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Archive for February, 2009

When you hit middle age, how you face change can become a dilemma. Either you decide to accept every change that comes along in an effort to feel that you are still part of the mainstream in our youth-oriented culture, or else you reject every change as something dangerous that should be denigrated at every turn. Only a few seem to find an alternative to these reactions.

The reasons for this dilemma are not hard to see. As most people age, they start to associate change with decay and, ultimately, with death. It becomes something to deny, either by taking on the mannerisms of someone half your age, or by denouncing it.

The trouble is, neither of the usual two reactions is very satisfying. Nothing is more undignified or embarrassing as a middle-aged person trying to pretend that they are young. A fifty year old woman who tries to dress as a teenager risks being ridiculous, because they don’t have the body of a teenager. The same is true of a fifty year old man who tries to keep up physically with a twenty year old.

Similarly, if either tries to keep up to date on the latest music or Internet fad, they risk acting like an over-aged puppy pathetically trying to please. The fact is, youth culture is not something you are expected to understand or belong to when you’re middle-aged – one of the whole purposes of youth culture is establish an identity that’s different from that of the middle-aged.

By contrast, by rejecting the culture of your generation, you risk losing your own roots for the shallowness of a wannabe who can never belong. You might as well apply to a club whose entire purpose is to blacklist you.

The trouble is, going to the opposite extreme and denying the value of everything new is no better. By doing so, you only increase the impression that you are out of touch (which most people younger than you tend to believe anyway).

Just as importantly, you risk missing new things that you might otherwise appreciate. All that lies behind the elderly curmudgeon is a constant, unending complaint that the world has changed since you first became an adult, and you don’t like it. That is a petty and small-minded attitude for anyone around you to endure; you can see it almost any day in The Globe and Mail, which on subjects such as Facebook or file-sharing often gives the impression of being written by embittered seventy-five year olds for seventy-five year olds.

All the same, pursuit or rejection are by far the most common ways that the middle-aged respond to their growing perception of the unavoidability of change. It takes tremendous sense of structure to resist either response and simply have faith in your own taste, accepting the changes that suit your taste and rejecting those that do no, and fostering a tolerance for other people’s preferences. Yet, considering that the alternative is either to be ridiculous or unpleasant, it seems the only acceptable alternative.

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I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tagged me for the “25 Random Facts” craze that’s sweeping the blogosphere (Hi, cdlu!). My first reaction was to admire Linus Torvalds’ response:

1. I get bored very easily.

and wish that I’d thought of that reply first, or something equally witty.

But then I started to be intrigued by the idea and decided to participate after all. So, here goes:

1. If my shins were in the proper proportion, I’d be over six feet tall. Since they’re not, I have a long torso and short legs, and fall on the short side of average.

2. I have exercised almost daily since I was nine years old. For years, I favored running, but in the last three years, I’ve expanded into swimming and an exercise bike to buy my knees a few extra years of use.

3. I regularly pass for younger than my age. This is a mixed blessing at times.

4. For several decades, I have lived with one or more Nanday conures, a type of small South American parrot. Currently we have four, including a mated pair and one of their offspring.

5. Our Nandays are jealous of the telephone. For this reason, when telemarketers phone, I like to stand close to their cages so the person on the other line can hear then screech. The phone really amplifies the sound, and tends to make conversations short.

6. I have a passionate interest in collecting Northwest Coast Art. In fact, I consider it the only modern art form that is consistently interesting.

7. Four years ago, I gave up coffee and all forms of caffeine, including chocolate, because I had become hyper-sensitive to it. One sip of coffee could wire me for almost twelve hours. Fortunately, what I really like is hot drinks, so the sacrifice doesn’t amount to much, except for shedding the false sense of urgency that caffeine leaves you with.

8. I have never owned a credit card, because the temptation is too strong. This is probably the main reason that I have never been in debt.

9. I am a confirmed free and open source software (FOSS) supporter. I use GNU/Linux on my computers, and only see Windows about once every six months or so – which is far too often. Part of my reason for this belief is that I earn my living by writing about FOSS, but I would use it even if I didn’t.

10. I have been a busboy, a warehouse worker, a bookstore clerk, a teaching assistant, a sessional instructor, a technical writer, a marketing and communications consultant, and a freelance journalist. People who write are supposed to have varied careers, so I’m trying to do my bit.

11. My preferred music is folk with a beat and intelligent lyrics. That means I tend to listen to all sorts of people you’ve probably never heard of, such as OysterBand and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Possibly, you’ve heard of The Pogues, though.

12 I came out of the dot-com crash with 65,000 worthless stock options in defunct companies.

13. I once helped to run a brass rubbing booth for four summer weekends at a Renaissance Faire.

14. I read mostly science fiction, 19th century novels, history, and biography. But I’ve been known to read almost anything if the plot is right.

15. On a regular basis, my life turns surreal. For instance, once when we asked friends in Berkeley if we could crash with them, the reply was, “All right, but you’ll have to sleep in the dojo with six witches from Denver.” The reply sounds like the start of a dirty joke, but it was perfectly true.

16. I am not a foodie, but I have several dishes that I am especially proud of, including buttered chicken, sweet potato pie, rissotto, lasagna, spanakopita, and saganaki.

17. I find groups of all men or all women equally crass. I firmly believe that each gender needs the other to civilize it.

18. The only thing I am worse at than being in charge of someone is taking orders. That’s why I’m a freelancer.

19 .I am probably far too polite for my own good. This politeness makes people surprised when I get angry.

20. Although I work from home and generally work alone, I am not particularly an introvert. Nor am I an extrovert. I like socializing, and I like being by myself.

21. I despise watching sports, although I have always liked participating in them. I regularly break up a sports discussion with questions like, “Oh? Vancouver has a hockey team?”

22. I did not attend my high school graduation. I have had the occasional regret in the years since, but attending my first high school reunion a few years ago convinces me that I didn’t miss much.

23. My master’s thesis became the definitive study of the American fantasist Fritz Leiber. One of these days, I need to finish editing his letters to his oldest friend.

24. There are several things about me that I have no intention of mentioning here.

25.This is one of them.

There. I don’t think I’ll tag anyone,though. One of the facts I didn’t mention is that I can be lazy about little things.

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The Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace teaches not only design and carving, but also the business of being an artist. For this reason, its program includes several school shows. A few weeks ago, when I heard that the mid-term show was being held, my Internet acquaintance John Wilson said he would take some pictures for me.

I expected maybe half a dozen pictures. Instead, he sent fifty, covering most of the show and giving me a preview of the next generation of Northwest Coast artists, at least so far as sketches and paintings go.

The presentation of some of the works left something to be desired (unless, of course, you think brown parcel paper or cardboard makes a good matting), but I hardly noticed such shortcomings. Since I am just learning some of the fine points of formline and other elements of Northwest Coast design – strictly from an enthusiast’s viewpoint – I’ve had many pleasurable hours over the last few weeks pouring over the photos.

I can’t hope to mention every picture I looked at. In particular, I won’t mention John Wilson’s contributions, since I’ve blogged about his work in some detail before. However, when I narrowed them down to eight or nine, I found that I was consistently picking the same three or four artists – one of whom I already knew, and the rest of whom were new to me.

One of the pictures that stood out for me was Charles Wesley’s double whale. I am always partial to split designs, and this one caught my eye immediately, with its symmetry of lines and color. The formlines on the top of the body of the whales might be a little thick, especially at the shoulders where they meet the bottom formline, but the thickness does give a boldness to the design. Elsewhere, though, the junction of formlines is neatly minimized – especially where the bodies meet the tail. Moreover, the u-shapes between the heads and shoulders and the matching red and black designs on the body and outside it show the attention to detail of a true perfectionist.

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By contrast, Latham Mack’s killer-whale uses a different perspective, showing its subject head-on in a style that is more common to carving that two-dimensions, and that seems to flatten the snout . In this piece, the formlines are so thick that the design could easily have been a disaster, but mack manages to pull them off with lots of tapering and white space. at the joins I like, too, the way that the design is framed by ovoids, and similar shapes are re-used in slightly different positions throughout. Another interesting element is the way that the design on the fin suggests a hat with a potlatch ring, a detail that suggests both chieftainship and transformation.

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Another artist whose work caught my eye is Todd Stephens, who had several works in the show, including a beaver and a simple mask. What appeals to me is the elegant simplicity of his designs. For instance, on Stephen’s beaver, the formlline becomes the arms. Stephens also consistently minimizes the thickness of merging formlines, inserting spaces and spacers to control them. All these formlines nearing but only touching at a point or two give a realistic restlessness to the beaver, adding up to more than what Bill Reid called “the obligatory Canadian content.”

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As for Stephen’s mask, it is interesting for being more a sketch of a mask than a two-dimensional face and for its inversion of the primary colors. Add the simplicity, and the result is a surprisingly contemporary look.

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But perhaps the most interesting pieces in the show were by Shawn Aster, a young artist from whom I’ve already commissioned a painting, but whose show pieces I picked out without knowing who did them. Aster has several pieces in the show, but two in particular are strikingly original. The wolf seems almost archaic in its design (look at the teeth and the body decorations) while having enough traditional elements to place it squarely within the northern tradition. The spikiness in the design, which suggests fur, and the spirit in the tail, as well as the posture, which seems a mixture of a howl and a crouching to spring are other details I appreciate.

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Aster’s conjoined birds are equally intriguing. The compression of the elements into the overall shape brings the already abstract elements of Northwest Coast design to an even greater level of abstraction. Meanwhile, the contrast between the serenity of the birds’ faces and the tormented, imprisoned figure between them adds another element of interest to the composition. Considering the timing of the show and the overall shape, I suppose you could consider this a Valentine’s Day design, with the central figure representing the strain of two people in a relationship – but, no matter how you interpret this design, it is one of the standouts of the show.

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Some of these artists I hope to buy a painting or two from. Others I plan to keep an eye on. John Wilson tells me that another show is planned for the end of term in April, and I can only hope to get a remote viewing of it as well.

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In the last six months, a free Saturday or Sunday afternoon will likely find me down at a Northwest Coast art gallery. For me, it’s a pleasure that ranks with a good book or music store.

In fact, in one particular sense, an art gallery has an advantage over a book or music store. In a music store, you are lucky to get a quick sampling of an album if you get one at all; usually, if you want to listen before you buy, you have to do so via your own home Internet connection. A book store is much better, but, even so, reading more than a few pages will quickly make you unwelcome.

By contrast, at a gallery you are expected to give pieces a careful look. So long as you don’t touch anything without an invitation, few staff members in a gallery are going to mind if you examine piece after piece for a long time. After all, nobody expects you to drop a few thousand dollars on a mask or print without making up your mind. Paradoxically, because you are surrounded by expensive items, nobody expects you to be in a hurry to spend.

This attitude has the advantage of making your browsing session inexpensive nine times out of ten (the tenth time, admittedly, you are apt to find yourself putting down the cash that would buy dozens of books or albums, or talking about lay away plans). But unless the lust to acquire hits you, usually you can stand and admire a formline or the use of color for hours and not spend a cent.

To some extent, of course, you can browse online. But online, you miss many of the details, and your opinion of a piece can change drastically depending on whether you see it online or up close. Moreover, even the most conscientious galleries do not always have all their stock online, so you never know what you might see when you actually visit. Once or twice, I’ve even seen new pieces that have just arrived.

Art galleries are businesses, and, sooner or later, a staff member may ask if you need help, the same as in any other store. But while someone selling music or books is likely working at minimum wage and has a corresponding minimal interest in what they are selling unless they work in a small specialty store, most members of a gallery staff are only too pleased to talk art, too. If you are a novice, many are happy to educate you. If you have deeper knowledge, most are just as willing to share their enthusiasms with you. After all, they are interested in the art as well, and, while they have more to do than deal with customers, on the weekends gallery staff members expect to be busy with customers. And, because they know that most people don’t buy lightly, they are quite willing to cultivate customers to encourage another visit.

For these reasons, you have a good chance of combining aesthetic pleasure with a bit of education – or even some friendly gossip about various artists and an informal sociology lesson. If you keep returning, before long, you may have struck up something that is not quite a friendship (since, after all, money is ultimately the basis of the relationship), but is certainly a friendly acquaintance or professional relationship. In fact, of half a dozen galleries which I visit with any regularity, there is only one in which the staff is unfriendly – and, not coincidentally, it’s the gallery that I visit least, enjoy least, and have not bought from.

Best of all, though, is the time you take to enjoy the art itself. Northwest Coast art has its banalities of form and its mediocre artists, just like any other art form, but the standards of craft tend to be higher than in most forms of modern art. Even if a piece doesn’t make me want to buy, I can still learn from it, if only by trying to codify why it succeeds.

And when a piece does succeed – well, I am simply lighter of heart for seeing it. I don’t have to possess it (and good thing, too, since some of the best pieces are well beyond my price range); I am simply happier with being alive for having had the privilege of seeing the really first-rate.

The modern world, it seems to me, does little to encourage the cultivation of aesthetic emotions. Even much modern art is so tangled in consumerism and posturing that aestheticism is often ignored, if not actually ridiculed. But such attitudes have never completely taken hold in Northwest Coast art, perhaps because it is still partly rooted in culture and tradition, no matter how innovative it becomes. All I know for sure is that I come away from an afternoon at the Northwest Coast galleries feeling subtly relaxed, and never regretting the time I spend indulging my aesthetic senses.

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For some reason, writers in late middle age feel compelled to denigrate Facebook. The Globe and Mail seems particularly insistent, and hardly a week goes by without at least one of its columnists going on at length about how shallow Facebook friendships are or how trivial the quizzes and games often are. I’ve always thought that such rants are part of the general complaint that the world has changed since the late middle-aged were young; although I agree that Facebook is superficial, I’ve found it a useful way to maintain some business and hobby contacts. But, recently, I have had direct experience of another reason to appreciate Facebook: as an organizing tool for social action.

My newfound appreciation started at the end of January, when I stopped by the Edzerza Gallery while on a wander to celebrate having finished my work for the month. There, I struck up a conversation with carver Morgan Green, who told me about the trouble she and her father and the rest of his apprentices were having over their use of the carving shed at the Museum of Northern British Columbia.
After listening, I spoke fifteen fateful words: “Why don’t you start a Facebook group? Facebook has got to be good for something.”

That night, Morgan started the group “Expression not oppression” and issued invitations to all her Facebook friends to join. Within twenty-four hours, the group had two hundred members. It now has over 900 members, including prominent Northwest Coast artists such as Lyle Campbell, Ron Telek, and Ya’ Ya, and has become the focus for the discontent that many among the northern first nations feel about the museum and its curator and for the lack of respect that even prominent native artists sometimes face from the dominant culture and its bureaucracy.

Looking at what has happened, I like to joke that now I know what the pebble feels like when it starts the avalanche.

Even that, of course, is too much credit for me to claim. Apart from a few emails of support and my previous blog entry on the subject, I have really done very little, and nothing somebody else might not have been done. The truth is, the success of the group has everything to do with the carvers involved and their friends and family, and next to nothing to do with me. And that’s how it should be; I’m more than content to be part of the supporting crowd and leave the speaking roles to more suitable people.

However, because I was a bit of a catalyst, I have been following the growth of the group more than I might have done otherwise. And it strikes me that any tool that can help organize a community as quickly as Facebook did has more value than you might expect. Ninety-nine percept of everything that happens on Facebook may be shallow, but observing the “Expression not oppression” group has convinced me that the remaining one percent is powerful and more than enough to justify the rest of the activity.

Really, the late middle-agers have got hold of the wrong perspective – instead of insisting on the triviality of Facebook, they should be having a closer look at how it can be used to organize people. To me, any tool that has such a positive effect deserves to be taken seriously, not dismissed because it’s new and different.

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For a freelancer, complacency can mean loss of income. This is a lesson that freelancers can never hear too many times – and one that I apparently need repeated more than most. A few weeks after I blogged about how I had managed to replace the income I lost with the closing of Linux.com with other assignments, I found some of those assignments failing, and suddenly found myself scrambling to replace them.

Fortunately, the job-hunting skills I’d learned as a communications and marketing consultant soon paid off.

As before, basic survival wasn’t an issue. We had income for basic survival, and, since we own our townhouse and have never lived beyond our means, we had no worries about debt. All the same, the situation was disconcerting. I thought I’d solved the income problem.

The problem arose because of two clients. In the first case, the client had at first seemed willing to commit to two stories per week from me. However, after a few weeks, they confessed what I had already concluded from their actions: That they were unable or unwilling to take more than one story per week.

In the second cases, the editor forgot that they had agreed to take two stories from me in February, and budgeted the money instead for articles from other people. Since this was a short term arrangement, it wasn’t as important as the first one, but it was still the first time that an editor had reneged on me for any reason, so it came as a shock. For one thing, I rather liked the editor, and preferred to think well of them. For another, I had counted on having a month to figure out a replacement for that income. Coming on top of the other case and some personal bad news that I choose to keep private, it felt like one damned thing after another.

For a day or so, the situation got to me. I even went so far as to consider revising my resumes and looking for straight work. Despite the recession, the work for writers, editors, and instructors of my experience were plentiful in the Vancouver area, but it all seemed dull and routine compared to what I have accustomed to in the last four years.

Then common sense took me by the scruff of the neck. There were still plenty of outlets for free and open source software articles that I hadn’t got around to trying. I spent an afternoon on the Internet learning about the potential clients (something no freelancer or job-hunter should ever neglect), and prioritizing them according to how their needs compared with my areas of knowledge, the size of their audience (which is often found on pages for advertisers), and, where possible, how much they pay per article.

The next morning, I started phoning. I could have emailed, and my queries easier on my nerves, but, for serious business conversations, there’s still nothing as direct as a phone call. Hearing a voice is personal in a way that email or even chat isn’t, which makes a phone call a way to distinguish yourself from anyone else and have yourself remembered.

To my surprise, I appear to have been lucky the first time out. Details are still being worked out, but I expect to be doing an online blog and a print column, as well as contributing other articles.

You’ll have to imagine me dancing around my living room and pumping my fist in the air (or maybe you shouldn’t; it isn’t a pretty site).
But, while I’m glad of the respite, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I can’t say that I don’t make the same mistake twice, but I hope to say that I won’t make it three times. I still have other a prioritized list of markets (something I should have readied a long time ago), and, if any other client disappears on me, I’m ready to find replacements.

Given the current economic conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll have a use for that list again in the next few months. But, so far, I can still repeat what I said in my earlier post: Freelancers are better equipped to survive the recession than most – and should generally survive better.

Now, though, I would add: A few job-hunting skills don’t hurt, either.

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John Wilson, who describes his work as “contemporary Haisla,” has only been selling his work for a few years. And, so far, he has confined himself largely to portrait masks, although he has also done drums and some graphics worth releasing as limited edition prints. I consider his “Blue Hand Mask” (which should actually be read as “Blue, Hand Mask”) an accomplished example of the portrait genre, and am pleased to add it to our collection.

If you have read Bill Holm’s An Analysis of Form, you will immediately identify the “Blue Face Mask” as being in the northern style: although the nostrils and lips are painted solidly, the hand and the spirit-helper on the left temple cut across the facial features. In fact, you cannot tell where the spirit-helper ends and the eyebrow begins – that is, what is natural and what is painted, or what is mundane and what is supernatural. Also typical of the northern style is the predominance of black, followed by red.

What is less typical is the band of blue. Cutting across the eye socket and eyelid, the band is an unusual shade. It has the effect of drawing your glance to the blackness of the pupils, giving a sense of fierceness or determination.

The painted hand is a visual pun. It has an umbilical-like connection to the spirit-helper that runs below the chin and up the left cheek. In other words, the spirit-helper is literally lending a hand. And, just to reinforce the pun, the obvious thumb shows that it is a left hand, originating on the same side as the spirit-helper.

One of the things that makes this mask stand out is the sheer skill of carving. Unlike many carvers early in their career, Wilson thinks in planes. That means he is working with the wood, rather than against it. At the same time, the mask is closer to realism than a strictly traditional piece in such features as the chin, the eye sockets, and eyes – which is what makes the mask contemporary.

Another outstanding feature of the mask is the way that Wilson has carved and sanded down to the grain that is suitable in different parts of the face. On the forehead, the ridges of grain meet almost in the center, while on the left cheek, the concentric circles of the grain emphasize the plane of the cheek bone. Even more interestingly, beneath the eyes are what might almost be reflections of them in the grain. Some bits of this attention to the grain are lost beneath the paint, but, because the paint is minimized, much of it remains visible.

Portrait masks are an easy genre to under-estimate. They lack the exoticness of a mythological theme or a stylized animal that many people seem to want in Northwest Coast art. But, if you look closely at the best examples of them, like the “Blue Hand Mask,” then you can start to appreciate them as a genre in which artists are thrown back entirely on their own skill. You can also understand why I think that John Wilson is an artist who is likely to make a name for himself.
low-res-blue-hand-mask

(Note: Somebody should explain to galleries that, when shipping masks with hair, they need to make some effort to keep the hair from getting tangled. As you can see, I am still trying to straighten out the hair)

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