Blog# 103.1...March 2020

Today is the portentous Ides of March, and we have lots to beware don’t we?

I’m healthy, although old, so am more than usually aware of mortality and trying to live a good life, whatever that is.  We don't have an enforced seclusion – yet – but so many things are closed that it might as well be. So how do we deal with being inside, often alone, and concerned about our loved ones and the people in many ways less lucky than we are.

First of all, keep in touch by phone or email, with people close to you and maybe others who might be more isolated. And as your gaze is forced inward, frame the situation as solitude rather than loneliness, words mattter. 

We're forced out of our comfort zone in many ways - uncertainy about  the level
of danger to us and the length of time we'll have to wait to know. Our habits are disrupted, whether it's work, exercise, amusements or social contacts, it's a challenge to reconstruct a new way of acting. My particular loss is the pool where I swim, I can't imagine any other exercise that will give me the same feeling, but I have to try and find it. The collegiality is easier to replace, and we're onto that already.

One of the benefits of getting older (yes there are some) is being a bit more comfortable with ambiguity and the fact that life is wonderful and horrible, sometimes both at once.

So, hang in there, never been a more appropriate use of that phrase, and above all, find things that are funny,

                                     The New Yorker    March 16, 2020

Blog # 103…March 2020

It’s good to see that we’ve started to accommodate individuals who don’t fit into the rather narrow forms our systems are created to serve. In the 70’s schools were obliged to make buildings accessible to students with limited mobility - needing adaptations like larger washrooms and elevators. Other public spaces followed suit with ramped curbs and widened doorways and we now see a range of people in wheelchairs and electric scooters on the streets, in art galleries and at the movies. Ask anyone who uses a wheelchair though, and it’s not perfect, but we’re recognizing them and trying.

Physical accessibility is one thing but there are other special, more subtle situations and requirements that are beginning to be acknowledged and addressed. For the past few years, Passe Muraille, the small community theatre that I attend regularly has had some performances that they call relaxed.  I think they have them in other venues too, even Stratford and Thomson Hall.  It’s partly driven by an attempt to broaden their audience base by being more inclusive of ages, and various forms of cognitive and attention states. It’s also a reflection of a generally more inclusive atmosphere that has been led in no small part by the disabled community.

At my theatre, a relaxed performance is described beforehand because the audience is mixed - lights and sounds will be less strident, sometimes there are hearing devices available with described audio and there’s an acceptance of attention spans that may require getting up and leaving temporarily. I’ve never found the adjustments at all distracting and appreciate the theatre’s sensitivity to audiences, rather than expecting rapt attention throughout. It’s a bit like I imagine Shakespeare’s theatre, more spontaneous and fun.
Ophira Calot on stage
Literally Titanium, a recent production at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, challenges the construct of theatre that is dark, still and with closed doors, calling for a greater representation in performers as well as audiences.  The star, Ophira Calot performs from a motorized wheelchair and the audience waits patiently when she pauses for several minutes to rest mid-performance. A series of photographs by Charong Kim, We’re Not Waiting, accompanies the show with the same message...disabled people are making space for themselves, not waiting for us.

And when artists get sick or hurt, often a result of their practice, they require distinct approaches to healing. A violinist may need a physiotherapist for repetitive strain or a dancer for an ankle fractured doing a pirouette.  A speech pathologist can help a singer who’s recovering from a throat ailment, a writer suffering from depression needs help from a psychotherapist. The focus is always on the art, how to return or continue to practice and not lose their livelihood. There’s a role for occupational therapists to adapt activity to minimize strain or accommodate altered function. The Artists' Health Centre was originally housed in the Toronto Western Hospital and will move across Bathurst Street to its own space this year.

I heard a nice quote just now that fits as an add on to the last post and maybe this one too”Science is the how, art is the why” Luke Skywalker.

And, wishing you all, regardless of gender, a very happy International Women’s Day on Sunday

Blog # 102…February 2020

Who knew that visiting a critical health care area would offer an art experience? In the past couple of weeks, I’ve followed my friend Norm as he's received excellent care in various parts of St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.  
I've been surprised and delighted to see paintings partout. Not only in patient rooms, but hallways, visitors’ lounges and waiting rooms. It often peeks out from behind large diagnostic machines or other items of extreme technology,
 reminding us of the humanity that’s the reason for the whole operation. It surrounds and forms a background for the excellent clinical care  that's delivered 24/7.

The WHO (World Health Organization, not the band) has been much on our minds lately and, as well as statements on viruses, they say… “The arts have a clear contribution to make for patients, service users and staff alike.”  They also refer to health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well being rather than merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The art on St Mike’s walls was chosen and installed by a committee of the hospital’s Foundation which disbanded after their job was complete. A new committee is now being struck to choose pieces for recently constructed areas.

The pieces are all the same size and style, comforting rather than challenging: scenes of couples drifting in a boat, small children playing in a meadow or tranquil woodlands - Turner rather than Pollock. The counterpoint of art and science is both soothing and arresting. 

Oh, and another thing, I was not only allowed into the critical care area when Norm was there,  but welcomed. The wellbeing of patients trumps the risk of germs being brought in and the chance of clumsy people like me tripping over something or sticking my elbow where it shouldn’t be. 
Norm has often taken the photos for my blogs, and since he's temporarily hors de combat, his brother Bob has filled in for this posting - thanks Bob.

So, as St Valentine’s Day approaches, here's a missive of love to  St Mikes… walking the walk of “Patient Centred Care” which is the mantra of all hospitals these days. Thanks for taking such good care of our friend Norm - he's moving soon to a rehab hospital  and I'll be checking out their artwork.

Blog # 101…January 2020

Happy New Year!  This year has been grim so far and it’s increasingly difficult, but increasingly important, to focus on art matters so here goes - may make me feel a bit better, maybe you too.

spotted a book called Carpe Fin recently and was reminded of a trip I made to Haida Gwaii, off the northwest coast of British Columbia, a few years ago. The title was the first of many sly references and double entendres that were scattered throughout... carpe fin literally means fine carp, but the allusion to Carpe Diem suggests Seize the End.  As I read the story I encountered other possibilities (made me wonder if there'd been hidden meaning in Archie and Superman that I devoured as a ten year old).

Carpe Fin is described as a Haida Manga, and artist/story teller Michael Nicoll Yahgulanas uses hand painted images to blend Asian manga with Haida artistic and oral traditions. Carpe, of the title (short for carpenter, get it?) arrives on a small remote island deep in the rain forest to find a failing economy. A fuel spill has destroyed food sources and a group of residents invite him to join them on a risky trip to a distant island to hunt sea lions.

Ferocious storms batter the small boat, Carpe is lost at sea and picked up by the sea lion known as Lord of the Rock who demands retribution for his role in the hunt. Some business with a fin (more allusions) and Carpe is abandoned to the sea, clothed as a sea lion, in the half life between human and animal, life and death.  The islanders arrive on a rescue mission, find Carpe  and the story ends with some hopeful ideas to change the world.  I've oversimplified this complex story as an encouragment for you to read it.                                                                     
Haida images have a whimsical edge and seem to lend themselves to playfulness - think of Brian Jungen‘s transformation of Nikes and golf bags. And aboriginal artists have a wonderful way of making serious points with humour…Kent Monkman’s Daddies of Confederation, the plays of Drew Hayden Taylor and stories of Thomas King, to mention only a few. We need this kind of fresh and nuanced way of looking at things now more than ever.

 Louis Riel said "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back." First nations artists have taken Truth and Reconciliation and run with it, quickly and positively while official committees and task forces meander along.

I’m always encouraged when I hear from people who read the blog and was almost seduced by a message that came a couple of days ago complimenting me on # 100. Had I clicked on the included link, I would have connected to a site selling drugs online… so, a reminder to NEVER click on a site without checking on Google what it is. 

Blog # 100…December, 2019

Michael Apted’s brilliant Up series documenting the lives of a group of British children began in 1964 with Seven Up.  Although originally conceived as a “one of” episode, it evolved into a journey that followed the children every seven years as they grew up and Britain - and the world - changed.  Fifty five years later, Sixty- three Up will appear later this month, watch for it on TV, or if you’re nearby, at the Bloor. It’ll likely be the last; Michael Apted’s health is failing and, as one of the Up’ers said, they wouldn’t trust anyone else to tell their stories.

Since this is Blog # 100, I’ve been thinking back to September 2011 and # 1 (which I also thought of as a “one of”).  It featured a small group of musicians/students, calling themselves Impromp2 Crew, who arrived on Friday mornings at the Toronto Grace Health Centre to delight patients, staff and visitors.

Of all the art forms that stimulate and nourish our spirits, music has always struck me as the most universal and accessible, cutting across language, age and abilities. We begin our connection to music (often even before we’re born) with our mother’s lullabies and learn to speak, count and dance to tunes handed down through the ages. We’re soothed by soft violins, energized to get at that housework by Dixieland and our feet start tapping at the sound of a marching band. We remember making out or breaking up when we hear a snatch of a tune, even if it was in another century. Music reminds us that we are all connected, musicians are celebrated across borders, enemies can find common ground. It can quiet the soul, foment dissent or even revolution. 

I remember the Impromp2Crew fondly; they were students at the time, headed towards careers in fields where experience with a variety of people would serve them well.  So, not only were they delighting their audiences, they were gaining valuable life lessons for themselves.

I was inspired by the Up series to reach out to the members of Impromp2Crew and was thrilled to have replies from far and near with fond memories of their time at the Grace nearly a decade ago - how it had enriched their personal lives and contributed to their professional development. They remembered how the patients responded to the music despite difficulties communicating, and the impact music had on everyone involved, making visitors more comfortable.  One of the Crew who is now a physician, liked seeing the unique contributions of allied health professionals. Another, who was going through a difficult job search, remembers the encouragement he felt while playing at the Grace. Music has been introduced to a hospital in Australia and to a critical care setting in Toronto based on the experiences of Impromp2Crew.

So, in these days when we’re bombarded by bad news (and Frosty the Snowman) take a break and curl up with your favourite, whether it’s Dvorak or Dizzy, Leonard or Lamar, feel what good there is in the world and have yourself a very Happy Holiday.  We’ll be back with #101 in 2020.

Blog # 99…November, 2019

Canada’s welcome of 30,000 refugees from Syria a couple of years ago was a humanitarian initiative that had broad reaching and unpredictable effects.  I’m sure many of the individuals and families still struggle to adapt, having traded a connection to their culture and compatriots for safety, security and hope for the future. But, there are also some wonderful examples of cultural blending emerging that will, I hope, ease the transition for all of us.

Food is a universal and immediate element of any culture. It wasn’t surprising that quite early on, Le Depanneur, a restaurant in west end Toronto open only for dinner, generously made space available at noon to a group of Syrian women to cook dishes for their families. Word spread quickly in the neighbourhood and locals started turning up to purchase food, leading to a flourishing catering business.  Now, we can all share in the delights of Syrian dishes and as well, employment and engagement are provided for the new arrivals. The way the local community came out recently to support Soufi’s, the Queen Street West cafĂ© that closed after vicious online harassment was evidence that we’ve travelled some distance in acceptance.

Gananoque artist Houssam Alloum’s work has been transformed by his journey from the mountains in the south of Syria to his new home by the Thousand Islands in the St Lawrence River. After being forced to leave his country, Houssam worked in Istanbul as art director for a local TV station. In Turkey, not having the enthusiasm to look after himself, he grew a beard and began to realize how people judged him and his religious affiliation by his appearance. He started a self portrait with the bottom of his face covered with tinfoil, “it’s like a mirror…I wanted the viewer to focus on my eyes…and see reflections from my surroundings because our lives are not just our own but touched by people around us.”

When he arrived in Canada, Houssam was invited by painter and gallery owner Heather Haynes to share her space and he began to meet local people who came to watch him work. This led to a series of portraits called Reflections incorporating his hyperrealist style. He’s captured 85 year old Joyce McLaughlin with his signature tinfoil on her head like a crown. “Joyce’s treasure is her memories which she shares with us, helping us to see this town and everything it has to offer through her eyes”

Encouraged to submit Joyce’s portrait for the Kingston Prize, Houssam was one of 30 finalists, celebrating excellence in portrait painting and drawing. He feels that his change in style reflects his inability to express himself fully in English. “When your language doesn’t support a deep need to communicate, you use other senses to connect to people.”

My own experience as part of a support group for an Iraqi family leads me to believe that the people of Gananoque who welcomed Houssam have also changed their style a bit.

Blog # 98…October, 2019.


In 1886, the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frederic Bartholdi, was presented as a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. Without Twitter we can only guess at the bulk of controversy on both sides of the ocean, but this is from a black newspaper of the day in Cleveland “Liberty indeed! Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until…an inoffensive and industrious colored man can earn a respectable living without being ku kluxed, perhaps murdered.”

But there was some enthusiasm amongst the public and, as well as the big donors, groups of school children and drinkers in saloons sent pennies in response to fund raisers.
It took 133 years but the gift has been reciprocated and last week Jeff Koons’ large work, dedicated to friendship between the US and France and  honouring the victims of terrorism, was placed in the gardens of the Petit-Palais. Friendship seems to have resumed after the thing about what to call fried potatoes.


The outstretched hand holding eleven tulips evokes the welcoming hand of the Statue of Liberty and Koons thinks of it as a symbol of remembrance, optimism and healing. A three year saga of quarreling among French cultural figures about the location and significance of the monument included questioning Koons’ motives in creating it, regarding it as self serving.  He donated the concept but the cost of execution rested with French and American donors.  I don't know about you, but I've had gifts I didn't really want that ended up costing me money and I wasn't sure where to put them.

Many buildings and pieces of public art, especially if they're a bit unusual, have a rocky beginning before people get used to them. Toronto’s City Hall, a shockingly  innovative piece of architecture for its time, was the source of many rude comments in the early 60’s.   It now fits seamlessly into downtown and is a well-loved icon of the City. 
An assortment of Parisians have expressed their outrage at The Tulips feeling that it’s “American kitsch”. It'll be interesting to watch international response as time passes and see whether it becomes accepted, welcomed, maybe even loved.
Stay tuned.