Finn Sound’s paintings are riddles in geometry, abstract symbol, and colour. They’re like individual cells of an unseen body, each one containing the DNA of the larger coded and playful landscape.
Finn Sound is my boyfriend. And this weekend, that landscape is on display at Art Walk on Edmonton’s Whyte Ave.
When I first met him, he told me he was working on about 20 different canvases, piece by piece, all at the same time. It makes sense when you see the twisted arms, peaks, and scraps of memories that keep making appearances.
I love his stuff because it’s usually both tense and whimsical. Mad god-like creatures, ceolocanths, squid, his family, churches… they all intrude, and he doesn’t seem to be able to predict when they do.
I’m helping him show off his work this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10-5. We’re on the south side of Whyte Ave, between 105 and 106 Street. Come by and see the body of work he’s calling “Red Mountain Fragments.” It’s a world worth swimming in.
We’re at an interesting moment of history in North America. Many people are convinced that the women’s rights and queer movements have done their job, and can basically pack up and go home now. We keep forgetting that there are huge battles still to be won: sexual violence is extremely pervasive (even moreso in Edmonton than other cities), and trans folks still have no legal protection from being fired for how they express their gender. A fascinating article in the Atlantic this month argues that as our ability to communicate with each other through digital media has increased, unpopular and poorly informed opinions about these issues have become more visible. Our reaction to this, says author Jon Lovett, has mostly been to tell people with those unpopular opinions to shut up. Think rape is mostly an issue invented by women who regret sex the morning after? Shut up. Think protecting trans people from discrimination means that men will sneak into women’s washrooms for fun? Shut up. These are both ridiculous ideas, of course. But I agree with Jon Lovett that there is more to be gained in the long-run from winning the argument, rather than saying the argument is too offensive to be had. To that end, twice this month I’ve dived into the discussion on how to solve gender-based discrimination and violence. Last night, I moderated a panel for the Sexual Exploitation Working Group at Edmonton’s Santa Maria Goretti Centre. #YEGsecret Exposed- A Hard Talk Panel on Rape Culture was a chance to negotiate strategies on ending a culture where rape is normalized. Our speakers had amazing things to share from the perspective of the police, sexual violence education, surviving a sexual assault, working in broadcast media, and more. You can view the panel on YouTube here (start around 5:43):
As well, I had a chance to zip to Montreal last month for ACGC to go to a conference that our sister council was hosting on the accomplishments of its committee working on gender and international development issues. Afterwards, I reflected on some fascinating strategies I learned about how to start a conversation about gender. You can read my post on the Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s blog here.
It wasn’t obvious at first. The snap of the wind off the Atlantic, and the sheer scale of the mountains plunging into the sea all around us, didn’t initially suggest that Iceland’s landscape was one that invited people in very much. Our first glimpse of a highway outside of Reykjavik was covered in slush half the way, and it was hard to look out the car window, because the snow in the fields was so bright.
My partner Finn and I were in Iceland last month trekking around snowy peninsulas, saga museums, and glacial creeks. I caught the bug so many of us have, listening to Björk’s music in high school, and then urgently needed to see the land of eruptions and emotional landscapes she sings about.
Maybe the first hint of the vision was how reverently our guide that day talked about the creek we were about to swim in. Called Silfra, it is a small watery crack in an expanding continental fissure between two tectonic plates, and that 4-kilometre long plain grows as fast as your fingernail. Over the centuries, the drift opened up this channel wide enough for groups like us to snorkel in. Before we slapped our snorkels and drysuits on, our guide cautioned us to let the current from the glacial melt push us along, and take time to meditate as we peered down to boulders many metres down through the ghostly blue-green light of what he called “the cathedral”.
Or maybe the first hint was seeing Hallgrímskirkja, the towering Lutheran church that overlooks most of Reykjavik, with its narrow pillars sweeping up to its belfry. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, is said to have been inspired by the shape of the basalt columns left by volcanic eruptions around the island. It certainly became more clear when we swished our fingers around in a hot spring pool that had been built about eight centuries ago. It was hard to deny when we visited a geothermal plant helping deliver Reykjavik’s supply of electricity and steam heat — almost entirely collected from boreholes deep beneath the earth channeling superheated water to the surface.
But it was impossible to ignore when we met an artist named Páll Guðmundsson. Páll was initially described to us as a pretty interesting sculptor who made faces out of rocks. When we drove into his village of Húsafell though, and saw stone cairns in circles along the road leading up to a workshop nestled beneath a grassy hill, we knew it was something more.
A friend of his from a nearby museum called ahead for us and asked Páll if he could show us some of his art. There, in the shadow of icy slopes overlooking farms and broken lava fields, this gentle man in a knit toque opened the doors of his workshop for us, and walked us past his sculptures to a musical instrument I didn’t recognize – because he had built it. On long tables against the walls, he’d laid out rows of narrow stones, some with lichens or charcoal faces. He called it a steinharp (or stone harp), and he told us he found the rocks himself in the mountains and canyons nearby. Then he pulled out two handfuls of mallets and played us Bach, and a composition he wrote himself.
Through the clear, hollow notes of the steinharp and the rocky faces he showed us in the fields outside, I realized I was literally seeing people in a landscape, and seeing their image built out of the land itself. I couldn’t stop saying “Wow,” over and over.
What Páll showed me, and what I saw in that power plant, and in the church columns, was a model of how to imagine a world with space for humans. Many of us live in spaces that say nothing about the land we live on, or its history. If you drive to the outskirts of any urban centre in North America, you’ll see roughly the same drab squares of home improvement and furniture stores. Our finest buildings could be plopped down anywhere (and in Edmonton, they’re often designed for a Californian climate). Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to imagine living like we’re part of the land.
There is a space for us everywhere we are, though. Our homes don’t necessarily have to be made out of handfuls of rocks and lichens from the creek down the street. But we can find ways to carefully observe what’s around us, what we can add to the land to make it better, and how we can reflect our histories in ways that respect the place they play out on.
There are stories to be told about the land here in Alberta. We can live like we’re here for good.
On the advice of my mentor, I am sharing more small updates about what I’m working on. In the past couple of weeks, my thoughts and stories have been with a remarkably caring family on the streets, and with a bird desperately in need of friends in Alberta.
My story for the CJSR Homelessness Marathon was quite a challenge to put together. I can’t remember ever before spending a whole afternoon recording hours of tape, then whittling it down to a 20-minute mini-doc for radio. In this case, we had many months of time to prepare for the national marathon of community radio programming about homelessness in Canada. I used some of that time to get to know the people on the Boyle Street Community Services winter outreach van, which roams all over the city offering people a chance to warm up, get some hot food and supplies, and share the company of people who care about them. I discovered that it isn’t just people on the streets who benefit from this van’s work, though. Together with the staff, they make a caring family that feels it deeply when one of their own is lost:
This week on Terra Informa, my friend Danielle Dolgoy and I chased down a story about one of Alberta’s most threatened species. University of Alberta researcher Mark Boyce estimates that over the past few decades, the number of greater sage-grouse in the province has dipped from the thousands to a few dozen. There are so many reasons this is happening – oil and gas development, farming pressures, hawk predation… millions of reasons why the federal government sat on the sidelines for so long before issuing a special protection order under the Species At Risk Act to dramatically protect the bird. We were curious to know what finally motivated some of the parties involved to see what’s in it for them to protect the greater sage-grouse:
I’m headed to Iceland soon, and will be back near the end of March with some good stories about the archetypal land of Ice and Fire.
Before I pull on my warmest toque and toughest boots, I’m quickly scribbling out this note to let you know about an intrepid day of programming that I’m part of today on CJSR: the Homelessness Marathon. From 5 PM Mountain Time until 7 AM tomorrow morning, we’re coordinating a nationwide marathon of radio programming all about homelessness. This is the first year that CJSR has been the host of the event, and other community radio stations around the country will be chipping in with their own hours of programming throughout the evening.
My own contribution is a story about the people who work on, and visit, the Boyle Street Community Services’ outreach van. Once I dash out the door here, I’ll be following them along their route to a couple of the city’s bottle depots, where the van parks to provide a warm meal and essentials like gloves and socks for people living on the streets. I had the pleasure of meeting most of the crew last weekend, and I’m proud to be able to tell a story about something else the van provides: family. Tune in tonight around 11 PM if you’re interested. We broadcast on 88.5 FM in Edmonton, and stream online at cjsr.com.