. The intervening time has seen much change for me but the little cottage has remained a constant factor, as has my dog Lily and her cat friend Hugo. I made gradual improvements to the comfort level of the cottage, had a little studio built, got involved in the island's arts community, and over time I found myself spending more and more and more time tucked away in my place among the trees just a stone's throw from a pretty beach. Consequently I spent less and less time in the "real world" of the mainland. Many people I got to know on the island didn't even realize I wasn't a full-timer. Ties with the mainland slowly unraveled.

When the pandemic came along I was at my island cottage so I stayed put. I planted a garden - a sure sign of commitment! 


I also did a lot of existential thinking, asking myself questions about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I realized the answer was right in front of me or, rather, below my feet. I felt the winds of change begin to blow - at first a gentle breeze before gradually gaining force.

And so, over the summer, when the pandemic abated slightly, I sold my townhouse. Then I hustled and I bustled, and I packed up its contents and consolidated my life into one location. 

Inside my mainland home before...

... and after, when only a ball remained.

My little cottage is now crammed full of a LOT of stuff but it feels good to have everything in one place. I don't much miss mainland life, nor the duality of maintaining two homes. Fortunately the things I do miss, my exceptionally wonderful friends, are only a call or an email or a ferry ride away. 

The moving truck unloads, bathed in sunshine!

The changes won't stop now. I have a spot picked out among the trees where I plan to build a snug little house that I will be able to call home for the foreseeable future, a place I will age into - hopefully with grace and contentment. And I'm confident the process of building a house on this little island will be another story worth telling! 

But for now the dilapidated cottage is home, the small-but-mighty Yellow Bird Art Studio is my workplace where, after a year of many distractions and not much artistic output, I look forward to spending lots of productive time while Lily reigns supreme over the outdoors keeping wayward squirrels and ravens at bay, and Hugo watches benignly from his catio. 


We are all happy here.







Saturday, 30 May 2020

Creativity in isolation

I've been hunkered down since authorities advised we do so in early March in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. Like many, I've spent more time than usual online reading this and that, and noticing that lots of artists appear to have been taking this time in stride, busily cranking out loads of new work. I have not.

The underlying uneasiness of the pandemic has, I suppose, limited my ability to concentrate fully on my work. It's not that I have stopped - just that it's been difficult to get my shoulder fully to the wheel and be significantly productive, particularly when upcoming exhibitions have been cancelled and life, as we had known it, has been so significantly altered. However, that's not to say I haven't been creative! 

I designed and built an artful vegetable garden in my sunny meadow, inventively re-purposing salvaged and found materials. The project was completed by the delivery of a load of good garden soil where seeds can germinate and roots can take hold, and the purchase of some deer mesh to keep the hungry hoofed marauders at bay.



Cobbling together the gate from bits and pieces of lumber from my scrap pile, some driftwood, and some hardware found in a coffee tin in my shed was a particularly gratifying task. Lily demonstrated the effectiveness of the gate even before the fence was built!




It was also intensely satisfying to dust off an old weather-vane which adorned my childhood home and subsequently traveled with me for the past 35-or-so years without finding a permanent location till now. 




The same can be said for an old wheel-hoe and a few other well-used tools that somehow managed not to be lost during life's travels and have now been brought out of retirement. 

And within a day of installing a funky bird-box on the fence, a house wren couple took up residence.




The garden is a delightful addition to my day. I visit each morning, sometimes with coffee in hand, to see how things are progressing, dropping by again later in the day to weed and water, and I'm already enjoying some fruits of all my labor in the form of lettuce, kale and herbs. It won't belong till there's more to harvest if the garden god(dess) is benevolent. I have hopes for strawberries and blueberries but I know I'll be in stiff competition with the birds. Maybe they'll be generous and leave a few for me.

So while art production is down, there's no shortage of creative energy and life has taken on a gentle rhythm. Veggie production is up and, like the plants in my garden, ideas for new art are taking hold, inspired by moments such as a golden crowned sparrow amid chartreuse leaf-sprouts earlier in the spring...



...or a well-camouflaged bank swallow choosing a nesting cavity...



...or visits from the resident barred owl who has taken to hanging about in the trees around my cottage and observing my activities with apparent interest.




The world may have slowed down for many and virtually ground to a halt for some but nature keeps going, and gardens keep growing, creativity keeps flowing, and my studio awaits.


Two new works - a great horned owl and a barred owl - on my studio window ledge.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

A Bird on the Arm

During past winters I have often written about visits to places where hot, sunny climates provide welcome contrast to the chill, grey dampness of Canadian west coast winters. However this year my travels took me elsewhere: to England - a place where the winter weather mirrors that of home but where family connections provide me with a different kind of warmth.

During my stay I was treated to an other kind of heart-warming experience, one especially tailored to appeal to a bird-loving artist. I visited Icarus Falconry for some up-close-and-very-personal interactions with large birds of prey.

My visit started with a tour of the facility and an informative introduction to the various bird residents. The birds' handlers enthusiastically shared their wealth of knowledge. They are passionate about conservation and are experts in the care, training and handling of owls, falcons, hawks, eagles and vultures.

The first bird to join us in a nearby field was a little American Kestrel named Mojito.



She charmed us as she flitted back and forth between a distant perch and the gauntleted arm (or in one case, phone camera) of visitors. Still a juvenile bird and a novice at her work, she was definitely a crowd-pleaser. I expect she has a long career ahead as an ambassador for her kind and educator in the ways of raptors.





Another bird joined who us was this very athletic Harris' Hawk - a fierce and powerful species of Latin American origin who, like wolves, often hunt strategically in groups. 



It's worth noting that each bird wore a tiny GPS signalling device in case, for some unexpected reason, they desert their handler and make off into the nearby woods. While the obvious bond between handler and bird combined with the careful training each bird receives makes this an unlikely occurrence, this particular Hariss' Hawk is known for his liking for hunting the free-roaming pheasants in the area. 

To my delight, we also made the acquaintance of several species of owls including an African Spotted Owl, fondly known as Spot, who posed beautifully on a nearby fence before executing graceful flights across the field to land on outstretched arms.







Another resident was this huge Milky Eagle Owl - one of the world's largest owl species - named Orion. Also of African origin, his fuzzy eyelids and charming head-bobbing "dance" could deceive one into believing he's not actually a lethal predator.







Upon return to his enclosure after wowing us with his flying skills, he hopped after his human care-giver hollering plaintively for more attention. All of the birds at Icarus Falconry have been bred and raised in captivity and have imprinted indelibly on their humans who treat them as family members.

It was all very inspiring and every bird magnificent and compelling in its own way. However for me, the most enthralling moment was this:




Galileo, the great grey owl at Icarus Falconry

Having this magnificent Great Grey Owl land on my arm and perch quietly is an experience I'll never forget. A couple of years ago I commemorated another Great Grey Owl in this drawing "Out of the Shadows":


"Out from the Shadows"

As anyone familiar with my work knows, owls are a favourite subject including recent pieces featuring birds I've sighted closer to home:


"Hiding in Plain Sight"
Barred Owl, Mayne Island

"Short-eared Owl", Boundary Bay

My encounters at Icarus Falconry are likely destined to find their way into future art projects. In the mean time I will, as always, be alert to the presence of wild owls such as this juvenile Barred Owl who spent the afternoon hanging around my Mayne Island cottage one summer day not so long ago.


You can read more about my owl encounters in previous blog posts Year of the Owl and Day of the Owls.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

A bird in the hand...

I've been keeping a low profile for a while, spending a lot of time in my studio, much of that preparing for a solo exhibition at Shavasana Gallery and Café on Mayne Island. A small, cozy venue in a small, rural community, it made a fitting location for a a show focussed on one of my great passions: birds.




One particular wall in the gallery lead me to create a series of 10 small-scale coloured-pencil drawings of feathered creatures to be found on the island or nearby mainland. 




Included in this selection are these:


Dark-eyed Junco
(Horton Bay, Mayne Island)
Marsh Wren
(Reifel Bird Sanctuary, Ladner)

Downy Woodpecker
(Henderson Park, Mayne Island)

I have also been working on a new technique that allows me to create coloured pencil drawings that can be varnished and presented without glass. It's re-invigorated my art practice as I get to know a different way of using a familiar medium, and experience the associated challenges, surprises and successes.



Perched on a low branch (pictured above left), the only reason I noticed a lovely barred owl a few feet away from my path in Bennett Bay was due to the "mobbing" of the songbirds - robins, towhees, and the like - calling out their danger alert and drawing attention the predator in their midst. The raven (above right) was an early-morning companion at Horton Bay beach just after sunrise on summer day.


Rounding out the exhibition are drawings of other local birds:


Summer's End: Bushtit,
(Bennett Bay, Mayne Island)

I Love Vultures: Turkey Vulture
(Horton Bay, Mayne Island)

Each piece represents a personal encounter and the careful composition of the moment based on hurried, and sometimes blurry photographs that help jog my memory in addition to providing insight into the bird's anatomical detail and posture. The bushtit posed with rosehips (above) was observed in a meadow dotted with wild rose bushes on a late summer day, and in a few weeks' time the change in seasons revealed the remains of a sock-like nest dangling from a thorny branch. The turkey vulture (also above) is a juvenile who roosted nightly with his family in a tree beside the beach near my island cottage.


Bushtit nest

There is one exception in the show, and this little drawing is based on photographs of a bird I dearly wish I'd seen: a northern pygmy owl sighted by a friend-of-a-friend who graciously granted permission for me to use his photos as my reference material.


Northern Pygmy Owl,
(Source photograph: Ron Knelsen)

This palm-sized bird with its fierce expression makes a fitting "mascot" for my show. I look forward to a future encounter with a member of his species and to the other encounters with birds of all sorts that will continue to fuel my artistic passion.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Contrasts and Values

It's been an inordinately long time since I last wrote. My excuse? I don't really have one other than I've simply been living life and (dare I admit it?) not been very focussed on art making.

It has, however, been a time of contrast. I have fluctuated between urban life on the mainland and rural life on Mayne Island. I've travelled to the wild west coast of Vancouver Island where storms were the order of the day - including a rare and utterly spectacular mid-winter, middle-of-the-night thunder storm - to sunny Mexico where despite balmy temperatures I heard many complaints about how "cold" it was, and then back home to an unseasonable interlude of what's been affectionately (or not) dubbed "Snowmageddon" here in southwestern BC - a place where the first hint of snowflakes brings panic but inches of the white stuff can mean only that hell has indeed frozen over.


Chesterman Beach, Tofino

On Mayne Island, daffodils were blooming back in January when it seemed spring had come early...





... but this is what they look like now - that is, in spots where the snow didn't bury them completely...




Whatever the country or climate, birds always factor into my experiences. In Mexico most days during my daily beach walks I observed an elegant egret fishing in the surf...


Snowy egret

... and pelicans smoothly soaring just above the waves.


Brown pelicans

And each morning, just outside my balcony, this lively woodpecker made an appearance.


Gila woodpecker (I think)

Since returning to Mayne there has been just one better-weather day that allowed me to get out for a good, long walk. I saw flocks migrating robins congregating in the snow-free areas created by tree cover and weak February sunshine.,,


Robins in a snow-free zone


...mergansers sunning themselves on my own nearby beach...


Common mergansers

...and green-winged teal foraging on that same shoreline.


Green-winged teal

The memory of daily barefoot beach-walks in Mexico offers an amusing contrast to the past few sub-zero days which have required multiple layers of sweaters and wool socks, topped off by a toque whether outdoors or inside my poorly insulated Mayne Island cottage. Instead of relaxing by a swimming pool observing flocks of free-loading grackles, I have spent a significant amount of time attempting to thaw frozen water pipes with a hair dryer, only to be stuck waiting for a plumber to fix the leak that was subsequently revealed - a plumber whose snowed-in van made the wait longer than would normally be expected.


Freeloading grackle eyeing up my lunch


There's nothing like a few days of deprivation to make one appreciate conveniences like running water. In an effort to cope, I channeled my pioneer ancestors, recalled back-country hiking experiences where drinking water was filtered from frog ponds, and I thought long and hard about the fact that running water - a convenience most of us take far too easily for granted - is denied to so many, including a significant number of First Nations communities here in Canada. I recognize that I am very fortunate.

The past few snowed-in days have provided a quiet time to consider contrasts and think about values. I have also developed ideas for new art which will hopefully be the topic of my next blog post in the not-to-distant future as I get refocused and head back to work in the studio.

Till then, I'm hunkered down in my little yellow cottage in the snowy woods, appreciating being able to turn on the tap and see water flow freely, thinking about the contrast summer will bring, how in other parts of the world the sun is shining on birds fishing on a warm, sandy beach, and valuing this quiet time of reflection.

And as for Lily, the snow can't melt soon enough so she can resume her normal ball-playing activities.