Monthly Archives: September 2016

15 Year Anniversary of 9/11

The black square in the 9/11 Memorial seemed to be bottomless. As I watched a documentary program this afternoon on the history channel about the events at the Twin Towers 15 years ago, tears came to my eyes. In this very room, watching the same TV in shock I struggled to take in the horror of the scene that day and its implications for them and for us.

We went elsewhere to fight. It was a given. Other countries were the sites of war, not the U.S. and Canada – especially not Canada. A loved one was in a hotel in Ottawa, having travelled from Vancouver there a few days before on business. My prayers went back and forth for her and for the victims and families of those struck by the attack – and for the firefighters and our leaders. Who knew if they would strike Canada next?

In June of 2014, in New York City on an art tour with the Ferry Building Gallery, I had seen the flowing water pour down that black square, into the very middle of the earth it seemed. I have never been so silent.

I almost did not make the effort to go there. I do not like to visit the sites of tragedies. An art history class about war memorials piqued my curiosity to see the sculpture in person. It was so big and so noisy with water rushing as if to cleanse and heal the land.

Today, as I watch the black square within the square, another tragic black square comes to mind. The “Black Square” 1913 of Russian artist Kasimir Malevich hung in an exhibition in a strange position in the room. It was in an upper corner near the ceiling. Gallery visitors at that time were well aware that this was where the holy icons of Jesus Christ were located in a Russian Orthodox home. One of the things this empty black icon came to mean was that God is dead.

The deep empty hole of a black square in NYC ‘s National 9/11 Memorial and the” Black Square” of Moscow’s First World War era, are they the same? Is God now considered dead? Could he not have intervened to prevent WWI and 9/11 or has human freedom meant freedom to do evil again in history? I think of this Proverb:

Do no violence to the place where the righteous live;
 for though they fall seven times, they will rise again;
 but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.

NYC rose again, Russia has gained strength, the Resurrection happened – such tragedy, paradox and mystery co-exist as does hope. All of these events drastically changed so many lives as well as history itself. Is the square really empty or like the ‘colour’ black, does it actually contains all the colours?



Failure: the Doorway to Success?

Photo of Iona and Labyrinth under new ownership 2015

Photo of Iona and Labyrinth under new ownership 2015 DS

Government programs fail to deliver; countries fail to provide for their citizens; ghost towns form. Movements fail or decline, new ways emerge. Countries like Syria are struggling for survival. The Yukon was the sight of failed gold mining. Planes fall out of the sky (Malaysia Airlines, EgyptAir, Indian Air Force), again.

Wars are lost. Boundaries are changed. Peoples are displaced.

There are failures on a global scale to protect air, water, and land. Species have become extinct. Some failures may just be the natural ebb and flow of existence.

The iconic Iona Building at UBC had to be sold although the theological college still exists apart from that grand space. I think of the Highland Clearances of Scotland (to make room for sheep), to be a failure, as well as the Potato Famine of Ireland. The wildfire of Fort McMurray is a failure of sorts but the town will be rebuilt. I hope.

We fail to rehabilitate, to resuscitate, to reinstate, to collaborate, to meditate. We are unsuccessful in love, in business, in losing weight, in baking a gourmet cake. I do/am.

Friendships are lost. Cars are crashed. Our bodies are injured or break down with disease. Mine does.

Everyday failure is real. It is not the end of the world though it may seem like it at the time. Failure may be a chance for change, or just sorrow to be endured.

How would Mother Teresa have measured success, or Picasso, or Matisse who created from his bed, or Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.…? (How do I – by mission statement?)

Sometimes our failures catch up with us. We stand in need of forgiveness. The making of amends, as in AA, can rebuild relationship success.

Success can be illusive or inconclusive. It can be fleeting or misleading. True success in life – who can define it?

I just received 2 ‘declines’ from an art jury. I have received many of these over the years. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I say. Do I take their refusal as permanent – or as fleeting?

Is it them or me, their judging or my creating? I have never actually kept track of my declines or failures. I change goals. My work has been exhibited in over 70 shows.

A Business of Art course instructor once told us that some artists have commercial success and some critical success. Juries love my work. Yet the fact remains, that I have a high ratio of donated paintings versus those I have sold. By which criteria do I judge my own work?

Much of what I create, I will admit, does not fit well in a living room above a couch. It is too raw for that. The colours are anything but subdued. The techniques are immediate, layered, direct and even messy. My style does not have the requisite consistency. But there is an internal rhythm. In my latest jury submission of 33 paintings (one for every year of the life of Christ) each has a cross or stripe pattern.

The truly difficult thing is that the work has to be created, the materials purchased, the time set aside. Years of work needs to be framed before one applies. One has to get the paintings onto a gallery wall so viewers can consider buying them. One has to have the space to store unsold paintings. New paintings have to be imagined and realized for the next jury, to fit the next art space requirements.

How, I think now, can any artist really keep going to achieve success? There are so many barriers, so much competition, so many people who ignore art totally.

It seems to me that each artist must define success differently. Each artist must hone and redefine the definition to fit the circumstances, must see benefits where they seem invisible.

Creating art is similar to being a mother. Our paintings incubate and are born. Success, I realize now, is to have children leave home ready to meet the world and to have paintings leave the studio to find their niche. My children and my paintings are offered to the world as the best of me. Adult children forever at home or paintings lying dusty in the studio are the true failures. But success often calls just when we are ready to give up.

In the meantime, children may struggle, paintings gather dust, but independence is close and my oeuvre is being built for that day not too far away.

How can one achieve success when accolades come for just the opportunity to show? What can assuage the echoing sting of ending an exhibition with few sales? How can one go on year after year financing one’s own – what – ego? When the paintings pile up in the studio why do I apply to more juries? This art-making refuses to die. It becomes like a form of addiction. That first flow of colour off the paintbrush at 7 years old had me hooked. As with all addiction there is grief.

My paintings need a home and I want money for them. There, I have said it. Maybe after I am dead, success will come in memorial. Perhaps it is my children, my estate that will benefit from my collection. I have now got it: my legacy will be my success. My part is to enjoy the process of creating.

One thing about achieving a degree of success is that one asks what do I do next? Where can I go? When can I say, it is enough? For now, I decide I will rest with gratitude.

I know that if I get that show for my 33 paintings my desires have not changed. I want people to attend the opening. I want a decent write up in the reviews. I do not want to carry those cumbersome paintings out of the gallery, into my vehicle, and back to my studio only to begin over again next week. I am tired. I need success now and I need studio space. My body feels broken. My mind and spirit carry it trailing behind like the tin cans tied to a wedding car.

Jesus’ death on the cross: failure it appeared.  Was his goal to live three score and ten years? The Resurrection 3 days later proved the success of his mission.

When I think of failure and success after all this, I ponder two questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. How will I know when I get there?

As I wait to see how sales have gone at my latest exhibition, I receive a message that my painting “VanDusen Gardens” has been chosen by the art committee at Lions Gate Hospital for their permanent collection in ‘The Healing Power of Art Program’. It will hang with the greats – Molly Bobak, Sylvia Tait, Gordon Smith… Am I there yet?


VanDusen at home

“VanDusen Gardens” Acrylic on Canvas, 32″ x 48″, Deborah Stephan