Magic, just beneath the surface

Thoughts on the paintings of Sue Shirley

By JIM SHIRLEY Special to Nunatsiaq News

Sometimes I really regret the distances that a person has to work with in the North, the way events are often separated from one another, at odds with our personal hopes and wishes.

Last Saturday, Jan. 17, Sue Shirley, my wife, had an opening of her work at the Legislative Assembly reception area. I couldn't go.

From all that I have heard, the show has been beautifully mounted. I would have given anything to have been there.

Sue and I took a lot of time to mat and frame the collection of about 28 works, spanning a period of several decades. What a fantastic sight it was seeing all of her works spread out, just before they were shipped to the Ledge.

It was a pleasure to view all of these collected moments, jewels that have stepped out of Sue's imagination into reality. On the highway of our life together, these images are wonderful defining experiences for the both of us.

I‘ve lost count of the number of times I have watched Sue collect her paints and brushes, tie them with the patient skill of a veteran hunter onto the back of the Honda, or pack them into a knapsack, survey the horizon (the shapes of the clouds, the direction of the wind) just before she heads off.

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

A part of me always cheers her. It's as if she represents both of us in her pursuit of the beautiful magic we carry within us and outside of us.

Sometimes she is a heroic, almost mythological figure to me. For Sue, it's all about love, about commitment, about honoring life, and the particular combinations that makes her who she is, her commitment to find the silent spaces in our lives from which we draw our dreams, our meanings and purpose.

As an artist, I sometimes feel sad that my connection to my artistic work has become so distant as time has moved on.

Just like Sue, I'm someone who also should be pursuing my own version of the beautiful magic that waits there for those of us privileged to call ourselves artists.

I've concentrated most of my time in teaching, a process that I consider to be just as creative as being a painter or a printmaker (both of which I spent my time on when I was a full time artist.)

But it seems I've suffered the fate of many who are associated with the arts. For some folks like myself, it's all about the world, which can be opaque and shallow, without much in the way of a reward for all of the effort, aside from earning a living. Art has become more of a choice then an absolute necessity.

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And yes, I know that there are lots of people who depend on their art for their very survival, lots more of those people than there are people like me, who earn a livelihood on the periphery of art. I have worked with artists for whom art is a matter of survival for most of my time in the North.

There are so many forces at play in the production of a work of art, whether it is done primarily to earn an income or not.

First of all, you have to locate the tools and materials you need (not so simple when your funds are limited, or if you live in a smaller community far away from a major centre.)

You have to have good craftsmanship, to demonstrate regularly your ability to start and finish a piece of work in an interesting way. You need to be able to focus on what you're doing (not so easy if your house or your life is full of family and responsibilities.)

Creating art regularly, overcoming the difficulties, is a heroic act. Sometimes I am deeply moved when I see artists going from table to table trying to sell their work.

The public should keep in mind the character and strength it takes for that person standing in front of you with that polished polar bear to do what he or she does.

The fact is that very little of this process is understood by much of the public, or by leaders and social managers struggling to find a way to put meaning into the lives of the people, particularly younger people, many of whom find themselves left out of the mainstream of contemporary life.

I can't help but think that we need to take a broader look at what we call "art." We need to step beyond the simple mechanics of "buy" and "sell," to see the human resources involved in the production of a work of art as social assets, important resources that our society needs to utilize in more ways than it does presently.

It's a big challenge, but one with tangible, deeply rooted benefits if we can ever take it on. We need to demonstrate the same kind of creativity we demand and expect from our artists, in our social planning and management.

I've seen, first hand, the benefits of art as a source of personal empowerment and development, and how the process of creating a work of art can be a tremendous source of healing.

As a society, I think that we need to take a second look at processes that cost little and make us more confident and effective as a people.

But I know that the kinds of things I'm speaking of are a long way off. For now, I find great satisfaction that Sue's work is being properly recognized and respected.

I hope that I will finally learn a thing or two from her about the love of life, about going beneath the surface to find the magic which is always there, waiting to be set free.

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