This is the second of a series of excerpts from the five books nominated for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize. We will present one every day this week. The prize will be awarded next Monday (Feb. 14) in Toronto.
When I was in grade four or five, a teacher thought I should start taking art lessons and signed me up for Saturday morning classes at the London Public Library. When I got there the class was already into its third week but they said I could join anyway. We took off our coats and boots and were taken into a small theatre and shown an NFB film about galloping horses. It lasted about ten minutes and all it was was footage of flowing white manes and hooves pounding over turf. When it was over, we went back into the gallery where sheets of brown paper had been laid out on the floor and brushes and plastic cups of different colour paints were available for our use. We were to paint what we felt after seeing the film about the horses.
In hindsight, the intention was obvious, to get us to apply paint in broad, freely sweeping strokes to get in touch with our feelings of motion and grace spurred by the film. But all I could think of was that I didn't know how to draw horses, let alone paint them. My specialty was landscapes. I could turn out very life-like winter scenes with hills and bristling pines. There was always a little house among the trees, drawn in fine perspective. Smoke curled from its chimney. A winding path led up to the house, narrowing in perfect curves as it neared the door. That all these pictures bore a strong resemblance to the illustration on my box of Laurentian coloured pencils was probably no coincidence. The point of art, however, was craftsmanship I felt, not originality.
But horses! There were obvious problems with even a side view: getting the leg joints to bend the right way, worrying about the proportions of the head and the curve of the spine. Tails would have been OK - they were just curved paths on their sides. With pencils the whole thing would have been difficult, but with thick brushes and cheap poster paint it was simply impossible, never mind doing it on the floor. And it was clear that a picture of a horse wasn't what was required in any case. They wanted a free, formless response to how we felt watching the film. I would have been willing to try, god knows, but I had no idea where to begin.
How did I feel?
Mainly, I felt hot because I had kept my snow pants on so the other kids wouldn't see my ugly jeans from the Salvation Army. My knees hurt from bending over the paper on the floor, and I needed to go to the bathroom. About the horses I didn't feel anything. I hoped they got to where they were going, and I was glad none of them tripped and got trampled. In the end, I handed in my painting of a sagging farmhouse in the snow and never went back.
Excerpted from The Geography of Arrival, by George Sipos. Published by Gaspereau Press. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Yesterday: Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, by Ross King Tomorrow: The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das, by Merrily Weisbord Thursday: On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women, by Stevie Cameron Friday: Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran