Monday, March 31, 2014

Flying Without a Net - Or Even Hand Lotion

A tiny piece of paper fluttered to the floor when I dislodged one of my fridge magnets. It was a message from a fortune cookie that I had forgotten about. It said, “Joy comes from adventure today. Time to shake the world.” I can’t recall what day I got this memorandum, but I put it on the fridge, so I must have thought it was important. Maybe that was the day I went WAY out on a limb and bought mint-flavored dental floss.

Still, they say that there are no accidents in life. I took the cookie’s edict as a sign that I should blog about it. Coincidentally, I actually had been thinking this past week about being a bit more adventurous. The last time I stepped out of my comfort zone I had parked the car in a different garage than I usually do and panicked when I couldn’t find the exit.

Real adventurers travel to far-flung corners of the globe. They shoot white water rapids in tiny kayaks, jump out of high-flying aircraft, sleep in tents and come face to face with grizzly bears. This is not me. I think I’m being a daredevil if I eat a banana after 7 pm.

Adventure can be a matter of degrees, though, I believe. And even those of you, my friends, who consider yourselves to be true swashbucklers, you too would pause when comparing your exploits with someone like this guy: Bryan Smith, the award-winning National Geographic cinematographer whose presentation we attended a week ago at the Victoria Theatre here in Dayton.

Smith is a specialist in filming seemingly impossible, extreme feats of outdoor adventuring. His passion is discovering remote, uncharted corners of the globe where he and his crew kayak over steep rapids or climb the world’s most challenging peaks. He thrives on pushing his own limits to get gripping shots of people doing unbelievably dangerous stuff. The videos we saw during his lecture were nothing short of jaw-dropping, adrenalin-inducing, heart-stopping, breath-taking, daring-do exploits. My heart pounded even though I was comfortably seated in a darkened theatre. My chocolate pecan chunk cookies and glass of 1% milk waiting at home was a welcome sight, I can tell you!

But, just when we thought we’d seen enough heart-stopping excitement, Smith upped the ante. In 2012, he and his crew filmed a guy named Dean Potter who is a renowned American “free climber.” Meaning: Potter climbs mountains without any equipment. No ropes. No harness. No crampons. Nothing. Just his hands and legs to propel himself upward. They showed him dusting his hands and feet with, what I assumed, was resin in order to maintain a no-slip grip. And I was thinking, “Dang! That has to be hard on your hands! I wonder if he has some Neutrogena in his fanny pack.”

But up he goes. And then this fearless fellow throws himself off cliffs wearing a wing suit that makes him look like a giant flying squirrel. His most notable jump was from British Columbia’s Mount Butte, a rugged 7,546-foot elevation. Potter walked out onto a 40 foot diving board that Smith and crew had engineered to cantilever off the mountain face held only by cables, and he took off as though he were an eagle fledgling testing his wings. He soared through space to a meadow below. If you don’t believe me, google it – search on “The Man Who Can Fly.” Seriously wild stuff.

Once we had all caught our breath, at the end of his talk, Bryan Smith encouraged us in the audience to get out and push ourselves beyond our boundaries. Test our limits. He has been quoted as saying that “extreme” is “whatever is scary to you.” So, I decided then and there that I AM adventurous! Just not quite as adventurous as these guys. I will take up Bryan Smith’s charge. I am about to shake up my world. Tomorrow I’m switching from Cheerios to Raisin Bran! Ooo! A shiver just ran up my spine!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Happy Little Trees

Some people look forward to retirement so they can travel. Some hinge their senior years around golf. Neither of these two options is on my Top Ten agenda; I suck at golf and I hate flying. So, I signed up for a course in acrylic painting. My first class was this past Thursday.

I have long imagined that I might spend my twilight years making art. In my mind’s eye I see myself looking a bit like a reincarnated Emily Carr, minus the hair net, with neatly-cut grey hair, a floppy brimmed hat, wide-legged linen pants and a cardigan, Birkenstock sandals, those half-glasses that sit far down on the nose and a thermos of Chamomile tea at my side. My easel is set up on a rocky outcropping above an azure blue lake, surrounded by tall green pine trees towering on the far shore. I try to expunge this mental picture quickly.

As pleasant as this idea may be, it just isn’t me. Especially not the Birkenstocks – nor the hair net. But more particularly, I've never been sure that I’m destined to paint trees. Truth be told, I’m not sure I am destined to paint at all. Paint and I have been at a stand-off all my life; it has been a rocky relationship. While other kids in Kindergarten were giddy with the excitement of smearing color around with their fat little fingers, I was hovering around the edges trying to stay tidy. The summer I was 9 or 10, I had German measles and was quarantined to our cool basement rec room for a couple of weeks. My dad brought me a canvas, some oil paints, brushes and an easel. “I don’t know what to paint,” I whined. He went upstairs and came back with a copy of the Star Weekly – the magazine insert from the Saturday newspaper. “Here’s a nice picture,” he said, “You could paint that!” It was a scene of palm trees silhouetted against a Hawaiian sunset. I did paint it, but wasn’t the least bit happy with the results. The trees were just flat black shapes against an orange background; no dimension or texture. There was too much canvas showing through thin color washes that I hadn’t been courageous enough to apply with any kind of commitment. It flashed through my head at the time, “But is this art?” Bad sign.

Flash forward to my 20s when I took Interior Design at the University of Manitoba where our instruction included water color renderings of rooms and furnishings. Water color is a medium with a mean-spirited mind of its own and it always got the better of me gooshing every which way and coloring outside the lines.

Flash forward again to my 40th year when I enrolled in Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia. I majored in drawing and printmaking so I managed to avoid the painting studio altogether for the two years I was there.  And although it was a wonderful education, steeped as it was in art theory and contemporary art practice ideology, it ruined me for happiness as a hobbyist. We were groomed for serious Art.

So, here I am in my 60s still kvetching about whether it’s ok to paint for fun or if there is really any point unless I become the art world’s newest, hottest phenom – although at my age, I might have a better shot at being the next Grandma Moses. Finally, resigned with some stern self-talk that said, “OH, for gosh sakes, just get OVER yourself!” I signed up for a class at a community arts center and headed to the art supply store with my list of supplies in hand.

Such treasures on the shelves! Tubes of every color you can imagine. And, oh you have got to be kidding me, Bob Ross painting kits! Do you remember Bob Ross? He had a show on PBS called “The Joy of Painting.” He taught you how to load up your brush and paint happy little trees. His happy little trees were paint brush dabs and dashes that were merely technique, but looked like trees if you squinted hard enough. He had other clever techniques for painting deciduous trees, ocean waves, babbling brooks, mountain tops and grasslands. All delivered with a soft, PBS voice and folksy delivery, “And we’ll just put some happy little trees rye-ch ch’here.” Not exactly art.

“Feh!” I thought. “No way am I hobby painting happy little trees,” as I picked out my tubes of Titanium White, Ultramarine and Cadmium Yellow – Van Gogh’s Cadmium Yellow. I know art history.

At class on Thursday I stared at my blank canvass. The teacher came by and asked what I wanted to paint. “Well, that’s a problem,” I told her, “I have no idea.” I tried to banish the memory of my basement quarantine. She said that beginning painters often find it helpful to copy from another painter’s work, “So the brush strokes translate to how you might apply paint,” she offered. She had some works to choose from. Some Van Gogh sunflowers. A Matisse still-life. I picked a winter scene of pine trees with snow on their branches. There was an interesting mix of colors to work with in the picture. And great brush strokes.

There I was on my first day, painting trees. I wasn’t quite getting the effect I wanted, until I thought of Bob Ross and his happy little technique. I started dabbing and dashing and soon I had pine tree-esque marks on my canvas. Before I could say, “Rye-ch ch’here!” I was enjoying myself.

So, I say to you, if you have thought about a hobby all your life and are waiting for your retirement to begin it, don’t wait. Get started today. And may all your little trees be happy.