Quotable: Let the Elephants Run by David Usher

Monday, 22 June 2015

"Artist or entrepreneur, in my mind we are all hustlers and thieves. We are an amalgamation of the ideas that surround us. There may be a few rare geniuses that can pull incredible brilliance out of the air without any prior knowledge or contextual influence. But for the rest of us, ideas are based on other ideas. We build off the work of others. Consciously or subconsciously, our creations are an evolution of the ones that came before.

"We absorb and steal, rob and plunder — whatever it takes to get our creativity moving. We take the best ideas we can find, not to plagiarize them outright but to mash them together, twisting them into knots with the hope of exposing new shapes and new forms."

Living Arts: A Thousand Doorways

Tuesday, 16 June 2015
This article originally appeared as part of the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts series. 

My sister went missing from the Burlington Public Library when she was somewhere between the ages of five and seven. This isn't my witty way of telling you she "got lost in a good book." Rather, she did quite literally go missing after a presentation in the basement auditorium of the Central Branch. She was under my not-so-watchful eye, and she simply slipped away. The police were called. My mother's face was streaked with tears as she shouted things like "Someone could have taken her all the way across the border by now!"

Nobody took my sister over the border. She got separated, and she did exactly the thing parents tell their children not to do during "stranger danger" conversations. She left the library and found my parents' station wagon in the Central Branch's large parking lot. This is where we eventually found her.

This isn't my first memory of the library. It probably isn't even in the first ten. But it certainly stands out as one of the memories I won't likely forget.

In April, I had the amazing pleasure of introducing one of my favourite writers -- Richard Wagamese -- at his literary salon at gritLIT: Hamilton's Readers and Writers Festival. Over the hour and a half that followed, Wagamese shared with us stories of homelessness, poverty, and finding his voice as a writer. He also told us stories about his relationship with libraries, and inevitably, it forced me to reflect on my own.

"Every book I ever opened had a thousand doorways in it," said Wagamese, speaking in particularly about the time he spent at the St. Catharines Public Library where librarians "were always there for me." Before he was a celebrated writer, he was homeless, hungry, and thirsty for knowledge. My memories of libraries come from a more privileged place; however, I share Wagamese's hunger for books and fondness of libraries.

The Burlington Public Library's Central and Aldershot branches were both second homes to me as a child. The Aldershot branch is where I sat cross-legged for storytime and where I counted jelly beans in canisters in hopes of taking the whole thing home. The shiny beige plastic chairs would likely seem miniature to me now, but back then they were the perfect place to sit and decide which books to bring home.

In the summer, Central Library was a weekly, sometimes daily, destination. My appetite for books was never more acute than during the BPL's summer reading program. For every five books read, I collected a prize, and I've been a competitive reader since. I've moved half a dozen times in the years since then, but I still have my summer reading program record sheets, and they're invaluable to me. They're keepsakes of the summers I met Amelia Bedelia, Cam Jansen, and the Rosso family (from my all-time favourite children's book, Ten Kids, No Pets).

There are at least a hundred stories I could share about the role of libraries in my life, but here are only a few: Always the budding historian, in elementary school, I connected to the library's copy of Encarta and listened to the speeches of dead presidents. I checked out a hardcover copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz more times than I can count, and it was at that school library that I transcribed the lyrics to Michael Jackson's Heal the World to be sung at a school assembly. In middle school, I accessed the Internet for the first of a million times, and a whole new world was at my fingertips.

In high school, the library was the place I pretended to study because it was easier to hide than to try to make friends. The school library is where we turned on the news to watch the World Trade Centre towers fall. It's the place where we held a memorial for two students who died too young fifteen years ago today. At the Carleton University library, I devoured copies of The Village Voice, reading about concerts I couldn't go to and movies I couldn't see.

It's been years since I've visited the BPL, but for eight years now, I've had a new home at the Central Branch of the Hamilton Public Library, a place I first visited by bus in high school in search of Leonard Cohen CDs and a little bit of freedom. I do a lot of my freelance work, writing articles like this, tucked in a corner of the library's fourth floor.

It must come as no surprise that I spent eight years editing children's books, and even more as a reader, writer, and reviewer. It will come as no surprise that I pity my travel partners, because each new destination means another library (or libraries) to visit.

"One of the things we need to give to our children is that the culture of books is the best place to be in," said Richard Wagamese at gritLIT's literary salon. It goes without saying that I couldn't agree more.

[Edited to add: Here are the Burlington Public Library summer reading lists that started it all:]

Doors Open Hamilton 2015

Thursday, 11 June 2015

If you've followed this blog for any more than a year, you'll know all about my enthusiasm for Doors Open Hamilton. It's undoubtedly in my top three events in the city (and I love events!) and every year it marks the beginning of spring for me. This year was no exception. Excuse the tardiness of this post, but it took some time to comb through photos because this year as Doors Open weekend was epic, even by my standards.

Day One: 
Day One surprisingly took me to exactly one Doors Open stop, the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The problem with the Art Gallery of Hamilton (and it's a good problem to have!) is you can't do it justice quickly. I also committed to doing Day One on foot, which meant a lot of walking in the downtown Core, as my second stop was Epic Books for Authors For Indies, where authors Ariel Gordon, Amanda Leduc, and Gary Barwin were holding down fort. Not photographed were many of the other pleasure of Locke Street: A frozen banana from Forrat's Chocolate, a banana cupcake from Bitten, pizza (and a caesar and mojito) from Naroma, and champagne from Pure's anniversary celebration. Needless to say, I ate and drank well.

Day Two:
Well, needless to say, Day One's patio weather threw me for a loop and I wasted too much time eating and drinking to take in a lot of sights, so I did my best (and succeeded) to embrace as much of #DOH15 on Sunday, starting with The Sirloin Cellar on James Street North. It was never a place frequented by this vegetarian, but it was neat to slip upstairs to a room in the Tip Top building that hadn't been open to the public in more than a generation.

Next I met up with a Jane's Walk that had gathered around the Lister Block. When I think about how close this building was to destruction I still can't help but get a little bleary eyed when I see the incredible restoration job that's been done on it. We were so close to losing this beauty.

The "Stories from Central" walking tour began at Worker's Arts and Heritage, a building I recently learned (while digging through YWCA Hamilton's archives) once housed a north-end branch in the early 1900s. Today it's a museum, and potentially my wedding venue, if I ever get around to planning that damned thing.

Next up, the Ferguson Pumping Station. There's not much to say about this one except while inside it my dad told me a story about meeting Deadmau5 in Milton the night before and now I will forever link the Ferguson Pumping Station to EDM.

Alright. Here's the biggie. The Vincent Massey Educational Archives are on the Doors Open Hamilton tour every year, and because it's on the mountain, I've never gone. This downtowner doesn't make it up the escarpment much. Huge, huge, huge mistake. The Vincent Massey Educational Archives are nerd heaven for someone like me who spent a large chunk of my life working in educational publishing, who loves digging through archives, and who is devoted to both family and Hamilton history. It seems like you can't read the Hamilton Spectator without learning about another school closure. It's incredible to know that the Vincent Massey Educational Archives is there to rescue discarded signage, cornerstones, and other artifacts that would otherwise be destroyed or discarded.

The Vincent Masey Educational Archives is stocked with yearbooks spanning generations. Gary Hill is my grandfather, and today he's non-verbal. Without his ability to speak, it's difficult to learn new things about him, so finding out his high school nickname was "Rocky" is invaluable. I only wish I could ask him where it came from. 

When one of the volunteers told my dad he could ring the school bell, his face lit up. "Inside every man is a little boy who wants to set off the bell," she said.

Relics from my neck of the woods. 

Our last stop was 270 Sherman to see the TH&B collective's latest exhibition. If you haven't seen it before, my family's connection to Hamilton's cotton industry makes 270 Sherman a special visit. Read about it here: http://www.notmytypewriter.com/2013/05/doors-open-hamilton-270-sherman.html

Living Arts: Why Arts Coverage Matters

Friday, 29 May 2015
This post originally appeared as part of Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts series. 

What's the first word that springs to mind when you think of the Hamilton Spectator? Chances are your adjective of choice isn't "adorable." But on April 23, the cover of the Spectator's GO Section was adorable. Boasting the headline "Cats in hats: It doesn't get much cuter than this," it was slathered with images of felines in knitted hats. Cute, right? I inevitably held it up to show my better half, and immediately we gave a collective, "Awww." We're predictable like that.

After the initial overdose of cuteness, something struck me. I couldn't help but think of the dozens of artists and local arts organizations who would have killed for the front page of the GO Section. I couldn't help but think of the many authors, musicians, visual artists, arts advocates, arts events, and arts issues that could have taken precedent over an Associated Press article about cats wearing hats. (Surely there's a local artisan making hats for local cats who could have been highlighted). But in a world of tight budgets, local arts coverage is often the first to go.

In Transforming Hamilton Through Culture, the City of Hamilton's Cultural Plan, which was approved by Council on October 23, 2013, cultural leaders identified three major opportunities. Communication was one of them, the plan stating "Increasing arts coverage will raise the caliber of public dialogue around the arts."

Arts coverage matters, and it isn't only crucial because it helps artists and arts organizations fill seats at events or sell copies of their books. Though creating interest is one important function of arts reporting, there are many other reasons that arts coverage is crucial to Hamilton.

Local arts coverage tells artists and arts organizations that their work is valid and valued. It celebrates the achievements of local artists, giving voice to crucial members of the community.

Local arts coverage raises awareness about the value and impact the arts have on Hamilton.

Local arts coverage helps to inspire a new generation of artists, giving children and youth the artistic role models they need.

Local arts coverage builds social capital. It helps to create and sustain a sense of community and shared identity.

If done correctly, local arts coverage reflects the diversity of our community and the diversity of the artists within our community.

Local arts coverage creates a dialogue about issues important to artists.

Local arts coverage leads to economic growth within the arts community.

Local arts coverage celebrates creative expression. In a world of bad news, celebrating the arts can be a bright spot in the constant news cycle of doom and gloom.

This, of course, is just a selection of why arts coverage is crucial in Hamilton. So, what do we do? As artists, we need to demand more from our mainstream local media. We also need to support the independent journalists and bloggers and publications that work tirelessly to promote the arts. The local literary community is lucky to have many local advocates in its corner, among them literary reviews (Hamilton Arts and Letters), bloggers (Dead Letter Birds), and reviewers who are dedicated to increasing awareness of the literary arts in Hamilton. I like to think it's our job as artists to support them in the same way they support us.

gritLIT 2015: The good, the great, and the even better

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

I've had a lot of incredible opportunities as a committee member of gritLIT: Hamilton's Readers and Writers Festival, but sitting in Richard Wagamese's literary salon (and introducing him) is now firmly planted at the top of that list. The intimate crowd was captivated from the second he started sharing his experiences, among them having money for food but not shelter and devouring the wealth of material at the St. Catherines library. 

"Every book I ever opened had a thousand doorways in it," he said. 

The intimacy of a literary festival, especially one that is small in comparison to the International Festival of Authors and others, presents opportunities for book lovers and aspiring writers to share experiences with favourite authors that happen off the page. Richard's workshop (He hugged me, which in my mind gives me permission to call him Richard from now on) was just one highlight in a weekend full of memorable encounters with authors and books at gritLIT, which ran from April 16-19 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

As always, gritLIT caused my to-read list to swell and my book budget to shrink thanks to our resident booksellers Bryan Prince, Booksellers. Here are just a few of the many highlights of gritLIT 2015. Regretably I missed Day One of the festival becuase it conflicted with YWCA Hamilton's Women of Distinction gala, but from what I've heard, Heather O'Neill is one of the most endearing humans who has ever graced the earth, and one day I will hear her read for myself.

gritLIT: Day Two

When my better half arrived at the hospitality suite where authors gather after their readings, I cornered him, and pointed out Kathleen Winter. "That's Kathleen Winter!" I said excitedly, and though he's not much of a literary type he immediately recognized her name. I had read him passage after passage in the weeks that I was reading Annabel. It's still a book that haunts me. One of Kathleen Winter's latest books (she has two) is Boundless, a memoir about her time in the North. 

Kathleen Winter was only one of the incredible readers from gritLIT Day Two. Among the others was James Raffan, who later in the weekend made us paint and burn things in a workshop (more on that later!), Tasneem Jamal, Krista Foss, and Richard Wagamese. 

Recent winner of the Mayor's Poetry Challenge, John Terpstra, took on hosting duty.

gritLIT Day Three

gritLIT Day Three began (for me) with Richard Wagamese's literary salon at the Sheraton Hotel, but at the same time across the street at the AGH, a sold-out crowd of festival-goers were chatting with Alison Pick about character development.

James Raffan's Circling the Midnight Sun relied heavily on his own travel journals. His journaling workshop was as hands-on as hands-on gets. Instead of bringing paint, he asked us to make our own with the help of egg whites and the remnants of burned paper. My "art" may look like it was done by a toddler, but as someone who hasn't picked up a paintbrush (unless you count to paint a room) in the better part of two decades, this workshop forced me outside of my comfort zone, and I loved that. 

Full disclosure, you don't eat a lot when you're helping to organize a festival, and you ignore your family, so I snuck out during the afternoon of Day Three to meet my dad at the Hamilton Food and Drink Show. I came back to wonderful readings by Claire Cameron, Andrew Pyper, and Russell Wangersky. You might expect a reading called Monsters: Humans and Otherwise would be dark and disturbing, but the banter between these three writers was anything but, bordering on hilarious for the most part. 

gritLIT Day Four

gritLIT Day Four began for me with a workshop by Alison Wearing, author of Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter, on performing one's art. Authors today aren't asked only to deliver publishable material that is highly engaging. They're also expected to present their work in a highly engaging fashion, which isn't easy for the introverts among us.

As arts organizers know, the final day of a festival can be a blur, so after a day of readings, which included authors Christine Fischer Guy, Stephen Marche, Ian Hamilton, and David Rotenberg, giving the reins to Steel City Stories for a partner closing event was the best way to give the gritLIT team a break and enjoy our turn as audience members. 

"I was taught to regard the story as a living thing," said Richard Wagamese in his literary salon. Steel City Stories, and the many other storytellers who joined us at gritLIT 2015, proved this to be true.

To learn more about gritLIT, find us at www.gritlit.ca. Sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop about year-round programming and writing workshops. 

Christine Fischer-Guy and Stephen Marche

Masters of Mystery Ian Hamilton and David Rotenberg

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