Monday, January 28, 2013

Art and Faith - Norfolk County Summary

I never know what I’m looking for, but I always find it. 

People often ask what sort of letters I want when considering a donation to the project. It’s a question I try not to answer. Unlike most archives I resist establishing a priority in part because leaving that decision up to the donor feels like a more honest way of building the collection, but also because I could never think of the characters and stories within the letters I’m brought.

My short residency at the Norfolk Arts Centre (NAC) in Simcoe this past December was no exception: 
Bryan writes his pen pal from a correctional facility in Michigan.
King George V sends best wishes and thanks to a returning WWI soldier.
Norrie complains he “is still struggling with the language” in a postcard dashed off before a meeting in Bologna with Umberto Eco.

Sometimes I have a sense of what might emerge before I begin a residency, but my conjectures are often off the mark when it comes to what sustains my interest.

It was a safe bet this residency would yield something from the war 1812 given the bicentenary and the town of Simcoe’s proximity to a principle battlefield. The day I visited the Eva Brook Donly Museum and Archives the archivist presented me with a stack of scanned letters that included a reference letter certifying “a private in 2nd Regiment Norfolk Militia behaved himself during the late war with the United States of America as a good and faithful subject to his majesty.”

The stack also contained correspondence from soldiers serving in WWI, the thank you note from King George V, a newsy letter from Scotland dated 1852 and a letter to Peter Russell, “President of Upper Canada” written in 1794.

However, the letters that grabbed my attention were a curious series the archivist mentioned in passing: Correspondence to and from the Simcoe chapter of the Anti Cigarette Fraternity circa 1918. It turns out the ACF had a devout following in Simcoe at the time. Colleagues in Havelock and Tweed, Ontario expressed hopes of establishing ACF lodges in their communities but were skeptical about finding “enough boys who had not smoked for the past six months. Many of the people I shared the letters with were amused by the existence of an anti cigarette stronghold in what became the Ontario Tobacco Belt. A few speculated why the fraternity rulebook was written in cipher. Perhaps the men were doing more than not smoke at their meetings?

I count on the questions that arise in each residency to inform and propel the project forward. What stories make the collection relevant to visitors? What helps me to look at it with new eyes? What themes or patterns emerge? What anchors the project in the place it is being mounted? Often it’s a circuitous route.

In a way, every residency starts with faith.
I never want it to seem like I’m grasping for a connection. If I’m completely present with each visitor, if I float myself in the atmosphere and take the time to notice what I’m noticing I trust I’ll eventually be able to identify a thread. At Norfolk Arts Centre faith was also one of the discernable themes. 

The centre is in the home of Norfolk County’s first postmaster with galleries located in the historic building as well as in a large modern annex.  Unlike previous venues it has no street front windows suitable for an installation. I knew a gallery setting would result in fewer chance interactions. I wondered if it would also diminish the possibility or impact of questions the installation raises around what comprises art and where it can be found.

I realize I’m too close to the project. Save for a post office, a woman surrounded by nearly 4,000 letters would, no doubt, be disarming wherever encountered. 

I quickly abandoned the silly sense of pride I have related to squeezing the installation onto a 4’x8’ sheet of plywood if required and took over the entire annex gallery—I even set up my scanner. The gallery’s pristine white walls and sky-lit vaulted ceilings proved conducive to sustained work and reflection. And while the venue is more removed from the unsuspecting public eye than others, once there, many visitors stayed and talked for hours.

Perhaps there is truth in the saying “art museums are the new churches?”

Themes of art and faith were every bit as palpable in Director, Curator, Deirdre Chisholm’s thoughtful and whirlwind programming throughout my stay:   

On day one I shared Christmas cards and Santa Claus letters with an art class of school-age kids. Many of them picked up letter writing pointers for their Christmas Eve notes to St Nick. Hope, if not faith. That evening, after the gallery closed, Deirdre and I were guests at a nearby studio where an adult life drawing class was in session. I modeled and read aloud one of my favorite letters from the category Taking a Stand—a sidesplitting rant written by an aspiring artist in the 40s recounting a critique of his work.

Later in the week, a high school history class visited specifically to listen to wartime letters.

Day three Deirdre arranged my visit to the local archives. That evening I was guest at a writers group that meets at the centre. Many had letters to donate to Voices at Hand, some real, some excerpts from epistolary novels. Others had stories about letters. In fact in every residency someone recounts a story about lost letters. This time they’d had been buried with the man’s mother—years of correspondence between husband and wife. One of his sisters had wanted to read them. Instead, unread, they were tucked into his mother’s coffin along with his father’s false teeth.

I took in 75 new letters during my stay in Simcoe and a few more were delivered once I returned home. To my delight I found strong threads of art and faith running through the majority of the letters. 

The theme is perhaps strongest and most intricately woven through the letters from a prisoner serving a life sentence in the U.S. The correspondence begins when Bryan responds to a request for a proposal to design a logo for a messianic Jewish congregation. It continues throughout the design process and gradually changes into regular pen pal correspondence  he and a fellow inmate keep up with the woman from the congregation.  

The letters provide insight into the privations and the horror of serving time. In one, Bryan thanks his pen pal for sending money for a winter coat. He’d gone without for ten years and is tired of having no lamp to read by after lights out. Another reports an inmate was murdered after snitching about a cellphone.

Both men ponder the nature of sin in their letters and voice a desire to establish a formal congregation at their facility. To me the overarching theme of all their correspondence is the gratitude both men feel at having a very real connection with someone and at being able to contribute to society through their art.

Once a curator, always curator. Lovingly selected, the letters donated by one of the NAC’s former directors reflect the vibrancy of the centre under her tenure:
Hand-drawn Christmas cards, a wedding invitation and a phony cheque from Painters Eleven artist Tom Hodgson.
Warm, newsy cards and letters from authors and poets James and Colleen Reaney.  
Cryptic notes from sculptor Bart Uchida.
Twenty years of correspondence from B.C. artist Elizabeth McIntosh.
Postcards from Elizabeth and Northrop Frye.  

It would be easy to regard this collection as a mini arts and letters who’s who if it weren’t for the warmth and sense of small stories contained in so many of the letters. In one, Colleen Reany laments:

“If only the stupid CC [Canada Council] cd advance you your ticket money or put you on a “POET PASS”…I am tired of hauling my books around and nothing.”

I’m reminded of the privilege it is to witness the small details of people’s lives.  

An eloquent and hauntingly apt letter is an email with the subject line: Wishful Thinking shared by Norfolk County and City of Brantford Poet Laureate John B. Lee. Sent to Manuel Leon, his co-editor for the poetry and prose anthology Beyond the Seventh Morning, John's letter serves to remind how art and faith are entwined and beautifully frames what I inch towards with Voices at Hand—even if I don’t know what that is.

In the story of Eden, and this gave rise to my thoughts concerning the title I suggested for our anthology Beyond the Seventh Morning, I have the sense of a Creator whose work is complete and in this completion I feel a great tragedy of that accomplishment involving anow what?”...
 How sad to think of God, his work complete, setting in motion this clockwork universe where all things are known and pre-ordained. Like a child watching a toy train go round and round and round in a never-ending circle on the basement floor of a Christmas morning. How soon ennui would set in. How the child prays for the train wreck managed by his little dog, or a hotbox event. The need to intervene, to change route, to imagine it differently…
 American poet, Donald Hall visited world-renowned sculptor Henry Moore, when Hall was a young man and Moore the elder of the tribe. When Hall asked Moore the secret of the great artist life, Moore said to his young admirer,“ The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of every day for your whole life. And the most important thing is —it must be something you cannot possibly do.”…
 I happily embrace belief in God, if by God we mean the better self, the one consoled by story. The better the story, the deeper the experience, the more profound the possibility of grace.
This chapter of Voices at Hand was made possible through to the tireless efforts of Deirdre Chisholm and Kerri Kitzul of the Norfolk Arts Centre. Thank you both for making me feel so welcome.  

Big thanks also to Tanya VanRooy for documentation and to Big Sky Design and the Ontario Arts Council for their ongoing support.

As always, my deepest thanks goes to the many people who have shared their lives with Voices at Hand.  

No comments:

Post a Comment