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November 25, 2016

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The Less Obvious Journey

November 25, 2016

 The Less Obvious Journey, 24 x 36. $1350.

 

This past weekend I entered an empty auditorium. I sat down at the front and lifted the tiny writing table.

 

“This is where I make announcements for the Engineering Society,” my son said, standing at beside the podium, scratching his uneven beard.

 

“I took Canadian Politics in this room 30 years ago,” I mused. “With John Meisel,” I added, as if the name might magically conjure the tweedy professor.

 

I felt more like a student than a mom.

 

My teenage daughter, finding herself an uncharacteristic moment of rebelliousness, scratched something benign on the blackboard. She was the prospective student as we toured the university on an open house weekend.

 

Sitting in that seat,  I thought of how I adored Meisel and his wrinkled face. He had  a curiosity so contagious as to have my 18 year-old hand writing furiously across the page as he spoke about policy.

 

In retrospect, an astonishing feat of patriotism on his part. 

 

***

Before he turned 80, Winston Churchill was told that artist Graham Sutherland was to do a commission of him, a gift from his colleagues.

 

Rather than the standing figurehead portrait of the time, Sutherland depicted the prime minister, seated and fleshy, a square and heavy figure.

 

Perhaps you have seen the story on Netflix’s "The Crown". 

 

Churchill called the painting ‘filthy’ and ‘malignant’, and, (unlike in the TV drama) Lady Churchill is said to have set the piece on fire. 

 

Decades after Churchill’s body had been lowered into the ground, as I sat in front of the TV on the other side of the world, I felt empathetic towards his vanity. 

 

As a viewer, like Sutherland, I lean deeply into something gritty.

 

I feel fascination and relief when a camera focuses in on a real woman's face, rather than the ubiquitous airbrushed 18 year old. I’m starving for this replication of my lived visual experience.

 

As subject, not so much.

Sutherland’s candid brushstrokes elicited a response, and spoke anyone who wasn’t Churchill, pointing to a deeper gravitas. An aesthetic appreciation that was utterly unavailable to Churchill himself.

 

***

 

I picked up my husband at a café in Ottawa. Putting his bag in the back of the van he settled into the passenger seat. Recounting his working afternoon, Jake marveled at the explicitness of the conversation the young women at the next table.

 

“I was sitting right beside them!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah,” I shrugged, pressing the brake as we came to a red light.

“I guess bald guys don’t actually count”, I mused.

 

***

My 18 year-old self cannot imagine that I might return to this room, with competent, if unshaven, babies in tow.

 

Nor could she have imagined some of the wounds incurred along the journey.

As we left Dupuis Hall, I opened the glass door and caught a glimpse of a 48 year-old self in the reflection.Bent, thick-waisted.

More disturbingly; a wattle.

 

Filthy and Malignant would be too strong.

Still, I looked away.

 

Walking along Queen’s sidewalks that day I scrutinized the other visiting parents. They walked with furrow brows, schedules in hand. Determined gaits.High school students trailed by their sides with bewildered expressions.

 

Some of the mothers had looked in the mirror that morning. They wore polished, funky boots and had hairstyles that mattered.

 

Others had either forgotten or even avoided mirrors that day; scuffed boots, unzipped pockets. Moustached dads who stopped caring fifteen years ago.

 

The wind blew off the choppy lake, lifting silver hairs hidden amidst the dyed ones.

The unexpected November sun warming the faces of both the bumpy and the smooth as they travelled along their well worn paths.

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