Is There Bacon in Heaven?

“Art is a line around your thoughts.” Gustav Klimt

I love diners almost as much as I love churches. They smell of lard and pancake syrup. And there’s the constant sound of sizzling, the lick of bacon grease hitting the heat, the cook shouting from the back “order up.” And let’s not forget the fact that they serve breakfast all day. I could eat breakfast foods any time. I’m not sure why other foods exist. Sausage, bacon, pancakes, Belgium waffles, syrup, butter, eggs over easy, eggs sunny side up, eggs scrambled. All of them hot with salt and pepper. Fried potatoes with ketchup. Buttered toast with peanut butter or jam or sometimes both.

I haven’t eaten in a while.

Anyway, this drawing was sketched at a diner in Cardston, Alberta. I ate there with my little sister once, and the waitress stayed with us talking as if she were really interested in our lives. We left her a good tip. She was just a local girl with a quick smile and a friendly nature. She probably grew up on a farm, one of a million small town girls who make the world a nicer place to live in but have no idea that they do.

I’ve eaten at a lot of breakfast places. Years ago, my husband and I made it our mission to find the best breakfast diners. When we started the search, the breakfasts were $2.99 or $3.99. You can’t find deals like that anymore. My older son was just a baby when we started the search and we sat him in a high chair and handed him pieces of potato and bacon as he drooled. We could never decide which restaurant was the best. We preferred the privately owned diners with torn upholstery and chipped table linoleum. Maybe some photo displays of staff and their families. Maybe cow shaped creamers. It didn’t matter where we went, they were all good.

I haven’t eaten at many of those places since I lost him. And on those few occasions, I would sit alone at a table and watch as his ghost came to visit. He’d smile a ghostly smile and laugh his big laugh which I couldn’t quite hear. I always loved the sound of his laugh. So I pretended he was really with me. I wanted to people watch with him or make up conversations for the other customers like we used to, but of course, I couldn’t. Now, I just sit quietly in my chair and look at the place where his face used to be and I can almost hear his soft voice. And I can almost smell his aftershave and run my finger along his jawline. He’s quiet in death, the way he never was in life. And I pretend to take his last piece of toast or bacon when he’s not looking just to see the look of shock on his face.

Even after he got sick he still went with me to a few diners although he lost all interest in food. He went with me because he loved me. But he could only sit with strangers for so long and the greasy food made him sick so he just picked at it. His vision was almost gone so we couldn’t watch the other customers. And for some reason, when I made jokes, he just didn’t seem to understand my humor anymore. But he pretended he did because he loved me.

I tried to keep going with the breakfast search but it was too sad for me. Every time, I went I would see my young, healthy husband arrive and watch him deteriorate to the blind old man with bad kidneys and a bad heart. I would spend the rest of the day fighting back tears and swimming through a quagmire of regrets. So I had to stop. I still eat breakfast foods though, who wouldn’t? But I can’t go to the diner’s anymore. I look at them longingly whenever I pass. And I wonder if there’s bacon in heaven.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing

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The Field Where I Died

“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” Leonardo da Vinci

OK, so I didn’t really die in this field. I took the title from an old X-Files episode where Mulder meets a woman he knew in a former life. She remembers how he died and where and it’s a pretty good episode. It’s also a fascinating subject matter. Like most people, I find myself wondering what happens beyond this life. Reincarnation is a little like being immortal, to become someone else and become someone else over and over until the end of time. To be united once again to our senses. To make love again, to breath air, to feel water running over skin, hear whispered moans, see colors. To live again this painful, joyful, journey of physical existence. Maybe we all have this choice after death. It’s an interesting thought.

So I didn’t die in this field but I had planned on killing myself there. At first, the place I died didn’t seem important, just somewhere my boys wouldn’t find my body. Initially, this field was convenient. Later, I found that it became a friend, a warm companion who would embrace me for one last time on earth. I grew fond of this field with its barn and outbuildings all leaning crookedly against one another, the plowed field, the clouds sitting low in the sky. I came to love this field but, as I say, I didn’t die there.

In my 35th year, I entered the dark shadow of my soul, taking on the failings of others as a cloak that blocked out the sun. Asking myself why I wasn’t enough. Asking why he strayed, why he left, why he came back and finding no answers. I looked up at the world from the bottom of a deep pit, my hands reaching towards the light. I wanted someone’s strong arms to lift me out. But no one came.

I heard of people who attempted suicide but didn’t quite make it. The woman who jumped off a bridge and woke up in ICU with a tube down her throat, ribs wired together, fractures to her face, arms, legs, back. She never walked again. There was also a man who overdosed on medication. He passed out, vomited, and was rescued only to discover he had destroyed his liver and needed a transplant. So I knew if I attempted suicide, I didn’t want to come back. It had to be absolute. There was no plan B.

But as it happens, I didn’t need to depart this world. I found my way out of the pit on my own. I don’t remember specifically what changed my mind, what turn of events made me look in a different direction. But I found after time that happiness occupied more moments than misery. I’d like to say that some specific incident occurred so I could offer help to other people in the same position. But I have no wisdom to convey. I only remember feeling better after a while and thinking how lucky I was to have this life, as flawed and glorious as it can be. I remember sitting near that field and being grateful that I didn’t take my last breath there. I looked to it as a gravestone, marking the time when I could have let my sadness destroy me but I didn’t.

And one of the things that helped feed me during the dark days of my soul was my art. I saw things when I drew them that I didn’t see otherwise. Drawing them helped me see. And in that seeing, I found a fundamental truth of our existence. We are all one. We are all the same. We all suffer the same emotions. And it’s in our shared emotions that we belong to one another. I could see the sadness of other people and I realized I was not the only one who had such thoughts. I was not the only one who was stuck, backed into a corner, attacking anyone who came near like a kicked dog. I found, by looking at others, that we are more similar than different and it’s in our similarities that we can find peace.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing

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Breathing the Night Air

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Maya Angelou

I remember the day I drew this picture because I fought with my husband. And in our 23 year marriage, it was the only time he hit me. I don’t even remember what we were bickering over. Just the same stupid shit that all couples argue about. He wasn’t paying enough attention to me, or our son. Maybe that was it.

I was pregnant at the time. About seven months. Large enough to be slow an emotional and uncomfortable almost all the time.

I didn’t think he would hit me, so when his hand slapped me across the right side of my face and cut my lip on my teeth, we were both shocked. He stood there looking at me and the thin trail of blood running from my mouth. And I crumpled into a heap on the floor. I sat there for some time, long enough to hear his footsteps leaving the house and hearing the door shut behind him.

I sat on the floor weeping and felt a tiny hand push my hair behind my ear. Our little son, three years old reached up his sweet baby face and kissed me on the exact place where his father had struck me. It was the sweetest kiss I’ve ever had, maybe the sweetest kiss I ever will have. And I felt so badly for him that he should have parents who could be so hateful.

I put him in the car and we drove to the coast, only ten minutes away. We walked along the docks that night. I smelled the green wind and looked up at the darkness and felt soothed by the same stars that were gazed upon by every human from the beginning of time. And my problems seemed less significant. I loved looking at the boats at night. They bobbed up and down in the waves like corks. The wind blew in from the water smelling like death and life at the same time. I could forget how homesick I was living in a foreign country with not one friend.

I drew this picture while sitting cross legged on the dock, my large belly spilling over into my lap, my little son leaning on my leg and watching my hands. I wondered at the time what he would be like as an adult. And now I know that he wears the evidence of his parents discord on the surface of his skin, and he explodes with anger unless medicated. And I see a younger me pursuing an idea I had, an idea of love, when I should have left it alone. And things have changed between my son and I. He no longer puts his head in my lap and smiles up at me. And I wonder how much less pain there would be in the world if there was no love.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing

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Travelling Like Turtles

“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.” Marc Chagall

Four years ago, my sister and I started driving, not knowing where we were going. We lived in Edmonton, the most beautiful place in Alberta, probably the country, maybe the world. We drove south using only the secondary highways which took us through charming small towns. We called it our “White Trash” holiday. Our goal was to visit every dollar store and Wal-mart in every town small enough to have a water tower. We made friendship bracelets peppered with clay beads. We read romance novels. We did sudoku and crosswords badly. We drank specialty coffees in the morning with nothing but the sky for company. We ate pop rocks and licorice and listened to music.

Fort Macleod was one of the places we visited. We camped for a night outside the town in a tiny site nestled against the Old Man River. The town used to be an RCMP barracks and the old Fort Museum is still there to tell the story of our early days in this country. The main drag through town has rows of buildings, many still have the false fronts from the pioneer days to make them look bigger.

We had all the things we needed in our car; a small propane stove, air mattresses, sleeping bags, tents. We traveled around like turtles, carrying our home with us. What a glorious existence to be a nomad. We had no idea where we were going at any given time. We woke up in the morning and said “Where do we want to go today?” And that’s where we went.

Fort Macleod sits just west of Lethbridge, riding high on the prairie like a boat on the swells. I imagine any person who ever saw the landscape felt the same awe and love for the expansive green fields, the largeness of the blue sky laced with filmy clouds, warm winds that embrace. The calmness of the small town local who asks for nothing from you but will give you a smile, hold open a door, ask how you’re doing and really mean it.

I started drawing years ago as a way of documenting the things in the world that are the most beautiful. And Alberta is certainly beautiful. I began to make drawings of anything that struck me, usually an interesting composition. I looked back at my drawings after a 20 year hiatus and saw them as stepping stones sprinkled across a river. They became a path for me to find myself, to be reminded of the reason we are here. And that reason is, love. Love is the only thing that makes Art in any form, it’s the key ingredient to any thing in the world that’s worth doing, the essential component to anything with which we might occupy our time.

When I looked back at the years that have passed and all the many things that have immersed me, I realized that love was often missing from my most important relationships. I had forgotten love. And I can’t go back and live those days again. Those grains of sand have passed me by and I can only learn to forgive myself for my coldness as much as I learn to triumph in my warmth. I see those failings of mine, those days when I was at my lowest and needed a kind word and I decided to put my drawings out for the world. And maybe people might see the same thing about themselves. We’re all human and I know we’re all guilty of the same failings. But we can reach out to each other in our times of need and offer that smile that asks for nothing in return. We can say “How are you doing?” and listen quietly for the answer.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing

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Remnants of Memories

“Every Artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I first saw Athabasca years ago with my husband. He took me there a few months after our wedding to meet his parents. Of course, his parents didn’t live in town. Like most retirees, they lived in a year round cabin outside of the city. But is Athabasca a city? I have no idea. All I know is it isn’t large enough to have a Wal-mart.

The Athabasca Railway building is situated on 50th Ave, the main drag through Athabasca right by the river front park. I don’t actually know if it’s a railway building. The sign outside says Visitor Centre so I’m pretty sure people visit there. But the building looks alike a railway station so that’s what I’m calling it. You can see the sketch for yourself and decide.

Athabasca is a small town settled on the Athabasca river. It was a trading port and the river used to be instrumental in the trade routes. Imagine large wooden boats sitting low in the water and large, unwashed viking sized men rowing on either side. That’s what it used to be like in the early days in Athabasca. Or at least it might have been like that. I just made that all up. But it seems likely.

The river is pretty massive and, in winter, ice creeps over the edges until it meets in the middle and the river is frozen solid. All around, rolling hills covered in shrubs wash over the landscape like an ocean. Hard working people live there, people willing to eek out a subsistence living from the stony earth.

I loved it the moment I saw it with my young husband. He took me on a tour of the town. And whenever we visited there, we took the same route that became familiar to me. Every friendly home and building sat still, frozen in time, as if waiting for me to come back. We drove around all the same places, the rooming house where his mother grew up, the old brick school house, and the Burger Bar before we drove out to Island Lake where his parents lived. And we always passed the house that had the mechanical moose standing out front.

Writing about Athabasca is hard for me because I drove there about a year ago to put some of my husband’s ashes in the lake. We had spent so much time driving around the dirt roads on quads and swimming in the cool water. Fires by the shore, fireworks reflected in the glassy surface on Canada Day. I think the main reason I don’t like to go back there is because I see remnants of those memories everywhere and I’m reminded that they meant more to me than to him. I’m reminded of times when we were loving and times when we were not. I’m reminded of arguments and embraces and despair and anger and passion. But those things are over now. And every time I feel the ghostly fingers pulling me back, my heart is broken all over again. Holding on to them does no good. So I have to let them go and let him go. And now I realize that when I visit a place that holds onto echoes of his short life, it pricks a hole in the bottom of my happiness and washes it away.

I drove there that last time with our son in the car. We walked down to the lake front with a few friends and family in attendance and put pieces of him in the edge of the water. And I had to smile so they didn’t see how the burden of facing his memories weighed me down. I wanted to go on that tour of town again, the one we used to take every visit but I couldn’t. We left Athabasca and my son fell asleep on the way home. I’m happy he fell asleep because I didn’t want him to see me cry.

So many lovely scenes sit just waiting for my hand to put them on paper. “Make us immortal,” they whisper to me. I truly love the place. But I’ve never been back since that last visit and I’ll never go there again. I have pointed my life elsewhere and this drawing is one of a thousand memories I carry with me.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing

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A Special Kind of Love.

“To be an artist is to believe in life.” Henry Moore

I never had a proper wedding. But years ago, I attended a ceremony that I wish was my own. I didn’t know many of the people there. My husband was a high school friend of the groom but I didn’t really know anyone. I was shy and three months pregnant so I spent most of the wedding watching from the side lines while other people drank alcohol. I sipped on water wishing I could look as classy as the bride in her simple dress. We stuffed ourselves with homemade Ukrainian food but not the cabbage rolls. I still can’t eat cabbage rolls

My husband and I couldn’t afford a wedding gift. He was still a student and I had just graduated from art college which qualified me to do absolutely nothing. But I always said I’d make a painting for them. That was the plan at least. Between raising 2 kids and moving to another country and starting a career in nursing, I forgot about it. Years later, I was reviewing all my old sketches and I found the series I made that special night. Looking at those old sketches, I began making compositions in my head. They were all based on the church and drawings of people at the reception. Even though the image is based on the wedding, I took a great deal of license with the painting. I wanted the surface of the painting to be divided up with shapes of flower petals and it oddly made the church look as if it were made of stone. But really, it was a wooden structure, like most prairie churches. I had fun adding embellishments that weren’t really there, lines and shapes that offered nothing but the joy of playing with different colors next to one another. I allowed myself the pleasure of applying color, not just recording the images, but painting the emotions. There are many different incarnations of this drawing. One sketch has the bride and groom holding hands and flying through the sky like a Marc Chagall painting. But this was my favorite composition.

I brought the the painting to the couple 25 years after it was due. They’re still together and very much in love. The groom teared up when he saw it, obviously still smitten with his bride. I spent an evening with them drinking wine. They told me the story of how they met. Who can resist a romantic story when a man sees the love of his life and does whatever he can to be with her? It’s the plot of almost every romantic comedy. But it’s rarely seen in life.

On the bottom of the canvas I painted the words, “The sky was aflame with roses on the day she said I do.” They have the kind of love everyone wants but not many people get. This painting was for them and for everyone who can find a warm hand to hold at the end of the day and a soft voice to whisper “I love you,” into the shadows of our own loneliness.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing that inspired the painting

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I’ve Never Seen Paris

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” Edgar Degas

Alberta is such a beautiful place. I’ve said this to many people and I’ve often been corrected. “You haven’t seen Paris,” they say. And they shake their heads, maybe roll their eyes, firmly believing in my lack of sophistication. But I feel sorry for them. They’ll probably never visit the cities they recommend to me. And they’ll spend their lives hoping to find happiness somewhere else when I can find it right in front of me.

I see beauty everywhere. I see color, and light, and composition. No matter where I am, I can see it. What a sad situation most people are in because they don’t realize they can see it too. Seeing the world in this way is the reason I started painting. My goal is to remind people of the beauty that surrounds us every day. If they see what I see, maybe they’ll remember it too.

The prairie sky is infinitely charming. From my childhood until today, I’ve developed a habit of watching the sky which is the most magnificent canvas. Morning and evening the horizon is draped with color, like a gift, colorfully wrapped around the edge of the world. Look away and when you look back it’s already changed. Escape is only as far away as casting your eyes upward.

This farm, near Elk Island Park, was a string of ancient buildings, weather worn and broken in places like people. I’m pretty sure they weren’t being used any longer. And chances are, with Edmonton close in proximity, this farm may no longer exist, building gone, holes filled in waiting to become a golf course or hotel. But the painting still hangs on my wall, bringing me back to that moment when I sat quietly watching the sky change on a warm June day in the country.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing that inspired the painting

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A Sweet Cup of Paradise

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Leonardo da Vinci

I began sketching years ago, long before I realized which direction my life would take. A couple of years ago I began looking at all my old sketches and realized how complex they really are, like I had never given them the credit they deserve. But more importantly, what I found was a visual diary of my life, a record of the places on this earth where my feet have walked. And I saw the footsteps of someone interesting.

Most of the drawings were made on napkins or poorly cared for coil back notebooks that were disintegrating. I had to rescue them. If I had waited a few years more, I might have lost them. So I began a project to pull them out of the realm of the forgotten and bring them back to life. I started a youtube channel to document the revival of the drawings. And I’d like to share them with everyone. I’m not done yet. I should have a couple hundred videos when I’m finished. 

This drawing, the Milk River Farm was drawn, as the name suggests, just outside of Milk River Alberta. I drew it during a camping trip I took with my younger sister. Most often I drew from the car, carefully positioning it so I could see the most beautiful composition. My sister sat in the front seat with me. She had unending patience when it came to my art.

I love going on trips with my little sister. We always look for out of the way places that are devoid of tourists. We usually stop at Fish Lake Provincial Park outside of Drumheller and we’re often the only people there. Such a lonely place. It feels like the end of the world. A place where the sun rises in the morning as a long lost friend. We always bring specialty coffees and every morning we light the propane stove to make a sweet cup of paradise to sit in the company of the air and earth. 

This sketch was drawn during one of these trips. We had awakened and gone to Drumheller for breakfast. We were eating bacon out of styrofoam containers. The world sparkled, droplets of water from the rainfall the night before, cows mooing in the background waiting to become Alberta beef. My sister and I sat in the car munching on sticks of salty bacon while I sketched.

This is a time lapse video of the drawing

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The Masks We Wear

“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.” Claude Monet

I used to walk.

I put my son in a backpack and walked. When I was lonely or bored or sad, I walked. An the walking took me outside of myself.

We lived on John D’or prairie Indian Reserve and I had the strange experience of not knowing one single person other than my husband and my infant son. My husband was a teacher on the reserve and the teachers were a tight knit group. But I wasn’t one of them. The natives were a tight knit group but I wasn’t one of them either. So I was lonely and I walked. I saw all kinds of homes, some only shacks, some larger all in various stages of repair, some abandoned. I saw few people. But I always had a feeling of being watched. 

I saw these two houses standing together in a sea of long grass that turned and waved in the wind. My son sat in his pack looking at everything in silence. He was the quietest, most studious child. I watched his eyes looking around in awe and I thought how special it is to see something for the first time. And then I realized, it was my first time seeing them too.

It was only after many years that I realized the painting was really a portrait of my husband and I. The pink house in the foreground is my husband, more open, more interesting. and more vibrant. And the yellow house was me, standing in his shadow, drabber, more closed off, plainer.

But much like houses, people’s interiors can’t be seen from the outside. My husband’s effervescent exterior masked his sadness, and my reserved nature covered over a rich imagination and strength that he didn’t have. It took me many years to understand this fact And now that he’s gone, I think back to those times and I wish I could live them again so I could be the kind of wife he needed and we would have been happier.

This is a time lapse video of the creation of this drawing.

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The Downward Curve of our Mouths

“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” Edgar Allan Poe

For years I took the bus past this church. I worked at a daycare center and I had to transfer buses to get to work. People don’t believe me when I tell them I really liked taking the bus. I used to sketch people’s faces while I sat on my bumpy ride home. I had to be sneaky so they didn’t know I was drawing the graceful curve of their jaw, their tired expressions, eyes that drooped after a long day. Every one’s face is beautiful in its own way. We wear our worries on our faces between our furrowed brows, under the love starved hollows of our cheeks, on the downward curve of the corners of our mouths. Every day I would see some of the same faces and some new. All unique. All lovely.

When I transferred buses I waited for the number 12 right in front of this beautiful church in West Edmonton. I saw the building every day and grew quite fond of it. I’ve always given buildings human qualities in the same way people anthropomorphize teddy bears. I actually feel like they can love me back. Every day I sat across the street from this lovely church. Finally, I took the time to sketch it, missing one of my buses in the process. 

And the church is still there, of course, but the neighborhood has changed somewhat. Condos have gone up around it, towering over it. But the church still opens its doors and parishioners show up in ever dwindling numbers.

The church contacted me a few years ago about using my painting as a fundraiser and of course I agreed. I could have charged them copyright fees but I didn’t. I’m not a religious person but I have warm feelings about churches whose purpose is usually community and companionship and solace. The last time I was inside a church was for a garage sale. My son was with me and he said he felt like lightning was going to hit him because he’s gay. How can I support a church when it makes my sweet, little boy feel so condemned? I don’t go to church at all but even if I don’t attend church, I still love the buildings and I have a feeling of fondness when I see them.

I never felt the need to attend church. As a child, I had a recurring nightmare that Satan was coming to my house to take me to hell. This was in reaction to the teachings I heard on Sunday morning. I had the terrifying dream over and over, waking up in a cold sweat curled up in a ball on my bed. As I grew older I had no use for the church which could cause a child to feel such fear. I have more reasons to stay away than to belong. 

But as an adult, I have cared for patients who are faced with their own death. I see their despair and fear. I listen to their weeping. And I have come to understand the value of a deity. People cower in the face of death. We hide in the coat tails of a God who may or may not exist. But often, our beliefs give us some comfort when looking up at the emotionless face of our own mortality. In the darkest times in our lives, we need a warm voice to tell us “It’s going to be OK.” And when they feel that fear, we call the pastor to talk to them, to pray with them. Religion is able to give comfort that medicine can’t offer. I have learned that we don’t have to be believers to see the transformation that can be brought to a person’s fear by God. That’s what I see in the churches I sketch. I see people coming together to remind one another how wonderful it is to be alive.

This video shows the time lapse creation of the drawing

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