An application for an artist in residence program has put me in a contemplative mood. I hope you’ll bear with me, as this is a longer post than usual: it’s an account of an outdoor project I undertook some years ago. I learned so much from it that I wanted to capture all of the lessons in one document. I hope I’ve done a decent job.
PICTURE PERFECT: Or, What I learned at school this year (2012-2013)
We have been living in North Vancouver since October, 2010. We chose Lynn Valley because it looked like a good neighbourhood for children. I didn’t know anybody here, but the mountain views, small town feeling and spectacular natural beauty were very persuasive, as was the French Immersion program at Ross Road Elementary – two blocks from home.
When Ben (7) started school, I met the environment club parents in the school garden. The group’s goal was to help children develop a good relationship with their natural environment and to understand the processes involved in feeding a population: growing food, tending the garden and taking leading roles in the stewardship of outdoor spaces at school.
Growing boxes were being built for the Edible Garden – where the children would plant, water, observe and harvest food. The children had named various sections of the school property, and these names were posted on signs tucked away among the brambles, bushes and compost bins.
Butterfly Bay. Log Lane. Spooky Island.
I showed the volunteers my art portfolio and they asked me to paint a mural representing the school grounds. The property includes three playgrounds, a soccer field, and wooded areas. It backs onto a set of wooden stairs leading down to a creek, in a forest ravine.
My canvas was to be an 80 sq ft wooden board, one of several that form an enclosure in a covered area of the playground.
I was given a landscape architect’s drawing of the area and asked to put it on the board.
Butterfly Bay. Log Lane. Spooky Island.
This is where the children play. These tunnels and hideaways among the bushes are their palaces. This is where they belong and it belongs to them. As Ben made his way through Kindergarten, we spent hours running through those tunnels playing hide and seek. Ben learned to climb trees here and made up names for his own places, with his new friends.
On my first day painting in late 2012, one of the environment club parents took charge of Ben’s little brother, Joel (now 4). She walked him to the river, talking to him about the fish and watching a heron as it flew over the scshool.
In 2013, I started working on trees, adding colour and bold outlines. I added detail to the bridge, cleaned up the lettering and added more landmarks. I painted in the bear-proof garbage cans with a message. Please use the garbage. Thank you, Merci! The children in French Immersion helped me spell déchets.
Children gathered around me as I worked. As they talked, I wrote their words on the mural. This is where we released the salmon fry in Mr Prentice’s class! And This is where we released the butterflies.
Then I added, Do you remember the heron? I painted in some monkey bars at the playground and painted Ben swinging on them.
I added bats and a spider at Spooky Island and a dotted line from the sign saying WOODLAND WALK. I painted in squirrels, a crow on the school roof and a Stellar’s Jay. I love it when the jays come through in the fall, said another mom, as she kept Joel company. I put her words on the board. Do you hear the chicka-dee-dee-dee?
The school plays classical music first thing in the morning. As my hands got colder and the rain fell behind me I enjoyed the strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Spring. It gave me the idea to paint the four seasons onto the mural. Snowflakes, falling leaves, pumpkins in the garden, slugs on the fence.
One day, Joel put some toys down in the playground and they disappeared. The next day, one of Ben’s friends gave Joel some of his own toys as replacements. I took Joel to say thank you and took part in a classroom conversation about kindness.
The kids gathered around at recess to watch me paint. Three girls sang FIREWORK by Katy Perry, giving it all they’d got. The children asked time and again, Did you paint this whole thing? They leafed through my sketchbook. They talked about how much they loved art. They told me about the people they knew who were great artists. They asked me how I had come to do this work, how I became an artist, what the pictures in my sketchbook were for.
They offered feedback, suggested improvements, counted the rocks, the fish, the squirrels, and laughed when they found the banana slugs.
But now it is time to rest. We live in Canada’s wettest province, in the wettest part of the rainiest city. At seven degrees and with the mist rolling down our hilly street, I have washed my brushes and put them away for the season. I will return in the spring to add more people, raccoons, squirrels, an eagle and more bugs… but for now: hibernation.
What I have painted does look a little bit like what went on that original bit of paper. But being about 80 square foot, it also includes a whole lot else besides. I stand in front of it, worrying that the style is inconsistent and the whole work hurried; that the lettering is messy; the lines aren’t crisp, the brush marks are too obvious.
Jack’s dad is an artist. He finds me looking at my work and teases me for being self-critical and reminds me that visible brush strokes are regarded as a “painterly style.”
But as the sky turns an eggshell blue and the mountains become hazy, swathed in mist, I step away… further and further. I reflect that my goals have been met, that I have achieved what I expected to, even if it’s not “perfect.” Even if I was painting with a two year-old climbing my pant leg, had picked the wrong colours and clumpy brushes, or didn’t step back enough to check on my work.
And as my backward steps become longer, I see that this has been a much richer, complex, satisfying and educational experience than I ever imagined. And of course, it’s about a lot more than form or content. It’s about context, it’s about community – about humanity – it’s about that most basic of human needs: to declare, we are here, and this is our place.
Sure, I’ve learned how to plan and execute a large piece of art. I’ve learned how dew forms on a piece of painted plywood in the early morning and how paint adheres (or doesn’t) in different weather conditions. I’ve learned to paint while standing on a stepladder with a two year old between my ankles. I’ve learned how to mix colours, applying them in straight strokes that are bold and dark, or make quick dabs that are delicate, staccato.
I’ve learned to recognize the citizens of this school community – the staff, the children, the parents and caregivers; I’ve stood among the chickadees and hummingbirds, the flickers, dragonflies, crows and the ravens. I’ve been inspired all of them, as I work.
I’ve learned that there is no such thing as abstract perfection, when you are creating art for a community that is now your community. When the art matters to the children, confirming and re-affirming their perceptions of the world – Butterfly Bay, Log Lane and Spooky Island.
When we moved here, I hoped that we would be able to build strong connections with our neighbours and find good friends through the school network. I wanted to belong to something, to forge strong connections and give our two sons the feeling of being rooted somewhere safe and permanent.
And as I reflect on our process – as a community – of creating this mural, I find that I can set aside any thoughts about the smears or errors.
I remember what the children said as I painted, how they asked questions, gave feedback, sang songs, wanted to touch the art, picked places to play from the map; gave me the words to paint on it.
I realize how many children, how many teachers and parents I’ve met; I remember how much they care about art, about their school and their community. And how strong that feeling of belonging really is. This is their place.
And that, for me, is picture perfect.