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.

To Barbara in absentia 

you talked a lot

you are gone


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.