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.

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.

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.

How to write a quick essay

Snoopy began his stormy writing career in July 1965 with a memorable first line lifted from 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (Charles Schulz Museum)

There are probably a hundred ways to write a good essay, but this is my default for when panic stations start ringing.

  1. Select a topic (5 min.)
  2. Find 3 articles on this topic (5 min.)
  3. Select 1 quote from each article. It is important to introduce voices and ideas other than your own. (5 min.)
  4. In one sentence provide some context for the quote or simply paraphrase the quote (put it in your own words). This sentence is placed either before or after the quote. (5 min.)
  5. Write a sentence that puts two of the quotes in opposition to each other (opposing views). (5 min.)
  6. Write a sentence that sets up 3rd quote as the resolution (the way out) of these opposing views. (5 min.)
  7. Add a sentence that adds your own thought to this resolution. (5 min.)
  8. Write a concluding sentence that sums up what you learned about the topic while writing the paper, and also suggest future questions. (5 min.)
  9. Write the introduction, which mentions the topic, the debate around it, and why the reader should care about this. Though you write this sentence last, it is the first and most important sentence of your essay. (5 min.)
  10. This will give you the nuts and bolts of a reasonably decent essay. You could stop here, reread, and polish a second draft. (15 min)

Total: 1 hour

To create a slightly better essay, here is an additional step:

  1. Insert 2 or 3 examples or literary quotes (if you are writing about Shakespeare, for instance, this is where you insert quotes from Shakespeare’s plays), which relate in some way to your topic. If your topic is not Shakespeare, but say, advertising, this is where you insert images of ads and comment in your own words on these images. Here’s the trick: forget for a minute the arguments in your text and just write in your own words what most intrigues you about the image or the quote. This will give your essay a little sparkle and keep it from being too robotic. (15 min.)

Sample Exercise: Is Advertising Art?

Intro: Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? The critics who answer yes point out how ads reflect current cultural values. The critics who answer no think art has a higher purpose. There is a third view that states art and ads often benefit from each other and in fact feed off of one another. To understand this, we need to consider the changing role of media in contemporary society.

  1. Yes, ads reflects culture (commercialism is part of culture), the time period, technology and values of the day. Insert quote 1: Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Using this broad definition, Miller notes how we live in an era of mass media, global trade and instant messaging: ads finance the media, encourage trade and adopt to the latest technology at lightning speed.
  2. This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. Quote 2: “Art is visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. [In contrast] what advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.” (AdWeek, Nov. 12, 2001) Ads may be a reflection of contemporary culture and current trends, but that isn’t the purpose of art. Art helps us become more self-aware, to think critically and empathize more with other people. Advertising corrupts thinking and makes us selfish and short-sighted. It makes material things more important than relationships and always suggests there is a shortcut to happiness through the purchase of a product.
  3. There is common ground: Quote 3: To the question, “is advertising art,” author Jonathan Glancey answers: “is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.” (The Independent, July 1995)

Artists work on ads; ads feature artwork. Beyond this, there is an enormous gray area where ads and content overlap, such as a beautifully crafted music video that advertises a song. Film trailers are obviously ads, but they need to be clever, fun, exciting, provocative—they need to be artistic—or no one would watch them and share them.

  1. My own thought: Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. The technology of smart phones and social media are the keys to these new citizen-artists. The trend started a hundred years ago when people started buying low-cost Brownie cameras and began recording their own lives. But smartphones and social media have taken it to another level of speed and accessibility. We continually revise, update and share family pictures, and use images to carefully craft our own public personas, selectively posting selfies and snapshots that promote our most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.

Conclusion: This state of citizen-artists continually talking and sharing with one another through media makes us all very art-smart, media-savvy. Ads reflect this desire to be as in-the-know, as mobile, as self-crafting of public image as possible. Everyone is an artist and all images are art because there is no alternative. There is no media innocence in the age of total connectivity.

Extra Step: Examples of a Calvin Klein ad featuring an Andy Warhol artwork, a Moncler ad featuring Chinese artist Liu Bolan.

Here is the final essay. Good luck to all you midnight crammers.

Prankster Philosopher

René Magritte. Son of Man, 1964, with lego spin off.

I have a friend who everyone loves. When he enters a room, he cannot be ignored. He talks to everyone whether he knows them or not. He is always talking, teasing, pulling someone’s leg. You might call him the class clown, only he’s middle-aged and there’s no class. Truth be told, he’s a self-made millionaire, retired, loves sports, travels the world and has as much fun as humanly possible. But he also likes to stir up trouble.

When he’s alone with me, he poses tricky philosophical questions: what is happiness? What do we do with people who spread hateful ideas? My friend reasons like this: if you hate hateful people, aren’t you yourself being hateful? Sometimes I take my interrogator seriously and engage in a discussion with him, examining the pros and cons of different positions. Just when I think the discussion is coming to a close, my friend returns to the beginning and tries to restart the entire argument again.

At this point, I realize my friend is more prankster than philosopher. Philosophers attempt to free our minds from falling into circular traps, repeating the same arguments over and over. Yet when I say I haven’t time, my prankster friend says I’m too serious for my own good. Why so serious? he asks. Why is your time more important than my time? Can you answer without squandering precious moments?

The prankster becomes philosopher. But only for a moment because there’s too much fun to be had, too many games to play, too many places to go, to lose time losing it.

Talking about Art


A group of friends recently met at my sister’s house in Hantsport for an experimental event. We billed the evening as Talking about Art. On a large blank wall, we projected images of artworks, illustrations, ads and movie clips. With each image, we invited the assembled guests to contribute any impressions or ideas the images evoked. There were common themes and two moderators helped stir the group in useful directions. The evening was sponsored by the Robert Pope Foundation.