|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Friday, 05 February 2010 00:00|
The bright blue roofs of the buildings of Kim Ondaatje's farm -- aptly named Blueroof Farm -- rise above the trees clustering around them, in the countryside near Kingston, Ontario. The roofs are beacons, visible from far down the road as we follow the map on the postcard she mailed us the week before.
Turning onto the lane, the car is immediately set upon by three madly barking Dalmatians. They do not stop until Kim, appearing from the garden, calls them and shoos them into the house before showing us where to park the car.Ondaatje, now 81, has lived at Blueroof Farm for 35 years. She ran it as an all-natural beef farm -- one of the first in Canada -- for many years, but sold her herd several years ago when caring for the cattle properly threatened her health.
The farm is a work of art, carved out of a rough Precambrian piece of land with a back out and dump trucks. She explains that she poured much of her income over the past few decades into the transformation and upkeep of the property. When she arrived there were 33 dead elm trees between the house and the road. They had to be cleared away create a large pond and plant a variety of trees around it.
During our talk with her -- three of us drove up one bright afternoon in late May -- she said, "The hardest thing for an artist to cope with is success." She found herself exhausted by touring, exhibitions, interviews, teaching -- all of the non-art work that success thrusts upon artists. On top of that, she had a large family -- six children -- to look after. When she and author Michael Ondaatje separated in 1980, she elected to stay on the farm,
Blueroof represents more than a quiet space for creative work and contemplation. In 1960, Ondaatje read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which heightened her conern for what was happening to the earth and all that dwell upon it. As a child, she had loved the woods, and her Ojibwa tutor taught her the importance of caring for the earth.
Her deepest concern today is for the preservation of environment to be her most significant art project. "What's the point of making art to sit in a gallery if there's not going to be anyone around in 200 years to appreciate it?" she asks. Blueroof is an eco-friendly property untroubled by chemical sprays and fertilizers. Over the years, Kim has planted thousands of trees and shrubs, put in ponds to raise and maintain the water levels, fenced off the river from the cattle, and created nature trails and organic gardens.
Having a conversation with Kim Ondaatje is the easiest thing in the world. You start on one topic -- her garden, say -- and it leads to all others: the environment, activism ("Canadians are timid by nature . . . You have to be open, you have to be strong"), art, social justice, the intelligence of animals, family, food, literature. By the end -- several hours have passed unnoticed, in the meantime -- you realize that, though these topics are all different, for Ondaatje they are closely linked and interconnected. And mainly what links them, for Ondaatje, is a close and sensitive attention to detail.
A recent review of John Updike's final collection of stories noted Updike's belief that "the amassing of sharp-eyed observation can be salvational." This tenet is equally apparent in Ondaatje's work, in the surroundings she has built for herself, and in her conversation. She believes, above all, in educating people about how to look for detail in their surroundings: colours, shapes, patterns, surfaces, movement -- the composition of an image. The shiny red canoe in the green pond is for more than just paddling around; it is a little treat for the eye -- in fact, a work of art. (A photograph of it serves as the image on the postcard she sends guests with her address on the back.)
Ondaatje shows us some photographs she has taken of the pond's surface in various seasons. Pine needles on the water's surface, shot from only a few inches away, make intricate patterns against the reflection of the sky. In early winter, leaves of orange, gold, and brown are trapped beneath a paper-thin sheet of silver ice.
They are the sort of images that could only be produced by someone with a keen attention for detail, and the skill to capture that detail at the right moment, from the right angle and distance, and with the right medium. She is eager to point out, though, that it is not only professional artists who have these abilities. "Everybody, underneath, can be creative," she says.
She talks about how, on a solo tour of Eastern Europe in 1974 with her "House on Piccadilly" series of paintings, which show muted views, through half-open doorways, of pleasant-looking but uninhabited bathrooms and bedrooms -- a little like a doll's house on human scale, many pinks, whites, and pale blues -- she found that viewers in Soviet bloc countries were much more in tune with the vaguely satirical message she was trying to get across. North American gallery-goers strolled past and thought that these were simply very detailed, well-executed illustrations of indoor settings; Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, were much more attentive to the details of the paintings -- and the emotional impact of those details -- and understood that Ondaatje was demonstrating a more ambivalent attitude towards such mannered living spaces. There was no real life in her Picadilly paintings and prints: a subtle criticism of the decorative and materialistic lifestyle of so many North Americans.
Ondaatje theorizes that this attentiveness is due primarily to a greater patience on the part of the Eastern Europeans, a greater willingness to simply stand in front of a painting for more than a minute and to try to understand more than just its most superficial meaning but to get at the artist's intention.
Ondaatje is not only concerned with teaching people to appreciate art aesthetically and sharpen their own creative eye, but also with ensuring that artists are financially recompensed for the goods they provide. She has not exhibited her works in galleries for many years because none will pay the fees she demands. The local library, she notes, will display works by local artists but gets the artists to pay for mounting, matting, and framing -- prohibitive but necessary costs that most non-artists are unaware of. The artists receive no exhibition fees nor is there even an attendant in the gallery to encourage any potential sales.
Ondaatje was a founding member of CARFAC (CAR at the time of its birth in 1968 -- Canadian Artists' Representation), a not-for-profit organization that successfully lobbied for the payment of artists whenever their works are shown in any public gallery, library, university, or other venue, many of which receive support from the Canada Council for the Arts and other arts funders. She was recognized for this work with a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts for Outstanding Contribution in March 2009 along with fellow activist and CAR co-founder Tony Urquhart. ("Tony was the teddy bear, the diplomat. I would fight," she says of their discussions with gallery administrators.) The third founding member, Jack Chambers, died in 1978.
She remains painfully aware, though, that more needs to be done to help artists financially. In 2005, visual artists in Canada earned, on average, $13,976. (The Statistics Canada low-income cut-off is $20,800.) Half of visual artists make less than $8,000 per year. It is her hope to encourage ways of pacing a safety net for fine professional artists when they are no longer able or can afford to continue their creative work.
Another series of Ondaatje's paintings, made in the late 1960s and early 70s, entitled "Factories" -- along with a 1974 film of the same name -- takes a similar approach to industrial landscapes as the "House on Piccadilly" series takes to domestic settings. Paintings like Shell Oil Refinery and Hearn Plant, Toronto Harbour, are, at first glance, objective, person-less, non-judgmental depictions of industrial settings, almost like one might find in a children's book. The very coolness, however, both of colour and mood -- Ondaatje mentions that she sometimes uses twelve different shades of white in a single work -- and distance of the paintings gives the viewer an unsettling sense of the menace and inhuman scale of these buildings and vehicles.
Ondaatje tells the story of a Shell Oil executive who was once invited by an over-enthusiastic gallery owner to see one of the paintings she had made of a Shell facility. As soon as he stepped into the room and saw the painting from a distance, he went pale and said, "Oh God, she didn't paint that old thing." Ondaatje had painted a boiler because it was the only thing she'd seen at the facility that was made of wood and non-threatening, didn't have a thrusting, metallic, tubular shape, like a missile silo. The executive, mortified, walked out and didn't come back. Within weeks, the wooden boiler was replaced by one of stainless steel!
Ondaatje, despite her age -- or maybe because of it -- shows no signs of slowing down. Her walk and her gestures while speaking are vigorous; her conversation is lively and friendly, littered with references to current affairs, books, and art (the tar sands, Afghanistan; Yann Martel, Greg Mortenson, Edward Burtynsky).
Blueroof Farm, however is now for sale. Ondaatje does not own it and may not have the funds to live there much longer. Despite her many achievements and successes in life, she is not wealthy. But regardless of the uncertainty of her situation, she displays equanimity about her prospects. She jokes (half-jokes? It's hard to tell) that she may end up on Princess Street in Kingston with her dogs and a hat in front of her. She is grateful that she receives a small payment from the Canada Pension Plan, as a result of a series of workshops she gave at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design -- and, typically, she is currently lobbying for such a practice to be an industry-wide regulation for all visual artists and their employers.
Whatever happens now, she says, she has no regrets. The artist's job is "to help people widen their sphere of reference and to enhance their pleasure and understanding." And in her paintings, her films, her writing and lobbying, her educational work, and in her farm -- in all of this, she has achieved this modest but important goal.