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Arts and Culture (6)

As a young artist who makes large installations, sculptures and paintings revolving around industrial architecture and the railways, I decided to travel to Japan to explore its attitude and approach to large historical artefacts and to research cultural difference, as evidenced through a similar shared national industrial heritage.

The intriguing building methods of the industrial age inspired me to make large-scale architectural installations, sculptures and paintings. Using the forms of bridges, railways and stations, my work mimics an industrial style and aesthetic. My sculptures, whilst appearing to be functional architectural features made from cast iron, are in fact made from lightweight wood, thus questioning the idea that form follows function, and transforming them into sculptural objects. The theatricality of these architectural pieces pays homage to the once labour-intensive methods of making these structures, whilst still preserving their visually impressive grandeur and ornate, over-engineered qualities.

40ft Riveted BeamEach Victorian bridge, train station, tunnel, and other major pieces of infrastructure, had an intended purpose that would usually result in a utilitarian design, however this did not overshadow the need for it to be aesthetically pleasing. This sustained grandeur that can be seen across the 19th Century era of construction has ultimately secured longevity due to the attention and respect it demands. 

My sculptures have the potential to be components taken directly from a 19th Century structure. I trade these traditional methods of making with the use of modern, lightweight and more practical materials, while still adhering to the familiar qualities of being over-the-top and over-engineered. It is my plan to deceive the observer into believing that they are seeing ‘the real thing’, which is in complete contrast to the intentions of the original engineers, as my works have no utilitarian use at all.

Japanese suburban line smllJapanese culture has always fascinated me. My aim was to assess at first hand the efficiency of Japan Railways (JR) as a means of gaining a real sense of what the Japanese culture is like. The method of research comprised the direct experience of the railways themselves. Along with the sights, sounds and smells to be experienced this way, travel by railways always give a unique perspective on a place, as you can usually see into everyone's back gardens and can often gain a real sense of who they really are both literally and metaphorically.

As an outsider, Japanese culture seemed to work consistently in perfect harmony, and coming from London this is a completely foreign concept as dysfunctionality and dirt seem to be evident everywhere. I believe this is what makes London what it is. London development has always made a mess; this is partly due to the city being at the centre of the industrial revolution, and still today it portrays similar characteristics. Soot has been replaced by plastic, smog is now invisible and rush hour can be likened to chaos. Despite Japan having many similarities to the UK and in many cases more extreme, its cities like Tokyo seem to function without making such a mess of the urban environment. The streets are spotless, and from what I saw there were no bins across the entire country. Shinjuku Station may be the busiest in the world but at rush hour it simply works and when visiting the toilet, you never have to touch a thing, sometimes even the seat rises when you walk towards it!

I hope in the next few paragraphs to highlight some of the similarities and differences between my art work and what I experienced in Japan, as well as ways that I could see my practice changing as a result of my visit.

One of my inspirations is the physical lasting effect of Victorian engineering and its extreme durability; evidence of it can be seen across the world where bridges and relics of a revolutionary labour-intensive age were once commonplace. The Western world has moved away from this way of working; however, it is almost as though Japan has retained this attitude to working collectively towards a common goal and in so doing has kept the unique etiquettes that inevitably go with it. Work and social life exist as one, and the respect for places, skills and wisdom is stronger. In a country where it is hard to see things that predate 1945 due to the bombing by the USA in the latter stages of World War Two or the many subsequent earthquakes, the Japanese have continued to build and revolutionise technology with this collective approach.

N700 Series ShinkansenEverything works as it was intended; the high speed Shinkansen which the Japanese pioneered in the 1960’s isn’t just one train every half an hour, it’s one train every 2 minutes! The trains arrive punctually to the second, and are efficiently cleaned while the passengers stand in designated areas queuing to board at the particular place their tickets designate on the often fifteen-carriage monster locomotives. With my JR pass I didn’t even get my ticket checked as the conductor knows who you are from all the reservations on his machine. At the final stop, the passengers all get off and repeat the process to go back they way they came. This is a situation where the theatre of everyday life in Japan is portrayed through a mundane task such as boarding a train, but it has been developed though years of improvement to make the process better. The common goal is as simple as going somewhere but everyone plays a part in making that happen as efficiently as possible. This is how things work best and, therefore, they do it like that.

My experience of travelling across the country involved staying in the railway hotels, often in the station itself. From here we explored the location and reason for visiting and then we boarded another train to take us to our next destination, with considerable ease. This theatre of travelling had rules and processes like the most rehearsed theatre production and once I had my head around it, it leads to an appreciation of the transience of travelling. The moments are fleeting and particularly special. These epiphanies happen when I realised why everyone is queuing orderly on a platform, or, when walking the length of a Ueno Station Shinkansen platform and noticing it is where Nintendo’s revolutionary fighting game Tekken is set, and the huge platform actually is an endless procession of pillars framing each screen as you scroll left to right. I can only liken Japan to all the planets in Star Wars put together in these small islands in the Pacific. It is like that familiar, but foreign, alien planet you might visit on the other side of the universe; it is really densely populated, everything has a bespoke synthesiser-generated tune behind it, and everybody has a tiny box car called a Kei car. I saw weird and wonderful things everywhere.

I have heard many people say that Japanese culture restricts their creativity. The etiquette of daily life dictates aspects of their culture and therefore their creativity. The question is not ‘How do we create something unique and original?’ instead it is ‘How can we improve on an existing idea? How can we do it better or even be the best?’ and I would argue that this is different. Yes - improving what is already there is very obviously what they do, unlike here they are not bothered by being seen to copy - and why strive for something original when nothing truly is or can be? - improve instead on what was there before. Reassuringly, I could say that no artist makes truly original work – in my opinion it is always a culmination of other people’s ideas and experiences. Japan seems to thrive on this.

When I visited the Toyota factory, in Toyota city (that is built, developed and named so because of the its founder, Toyoda, not the other way around), I saw several examples of how the car had incorporated ideas and been improved beyond recognition. The factory motto and philosophy is ‘good thinking, good products’. This idea, to improve the reliability and efficiency of the company, was born in the 1930’s, when Toyota was designing the automated cotton loom that revolutionised the industry, meaning less wastage, no children were required to fix them and one person could work an entire factory floor. This philosophy of improvement I saw in every aspect of Toyota factory I visited - from where you put your drill down to how far away the canteen is, had all been thought of. Ultimately this has resulted in the company becoming the biggest car manufacturer in the world and pre-2008 one Toyota had rolled off the production line across the world every four seconds. They have taken Ford’s pioneering production line concept used with the model T and made it better beyond what anyone thought possible.

This is reflected everywhere in the art I have seen which is amazingly precise and perfectly executed. However, the artists I came across don't know what dirt looks like! I'm not sure if I can make a piece of work without getting dirty, in fact the dirtier I am usually the more successful my artwork! Situated in the hills of Kyoto is Kyoto City University of Arts. It has courses in traditional sculpture (wood, stone and casting are the preferred methods), but here, MDF would be an almost unheard of as a raw material. You can do a three-year BA in Urushi lacquering, a 35 step traditional method of layering wood that results in the distinct black finish often seen in Japanese crafts and architecture. Following that you can go on to do an MA and even a PhD. These traditions are kept alive and kicking and students are always striving to better themselves. This is the first art school I have visited that kept chickens - apparently used for life painting as they are a traditional subject in Japanese painting - like waves I assume.

Despite these long-lasting traditions, Japan is a massive fad culture. They consume technology at a rate equivalent to buying a new TV every week. (???!!!) Even the way they present the weather has its own fad culture. The broadcast weather report in the UK has always been given more importance than it deserves – it wants to be a show in its own right when all we want to know is what the weather will be like. In Japan each channel’s weather has its own gaudy mascot that will hold a cardboard cut-out symbol of a cloud or a sun. It is really tacky and the huge mascots are completely serial interpretations of animals that would only be seen on children’s TV in the UK. However, in Japan this is a ‘FAD’ and will go completely out of fashion when the next big thing comes along. These will not become a tradition and continue for ever. Society as a whole will move on - here today and gone tomorrow.

There is no need to buy a TV or any ‘new’ technology. Just walk along the street when the next new one is released and pick up the discarded out-of-date model, or so I've been told. In this culture that is modelled heavily on traditions, consumerism rules un-questioned in many aspects. Is this the ultimate irony of Japan? Contradictions are everywhere and are almost perfectly composed so that they are not obvious to an untrained eye.

Arch Support smllMy own sculptures and installations appear to be permanent relics from a previous era, where the commonplace construction methods of that time are evident in their appearance. However, I contradict this visual association first-time viewers have when observing my work by informing them later that it is in fact made from a contemporary wood-based product, namely MDF. My work is not what you think it is. Similarly, at the Suntory whisky distillery in central Japan I found out (after a few drinks) that the whisky wasn't exactly 100% Japanese. I discovered that Japanese respect for whisky was very well-informed, that while the whisky made at the Yamazaki distillery used the water from underneath the mountain it was situated on, the other two ingredients, barley and peat, both come from the UK- and Scotland in particular. Even several of the copper stills are made by Scottish craftsmen! Suntory understand that you can’t make good whisky without the right ingredients and Scotland is the best place to source them. So is it really Japanese whisky or Scottish whisky made somewhere else? Regardless of these contradictions it doesn’t really matter as it still tasted amazing.

My experience of Japan Railways (JR) as a vehicle for research (a vehicle in every sense of the word) to appreciate the industrial heritage of the country, and the everyday world as seen from the carriage while travelling, leads me to conclude that while I relish the fact that I will never fully understand Japan - indeed, I'm not sure if even the Japanese will. I am inspired that there is theatre and process in everything and the fact that nothing is too much work or trouble to do properly and complete. There is respect for objects despite of – and because of - their transient nature and I am inspired by the fact that Japanese culture reveres the impermanent and embraces the constantly changing. As I continue to enjoy the combination of the huge contradictions of tradition and innovation I have observed, with this I will do, what I think artists do in all forms of media, and try to bring together the opposites of appearance and reality, of expectation and actuality, as was once said to me, to reconcile the irreconcilable, towards an original statement.

www.alexanderdevereux.com

My name is Michelle Evans. I was born and raised in the Hunter Valley, NSW Australia and work in the area of Indigenous arts, management and leadership. I got really interested in the phenomenon of leadership when I was teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and arts managers about management in the late 2000's. What I noticed was that when the cohort I was teaching came together as a group, something was happening beyond the learning about management. There were critical conversations about our practice in the Indigenous arts, critical deconstructions about the limiting state-owned funding and exhibiting/performing structures the Indigenous arts sector was working within. The word leadership kept on coming up for the group, and for me, as we worked together.

Leadership is inherently about change. It's a way of working with people; collectively moving towards a shared vision of the future. It's about setting an agenda at a local, state, national or even international level, with like-minded people whereby we collectively imagine how we want the future to look and figure out what's getting in the way of that and what we need to do to make this vision of the future a reality. Sometimes when people hear the word leadership they think of being the boss, or managing groups, being very directive. And, although these ways of leading may suit certain organisations, they do not define the work of leadership.

These artists and arts managers opened my eyes to the tensions that they deal with daily - working with communities as artists and managers; negotiating capital be that in the form of the state or private buyers/funders, or the open market; working out what they gain and perhaps lose as they move between Indigenous spaces and non-Indigenous spaces. They made the theoretical idea of 'insider/outsider' very clarifying for me, and in our dialogue together the concept of leadership kept on raising itself as I saw their work in creating spaces for fearless conversations, expressing diverse identities, creating change to structural limitations, upholding their own and other Indigenous voices - these practices speak strongly to me of leadership.

Yet this idea of leadership that was emerging from working in the Indigenous arts and cultural sector was not like conventional leadership ideas. This created a great 'aha' moment for me, especially after reading in the leadership literature over and again that there is no one definitive definition of leadership. I have spent the last five years thinking about and investigating what Indigenous arts leadership is. I have talked to, and interviewed, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts managers, both in Australia and more recently Indigenous artists and arts managers across the United States of America. What I discovered was that leadership could be conceptualised as both the public enactment of leadership work enabled by personal embodied work that Indigenous artists and arts managers manage inside of themselves in order to practice public displays of leadership. Let me show you how I have imagined it as an image:

Territories

Territories of Indigenous arts leadership © Michelle Evans

As you can see the way Indigenous artists and arts managers spoke to me about leadership was that it was work that they did both 'below the surface' and 'above the surface' or another way to think about it is work inside of themselves (embodied) and work they displayed in public (practices of leadership). The practice of Indigenous arts leadership is contingent upon negotiating or navigating the territories inside of ourselves.

The first territory is about authorisation – are you self-authorised to enact leadership in this space? Do you require community authorisation? Do you require cultural authorisation? What work do you need to do in order obtain significant authorisation to do leadership practices like leaving a legacy, or leading fearlessly? Does it mean generating support from Elders or self-authorising your own voice and expertise?

The second territory is about identity and belonging – Identity is a key resource for Aboriginal people, it encapsulates who we are and how we relate to others and the world around us. Yet we also know Aboriginal identity in Australia is much politicised and this places pressure on individuals and communities. So a feeling of belonging and creating cultural safe places for cultural and artistic expression is an important leadership practice. Embodying diverse ideas of Indigneity is a leadership practice in Australia today as is the important work of empowering future generations through positive cultural expressions of identity.

The third territory is about artistic practice – what are the boundaries and pressures on producing contemporary innovative works of art? In this territory artists and arts managers spoke about having to navigate the pressures of managerial work (like paperwork and funding body applications/acquittals, or specific commissions) and commercial demands, to find time and space to creatively and cultural produce work they want to produce. Some of the practices we find here are the importance of relational storytelling through the practice of art and how vital it is to make space for the creation of artistic work that is (as) free (as they can be) from these pressures.

The final territory is about the powerful forces of history, trauma and colonisation. As Aboriginal artists and arts managers we are in receipt of generationally passed down stories and histories that can impact on our everyday. Be that the lasting legacies of colonisation and how that plays out today in our lives as Aboriginal people; the personal impact governmental policies have upon us and our families/communities; or even a personal experience of trauma. These can weigh us down and also become a lens through which we see the world. Some of the most powerful leadership practices Aboriginal artists and arts managers can do include speaking out against gossiping and shaming of others, and becoming a person who is safe and consistent to work with.

To sum up, Indigenous arts leadership navigates across these very contextual or place based historical, political, cultural and social territories. Indigenous leaders encounter these territories when they do the work of leadership. As I pointed out at the beginning, leadership is fundamentally about change and in order to work positively towards change with groups of people, Indigenous leaders need to be that person that is safe and consistent to work with; who is culturally, community and/or self-authorised; who does embrace their Indigenous identity in all its diversity; and who can articulate the pressures and tensions we face in the Indigenous arts sector without focusing on them in a limiting sense. By speaking out about these demands Indigenous leaders are able to imagine new and exciting possibilities for the future.

Tuesday, 02 December 2014 00:00

The Funeral Blanket

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Equilibrium is the mother of creativity and innovation her child. As humans, we are continuously making attempts to invent ways of doing things to make sense of our lives. This sometimes takes great effort, especially when the situation we might find ourselves facing is one of life's hardest tests--death. How one faces this inevitability is affected and impacted by the culture one has been raised in. In First Nations cultures, there is an acceptance that death is the beginning of a new journey, from this earthly existence to the spirit world. One can deny this inevitability and be only concerned with a worldly existence that is no more. So often we have seen those that slip into such great sorrow at the passing of their loved ones. Perhaps this is why we welcome the cultural practices that focus on the celebration of life through storytelling, feasting, singing and offering food to the fire, for the person who has died.

Traditionally, the First People of the Yukon looked and accepted death as the inevitable. We embraced it with humility and acknowledge that we all come from and return to our Creator. During our lifetime we would be given a spirit name and this is the name called out to us when we take our last breath. My Grandmother spoke only in her mother tongue when she was preparing to leave this world. She insisted that my eldest aunt, Rose, hurry home from down south, as her father was waiting for her on the other side. She spoke firmly to my other aunt, Maizie, who sat quietly crying at her bedside, 'Don't cry, May, you know I can't swim!'

This was the same grandmother who had labored for almost two weeks, making a pair of mukluks as a special Christmas gift. Beading the tops and tongues, measuring, cutting, trimming and measuring again, to make sure they were cut and sewn perfectly to fit the footprint given to her by the young man who had ordered them for his girlfriend. It was Christmas and she had many grandchildren and children to sew for, but this sale was important, as money was tight that winter. She wanted to have all the trimmings for the Christmas dinner, including a big turkey, mandarin oranges, nuts, shortbread, eggnog, fruitcake, and ribbon candy. An extra hundred and fifty dollars could go a long way.

She had made sure to invite her best friend over for Christmas Day, as her children wouldn't be arriving until Boxing Day. Her friend had recently been widowed and Gramma knew that being invited to spend Christmas with her and her family on Christmas Day would lift her spirits. 'It's hard to cook turkey just for yourself,' she muttered as she got ready to go visit her.

The man who had ordered the mukluks thought it strange that my grandmother asked him to get his girlfriend's footprint. 'Just have her put her foot on paper for me!' Observing his look of puzzlement, she took a brown paper bag and a pencil and demonstrated the instructions. 'Phone her. Tell her to send it by airmail so I can make it before Christmas.'

My Gramma worked long into the night and the mukluks were readied a couple of days before Christmas. Her arthritic hands were stiff and swollen. Her eyes were tired and bloodshot from lack of sleep and strain from sewing on the tiny beads, but she had pressed on. Upon completion, she neatly folded them, wrapping the beautifully braided ties of matching colors around the footwear.

Although the price had been discussed beforehand, I overheard the guy telling her that he only had two fifties and a twenty dollar bill. 'Can you sell them to me for one hundred and twenty?'

I saw my Grandmother wince, but immediately compose herself to give the dignified response, 'This is Christmas time so I guess I can be more giving. That's okay! One hundred twenty is good! Thank you. hope her feet be warm this winter. Edmonton is a cold place. I know 'cause I was in the hospital there one time. I see outside, people cover their face when they walk in the wind!' She placed the beautifully crafted mukluks into a bag, took the money and gave him the precious gift.

He sniffed the air. 'What's that smell? Did you just load the stove?'

She shook her head, and smiling, responded with a chuckle. 'No, that's how all mukluks smell. That is how we tan that moose skin. We soak it in moose brain and smoke it, for making it brown. That make it soft and it can breathe when you wear it.' He left quickly, as his ride was waiting in the driveway, ready to take him to the city where he would fly to his loved one, bringing with him this special northern gift.

After New Year's Day, this same man arrived on my Grandmother's doorstep to return the footwear. He looked a bit sheepish, but bluntly told my grandmother that his girlfriend thought they smelled bad, like an Indian. They smelled too smoky and she was embarrassed to wear them because people might make fun of her. In her noble, mannered way, my grandmother took the mukluks from him and placed them on the table. She beckoned him to come into the little cabin.
'Come in, it is cold out there!' I could see from where I was sitting that my Grandmother was digging into her little stash, from the money she had set aside for a trip to the city to see a friend who was very sick. She came back with a stack of twenties, tens and five dollar bills. She counted out one hundred and twenty dollars onto the table.

'Here you go. I hope you can buy her a nice watch or something with that! Let me turn on the light now, so you don't slip on my porch.'

My grandmother laughed as she closed the door. 'Huh! How he think we gonna smell? We Indians, not Whiteman! That's a good smell, that one!'

Spring arrived early that year and Gramma got real busy with tanning several of her moose-skins. They had to be de-haired, fleshed, soaked, and thinned down to a uniform thickness. She was a master at this process. Hair flew off the hide as the sharp knife moved upward revealing the whiteness of the skin. I would watch with amazement at the strength of this elderly woman wringing out the heavy, wet flesh. After it had been soaked, it would have to be wrung out and hung to dry. The hide would be lifted and folded carefully into the center after being tied on one end to the wringing post and, held with a sturdy stick on the other, would be wrung out. Water would gush out at each turn, wringing and stretching it again until it was almost dry. She used a tub to catch the escaping 'brain-water' to be used again at the next soak. The dried brain of a moose was used as a tanning agent. After a kill, the brain would be cut out of the skull and placed in a cloth bag to dry over the winter. By spring, it would be completely freeze dried and transformed into a powdery gray substance.

'You know how to measure how much?' She had asked me. 'When you put it in the water and you dip your hand in, palm up, if the water is too cloudy to see your hand, then it's just right!' This instruction remains emblazoned on my mind, some fifty years since the first instruction was shared. The gray water made one's hands very soft - soft like my grandmother's hardworking hands.

The pre-tanned hides were flung over clothes-lines strung low enough for her height. The stiff parchment had to be completely dried out and scraped again and again to break down the fibers. Soaked, stretched out, scraped, wrung out, dried, scraped some more and soaked again. In the final stage, the hide is smoked to give it that brown color.

Later that summer, with total confidence, I told my grandmother that I would smell all the smoky smell out of the moose skin, so nobody else would complain! I could tell that she was happy with my offer to help. 'Okay, let me roll you up in it!' she laughed. And she did. Swaddled in this bush cocoon, I was totally immersed and overwhelmed by the scent of the earth and overcome by a pungent smell of smoke from the rotten wood we had gathered from the forest floor. This was the special wood my grandmother instructed us to fetch. It gave off a cold smoke once it was ignited; cold and slow smoke was necessary for the final stages of tanning hides. Heat could ruin a hide, burning it, making it hard and stiff. After all the work required for the tanning process, a little fire could cause a whole hide to be ruined!!

It was nearing spring when I attended a National Convention of the Baha'is of Canada, in Toronto. As the elected chair, I noticed how people were moving in and out of the venue. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an old friend of mine approaching. She asked me to step into one of the side rooms off the convention hall. 'Please sit down. I have some bad news. Your husband just called me on my cell phone.' My heart starting pounding and the blood rushed to my head and I broke into a cold sweat.

I tried to speak but the lump in my throat blocked my voice. 'Who is it? Is it my mother?' I croaked.

'No, it's your brother, Lawrence. He was killed in a car accident early this morning on the Mayo road. Bob wants you to call him right away.' My husband had somehow gotten hold of Suzie's cell number. I began to cry, uncontrollably, sobbing into the shoulder of my dear friend who had shared this tragic news with me. Speaking later to my husband, he expressed his sympathy and cried with me over the phone. My brother was like his brother, so he, too, had lost a brother and a good friend. The rest of the morning went by in a blur. The airlines were kind and considerate and allowed me a reduced fare as part of their 'compassionate' rate. As I boarded the plane to fly home to the north, I felt only numbness. People were all around me but unaware of my pain, my loss. Lawrence was the baby brother that I had asked for as a little girl. He was the closest to me of all my siblings.

I was met at the airport in Whitehorse and wanted to go immediately to my Mother's home, but found out that she had already gone north to be with my sister in-law and her children. Being the eldest, they were awaiting my return before making any of the funeral arrangements. She would be back in the morning with my other brother to pick up Lawrence's body, which had to undergo an autopsy to determine the exact cause of his death.

"How could someone so full of life be gone? How could he, being a trucker with a spotless record, have driven off the highway? Yes, it was spring and the shoulders on a gravel road could get pretty soft." Shock set in when my sister informed me that he had been drinking the night before and had left Dawson after closing time. How could his drinking buddies let him go down the highway in that condition? Anger welled up in my mind and I had to fight off the desire to scream at the injustice of it all.

What would his young son do now? Maybe this was the reason that he had taken him out in the bush at such a young age, to teach him things that he would not be around for: how to hunt, how to butcher a moose, how to fish, and how to set a fishnet and traps. All of this had been taken care of.

My heart went out to his two daughters, who thought the sun rose and set on their father. He had raised the three of them single-handedly when he and his wife had been separated for three years. Life is so complicated, especially when there is a death in a close -knit family. Everyone has to pull together, to forgive, to help out, to forget past hurts. I knew of my brother's suffering and how he had tackled being a Mom/Dad not only to his own, but also to other children in the village. 'The weekend orphans,' he had called them. My brother made a point of driving around the town on Friday nights with his son to pick up the children whose parents were partying and who would not able to give proper care to their children. He would bring them home and give them shelter, food and a place of safety for the weekend.

Driving down to the funeral home now, I was not looking forward to seeing my mother, whom I had spoken to the day before. Our conversation had been cut off, as she was unable to speak without crying uncontrollably. My heart went out to her, as this was her first-born son, her eldest, on whom she always depended.

The funeral home had several familiar vehicles in front of it. The suburban that was to transport my brother's body back to the village was parked in the back. The undertaker had been so kind to our family, staying open so that those who wished to visit him could do so, late into the evening.

My mother's strength was being tested for a second time by death. I recalled her words when my younger brother died. 'Now I know what your Gramma meant when she said, "I hope I go before any of my kids". The words rang in my head when I approached her to hold her in my arms. We cried and held each other in our grief, but then she pulled away and exclaimed, 'Why don't we do what the Tlingets do? Why don't we have a blanket to place over the rough box, one of those nice blankets? This must be why they have them.'

I nudged my daughter and gave her my car keys. 'Go up to the house and get my healing blanket. It is my closet in the bedroom.' I had had this colorful, wool Pendelton blanket for a number of years. It had brought healing to myself and others. Being a cover for my brother's coffin, it would now achieve its highest duty. It would accompany him on his last journey home. Anyone seeing it would be comforted, solaced by its beauty and design: its purpose of healing would be fulfilled. My two brothers unfolded the blanket and placed it gently over the rough box and replaced the wreaths.

'Now that's better. Now he is ready to go home!' My mother wiped the tears from her eyes as my younger sister led her to car that would follow the suburban. I gave my brother and brother-in-law a big hug. 'See you guys there. We're going to get the groceries now.'

It has never ceased to amaze me to see how my people can pull off a funeral. Once there was news of death, it would instantly become a total collaboration between all family members and close friends. The food for the potlatch feast had to be purchased, enough to feed a small army. The chief cook would be selected by the family as well as the cook's helpers, the servers, the clean -up team, the gravediggers, the poll bearers, including an Elder to be the honorary poll bearer if the deceased was also an Elder. Someone would be asked to shoot a fresh moose if meat was low in the community. The word would go out in the community for whatever the needs were and people would spontaneously show up at the home of the deceased with sandwiches, bannock, cookies, coffee, tea and big pots of soup to feed those who came to give their condolences to the family. Grief has to be fed and we eat together to ease the pain of the loss of our loved ones.

The funeral pamphlet would be arranged with a special photo, sacred spiritual writings or a poem and the eulogy becomes a family collective writing exercise. Everyone would have their say in this process, but the eldest in the family always had the final word.

The singers, the speech makers and the person who would drum during the collection at the potlatch to cover the costs, would spontaneously come forward as if they had read the long list of 'things to do' held in my younger sister's hand.

Shopping for approximately five hundred people is a chore in itself, but there are always the main staples, such as potatoes, macaroni, tea, coffee, sugar, salt, flour, lard, baking powder, milk, apples and oranges, tin foil and small plastic bags for leftovers, which everyone attending the feast would be encouraged to take home with them especially for those who were unable to attend. Paper table cloths, plates, cups, cutlery and yes, cigarettes! These would be placed in paper cups, on all the tables! It was a spiritual ritual to smoke for the dead. The cook's helpers would place them on the tables just before the meal was to be served, as youth just starting to smoke would take cups of them out the door!

Special tables were set for Elders into Wolf and Crow clans, making it easier for the ushers to seat the people. My brother was Crow, so that meant that all our family would not eat until all members of the Wolf clan had eaten and taken what they wanted. The tables were all set up ahead of time and once all the people from the 'Wolf clan' were seated, the servers would begin serving up their portions, making sure not to give too many vegetables but more meat to the Elders, who preferred meat and potato salad to the 'rabbit food'. The officiating minister would also be seated at this table of honor, as well as those who had travelled the longest distance or did not have a clan. These friends would be fed first. This was our custom. Children were warned not to run around the hall but that never seemed to calm down those cousins who just wanted to have fun. Lawrence would have certainly condoned that!

Making our way down the aisles in the grocery store, my sister and I talked about how we should make a blanket for Lawrence's coffin. We both knew to make one that might involve sewing on thousands of shell buttons was out of the question! 'Hey, how about we make one out of that big moose-skin that I gave Mom last fall? I have a bunch of feathers and you have some bugle beads, don't you? We could make some holes on both sides and use some sinew to tie down the feathers, beads and whatever else people want to place on it. We could have it set up at his house and have everyone that comes add their creation to the blanket'.

My sister's eyes lit up. 'Sis, you are so smart! That is the best idea yet. I got a hole punch. I'll make the holes on both sides so it is easier for everyone to tie on their piece. You go get the skin! Once I get to Mayo I'll get it ready. Bring all your feathers and I will see what I got, too!'

Owl feathers, eagle feathers, crow feathers, flickers, and some other more exotic feathers from a tropical country--we had everything necessary to make a funeral blanket on that spring day so long ago. It was just the perfect way for everyone to do something collectively to honor my brother's life. It was a good way to give one last thing to Lawrence, a son, a brother, husband, father, friend. Now I understood more deeply how tradition had a way and power to bring the whole community together. As humans we are meant to share in our grief with one another and not to be alone during these times of distress.

Everyone that came attached a feathered ornament of love on to the hide for my brother. Each one of these ties brought us some healing and some comfort by doing it altogether. It would have been what my brother wished for us. The smell of the hide allowed memories of our childhoods to seep into our minds and empowered us throughout this tender activity. It broke my heart to hear a little friend of my brother say, 'Aunty what we going to do now? Who's going to pick us up to go fishing and take us swimming on the weekends?' The little boy's big brown eyes looked mournfully up at me. All I could do was to hug him and assure him that someone else would take over for Uncle Lawrence!

The funeral blanket was completed around midnight, with my second eldest brother being appointed as the 'Blanket-Keeper'. He took this responsibility seriously, folding it carefully and wrapping it in canvas. 'I'll bring it up to the hall tomorrow, Sis.'

The following day, under the watchful eyes of our mother, we gently laid it over the coffin. She quietly stood there looking at it for a few moments before speaking. 'Now that's befitting for such a good man!' The fire-pit outside of my brother's house was lit and campfire tea was continually being made for the guests that dropped by to offer condolences to his wife and children.

Lawrence had cast his net way out there. There were so many of his family, friends and acquaintances that arrived in our community, that some only could attend the funeral and the potlatch feast, but then had to leave town. Every home was filled to capacity, including the one motel and hotel in the village. The funeral service was moved to the community hall from the church, where my brothers had been keeping vigil for two days and nights, as there was no morgue in town and there was no heat on in the church. Card playing, drinking beer, smoking, laughing, and sharing hunting and fishing stories—all this while Lawrence lay in wake. An eagle feather and spruce boughs adorned the coffin. The church had never hosted such a motley crew but it was all good! The minister realized that this behavior was to be expected, so simply turned a blind eye. Mostly men stayed throughout the night. Their faces were shining by the light of the candles burning in the little church, that same church where many of our relatives had been baptized, married and had their funeral services held. My brothers would make sure they cleaned up all bottles and butts in the morning, leaving it all good in the world! They had been well trained by our mother.

The community hall smelled like my mother's homemade buns; despite the situation, she was able churn out over two hundred, both wholewheat and white. Keeping busy was her means of coping. Moose roasts were being delivered and huge pots of caribou-rib soup were simmering on the stoves on the only burners that were working. Several boxes filled with jam preserves from the fall arrived to smear on the freshly made bannock now being fried, in the midst of gales of laughter, in the kitchen. Workers set up the last of the chairs. The tables would have to be set up immediately after the service. A small army had already been organized for this chore. Every plug-in in the hall was attached to a large urn of perking coffee, their repeated rhythms ending with sounds of exasperated breaths of steaming coffee. Tea would be the preferred drink of the Elders. A pungent fragrance of Hudson Bay tea filled the kitchen A few dried rosehips would also be thrown into the pot, to suit the knowledge-keepers of the community.

Family and friends kept filing in with roasting pans, full of pink salmon, white fish and even porcupine. Tub-sized bowls of potato, tossed green and bean salads and, my brother's favorite: macaroni salad, were delivered through the back door to avoid the crowd out front. The chief cook kept her eagle eyes on her crew: the cutters, the fryers, the soup stirrers. Everything had to be prepared and ready at the same time and kept hot for the guests. Nothing could be overlooked, 'Have you got the fruits and candy in bowls for serving? Make sure everyone gets a bag to take home potlatch food and make up a nice container for those who don't have a place to stay tonight to take with them on the road.'

All the chairs were taken and children sat on their parents' laps. People also sat around the sides of the hall while others spilled into the foyer and out on to the steps leading into the building. All the workers had a job to do and this they had carried out in a spirit of joy without hesitation or any signs of hardship.

More meat was being sliced for frying. Someone had brought some sheep meat from the Tahtlan country and caribou from Old Crow. Fresh frozen blueberries from Dempster were thawing in the sink. Every guest would enjoy a bit of this delicacy despite the limited supply. No one would leave a potlatch with an empty belly or a heavy heart.

Everyone was waiting for the oldest woman from the community to arrive, our Gramma's cousin. Lucy was so sorrow stricken at the news of my brother's death that she had not left her house for three days. The question fluttered through the crowd, 'Is Lucy Cho going to make it?' A commotion at the other end of the hall gave us the answer. Lucy Cho, meaning 'Big Lucy', had arrived with her grandchildren. Everyone cleared the way for her entrance. A comfortable chair had been set up at the front for her - a place of honor. She wore a dark scarf for the occasion, covering the red printed one beneath it. Grief was etched on to that beautiful aged face. She had had such a close relationship with Lawrence. He was like her grandson.

'That's because your Gramma, Ellen, she tell me take care of her grandchildren. She gonna pass away that time and she tell me that time. That's why I like your brother, like that.' Sitting down now, Lucy stared at the coffin with a look of surprise coming over her shadowed face. She beckoned to me from the front where I stood to welcome everyone on behalf of my family. I was struck with trepidation that I done something wrong.

'Who tell you to do that?' she asked pointing to the coffin covered with the adorned moose hide. 'Why you do it that way, you kids? Who make it like that?'

I gave her an immediate response, assuring her that I not made this decision alone. 'My sister Buffy and me'. I could see everyone in the front row, including my mother, turn their attention to what was being said and to hear how this would be handled.

'That's good what you do! That way is old fashion. That is the way we make it long time ago for hunters when he die. You did good, you girls! I like it that one! That 's the kind, Lawrence, he going to like it like that, too'.

Honor comes to those who serve selflessly and he had certainly mastered that in his short lifetime. I whispered a little thanks to my brother for helping us, for assisting us to find the way back to what was truly ours.

Funeral-Blanket-home

Thursday, 01 May 2014 13:12

Artists' Practice and Creative Development

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Here at the Creativity Centre we have just completed a project with artists in our local area. Funded mainly by a grant from Arts Council England, the aim of this project was to discover how our ejournal is made relevant to an artist’s practice and creative development - but it became much more than this. This project was highly successful, really useful and meaningful for the artists and art students who took part and a moving and rewarding experience for us. We received excellent feedback and everyone wanted to contribute to the journal. They identified key development needs and made valuable suggestions for future content to meet their needs and those of other artists. More importantly participants found this project so relevant, enjoyable and useful that they want to continue meeting monthly. They’re so enthused by this project that they want to learn more about Creativity for Artists, contribute more, continue developing their own creativity as artists and sharing their expertise with others.

Wednesday, 04 December 2013 09:59

Art is a Dynamic Relationship with the Environment

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A quiet region of Scotland is building a reputation (and tourism) through art that connects nature and community.

When I heard about the Environmental Art Festival Scotland (EAFS) it stuck me as curious that this was the first time that there had been one. After all Scotland's environment has always been important as an inspiration for artists, writers, composers, scientists whether that's Edwin Landseer, Margaret Tait, Robert Burns, Hugh McDiarmid, Felix Mendelsshon, Martyn Bennett, James Hutton or Patrick Geddes.

The landscape is rich in folklore and mythology and articulated by prehistoric monuments and signs of thousands of years of inhabitation. In fact even the word 'environment' was coined by Thomas Carlyle when he was living in Ecclefechan in 1828.

Thursday, 04 April 2013 21:50

The Importance of the Arts in a Changing World

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Earlier this year I gave the Annual Crichton Carbon Centre Lecture at the Crichton Campus in Dumfries and Galloway (Scotland). The following piece is an 'interview version' of that lecture, carried out by Dame Barbara Kelly.

Who has inspired you to think about leadership?

I've always thought about leadership broadly and related those thoughts to many of the wonderful people that I have worked with and for, and learned from reflecting on their performance and my own. However, for the purposes of this piece I need to thank Dr James Martin for his inspiration.

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