Monday, October 24, 2011

The Power of Limits and the Walls of Aran

I'm aiming to hold onto the feeling of Ireland for a while yet.  Not so easy though since my re-entry into life hasn't exactly started. I've just recently returned from Edmonton, where my show, Memories of Home, opened on Saturday, Oct. 15th at the Agnes Bugera Gallery. Being in Edmonton, where I lived until I was 17, many memories of growing up under the big open sky of the Prairies came back to me.

In this suspended state between returning home from Ireland and opening my show in Edmonton, my thoughts keep returning to the stone walls on the island of Inish Mann.  Perhaps it is because I was born in the Prairies that I felt so claustrophobic there, hemmed in by legions of stone walls.  There I was, on the middle island of the Aran Islands, that is whipped by constant winds which blow up tumultuous, ever-changing clouds, and surrounded by a grey sea that is often covered by white frothy-capped waves.  A wild, open environment.  But there was not an inch of the island that was not covered with stone walls.

The physicality of such limiting walls, made me consider the idea of limits in art.

In her book," Prospect, the Journal of an Artist", Anne Truitt writes about going on a driving trip across Canada and arriving in Carberry, Manitoba.  She said that she 'understood for the first time that limitlessness might be a threat, that it might induce the reverse of claustrophobia, a desire for enclosure, for protection from the naked eye of the sky."  She muses that it would take a store of courage to live on land that so emphatically does not need a human hand, and that people may have fallen in love with the prairie, as sailors fall in love with the sea. Truitt wondered aloud to her travelling companion if they would "have been moved to art if we had been born on this prairie?"

Perhaps the reason for acres of stone walls on Inish Mann was for enclosure and protection.   Surely the walls were built to clear stones from the land, as well as for protection from the wind and to create delineated pastures for the cattle and sheep.  But because of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of walls, my sense is that something more is at play.  The walls give limits against the limitless.

Creativity comes from limits, not freedom.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book, "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art", says, "Sometimes we damn limits, but without them art is not possible. They provide us with something to work with and against.  In practising our craft we surrender, to a great extent, to letting the materials dictate the design. Limits yield intensity.  Working within the limits of the medium forces us to change our own limits.  Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be 'free', but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves."

The poet Wendell Berry writes:
"The impeded stream is the one that sings."


  1. great post--I love the metaphor that the walls of Aran are purposeful, intentional and practical. That recognizing or establishing this kind of limitation in our art making can be the same...and may be not so different as the simple need to move stones out of the way.

  2. Excellent thoughts Rebecca. Or, like in the quote by Wendell Berry by simply flowing over the obstacles, we can make music.