Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Blame CBC

I know, I know, people don’t read anymore. Or do they?

I discovered the Stats tab on my blog template a few weeks ago and was surprised by the number of hits and the breadth of my audience. Since I began the Voices blog last October I’ve been using it as a tool for daily updates, striking a tone that suggested the majority of people reading were only 45 minutes away and might visit me on site the next day. Who new I’d have a readership across Canada, or the States let alone Europe, Australia, India, South Korea or Russia?

Given that many of you will never experience the project first hand I thought I should try to make it come alive for you here. I Blame CBC is my first shot at it—a response to one of the questions I’m asked after people discover I’m not a mannequin. 
If you’ve read the blog sidebar you have a sense of how I might reply to “What are you doing?” which is typically the first question, followed by  “Um...why?” or, “How did you ever end up doing this?”

It’s not a short answer.

The idea for the project evolved over a number of months. In the spring of 2009, I was working on a new body of work in preparation for a show opening that summer.  My studio sits in the heated half of a two-car garage, divided by a wall, so when I’m in production mode things are a pretty tight. Add to the equation the show I was preparing for was a 15-year survey show of my work. In addition to generating 70 new paintings and drawings, I was tweaking old pieces to make them exhibition ready. On the day I could no longer find a surface to put things I realized something had to give.

I keep all my stuff in my studio; anything that might be fodder for new work is organized on shelves or stored in wooden boxes or old suitcases. Boxes. They were the most vexing. The largest held a thirty-year accumulation of letters and journals, some I’d moved over ten times. I started there.

For those of you from ‘away’, CBC is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I listen to CBC Radio almost constantly when I’m in my studio so I can’t nail down the show I was listening to that nudged me towards this project.  A quote from the Japanese poet Masahide, “Now that my house has burnt down, I have a better view of the rising moon,” was just what I needed to put me in the right frame of mind to get rid of my volumes of old journals. After I’d read them all, I did.
Then came the letters. On breaks from painting and drawing I started to read. For fun, I sent a few back to old friends, but I couldn’t bring myself to shift any into the recycling bin. I hadn’t read them in years, yet I couldn’t part with them. A few days into the process of exhuming, reading and carefully placing the letters back into their box I knew I was going to have to do a project about letters. I put the lid back on the box, labeled a new file folder, “Letter Project” and got back to my painting.

Days, maybe weeks later, still working towards my show and again listening to CBC, I heard another snippet on the radio that stuck with me. The radio host was interviewing playwright, Brooke Johnson, who had used journals and old correspondence as fodder for her play, Trudeau Stories. Part way through their discussion the host lamented that “the serendipitous moment of finding and reading an old letter will be lost.” I put down my paint brush, opened my “Letter Project’ file and jotted down the words “film process of reading letters.”  

Fast forward to six months later, my show “Into the Living” had closed, the letter project was still swimming around in my head, and I was preparing for a smallish display of work in a storefront widow I had rented. The Eureka moment came while passing the shop one day when I remarked how lovely a window it was—just big enough to sit and work in, almost stage like. There I decided to forego the smallish display and convey the moment of finding and reading an old letter in a live performance in the window. The idea to extend a call for submissions of letters from others came soon after, followed by titles for the first few categories. Then came letters of the day, readings on request and email updates, and eventually blog postings, tweets and a Facebook presence.    

Voices at Hand debuted in Peterborough in October 2010. Tomorrow I leave for the fourth chapter of the project—a seven-day residency in Minden, Ontario. I’m not packed yet, but I’m ready for whatever direction Voices takes me next. Damn you CBC...and thanks!

1 comment:

  1. Such a great project. Congrats Wendy! It has inspired me to start printing many of the "letters" I get from friends electronically - whether via Facebook or email. I can't throw out my old letters because they are a connection with a fixed time and relationship - I think I should keep a lot of my emails for the same reason. It's just a bit sad that they'll be printed rather than handwritten.