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.

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.

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. 

Aging

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:

A.

  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)

B.

  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. 

Signage

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.

Carnivores

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.

Mountains, B.C.

Mountain, mist, lake

I travelled to Whistler, British Columbia recently with my wife Kathleen. This was a different vacation for us. Much of our time was spent outdoors. We’d come off season, just before the ski hills opened, but it worked out well for us as we mixed family time with small doses of nature and got a better appreciation of where Kathleen’s son Jay lives and why he’s there. 

Sunlight, shadows, mountain
I encountered this glowing wild flower on the side of the ski hill.

While I was there, I took a few photos. My current art project starts with close-up details of nature, but I also step back and record a wider view, the way filmmakers construct reality. One of the hardest things to photograph is sunlight, to appreciate how life depends on the light and energy of the sun. Light is the first element of art, as is shadow. A mystic might say we journey from a life of shadows toward the light.

Mountains meets the sea

I had feared living amongst a ring of mountains might get claustrophobic. The reality is they’re always changing, especially if you’re on the move. I get glimpses of them on our peregrinations around lakes and forests and along stretches of highway, power lines and ski slopes. 

Crows watch over a parking lot in Creekside, with mountains visible in background.

I’m reminded of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji, a travelogue of 19th century Japan, showing the country through a series of pictures. In each picture, the landscape and activities change, except for one element, the mountain in the background. As I travel the back roads and hiking trails of Whistler, I get the idea that I could do a similar project, featuring Canadian mountain peaks.

The Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler was greatly improved for the Olympics. Here Kathleen poses with her son Jay, who served as agreeable tour guide.
The cranes of Horseshoe Bay.

The Sea to Ski highway has conveniently placed viewing stations. We stopped at Horseshoe Bay for lunch. It’s a lovely spot, picturesque with its views of ocean, busy with ferry traffic to outlying islands. In my nature shots, I often like to include traces of human intervention. These cranes gave a sense of scale to the mountain. One senses how precarious it is to build on these steep slopes, combined with the imperative to balance human activity with appreciation for the wonders of nature.

Follow the Herd

Cave Paintings of Lascaux in the Vézère Valley, southern France, thought to be around 20,000 years old. The cave art was discovered in 1940.

The cave paintings of southern France and Spain present one of the great mysteries of art. Why were these works created? The paintings are mostly of animals: bulls, aurochs, horses and bison. In the Lascaux cave, one of the giant bulls is 17 feet long. The animals, painted with earth-coloured minerals, appear to be in motion; none of them are grazing.

What is the meaning of this prehistoric art? We can only conjecture. The usual explanations touch on magical properties, hunting and religion, or having to do with initiation, ancestry and entertainment. Does any art in the 20th century deal with similar material? And can we learn anything from modern-day examples of herds, cattle and humans?

Andy Warhol. Cow Wallpaper, 1966

For example, Warhol’s cow wallpaper mocks the way landscape art, often featuring cattle, can become a piece of decoration in a room. The repeating heads of identical cows are absurd, yet powerful–the hypnotizing effect of mass media.

Perhaps the 20th century artist most associated with bulls is Pablo Picasso. “As a Spaniard it was inevitable that the bull, the bullfight, and eventually the Minotaur, would concern Picasso.” So writes Martin Ries in Art Journal (Winter 72/73).

Picasso draws and paints bulls in a variety of contexts. The bull could be a symbol of Spain, Picasso’s birthplace, or a symbol of sacrifice or death. Picasso portrays the minotaur as a monster, a lover, an embodiment of brute strength. At other times, the half bull-half man appears vulnerable, a homeless wanderer or uncomprehending actor in elaborate scenes of war and human suffering.

There is a dream-like quality to the image below that suggests a surrealist paradox: the violent solitary man lives under threat of being civilized. In his personal life, Picasso’s marriage had fallen apart–he couldn’t divorce because he was Catholic–and his mistress had just gotten pregnant.

Pablo Picasso. Minotauromachy, 1935
Alex Colville. Stop for Cows, 1967

Not bulls but cows. Canadian artist Alex Colville’s magic realist vision, with its pastoral theme, sense of deep space, luminance, and cool confrontation with the viewer, could not be more different from Picasso’s dark dramas. However Colville’s woman and Picasso’s Minotaur make similar gestures with their outstretched arms.

Standing before the Colville painting, the viewer feels like he or she is stopped in a car on a country road. The animals are momentarily in control and there’s not much to do about it. The young woman who makes the gesture is a cross between a modern-day shepherdess and a traffic cop. Perhaps she’s a stand-in for the artist–all artists want viewers to stop before their paintings. Are we being asked to slow down to share the world with the forces of nature we depend so much upon?

Two ads: McDonald’s ad (1971 TV Guide) features a hamburger made from beef; the 1974 Marlborough ad uses cowboy imagery to sell cigarettes.

When I look at images, a question I ask is: can we learn more about a time and place from art, from ads or from pop culture? For me, the answer is all three. For instance, the McDonald’s ad above is an artifact of our fast food culture, firmly entrenched by the 1970s. It is not an ad for a restaurant–the information makes no mention of atmosphere or a sophisticated and varied menu. The food is to go and it’s an identical product wherever you buy it. The ad stresses “great” and “big” — (has to compete with whoppers). Its message is the opposite of the Alex Colville painting, Stop for Cows. The last thing a consumer needs to think about at McDonald’s is where did this food come from or were any animals involved.

The Marlborough ad features an action picture of a cowboy about to rope a steer. The image has the iconic appeal of the Old West, portraying a man who’s both free and engaged in work. It suggests a robust way of life, living outdoors, attuned to nature. The man is a skilled horseman and rancher; the young bull has no chance against him. In the unfolding scenario, which we’ve been primed for by a endless stream of related Marlborough ads, we imagine the man will shortly light a cigarette as the camera moves in for a close up of his handsome grinning face.

Buffalo Bill appears in a St. Louis newspaper ad from 1885. Paul Newman stars in the 1976 revisionist Western, Buffalo Bill and The Indians.

At the same time that Philip Morris Corp was running these cowboy ads, a few irascible filmmakers in Hollywood were causing a stir with their edgy Westerns. No film was more iconoclastic than Robert Altman’s satirical bio-pic, Buffalo Bill and The Indians, 1976.

Reviewers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat describe the film: “The time is 1885. Colonel William F. Cody (Paul Newman) is the chief attraction in a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: An Absolute Original & Heroic Enterprise of Inimitable Lustre.” Around this vaudeville environment, Buffalo Bill and his entourage have packaged the history of the Wild West in circus stunts and carnival spectacles. When Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin) asks Buffalo Bill why he doesn’t tell the truth in his shows, the superstar replies, “Truth is whatever gets the most applause.”

Throughout the film, Buffalo Bill wears fine clothes and is groomed to the max, but his flowing locks are really a toupee–he’s a manufactured icon who shamelessly turns the story of wild buffalo and native Americans into a show-biz hustle! The implication is that this pattern of false history and self-deception is deeply ingrained in American politics and public life.

Lady Gaga wears a Meat Dress for a 2010 awards show. Right: Jana Sterbak, the Canadian artist who created the original Meat Dress in 1987.

Pop culture tends to focus on stories and personalities. Fine artists often go in for a more visceral and shocking impact. The Canadian conceptual artist, Jana Sterbak is best known for her blood red Meat Dress, composed of 50 pounds of raw steaks sewn together in a seductive and revolting garment. The artist called the work a “contrast between vanity and bodily decomposition.” Critic Deborah Irmas commented how “Sterbak likes to arouse discomfort” by using objects to trigger controversy and disgust.

The dress idea was revisited by pop star Lady Gaga, who wore a similar concoction to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010. “Lady Gaga divides opinion,” Laura Roberts reported the next day for The Telegraph. “The singer collected eight awards while wearing the Franc Fernandez-designed outfit, complete with boots, purse and a hat made from cuts of beef. Cher, who presented the prizes, wrote on her Twitter account that as an “art piece it was astonishing! Everyone’s talking about it!” Lady Gaga later expressed to her friend, talk show host Ellen Degeneres, that sexual politics lay behind her publicity stunt: “I am not a piece of meat!”

Sebastião Salgado. Nenets of the Siberian Arctic, Russia

The epic book project, Genesis, 2013, took photographer Sebastiao Salgado eight years to complete, as he documented parts of the world–rainforests, deserts, volcanoes, islands, and arctic regions–untainted by modern life. This photo of migrating reindeer in Siberia captures the mass movement of a herd of animals, on a 1,000 km trek to northern grazing grounds each spring. The human presence is so small (in the sled at top) it’s easy to miss at first glance.

In her review for The Observer, (14 Apr, 2013) Laura Cumming writes: “Salgado wants to go back to the beginning, to find a world that has not yet been ruined by mankind so that we may see the Eden that time forgot.” Redemption project and personal voyage of discovery, this Utopian photo-journalism, with its Biblical overtones, confronted present day fears of self-destruction, shame and loss of the natural world.

All of these works present different takes on the natural world, seen through lenses of war and peace, commerce and fashion, propaganda and history.

What do they tell us about the Lascaux cave paintings? Every device I’ve mentioned, from mass hypnosis to tribal identity (brand loyalty) to embracing a mobile “cowboy culture”, applies equally to both modern and prehistoric societies. Early humans relied on wild bulls for food and clothing. And I suspect some of the clothing used for special ceremonies was just as outrageous as the meat dress and may also have tested limits of what is revolting and what makes for a good story around a fire. The stories, no doubt, were always changing and turning into myths.

And finally, prehistoric nomadic societies, like the ones that passed through Lascaux, may have witnessed or caused or feared or heard of a few extinction events (loss of species) that would have deeply rocked their world. Their art, like ours, was a mixed bag of fears and dreams, expressions of tribal solidarity, affirmation of a mobile lifestyle–while dependent on other creatures, proud of their skill as trackers and hunters, fearful that they might be too skilled and overshoot their limits and natural laws.

Son of Group of Seven

Painter vs publicist. Arthur Lismer. A Spetember Gale, Georgian Bay, 1921 and cover illustration for an exhibition catalogue by Thoreau Macdonald, c. 1950.

The Group of Seven are well known in Canada, but ask any one to name an individual artist within this group and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Ironically, the two artists that most readily come to mind, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr, were not members of the Group, though close friends with those who were. Thomson was murdered before the group was officially formed and Carr was never invited to join.

This blog is about overlooked talents. The person I’d like to feature is Thoreau Macdonald, named after the famous 19th century naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Macdonald’s father was J.E.H. Macdonald, one of the original Group of Seven, a landscape painter noted for his dazzling colour. Incredibly his son Thoreau was color blind. He compensated for this by working exclusively in black and white as a book and magazine illustrator. TM (Thoreau Macdonald) often worked on catalogues promoting other artists for which he created punchy graphic images. These black and whites often mimic the style of the featured artist.

This catalogue cover features a black and white rendition by Thoreau of his father’s most famous painting, The Solemn Land, 1921.

My wife just asked me, are these images woodblock prints? No, they’re done in pen and ink to look like woodblocks–they are “fake woodblocks.” TM eschews the intricate cross hatching that gives many illustrations a range of tones and a heightened sense of realism. Extreme contrasts, varied mark-making techniques and beautiful designs contribute to TM’s unique style.

Thoreau Macdonald. Snowy Owl with landscape, c. 1950

Birds and animals are often included in these landscapes. TM is one of the first Canadian artists to do this and, in this respect, he anticipates Robert Bateman and Alex Colville. TM’s animals are not symbols or decorative abstractions, but embody a life presence of their own. These curious explorers actively interact with other species in an ecological time capsule. There is a strong sense of season and locale. In the picture below, it’s spring time; the hungry bear has awoken from a long sleep. He uses his great strength to tear apart a tree stump as he searches for grubs. A vigilant bird hovers in the background, awaiting his chance to swoop in and clean up the left-overs. The image contrasts the hugeness of the bear with the smallness of the bird and the low dead stump with the springy young trees beyond. There are visible creatures (bear and bird) and invisible but implied creatures (the grubs). No distinction between land and sky: a white day.

Thoreau Macdonald. Bear and stump, c. 1945
Thoreau Macdonald. Fox in an orchard, winter, c. 1950

How beautifully the arch of the tree branch frames the fox, giving the sense that he is earthbound, while the birds, so much on his mind, are safely out of reach. How effective is the white of the page as a field of snow! The snow half hides the old tree in the aftermath of a storm. Life is just beginning to emerge and take a peek around for signs of other life.

Thoreau Macdonald. Winter scene, c. 1960

Here is another deceptively simple display of whiteness. The image is so bright it almost hurts your eyes! There is a principle in Asian art that there should be a balance between what’s drawn on the page and what’s left empty on the page. TM is a wizard of knowing what not to draw. What’s more, his empty space gives a tangible sense of distance. Fence posts and trees, drawn in perspective, act as a giant funnel guiding the figures home.

Thoreau Macdonald. Northern Landscape, c. 1958

Here’s a cycle of life, cycle of seasons. Reminds me of Ozymandias. The heroic and the humble. Stones, skull and island are shapes that echo one another–looks like the caribou is turning to stone before our eyes as the rocks crowd in on the remains of the fallen animal. The horns function like the branches of a tree, a convenient perch for a bird positioned midway between the arrowhead in the cloud and the nervous current to the water. As in many of Thoreau’s images, the bird stands and watches. He is a sentient being in a wild setting, a silent witness to nature’s changes.