Promises to keep, an artist’s timeline


My vow: It is about 1940 and I am with my grandmother (I call her Nammie). Nammie tells me that my mother wanted to be an artist, she went to a nearby town and studied art with the nuns there. She was preparing to work as a fabric designer, but that did not happen. I know what happened. My mother, Doris, had polio when she was five and after I was born the polio reached her brain, polio-encephalitis they called it. She could no longer function. That is why I live with my grandparents. I say to my grandmother; “Never mind Nammie, I will be an artist.” By her expression, I can see that she is not comforted by that thought.

1946 – A schoolmate asks me; “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I will be an artist” I reply.
“Don’t you want to get married?” she asks.
“Yes, I suppose so” I reply.
“Well, don’t you want to have children?” she asks.
“I suppose so.” (I‘m getting annoyed at this line of questioning.)
“How many children will you have?” she asks.
“I don’t know, two or three, whatever he wants.”
Then I think: “By the time I am forty I will have stopped having children. I will still have half of my life left and I will be able to do what I want.”

About 1947- I see a children’s contest sponsored by Art Instruction Inc. advertised in a magazine. I follow the instructions and send them a drawing. To my amazement they send me a complete set of artist’s supplies including a drawing board, portable easel, and carrying case!

1948 – Our little village has a new school. After our schoolhouse burned down we spent several years in make-shift rooms, often cold places, but now we have a new school. There is even a library, no books, but a library. Annie Howse, our Principal, orders books for us. The books arrive and one is an art book called “How to Draw” by Victor Perard. It has a hundred and fifty-four pages of drawings. I know Miss Howse has ordered it for me. I take it home and copy every single illustration.

It is about 1965 and I have done what I told my schoolmate I would do. I have married and we have three children. I have little spare time, but while the children have their afternoon naps, I use these short breaks to complete a commercial art correspondence course.

1974 – Now I am almost forty. For nine years I have been a free-lance commercial artist. I can work from home and do what I need to do as a wife and mother. But often when there is a big advertising campaign I work through the night. I think, “I have ten fingers, but I am only using one.” I use my commercial art earnings to go to university. There is only one university in my city which offers a visual arts program, and its reputation is not good. People graduate from the program and are never heard of again. Nevertheless, I need to know how the art world works, so I plunge in and try to pick out what I need from the experience. The faculty consist primarily of abstract expressionists and conceptual artists. I find it easy to play their game, but not very enriching. Few practical skills are taught, but I appreciate them whenever I find them. Now I am truly grateful for my commercial art experience, because I see students arriving at university with no skills. They have no choice but to follow the path laid out by this program. What will they do when this trend is over, and they have no skills?

1979 – It is near graduation time and the students are gathered in a common area, talking. I am concerned for them because they seem to assume that once they graduate, they can produce great works and rely on grants, which to me seems about as likely as consistently winning lotteries. Someone asks; “What will you do after graduation?” I say, “I will continue to produce work and I hope to teach.”
“Don’t you want to be famous?” he asks.
“No, only if I have to be. That would be a big burden.”

Before graduation in the visual arts program, the students assemble some of our works and three professors review it with us. One professor asks; “In three words, what do you want to say as an artist?” I know this professor well. As a young artist he became the protegé of a well-known curator who promoted abstract expressionism. Now he has a solid reputation, good sales, and a teaching position. I chose to take classes with him because he is a positive force and a good person. He also has a reputation for being a harsh critic. As one student said, “He has the softest sledge-hammer in the world.” I understand the purpose of his question and I know how he expects me to answer this question. His answer would be, “Light, line, and rhythm”, three formal qualities in art, and he expects something similar from me. But I reply, “Pay attention!” He says flatly; “That’s not art.”

Perhaps he thinks I mean; “Pay attention to me.” I don’t. I mean; “Pay attention to your life and everything in it.” That is what I want to say with my art.

It is 1998, I am sixty-two and I have been exhibiting and teaching for twenty years now, consistently showing people whatever they seem to be willfully ignoring, urging them to pay attention. The work has been in contemporary forms because that is what people are used to. My work has always been based on reality, but not just the reality that we can see and touch, for that is limited.

For example, one theme in my work is prehistory and ancient knowledge, the stuff of the dusty museums that we seldom visit. I feel that in our ancient past, thousands of years ago, we took a deviant path.  Now we need to go back and retrace our steps.

Another theme is the unseen, the energies in the earth which earlier cultures were aware of and made use of. Perhaps our ancestors could sense these energies in their bodies. We no longer have that physical ability, but there are still traditional ways of retrieving it such as dowsing. I dowsed the earth and made these dowsed patterns visible with markings. Then I made maps and drawings. In this way people were able to see the earth’s patterns, and even how they were affected over time by our activities.

Another theme is phenomena; things that we trivialize, make fun of, and roll our eyes at whenever they are mentioned, even though they clearly do exist. Such phenomena trigger a variety of reactions such as to ignore it and pretend it does not exist, to explain it away or theorize about it, using whatever knowledge we are particularly attracted to, or to exploit it, and create some money-making venture out of it. One example of this was the crop circle phenomena which lasted about a decade.

Dreams are another theme. Every night we dream, see images, feel emotions, but as soon as we open our eyes it is all gone, and we seldom talk about it. I spent several years researching and working with dreams and created several exhibitions on the subject.

Let me tell you about one exhibit called “Night Explorers”.

Imagine that you step into a dark gallery, lit only by floating images, constantly changing. You hear voices telling disjointed stories about the images, and you can walk through this scene and explore it.

All the stories are real dreams accumulated over the years from volunteers who recorded their dreams and sent them to me. Some of these volunteers made the recordings that were played in the gallery. The images were created by combining layers of photography, painting, and drawing and making slides of them. The slides were then projected onto translucent plexiglass sheets which were suspended around the room. We call this art form an “Installation”. I approach it as a way to offer people an experience, and to encourage people to reflect on their own dream experiences.

But what really changes everything this year is learning Falun Dafa. 

A Falun Dafa practitioner has set up a display table at the university. I am struck by her energy and intensity and I sense that this is important. When I find their exercise site a practitioner shows me the second exercise, a standing exercise. I recognize these positions. I had been looking at these poses for years as I drew ancient artifacts. I knew these poses, had experienced them, and shared them with others. Somehow, I have stumbled upon an ancient practice! A piece of life’s puzzle instantly dropped into place. I will do this for the rest of my life.

After a few weeks of exercising in the park I am loaned a book and told how to read it. No one has ever specified how to read a book before, but as I soon discover, this is no ordinary book. There is no way to explain its effect, but let us just say, it shakes my mind and rearranges everything. For example, I had spent several years collecting people’s dreams, reading dream theories, making works about dreams, creating exhibitions about dreams, and I had enough material to write a book, but no interest in doing so, because I knew that I still knew nothing about dreams. This book, Zhuan Falun by Li Hongzhi, explains dreams completely in just a few paragraphs. I have no more questions.

It is 1999, a beautiful day at the exercise site in the park. A Chinese practitioner arrives a little late and she starts to exercise, but soon collapses into heart-broken sobs. We gather around to comfort her and ask what has happened. “They are saying terrible things about Li Hongzhi in China!” she says. The Chinese practitioners are pale and silent. They understand, I do not. (We never see that Chinese practitioner again.)

Day by day we Westerners learn more and more about the Chinese people’s reality. A local practitioner’s father is arrested, another practitioner’s husband is arrested, both are Canadians. We ask ourselves, “What can we do?” and we run about trying everything we can think of while always reminding ourselves of truth, compassion, and forbearance. The media is poisonous, they do not understand. What can we do? I think, “I am an artist, and I am on the inside of a huge event. If I did not document this, what kind of artist would I be?”

Suddenly, my vow became much bigger.

2003 – Professor Kunlun Zhang, a Chinese-Canadian sculptor, has been released after torture and brainwashing in China. He talks to us quietly about what he has experienced. Whenever we meet, he always wears the same worn grey sweater. Perhaps this is what he   was wearing when he left China. Perhaps he has nothing else. We have a local exhibition and then he goes to the United States.

I see a “Call to Artists” on our practitioner’s internet site inviting practitioners who are artists to submit works for an exhibition. I write to Professor Zhang and say that this is a good idea, and I would like to participate but I don’t do Chinese art. He phones to tell me that this exhibition is not just for the Chinese, it is for the whole world and all ethnicities and he encourages me to submit. Then, because his English is limited, he asks his daughter to phone me since she can explain more fully. I send a submission.

In July we artist/practitioners are in a meeting in Washington D.C. Li Hongzhi gives us a lecture about the role of the fine arts and the history of mankind’s arts. It is like listening to a million-year-old man talking about lived experiences which have been long lost in our human history. I leave the meeting humbled, a little lost, but knowing, “We have a mission.”

I got a call from Professor Zhang inviting me to his studio in New York State. He tells me, “We will provide food and shelter, you just have to bring your paints and art supplies.” I agree to go, and he tells me that someone will call and give me directions. A few days later I start to drive. I have no idea where I am going or what to expect there. I only have an address. I follow the highway instructions which eventually take me through mountain villages and end up at a gate. A Chinese sentry comes out. I say, “Professor Zhang,” and I am led up a precipitous paved, then dirt road. At the end of the road,
we leave our cars and climb the rest of the way on foot to the top. 

There is a large Quonset Hut. We enter. Huge colourful paintings, angels, people, banners, and the beginnings of a monumental sculpture, sorrow, and joy – I want to cry!

We gather here from all over the world to make art works about Falun Dafa, the persecution, and this period in history. Whatever we know we share, and whatever we do not know we try to learn through research and experimentation. Our backgrounds are different, communication is difficult, our egos get in the way, it is so cold our paints don’t dry. We work late into the evening hours, there are many false starts, and we are constantly repainting and revising. Sometimes an artist can only take a painting so far and other artists take over. For example, Professor Zhang showed me a nearly finished work and said, “I don’t have time to work on this painting now. What would you do with it?” I told him I would bring some of the background colours into the foreground figures to unify the painting, and I would give more variety to the clothing of the foreground people. “You can go ahead then.” he said.

Our works must communicate clearly in a way that all people can clearly understand. There is no room for symbolism and ambiguity here. To communicate like that, we need to find and learn the skills of our artist-ancestors. We need to relearn our craft.

2004 Gradually, and painfully we have come to realize that the art world, its institutions, curators, educators, and gallery directors do not dare to show our works. As one gallery director said, “I would love to show this work. This is the kind of work I would love to show but I can’t, because it has a political element so it would have to go to the political level, and they will reject it.”

But Falun Dafa practitioners are resourceful. We rented and borrowed spaces wherever possible but there was enormous interference from the Chinese Communist Party including bomb threats and attempted invasions. Clearly the Chinese Communist Party is very afraid of our works. Because of this I now realize the power of art

2021 I am in my studio - painting

I am keeping my promises.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep, 
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

From “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost◇