Animal Stories

If I weren’t an artist, I would be a biologist. In my recent paintings, I surround human figures with images of nature taken from science textbooks and popular media. Patterns attract me. When I look at patterns, I try to explore how the human world collides with a more natural realm—is it possible to separate the two?

Tiger, 2023

Often there’s a theme: night and day, animal locomotion, markings, electricity, flying seeds, flying birds, the origins of life. The surrounding animals act as emblems and enigmas. Each picture is a kind of puzzle: what is the relationship of foreground and background? While most viewers will come up with their own answers, many will agree: We are part of nature, indivisible from nature, dependent on nature. But what is nature and how do we connect to it? Not so easy to answer. 

Dots & Stripes, 2023 Travel Influencer, 2024

I’m an art historian and retired teacher; didacticism is part of my approach, but I try to play with it. I’ve been influenced by Hokusai’s manga, the way he fills pages with seemingly random sets of people, animals, objects and occupations. Hokusai has three over-riding concerns: human skills, common ground (or related sets of images), and engagement with nature. Hokusai treats his image collages like a game, full of surprises, humour, and great sympathy for the world in both its humble as well as epic manifestations. I’m also impressed by Rene Magritte’s surrealist paradoxes. There are a great many elements from the natural world in Magritte’s work, but treated with a cool approach, so we engage with the paradox and not the object. Hokusai, of course, worked in mass media, ukiyo-e prints, that use flat areas of colour.

Katsushika Hokusai. Manga, vol. 2, 1815 René Magritte. The Therapist, 1937

I find the flatter my painting style and the cooler my approach, the more effective the image becomes. I hope viewers agree.

Locomotion, 2024 Night & Day, 2024


I grew up surrounded by self-help books. My father’s library was heavily weighted with manuals on how to exercise, how to pray, how to run a business, how to get rich, how to be a philanthropist. I thought the whole advice thing was a bit overblown and desperate, (even as I started adding titles to my own library like Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and Michael Pollen’s Food Rules), but then self-help is a booming billion dollar business so—how to explain? Why are so many people hooked on self-help? 

On the one hand, the books are full of extravagant promises; on the other hand, they’re clichéd and use examples that seem miles away from anyone’s life. The titles are incredible: Life and Death in One Breath, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Atomic Habits, Make Your Bed, The 4-Hour Workweek, 12 Rules for Life, The Five Love Languages, and The Happiness Project. Self-help is often related to such things as the Human Potential Movement and the Law of Attraction (defined by Marshall Sinclair as “the belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences.”) Guaranteed best-sellers pour out from television gurus Tony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within) and Oprah Winfrey (What I Know For Sure and The Path Made Clear). Who wouldn’t want their path made clear? Who doesn’t want to be a giant? No, maybe not a giiant–you’d have to buy new furniture. There’s even an anti-self-help self-help genre. Life seemed simpler when Samuel Smiles wrote in the 19th century: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” 

Harvard English professor Beth Blum summarizes the usual explanations: “Economists stress how late-19th-century class mobility created new anxieties over self-presentation among the aspirational middle classes. Sociologists and scholars of religion outline the way the anomie of industrial modernity—urbanization, secularization, the division of labor—created a vacuum that self-help strove to fill. Historians discuss these and others factors as part of “the turmoil of the turn of the century,” which led to the rise of the “therapeutic ethos.” (The Self-Help Compulsion, 2020) In a nutshell, we need therapy for our empty, aspirational anxieties …

This wartime cartoon by George Wolfe appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, June 19, 1943

In a 2019 lecture Mark Jackson, professor of the history of medicine, University of Exeter, links self-help ambitions to benchmark moments in history, such as the First World War and the Great Depression. Here’s a war-time example: Matilda Parsons, a teacher and widow of an army officer, declared in a newspaper interview in 1917: “It is a paradox of life that we do not begin to live until we begin to die. Death begins at 30, that is, deterioration of the muscle cells sets in. Most old age is premature, and attention to diet and exercise would enable men and women to live a great deal longer than they do today. The best part of a woman’s life begins at 40.” 

A social reformer, Parsons was dismayed by middle-aged women who had “let themselves go.” She argued that women needed to be strong and fit, and should educate themselves in order to contribute fully to the shaping of the nation. The immediate concern was to take over jobs and the management of factories while men were away at war. In her interview, Parsons unwittingly created a meme and like many memes, it began to take on a life of its own. Though her phrase “the best part of a women’s life begins at 40” was abbreviated to the catchier, more universal  “life begins at 40.” 

During the Great Depression, American journalist Walter Pitkin published a self-help book called Life Begins at 40 in 1932—the Will Rogers film version appeared in 1935. The author’s goal was to combine self-renewal with recovery from a collapsed economy.  Pitkin advised older workers to retire early to create job openings for younger men. He also advised retirees to spend their money freely “pursuing self-fulfillment through material improvement, leisure and the art of living.” During a period of doom and gloom, Pitkin sensed that populations as a whole might recover, if people just spent a little money to make themselves feel better about themselves. 

It’s no coincidence that the American Dream was conceived at about this time. In The Epic of America, 1931, James Tuslow Adams lays out the American promise of social order, democratic values, and prosperity for all. This dream is severely tested by the Second World War. Thereafter it becomes “a dream of material plenty, motor cars and high wages.” According to Edmund Burgler, author of The Revolt of the Middle-aged Man, 1958, the top priority of the post-war generation is the pursuit of “happiness in a hurry.”

Burgler describes the mindset of the middle-aged person who has not lived up to expectations: “I want happiness, love, approval, admiration, sex, youth. All this is denied me in this stale marriage to an elderly, sickly, complaining, nagging wife. Let’s get rid of her, start life all over again with another woman. Sure, I’ll provide for my first wife and my children; sure, I’m sorry that the first marriage didn’t work out. But self-defense comes first, I just have to save myself.” 

Seduced by a dream of collective improvement that was no longer achievable, the post-war generation resort to a reflex of selfishness and greed. This new direction is aided and abetted by mass media, advertising and consumer culture. 

In the above cartoon by Patrick Chappatte, a man sits at a kitchen table with a bleak look on his face, his body language conveys a sense of solitude and spiritual terror as he asks, “What is the meaning of my life?” In the next room, comfortably surrounded by magazines, TV and picture window, his wife or daughter answers, “Ask Google.” 

Technology is almost certainly not the answer. People seek direction, solace and hope. Meaningful action. According to Beth Blum, one source that historically addressed this need was literature–or the stories that underpin our culture, our collective consciousness. In the past, literature drew heavily upon myths and moral tales with their moments of enlightenment. These stories often provided clear examples of good and bad behavior and no one questioned the notion of reading for improvement. However in recent years, serious authors feel that advice to the reader has no place in a story concerned primarily with realism and artistic autonomy. 

Where literature fears to tread, self-help books rush in (with approximately 150 new self-help titles published every week). As Professor Blum puts it: “At a time when the value of literature is often called into question, self-help offers … promises of transformation, agency, culture, and wisdom that draw readers to books.” So it might be that there’s not too much self-help in our culture, it’s just not active in the places where one might reasonably expect to find it–in the stories of our generation that we need to tell ourselves.

Angels in Art

Angels in religious art and popular culture: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, famous for epic sculptures, created this intimate clay study of a kneeling angel, 1672. Movie poster for The Bishop’s Wife, 1947. This love triangle between a human couple and an angel featured the inspired casting of Cary Grant as angel.

Where can you find an angel? With this question, the curators of the National Gallery in London, invited viewers to join an unusual treasure hunt, The Angel Trail. Until you really begin to look, it’s surprising just how often angels appear in Renaissance and Baroque artworks. As if these great religious dramas, depicted with such care and ingenuity, required angels to add a final touch of otherworldly fairy dust, beside serving their more immediate roles as witnesses, messengers, soldiers, and musicians. Most angels are depicted as beautiful, youthful figures with long shapeless gowns and bright multi-coloured wings, as in the painting below by Fra Angelico. Here the supernatural messenger, Gabriel informs Mary she is pregnant and will soon give birth to Jesus. Both angel and woman are illuminated with halos, as well as being framed in arches of the arcade, while their forward-leaning bodies and crossed arms mirror one another.

Fra Angelo. The Annunciation, 1437

Angels can be solitary or can appear in great crowds or hosts, as in the painting by Francesco Botticini, which shows the nine ranks of angels welcoming the Virgin Mary on her ascent into the dome of heaven.

Francsco Botticini.The Assumption of the Virgin, 1475

Could we extend the Angel Trail, the treasure hunt for angels, out of the art gallery and into our own communities? Where then we might we encounter angels or representations of angels? At a recent Talking about Art session, I asked this question, and the first suggestion was in a cemetery. Others suggested in stained glass windows, in the decorations in or on a church. The word decoration made someone think of a Christmas tree or a window display in a store. Many suggestions came all at once: TV shows, fashion shows (Victoria Secret), greeting cards.

Angels in the Apse , Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily, mosaic, 12th cent.
This detail show the seraphim’s six wings covered with eyes.

What is the world’s largest angel statue and also its smallest? Antony Gormley is a sculptor famous for creating life-size body casts of himself and placing them as silent watchers at unexpected points throughout a city, often perched on high buildings, looking down in angelic fashion. It’s fitting that Gormley should have created the world’s largest angel, the Angel of the North in Gateshead, northern England. The red steel angel measures 20 metres tall, and 55 metres across (half the length of a football field). It looks a bit like a human form with airplane wings, though a friend mentioned the statuette for the Oscars. I prefer the study shown below to the monumental outdoor figure.

Antony Gormley. A Case for an Angel I (1989) was a giant maquette to the super-sized Angel of the North (1998), so remarkable it stops traffic in the English countryside where it overlooks a highway.
On the theme of highways, here is Charles Sykes’s Rolls Royce hood ornament, 1911

The hood ornament designed for Rolls Royce may not represent an angel exactly, though the outstretched arms and billowing cape strongly resemble wings. What I like about the figure is that it’s not a stationary statue but a figure seen from a moving car. In stories, angels often appear to needy or deserving individuals, but here they appear for the gratification of wealthy sport car enthusiasts, which demonstrates that everyone, even the rich and pampered, can use an angel. Here are a few more samples, showing the versatility and popularity of angels.

Angels welcome and protect travellers at hotels: Ceasar’s Palace, Las Vegas and Waldorf Astoria Hotel NYC, art deco figure by Icelandic sculptor Nína Sæmundsson
Angels at play: is it redundant or inevitable to call a baseball team from Los Angeles the angels?
Angels attract attention: Victoria Secret model Adriana Lima and the parody of a sexy angel by Australian comic Rebel Wilson (photo taken before she lost 160 pounds).

Two major themes of our Art Talks have been: 1) the transition from religious art to secular art as we move from the Renaissance into the present, and 2) the interaction between Fine Art and popular culture. When we take angels out of a church and place them in a Las Vegas hotel (good luck with your gambling) or on a runway (out of this world beauty) or baseball field (angels are rather playful, aren’t they?) this transition from sacred to secular becomes clear.

Where do we find angels in the Bible? Angels often appear in Bible stories that involve turning points in human history. Angels also appear before notable characters whose lives are about to dramatically change. Here are a few samples that readily come to mind:

The commanding angel: Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden by a sword-bearing angel. Lithograph by Nicolas Consoni after Raphae, ca. 1865. Jacob wrestling with the Angel, 1855 by Gustave Doré.
Rembrandt. Sacrifice of Abraham, 1655. Jacob’s Ladder, Illustrated by Gerard Hoet, ca. 1700.

These are all from the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the most familiar angel story may be the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary announcing the birth of Jesus.

Fra Angelico. Annunciation, 1433-34. Note the expulsion from Eden in the background.
Fra Filippo Lippi. Annunciation, 1459. Mary grasps a book to her chest as if it were a baby.
Leonardo Da Vinci. Annunciazione, 1472. The artist places this famous scene entirely outdoors.
Leonardo’s two version of Virgin of the Rocks. On the left, the Louvre version, 1486, on the right, the version hanging in London’s National Gallery, 1495-1508. At centre, I’ve highlighted the angel in blue.

Leonardo’s angel in a cave is not a story that appears in the Bible. It’s an apocryphal tale of the rescue of the infants Jesus and John the Baptist from the massacre of the innocents. The angel has brought this holy group to a secure hideout in the mountains. The setting adds mystery to the scene and reflects Leonardo’s love for the mountainous landscapes of northern Italy, where he grew up. Among Leonardo’s many writings, there are few references to his personal life. This is one of them: “Having wandered some distance among overhanging rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cavern… Two emotions arose in me: fear and desire. Fear of the threatening dark cavern and desire to see if there were any marvellous things in it.” In other writings, Leonardo contrasts time and nature. Nature builds forms up, time wears them away. “Oh, Time, swift despoiler of created things, how many kings, how many peoples have you undone in this winding and cavernous recess?” Leonardo’s painting is set in a dangerous and disintegrating physical world, with caves fearful to enter, yet inside we are find a scene of spiritual renewal that is marvellous and enchanting.

Among Leonardo’s group of figures, the angel points and Mary responds with a protective gesture–the same gestures Raphael used for his central philosophers in The School of Athens. The opening in Mary’s cloak, near her heart, echoes the opening at the mouth of the cave. The group are perched precariously on the edge of a rocky ledge. The angel’s left hand steadies Jesus from harm. This may be the first instance of the guardian angel theme in Western art. The theme gains a renewal of popularity in the 19th century in scenes that have nothing to do with Bible stories. The popular images below, reflect a vision of childhood innocence, flourishing in nature, worthy of divine protection, and suggest the influence of thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the poets William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Guardian Angel with children, popular print and painting by Bernhard Plockhorst, 1886

In the 20th century, the guardian angel lives on, but in a new form. In the images below, Superman saves children from the dangers of modern life. Is the comic book superhero our modern day guardian angel? I see at least three similarities: 1) both angels and superheroes can fly, 2) they both have capes or long robes, 3) their identities are mysterious to the general public.

from Superman: Red Son #1, June, 2013 and Action Comics 1000, June 1018

However, the medium that best depicts angels in the 20th century is not comics, paintings or sculptures, but cinema. A few examples: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, Michael, Wings of Desire. In each case, the angel is idiosyncratic and somewhat flawed. Clarence Oddbody in It’s a Wonderful Life is middle-aged, simple-minded and has no wings. Even he admits he’s an ASC, angel second class. Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife falls in love with another man’s wife and seems to enjoy tormenting the very person he’s been asked to save, all for the greater good, of course. Michael is played by an overweight John Travolta, who enjoys dancing and food and is easily distracted. In Wings of Desire, the angels are shadowy figures who can only observe humans, but not intercede on their behalf. The angels see what people cannot see, yet they envy humanity for their depth of feeling and experiences of love and loss. Envy may not be the right word. It’s more a desire for life, even if that life takes the flawed and limited courses pursued by ordinary people. In the end, some angels choose to become human, trading perfect equanimity for passionate and messy engagement.

Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire, 1987, directed by Wim Wenders

This exploration of imperfect angels reaches its fullest expression with the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story A Very Old man with Enormous Wings, published in 1968. It’s the story of a frail old angel who appears during a deluge. (After the angel is discovered, the deluge stops. Also a sick child suddenly gets well.) But no one quite notices these coincidences. The couple who find the angel discover he speaks an unintellible foreign language and can barely walk. They put him in their chicken coup, then charge townspeople money for the privilege of seeing their captive angel. So many people are attracted to the town that other vendors set up shop, displaying their own curious attractions. The couple who found the angel prosper, though the angel himself becomes seriously ill. After a tough winter, he recovers, grows back his wings and has just enough strength to fly away.

Gabriel Garcia Marquis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

It’s a strange magical story. Marquis commented that he wrote it after he had gained fame as a writer. He found this fame difficult to handle, as shameless fans made impossible demands, taxing him to support their pet causes and to appear at celebrity functions. Marquis identified with the non-ideal angel who becomes a curiosity, attracting people with unusual problems: “The most unfortunate individuals on earth came in search of health. A poor woman who since childhood had been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers. A Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him. A sleepwalker who got up at night to undo all the things he had done while awake.”

Professor Adam Crowley comments: “One of the things this fiction is doing is it’s enjoying the fact that it’s fiction and we can enjoy the fact that it’s fiction. What a fantastical, imaginative world! –and this is the kicker–that very deliberately, very obviously, without any kind of artifice, allows us to imagine beyond the world that we live in everyday with absolute freedom.”

Commenting on the unusual appearance of the angel, so un-angelic, so powerless and uncommunicative, Professor Rebecca Balcarcel suggests: “Maybe the problem is that when God or the divine does erupt into our lives, we don’t know what to make of it and how to treat it and we don’t even recognize it for what it is.” Balcarcel worries that none of the characters in the story treat the angel well or seem interested in understanding who or what it is, but then she says, “So I feel that maybe it’s the reader who ends up growing and changing as we look at this story and we see what not to be.”

The story ends almost as magically as it began, with a woman watching the very old man with enormous wings departing: “Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she saw him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.”

Full text of the story here.

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Meetings with Remarkable Men

Gurdjieff trained in many religious disciplines, starting with Christianity. This image of a Benedictine Monastery comes from a 19th century Italian engraving.

I first heard of this book when I was a teenager. It was probably a review of the 1979 film adaptation by Peter Brook. I later worked for an ad agency and suggested a furniture campaign called “meetings with remarkable chairs.” Needless to say, no one in the room got the reference. Today, the book comes back into my life by a strange coincidence just as I’m working to set up a centre for well being–the very thing George Gurdjieff (1866-1949) is most noted for.

In Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff tells the story of his childhood and young adulthood as he travels from his native Armenia, through Turkey, Russia and Asia in search of spiritual awakening. In part, the account reads like an adventure story with disguises, scenes of hypnotism, near death experiences, strange encounters with a Russian prince and a girl rescued from enslavement, stories of revolution and refugees, and travels with friends into unknown regions–there’s even a chapter devoted to a dog. As a spiritual odyssey, it often feels like the leader of the voyage is as much rogue as he is saint. This may be the point. What Gurdjieff values from his upbringing is how he learned to be self-reliant and adaptable. As a result, he is able to find work almost anywhere, but only works long enough to earn passage for his next adventure.

Traders from Istanbul to Athens traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to trade in hand woven carpets. This trade is an important source of income for Gurdjieff, who has an eye for the value of fine crafts.

In his travels, Gurdjieff meets a variety of people. At first it seems any one who crosses his path could be a remarkable person. There’s something appealing about this idea. All our encounters change and shape us, help define what we want and don’t want, and contribute to making us who we are. At times, Gurdjieff’s friends start out as enemies, as people he doesn’t understand or has little sympathy for. Circumstances cause him to change his orientation. He’s humbled and awakened.

Awakening is one of Gurdjieff’s central metaphors. He asks why are we sleeping? Why do people sleepwalk through life, instead of consciously directing themselves toward the expression of their better selves? He defines a “remarkable person” as someone who “stands out from those around him by the resourcefulness of his mind, and who knows how to be restrained in the manifestations which proceed from his nature, at the same time conducting himself justly and tolerantly towards the weaknesses of others.” (p. 31)

In his early travels, Gurdjieff searches for a teacher or for a trove of lost wisdom that he senses is waiting to be discovered. His background, Greek, Armenian and Russian, is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and leads to his fascination with reconciling ideas of East and West. He invents a teaching method called the “Fourth Way,” that builds on three earlier paths to knowledge: methods of the monk (requiring asceticism and devotion), fakir (requiring endurance and pain), and yogi (requiring dedicated study). The Gurdjieff way, called “the Work,” seeks not to remove the student from the world, or reject the imperfections of the world, as monks do, but rather to live in the world and make the most of it. The Work uses didactic stories, physical labour, lectures, shared experiences, self-observation, and travel. But most important in the path to enlightenment is music and dance.

In one of his travels to a remote monastery, Gurdjieff encountered Sufi dancing. His own style of dancing was different, but aimed for a similar sense of union with the cosmos.

Gurdjieff was influenced by sufi dancing, folk dancing, martial art exercises like Tai Chi, and experimental Western theatre. He combines these elements in a new dance form, created by a team of artists who he attracted for this purpose. An important member of this team is Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, who collaborates with Gurdjieff on hundreds of compositions and dances. In Brook’s film, we are given a sampling of these mesmerizing exercises.

Here is a typical story. Gurdjieff spends months preparing for a journey. He proceeds with great care, then on a chance encounter, abruptly changes course toward a new goal whose outcome is more extreme. The second adventure lands him in remote spots far from Western values and it’s here that Gurdjieff witnesses an act of charity, a method of teaching or a performance that opens his eyes to new ways of being.

Gurdjieff returns with these insights, which he reformulates in his own roguish fashion. True to his nature, he is a charismatic showman drawn to crafts of any kind, stories, art, music and dance. His goal is to set up a school, ostensibly to study concerns of mind/ body, a meeting ground of medicine, exercise, performance and psychology. An early teacher had told him that a priest should be a doctor and a doctor must have some understanding of the inner troubles of his patients. Gurdjieff sees himself as both patient and priest, engaging in difficult journeys to further “the formation of his individuality.” An important lesson he learns is that words alone cannot lead to wisdom or to belief. “Grafting faith on by words is just like wishing to fill someone with bread merely by looking at him.” (p. 240) A student must be active and avid in his quest. As Gurdjieff says, “Understanding is acquired from the totality of information intentionally learned and from personal experiences; whereas knowledge is only the automatic remembrance of words in a certain sequence.” (241)

Gurdjieff has a great gift for making and losing money. One of the most fascinating chapters in this book describes how he sets himself an experiment to become exceedingly wealthy in a short period of time, starting from nothing. He does this by advertising in remote towns that he can repair any object or machine that is broken. The towns have jumped from primitive conditions to modern times in a matter of years and the newly rich have spent their money on every conceivable novelty. What Gurdjieff finds is that most machines are not broken at all; rather people have not been taught how to properly use and look after these machines. Yet the people who bring their sewing machines and type writers and watches to be repaired are often arrogant and over-bearing. Gurdjieff takes advantage of their greed and declares the machines will be very difficult to fix. It may take some time, but if the clients are willing to pay extra … In short, Gurdjieff uses his knowledge of human nature to deal with each customer and his knowledge of tools to acquire a handy profit.

This profit soon adds up to a small fortune, which Gurdjieff carries with him into Tsarist Russia. He invests in property, but he soon gets trapped by war and revolution and loses everything. Once again, he has to regroup and use his wits to survive. But as he flees and helps others escape, he finds he is increasingly responsible for a growing group of followers, students, artists and refugees from the Russian Revolution. He makes his way to the West and starts again, forming a school and dance company to showcase the blending of various traditions witnessed in his travels.

Gurdjieff: world traveller, teacher, story teller

It’s a remarkable story. One wonders how much of it is true. In the end, it may not matter. Each adventure leads Gurdjieff off course, away from the initial goal, yet seems to reveal a more worthwhile area of investigation. Even chapters that are about one special person twist off course and are really the story of someone else. Gurdjieff, in turn, is flexible, resourceful and always in motion.

My final takeaway is this: Gurdjieff’s work reminds me of art collectives like the Ballet ruse that combine diverse art forms (painting, music, dance, and theatre) in a modernist avant garde context. Gurdjieff turns away from modernism, looking to older traditions for inspiration, but, in the end, his urge to combine art (dance theatre) with religion, psychology and mind-body health feels quite contemporary. My own quest involves art, health and nature. To my mind, nature is the missing link in Gurdjieff’s quest, though his chronicle of outstanding and outlandish personalities is entertaining and relatable. Much to ponder, much to learn.

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Nonsense Poetry

Edward Lear with Cats c.-1880

Remember your school days? For me, feels like a century ago. Sitting in the same spot day after day. Among the endless lessons and dark quintillions of numbers, a few cracks of daylight appeared. Like class trips, friends and nonsense poetry. Do you remember this one:

I saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a busy Ant, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale,
I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep,
I saw a wishing well, where secret lovers sleep,
I saw their starry eyes, all in a flame of fire,
I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher,
I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night,
I saw the man who saw this dream waking sight.

This nonsense poem by an unknown author first appeared in a slim book, Westminster Drolleries, in 1671. It’s a trick poem, the second clause of each verse is linked to the ideas that precede and follow it. For example, “with a fiery tail” links to peacocks and to comets. Dr. Oliver Tearle calls these “Janus clauses” because they look forwards and backwards, sometimes fitting smoothly with the things they describe, sometimes requiring a stretch of imagination. As a whole, the poem presents a series of entertaining surprises. Much like the more familiar nonsense verse of Edward Lear (The Owl and the Pussycat) and Lewis Carroll (Jabberwocky), though these authors were writing at a later time.

I Saw a Peacock also belongs to an older tradition, the riddle. According to Dr. Tearle, “Far from being idle brain-teasers, the riddle was a serious and enigmatic poetic form, designed to trick into knowing … the variety and interconnectedness of things.” (Interesting Literature)

It’s nonsense, but not entirely so. Fire and light abound in this poem, as do close and far distances and forces of the universe. I imagine a drunken man who has fallen asleep in front of a bright lantern and who drifts in and out of consciousness. Each time he wakes he sees the blaze of light. As he drifts back into the darkness of sleep, his mind continues to work, asking itself, what is this fire? It’s a peacock’s blazing tail, no, it’s a comet. And what is this darkness? It’s a cloud, it’s an underground well. The drunken man feels colossal but powerless: he’s a whale defeated by an ant. He is a great tree crawling on the ground. What has brought about his defeat? An ocean full of ale, a drinking glass 16 feet deep. Will he remember any of these things? Unlikely, but his drunken alter-ego might unlock the mystery, if he could be stirred. This pattern of searching for answers to questions beyond one’s comprehension reminds me of science. A theory is proposed that later has to be over-turned. One mystery solved leads to ten more puzzles waiting to be deciphered.

Lit crit Adam Gopnik suggests Lear and Carroll were figures of their time, immersed in the debates and intrigues of the day and their nonsense was both a reflection and parody of contemporary interests. Gopnik notes: “On the other side of that earnest, progressive Victorian rationality are the mad leaps of Victorian irrationality. All that sense, decorum, and propriety produced the first fully achieved literature of nonsense… it was amazingly generative, so that most works of Dada and Surrealism bear the marks of mid-Victorian Englishness.” (The New Yorker, April 16, 2018)

A New Book of Grotesques by Christoph Jamnitzer, 1610

What about the nonsense of the 17th century? Book ornamentation often featured elaborate scrolls with grotesque monsters and figures of fun. The monsters are reminiscent of those found on the engravings of early maps. Voyages round the world and a colonizing mission well underway, the gods and demons of the past giving way to the science of the future. Was there any reach of the earth or heavens beyond human grasp? But at what cost, this expansive enterprise? Where exploration of the cosmos tests limits of human imagination, nonsense offers a welcome release of tension, laughing at ambition, allowing us to be playful with language and not worry about rules of order or rules of any kind.

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Talent: Born or Learned?

Inborn talent, the prodigy, the genius–all are myths, according to Daniel Coyle. In his 2009 book, The Talent Code, Coyle argues that skill can be acquired by anyone training under the right conditions. To find these conditions, the author travels the globe, seeking gifted individuals.

Why do so many great musicians come from Vienna in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Talent hotbeds are mysterious places. Why do a few seemingly unremarkable facilities produce a continuous stream of talented students, athletes and musicians? Why, for example does Austria produce a slew of brilliant composers in the 18th and 19th centuries? Why does England produce the literary giants of Shakespeare’s day? Why does Florence, with a population of 70,000, produce an explosion of artistic excellence during the Renaissance? Why so many successful Korean women golfers? Why so many top-ranked Russian tennis players?

The author’s answer is that talent is not in-born, but nurtured. The nurture of talent requires deep practice, dedicated coaching and role modeling. When these three ingredients converge, the student’s brain begins to change. This accelerated learning involves a neural insulator called myelin, “which some neurologists now consider to be the holy grail of acquiring skill.” 

Myelin is an insulating material that wraps around clusters of nerve fibres.

The author explains why myelin is so important: “Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically a signal travelling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out. When we fire our circuits in the right way—when we practice swinging that bat or playing that musical note—our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.” (p. 5)

Deep practice involves many hours of repetition, where the student, athlete, or musician is operating at the limit of his or her comfort zone, which means there is room for a great many failed attempts and retries before mastery is achieved. The supervision of a dedicated coach is essential. One difference between a good coach and a great coach is that the great coach has enough understanding of the student’s personality to sense that she needs attention that is just right for her. The coach’s instructions are short and precise. Not too much praise or criticism. (6% of total comments involve praise or criticism.) The practices or lesson plans need to be well designed so that the student is constantly engaged and actively participating. Often the instruction shifts from a broad overview of game strategies to finely detailed notes on performance.

The importance of a dedicated coach: John Wooden.

UCLA’s long-time basketball coach, John Wooden is noted for his attention to detail. He ran gruelling two hour practice sessions in which players were encouraged to give 100% effort. An athlete who holds back in practice, cannot possibly notch it up during a meaningful game. The practices push the student into areas of weakness, where gains need to be made. Wooden is noted for saying: “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Deep practice is different from game playing or performing. In Brazil, aspiring soccer players play futsal, an indoor game with five players to a side, using a heavier ball. The game allows more touches per player and builds speed and confidence when switching back to regular soccer. Changing speeds is a key element of practice. The beginner may practice at a slow speed; as students develop they encounter accelerated signals. As soon as one area is mastered, another layer is added to the mix, so that the student is continually challenged and must assimilate past achievements into novel situations. 

Why so many successful Russian tennis players? Perhaps the rise of Anna Kournikova, an attractive role model winning fame and fortune on the international tennis circuit, had something to do with it.

Finally there needs to be an ignition factor, which we could call motivation, role-modeling or the instilling of self-belief in the student. One of Coyle’s examples is the success of Anna Kournikova in Russian tennis. Anna emerged as an isolated success in the year 2000, but she helped motivate a generation of younger players, who began to believe if Anna could do it, so could they. Twenty years later 8 of the top 10 women tennis players were Russians.

In Coyle’s earlier book, The Culture Code, the author explored how groups learn to excel. The accepted wisdom is that members of a group trust each other, which allows a sense of comfort out of which risks are taken. Coyle says this is backward to the way things actually happen. When the group take risks together, that’s how trust develops. I suspect this is the same with talent. You take a risk, then you learn to trust yourself and the team behind you that supports that risk. A team that tells you not to risk, is a team that’s hard to trust. 


What Coyle says about talent also applies to retaining mental function as one ages. One of the greatest determinants of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease is their degree of education. The more education, the more myelin protects nerve tissues. Coyle states: “The clinical phrase is “cognitive reserve,” which sounds abstract until researcher George Bartzokis wraps a cloth napkin tightly around a pen to explain what’s really going on. The pen is the nerve fiber, and the napkin is the myelin. The aging of the brain, Bartzokis explains, is when gaps start appearing in the napkin.” 

“The napkin literally starts to split apart with age,” Bartzokis said. “This is why every old person  you’ve ever met in your life moves more slowly than they did when they were younger. Their muscles haven’t changed, but the speed of the impulses they send to them has changed, because the myelin gets old.”

“The good news is that while natural waves of myelination end in our thirties, our overall volume of myelin increases until our fifties, and we always retain the ability to add more myelin through deep practice.” 

What’s in a name?

Who to believe: experts or common sense? The evidence of our senses as we live in the world or the bewildering arguments of rival scientists, journals and institutions? In her 2009 book, Naming Nature, Carol Kaesuk Yoon provides a brief history of taxonomy–the naming and ordering of all life forms–though her captivating story includes questions that touch us all.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a widespread interest in nature led people of all ages and stations in life to scrabble together their own natural history collections. Kings and queens imported elephants and rhinoceroses, parrots and monkeys from distant colonies. The aristocracy planted exotic trees on their estates and grew rare flowers in hothouses. Pressed specimens featured in herbaria. Bottles full of preservatives housed such treasures as the blackbelly triggerfish, armadillos, and fetuses both human and animal. Taverns displayed more outlandish things yet: the penis of a whale, stuffed hummingbirds, snakes from South America, and a starved cat discovered between the walls of Westminster Abbey. As Yoon writes: “The world was full of astonishing things, things that made people desperately curious and to which they felt an easy and intimate connection.”

Butterfly collector, daguerreotype, ca. 1850

Yoon introduces a key term in biology, umwelt. This German word literally means “the environment” or “the world around.” For scientists studying animal behavior, Yoon comments, “the umwelt signifies the perceived world, the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fuelled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits.” A dog appreciates the world differently from how a bee does or a mole or an earthworm or bacterium. People see the world in their own way as well.

Underlying our vision of the world is a search for order and place. We start by identifying creatures–naming living things, learning about them and gauging their relationship to other like and dislike creatures. One’s umwelt includes a feeling of connection to other living things, as best we see them, and relatedness. This feeling is very strong in us–all cultures name the creatures around them and organize them into groups such as meat eaters or songbirds or fruit-trees. As we observe different life cycles and behaviors, our sense impressions and identification skills form a background of familiar knowledge that is central to our sense of place and well being. It’s one of the first things we teach our children–information they’re eager to learn.

Sadly, as specialists take over, the insatiable curiosity of the public for natural history loses ground or diverts to other areas. Beyond a few animal shows on TV and the dinosaur phase of small children, it’s gotten to the point where the ordinary person can distinguish a “tree” or a “flower,” but couldn’t possibly differentiate one kind from another. This disaffection for nature has come in the midst of the greatest mass extinction of species in the history of the planet. Few people know it’s happening or seem to care, and have no sense of how this loss will affect humanity’s own future.

We no longer think of coffee as a plant, but as a product connected to favourite brands.

What has taken its place is our avid differentiation of brands and products. As Yoon writes: “Today, we effortlessly perceive an order among the many different kinds of human-made, purchasable items. Instead of sorting living things by size, shape, color, smell, and sound, we sort merchandise this way, obsessed and immersed as we are in a world of products … We are modern-day hunter-gatherers who do our hunting and gathering, not in the wilds, but at shops and grocery stores.”

It’s not just that specialists have taken over the field of nature. As Yoon outlines, the specialists cannot agree on anything. And one reason they cannot agree is because they are blinded by their umwelt. Human senses are deceiving. For one thing we think of creatures as having fixed, easily identifiable traits and markings. Darwin changed this view. No living thing is fixed; all species vary from one location to another, from one environment to another. The more scrupulous one is in collecting samples, the more these variations will become apparent.

So how to determine where one species starts and another ends? As Yoon outlines, scientists must ignore their umwelt. Instead of relying on observation and instinct, biologists now use statistics, lab tests, genetics and other indicators to place one creature in relationship to another. With all these tools, there is still room to disagree. Taxonomy is not unique in being a discipline marred by dissension, petty feuds and squabbles. I suspect the same holds true of most academic disciplines.

In contrast to the scientists who cannot agree on basic principles, Yoon describes a fascinating experiment conducted by Brent Berlin at the University of California Berkeley. He created a list of bird names and fish names in the language spoken by the Huambisa of the Peruvian rainforest. To get a taste of the experiment, try to distinguish bird from fish in the following lists:


  1. chunchikit (choon-chew-EE-kit)
  2. chichikia (Chee-chee-KEE-ah)
  3. teres (tih-RISS)
  4. yawarach (yaw-wah-RAHTICH)
  5. waikia (wa-EE-kee-ah)


  1. mats (MAW-oots)
  2. katan (kah-TAHN)
  3. takaikit (tah-KA-ee-keet)
  4. tuikcha (too-EEK-cha)
  5. kanuskin (kah-NOOS-kin)

For the five pairs, here are the bird names: chunchikit, chichikia, takaikit, tuikcha, waikia. How did you do? Quite well, I imagine. That’s because “the bird names are the ones that go tweet, tweet.” Yoon comments: Humans perceive birds in a universally similar way, often named after the sounds they make. Example chickadee.

It’s part of human nature to be curious about nature, to name different species and create a system of order. Learning the names of living beings from culture and tradition helps us relate to those beings, feel they are part of our world. Even if mistakes are made, it’s better to be wrong and invested, than to relinquish the task altogether.

Science may increase knowledge, but not increase how we feel or care about the world. This is why Yoon believes there is still place for folk knowledge, a place for the amateur naturalist and casual observer. “If we hope to revive and save our dying world, to recapture our connection to it, we must breathe a little life back into our vision of it.”

Kathleen Jamie, Poet Naturalist

Kathleen Jamie in 2017. Photo by by Jemimah Kuhfeld

Kathleen Jamie is a poet who writes books about nature, islands, vanished cultures and the people who study these sorts of things. She travels and observes, often as the guest of a scientific study, yet remains remarkably free of agendas, political or otherwise. Here’s an example from her chapter on “the Storm Petrel.” (from Sightlines, 2012) 

The account begins: “We found it on Rona, the very day we arrived … “ The “it” in question is the body of a dead bird. A biologist friend recognizes it as a storm petrel–unusual to find a bird like this with an identification ring. Jamie looks it up in a reference book–she is as much a collector of language as she is of natural curiosities—and notes how storm petrels are “essentially pelagic;” “they never occur inland except as storm driven waifs.” Jamie compares this “scientific” description with a description by the poet Richard Murphy, which begins: “Gypsy of the sea/ In winter wambling over scurvy whaleroads/ Jooking in the wake of ships …” 

The bird is petite: “you’d think storm petrels too small to jook anywhere at all.” Jamie describes the ring around its foot, and provides a background on the practice of ringing birds in Britain. The ring she’s recovered bears the words: “Inform British Museum.” Jamie does so, filling in an on-line form. She shares with the reader each question and answer, very factual and explicit. Then she muses on what other questions might have been asked, such as “smell of bird?” Her answer: “mysterious, musky, like an unguent.” 

Waiting for the British Museum’s response, Jamie muses on the furious 18th century debate on bird migration. Gilbert White is quoted at length. Jamie comments on his unusual words and phrases, beginning with the odd word “hibernaculum”: “Hybernaculum,” Jamie notes, “is his word for the winter quarters a swallow repairs to, but where was this hibernaculum? His other words were interesting too. ‘Embarrassment’ and ‘mortification’ almost suggest that the Enlightenment just then dawning, all that science and discovery, might have been driven not by the will to master and possess nature, but out of chagrin. As human beings, our ignorance was beginning to shame us, because we didn’t know the least things, like where swallows went in winter.” 

Jamie receives an answer to her ring inquiry. The bird was ringed on the island of Yell, one of the northernmost Shetland Islands, which she knows well. Jamie gets out her maps and sea charts to trace the journey her storm petrel made. She senses the absurdity of the exercise: “They migrate from Shetland or Rona or their many other breeding places, down to the vast pelagic hibernaculum off Namibia and South Africa. A few come to grief … some bearing a return address. An address! Ludicrous thing for a storm petrel to carry. ‘The Ocean’ would be their address …” 

She concludes: “So that’s why I keep the bird’s remains, here in this room, my own hibernaculum—if only for a while … I keep it for the intimacy, and for the petrel smell: fusty, musky, suggestive of a distant island in summer. And I keep it out of sheer respect because, in life, this ounce of a bird had made twenty-four return trips the length of the Atlantic. Twenty-four at least—which is not bad at all, for a waif, wambling

Biodiversity Museum

The Beaty Diodiversity Museum in Vancouver

How is a museum like a morgue? The bodies inside have tags on their toes. That’s the feeling I get walking through these pristine displays of bones and stuffed birds in the black-walled basement of the Beaty Diodiversity Museum on UBC campus. There’s a sense of being in the storage vaults of a collection rather than being in a showroom.

Dinosaur bones

For example, these dinosaur bones are not assembled into some spectacular crowd-pleasing giant. Instead the bones are randomly tossed into a box that evokes an archaeologist’s dig—the raw materials of a collection without layers of interpretation shaping the viewer’s response. 

This museum boasts an unusual but functional water feature.

That’s not all that makes this museum different. Bulrushes and other swamp-loving plants naturally purify water and so there’s a channel of blue-green algae leading to the museum, winding its way through tall unmowed grasses and piles of compost. 

Wild grass with students

Outside the entrance to the museum, students preoccupied with messaging, pass fields of grass, swamp and brambles of trees. This urban wilderness makes everyone more relaxed, even those who don’t quite know they’re walking through it. 


What’s a museum without signage? Good communication uses striking details with comparisons to familiar things to help us grasp the wonders of whales and other creatures. This fun fact is placed near the blue whale skeleton hanging in the foyer.


In keeping with the sense of being behind closed doors of a research facility, the curators have arranged long cabinets with pull out drawers containing specimens and explanations of current projects by faculty of UBC biology department. The focus is on relationships between creatures living in a shared environment rather than on individual species. You’d need to spend some time to appreciate the scope of the inquiries. The quick glance we had was fascinating.

As we were leaving, we found this card game with a theme of ecology.

West Coast Art

Traditional Haida masks greet visitors to the Audain Museum in Whistler, BC

The Audain Museum in Whistler is itself a work of art. Designed by John Patkau Architects, the L-shaped building stands on stilts. It’s entered by a bridge that floats above a garden.

Glass corridor of the Audain Museum, rear view.

A long sun-drenched corridor links the entrance to the exhibit halls. All art inside is by artists from British Columbia, starting with traditional native artists and moving to contemporary native artists, photographers with billboard-sized images, generation of the group of seven and younger artists. All the big names are here: Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, Emily Carr, Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen.

Attila Richard Lukacs. Love in Lost, 1991 (detail)

When I’m in art galleries I like to take pictures of details. For instance I like how the crowded spiky seeds on the chestnut tree contrast with the delicate half-finished flowers and outstretched artist’s hand in the Lukacs image and the clothesline in the Emily Carr next to the red-mouthed totems.

Emily Carr, Native Village: Alert Bay, 1912 
Emily Carr. Street in Brittany, 1911
Emily Carr. Totem Poles, Kitsegukla, 1912. My photo with hand and camera, detail.

Emily Carr painted this native village in 1912, one year after her 16 month study tour of France, where she was exposed to experiments in modern art. Emily’s style is fresh and assured, using broad strokes, bright colours and strong well-defined forms to depict these time capsules of village life. In the image above, she uses repeating totem poles to add rhythm and vertical thrust to the receding street. The dramatic presence and animal vitality of the totem poles capture our attention. Yet what’s most striking is how the poles are so intimately situated in the midst of houses, children and clotheslines.

Young Emily Carr, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp exhibited their work
together at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, 1911.

An interesting side note to the Carr exhibition: while in France, Emily exhibited her work alongside the paintings of Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp in the Salon d’Automne, Paris. She was a daring young artist stretching her wings at the exact moment that they were also testing the limits of their craft–young lions together!

I take a break in a nearby coffeeshop before heading south to Vancouver.
The glass architecture of Vancouver is amazing. These pointed balconies remind me of automobile tail fins of the Sputnik era–or is it just the angle I took the picture?
1957 Chevy Bel Air

I wish I’d had time to take pictures of cars and street signs, but I had less than a day in the city. When I heard there was an off-site work by Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm, I thought immediately of his fat car series.

Erwin Wurm. Fat Car, 2009

Wurm’s one minute sculptures, where he asks people to balance an awkward pile of stuff–it’s impossible to hold the pose for longer than a minute–are also interesting. I was eager to learn what he had in store for Vancouver. Here’s his off-site work: two empty suits dancing.

Jay poses with an installation by Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm.

I started this blog with masks so I’ll end with masks.

Contemporary native art: Porcupine mask by Phil Gray, 2010. Three Watchmen by Jim Hart

All artists balance tradition and revolt, political and personal, and this tension is evident in these unusual and challenging works.

Beau Dick. Mouse Mask from his “Undersea Kingdom” exhibition, 2017. Killer Whale decal.
Beau Dick. Towkwit Head, 2016, Devoured by Consumerism exhibit, New York, 2019

In the work above, the garbage bag becomes a temporary mask obscuring the mask inside. It makes me think how objects and relationships of great value to some are too quickly discarded by others. In a review (Canadian Art, May 2019) of Beau Dick’s New York exhibit, Devoured by Consumerism, Julian Brave NoiseCat writes: “One of Dick’s last works, produced in 2016, was the carved yellow cedar Towkwit Head, wrapped in a black garbage bag, with a painted eye and horsehair brow peeking out from a hole in its crude cover. Towkwit is a feminine spirit who cannot be killed. In ceremony, a Kwakwaka’wakw spiritual leader cuts off her head, sets her on fire, resurrects her and repeats the process over and over again.”

“Our whole culture has been shattered,” says Dick in the documentary film, Maker of Monsters. “It’s up to the artists now to pick up the pieces and try and put them together, back where they belong. Yeah, it does become political. It becomes beyond political; it becomes very deep and emotional.”

It may be insensitive to say this, but I feel the same way as Beau Dick, my culture has been shattered also. To illustrate what I mean, here are pictures from three museums visits.

Fragments of the past: my wife and I encountered these samples of classical Greek sculptures in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Violence as entertainment: my encounter with Goya in Boston. A tiny print is blown up in digital form, entrance to the Order and Disorder exhibition in 2015.
Did ye get healed? I entered a room of over-sized prescription pills by Canadian artists, General Idea in Ottawa. One Year of AZT, 1991 is on permanent display in the National Gallery of Canada.
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