The Stephen Morrison roadshow is about to set sail on another voyage/project. As part of the Portable Art exhibition we are attempting to sail El Vigo back to Northern Ireland, to complete her circle of voyaging since she sailed from there in the 1980’s. The exhibition opens in London, then travels to Spain and then to Ullapool. El Vigo was built in Vigo, Spain, the work; ‘port of arrival’ recounts her return to her boat building yard, with her then owner, for her 21st birthday. http://www.antallasolais.org/portable-art/
We have also been invited back to Ballycastle and Rathlin Island, so after making a landfall in Northern Ireland, we shall be crossing Ratlin sound to show the film ‘A Boat Retold’ (Louise Milne, Sean Martin) and performing a similar event to that of the Australian Wooden Boat Festival.
Stephen Morrison has been invited to attend the Australian Wooden Boat Festival and to take part in an exhibition in Hobart, Tasmania in early February, 2015. Now we are into the new year, thoughts are directed towards final plans and arrangements for the festival, exhibition and subsequent residency in Tasmania.
To geta sense of the differences between the latitudes here is the local time in Hobart ;
The next stage of the project was the long awaited return travel to Toronto by train. VIA rail operate a service from Vancouver on the west coast to Toronto on the east. If you get the train at either end, then it’s pretty safe to assume a departure time as scheduled. However, this isn’t the case if you get on the train anywhere in the middle of the journey, by then time has taken on another dimension.
We were due to get the train at 23:50 hrs and were deposited at the station in a very timely manner by Douglas Barbour, a great poet/writer and another new Edmonton friend. The train finally arrived at 01:45 am and by the time we departed it was nearly 02:30! The passenger train has to give way to goods and grain wagons, so pulling into a siding was a common event. One of the trains that passed us was 97 wagons long! After a quick intro to the workings of our cabin by the guard, we were settled for the next 3 days. The upside of our late departure was that we saw more of the prairie as it was light by 06:00 am.
There was definitely a greater sense of the scale of the country we were passing through by travelling overland, rather than by air. Also the comparative feeling of sailing through a landscape, due to the huge scale wheat fields, which roll past like a huge swell on the sea. Huge volume of land as opposed to the volume of water.
Day 1 – mostly spent sitting and watching the play of scenery pass by the cabin window, which was acting like a huge TV screen. Also an opportunity to collect thoughts about the journey so far.Grain elevators were beginning to become like friends, a familiar presence on the horizon. then we started to recognise names, Young and Watrous, we’d seen these before on our journey to Regina, but that was the closest we got to retracing any of our steps, as then the train diverted away and on to Winnipeg.
Day 2 – a shock to wake up to almost familiar countryside; rocks and silver birch trees, how had we arrived back in Scotland? The Canadian Shield region of Northern Ontario that we were now passing through looked so much like the Highlands, it’s no wonder that Scottish immigrants felt at home here. I was mourning the open space of the prairie, not prepared for the loss of sky. By the end of the day, the trees and become a shroud to the open vistas we had enjoyed previously.But the scale, the scale of the place. A continent that we had been travelling through since we embarked on the train 2 days ago and were still no where near the end.Day 3 – we should have been in Toronto by 09:30 but by now we were running 6 hours late. We had allowed 7 hours between trains to Montreal thinking it would be plenty of time, but we were now getting anxious. Sure enough, we arrived with 10 minutes to spare, but not enough time too get our luggage, so that had to follow on the next day.
A great adventure and experience – lots of thoughts to process in comparison to sailing over water as opposed to over land. Once again, plenty of fascinating conversations and people who seemed genuinely interested in the project we were on.
Another introduction from last nights poetry reading was to artist, Sidney Lancaster. Sidney invited us to an exhibition opening at SNAP print studio (wwwsnapartists.com). Here we met Brenda Malkinson, artist and director of SNAP. Brenda gave us a tour of the print studio facilities and when she saw me looking at the typesetting press, she invited us to return the next day and make a print!
This is one of the processes unavailable to us at Highland Print Studio where we make most of our printed works, so the opportunity of learning the process was too great to miss. We headed off back to our hotel, deep in discussion of what we should do, knowing we had to have some idea to go with in the morning.Next Day, we met Brenda and Sidney for coffee then headed off to Brenda’s studio for a tour and to the local art supplies shop.
We had decided to go with our growing interest in grain elevators and the use of language, as these two things were the emerging focus of the trip. Knowing also that we had to keep things simple, in order to get the best from the day.
Christine was set to the lino-cutting of the image element, whilst Ian started arranging the text element. Brenda and Sidney were great to work with, but Brenda soon realised that expert help was required if we were going to get any results before midnight, so she called on the letterpress queen of Edmonton – Dawn.
It was unbelievable to be actually making a work! We really didn’t intend to make an edition, but as Dawn said, once we had set up the press, it was a shame to just run off 1 copy, so we ran off a number of works, then edited them down to and acceptable edition of 8.We were left quite overwhelmed by the generosity, kindness, enthusiasm and feeling of camaraderie we felt with these amazing artists. There are definite areas to develop some form of combined project here and hopefully a relationship between SNAP and Highland Print Studios can emerge.
A fantastic reading with 3 other poets at Harcourt House artist run centre. Peter Midgley almost stole the show when he dedicated a Praise Poem to Ian. All impromptu material that came from a discussion the night before comparing Gaelic Psalm singing and Praise Poetry from Namibia.
Edmonton is proving to be a melting pot of like minded folk!
Fantastic readings, great conversations and engagement with a wealth of wit, humour and dedication to the art of words. We were introduced to artist Shirley Servis, the Staff Literary Artist on the Wards at the University Hospital in Edmonton.
They have a great programme of poets, visual artists and writers that engage with patients at the hospital. The Friends of University Hospitals also commission works and installations around the buildings and they have a fantastic gallery space as you come through the main doors.
The current exhibition by Margie Davidson – Measuring a Year is a year-long knitting project where she had knitted the colours of the season or the environment in which she found herself. Cleverly displayed all around the gallery, so the viewer has to walk in, around and through the work.
Mainly staffed by volunteers, this seemed a great way of connecting with people that may not otherwise have any contact with the art or literary worlds.
Saskatoon railway station is by no means centrally located, in fact there was quite a debate on its exact location. However, we were safely deposited there in plenty of time to catch our 10.45 pm train – which came in at 01.45 am!
After catching a few hours of the lost sleep (also due to the reclining seat experience not being that great), we were greeted by Alice Major in the afternoon, with a welcome pack and and offer to take us to the evening reading – we were straight into the thick of the Edmonton Poetry Festival. (http://www.edmontonpoetryfestival.com)
Louise and Peter were such wonderful hosts, Christine wanted to leave a momento behind. The trees around the house are gradually being increased by hand planting of saplings each spring, but there are some that are more established, especially near Louise’s ‘secret garden’.
A quick trip to the art store in Saskatoon and the necessary materials were on hand for the installation. Beautiful sunshine, but had to wait for the frost to disappear first!
Further north on the now getting familiar, Highway 2. An overnight visit to the beautiful lakeside home of one of Louise’s family. Although we didn’t see any water as there had been another 6 inches of snow a few days before.
There is a fascination growing with grain elevators. Ian is sketching out something to do with the names as well as looking a the amount of water in this area and the variety and novelty in the names of the lakes.
Prince Albert had to be explored on the way back south, The Mann Art Gallery had a very appropriate exhibition – Relative Connections, described as “An exploration of collaborative art production between artist couples!” (http://mannartgallery.ca/exhibits.htm) the premise was to get artist couples that would not normally work together, to create a new work that was a combination of their own practices or was in a completely new medium to them both.
Fantastic bridges and buildings, somehow looked like they belong in a western film-set.
Then we found the ultimate destination, a grain elevator with the name of a lake – Duck Lake! But the writing was so feint on the building it was almost nameless.
A date with the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in Regina, had the Stephen Morrison combo on a road trip down Highway 2. There were so many Grain Elevator photo opportunities that had to be mentally stored for the return trip north.
A weekend of poetry (http://www.skwriter.com), art exhibitions (http://www.mackenzieartgallery.ca/engage/exhibitions/amalie-atkins), a literary brunch with award winning writer Katherine Lawrence, real ale (http://www.bushwakker.com), contemporary dance at New Dance Horizons ( http://www.newdancehorizons.ca/performance/current-season/blueprint-series-1-2/ )and a Pow Wow !(http://www.fnuniv.ca/pow-wow)
Many thanks to Bruce Rice for being such an excellent guide during our stay.
The return trip north was punctuated with many stops, mostly at every Grain Elevator spotted on the horizon.
These incredibly iconic structures are gradually fading from the landscape as modern grain storage methods take over – horizontal white plastic grain hoppers don’t quite have the same aesthetic appeal somehow
The journey gave us an indication of the scale of the countryside, the long, long, long straights made sense of cruise control, whereas in the UK this feature is a of little use on most roads.
Louise took us to Wanaskewin Heritage Park to give us an introduction to the history of her people.This amazing building sits out on the prairie like a huge wigwam structure. A herd of bronze buffalo look like they’re about to stampede through the building. Later we see where they would have been herded over the cliff edge, falling to waiting warriors below.
The very next day, we were met in Saskatoon by the poet, Louise Halfe. We were driven out to the home built with her husband, Peter, who teaches medicine and is still engaged in working to help people suffering from various addictions. This is a round house, with thick walls holding the efficient insulating material of straw – a plentiful material on these prairies. The span of windows looks out over a lake in gently undulating terrain. We watched sun burn gaps in the ice while heavy-bodied Canada geese became suddenly weightless. We walked and listened to an owl.
This is very close to sites where human ways of hunting and of plotting astronomic observations are proven to 1600 years. But there is further evidence of ways of life and culture which suggest a span of time as dizzying as the scale of this landscape. A poem was brewing. This time I didn’t form it by typing. I walked some more and thought it out. Pen and ink on a lined slim notebook. Maybe it’s enough to suggest the comparisons, allowing the reader’s own associations to be nudged by a few tangible details, derived from scrutiny.
Louise was curious and I shared the language, indicated by scrawl. In turn I’m reading through her collections and the collected poems of a mentor of hers, Patrick Lane. I think the residency began the minute I was on the ferry, feet off my home island. But we’re in the heart of it now.
We sit, looking out, as the gaps in the ice mend themselves. The wind is like a welding torch. There is a sweep of dark wings. Two pairs, with flashes of white at the tail and head. But these are not Canada geese. They settle to a glide with unmistakable silhouettes. They come to rest in a tree, across this lake and we can study them through binoculars. We are seeing a pair of mature bald eagles.
We were guided towards Kensingston market. It reminded me of Brixton. But the fish tacos were a new experience. That was lunch. We would eat in, this evening, so we’d invest in a steak of beef, of known provenance, to share. The butcher was in no hurry and laid out the choices of meat, hung for 40 days. Now, if you want to try Ontarian wine to go with it… And what are you guys doing over here anyway. I know a Scots accent when I hear it.
So a conversation started. We exchanged emails and met up, of an evening, two couples, sipping beers and swapping the cultural notes of visitors and locals. I had another email from Sara Hunt (Saraband), who is going to publish my first novel, later this year. A great friend of her partner is a professor of social anthropology in Toronto. We braved icy rain, between connections, to reach a suburb. Then we were welcomed into tea and talk of islands. Daniel is from St Helena. He also makes films. He told us of his plan to document the lives of the hundred men who left their home island to work in South African mines.
I thought of the Hebrideans, on two year contracts, gone to the whaling in South Georgia and sending money home in the 1950s and 60s. The present generation, with so many working offshore, banking money to build the big house on the family croft.
But the real echo was the loss of more than two hundred of the fit men from Lewis and Harris, returning from the First World War on the doomed Iolaire. The hundred men, lost to St Helena, did not all perish but loss is loss to a fragile island social structure.
Another e mail arrived from my Toronto cousins. We tried to determine when we had all met last. As in all stories, the different versions did not exactly match. I introduced my wife and she was immediately welcomed into the family stories. We were taken out to breakfast. In the space of a couple of hours, lifetimes flew past us.
The way family stories and stories of love collide with histories gone out of all control reminds me of the work of Anne Michaels, who lives in Toronto. Her novel The Winter Vault is on a similar scale to the expanses of geography and time in Fugitive Pieces. You can take the events in because of the intimacy of the human relationships, also studied, in close up. I took time to look at some poems, available on line. They have similar qualities: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/michaels/poem1.htm
I’m on my way in town again. I’ll be looking for the book that gathers both her collections.
Remembering that this blog form is like a diary, I’m also sharing some poems-in-progress. They may change or they may not. They might be kept. They might not.
Graham the butcher is a wine-writer.
He’s writing a novel about a wine-writer
but it’s not like Sideways.
I told him I used to be a coastguard.
I’m writing a novel about a guy who
used to be a coastguard but it’s not about me.
Graham’s grandpa discovered the separations
that sorted the colour in Ladybird books.
My grandpa came to Toronto as a teamster.
His family had their trunks packed, to join him
but it was Willum came back across the pond,
homesick for Doric. Mind, my Toronto cousins said,
he’d been a prisoner of war, after gas.
He came home to ‘my dearest Mary Jane’.
Shovelled coal, killed moles,
grew grapes, like goosegogs, under glass.
We sip Syrah, grown across the great lake.
See the twinkle of development, from dark.
Watch cyan seep into a monochrome dawn.
My grandma sent her eldest daughter out
from the nine in two rented rooms
taking her place in
a city growing tall.
All these layers in
It’s the inscriptions on the backs of cards,
the ones that fall from mounts and frames.
It’s the scribbles, tight to the edges
of printed matter.
A story known to others
is told at the waterside café
over sweetcure Canadian back
and eggs, over easy.
Willum broke out from a wrecked Morris Minor.
He walked to find help for the two still trapped.
That’s what did the damage
to his own internal organs.
After they gave in
Mary Jane lost her own will.
Simple as that.
She lingered long enough
to meet the eyes
of her Toronto daughter.
A large scale exhibition was being installed at the Art Gallery of Toronto. The museum has benefited from a long term relationship between Henry Moore and this city. A huge scale bronze sits well outside, in the space between old brickwork and modernist developments. ‘Terror and Beauty’ is the title of the Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition but we found that Wednesday is the day for viewing drawings and prints held in this building and a range of Moore’s drawings was set out on easels. You could view them up and close with no glass between you and the marks. My wife and my companion on this trip, Christine Morrison, is a visual artist by training and one who has recently been rediscovering the direct joy of drawing.
We studied one of the drawings Moore made in air-raid shelters during World War II. Wax and wash, pen and ink, somehow conveyed three dimensions from the work on paper. We moved to an exhibition wittily titled ‘Words On Paper’. Bruce Nauman (American born 1941). This was a questing, questioning poetry. Words in mirror image, from the printing, or drawn in mirror-image to print as you would expect to see the word. You lost the security that comes from recognizing words in your own language. Phrases became strange or elusive. A video installation consisted of two screens. An actor read words out loud, on each. It was the same list of words but the intonation and delivery made them menacing or reassuring.
The development of the building is itself a sculpture by Frank Gehry. Laminated beams curved forever. The shapes were as graceful as the artifacts of indigenous peoples, installed, throughout the building. These sometimes told stories. A bow-drill, in bone, was etched with the details of a hunt.
That evening we went to hear 20 poets compete in presenting five minute samples from recent books. It was not a slam contest and many stories were told in a short time. ‘Battle of the Bards’ is a test in choosing and presenting work which could represent the poet well in this tight structure. Narrative was usually more to the fore than the act of seeking or drawing, with language as the medium to fascinate poet and audience. There were aphorisms and there were lyrics. The standard of presentation was astonishing, as if there is a long culture of presenting poems in public. A long table was piled with recently published poetry books, all well-produced and all as expensive as editions in the UK. I have not been able to find out who this year’s winner was but I’d suggest taking a look at the work of last year’s winner, available on line: http://www.therustytoque.com/poetry-peter-norman.html
Also on Toronto’s waterfront, we explored The Power Plant, a pristine and large scale space for contemporary art. Another British artist was installed – a large scale show by Mike Nelson, who has travelled extensively in North America. One dense installation is composed of found objects from the coastline of Vancouver.
In another space, the personal possessions of a Canadian of Orcadian descent, who was killed in a climbing accident in Scotland, are arranged and placed behind a screen. A procession of images from ongoing journeys in this continent all show vestiges of human interventions on the landscape. Like many of the poems heard the night before, the work conveyed a sense of the absence of one particular person, from the world.
Another large area is given over to ‘Quiver of Arrows’. Four aluminium trailers, once the epitomy of streamlined development, are joined and parted from their wheels. You step up into an evocation of lives suggested by a few pertinent personal effects. You tiptoe in case there is a body dozing in one of the bunks: http://thepowerplant.org/Exhibitions/2013/Winter/Mike-Nelson.aspx?ref=fp
But the work that moved me most could be described as a poem. A wide room suggests a functional office space, peopled with photocopiers. Printouts are taped to provide elusive traces of a story. Some phrases are blown up to highlight them and you realise that the fragments are picked up and echoed or progressed by the paper spewed from other machines. It was the diary of another journey. But it was also an unnerving one-sided conversation with his dead friend.
Like Nauman’s work, the appearance of the language and its presentation is fascinating in itself but it seems to me that in both bodies of work, it is the language itself that is the central concern.