Summer-Autumn 2021, Nanaimo, BC, Canada

To update folks on Studio M* artistic happenings, it’s pretty exciting these days. Since moving to Nanaimo, Barbara and I (Michael) have been slowly adjusting to a new place and finishing up old projects. However, I  found myself quickly influenced in our new place by several sources, and some very inspiring. The most simple of ‘things’ right under my feet were the small mostly gray tone stones, with some lighter, some darker, and various minerals and rock types. Normally, we’d call them gravel in our society. They line paths and driveways and roads sometimes. It turns out my interest in these “little stones” has a lot to do with paying attention to the “difference littles” (as I am recently calling them)—meaning, things little that make a difference. 

Photo by R. Michael Fisher 2021

Artistically, I came here to explore and experiment, but to also recover from the long trip and moving challenges the past month. I decided to let my nose lead me into the stones deeper. Along the side of our place I could work in the cooler shade and dim light, finding a way to touch the stones, talk to them, listen to them, and begin a collaborative installation—which I called “Zen Garden” at one point.

Photo by Barbara Bickel 2021

This gentle little extension of awareness to the simple and plain, and ultimate re-organizing and cleaning of the stones was a meditative experience really helpful to healing my distresses and placing me somewhere—in that ongoing search for identity in a time of disruption and displacement. I also began getting very interested in vagrants and garbage dump sites in town—that is, a lot of the consequences of homelessness. That story is much longer than I can go into, but it is always there in the background of the new art I am creating. The stones (gravel) at our house had been dumped at some point, and I wanted to do something at the dump site (micro-scale, domestic, and right under our feet surrounding where we live). What are these “stones” communicating, where have they been, what do they want?

Photo by R. Michael Fisher 2021

I noticed the house across the front street, and its ominous broken window. No one was living there nor is now, four months later. This broken window featured in my Painting #1 of the series I am doing for the Artwork (see below). There were also three old wooden bar stools sitting rotting outside this abandoned house in the driveway. I snatched them and made a wood sculpture out of these ‘found objects’ with all their found memories. What did they want? I got creative and set up an installation of a musical instrument on an old brick that was already there in our yard and right beside the stone garden I was working with.

Photo by Barbara Bickel 2021

That led to an installation and me writing a script for a performance art piece I practiced for a month and performed, entitled “Spectrum on a Gray Scale” of which became part of the Open House that Barbara and I held six weeks after arriving here. Clearly, my entire moving to Nanaimo was emerging as an artist-in-residence starting right in our own backyard and neighborhood. But that too was about to leak out and expand.

Barbara and my sister were encouraging me to submit to the annual Nanaimo city Artwalk event in December. I was reluctant but one day when I was walking along the old railway tracks near our home I came upon a child center of some kind. I looked to see the sign “Nanaimo Innovation Academy”—and when I looked on their website discovered they are a non-profit private daycare with a beginning kindergarten class and Forest School program this fall. And more exciting to me, they follow educational philosophies I really respect as alternatives to the mainstream (e.g., Reggio Amelio, Waldorf, Montessori). So, to make a long story short, I sent the Manager of the Academy a proposal filled with ideas that came to me that I could partner with them for the Nanaimo Art Walk and also offer a five month artist residency there; working and playing with the children doing art, learning about art, and many other things that involve faculty and staff development. My artist loves doing in vivo community residencies as I last did one in 2015 in a small town not far from Nanaimo. In such situations, everything and everybody in the community is part of “the medium” I work with.

So, it was a positive connection immediately. Currently, I am at the ½ way point of an artist-residency with them. I am painting after a year hiatus and will have the an exhibition (my art and the childrens’ art combined) in the Artwalk that will also serve as a fund-raiser for the Academy. It all has worked out so amazingly, and so fast. As with the color (gray tones) of the stones, I decided to paint only in grayscale tones. See the in-process composition of Painting #3 in the series, as I am working out its dynamics in my art studio at home in the basement.

Photo by R. Michael Fisher 2021

At the end of this blog is a short write-up of the “Stones” artist-residency project at the Academy, done by a local art writer at the Nanaimo Arts Council. You can see that I ordered a dump truck full of these same stones that are on the paths at my house and around our house. I am happy to say the stones as ‘medium’ have added just the element of a “dump” and a “surprise” that keeps me creative and those I engage with in the community around the dump of stones. These are all on the Academy’s property “edge”—a zone where I really like to work. More risk. More happening, and less institutionalized, yet, always in contact by pathways of all kinds back to where the children are in the daycare/kindergarten classroom inside the fence.

Photo by Barbara Bickel 2021

I also work inside the fence with the children and educators now and then. There are so many artistic elements going on in this residency, including the pedagogical, but to end this short description of my work lately, I’ll say I am having fun with the stones, the children and the signs I am making to accompanying the stone sculpture and its shifts and reconfigurations. There is a maintenance guy (Ryan) who works at the Academy and he makes computerized signs and puts them into wood. I hooked up with him and now he makes me signs of poems, and arrows, and question marks, or whatever I feel I want to put out into the public space of the stone dump site. The sign phenomenon is my own version of a ‘take-off’ from all the artists and/or ordinary people who painted homemade signs during Covid-19 pandemic when we were all in lock-down, more or less. There are a lot of these signs up on telephone poles in Nanaimo, and no doubt they have influenced me to make signs too at stone dump installation.

Photo by R. Michael Fisher 2021

I want to celebrate and share the first iteration of the stone pile sculpturing. I was able to sculpt the stone pile based on the ‘marking’ of the way the dump truck left in the pile. I exaggerated the flow lines and contours and placed white stones from the pile into lines on their edges. As one child said, “You are making an Iroquois hair cut”—yes, indeed, I said, “The stones needed a haircut, so this is what I sculpted.”

Photo by Antje Bitterberg 2021

The above recent leaf path, came about because of a collaboration that just began this past week with the Academy’s pedagogist Antje Bitterberg out of Vancouver Island University. Her and I are in a co-creative process of bringing the artist and pedagogist into dialogue in/with the stones (materials) on site in the community. One major theme is “Invitation” and pathways. We will be presenting on our explorations to the Academy’s staff in mid-October.

Stay tuned here, and in other places as I will share much more of my documentation and findings from this artist-in-residence. Feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions.

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