Usually when I go for a walk I head out of town. At sunrise I often head south on Highway 4 until the turnoff to Maurice’s and follow the gravel road to the irrigation ditch, then walk along the Frenchman River to Highway 18. Or, if it’s sunset, I walk entranced by its golden light caught in the hills, toward the bend in 18, then return to see Val Marie in silhouette against a lively sky of flaming clouds. Or I may choose to walk directly into the west down cemetery road. On a good night I’ll continue into the PFRA to the tune of coyotes and owls.
But one night, last winter, I decided to actually walk into town and familiarize myself with the names of the streets (gravel roads, actually). Just that week I’d been up to the bank in Swift Current and the clerk asked me for my address. I gave her my post box number. “Actually I’ll need the actual address of the building you live in for this,” she explained.
“Oh. Gee, I don’t actually know my address… When people visit I just say: ‘across from the elevator, on the corner with the swing in front.’
“I get it. I’m from a small town too. For me it was always: ‘Second road after the corner where the big tree used to be.’”
And so I thought it might be a good idea to learn some street names. I started walking down – oh crap I already forget the name… but it’s the first left after the post office, you know, across from the mural and kitty corner from The Palais Royale… Anyway, I started walking, trying to figure out who lived where. Slowly it dawned on me that most of the people on this particular street were ‘blow-ins’ – the term used for folks not from round here. And, as in the case with most villages, whether in Portugal or Newfoundland, you’re not considered a local unless your folks were born here, and their folks before them. You’ve been here 20 years? You got married to a rancher and raised kids who have recently graduated from high school here? Not quite a local. Maybe when your kids have kids those kids will be locals.
The whole local/blow-in thing can be a real point of contention, and I can see both sides. Some people blow in with big ideas and good intentions without even bothering to consult anybody as to how the village might feel about it. And there’s been more than one big talker with money (supposedly) and a notions to develop a resort or some kind of centre for professional development. One in particular was gesticulating for a good 15 minutes about all the changes he’d make, how he could make this place some big bucks, when I finally asked when was he planning to move down and get started. “Oh I wouldn’t live here!” he blurted, as if to say: who would? Suffice to say he disappeared off the map – our map, anyway.
And then there’s another group: the artists. These are the folks who carry a thought inside them that says: if you are ever going to paint those paintings, write that book, compose that album, etc., you’d better commit now. They may have been thinking about ‘scaling down,’ ‘leaving the rat race,’ ‘escaping the city’ for a long time, each niggling thought another nudge in the direction away from the life they knew. But then, one fateful summer, they decide to visit the new Grasslands National Park, or their car breaks down, or they decide to take a less travelled route and they stumble upon Val Marie, and they fall to their knees. Okay, maybe it’s not the village of Val Marie that sucks the breath from them, but it is the land. It pulls them in and will not release them from its mesmerizing hold.
This is what I realized as I strolled the street. And then, another realization struck: This is Artist Row. There’s Wes and Joanne’s place. Besides being the bison expert who brought the beasts to the Grasslands, Wes is also a superb draftsman. His animal drawings are renowned. And she is the photographer for all his books on bison. And there’s Laureen’s. I can tell when she’s up late painting because the bright studio lights illuminate the sidewalk. And of course, there’s Page on the other side of the main road. I can bet he’s at his computer right now, processing the latest batch of natural wonders on his computer after a day of photography in the park. And here’s Diana’s, who’s working on a new show to be exhibited in Kansas. It was as I stood at her gate that I received a text from Diana: ‘Can u visit and give me feedback on my new ptgs?’
In the back of Diana’s bed and breakfast/yoga studio is her painting studio. Two enormous canvases are stretched and stapled to the wall. Surrounding them are quotes and images and smaller studies, details of a larger vision in progress. With me it is always the unfolding vision that entrances me about an artist: how do they maintain that tension between ‘I know where I want to go’ but ‘I’m open to the mysterious, inevitable, unpredictable changes that occur in the making of a true piece of art.’ I’ve learned through making art, and through interviewing other artists, that once an artist understands their own process they can create the conditions wherein that process can be called up again. And what separates the serious from the noncommittal is the degree to which you are willing to understand your process, and ultimately, yourself.
As in life, you have to be relaxed enough to allow for spontaneous creative gestures and at the same time be disciplined enough to hear your muse and move your vision from your mind’s eye to your canvas. I’ve seen art that is visually unique but seems to be without heart because the artist does not have the skill required to pull the spirit out of the paint box. On the other hand I’ve seen work so technically perfect I feel I could walk into it, but I have no desire to do so. Diana manages to evoke a sense of wonder and an urge to enter the piece. Especially that night, walking out of the cold into the studio. As I rounded the corner and witnessed the two canvases for the first time, one dominated by a bison skull, the other a Texas longhorn, I gasped audibly.
I was taught that the sign of a good artist was the capacity to paint anything and not make mud. Mud is when the colours all look a little dirty. Once you’ve got mud all you can do is start over. Diana can paint Big Muddy and not make mud. But what makes a true artist is the capacity to lift the awareness of the viewer to a level of compassion for the subject matter. It’s not necessary that the viewer even know that the surge of feeling inside them, whether it’s a melting away of barriers or a sudden urge to weep, is a feeling of compassionate awareness. That kind of ‘knowing’ isn’t mental, it’s experiential – you tend to realize it after the fact, when you walk away seeing everything around you in a new light and with greater curiosity.
The stereotype about artists is they tend to be oblivious to the world around them, their head in the clouds. But, as Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way says: the artist’s job is to pay attention. Note the exact colour of that butte- is it sandy brown or burnt sienna? Get it right down to the finest detail. Don’t stop short of the right shade, don’t miss the mark or lose track of the line.
‘Paying attention’ is also how we move our bodies and note our hindrances in yoga. And Diana is the local yoga teacher. Every time we finish an evening of challenging poses we are rewarded with the corpse pose, where we lay completely relaxed, while Diana leads us through a meditation that brings awareness to every part of our bodies. Walking home after yoga I feel both buoyant and grounded. And after being with Diana’s large paintings containing stories about the land, the animals and the dance between them, I feel the same way, like there’s all this vibrant beauty right in front of our eyes, but there’s also so much that lies beyond and within as well. Something bigger and potentially wondrous, not necessarily disastrous, if we choose wisely and compassionately.
Painting is Diana’s genius, but, as Geothe says, we all have genius in us. It behooves us to find our genius, our talent, and hone it. It’s what moves us beyond ‘merely surviving’ to ‘joyfully thriving.’ Often we locate it by letting something bigger than us inform us. In Val Marie I think that ‘something bigger’ is what unites all of us. That ‘something bigger’ is the land.
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, Sask. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio. On Aug. 3 she performed at the Val Marie Hotel from her collection of stories based on her PWSS exhibit, ‘My Mother’s Apron,’ including three new songs.