When my dad died I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye. I didn’t get a chance to apologize for things I didn’t say or know how to say. I have regrets.
The last three years have been mentally hard. My work situation has been challenging. I have been working hard to work things out. I haven’t been easy to be around. I also know that I can be strong, creative, caring, and will figure it out.
To understand me is to understand that I have connections with my dad through the natural world. This little patch of nature I have created in our back alley reminds me of the large spaces we had as kids to freely roam. I am grateful to my parents for giving us that and so much more.
Last week on bus duty, I came across three young girls stomping their feet up and down and loudly yelling something. I went over to see what was going on and they were trying to kill an ant.
I told them to stop and when they asked why, I told them ants were beneficial. When they asked what they did, I told them they had an important job in bringing air to the soil – but bus duty is busy and I left it there. I certainly did not have time to tell them the story of my garden ants.
Our garden is built on the less than ideal clay bed the suburban developers left behind after they harvested the top soil from their development. My husband and I spent a few years digging some of it out with a pick axe and when the dump truck showed up to haul the small yard sized mound away, he was impressed that it had all been dug out by hand.
Then came years of adding brick retaining walls, patio stones (and lots of sand) compost, zeolite, manure and seasons of fallen leaves and dead plant parts and now after 15 years, the garden is host to a diversity of plant life and other-than-plant life. It is my oasis from the realities of living within acres of suburban vinyl siding and lawn.
I don’t know if it is the sand that drew the ants or if they were always there, but for years I battled them. I first noticed their annoying presence when they would bury and kill small plants with the earth they dug up while doing their work underground. There were two areas of the garden that were particularly bad and yet it didn’t matter what I tried: ant killer, boiling water, borax – they always came back and continued (from my perspective) their destructive work.
At the same time, I was admiring a newly acquired spring ephemeral from a favourite independent local garden nursery. I had seen two sets of striking butterfly-like leaves when I was walking the Rundle Wood garden and Rodney told me it was Jeffersonia dubia. He dug it up, I paid $20 and brought it home to tend to my new, delicate and expensive(!) plant baby.
If you live in Calgary, you get to know that if you plant the right plants and give them the right conditions, they will be absolutely fine regardless of their fragile appearance. And that was the case with my beautiful Asian Twinleaf.
One spring I was surprised to see those unmistakable leaf forms showing up in miniature around other parts of the garden. When I told Rodney about it, he mentioned that this was the work of ants.
In the last two years, life circumstance, learning about Indigenous worldview and the importance of developing biodiversity where we can has helped me see ants from a more empathetic and even wondrous viewpoint.
I have now made peace with where they have formed colonies. The one most active is now sheltered by the hollow base of my grandmother’s birdbath. The other ones I know to leave spaces open for them. They are fascinating to watch and last summer I was surprised to learn that some people even keep ants as a hobby!
Ants have greater purpose than helping reproduce beautiful plants in my garden, but it was the story of the Twinleaf seeds that inspired me to look at their existence from a different perspective.
I started reading The Barren Grounds last weekend and almost immediately was triggered not by the Indigenous content but by references to art within an educational setting. Please read the book if you are so inclined – I will not get into the details of the story but it is wonderfully written by David A. Robertson and as it is a Kid Lit. novel, fairly easy reading.
As a child I drew… made things, but the story that has played in my mind for over 4 decades is that formal art making was really an escape mechanism for me to deal with being physically and mentally humiliated by my friends on a fairly regular basis starting in elementary school. It became my tool for some social preservation with my more academically inclined peers as I moved through the public education system.
By grade 10, you could find me firmly entrenched in the art room at any point when I did not have to be in another class and my teacher fostered that feeling that this had become part of my identity. This was so much the case that when I was invited to join a class for honours students and I asked if I could major in something else besides art, my teacher reminded me that art was why I was asked to join.
I continued on and worked hard to live up to the gold standards of realism that seemed to be the hallmark of a real artist and I always felt there was something quite forced about what I was doing – something I didn’t understand that came naturally to others who drew all the time.
Nevertheless, that continued hard work ethic I learned from my family, art scholarships and the offerings of job opportunities in creative work (parks and recreation leader, graphic artist, picture framer/gallery attendant, history of art slide monitor, illustrator) helped me continue down the path in visual art without thinking there could really be anything else.
Eventually, I became an educator and have now been working 18 of almost 20 years in a charter school system as an elementary art specialist.
The baggage I carry as an art teacher is the memories of my own childhood and why I created art, why I chose to try to create a specific kind of art and why I couldn’t let go of that way of working.
As a teacher, in class, I intentionally keep my demos short, I encourage students to create art in the way they want to and perhaps, unfortunately, I don’t push students with skill for realism to go further with what they are doing because I worry it will feed a perfectionist tendency and perpetuate the idea that “good art” takes a lot of time and is realistic looking.
This 24 Days of Drawing practice I have set for myself has allowed me to be aware of how I am feeling when I make a mark. I am practicing not worrying about whether the proportions are correct or the image is cohesive. Working on 1″ x 1″ a day also fits into a time frame that is realistic for me in a life that I have built with another that includes other pursuits not related to visual art. I am keeping skills up, but more importantly, I am learning to explore what it means to communicate something visually in a mentally healthy way. I think this is something valuable I can pass on to my students.