Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day Eighty-Six: Last Night I had the Strangest Dream

Well, maybe not the strangest dream, but I dreamt that Judy had brought me a plastic bin, which then turned into a giant glass aquarium-like bin, and it was full of mitts, toques, gloves, scarves, and not just hand-me-down-boring, but colourful and artsy and fuzzy-warm. Judy reminded me she wanted the empty aquarium back.

I wake and I feel like I am sleeping on firm clouds; the king-sized bed, the good trade from yesterday, floating in our bedroom, my husband still asleep on the far side. I finally turn off my alarm and let myself sleep-in.

I forget the vision mitts and toques as I pass the governance centre, the moon a fuzzy ball behind hazy clouds. I day dream about my blog launch, wondering if Gail Bowen -- my creative writing professor who had taught at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College before it became the First Nations University of Canada -- wondering if Gail will say yes to being on my treaty panel I'm planning for my blog launch.

Thinking of Gail makes me think of Allen Clarke who I'd met in Gail's writing class. In our writing workshop sessions, I had almost always been the first to say something. Allan had almost always been the last. I'd get the critique ball rolling, nothing too deep, and he'd wait and wait and wait until he'd finally speak, and it was always the perfect thing to say. Right to the heart of the problem or solution.

I am past the hospital now. I remember what Allen said about one of my short stories. Something like, "You should get rid of pretty much everything, except that one line, 'by the mood of the moon'. I want to read something you write some day that uses that line, but cut everything else."

I remember our group of fifteen, about half First Nations and half newcommers: Jo-Ann Episkenew, who is now a writer and professor at FNUC and I've been happy to run into Jo-Ann everywhere, from Black Lake to Fort Qu'Appelle; Bob Boyer's son, Bobby, and I remember seeing father and son dance together in "the pit" at the UofR pow wow; another fellow who wrote so funny, and I seem to remember he came from Red Pheasant, but I can't say his name; and then Allen Clarke, the artist.

I turn past the water treatment plant, as I remember being surprised my first few weeks at Bert Fox to find one of Allen's classic sketches hanging in our office, a woman elder tanning a hide. I'd googled his name and saw that he has some pictures in the McKenzie Art Gallery's permanent collection. I turn the corner and my heart gets heavy, remembering swapping stories about our childhoods, his of chores, and me on the farm, and then him saying, "You had a good childhood." I'd try to tell him how I'd fight with my father and Allen would stop me and say, "You had a good childhood." Those words were a line between us.

Now I'm at the railway track as I remember seeing Allen's show "The Many Faces of Allen Clarke" at the Cultural Exchange Club Gallery in Regina after we'd lost touch, me married. I remember sitting in the middle of his self-portraits, wishing someone else in the room knew Allen, so we could enjoy the inside jokes on some of the pictures, like KFC receipts stapled into the painting or Allen's self-portrait in a sombrero. Or to feel the depth of his criticism.

I walk in the back door of the school, down the shiny hallway, zig-zagging between students and staff; it's 8:30. I pass Judy and she says, "I left two bags outside your doorway."

I round the corner, and sure enough, two parcels of Judy-quality-sixty-below-winter-jogging-wear.

Judy passes me again, always near jogging, calling over her shoulder. "I'll get those bags back from you later."

I'm working at my desk until 5:30 after school and now it's dark. I pull on ski pants, blue Gortex windbreaker, hikers, reflector vests and arm bands. I slip a bit in the dark playground, leaving through the back door. I'm sad Gail said no to the treaty panel, but I do get it, I think. She taught at SIFC but didn't ever think how education was part of treaty. She was the first professor I had who used a First Nations Anthology, honouring cultural integrity, another treaty promise.

I climb the hill, home. I climb the stairs, bed. For one minute. Climb back downstairs for soup, and then take Arwen to fiddle lessons.

Later I'm writing in bed and I find quotes about Allen's art:

"With forceful anger and humour a characteristic of his biting critique, Allen Clarke tackles head-on the distribution of resources within Indian communities in Starvation Flats."


Greg Beattie of the Regina Leader Post reports that "In Allen Clarke's recent exhibition "Too Young To Die", (circulated by the Little Gallery In Prince Albert), the artist employs humor as a shield against life's miseries, a tool for social change and finally, a weapon against ignorance and intolerance. As a native artist, Clarke is doubly marginalized in our predominantly white, business-oriented society. In "Too Young to Die" he critiques subjects as diverse as white supremacy, Indian politics, organized religion and the undervalued status of artists".

"Relying heavily on visual and literary puns (including occasional references to European art history), Clarke's works make no effort to reconstruct pre-contact native civilization. Instead, he seems intent on examining how natives can become active participants in society while still maintaining their cultural integrity. It is Clarke's intention to promote understanding between Indian and white cultures by poking fun at the fables of both people...In one passing, a native elder is shown eating ice cream while wearing feathered head-dress and 'chick' sunglasses. The painting which lent its name to the exhibit features a surreal account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn...depicting...General Custer reading the 'funny pages' of The Daily Bugle newspaper. Custer...an ominous figure with a Viking ship superimposed on his hat. The ship recalls both the arrival of Europeans to the New World and their rapacious attitude in plundering its resources...the doomed general, meanwhile, is oblivious to the carnage behind him...his soldiers, who are falling like flies, mix with a white-hatted cowboy and a Klansman - and it's left to a rearing cavalry horse to observe: 'I'd say we're just about toast, General'."

The painting, "A Self Portrait (He's Finger Licking' Good)", makes light on Indian peoples' fascination with Colonel Sander's Kentucky Fried Chicken. You have to go there on payday; it's a tradition.


Allen Clarke, a Cree artist, discusses sensitive political issues in his work and does not avoid critical reflection on issues in the aboriginal communities. He uses a vibrant colour palette and a very expressive style to make his comments.

Allen and I had talked about faith, too, and we shared similar beliefs. I remember giving him a ride home, and I was driving right by my church, and wondered if he wanted to meet my minister. So we pulled up to the old building at Seventh and Pasqua and I trotted into the foyer, and was halfway down the auditorium aisle before I noticed Allen wasn't with me. He was standing in the doorway. I called. "Ray's office is just up here, off the front."

Allen stayed in the doorway, and shook his head slightly. I remember walking back to him and he said, "I can't go in there."

I've spent much of the last twenty to twenty-five years trying to understand -- or maybe just see -- those lines Allen was trying to show me.

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