A sunny day means one of two things: a steady flow of visitors or a shipwreck. An hour from now, Monica will find out which it will be, whether immersing herself into sculpture, painting and fabric art for the past eight months was worth it or whether she must hurl herself at paid employment, take any job to cover her share of the mortgage payments, an idea she can barely fathom. All are welcome to her month-long show in the Virtanen shipyard.
Monica checks the guard rail and posts for stability, then stops at the bottom of the stairs leading to the boatyard. A gable roof covers a long shed that opens onto a spillway facing the inlet, with two railroad type tracks to bring up boats; at high tide, the water reaches the far end of the rails. Two large buildings of equal size flank the tall-ceilinged middle shed. It’s Tobias Virtanen’s cathedral, his place of worship of all things maritime. A sign outside each building showing a directional arrow urges visitors to walk clockwise. This isn’t about a ritual, like circling a sacred object, or following a spiritual direction, but about avoiding crowded walkways by the boat cradle and preventing falls. The cradle is empty; Tobias finished his last boat two weeks ago.
Two photographs tacked in the far north corner of the building show Tobias, another man, a woman, moving a piano with a chain hoist over the gunwales of a boat, then up the planks at an angle towards the house. Tobias told Monica that the woman in the picture is his ex. When Monica first floated the idea of her art show, she expected resistance from Tobias, a man in his early seventies. But much like his younger version in the picture, he embraced the challenge, eager to come up with a solution. Apart from roping off Tobias’ cherished welding table, they worked together at removing obstacles, one at a time.
Monica holds the label of Sounds from Sealion Town and puts it below an acrylic and mixed media painting on canvas 24 x 20. A wave of orange descends, getting pulled back into browns, greens. From the bottom third, a triangular shape suggests an animal’s snout above the water.
The Story Behind the Painting
On my first day on the island, my husband took me to the Haida Heritage Centre. Standing by the Dogfish pole, looking out to the water, what struck me was a scraping sound, like that of a boat having run aground. What I heard was the sound of waves crashing against the shore and of water from a previous wave receding: the swash and backwash. A coming and going. We didn’t see any sea lions that day, but saw the glistening heads of seals close to shore. I wanted to capture the energy of wind and waves in this painting.
She checks that the painting is straight, then takes a break and walks back to the entrance and into a side building, where she has positioned her exhibit catalogues of 24 new creations. She picked them up late morning from the print shop, all 200 copies, although she doubts she is going to need that many.
The food table has enough individually wrapped seaweed and sesame treats for 100 people, as well as small paper boxes with her logo on it: a damselfly. Large boxes filled with ice keep white wine, beer and seltzer cool, and ice cubes float among blueberries and raspberries in two large bowls of fruit punch. She can return the booze to the liquor store but running out of food or drink spells disaster for an art opening.
Monica walks back to the main shed to check on two more pieces. An oil painting called Hidden in the Fog shows Tobias Virtanen when she first met him next to the harbour office cabin on the pier. In the picture, he is standing off centre, the whites in his beard play off the grey fog hanging over the inlet. Just a faint outline behind him suggests Sleeping Beauty, the mountain range at the West End of Queen Charlotte. The rest of the background is the sky, a mixture of green and greys.
The Story Behind the Picture.
When I first met Tobias Virtanen, I was looking for places to rent for a gallery. Unfortunately, none of the spaces I had identified became available. He introduced himself as a boatbuilder, and later, allowed me to work in his shop to sculpt in yellow cedar. I hope to have captured his concentration a few seconds before he speaks.
Tobias walks up behind her and says, “I doubt anyone will want to buy a picture of an old man.”
Monica turns around to face him. “Why not? If this is some sailor’s superstition, like not allowing a banana on a boat, it doesn’t apply to me.”
Tobias shakes his head and walks away.
She moves a few feet away and installs a bracket from which she hangs a piece of yellow cedar sculpture and silk, a boat- shaped lamp. A silk sail sits above two hulls of equal size, modeled after a catamaran. Last fall it won the People’s Choice Award at the All-Islands Art Show. She had wanted to surprise her husband Paul, and kept her entry a secret, but Paul had smoked up with some friends and didn’t want to show up glassy-eyed. Who was feeling weepy was Monica, when Paul didn’t respond to her three text messages. Tim Gray, the Haida artist who bought the piece called Heading out Soon, agreed to lend it for display in this show.
The Story Behind the Sculpture
Since seeing Haida canoes up close, I have been looking out on the water. I joined a women’s art group, and when I was looking for inspiration, I remembered seeing a catamaran sailboat tied up to a buoy, close to my place. Catamarans are stable because of their geometrical design, but by adding fluid lines to the hull and the live aboard section, these boats are far from clunky. Catamarans are a technology of indigenous peoples who live in Taiwan, Maritime Southeast Asia, Oceania and Madagascar. In Europe, William Petty’s name is synonymous with the first documented double-hulled design in 1662; a sailing craft that was built in Dublin.
The sound of a whistle from a personal flotation device startles Monica and Tobias. A wide kayak with two stabilizers at the bow approaches, and a young man in another kayak rafts near the first boat. A woman sits in a special chair. Monica feels her cheeks get hot. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to her that her art show in the boat shed wasn’t accessible. She is used to gallery spaces already set up; but she would have had to wait for eighteen months before she could have shown her work at the museum.
The woman waves to Tobias and shouts, “Hi Tobias, sorry we’re a bit early. I wouldn’t want to miss this for the world.”
Tobias says, “It’s all right, Fern.”
Fern picks up a pair of binoculars and gives Monica a thumbs-up. She hears air moving and sees Tobias catching a tow rope to help steady Fern’s kayak. The young man exits his boat, climbs up to the wooden floor, walks towards Monica and says, “Is there a catalogue? I’d like to get it for my mom.”
“Of course.” Monica leads him to the catalogue station and the plates of treats. He grabs a beer and a seltzer, picks up some goodies and heads back down towards the kayaks.
A group of people gather at the entrance. Among them is Monica’s husband Paul, whose blond curly hair refuses to settle into a side part. He is so open, without guile. Six years ago, he would have hugged most of the surrounding people. Now he has curtailed this panoramic hugging custom, reserving hugs for a few close friends. It still irks Monica. He comes over and in his brief embrace Monica feels less tense; she wishes for him to quit networking with the business community and instead concentrate on working out the knots in her trapezius muscle. This evening, maybe.
Visitors trickle, then stream in, all keeping at a distance. Parents hold on to their kids around the walkway. The women from the art group come bearing extra plates of treats. They assume a position by the food table, the slide projector, and the catalogues, even though Monica didn’t ask them to. Their generosity is touching; she should have invited them to be part of the show. The show is her consolation prize for not having found gallery space; now she feels like a stage hog.
Phil Lumley, owner of Lumley’s Hauling and Storage, eyes Tobias from in front of the table, then walks up to grab a catalogue. After both he and Tobias have left the vicinity, Marianne from the art group looks around, lowers her voice, and says, “I can’t believe those two. They still have a case of one-upmanship, even though the woman they both loved has left the islands long ago. Too bad. She and Tobias were good together, but Tobias riveted all of his attention on his boat-building business.”
To keep things moving, Monica has included Tobias’ welcome speech in the catalogue. “Please enjoy yourselves today, as you view Monica Keeley’s recent works. I know little about art, but when I look at her designs, the way she balances shape, volumes, and fine lines I can’t help but think that Ms. Keeley has seafaring in her background.” Monica has added all her acknowledgments and thanks, the last one to her husband Paul for supporting her art. This is a stretch, given the reminders of job opportunities he routinely leaves near her drawing table, and her responses by sending him copies of jobs in arts administration and museums in urban centres. He returns those with a backward arrow, his personal shorthand for saying that he doesn’t want a long-distance relationship; wants them to move forward here.
A five-piece band plays on the lawn, and people in line for their walk- through sway back and forth. Children slide out from their parental hands and chase a frisbee. Lawn chairs pop up, and more people sample the food in a celebration of connection through distance. On their way to the boat shed, visitors slow down to take in the intoxicating smell of fragrant azaleas.
A woman introduces herself as Ella Brewer, a videographer, who is covering the art show for the local news channel and will upload her recording to YouTube. She has taken a shot of Fern in her boat with the stabilizers and Monica hopes it won’t make it into the video, but the editing suite is off-limits for her. Monica now understands that her welcome message hides an ableism she would rather not have to face.
Ella points at the catalogue and tells Monica that her favourite piece is a ceramic bowl in eggshell white with hints of tourmaline and golden inlay seams.
As a student, I learned from a master, Ms. Takada. Repairing items of everyday use, like cloth or ceramics, is a tradition in Japanese Art. This exemplifies the aesthetic of sabi: loving care that comes with age. Kintsugi or golden joinery is a way to add beauty to a broken item. The item is being transformed, and the repair is an integral part of the item.
Our current practice of upcycling, reclaiming materials from one object or site and incorporating them into another, bears some similarity with this practice.
Monica remembers the time Paul first introduced her to his parents. She was jetlagged, and in the early morning, couldn’t find the light switch to locate the bathroom, so she shuffled along the dark hallway in her slippers, when she hit something with her big toe. A vase came crashing down from a pedestal. Intruder guilt seeped through her pores and into her dream snippets. When she reported the accident the next day during breakfast, her mother-in-law narrowed her brows and said, “Oh no, this vase has been in our family for years.” Monica wouldn’t eat until her father-in-law laughed and said, “our last visitor almost had a shard in his toes.”
Paul kept his eyes trained on his lap and didn’t say a word.
Ella Brewer has closed the catalogue and points the video camera towards Phil Lumley, who walks up towards them, nods at Ella and says, “Congratulations, Ms. Keeley, on an excellent show. A lot of work must have gone into mounting your art in a pop-up gallery.”
The way he pronounces pop-up, like a bottle stopper exploding, suggests disdain, but Monica lifts her head to meet his gaze a little longer than feels comfortable and thanks him: anything else might signal weakness.
When Monica was looking for a gallery space, she drove out to Lumley’s warehouse where he had put up a building for sale, and when she asked whether he would consider renting it out, he laughed at her and said that hydro bills alone would kill her. Like a beetle, she pulled in her flying wings below a hard exterior.
Ella asks to see some of Monica’s designs. Together they walk to the projector by the entrance. The projector light is off, so few if any visitors got to see her pieces from her urban period when she received an award for designers under thirty to watch for. Paul was finishing his masters’ thesis in public administration, and she was administrator of the Neaves gallery; post deadlines, they would go for a walk, followed by a fancy dinner. Now the scales have tipped: he is the one with the career job, while Monica is still trying to get established.
Monica checks the connection to the projector, but it seems firm. What else could go wrong with this show? She fights an urge to pace, something Paul is well-attuned to; he approaches and looks at the missing red light of a power bar, then walks towards the other side of the building, locates the grey fuse panel, returns, and says, “Something must have tripped the breaker.”
Ella turns her video camera back on and says, “What an amazing event. It took only fifteen minutes to have most of the pieces sold.”
Paul’s eyebrows lift, and his arches disappear below his curls. He tilts his head and looks at Monica like he does when he finds an astonishing fact.
“The lamp made of rice paper in amber and brown, reminds me of some of your other sculptures.” Ella points to a design of a park bench in the early beginning section of the catalogue. The backrest is mildly convex, and tubular shapes extend from one end of the bench.
Monica says, “Funny you would mention this. I modeled this lamp after a beetle. Sundays were always special for me. My mom and dad would take me for a picnic at Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, and I would bring a glass jar so that I could take home beetles. I loved examining their carapace, the way they moved their legs. Whenever we got close to home, my father asked me to release them in the green space nearby. Once I smuggled a beetle into my room, but it didn’t survive in its new habitat.”
Ella nods and opens the catalogue to a picture of five-year-old Monica between her mother and father. In the photo, Monica’s parents seem to look at different points in the distance. Despite their conflicting lines of sight, Monica likes to imagine them holding hands behind their daughter.
Monica visits with the women from her art group, when Norma says, “All but the beetle lamp sold; and the boat lamp belongs to Tim Gray.” The women give a high five. Monica will keep the sheet with the red dots by her side tonight after dinner. She reaches for her first food of the day, rice crackers with seaweed, and the slight sweetness on her tongue makes her feel queasy at first, but then she feels a surge of energy.
Marianne, who took charge of sales, comes back with the Visa machine and cash box, and says, “He had to do this, too.”
“Who?” Norma says.
“Phil Lumley. He bought almost all the pieces. Fern was first though; she bought the oil painting, and Phil wouldn’t likely have bought a picture of Tobias.”
Monica stamps on some boxes and scours down a few tables — she cannot stay still. Why did she have to hear about Phil Lumley flashing his cash? What turned him into a patron of the arts? She wants to run home, but leaving Tobias, Paul and the art group women with the cleanup would be irresponsible.
That evening on their deck, Paul toasts her “To My Darling, so full of surprises.” Monica leafs through a copy of her catalogue and starts ripping it up into tiny pieces, then continues with a copy of her sales slips. She drops them by her feet, then looks up across the water towards Sleeping Beauty. Two spikes of the setting sun peek out from the envelope of a petrol cumulus cloud. A tawny hue imbues the mountain range, softening its contours. The ripples on the water below gleam in a wedge of light; the rocky shore laps up its golden reflection.