Fat and sassy

Yesterday I was on a bus heading to the clinic to do some routine blood tests. The bus was the second vehicle after a streetcar had to be abandoned cause of some power outages on the tracks.

A man got onto the bus who proceeded to exhibit symptoms of being in a severe psychotic episode. He hovered between the back door of the bus and the alcove across from it making sounds kinda like what you’d imagine a human turning into a werewolf might make. His pants were dirty and hung low, suggesting weeks or months of living rough. Throughout the bus, people turned to stare, presumably asking themselves the questions: how does one get someone like that some help? And, might it be a good idea for me to get off this bus sooner rather than later?

It’s a weird time in this city and others – coming out of the pandemic, emerging into this inflationary situation, there is so much pressure on people, the mental health issues are blooming up abruptly like bursts of lava with nowhere to go.

Safe in my little box in the air, I find myself drawing and painting a lot of fat ladies.

It started with the thought of just taking a little break from the animal drawings and paintings – in part, the likely untrue thought that perhaps the human body is less complex than some of the animal bodies I’ve been drawing and painting (seemingly fewer joints, fewer planes given the upright tendency of humans).

Plus, over the last few years I’ve put on a considerable amount of weight – something I don’t find very interesting to talk about, but it brings plenty with it in terms of fallout. Some of it is pandemic weight, but it started a while before then, so it’s been accumulating for some time. I’m really not very interested in the dietary-industrial complex that holds women especially hostage and preoccupied.


At the same time, it is a bit of a strange new thing for me, being fat. So I figured, well ya know, I might as well DRAW something about being a larger, rounder female..

So, my first impulse was just to grab some charcoal and go wayyyyy back to yer classic fertility doll image, the Venus of Willendorf –

Like anything that old, they don’t really know what these old fat “Venus” figurines were about. They hypothesize. One list of speculations had ideas ranging from fertility symbols to protective talismans, to self-portraiture. The self-portraiture theory is my favourite, the image of these fat middle aged women – women who had maybe survived a pandemic or a famine – or who knows what kind of scary shit they had lived through – making little totems of themselves…

Anyways, in doing the drawings and paintings I found myself on a journey of questions regarding the challenging project of embracing the larger version of the female shape. Like hashtag body positivity kinda thing, but ya know, trying to dig a bit deeper about what this means, this more rotund form.

Roxane Gay and Jenny Saville are a couple of really interesting figures on this front. Roxane Gay in her book Hunger, a powerful treatise not just on fatness, but also very much on PTSD – draws you into the reasons behind her enormous weight, her survival strategy gone awry. Food, like any other substance, can be a refuge for folks with PTSD. And yet, while understand the traumatic origins of her relationship to food, she struggles with being fat.

I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are two very different things.

-Roxane Gay

Saville – a spectacular contemporary painter – launched her career with enormous low angle paintings of females. Although the paintings were received largely with cries of Grotesque!, she says her impulse came from feeling a sense of the power of these bodies.

I remember years ago in my 20’s, I was fascinated by a book of photographs by Graciele Iturbide, Juchitan de las mujeres. Juchitan is a town in the south east region of Oaxaca, home to the Zapotec people, a place where those amazing decorative shirts come from that Frida Kahlo made famous.

The photography book is full of images like these –

I seem to recall a story about a vernissage, a gallery opening for Graciela Iturbide of these images, this body of work. And the story went that some of the women in some of the photos attended the wine & cheese type affair in a fancy gallery in Mexico City, full of sleek and skinny influential big city women, publishers and marketing success stories. And these women from Juchitan, showing up at this rather high society affair as their big and relaxed selves, were totally unimpressed and distinctly unintimidated by these skinny big city women.

They belong to themselves as a matter of course.

En las juchitecas no hay ninguna inhibición ni cosa que no pedan decir, nada que no pedan hacer. No sé cómo son. La juchiteca no tiene ninguna vergüenza; en zapoteco no hay malas palabras.

Andres Henestrosa

Approx: “The Juchitec women have no inhibition, there is nothing they cannot say, and nothing they cannot do. I don’t know how they are. The Juchitec woman has no shame; in Zapotec there are no bad words”.

I’d been so fascinated by the tales and images of this town that I spent an afternoon there – a bus ride in between other towns – and I walked through the center of town, through the market where women who looked just like the pictures sat beside their stalls selling vegetables, fat and sassy, laughing and drinking beer in the afternoon sun without a whiff of apology for themselves.

Late in the afternoon when I returned to the bus station, a skinny young man who worked there flirted with me a little as I waited for my bus, ending his approach with a note of desperation, hinting that the women in his town were a bit more than he was prepared to take on.

Anyways, I’ve been working a lot from this one figurine that was found in Turkey, in Çatalhöyük. They think she is maybe 8000 years old.

And I moved to working very loosely with watercolour, allowing the paint itself to lead the distortions between one version and the next. Something about being loose and watery felt right with the subject matter.

And also, looking for models, for subject matter beyond the ancient figurines, I moved onto a few drawings of Lizzo – the most famous body positivity figure at the moment – but eventually stumbled into a happy zone with an Instagram model, Kayla Logan, who both celebrates her plus size body and also talks about her struggles with an eating disorder, embodying the ambivalence of the situation she lives in.

So much rich terrain.

Having so much fun with the Fat Ladies.

Odds & Sods

At this stage of the pandemic, at this stage of the winter in Toronto with the snow falling outside, we’ve been inside a lot. There’s been snowstorms like we haven’t seen in years, which is kind of exciting and a reminder of how beautiful winter can be.

In spite of the danger sign, on some of the coldest days, when the ice was looking thick and solid, people went down the little ladder at the end of the pier and walked on the surface of the lake, crossing the harbour.

Meanwhile, here on the long days inside, we’ve gotten into Cat TV –

She’s bored, she misses her life as a hunter ruling over 4 back yards, clambering fences and scaling trees just to get closer to that bird…

So I’ve been putting Cat TV on – long loops from Youtube of someone’s back yard. One guy has a whole channel with a variety of them – winter / summer / spring / fall of 4 hours with a camera pointing at some seeds while the chipmunks, blackbirds, blue jays and squirrels all scramble and squawk and jockey for position.

The surprising thing I’ve noticed though, is how much I also enjoy having it on in the background. It satisfies some of my yearning for green, for trees and bushes, for birds and critters, as the view from here is ultra urban –

I showed my view to a zoom group I was in – it was a “shamanic” kind of gathering, and a number of the people were calling in from places like Shropshire or Devon or rural Wales, all with the rolling green, the sprawling gardens, birds chirping – so I had to show them my view for contrast.

“Blimey”, said the woman in Wales.

Anyways, last Sunday was suddenly uncharacteristically warm – a one-day blast of spring – so with A & C, we grabbed the moment and headed down to the beach, past the currently bizarre hodgepodge of a skyline on the way –

It was blustery so the kite enthusiasts were out, and one fellow with some kind of wet suit and paddle board situation swam by in the lake. I mean, yeah, the day was warm but there’s still plenty of ice in the lake.

C, the puppy, was not going in there with that ice…

I got to know A quite a bit during the spring and summer – we became walking buddies. She’s 3 floors above me and about 4 doors down, and we’re both single moms and have tons of interests in common, so we go for long walks in the neighbourhood – get outdoors, get some exercise, and talk to another human In Real Life.

She even came out one day in the kayak, which I’d been biking down to the beach and taking on outings while the weather was gorgeous.

The juxtaposition of the ultra urban living situation and the spectacular wilds of the lake makes this neighbourhood really interesting.

The whole area is currently very in development and under construction, which is kind of fascinating – to watch urban planning in action. The city is building a massive park in the strange wasteland on the way to the beach – an area that is very large and very underutilized.

So for example, this –

Is apparently going to become something like this –

And the current view of the neighbourhood –

Will apparently be transformed into something more like this –

To do my part, I’ve started a little graffiti project – bringing a sense of the wilds as they are displaced and / or shifted down to the huge new park, into the midst of the ultra urban –

It’s a fun little project, adding a sweet element of surprise to people’s days.

The first night we put a few up, I was out doing it with my friend R, and this adorable young couple stopped by to watch us with our brushes and buckets of wheat paste glue and asked:

“Is it Art?”

Why yes, yes it is, we answered.

With an extra special thanks to Brenda @burnsthefire for the nudge

Lens Artists Challenge – Odds & Ends

Every day things

I’ve been trying to start a daily habit – to get out the door first thing every morning and say hello to the lake.

The morning is my favourite time – the light is beautiful, the day just beginning, and there is hardly anyone around except the geese, the gulls, the ducks, and the diving cormorants

The few people who are out are doing inspiring things like yoga, or jogging, or even finishing up that report from a beautiful spot.

All in all, you would think this new habit would be a) easy enough, not overly ambitious, not going from sedentary to marathon in a week kind of thing and b) highly pleasurable – it is, as they suggest, a small enough habit to start with, and it is a blessing on my day every time I do it.

James Clear describes his atomic habits as:

…a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.

…the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.

~ James Clear

I’d started thinking hard about habits a couple of months ago, when, up in the night with insomnia, I did some deep bio reading about Manda Scott, whose workshop I went to last year, and whose fascinating and refreshingly optimistic podcast I’ve been following since back in January when she launched it.

On her About Manda page, written in a unique tense, she describes the period of her life when she wrote a seriously ambitious historical fiction series:

Six years of Boudica dreaming. Throw out the TV. Throw out the sound systems. Light the fire every night and let it teach me. By the end, have lost all touch with consensus reality.

~Manda Scott

The television bit and the fire every night bit I’d heard before, but the sound system??? She says: “recorded music is one of our strongest addictions”.

This is deeply radical. This blows my mind. I’d discovered the enormity of music in my life during one of my current habit experiments, which is to make the studio a wifi free zone. Not having a phone to reach for is the key piece – I have to deliberately leave my phone at home and walk over to the studio without anything that connects to the internet. The idea is that, distraction free, I will spend more time in deep thinking, or at least deep being, if there is nothing to plug into.

And the first thing I discovered was how much I missed playing music.

The phone and Facebook and whatever I can live without for a few hours, even for the day… but no music…??? I am deeply deeply hooked into music as a kind of mood designer.

So, thinking about just how deep one could conceivably go with lifestyle changes (can’t light a fire every night in downtown Toronto, but maybe there are other things…) I’ve tried to change up even the tiniest of habits, to experiment and try new things. You know, just those deeply engrained little things like brushing your teeth with the other hand.

Or, the other afternoon, on my way to a backyard BBQ with friends, rather than take the obvious bike route along King, across the bridge over the Don and along Queen East into Leslieville, I got out the map and explored some twisty bike lanes that take you over little hidden bridges and under underpasses and down onto the Lakeshore bike path. It’s still kind of unfamiliar territory for me, but shucks, there was dozens and dozens of folks out there with some serious looking biking habits.

All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger… The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.

~ James Clear

Meanwhile, with some BC friends we’ve begun a daily drawing challenge – each evening one of us sends a prompt to the others, and the next day we each respond to that prompt with a drawing. Some days have produced some pretty terrible drawings, but by coming back to it (almost) each and every day, there are some drawings where I can really see my skills developing –

And my morning lake-visiting habit???

At the moment I’m averaging about every other day.

There are still days when, distracted by the inviting option of coffee on the balcony, watching the skies and scanning the construction site below, searching for the resident bunnies and foxes who can occasionally be spotted darting out from underneath sheds and pipes, I indulge in that strangely sweet uber-urban homey feeling.

So, for now, on those days I don’t make it to the lake first thing, I’ve been making sure to do it at some point during the day. This is not the ultimate goal but is a temporary compromise, and it has reminded me of how fun it is to see the same body of water at different times of day.

The glaring sun and choppy waters of a mid-day, can turn into a magical evening in exactly the same spot.

And in the evenings, turns out people are bringing boom boxes and coolers of beer and skateboards and portable disco balls, and setting up sweet mini parties and dancing underneath the trees by Sugar Beach. Small groups, as is proper during a pandemic, but such creative and romantic ways to enjoy our tiny sliver of city lake front.

Lens Artists – Everyday Objects