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Nanaimo B.C. V9R 6R1

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Small Pleasures

After working on last edits of my novel last winter and escorting it off to readings this fall I found myself back in my studio after Christmas.

I hauled out unfinished canvases I'd left a year ago and went to work, trying to find my way back to the original connection I had with the image. But the task felt slow and contrived. After a week I put them aside and just decided to have fun. I painted a score of wooden cradles with black gesso and began a series of small studies from here on my small piece of earth. They are illustrations really, of the co-lifeforms which I love and which  embellish, each in their modest way, the grey weeks of winter. I plan to continue with these as the spring comes on...




Dazzle Patterns


My novel, Dazzle Patterns (just out with Freehand Books, Calgary) is set in Halifax during the first World War, specifically during and after the Halifax Explosion.

I first encountered dazzle patterns when looking at paintings made my Arthur Lismer (a character in my book). He would go on to become a founding member of the Group of Seven, but in 1917, at the time of the Halifax Explosion, he was the Principal of the Victoria School or Art, in Halifax.



Lismer was a compulsive sketcher and was harassed on his frequent drawing field trips in and around that busy harbour by authorities, paranoid about spies. Lismer eventually got “official war artist” status. He did many paintings of ships in the harbour, including this well-known painting of “The Olympic” teeming with returning troops.

The paradox of these ships, engaged in the deadly business of war, painted in beautiful patterns, drew me into the origins of Dazzle.

They are a little cloudy. One version is that the idea was introduced to the British navy by a marine artist, though a zoologist also laid claim to the idea.

 I like the notion that it was introduced by a zoologist, because, the idea of dazzle, like so many other great ideas, occurred in the natural world first.

Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock

"Dazzle" in the case of zebras, is not so much camouflage as something to disrupt the silhouette of the animal, to confuse the lion. Dazzle patterns painted on the war ships, sighted by the predatory submariner, were intended to confuse shape, scale, even direction of movement.

Last week, when I read from my novel at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, I discovered, in Peter Dykhuis, the curator, someone similarily captivated by Dazzle Patterns. 

A few dazzle paintings were on the walls of the gallery, with the more extensive collection of Lismer’s drawings of the Halifax Explosions, some of which appeared in journals and books (courtesy of the historian Alan Ruffman). This show is part of a program of exhibits, experiences and installations that the gallery is mounting this fall to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the historic event. 

It was never proved that dazzle patterns on ships were particularly effective, but as Peter says, it achieved another thing, “cubism came sailing into Halifax Harbour.”






                              Picasso-The Musicians, 1921










Meanwhile, it began to influence fashion of the times. I wish these bathing suits were still on the market!


 Sometimes it takes a long time to find the right title of a book. I worked on this one for ten years, under a series of working titles, amid shifting sands in plot and theme. But, as the story emerged, the title rose from the page. The day I found it I called my husband right away to share my discovery: the music of the phrase, but more importantly, the ability of the idea to encompass metaphors: disguise (hidden in plain sight), seeing art and the art of seeing, was perfect!


gathering the summer in

....before I head off to France to teach. Though I always feel I should spend more time at home during the summer, other adventures always seem to beckon. 

This year it began with sailing the Southern Gulf Islands on Circadia with my french friends Brigitte and Isabelle.

I never tire of these islands, which are so familiar, yet always feel exotic.

Brigitte is my long suffering French instructor--you'll notice the mandatory french vocabulary ;)

Late June, I left the boat temporarily to join my good friend Nancy for our annual Mitlenatch warden week.

We have been coming to this seabird colony in the Strait of Georgia for over twenty years. It is always magical, an island dense with birds and wildflowers, sitting in a great bowl of blue, rimmed with mountains.

Home from sailing for a few days and then off to work on Maple Leaf in Alaska. 

Everything is big in Alaska!



mid-winter homebodies

I have always admired the Winter Wren (now unimaginatively called the Pacific Wren). It's a feisty little bird with, at first glance, dull markings. On closer examination it is a study in all the browns of the forest, studded with little light flecks--a kind of subtle bird bling. Winter Wrens (sorry, I'm sticking with that name) are the ultimate homebodies, staying firmly put in their territories all year round, usually no more than a few feet from the ground. Their scientific name Troglodytes embodies their earthiness -- they dwell in the bushy cave of the understory.
They are also one of the only birds which bothers to sing once in awhile in the winter. Their song is a long burbling exuberant series of trills, which run as fast as a rainforest river. Slowed down it is a miracle of haunting flute-like notes
In short, I love everything about these little birds.

For the last ten years or so we also have Anna's Hummingbirds with us for the winter. I am always astonished when I see these tiny beings up and at 'em before sunrise in subzero weather. How do they manage to survive these cold nights and have enough energy to fire themselves up for the first trip to the feeder?

photo by Tom Colgrove, via birdshare.

I hope you as content as these birds, cozy at home, this Christmas season.


summer sketches

Some seasonal changes creep up on us--the sun rising just a little later every morning. At summer solstice it is up by 5:07 am, climbing above the mountains of Howe Sound (from where I look across the strait). By 6:00 am it is blasting into our bedroom, making it impossible to sleep in. Today the sun rose at 6:19.

Other changes happen overnight--a few days ago all the Purple Martins which nest in the boxes on the pilings at Newcastle, just up and left. The soundtrack of their happy twittering as they fluttered over the island suddenly silenced. But a day later the mew gulls arrived on our point, noticeable because of their calls, described as "squealing outbursts" in the bird book, so different from the calls of our local glaucous-winged gulls. These mew gulls have just finished their nesting season. They may have come from as far as Alaska.


Despite the fact that it still feels like mid-summer, with the hot winds blowing all day down the strait, things are on the move. The light has the final say.

Time seems to move more quickly in the light and heat of summer.

My summer started with trip on the S.V. Maple Leaf in Haida Gwaii. Like last year, we traced some of the travels of Emily Carr in the islands, stopping to draw, as she did over a hundred years ago. 



As always, Haida Gwaii was full of natural history surprises, a group of transient orcas, one morning, hunting seals, just off Windy Bay. A herring left in the wake of a feeding Humpback.

And this beautiful Lingcod, mottled to match the sea floor which was home...


 Late July I was off to Mitlenatch Island Provincial Park, to work for a week as a volunteer. It is special to return to a place every year for many years (my pal Nancy and I have been going there for 20 years). It is a seabird colony, a small island humming with compressed life: wildflowers, gulls, cormorants, oystercatchers, guillemots, peregrines, ravens, seals....the best show on earth. And while you are there, other than orienting visitors to the island and some ongoing bird counts and upkeep, there are rich long hours for just sitting and watching everything unfold. And for drawing of course. This year the wet spring and sunny summer was perfect for fruiting and the wild apple trees were weighted....


In August, Kim and our daughter, Sophie, and I sailed the southern gulf islands: