Silver Linings Playbook: Covid-19 Edition, Part 2

[4-minute read] The ice is gone, and so are the crowds. Rideau Canal, Ottawa.

In part 2 of the Playbook, friends of, we walk the sunniest available sides of the streets of Ottawa. The number one bit of brightness is that WE’RE NOT NEW YORK. By good luck, and perhaps by a certain level of good Canadian management and prudence, we’re still only in the hundreds of cases in my city, with fewer than 10 deaths. But still, Covid-19 looms darkly over Ottawa, over everywhere that people have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Science saith unto all the congregations…¹

But there are silver linings ANYWAY. As I concluded in Part 1 of this series, they all seem to have something to do with some combination of Time, Opportunity and the Transformation of our personal and societal circumstances. What do they look like in your neighbourhood, town or city?

Here’s what my neighbour Big Sam had to say: “In a pandemic, country people still have the advantages of rural living — fresh air, woods and fields to walk in, and it’s easy to avoid people. And the disadvantages are mainly gone, because now nobody has anywhere to go or much to do. Here in town, it’s the opposite: we have all the disadvantages (nature deficits, people all over the place), and none of the city advantages like, y’know, entertainment, large gatherings and art and culture and…Big Sam has chronic tongue-in-cheek syndrome, but there’s some wry truth there. But what I’m talking about is making the best of this shutdown situation, even when densification kinda sucks! Here’s what’s silver on a cloudy Ottawa afternoon:

  • LOCAL HEROES are getting celebrated on-line. Our local chief medical officer – Dr. Vera Etches – is reputed locally to have “a will of steel” and is widely admired, as are all the health workers. (Nationally and provincially, most of Canada’s chief health officers are women, as they are municipally in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.) Suddenly the love that usually goes to highly paid hockey stars from everywhere except Ottawa is being re-directed to truck drivers, shelf stockers, grocery baggers and other jobs that are low-wage but more essential than chasing pucks. Perspectives change.
  • SINGING FROM BALCONIES? Surely there must be parts of Ottawa, more dense than my neighbourhood, where people sing and perform with each other at a distance, à l’Italienne? (Hmm, okay, maybe not. This is Ottawa.)
  • BUT THERE’S BEAUTY ALL OVER THE PLACE. Kid-painted rainbows, strategically placed teddy bears, and all kinds of encouragement are to be found in street-facing windows. “You got this!” and “Tous dans le même bâteau” and “Wash! Wash! Wash!” and these two splendidly childish jokes to follow:

In Search of the Real Artist

“So are you a Real Writer yet?” occasionally comes the smirking blonde query.
“Well, no. Not today. That’s a definite Someday,” squirms the wannabe.

Brian Smith is a Canadian portraitist that I’d never heard of. That’s no insult to him, for my knowledge of the visual arts is sparse. And by his own account, figurative artists like him don’t get much cutting-edge attention in the contemporary art world. What I do know is that he speaks well about the arts, especially that important task of de-mystification and encouragement for all those who linger hungrily around the edges of creativity and wish they knew the occult secret.

I wandered into a lecture he was doing, after-hours, at the Haliburton summer School of the Arts, held in a sparkling lake district at the base of northern Ontario. It’s pretty here. Every summer, this small town of ball caps, cigarettes and chain saws becomes a stock-up depot for the cottagers and boaters, and a magnet also for those who want to seek out creativity instead of the perfect tan. There’s an unusual number of painters, potters and sculptors in the area, and a fine school for the dabblers and the nervously ambitious makers to enhance their skills and confidence. Confidence is where Smith comes in.

He gives an animated lecture annually at the school, and this year’s edition was a wry but ultimately earnest assessment about what makes for a Real Artist. His conclusions were not surprising, but the road there was fun. (An early video-screen projection: a New Yorker-style cartoon has two gallery-goers, one of whom murmurs, “His work hovers between neo-classicism, impressionism and crap.”) In preparing his talk, Smith had run across a Website that would be gut-bustingly mockable if it weren’t aimed at such a place of human yearning and vulnerability. Apparently, you can call 1.800.REAL.ART, or go to its companion on the ‘Net. A series of questionnaires, which Brian Smith filled out on-line, resulted in an e-mailed letter of fulsome (and ungrammatical) personal praise from the – wait for it – Real Art Certification Board.

I am delighted to congratulate you on…certifying yourself as a Real Artist. All of us at RACB sincerely hope that your new-found vocation will change your life in a positive manner [glad that was clarified!] and expose you to wonderful world [sic] of Real Art…

Smith had gobs of fun with this and other expressions of the antique, exclusivist, fairy-dust notions we have of what makes an artist and what such a creature actually is and does. But his message was plain: art is about INTENTION. He scoffs at dichotomies like high art versus low art, or art versus craft. (I liked the simple truth in his quote from the potter Harlan House: “Craft is what I do all day. Art is what I have at the end of it.” If you’re lucky, Mr. House, I must say. If you’re lucky. And good. Democracy’s a pretty cool concept, but not everybody can be an RA.) To the assembled group of mainly female, mainly grey or greying pilgrims seeking to believe in the art in themselves, he proposed a simple catechism:

Anxious, spiritually yearning question: “Am I a real artist?”
Pragmatic, possibly encouraging but very likely reality-inducing answer: “Did I make any art today?”

When Smith spoke of the importance of art, and the value of allowing oneself to pursue some expression of our creativity, he was preaching to the choir. This was an audience – many of whom were already his fans from previous years – who were more than ready to laugh with him and mine a small vein of courage along the way. I expect nearly anybody would pass the Real Art Certification Board quiz and “qualify” for their specially-priced Internet “master classes”, but even in that crowd of people paying to act like artists for a week, not many would pass Brian Smith’s dauntingly simple test.

Still, I found something of what I was looking for, including chuckles and an excuse to make a little verbal mess like this one. And I liked Brian Smith’s conclusion: When we look at paintings or any media, we are the arbiters. What moves us as art is entirely subjective. We decide what is art, including OUR OWN. Don’t worry about being original. Just be authentic, true to your own vision of whatever it is you’re doing. And MAKE LOTS OF ART, be it good or bad.

Show up at the easel. Be true to your keyboard. Keep your appointments. Fulfil your own promise.