Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘artist’

Loving Your Work

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

February 28, 2010

“Students at other universities think we’re weird,” said the young woman with the long black hair and the ready smile. “They say, ‘Why don’t you just cut that class?’ And when I say, ‘I don’t want to cut it, I want to go to it,’ they look at me like I came from another planet.”

“That’s right,” nodded another girl. “When they find out that we have four-hour classes, they say, ‘Wow, four hours, how can you stand it? That would drive me crazy!’ And they don’t believe it when we say the time really flies by.”

I’m in a studio at NSCAD University, formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I have a graphic design problem, and Denise Saulnier’s 11 design students are imagining possible solutions. I am so happy to be back at NSCAD that I can hardly describe it.

Twenty years ago I had the good fortune to be NSCAD’s first and only writer in residence. And perhaps what I remember most vividly from that experience is the energy, flair and dedication of the students and faculty, their passion for their work.

The students wanted to be great artists or superb designers. They wanted it desperately, and they worked at it obsessively. The faculty were mature, well-established practitioners, and they were equally obsessive. They were inspiring examples, working long hours, pushing the limits of their disciplines, gaining commissions and showing their work in exotic places like Germany, China and Ottawa. Day and night, the place just hummed. It was the most fierce and fertile learning environment I’ve ever seen.

The rewards of a life in the arts can be pretty meagre — but one of its great benefits is that artists wake up in the morning eager to get started, constantly learning and exploring and innovating. Every day is an adventure. They aren’t necessarily happy, but they know what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives.

“I love writing — it’s both a real agony and a terrific pleasure,” said the great novelist Margaret Laurence. “When I say ‘work,” I only mean writing. Work should be something that you love doing, and that you put everything that you have and more into it, and only that kind of work is really worthy of the name. So when I say ‘work,’ I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”

Work should be something that you love doing. That’s what the NSCAD students already know. But for too many people in our poor sad culture, “work” is what you have to do, and “play” is what you love to do. That’s what their friends, alas, already know.

If education should be about learning how to do what you love, most of what goes on in our educational system is, to put it kindly, beside the point. Indeed, mass education is really designed to train dutiful workers for traditional industries. Like steelworkers or meat-packers, the children troop off to the factory when the whistle blows, toting their lunch-pails, and dutifully returning when their shift is over.

Non-industrial societies rarely have institutions that look like schools — but their kids get educated anyway. In clan societies, in aboriginal communities, in rural Nova Scotia a century ago, kids learned what they needed to know mostly by hanging out with working adults. Girls learned domestic skills by helping their mothers and grandmothers. Boys learned to be hunters or blacksmiths or navigators by tagging along with men who did that kind of work.

This is not ancient history. When I was 18, I could have become a lawyer without going to university, simply by “articling” in a law office and taking the appropriate examinations. In effect, I would have apprenticed as a lawyer.

This is actually the way that most people learn most efficiently — by acquiring the skills in the course of doing the work, reflecting on the process, trying again, submitting to criticism, internalizing the standards, and practicing, practicing, practicing. That’s what goes on at NSCAD, and it’s exactly what we need in order to thrive in a fast-moving, inventive, knowledge-based economy. NSCAD exemplifies a pedagogy deeply rooted in our past. It’s also the pedagogy of the future.

– 30 —

The Bat Poet

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Every year or two, I feel compelled to reread Randall Jarrell’s little story The Bat Poet. The book is only 43 pages long, and those pages include many elegant pen-and-ink illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Jarrell wrote it as a children’s book, and I’m sure children find it thrilling and delightful. But, like most great children’s books – think of The Wind in the Willows, Alligator Pie, the books of Madeleine L’Engle and Arthur Ransome – it speaks equally to adults.

For children, it’s the story of a little bat who doesn’t quite fit in. For adults, it’s an allegory about the situation of the artist in the social order, and the relationship between a work of art and its audience.

The little bat, who is never named, starts out spending his summer days sleeping under the porch roof with all the other bats. But then, in late summer, the other bats move into the barn, and the little one stays alone at the porch. He doesn’t really know why, and he feels lonely.

As time goes by, he finds himself hanging awake during the day, and noticing what goes on in a world that nocturnal animals never even imagine. He sees squirrels, chipmunks and many different birds. And he listens intently to the mockingbird, who can imitate squirrels and squeaky doors, and rocks knocking together, and milk bottles.

The mockingbird’s songs enthrall him. And then comes the moment when the artist is born. The little bat thinks: I could do that.

It turns out that a bat can’t sing – but then he realizes that the words alone can be beautiful. So he makes up a poem and tries to “say” it to the other bats, to tell them how glorious the daytime can be. But the bats really don’t get it – the poem talks about colours, for instance, and their world has no colours – and the bat poet sadly falls silent.

Still, he keeps on making poems about all the things he sees, and eventually he gets up the courage to try one on the mockingbird – a chilling poem about an owl. “The ear that listens to the owl believes in death,” says the bat.

The owl goes back and forth inside the night,
And the night holds its breath.

The mockingbird thinks the poem is very clever, and technically “quite accomplished.”

The bat is pleased at the mockingbird’s approval, but also dismayed that the mockingbird doesn’t seem to feel the terror that inhabits the poem. And then he reads it to a chipmunk, who “gave a big shiver and said, ‘It’s terrible, just terrible! Is there really something like that at night?” Oh, yes, the bat assures him. So the chipmunk nervously resolves to go to bed earlier, and never to forage after dark, and to dig himself a lot more holes.

At last the bat has his audience. Now he makes up poems about the chipmunk, who is thrilled, and the mockingbird, who becomes quite defensive. He finds that some subjects – like the cardinal – simply will not generate poems, and he doesn’t know why.

Just before the two little furry companions go off to their separate winter sleeps, the bat composes an absolutely stunning poem about bats. A baby bat clings to its mother, who “dances through the night/Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting” and emitting “high sharp cries/Like shining needlepoints of sound.” As she flies, her baby “drinks the milk she makes him/In moonlight or starlight, in mid-air”while “their single shadow” is “printed on the moon.”

The story is charming, the characters sharp and distinctive, and the poems hang in the narrative like jewels. It’s not easy being a poet; as the bat poet reflects, “The trouble isn’t making poems, the trouble’s finding somebody that will listen to them.”

But the poems impel his true reader, the chipmunk, to see the world in a new way, understand things he had never known about, open up puzzling vistas of feeling. The poem about the owl, says the chipmunk, “makes me shiver. Why do I like it if it makes me shiver?”

Well, that’s what poets do – and so do painters, musicians, dancers, actors. That’s what artists do. And sometimes that sharpness of perception, that remorseless clarity of vision, is more than the artist can actually bear.

Jarrell himself was a superb poet and critic, but he was also a deeply troubled man. He was killed by a car in 1965, while he was walking along a roadside in North Carolina. It may not have been an accident. He was only 51, and he had recently been treated for depression, having made an earlier attempt at suicide.

But he left some dazzling writing behind him, and not the least of his achievements is this piercing and sinewy volume, so full of wisdom and beauty. And it will be waiting for me, like a friend, when I need it again.