Back down at the CFHT offices in Waimea…


Back down at the CFHT offices in Waimea at a reasonable 2,500 feet above sea level, we all get our brains back — sort of like the Straw Man at the end of the Wizard of Oz. I have been given a generous office area to convert to a studio space for the month and Roger Wood, resident mechanic and maker of anything for any purpose helps me staple gun plastic up the walls and over the floor to protect the general office-ness of the area. Once the area has been ‘secured’, I get to work prepping large canvases, measuring, cutting and priming as about fifty pictures from my first day up at the observatory are being printed out in the printing room down the hall thanks to Ferd, software specialist.

I have a delayed safety presentation from the safety officer, Sharon Potter, who was miffed that I did not have the presentation prior to going up the mountain yesterday. I guess in the flurry of introductions, this fell through the cracks. I learned a lot about the physical symptoms of being at altitude — some of which I’d experienced. It is really important to spend at least an hour at the halfway point to acclimate. As well, it is recommended to drink sixteen ounces of fluid each hour — that was why I got a headache at about four in the afternoon on the first day — I was dehydrated. Also, the kidneys operate differently at altitude and you have to pee every forty minutes or so. And because the brain is dying from lack of oxygen, you have to feed it on what it runs — sugar, simple carbohydrates — and avoid complex proteins and fat that take energy for your body to digest. Yes, a get out of jail free card to eat all the junk food your brain needs…

I have been asked to give a short presentation at the all-staff meeting on Monday and so I work on my talk and pictures for my talk in preparation. It tells the story of my first tour of the telescope a year ago (see earlier in this blog) and how I couldn’t get the place out of my mind. Making art about what I find here is a huge opportunity and I am excited at the prospect. I also point out that I would like the residency to be a dialogue, not just one-sided. With this in mind, I describe several art exercises which are on offer in my studio for whoever wishes to participate. This is a bit of a gamble in that the audience is composed of people whose lives revolve around left-brain activities of analysis and judgment —  not useful in the initial stages of art production. We artists tend to ask the judge to leave the room while we made art. I invited them to try out a different part of their brains for a short time — the exercises I proposed took from five minutes to ten minutes to twenty-five minutes and could be scheduled at everyone’s convenience. Interestingly by the end of the month, almost everyone at CFHT participated in one or more of the activities. There were four activities on offer.

First, cyanotype or sun printing is an easy and dramatic print making method. Paper saturated in photosensitive chemicals is laid flat and various objects are placed quickly on top of the paper. Then the paper is exposed to direct sunlight (making art with star watchers using our own big star — the sun) and any area blocked by an object comes out white and any part of the paper exposed to the sun comes out a deep, rich ultramarine blue. If objects are jiggled during this process, you produce ‘ghost’ images in light blue within the larger white areas. Then the paper is rinsed in water to stop the processing and dried. This process produces very striking images easily and quickly. It requires people to make quick, intuitive creative choices and gives them instant gratification. What I learned from working with the staff is that asking an engineer to empty their pockets usually produces really interesting objects for sun prints! What they learned, in part, is that mistakes (accidentally jiggling their compositions while running out to the central courtyard to expose them to sunlight) makes for better art sometimes. Yes, mistakes are our friends in art production.

Next, sumi-e. I have studied sumi-e, which is Japanese ink brush painting in Kyoto years ago and was keen to share some of the techniques with the staff at CFHT. The basics of the method include very specific processes such as making the ink with an ink stick upon an ink stone, holding the special sumi-e brush vertically as one paints and the focusing upon a specific Japanese character as one attempts to replicate it. There are no do-overs or going back to ‘fix’ the piece. It is a very Zen like practice about being in the present and very focused. The person making a sumi-e painting is encouraged to smell the aroma of the incense added to each traditional Japanese ink stick to inspire the painter. Again, this practice takes however long a person wishes to continue but a single attempt can be made in less than five minutes. As well, personal deviations from the classical character only make the work richer and more prized — again, you cannot screw this up — screw ups are part of the process of producing a unique piece of art.

For those people who enjoyed sumi-e and are very kinesthetic or physically fit and enjoy sports, I offered shodo. Shodo is sumi-e writ large. The characters are made on large pieces of paper laid out on the floor and the shodo-iste uses a large broom and a bucket of ink to paint their character while walking backwards, in a crouch, while looking hard at their proposed character on the wall in front of them. The way the broom/brush is held is quite awkward and forces the artist to use their entire body to complete each stroke. This was particularly popular with a number of engineers and astronomers. Like sumi-e, there is not a big time commitment as the work is made quite quickly.

My final offering for an art exercise was a 360-degree continuous shared landscape drawing. It is a process I have enjoyed with several artists, including the one who gave me permission to use this idea. This activity required four people (five including me) to take about 25 minutes to accomplish. The general method is to commandeer a small hill or other viewing area and divide it into five pie ‘wedge’ sections, fanning out from a common central point. In each wedge segment is a person and a five-page blank paper accordion-style book, a pot of ink and a twig from the property. We used yardsticks to delineate our segments. For five minutes, participants draw what they perceive looking out to the landscape from their vantage point and attempting to draw the view from their segment only. Then, we all sprinkle dry sand (from a common pot in the centre) across the wet ink and the books are closed and passed to the next segment to the right and the person moves their body to the next segment to the left. This is repeated five times so at the end you have five different books of the same scene drawn by five different artists from five different positions. When pulled out as accordions, they look like ancient Oriental scrolls. The sand adds texture and interest as it embeds into the wet ink. I made hard covers for the books and black silk ribbon ties and we all signed the fronts with our names and the date of the cooperative drawing project. I found the resultant drawings fascinating — the astronomer had no horizons! The accountant drew every detail she could in five minutes, even blades of grass. The software guy made small, code-like observances about the landscape and the engineer made the loveliest sketches of tangible things, a bench or the structure of a tree. It was a challenge in that the morning that we pulled everyone together was very windy and we had to grasp our books, twigs and inkpots firmly as we worked. The twigs force people to work less precisely than they might with a pencil or pen and this leads to looser, more interesting work.


~ by Colleen McLaughlin Barlow on November 4, 2011.

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