Monday, September 23, 2019

Hail To The Queen (of CanLIt)

Queen Margaret, of course


Photo by Tim Walker - source

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is everywhere these days, including the New York Times, and the Sunday Times (UK), which featured the fabulous photo above.  The publication of her 17th novel, The Testaments,  a sequel to her 1985 dystopian bestseller, The Handmaid's Tale, has made her the current media darling.   Never mind that she's also written 15 other novels, 8 books of short fiction, 15 books of poetry, 10 works of non-fiction, 2 graphic novels and 7 books for children.

When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to have an amazing English teacher, Mrs. Tiffin, who believed that Canadian writers were every bit as talented and engaging, if not as famous, as those from the United States.   Mrs. Tiffin had been Alice Munro's English teacher, (another much-loved and lauded Canadian author) when Munro attended the same high school in Wingham, Ontario, 30 years before me.  It was in Mrs. Tiffin's class that we were introduced to the writing of Margaret Lawrence, Timothy Findley, and Margaret Atwood.  Because I enjoyed English class the most of all my courses, and did well in it, I decided to make it my degree major when I attended University.  There I was able to take a class that focused on Canadian literature, and I remember discovering Margaret Atwood's poetry, including "The Journals of Susanna Moodie".  The poem that made the biggest impression on me is probably her shortest, but says everything about Atwood's wit and sensibility in only 4 lines:

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye 

It is still a favourite of mine, and for the early part of my adult life, pretty much summed up how I felt about relationships. 

I discovered a love for the writings of other Canadian authors, such as Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and the aforementioned Alice Munro, whose works still hold a place of honour on my bookshelves.  But I had never read a voice like Margaret Atwood's before.  "The Edible Woman" may not have been the easiest choice for my introduction to Atwood's novels; it was certainly one of the strangest books I had read up until that point in my life, but I was immediately drawn to the dark humour and surreal plotline.  As a budding young feminist, I liked that she centered her narratives around female characters who were trying to figure out their place in the world, and in their relationships with men, which was basically what I was trying to do at that point in my life.

That is indeed me in the photo above, wearing a beige sweater (!!??), getting my copy of Lady Oracle signed by Ms. Atwood when she visited Western University in the early 80's.

As I read more of Atwood's novels, my admiration of her grew and I became a true fangirl.   On one visit to Toronto in the 1980's, as I was walking down Queen Street West (which was the hip hangout for musicians, writers and other artists back then) and I spied  Atwood sitting at a table through the window of Le Select Bistro.  I wasn't planning on having lunch, but I marched right in there and got a table close to hers from where I proceeded to eavesdrop on her conversation while trying not to stare at her too much.  Unfortunately, I couldn't hear much of the conversation she was having with her lunch companion, but just being in such close proximity with one of my favourite authors was thrill enough.

At one point I have owned almost every book she has written, but through several purges of my bookshelf, I've whittled my collection down to the ones below.

I still have my pristine, first edition copy of The Handmaid's Tale, given to me as a gift by my then room mate.   In 1985 when it was published, critics reviews were mixed.   New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote the following:

" is a political tract deploring nuclear energy, environmental waste, and antifeminist attitudes
But it so much more than that - a taut thriller, a psychological study, a play on words. It has a sense of humor about itself, as well as an ambivalence toward even its worst villains, who aren't revealed as such until the very end. Best of all, it holds out the possibility of redemption. After all, the Handmaid is also a writer. She has written this book. She may have survived"

But it was also dismissed as "undistinguished" and "ordinary" in the same newspaper by writer Mary McCarthy:

“The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality. That must be why, collectively, it is powerless to scare.” 

Since that time The Handmaid's Tale has become a frequently studied classic of dystopian fiction, and in the era of Trump it has taken on a new cultural resonance.  It has been made into a film, and in 2017 was adapted into a Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss as the Handmaid Offred.  And now, Atwood has published a sequel, titled, The Testaments.  

What a difference 35 years make; the release of The Testaments was a literary event.  Atwood launched the book with a sold-out live event at London’s National Theater that was broadcast at around 1,000 cinemas around the world.  Fans lined up for blocks at the midnight of its release, the reviews have been uniformly positive, interviews with Atwood have appeared in every major media outlet (including a fantastic photo shoot with legendary British fashion photographer Tim Walker for the Sunday Times) and the novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  On a sad note, Ms. Atwood's longtime partner, author Graeme Gibson, passed away while accompanying Atwood on her current book tour.

Personally, I'm thrilled that Atwood is being treated like the Canadian Literary Queen she is - long may she reign.

Photo by Tim Walker - source

Sunday, July 21, 2019

What's Your Creative Legacy?

Some of you may remember that in January I participated in a two-week online creative challenge hosted by artist Brooke Shaden (you can read about it here).   I enjoyed it enough that when she advertised on her website that she was doing a Promoting Passion lecture tour, which had a stop in Vancouver during the time I would be there, I immediately signed up.  The tour was sponsored by Sony, which allowed for Shaden to set the early registration fee at a very affordable $50 (the registration fee later increased to $70). The brief description below is from the event materials:

"Focusing on intense community connection and inspiration to create more authentic and impactful art, the lecture tour will bring together artists to jumpstart their creative ambitions.  Lectures and workshops focus on how to live a passionate life by turning your passion into a career, how to create more meaningful art for yourself and others, how to find confidence in your craft, and more"

Upon first reading it sounds a bit intimidating, and I wondered if everyone else attending would be "serious" artists.  As it turned out, the majority of the 35 or so attendees were women in their 20's and 30's, and there were some for whom photography was a profession, others, a means of creative expression, and a few who didn't bring a camera with them at all. 

Shaden is a warm and encouraging person, and very generous with sharing the process behind her art.  She greeted each participant with a hug, which was a lovely way to start the day.  First up were a few group exercises that were designed to take us out of our comfort zone and connect with the other people in the room.   Have you ever stood a foot apart from a stranger, facing each other, and stared into each other's eyes for a full minute?  Until that point, I hadn't, and it's definitely not easy; I had to fight the urge to look away after about 30 seconds.

This was followed by a lecture from Shaden that addressed the topic of Legacy, and what stops us from leaving a creative legacy.  If "Legacy" is the message you want to leave behind, art is the messenger.  We examined the excuses we make to ourselves (and others) for not creating, and what is the narrative we tell ourselves about our creative abilities.  There was a lot of food for thought, and it encouraged some self-reflection on what I had to offer as an artist (or creative), and what words do I use to describe myself - are they positive and kind, or do I focus on comparison and fear of failure? She encouraged us to trust that what we had to offer was worthwhile, and pointed out that "believing you are insignificant is easy, as it takes away your autonomy and responsibility".

After lunch, and a talk by accomplished sports and lifestyle photographer Erin Hogue, came the hands-on part of the day. 

Brooke Shaden (left) and photographer Erin Hogue

We had two models to photograph; first up was Niki (wearing the white dress above), a plain backdrop, a book, and some loose pages.   Shaden set up the original idea, and we were encouraged to give posing suggestions.  It was challenging to jockey for a good shooting position with 30 other people but in the end, after a bit of editing at home, I ended up with the two photos below...

Then we moved on to the hotel pool, with model Chelsea.  Initially, Shaden got in the pool with her to hold a backdrop (you can see her head peeking out on the left), but that became unwieldy so after we all had a chance to get some shots she left Chelsea to her own devices.

Chelsea earned major kudos from us for her patience, and excellent posing skills, especially considering she was immersed in a pool while wearing in a long dress.

For this photo, all I did was alter the colour hue a bit

Shaden brought an old magnifying glass to use as a prop

I had fun playing with creative filters on photos of Chelsea floating in the middle of the pool

The two photos below were created using the "plastic" filter, and I liked the effect it has on the water.  It definitely made the photos look more like paintings, which I was very happy with.

It's said that "comparison is the thief of joy" so I'm kind of glad I haven't seen anyone else's photos from the day.   Initially I had hoped the event might provide an opportunity to make some connections with other creative people, but everyone seemed focussed on their own journey and less interested in networking.  Still,  it was a creatively fulfilling and inspiring day, and I came away with some photos I liked, and feeling motivated to spend more time on creative pursuits.   With so many terrible things that are happening in the world, in addition to the stress of our own lives,  it is important to not lose touch with our creative side, whether for you that means brainstorming new ways to re-cycle the glut of plastic that is choking our planet, sewing clothing for ourselves, creating stories to entertain our children, trying a new recipe, or taking a photo of your dog.  It's the thing that feeds our soul when the outside world asks too much of us, and gives back too little.

Monday, July 1, 2019


*If you haven't seen the show POSE (on FX) yet, it's brilliant*

One of the reasons I enjoy spending time with Melanie in Vancouver is that she loves playing with makeup, and dressing up, as much as I do.  We had planned to do a photo shoot at some point during my visit and on the Saturday we took advantage of the gorgeous weather and an low-traffic alley in her neighbourhood to channel our inner performance artist/model.  We had done a shoot together when I visited in 2016, the results of which you can see on my blog here.

My daily makeup routine consists of brow pencil and lipstick, so it's always fun to experiment using Melanie's extensive collection of products.  We go for lots of bold colour and more than a dash of whimsy. 

Mel's makeup - don't her eyes look huge!

I was inspired by a photo of Twiggy wearing "flower power" makeup on the cover of Vogue Magazine from 1967

We didn't confer about what we were going to wear but as it turned out, we were perfectly in sync with our silky, voluminous pieces.  We found a suitably grimy-but-not-stinky alley in her neighbourhood, set up the tripod and went to it.  Looking at these photos, I wish I would have had different shoes to wear (one can only pack so many pairs of shoes) so I encourage you to focus on the knees upwards.

I found this silk caftan/dress at The Sentimentalist and this was the first wearing.  It felt like wearing nothing and the fabric moved beautifully.  Reviewing the photos, I see a Japanese/Geisha influence in the poses, which I think was inspired by the shape of the dress and the makeup.

The breeze was an unplanned, but very welcome addition to the shoot, and provided great movement to the light fabrics we were both wearing.  I love this shot of Melanie and her "wings".

If we lived closer to each other, I know we would do more of this kind of thing.  I think we are serving excellent fashion editorial here.  Vogue, pay attention.

You can see the details of Melanie's makeup in this shot.  She is one of the most creative people in terms of her personal style and she inspires me to push myself further in the way I present myself in the shoots we do together.

While writing this post, I asked myself what it was that inspires me to do this, and what do I enjoy about it (aside from the obvious appeal of working on a creative project with a good friend).  Most women I know don't spend their spare time doing things like this (although I wonder how many of them would secretly like to).  I spent my childhood, and much of my young adult life, feeling very unhappy with my looks.  I was plain and mousy with buck teeth and glasses, and yearned for the  dramatic style of Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand.  Over the years, I've grown to accept, and on a good day, even like, the face I present to the world, it's only when I see myself in photos like these that I feel beautiful.  There is something about the exaggeration and artifice that I feel makes my face more interesting to look at.  Perhaps this is similar to what drag queens feel when they look in the mirror and see their fully made-up selves?  Perhaps I was a drag queen in another life?   This requires more time to fully address than I'm prepared to spend here, but definitely food for thought.

I played around with the highlights on this one and I rather like the effect

Melanie, caught in a perfect serious moment 

However, she can only be serious for so long...

It was obvious we were both getting a bit giddy, so, time to pack up and go for snacks!

Thank you Melanie, for being an excellent partner in creative crime.  You can see her first post about our adventures on her blog here.