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Entries in painter (5)


Coon Hunting, China and The Revolution


I am no Sinophile, nor a specialist on gender equality, nor a hunter.


But ignorance of the topic at hand has never precipitated self-restraint before - why should we suddenly change things up?


I've long wondered about China. I tried digging a hole to the place from our house in Toronto when I was small. And I took Mandarin lessons later in life, learning the hard way that the same false cognate word is used for pen, pencil, brush and pussy. Given that components for my smart phone find their origin in China, along with a desk lamp, eyeglass frames, truck differential, lawnmower, football sweater, painting canvas, tape-measure, notebook, steak knives, pen, pencil, and brush, it would be easy to say we are surrounded by all things Chinese - except poetry and words that rhyme with wussy.


On reflection, why I dug a hole, I'm not sure. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance. I would not do it again. Indeed, after investing $4 trillion on housing in the past decade and with 65 million housing units sitting there all vacant and lonely, the Chinese seem infinitely capable of digging their own hole. They need no help from me.


So we should not be surprised to learn that when it comes to China and the sexual revolution, suspicions linger. At the time of the event Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey posed the following cheeky question on Twitter: "What is it about the headline 'China launches woman into space' that makes me assume she did something wrong?"


Hua Lu (14 x 9 w/c)Multivalent is that question, casting doubt over the progress of women in the Middle Kingdom and their Long March to gender equity. Which, according to the New York Times, has stalled. Incomes of women relative to those of men have fallen 23 percent in rural China since 1990. In urban China they've dropped 10 percent. There is no woman in the inner circle of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, and only one in 16 members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is female.


By the Chinese government’s own measure of how women are faring — the Third Survey of the Social Status of Women in China (2010) — nearly 62 percent of men and 55 percent of women said "men belong in public life and women belong at home." So while no one said women should be launched, the numbers who want them at home have risen 7.7 and 4.4 percent since 2000 when Chinese folks last were asked where women belong.


Now it's true Chinese women are allowed to drive cars and trucks, something Saudi Arabian women are not free to do. But even in the People's Revolutionary Army, the world's largest by number of troops, women only fill support positions, and the PRA requires female recruits to demonstrate talent such as singing or dancing as part of the selection process. (Comet Over Dayan Footbridge 16x12 w/c)


All of this gender equality slow-boating by China is taking place against a backdrop of solid progress elsewhere. For example, in America women have joined men in that once exclusively male domain – the raccoon hunt.


There was a foretaste of this as Leon F Whitney and Acil B Underwood observed in their excellent 1951 guide on the subject: "Coon hunting in one respect is like politics or religion: a fellow thinks of the kind he knows – the kind he was born into – as the only kind. He often doesn't bother to investigate the other kinds." Such as coon hunting with women, or coon hunting by women, for example.


Although the progress has not been immediate, women have been breeding coon hunting dogs in the United States since at least 1958. "Any success I've had, I owe to my husband," Mrs. William Amos told reporters of her success as a breeder. (Not sure if her first name is William or if she has a first name, story in the Toledo Blade just referred to her as Mrs. William Amos).


Incidentally, Whitney and Underwood's Coon Hunter's Handbook is indispensable by anyone of any gender who aspires to excel at finding, chasing, cornering, treeing, bagging, executing, cooking and eating the standard North American raccoon.


First thing, man or woman, you need for coon hunting is a good dog with a pleasant voice. Square brackets below are mine for the purpose of advancing gender equity: "What old hunter can't close his [or her] eyes and still hear the lovely strains of hound music floating across a valley or steam? Surely no man-made [or woman-made] music can light the fires of imagination or bring a greater thrill of delight than can a hunter's best friend – his [or her] hound," the handbook says.


Finally, some sage advice (to those such as Mrs. William Amos) on cooking the coon and presenting it to the hungry mob at supper:


"It is not a bad idea to dismember the carcass in the kitchen. At every coon supper where someone carves, there will be remarks about how much the coon looks like a cat or a monkey, and inquisitive Johnny [or Julie] will ask if Daddy [or Mommy] is sure it is not a skunk. If our experience is worth anything, it indicates that when the coon is served in pieces on a platter and camouflaged as much as possible, it will be all for the best, because someone is sure to bite on a BB shot anyway, and that will start the conversation back to the coon hunt and what a good time everybody had. Then Bill [or Bonnie] will tell how the dogs stretched the coon, and Mike [or Mary] will describe how the coon squealed, and sure as shooting someone will have to get up and leave the table." And start a whole new revolution.


(Top Image: Huxingting Tea House 12 x 9 India Ink and Sepia)


An Appeal to the Government of Qatar


Basket Case (11 x14 watercolours on Cold Press paper)


The LA Times reports Eduard Munch's iconic 1895 painting The Scream fetched just shy of $120 million last night at a Sotheby's auction in New York. That was $40 million over the expected hammer price and is apparently the highest price for an auctioned artwork in history.


To put this in perspective, you could buy at least 120 of my paintings for that kind of money. You also could fund the activities of the National Rifle Association for an entire year or pay off the 2013 debt of the State of Rhode Island. Your choice.


Personally, let me express disappointment that so little has been said about the purchaser of The Scream, which I note is executed in pastel and therefore not likely to last very long since it's really just glorified crayon.


Most pertinent question

For a painter - or as the French would say peintre - the issue of who paid $120 million seems the most pertinent question. If someone is prepared to spend that much on a painting, I want to know exactly who and where they are so that I can immediately get my work in front of their quite obviously gentle and discerning retinal palette.


Who then are they? I'm thinking of one singularly astute New York investment banker who purchased a painting called Northwest Angle from me a couple of years ago. But no, I think not even he, a gentleman greatly esteemed and very high in my eyes, would have the fiscal wherewithal to buy the Munch.


So, really, who bought The Scream? After sale reports suggest the government of Qatar might have taken it up for a museum that’s to open there in 2014. Other names that have come up: billionaires Leonard Blavatnik and Paul Allen.


State of the art market

And what might this record-setting development say about the state of the art market? In my experience, based on the attempted sale of 40 of my acrylics and watercolours at Studio 317 last November, such sensational auction prices tend to be specific to a select group of artworks and a narrow range of marquee artists, and are not suggestive of broader trends in the market.


I am nonetheless a glass-half-full painter, and hopeful. According to Forbes magazine, there have been works fetching even higher prices than The Scream on the private market. Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos supposedly sold his Cezanne painting, Card Players, last year for $250 million. Embiricos died last fall and we therefore cannot shake him down to substantiate this. But no one has stepped forward to claim ownership of the piece, though it’s been reported that the government of Qatar was the buyer.


All this has me thinking about security considerations for my inventory of unsold works. I mean paintings are just languishing around in the basement studio. They are not locked up or even in Class 3 air-conditioned archival storage space. They are there. And there are hundreds of them.


Charcoal nudes

I took safety precautions in the spring of 2012 when concern arose that some framed works might be damaged in the spring melt if we had seepage. But that did not transpire and of course we were glad for that. Because like the newspapers with which Samuel Beckett's Molloy swathed himself to protect the rear of his trousers against farts, there are hundreds of paintings lining my studio walls, along with dozens of graphite and charcoal nudes on paper, and they all offer excellent insulation value as temperatures plummet around here between October and April.


Still, let me tell you, winter survival techniques notwithstanding, security concerns are nonetheless real. My well-loved colleague Edward B. Gordon had the traumatic experience a couple of years ago of having several of his paintings stolen from a Berlin gallery. I don't recall if Edward's works ever were recovered but I do know that little could mitigate his sense of violation at the time.


A confession: it has occurred to me that should I be forced to endure similar trauma at the theft of one of my works, that the ensuing pain might be assuaged somewhat by the almost certain knowledge that the value of the remaining inventory would increase, once word got out that my art was worth stealing.


I want to say though, here and now, that I'm more concerned about misplacing a work, or having the cat vomit on it, than having artwork pilfered.


This is a real issue because more than one serious art collector has inquired about one or another of my works that they have spotted in an online gallery or via the wonders of Google. And it has taken me days of anxious rummaging to find whether I still have the work in question, and after that, to examine it for size, media, condition, and for its overall existential merit before delivering a reply.


So should our inbox ping today with a query, say from the Government of Qatar, you should know that we promise to shake dust from your future acquisition as quickly as greased pastel - and undertake to hastily deliver once payment has cleared and the cash is reposing, all warm and snugly, in our account.


(Image: Basket Case 14 x 12 watercolours on Cold Press paper)


We Know Who You are

Meditating on Number Six (12 x 16 watercolours and India Ink)

Stepping through the metal detector and into the sun-clad departure lounge at Ben Gurion International Airport it took a few seconds for me to realize that something very weird and unusual had taken place: the alarm didn't go off.

I reached down to feel loose metal in my pocket - some shekels and Egyptian piasters – along with a spent 9mm shell casing I’d claimed as a souvenir from the Via Dolorosa. The casing was left over after soldiers had put down trouble in that famous via, the night before.

And that brought to mind a picture of the Roman soldiers who once were bigshots in the Via Dolorosa. Centuries ago there would have been a few of them in that narrow stone passageway - all bare-legged and sinewy, crouched with sword and shield, making little thorny crowns or gambling with dice made from pig knuckles. Today they've been replaced by more modern soldiers who also get to play bigshot in the VD, festooned in Kevlar vests and armed with iPhone sportsbet apps, riot guns, some live and rubber bullets.

Hasn't worked for weeks

So, back to the fact there was this projectile part, a brass shell casing, languishing there in my pocket, and it had failed to set off the airport detector. How was it possible in the world's most button-down tight-ass airport that no bells, sirens, horns or flashing lights went off to illuminate my forgetfulness? There had been an obvious security meltdown. I calculated my options and, in the end, decided the airport authorities surely needed to know. And so I went over to tell the nearest security man, brandishing the spent shell casing as evidence that there was a problem with their metal scanner.

“Oh, that thing hasn't worked for weeks,” the officer yawned, giving a dismissive handwave in the direction of the metal detector. “It's not a big problem. We don't need it. We know everything about you before you reach the machine. We know who you are.”

I slunk away to ponder the deep absurdity of this news. The thoughts cascaded like a jumble of Kubler-Ross stages: acceptance, denial, anger. “Of course, makes sense. This is where collective security is an artform. They know about all the passengers. Who’s naughty. Who’s nice.  So how much have they dug up about me? What do they know? And, finally, the existential question, how can you say you know me when I barely know myself?”

At one level, and on this point, I agree entirely with the metaphysician Charles Hartshorne.

Mysteries and implications

Hartshorne said he was inclined to give in to the Buddhists who contend that a person, strictly speaking, is numerically distinct in each discreet moment of time. So the question of who you are is equally  immeasurable and irrelevant. How could you be expected to know who you are when each actuality of you is largely gone, surpassed in the next instant by another?

Further, can we decouple the enigma of who we are from the larger theological mysteries and implications?

I am comfortable with the notion that who we are is what we do. I don't mean tinker tailor soldier sailor. Or writer, painter, beggar-man thief. The question of who we are takes on real meaning, not rhetorical meaning, when we say that all that we are is the sum total of our actions. This is where the rubber  surely meets the road. This is living at the centre, not the margins.Appendectomy Girl, 18x24

So, in the context of here in the Middle East, and for that matter elsewhere too, let's everyone set aside these petty historic hatreds. Let’s not be worrying about trying to angle ourselves for, say, a future paradise replete with 72 virgins boasting pear-shaped breasts. There is no "self" to angle.

The consistent advice seems to be to forget about "self" and to just breathe in the fullness of your numerically distinct moment, right here and now.

As Hartshorne said: “Perhaps I have a blind spot in this region, but I see no need for post-terrestrial rewards or punishments — beyond the satisfaction, to be achieved now, of feeling one’s earthly actuality indestructibly, definitively, appropriated in the divine participation.”

The wonder of the present

In other words, focused too furtively on the future we risk missing the wonder of the present, which could be just heavenly. And we possibly blow the chance to become who we are.

A decade or so ago, I was compelled to telephone Hartshorne at his home in Texas. It was a Saturday morning in June when this stranger cold-called the Hartshorne home. His daughter answered and told me they were having a little party since it happened to be Hartshorne’s 102nd birthday. I had a pressing question about something Hartshorne said in A Natural Theology for Our Time, though I confess now to have long forgotten what the question was or why it was seemed so pressing.

That Hartshorne was indisposed to answer seems exquisitely appropriate now as I advance toward another kind of departure lounge simply mindful of each moment extinguishing into the next and where the phrase “We know who you are” still invites me to wonder and reflect.

Let me recommend Charles Hartshorne: A Natural Theology for Our Time, La Salle: Open Court, 1967, reprinted 1992, ISBN 0-87548-239-2

(Top: Meditating on Number Six 16 x 12 watercolours and India ink on Laid paper)


A Dark and Stormy Night

A Winter's Night (16x12 watercolour on board)

It wasn't a Kennedy assassination moment, or a 9/11 moment. But I quite vividly remember a morning 12 years ago when news came on the radio that a body had been found in a car in the city of Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg.

Call it premonition – you wonder where they come from - but I thought: 'Who do I know in Selkirk?' And in that instant Mark Stobbe bounced to mind. We'd bumped into each other a few days earlier and he mentioned he had recently bought a home in St. Andrews, not far from Selkirk.

I met Stobbe in the mid-1990s when he was a political operative in Roy Romanow's Saskatchewan government. As a PR guy he was impressively large and friendly and helpful to an interloping newspaper reporter trying to get a feel for the political imperatives in a neighbouring province. I was a bit surprised in September 2000 to see him on the streets of Winnipeg and to hear he was now working for Manitoba Premier Gary Doer.

Called to commiserate

Later, on that October day more than a decade ago, when I got to my office in the Globe and Mail bureau in downtown Winnipeg, more details trickled out about the body in the car in Selkirk. There had been a slaying. And the victim was Bev Rowbotham, wife of Mark Stobbe, senior communications advisor to the Manitoba government.

It was surreal as I reflexively called Mark's home to commiserate. I told him I could not believe what I had heard on the news. “It's shitty,” he admitted in his understated Stobbe-esque way.

Of course I knew, and he knew that I knew, that suspicion would fall on him for the killing. Nine times in 10 it's the husband, out of anger. Until he was ruled out as a suspect, Stobbe would have to be the RCMP's main man.

Since Bev Rowbotham's body was found some distance from the family home and the story was that Bev had failed to return home after a late evening shop to Selkirk for groceries, we were being asked to believe she was attacked and killed in a random act by an unknown perpetrator. Not very likely, but not 100 percent impossible either, I thought. At that time I did not know Bev was killed in the back yard of the family home. Nor did I know Bev had been bludgeoned repeatedly with a hatchet or hammer – apparently 16 times – an emotional outburst.

Before long Mark Stobbe no longer worked for the government. A dark cloud of suspicion hung over his head as he took to operating a candy route to support himself and two young children. I'll admit to feeling some sympathy: if the guy is innocent, he's tragically lost his wife, his job, his reputation. I tried to buck him up and we had lunch a few times in the months that followed.

Full of food

Several times I asked him if he killed Bev and, just as he repeatedly told jurors at his murder trial last month, he steadfastly denied any involvement in her terrible death.

As police leaked selective details of the case to the media, Mark gave me explanations for things that might cast suspicion. Why did Bev need to go shopping when the family fridge was full of food? The fridge was full of food because family members, friends and neighbours all brought food in the hours and days after the murder.

Months passed and Mark was bitterly frustrated that the focus of the RCMP investigation appeared to be only on himself as a suspect. He mentioned that around the time of Bev's killing a woman driving on a rural road near Selkirk had been attacked by two hammer-wielding women who tried to rob her as they pretended their car had broken down. How coincidental is that? Why weren't the Mounties chasing down that possible lead?

It was only at trial that the public were told DNA and bone fragments pointed to the back yard as the location of the killing. And so the question arose: Who had a motive after the fact to remove Bev Rowbotham's bodyand take it in the family sedan 15 kilometres to Selkirk, where the car and body were some hours later found abandoned?

Sometime in late 2002 Mark moved back to Saskatchewan and we lost contact.

In 2008 he was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Police apparently had shopped around for a prosecutor who would support a charge on the strength of not much more than suspicion. Four prosecutors who were  previously consulted said there was insufficient evidence to lay a criminal charge against Mark Stobbe or anyone else.

A wise conclusion

So then, last month, after a seven week trial, the testimony of 80 some witnesses, several gruelling days on the witness stand and 12 years under a cloud, Mark Stobbe was found not guilty in the death of his wife Beverly Rowbotham.

I'm relieved and impressed that 12 citizen jurors reached this wise conclusion.

From what I could parse from news reports at trial, there wasn't evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark Stobbe was connected to the killing.

Oh, you may have your  suspicions. But our justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict.

So a finding of not guilty was the correct verdict, in law.

In the end, Mark Stobbe may be the only person to know whether it was correct in fact.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 20, 2012.)

(Top: A Winter's Night 16 x12 Italian watercolour pigments on board)



A Thorn among the Rosies

Red Jacket (15x11 watercolours and India Ink)

A straw poll among my extended family suggests the emergent Wildrose party will win by a landslide when Alberta elects a new government in less than two weeks.

I was in Alberta for a funeral and as a Winnipegger who long ago married an Alberta girl, I thought about how often I've made that westward trek from Manitoba and how Alberta has always seemed a welcoming and perplexing place, at once both strongly kindred and strangely foreign.

Opinion polls suggest Premier Alison Redford's Tories are about to take a whuppin' at the hands of a surging Wildrose party: a political force with serious backers and serious money, led by my former journalistic compatriot Danielle Smith.

Change in the air

The Tories were some 10 to 13 percentage points behind the Rosies in popular support at the Easter break, though that gap appears to have tightened in the time left before the April 23 vote.

And so I asked my salt-of-the-earth Alberta relatives, farmers, entrepreneurs, business-folk all -- those who made up a big chunk of the 420 in the little church in Duchess -- to predict the election outcome.

Unless they change their God-loving minds between now and then, I venture a good 90 per cent of my in-laws in Medicine Hat, Brooks, Calgary and all the way up to Vegreville and Leduc will cast their lot with Wildrose.

The feel of a quite-revolutionary change is in the air.

"The NDP infiltrated the Conservative party, buying up memberships and the like," one of my nephews whispered, implying Redford's Tories have become too socialist-red for their britches and the people's voice is echoed in the neo-conservative, libertarian, freedom-loving Rosies.

Others in my family of election prognosticators said the PCs have simply been in power too long. With that comes the odour of cronyism, wild spending of taxpayers' money and legislation in areas where the government has no place.

Several of my Alberta family said they like the Wildrose idea of being able to recall malfeasant MLAs and have citizen referendums on important issues.

A fart in the perfumery

Proof of the profligacy and arrogance of Alberta's political elite was the pre-election news MLAs collected thousands of dollars for sitting on a legislative committee that had not met since 2008. This transgression came up often, and people's noses curled as they spoke of it, as if they had just sniffed a fart in a perfume factory.

It seemed a bit odd none of my relatives had raised their voice in protest of these things before now. At the same time, no one expressed fear over the future of medicare or threats to the Canada Health Act and whether their arthritic bones would be properly looked after if Wildrose wins.

"I haven't heard that," said the nephew. It seems Albertans don't worry about the same kinds of things we do in deficit-addled Manitoba. They have a deficit, too, but they will deal with it by 2013.

At one level, Alberta is unlike any other province in Canada. When it comes to politics, even Quebec, I dare say, has more in common with the rest of Canada than Alberta.

Because Alberta, at least in modern history, has been a political monolith. One voice, the Progressive Conservative party, has dominated since 1971.

Except from her infant crib, Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, born in 1971, has never seen anything other than a PC government in Alberta. Now she has a chance to install something other.

Cool Libertarian

A poverty of vigorous public-policy options in Alberta is something I know Danielle has long lamented. We had many discussions about the events that shape our nation and our world when she and I worked together in Calgary to make the national current-affairs TV program Global Sunday.

Danielle lives and breathes public policy. She is cool under pressure. She is a fiscal hawk but socially progressive. She is interested in good ideas.

She is honest and reliable.

Danielle also leans toward the libertarian view that with personal freedom comes individual responsibility. Everything she has done in her life has led to this moment as the political momentum tilts toward change. Alberta politics suddenly resonates with potential impact for all of us, even here in Manitoba.

Public discourse in Alberta is no longer boring and predictable. It is unpredictable and fascinating.

(A version of this was published in The Winnipeg Free Press on April 12, 2012). 5CAH63JZR7XE

(Top: Red Jacket: 16 x12 watercolours and India ink on Cold Press paper)