Red Thread

The Slow Dry

Revisiting an old piece of writing and thinking of dear friends.

The Slow Dry
By Annis Karpenko
Published Globe and Mail, Facts & Arguments, April 10, 2007

My friend Monica suggested I try a new salmon recipe. My usual trick is to slather a side of salmon with a Dijon mustard and honey mix and then coat it with a layer of chopped pecans. Bake it and away you go. It is delicious and I always receive gratitude from our dinner guests. Monica had a new way. She had slathered her salmon with grainy mustard and maple syrup and coated it with chopped pistachio nuts. She assured me it was fabulous and going the extra mile as only a true friend can, she also provided me with her extra mustard/syrup mixture and a half bag of pistachios.

At the appointed dinner preparation hour I assembled all the ingredients on my kitchen counter and noticed that the pistachios were still in their shell. Unlike my previous efforts with pecans where I simply threw a handful into the food processor, I would have to shell these nuts. This would steal a few minutes from my schedule. I glanced up at the clock and began. I poured the pistachios out of the bag into a small pile on the counter thinking this might save some time. One by one I began to break open the shells and place each nut into the food processor. First one, then the next and the next. Although I am sure some television food wizard can shell more than one nut at a time, I have no such talent. I had to go one by one and as I did I was reminded of the effort I had made in the past but which I had forgotten; the effort towards mindfulness.

I had once practiced mindfulness each day; paid close attention to my body as I woke up in the morning, to the texture of my skin, to the feeling of the water running over me in the shower, the brushing of my teeth. I meditated and moved with intention, considering each step I took on my walk to work. Over time as more activity and change took over my life, I had forgotten.

Later in the week, after the successful salmon dinner party (pistachios work very nicely), the blow dryer I used to fashion my hair each morning died. It was a blustery piece of black plastic with three speeds and multi-temperature controls. It dried my hair with SWAT team efficiency and kept me on schedule each morning. The marvel of jet plane turbo proportion was now finished so I cursed, fluffed my hair with my hands in a frantic fashion and before day’s end headed to the store replace it.

The piece I brought home was a similar piece of black plastic but the next morning I plugged it in and the turbo charge was not there. In its place a subtle, warm breeze blew over my hair. I looked down at the controls – Low – Off – High – Cool. I shuffled the switch up and down, testing each level. Low was a mere whisper across my head. This breezy hot tropical flow was High. Cool was a wee bit faster but not much. I was stopped for a moment but did not have time to argue with the plastic or myself so I carried on letting the warm breeze blow slowly over my head. It was slow but it was drying my hair. I once again remembered the practice of mindfulness and resisting my urge to “watch a kettle boil”, I closed my eyes. The warm breeze brought a vision of a sandy beach, swaying palm trees and gentle waves to me in snowy March. I wiggled my toes and relaxed into the airflow. It was delightful. How had I forgotten? My usual turbo-charged morning routine was transformed into an oasis of calm.

I let the calm accompany me as I dressed. I noticed each button on my blouse; I paid attention to my lips as I put on lipstick; I noticed the blue of my eyes and the lines around them deep from time and laughter; I noticed my wrist as I slid on a brightly coloured bracelet and I noticed the new age spots that were now on my hands. I looked at my toes and feet as I pulled on my socks, counted each toe and admired my ankles. As I moved to the kitchen, I noticed the change in the light from room to room; I listened to the water as it filled the kettle and let my fingers feel the paper wrapper as I prepared my tea bag. And on it went all morning until I got to work and once again got caught up in my day.

The Tao reminds us, “After completion Come new beginnings. To gain strength, Renew the root.” I had forgotten to remind myself of the basics, the root or the influences that keep me grounded as I move off into new directions. Even master musicians must return to play scales each day, this allows them to move to the challenging pieces assured of their skill. The next morning, I plugged in the hair dryer again. I knew I would not return the slow machine. It came to me, perhaps because I was not paying attention in the store and missed the multifunction model, but no matter, its presence was a gift, a reminder to me to make time, to renew the root. Even in its unhurried state, my hair did get dry. It is a slow dry, the perfect way to start a day

© Annis Karpenko 2007

acrylic on paper
18" x 24

Excavating Wholeness

This begins a series of excerpts from my MFA Portfolio called Excavating Wholeness.

STRAVINSKY’S LUNCH

It is as if there are external equivalents for truths which I already in some
mysterious way know…. Vulnerability is implicit in it; pain, inevitable. ~ Anne Truitt

I was drawn to the stories of women artists whose feelings of intense loneliness, brought on by heartbreak, grief, abandonment, or social expectations, were ameliorated by their art practice. As an empathic person, their stories burrowed their way into my heart and offered me a golden opportunity to delve into my own sense of solitude as a woman and an artist.

This story began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2012. My husband was working there and I went along for a holiday. At that point in time, we had been married 28 years; our two daughters were living their own independent lives. The first week we walked the ancient streets in Edinburgh and marveled at the architecture, the castle, the museums, the Royal Yacht Britannia. We toured the countryside and visited Loch Ness. I tried to enjoy myself and be a good travel buddy, but I was chomping at the bit to have a few, whole, unfettered days of my own. I had gone back to school and was beginning my second MFA semester in a few short weeks. Away from my small studio, I felt artistically frustrated. When my days finally came, I sat alone in coffee shops thinking about study plans and wandered streets searching for some creative inspiration. I spent a long time gazing into the eyes of Rembrandt at the National Gallery, and two days wandering through the Contemporary Art museums where viewers were accosted by Ron Mueck’s Giant Baby sculpture. I was intrigued (and jealous) as I looked in on Eduardo Paolozzi’s (1924 – 2005) sculpture studio, fully installed in a Gallery hall. I imagined the man moving through the organized chaos to his desk, surrounded by books and notes tacked to the wall filled with ideas and calls to return. He would rise and move over to his work table where plaster heads, body parts and unformed mounds of plaster waited to be charged into action. When he grew weary after a long day of work or a heavy lunch, he would climb up the ladder to his sleeping loft to read a book or sleep. This room was Paolozzi’s personal vault of inspiration and creation, the quintessential life of a focused and dedicated artist. There was seemingly no order, but there was clearly purpose and possibility in every dusty nook and cranny.

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. ~ Anaïs Nin

One afternoon, on a day that portended rain, I found myself on a side street in a charity used bookstore. As I grazed past the shelves, reminding myself that I did not need any new books, I was suddenly drawn in to a spine on a shelf; first by the title Stravinsky’s Lunch, then immediately after by the beautiful painting on the cover of a woman knitting. I bought the book, walked up the hill and the 78 steps to our cozy apartment just before the skies released torrential rain. With my cup of tea ready, I snuggled in for an afternoon read. As I turned each page of Drusilla Modjeska’s thoughtful book I was offered the story of Stella Bowen, an artist old enough to be my grandmother, whose personal life choices were eerily similar to mine. Modjeska’s title Stravinsky’s Lunch refers to an anecdote she discovered researching the book: that of composer Igor Stravinsky who would demand that his family sit silently at lunch so as not to disturb his creative process. Modjeska wondered why no one suggested that Stravinsky just take a tray up to his studio, and also she could not name a creative woman who would be so insistent on silence in the presence of her family.

Living life sandwiched between first and second wave Feminism, Stella Bowen fled the oppression of her Australian home to live as an artist in London, England. As a bright-eyed, shy, twenty-four year old woman, she fell in love with the famous writer Ford Madox Ford, a man 20 years older than she. “To me he was quite simply the most enthralling person I had ever met…. [He] wanted to start a new home. Wanted a child. I said yes, of course.” [i]

Bowen moved with Ford to a secluded farmhouse in England and spent her days hauling water, cooking meals, entertaining and making sure that Ford was not bothered in any way while he wrote his books. Renowned for spoiling many a dinner party by keeping his guests waiting while he finished a pesky paragraph, the title of Bowen’s life at this time could have been Ford’s Dinner. While loving his scintillating conversation and flattering attention, Ford’s child-like behavior, tantrums and self-centeredness made the relationship challenging for Bowen. As an artist who had garnered some recognition of her work, Bowen was eager to get into a studio to paint. Even when she could find time, she found she was frequently interrupted by Ford’s needs. Bowen soldiered on as country consort, bore him a daughter out of wedlock, and eventually moved the family to France, where she enjoyed a brief period of artistic satisfaction. Nine years after they met, however, she was rewarded by Ford running off with another woman. “Why,” Bowen asks, “are people allowed – and women encouraged – to stake their lives, careers, economic position, and hopes of happiness on love?” [ii]

Feminist author bell hooks writes, “Most women search for love hoping to find recognition of our value. It may not be that we do not see ourselves as valuable; we simply do not trust our perceptions.” [iii] And yet, a woman’s value was and is often measured by the partner she chooses and if she chooses one more famous or successful, she is often relegated to the shadows. People may say behind every great man, there is a great woman, but there is no accepted measure for her greatness, is there?

Reading Stravinsky’s Lunch and the stories of other women artists, for me, can only be described as an embodied experience. As I dug into the lives of these creative women, I began to feel a metaphysical relationship to them. I marveled at how time-after-time, strength and acute vulnerability were woven so tightly together. Of course, as a white woman living in the post second-wave Feminist era, I did not endure the trials some of these women faced. I was never destitute. I was never committed to a psychiatric ward. I did not live through the deprivation brought on by war. I was not battered. Mostly, I stayed sane and fed and clothed my children by finding satisfying work. And yet, in the solitary moments following the stillbirth of my first child; or alone for months in a secluded farmhouse with an infant daughter; or in the dark of night in a hospital bed following a cancer diagnosis at the age of 33; I was profoundly changed on a cellular level. Each time I had to locate a new normal. As I read, my story became their stories and a swell of emotion erupted up to my surface.

As I processed their stories, and worked my way through my own emotional responses to each of them, it crossed my mind that perhaps, I had it in my control to change our stories. At first I was satisfied to read about other women who loved the wrong guy and survived being left behind with kids to support, but when I began to reflect on their lives and my own, it dawned on me that this was not the story we would want to be remembered for. I was sure that I did not want to be a woman who was celebrated only because I had challenges; I wanted to be celebrated because I survived the challenges. Stella Bowen, Alice Neel, Margaret Watkins, Vivian Maier, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Smart and others succeeded in leaving the world a significant creative legacy. As artists, it was their efforts to maintain or revive an artistic practice while struggling that became the story I wanted to be part of­­.

Women in love offer to the world our inner gifts, seeking companions to share mutual regard
and recognition – a communion of souls that will sustain and abide. ~ bell hooks

As a mother and wife in a loving relationship, I took great pride in raising my children and supporting my husband. I felt useful when I made lunches, did laundry and soothed hurt feelings, bumps and bruises, entertained friends and family. In between my domestic chores and work obligations, I carved out time to write. I took up weaving. Still there was something missing that I could not name; I wanted to be a “good” mother and a “good” wife; a “good” daughter and a “good” friend. In hindsight I see now that I was responding not so much to what others were expecting of me, but much more to what I was expecting of myself. I was living some of the messages I had received in my formative years; messages such as: Children need their mother at home. Art is a hobby, not a vocation. A person cannot do two things well.

By choosing to let my family/domestic obligations take a front seat, I denied myself the time to truly focus on an artistic practice. I was too easily distracted from the dedication and focus required to be an artist when I thought that the people I loved were counting on me. What I discovered in the stories was that the breaks in concentration, that Stravinsky was so fearful of, were common occurrences in the lives of these women. A friend called this experience Artist Interruptus. At first, I thought Stravinsky was being selfish, expecting his wife to take care of all the domestic responsibilities while he created. But of course, we can never know the true story. Traditionally lunch was the main meal of the day. Perhaps Stravinsky was away a lot and Mrs. Stravinsky wanted him to see the children. Perhaps this was a marital compromise. Perhaps Stravinsky was teaching his children about the sacredness of creative process by demanding silence. Perhaps he was giving them, and me, a great gift. Perhaps I could learn from Stravinsky by requesting the space and time I needed to be creative, without feeling guilty, without regret.

[i] Bowen, S. (1941, 1984). Drawn from life. London: Virago. Pg. 68

[ii] Ibid. Pg. 160

[iii] hooks, b. (2002). Communion: The female search for love. New York: W. Morrow. Pg. 121

Give thanks

The Oatmeal Meditation

Over the last three weeks my life changed dramatically. In this short space of time I signed a contract for a new job 711 km (441.795 miles) from home. I drove to the new town and found an apartment; I drove back home and packed up a carload of clothes and provisions; I drove back to my new town, moved in to the apartment and started the new job in 24 hours. And I pretty much cried through the whole experience.

I was sad to be leaving my beloved home and friends and my husband who has his own great job. I was sad to be leaving the beautiful countryside of Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the large rocks on our property that inspired my painting and grounded my soul for the past three years. I was moving to a new city and to a new BIG job and I felt like I was on a roller coaster. But as crazy as it all felt, it also felt clearly that I should not say “No” to the universe’s offer. So when the opportunity pulled up, I hopped in and said, “Let’s go.”

I try and meditate on a daily basis but when there is this much transformation and activity going on it becomes impossible to do my sitting practice. Inspired by a little list of Zen Things I found on the internet, I realized there was another way that I could centre, ground and nourish myself each morning. I call it The Oatmeal Meditation.

Every morning my husband and I ate a bowl of oatmeal and my usual morning routine was all about multitasking. I would get the pot boiling, stir in the oatmeal while I filled the bowls with oatmeal accessories, made the tea or coffee, checked my email, threw in a load of laundry, wrote in my journal or picked a daily tarot card, made my lunch. Far too often, I would forget the pot of oatmeal and save it just at the last second from being a pot of burned muck.

Recently, I begin to make the oatmeal and something compels me to stay with it. Instead of dashing about the kitchen, I decide to stay present to the pot of oatmeal. I pour the water into the pot and measure out the oatmeal. I turn up the burner and then I wait with the pot until the water boils. I pour in the small hard grains of steel cut oats, stir once, lower the heat and then remain present to the process of the oats becoming my morning nourishment. I notice how the small grains are tossed and tumbled in the water. I feel I am also being tossed around with new experience and new geography. I watch how the small grains do not resist the tumble; no they tumble and slowly absorb their new environment into themselves growing fuller and softer as they do. I notice how many times I resist the urge to do something else.

I watch as the water and oats merge and become thick. I watch each new bubble slowly come to the surface, fill and then release its steam. I think of how often I don’t release, how I hold onto the steam of my thoughts, allowing them to fill more and more with judgement and concern. I practice letting my thoughts become the bubbles of oatmeal, releasing them into the air, each pop giving my mind and my heart space to just be.

Occasionally I stir the pot or lower the heat but for most of the 20 minutes it takes for the oatmeal to be ready I just stand, staying present to the process that becomes my breakfast.

I pride myself in my ability to multitask, and society rewards those of us that do. But by doing too much, too fast, we become disconnected from the little moments that make up our lives. If we do not stop, now and again, to be present to some of the infinite moments in our day, we run the risk of missing our life altogether. The city is bustling; I am learning a new job and meeting new people. The Oatmeal Meditation gives me an opportunity to slow down, to look and to give thanks. I notice the reflection of the window on the apartment wall and give thanks. I hear the hum of the refrigerator and I give thanks. I reply to the friends who email from home and wish me well and I give thanks. I embrace the Skype calls that connect me to my husband and I give thanks. I am touched by the generous welcome from my new co-workers and I give thanks. And I taste the delicious bowl of oatmeal filled with berries and nuts, honey and cinnamon, and I give thanks.

Our Puny Bones

Wonder

Our Puny Bones 2014, acrylic, mixed media on canvas, 36″ x 48″

This painting, among others, was inspired by poet/geologist Susan Ioannou who writes, “We are all part of a grand continuum. Further up the scale, Earth is a massive version of ourselves, running on macro time. It shifts, opens, breathes fire, and flows…. At the subatomic level, differences dissolve. In a universe of particle-waves, a mountain is as insubstantial as a blink.” *

Why
by Susan Ioannou

Why fondle a rock?
It shares the rugged body
where we were born.

Our passionate shift and shove
mirror a moment
erupting in fire

slowed to eons’ crystalline trickle
thickening, building,
collapsing, melting.

Great ages echo and shiver,
playing themselves out
within our puny bones.

* Ioannou, S. (2007). Looking through stone: Poems about the earth. Sudbury, Ont: Your Scrivener Press. Kindle Edition (pg. 45)

Barbara would have ripped this up
pencil on paper

The Perfect Yesterday

Image: Annis Karpenko, 2014, Barbara Caruso would have ripped this up – pencil on paper

The Perfect Yesterday
For Nelson Ball and Barbara Caruso

I meandered through a stand
of perfect yesterdays
with Nelson and Barbara

and received a perfect yesterday
of my own

~ AK

*************************************

By appointment only.

The gentle voice at the other end of the line and I agree to meet the next day.

I arrive in Paris, Ontario to meet renowned Canadian poet, Nelson Ball, in hopes of talking about his late wife, the should-be-renowned painter, Barbara Caruso. I had devoured Caruso’s three books: Wording the Silent Art (2001), The Painter’s Journey Vol. I – 1966 – 1973 (2005) and Vol. II – 1974 – 1979 (2008) and in them I found an inspiring portrait of an artist’s life – one filled with experimentation, creation, discovery, and frustration.

A few weeks ago, it was Caruso’s description of a series of drawings she created with stencil and pencil that inspired me to try my own hand at her process. I cut a stencil with three shapes and drew lines to create form. (see Noticing) But there were no images in Caruso’s books and I hoped her husband would have some of her work about so I could actually see what it was she was doing.

Nelson Ball graciously greets me at the door of the building he and Caruso bought in 1985. He embodies great kindness and knows why I have come even before I tell him. We sit for a spell and talk. Caruso passed away in 2009 and he has no books with photographs of her work but he generously brings me to a room on the main floor where I am able to see an original of the stencil series. Ah…I see now.  She layers the forms over one another – not beside each other as I had done. Her lines are meticulously spaced. Ball tells me if her lines ever crossed or a space in the shape became too dark, she tore up the work to begin again. Her lines are magnificent; uniform, criss-crossing to create the most intricate grids in form.

Ball takes me to another room to see slides of Caruso’s Colour Lock series. She describes this series vividly in Wording the Silent Art. Today, with digital photography, we forget the time when painters had to hire photographers to get slides prepared to send to museums, galleries and competitions for review. From her writing I expect the lines in the Colour Lock series to be straight but from the slides I can see that they are not. They are wobbly and reactive to the forms beside them, creating a kinetic relationship of colour and form. Caruso’s colours are rich and unique. As I read her book, I marvel at how she mixes them with alchemic precision. While she does her best to capture the process in words, seeing her work, even in these small slides, takes her wording to a new level. “It was bp* and I who encouraged her to write,” Ball shares. He and Caruso were married for 44 years and in the dedication of his new online chapbook, The Rattle of Spring Frogs, he writes, “To the memory of my wife and soulmate, artist and writer Barbara Caruso who died in 2009. Barbara was the first reader of my poems and I the first viewer and reader of her paintings, drawings and writings. I miss her.”

I notice a small frame on Ball’s desk. In it are two small photographs of Caruso and Ball. I immediately know it is their passport pictures from a trip they made to Europe when they had both received grants to study there. It was a special time for the young couple and Caruso included details of this trip in her journal. Ball tells me Caruso worked as hard at her writing as she did her painting. She wrote, revised and edited extensively. From her books, I know she put at least that much effort into her painting and it often left her feeling overwhelmed. I ask Ball which of her practices, writing or painting, frustrated her the most. “Painting,” he says.

Ball invites me up to the second floor to visit her studio; no small effort for a man suffering with emphysema. It is a privilege, a magical moment, to stand in her space. Her office is filled with her books, files, papers and notes. Down the hall of this old building there are other rooms with racks of framed and rolled canvases. These racks are just one more testament to their creative marriage. Caruso meticulously designed them and Ball built them for her. I notice how the background colour of each work spills over to the sides of each canvas giving the impression of a row of large multicoloured book spines. I am spellbound by the smaller series of drawings and colour paintings that line the walls. And in her office, I can’t help but notice the invitations to shows by artists Guido Molinari and Yves Gaucher tacked to her bulletin board. Both were abstract artists working during the same period as Caruso and each invitation depicts a similar style of color and form, but as men, Molinari and Gaucher received a level of attention and recognition that eluded Caruso. The art world is tough but especially for women. Caruso wrote of her frustration in being overlooked by Toronto galleries time and again and it is so evident that this disregard was for no other reason than her gender. Ball hopes that her magnificent body of work (1000 paintings, 1500 drawings and approximately 100 prints) will find a permanent home before he can no longer care for it. I hope for that too.

Perhaps because of Caruso’s illness or other obligations, eight years passed before Ball got back to his own work – poetry. In 2012, his collection titled In This Thin Rain was published to critical acclaim. Ottawa poet Michael Dennis writes, “You don’t so much read a Nelson Ball Book as inhale it… Reading Nelson Ball is like drinking cool, clear, fresh water on a hot day.  Refreshing and necessary.” This past year, Ball tells me, he has written more than ever and he is very pleased. Along with the online Rattle of the Spring Frogs, this past February his beautiful chapbook titled Minutiae was published by Apt. 9 Press. It is a gorgeous collection of small, precise, wise details of experience and the natural world.  A sweet pen and ink portrait of Ball  that Caruso drew in 1966 adorns the cover. It is clear that even death can not part this beautiful creative collaboration.

TALK
To Barbara in absentia 

Barbara
you talked a lot

now
you are gone

you
continue

speaking
to me

but not
nearly enough

~ Nelson Ball, from Minutiae

* Canadian poet bpnichol was a close friend and collaborator of Nelson Ball and Barbara Caruso.

Bound Unbound

Noticing

I was inspired by the words of Canadian artist Barbara Caruso  (1939 – 2009) this week. Caruso spent her career investigating and conquering what she called colour phenomena, line and form. She is perhaps best known for her large canvas Colour Lock series and her writing. Between 1966 and 1979, Caruso journaled about her practice and life as an artist living in Toronto in A Painter’s Journey Volume I and Volume II and to my mind, there is no better account of the ins and outs, ups and downs of choosing a creative career.

My favorite Caruso book is Wording the Silent Art  and it was there that I read about a series of drawings Caruso began in 1973 . Caruso was interested in line as measure. She began by making a stencil of different size shapes and began drawing the shapes over each other until the page was filled with lines. “Draw a line, the space of the page is interrupted by it, acting with and against it and a dialogue begins.” (p110) Ever experimental, Caruso played with her lines. Some shapes were drawn with one continuous line; others with a series of single lines, “each drawing [becoming] a new event.” (p111)  Caruso’s series was created with graphite pencil but I chose watercolor pencil for mine so I could experiment with shadow and smudge.  In each of our drawings, I think “the elements configure and reveal necessity; fundamental realities unfold. All this is visible for the conscious eye.” (p163)

Image: Bound/Unbound – watercolor pencil on paper by Annis Karpenko

LINKS

Discovering the art of Barbara Caruso
A Painter’s palette in prose

All images and content © Annis Karpenko
Contact: annis at minervalake.com

Dawn
acrylic, butterfly on canvas 24" x 30"

Poem

I went off in search
of me and myself
by doing and thinking
and creating and loving
and hoping and dreaming and being.

And I found there is
activity in not doing, and
thought in not thinking, and
creation in not creating, and
love in not loving, and
hope in not hoping, and
dreams in not dreaming and
I AM by not being.

Once I stopped searching,
I discovered everything.

Annis Karpenko
March 2008

Image: Dawn – Girl with Butterfly, acrylic and butterfly on canvas 24″ x 30″

All images and content © Annis Karpenko
Contact: annis at minervalake.com