Saturday, April 21, 2012

An Unexpected Catharsis

Draft written in June or July, 2011.

It's Saturday morning and I have some time to myself. I am listening to Sara Marreiros. Her music is a beautiful kind of melancholy.

Maybe I shouldn't be listening to her because music seeps into my head and my gut and I find the sadness that is just one thin protective layer beneath the surface of my consciousness.

I had the opportunity to go and listen to Sara Marreiros last year in Vancouver. I was in town for an exhibition where I was showing two new pieces. The exhibition was part of a larger festival going on around Vancouver and it was held at the same time as the Paralympics. I could have had a backstage tour of the Olympic village and I could have gone to a number of other events with the other artists in the art show. But I had been working long days and nights for months and after arriving in Vancouver with my mom and discovering that she was sick and that my cousin could no longer offer a place to stay for my mother because my cousin's youngest child had not yet finished all of his vaccinations and my mother was contagious. We had to send her to a hotel. I didn't know what hotel she had been taken to (by my cousin-in-law) and when I tried to phone to see how she was the next morning I couldn't find her. I was worried that she had died...And so by the time that the private tours and the concert with Sara Marreiros arrived I was too spent to go.

I had just spent six months working on my art, writing and rewriting my art statements, writing my applications for travel grants and I also had my full-time job as the main care-giver of my children. Mornings began with making breakfasts, preparing snacks and lunches, getting the kids cleaned up and dressed for school and making sure that their backpacks had everything that they needed for school. By 11:30 each morning I would return home with my daughter who was only in nursery for two and a half hours morning. By 3:30 it was time to pick up my son, feed him a snack to calm the bear inside him that begins to growl telling me that his blood sugar is low and that if we put food quickly and carefully before the bear to eat, that soon enough the boy, my son will resurface.

I would return to my work until close to 5:00 pm each day at which time I would realize that once again I had forgot to plan dinner and it was dinner time. I was supposed to be a stay at home mom first, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tucking in the tired. I was supposed to take care of my family, which I did, but I didn't take care of myself.

I would do all of this five days a week, for six months. And in the spaces between those things I was working on a painting and/or a privacy screen of which I had proposed for the exhibition. I was also taking french classes once a week, and volunteering on an understaffed arts board.

Before packing up my work for shipping I managed to have three curators come for studio visits to see my work. I borrowed work that had been given or bought to or by people and hung it in my living room. I made a slide show of other work, which ran on a loop. And then I had an open house so that I could show my body of work all together in one place, for one time.

I am not sure how many people came to my house that day but it was full of friends and acquaintances (artists) and family. It felt good. It was good. I could see that I actually had done some good work over the past six years since becoming an artist.

Once people left I had my friend, who is also a photographer, set up her lights and camera and photograph everything for my portfolio.

For the next few days I still had to add coats of paint to the privacy screens frame and to the paintings frame, both of which Jonathan had built. The light still needed to be installed behind the paintings deep frame to make the piece into a light-box. Jonathan spent a lot of time searching through stores to try to find the right light. It was a stressful time. And because I had never had to package my work for shipping I discovered that that was a labor intensive job that Jonathan would have to do. I also discovered in my search for a shipping company that this was going to be another expensive part of the process. Companies had policies that made the customer carry large heavy boxes to the delivery truck. I began to panic. Finally, at the very last hour Jonathan loaded our truck with my packages, and he and the kids took it to some impossible to find company out near the airport and passed off my work to them.

A week later I arrived in Vancouver. My mom had come with me because she needed to see my work in this particular exhibition. This work chronicled my life, the good, the bad but also managed to show how beauty can be found in the most horrid and painful places. She had been terrified of losing me since the day that I was born. My mom claims that I was born during a snow storm, my dad disagrees and has said that it was just snowing. Regardless, my parents know one thing with certainty- I was born hypoxic (not breathing), floppy (no muscle tone) and my head had likely been misshapen by the forceps that gripped my tiny head to get me out and resuscitate me.

So my trip to Vancouver to be in the HEROES exhibition and to be the only artist from Manitoba was monumental. It felt like the culmination of so many layers of separate lives.  I had spent months going through my hospital records from my birth to when I turned 18 years old. I had spent almost two months digitally cleaning up the many blackened photocopied records of my medical history. Many of the originals had long since been taken by doctors wishing for a clean copy and in their place they had left a photocopy. Clearly this had been done many times over on some pages...

The process was challenging. I had over 300 pages of records to decifer before I couldn't even begin to decide on what was relevant. It didn't help that most of doctor's had truly illegible handwriting. I narrowed down the records to 100 pages. But I couldn't figure out how to organize them. Should I separate chronological first, then by surgery, physiotherapy, conversations between physicians, descriptions of me both physically, intellectually, and by appearance?

I was fortunate that my friend Christine came over to help me make some sense of it all. She had been there for me when I was writing my application to get into the show in the first place. At the time that I was writing my proposal she was house sitting two doors down from me, which was an incredibly lucky break for me. Especially after I had arrived home from my sons soccer game one evening and was on the verge of a melt down (actually I think that I did have one) because I needed to send my application and a disk of images the next day and I still hadn't been able to write a coherent letter of interest, describing my ideas for the exhibition. There I was finally (!) with the opportunity to make art that reached the core of who I was and why my voice needed to be heard. And I knew that I had two really solid concepts.

So by the time that I arrived in Vancouver 6 months later, I had been stretched to my physical limits. It wasn't until the evening of our arrival that my mom finally off-handedly mentioned that her visit to the doctor earlier in the day before our flight left Winnipeg that she had pneumonia in both lungs and that she absolutely should not fly. She hadn't told me that she has a note in her purse from her physician explaining her condition in the event that she collapsed on the plane. She was incredibly ill and probably delirious. Her brain could probably only hold onto one thought- to be with me.

The opening night of the exhibition was amazing. It was the first time in my life that I felt pride in being a surviver. A surviver of my disease, my environment, my double life- life in hospital where time passed differently and the return to the real world, to school and friends where I would need to catch up on all that I had missed. That evening I was surrounded by a few amazing friends and family and almost 200 more people who had come to see our motley crew of talented artists. The curator, Bernadine Fox had prepared a speech for the evening and a dam broke in me when she came to the part where she said that she had looked up the definition of disability in a dictionary and that none of the attributes assigned to having a disability were positive. HEROES was the impetus of healing and joy for me. I burst into tears and wept for a long time. Cartharsis seems to come at unexpected times.

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