Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Talking About Being Vulnerable

John King at the Buhler Gallery in Winnipeg

In the deep cold of winter in the past week before the spring thaw, I was privileged to have some heart-warming conversations with several artists about their work.  These were soul-searching conversations about  what our lives are about.  In Winnipeg, I visited my friend John King’s current exhibition called Calligraphic Influences at the Buhler Gallery in St. Boniface, Manitoba. He spoke about his work in a very reflective and passionate way, explaining how that series of work came to be, and how he came to understand what it was about. His paintings, while very joyful and playful, revealed some of John’s deep concerns about life, fragility and vulnerability. Art teaches us about who we are.

That same day, a group of seven of us met for lunch at the home of Jane Gateson.  The group meets for lunch and discussions now and again, and have dubbed themselves The Qwesters (the questing westerners). I get to attend a session when I’m in town, which we call our AGM!  The group this day was made up of five painters and two photographers.  After much conversation, good food and hilarity, Jane showed us the series of paintings in her living room that she had recently completed.  Like the narrative of her life, each of the abstract paintings represents an important stage in her life and beyond. Jane’s deeply considered rendering of each piece and her thoughtful discussion of the work was very moving.  I was touched by the vulnerability she expressed in this work.

The Qwesters with Jane Gateson's work on the wall.
This past weekend, I met with a group of friends here at my house.  We are a group of five artists, two writers and three painters.  We call ourselves the Arts & Letters Group, and take turns meeting at each person’s house every couple of months or so.  We feel safe and comfortable with each other and spent the afternoon discussing our work—where it’s going, how we’re feeling about it, what is driving us right now, what frustrates us. We listen and offer support.  One topic we were talking about was vulnerability: that edge between technical proficiency and not knowing what the hell you’re doing or where the work is going, carrying on anyway and letting that show.

The Arts & Letters Group
I heard Pinchas Zukerman, music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, on the CBC program Ideas today.  He was discussing Mozart and music and said (and I paraphrase), how every great person, whether they are a musician or conductor, artist, or athlete, becomes great not only because of their technical proficiency but also because they allow the expression of their vulnerability.

In the book, The Art of Possibility, the authors talk about mistakes and vulnerability. “Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and ‘cool’, once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring.  This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fibre of his technical resources to accomplish it.  A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.  And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said: “I don’t want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it.” 


  1. What a great post, Jan! You're fortunate to have two such groups in your art life.

    1. Thanks Sally, I am fortunate. In my workshop this weekend, after a great lunch hour discussion about art and being artists, one of the participants said that she was hungry for this sort of conversation! Everyone was prepared to stay longer at lunch to have this sort of discussion. I agree. We all hunger for meaningful conversations about art and life.