Jim Kalnin: The Art of Community
Growing up in an agnostic yet loving family, I have never been part of a church community. I missed out on this sense of belonging and feel as out of place in church as most people do in an art gallery. Lois Huey-Heck, on the other hand, grew up with the church as a big part of her life and is still nourished by this aspect of community. She comes alive singing in a choir, and loves the rituals and ceremonies that only make me squirm. While it is possible that this lack of churchgoing in my formative years helped me become independent and self-sufficient, eventually I realized that I also had a need for community support. Eventually, because art became my main interest and focus, it was with the artistic community that these needs were mostly filled.
Artist's Trading Cards: Dee, Shauna Oddliefson, Jim Kalnin. Mixed media; approx. 9 x 6.5 cm
As an art student, and for years after, these needs were not apparent. Nor did I think much about various kinds of community or what they might mean to me. This changed drastically when I travelled alone, for long periods of time , in other lands and cultures. Watching closely, though not participating in , extended families and villages in Guatemala, Thailand, and Ecuador, I saw how people connected in various ways to support each other. This was unlike anything I knew from my sheltered life in Canada. On these extended travels, I found myself unconsciously attempting to create community. Whenever I stayed anywhere for a while, I would paint. The locals and other tourists would sometimes get inspired and make art too. I encouraged and even taught them, and before long we would be pinning small paintings to adobe huts or palm trees, and dragging people to our "openings". Thus began my career as a community art organizer.
When I moved to the southern interior of British Columbia, I spent my first seven years living in a small community in the mountains. Here, everything I had learned about cooperating with others was put to the test. Each winter, we were snowbound a few months until we managed to buy a derelict snowplow to keep the logging road open. Deep levels of self-awareness, conflict resolution, honest communication, and learning to create our own reality were some of the things we worked on while the snow piled up. By comparison, the summertime challenges _bears in the compost pile, mosquitoes everywhere, and the fact it was just too cold to grow tomatoes _ were much easier to manage. In the short summer, the peaceful and beautiful wilderness we lived in worked its magic on our souls.
Although most of my friends there had no art background, they were all eager to learn and to collaborate. Our annual Winter Solstice Pageant and other group projects offered me my first opportunities to put spirituality and art together.
When I left the mountains for the city below, I took with me a well-developed sense of my place in and my own need for community. Connecting with the local art scene and teaching at a university, gave me many more opportunities to explore working with others for a common cause. Being part of developing art organizations, putting up exhibits and starting an artist-run centre were natural extensions of the group processes I learned from my time in the mountains. Both of these experiences filled my life with challenges, opportunities, friendship, and feelings of accomplishment. Exactly what one might expect of community.
In 1975, on an extended trip to the highlands of Guatemala, I sat in the bar after a meal, along with a number of other young travellers, and watched as musicians who had just met each other started jamming. Before long, they found enough commonality to start playing well together. Within an hour, they became a decent band and close friends. I lamented to others the fact that artists couldn't just get together like that.
Years later, when I was just learning to play a harmonica (and having to constantly ask what key we were in), I did have this kind of music experience. It was on Gabriola Island, after watching some Quebeçois musicians perform. I was visiting a friend when these musicians walked in. I stood back as they greeted each other. Then the guitar player sat on the floor and started into a blues riff. I sat down beside him, suddenly knowing what to do and even what key he was in. Half an hour later we stopped, stood up, hugged each other, then introduced ourselves. I wanted to experience this kind of rapport with visual artists. With my discovery of collaborative art many years later, this wish finally came true.
My first major collaboration was with Lois Huey-Heck and Byron Johnston. In 1995, we were invited to build a site-specific installation at the Grunt Gallery, in Vancouver. We met a number of times to plan our project. I had previously found a partially burned fibreglass canoe on a logging road near our home. The proposed collaboration at the Grunt seemed the perfect place for it. Between the three of us, we evolved the idea of treating this vandalized and discarded boat with the care and respect that we felt it deserved. We intended to recreate it, to elevate it from garbage into art. Byron fashioned a sling for it from sheet aluminum and polypropylene rope. While he was hanging it in the gallery, just above average eye level, Lois and I completely covered the walls of the room with homemade charcoal. We also suspended a wooden periscope and mounted an aluminum ladder on the wall, both as aids to viewing the details of the still-damaged boat.
We titled our installation Re-creation and felt that the act of working together in a cooperative and creative manner was spiritually recreating us as well. The boat floated serenely between the charcoal covered walls. The room took on an ethereal quality that reminded me of both a temple and a tomb. The simple, wood periscope that Byron made hung near the boat as it turned slowly and gracefully in space. This project reminded me of the magic that happens to musicians. We made something that had each of us in it, but that none of us could have made alone. Collaborating meant that we each gave up some control of our art. It meant having faith in each other, and in the unknown. This can be a fearful thing, but letting go of that fear is incredibly liberating and empowering. I was now hooked on collaboration.
The burned boat could very well have nine lives. Its career as an installation art project continued the next spring, when we were invited to participate in Collaboration, at the Centre Des Arts Actuels Skol in Montreal. Six artists from our area collaborated in teams of two. Byron worked with another artist while Lois and I reused the burned boat with other materials to create a new installation. In our artists' statement for the exhibit, we wrote,
Life is a dance of opposites; with creation and decay the dance partners. Out of death and decay spring new life. This boat is a good an example of that. The shroud above the boat consists of 950 braided and crocheted strands of recycled dry cleaner garment bags. Lumber, black polyethylene, slide projections of fire, a small fan, sand and water (are) used in this installation. The resurrected boat is clumsy, awkward in appearance, yet also ethereal and graceful, as is the dance of life.
I really enjoy taking non-traditional materials that have been vandalized and discarded, then elevating them into things of beauty. The act of transforming garbage into art is my visual act of protest against the rampant consumption and waste that we, the affluent countries of the world, indulge in at the expense of the rest of the planet. Having ranted in this manner before, we did our best to recycle all the installation materials after the exhibit, but felt guilty at not totally succeeding. The boat is still with us, stored in its crate waiting for the next phase of its life: perhaps as art, possibly a flower bed. Either way it will stand, at least in our minds, as a symbol of the continuation of life and as a reminder that all of life requires our care.
Collaboration exists in various forms, according to need. As well as installation art, collaborative paintings and drawings are also created; sometimes formally, often casually. Throughout the art world, groups use collaboration as a means of mutual support. One such group is the Royal Art Lodge.. Most of the people in that group were art students together in Winnipeg and started drawing with each other regularly as a way of relaxing to relieve the stress of their individual careers. Michael Dumontier, Hollie Dzama, Marcel Dzama, Neil Farber, Drue Langois, Myles Langois, Jonathan Pylypchuk, and Adrian Williams have all been members at one time and most of them still meet and collaborate on drawings on a regular basis. Typically, one person starts a drawing then passes it around the room. Others add whatever they want. A relaxed atmosphere and high level of trust in these sessions allow their art to grow in new directions, with some surprising and refreshing results. At the end of each session, they review the drawings and sort them into several suitcases. The suitcases full of the best drawings then comprise future exhibits.
This draw-something-and-pass-it-on technique really does require participants to check their egos at the door. I have participated in such work often enough to see the benefits of letting go. The success of the Royal Art Lodge as a group and as individuals is only one example of the potential of such collaboration.
A variation of this approach happens when two or more artists work on the same drawing or painting simultaneously. My most enduring, productive, and enjoyable collaboration was of this kind. My friend and colleague Doug Biden and I made an extended series of black and white monotype prints over a two-year span. Doug teaches printmaking at UBC Okanagan, and with his technical expertise guiding us, we were free to be as expressive and playful as we wished. We would start each session by covering a large zinc plate with black printers' ink. Then we would draw marks or images into it by scraping ink away, and later by drawing back into the image. Sometimes the ideas would develop slowly and hesitantly, at other times, the drawings flowed effortlessly.
The Pass; 2000. Doug Biden/Jim Kalnin. Monotype print; 60 x 90 cm
Sometimes, we would request certain images from each other. Occasionally, we changed or even eradicated each other's work. At first I had difficulty with this, but eventually learned to trust both Doug and the process. Throughout the drawing process, we would talk, joke, laugh, and generally goof around. Doug and I have the ability to bring out the kid in each other, which brought high energy to the work.
The Monotype Transition Zone is a representative example of the art we produced. It embodied our deep concerns for the health of the natural world, while expressing our joy in life. Many of the prints express our concerns with order, balance, and sustainability. The interdependence of all life is expressed in a number of other works in this series. This piece and The Pass are two of my favourite images. Partly, that's because they illustrate the points made in our statement, and partly it's because of their poetic quality, that evokes a sense of the spirit behind the form.
Working with another like-minded artist adds new dimensions to the act of art. My own work has changed in a number of ways as a result of these collaborative experiences. Others report having gained from similar experiences. We all have the ability to teach and to learn from each other. When Doug and I worked on the monotypes, we criticized, cajoled, and encouraged each other; that dynamic simply became part of the working environment. Any bruises to our egos have long since healed, leaving us with a lot of good memories and a satisfying body of work.
The mail art movement that has evolved recently is one that naturally builds community. It is completely inclusive in nature. Those who find the political and commercial machinations of the art world overwhelming will find the idea of mail art attractive. Artists and art groups put out calls to other artists, advertising the dates and location of an exhibit, usually through the Internet, art newsletters, and posters or flyers. The art is generally not judged, criticized, bought or sold, and no one's art is rejected. All art mailed in by the deadline is exhibited, usually in an alternative gallery space. Some groups will return the work, while others do not. - Read the instructions carefully. Some of the more established mail art organizations, many of them based in Europe, will even print catalogues or burn CDs of some of their exhibits.
Bicycle Painting. Anonymous. Mixed media on paper, 11 x 17 cm.
I got a crash course in this phenomenon when Dan Anhorn, one of our senior fine arts students, asked me to help him curate a mail art show in our department's small art gallery on the theme of "bicycles." We sent out the call. and before long, packages started arriving from every corner of the planet. A lot of packages. We had to literally wallpaper the gallery with entries in order to exhibit them all. We even got a full-sized bicycle with parts reassembled and with a very complex paint job. The quality of the submitted work was uneven, of course, but when we installed it all, the overall effect was a busy yet cohesive collection of imagery that gave the plain little gallery a festive feel. Some of the packages were works of art in themselves and so we exhibited them too. The show was a huge success, attracting many people who normally didn't come into the gallery. For me, the show, and the act of creating it, was a reminder of the large community of artists to which I belong.
Artist's Trading Cards
Another form of community-oriented, democratic art that grew, more or less, out of mail art is the artist trading card movement, or ATC as it is commonly known. This rapidly spreading art-happening started somewhat accidentally in Switzerland, spread through Europe and over to Canada, and is now a global phenomenon. Artists in local communities make small original works of art (usually 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches - the same size as printed sports trading cards) and trade them to each other at regularly held meetings. Like mail art, this is a process anyone can participate in. The art is traded, usually one for one, but not bought or sold. Trades are generally not refused. Artist Margo Yacheshyn brought this idea to our community and set up workshops and trading sessions through the Alternator Gallery.
Artist's Trading Cards: Jim Kalnin, Bee, Lois Huey-Heck. Mixed media; approx. 9 x 6.5 cm
After much encouragement by Margo, Lois Huey-Heck and I both got involved. Working on this very small format, with no expectations to ever exhibit or sell the work, is liberating. The ability to make art with no real pressure on us allows us to experiment to a greater degree than we would normally do in our larger work. Like collaboration, trading art cards can lead us to new and refreshing art. Also, there is a quality of innocence and joy at these trading sessions that is a refreshing change from the professional and academic art worlds. Although I am a part of those worlds and gain much from them, I also enjoy the simplicity and purity of trading my small artworks for those made by artists of all ages. There is a spiritual quality to the open and democratic exchange that happens at these sessions. I also feel more connected to the art community locally and globally when I participate in these events.
The ATC movement, like the rest of life, keeps growing and changing. Artists trade globally as well as locally, and touring exhibitions are now taking place. There are also buyers and sellers of artist's trading cards, countless websites, and chat groups. The day when we find them in major art galleries may not be far off, as this grassroots movement is now becoming part of the structured art world. Change is inevitable and on one level I welcome it. I do intend, however, to continue happily making these tiny pieces of art for as long as I can find someone to trade with.
The three forms of interactive art that I have looked at here represent only a few of the many ways established artists support each other. Mail art and artist's trading cards also open the community of artists up, to include the creativity and participation of new and aspiring art-makers.
This essay appears in the book The Spirituality of Art by Lois Huey-Heck and Jim Kalnin, published 2006 by Northstone, Kelowna, and is reprinted here with the permission of the authors and the publisher. For more information, see www.spiritualityseries.com