What is Art?  A Dahlia Driven Discourse
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Dahlia Driven Newsdot #6
What is Art? A Dahlia Driven Discourse



Setting: On our Masset dock outside Outbreak.

Time: Afternoon

Who: Me and an indigenous man from Old Massett.  He has long silver hair and is missing a few teeth.  He is a member of a group of 4 men who regularly attend one of  four benches on Main Street, waving to passer bys and calling out.

Man:  (reaching into his shirt pocket as if obtaining a pack of smokes) Wanna see some art?

Me:  Sure!

Man: (pulling out a small disk) I made this myself.  It is a hummingbird.



Me:  It is beautiful!  How did you make it?

Man: I painted it on.

Me:  How much are you asking for it?

Man:  10 dollars.

Me: I would like to buy it! (I go and get the money)  I will hang it like a stained glass window on my boat!

Man:  (taking the money) I have more stuff.

Me:  Bring it around.  I can’t promise I will buy everything but I would love to see your work. 


Later on the boat…..


Sandy: (indicating the painting) What is this?

Me: It is a hummingbird.  Isn’t it beautiful!

Sandy:  It is painted on the lid of a Pringles’ chip tube.

Me: Yep.

Sandy: It can wash off.

Me: Yep. But it is art.


I am reading Wade Davis’s book “The Wayfinders”.  It is an amazing look at world cultures that are vanishing at a rate faster than biological species. Wade says “Culture is the laws and protocols to live in this world…  It is not trivial.  It is not decorative artifice.  It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives.  A body of knowledge that allows the individual to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has neither.”



We witnessed another Potlatch on September 20.  This potlatch was to honour the historic signing of a peace treaty between the Heilsuk and Haida nations.  It lasted 15 hours; dancing, prawns, drumming, pies, chanting, salmon, speeches, presents, halibut, masks, babies, costumes, button blankets, gaaw, chiefs. The potlatch was to celebrate peace; transforming two historically warring nations into peaceful comrades.  There were only three stated rules requested of those who witnessed this event:  no talking during speeches by the chiefs, no cell phone use and stay until the end.  There was a formal process to greet, introduce, give thanks, honour ancestors, sign documents and celebrate, but within that structure of form was the immense heart of the event; a living energy allowing for transformation in the moment. I have never witnessed something so precious and yet so loosely held, so hopeful yet full of loss, so quick to humour but sacred, such intense respect and laisser-faire.  Two chiefs spoke to their trauma at residential school. All the chiefs from both nations got up and danced together. These were not planned; they evolved.

We can separate the masks and other Haida artefacts as the exquisite individual works of art they are but Haida art is also a cultural experience.  In 1969, when the first pole was raised in 100 years, many Haida, without their regalia due to government confiscation, wore paper bags as head dresses.  The culture creates the art and the art maintains and transforms the culture.



Which comes first? 

We ate the green ones first. haha


“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  Albert Einstein


My culture is largely power seeking and academic knowledge based.  Those in the ‘know’ create realities with the hierarchy of information as vertical and money as the horizontal bottom line.  I have been “educated” about what art is, who is good and why.  I am invited to connect to the art through its placement on which gallery wall and how academics evaluate it. This evaluation is then cemented by its awarded monetary value. I am expected to relate to it on these superficial criteria. But why I really LOVE Matisse is because he takes the accepted reality of perspective, colour and form and moves it out of the box. Through him, I am offered a new way of seeing the world that also, at the very same time, cements accepted norms by virtue of contrast.  If Matisse is going to be an active part of my culture, his art needs to be a living and transformational force in my life.



Perhaps this is why I have always struggled with the gallery presentational forum of art, not because I don’t ascribe to the beauty of art I have seen in any given gallery but the notion that art is an academic presentation rather than interactive, living form of expression. That is a part of the reason I decided to do art on clothes; exploring our bodies as art and art as living movement through our bodies.




My connection to my historical culture and its art is not very palpable except by the very fact that I exist. My origins are not defined by the physical landscape I live in nor through formal activities that define my mythical part of the whole. I am, however, here, and like all humans, I have a body.  This body is the universal landscape in which we are born, breathe, eat, drink, love, procreate and die.  For now, I gleam my connectedness within this “body” culture and try to express my art through a respect for the earth by using pre used materials readily available/ locally manufactured, by creating imagery with a story that I hope can resonate both personally and universally and by utilizing a craft handed down from my Mother, Grandma and Aunt and all the women who have used textiles in their daily lives to do their work, honour their babies and the dying, making sense of their world. 



This is my newest canvas.  I am attracted by the Japanese simplicity of form; essentially the cross. For me, the vertical is life, the unyielding constant breath and the horizontal is the improvisation, the transformational dance within the ever changing natural world.  



I will finish with a story about my new bike, Larry.  I found Larry (that wasn’t his name then) while kayaking with Radar. He was abandoned above high tide under a bridge.  We docked the kayak at home and walked back to rescue the bike.  It had a flat tire and a broken brake line, rusty everything and full of sea weed and mud.  We took the bike to the police station 2 blocks away and handed it in.  The policeman told me that if no one claimed it in 60 days, I could have it.

That was my plan.  I really wanted a bike to ride around town and I didn’t want to buy a new one!  Well, 2 weeks later the officer calls and tells me they located the owner and he doesn’t want the bike so I can have it!  I retrieve it, put on a new inner tube/tire, scrub her up, oil her and bingo, I have a bike.

So, I am riding on Main Street and one of the other 4 bench guys stands up and says, “Hey, that’s my bike!”

“Do you want it back?” I reply.

“No,” he says, “you look awesome!”.

His name, I was later told, is Larry.

Every time I drive by Larry, he tells me I look awesome.

In honour of Larry, I named my bike after him.  It is never too late to add to one’s culture of connectedness.

Wendy van Riesen
The Dahlia in the drive

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