Reflections From A Volunteer Raker (how participating in grand scale temporary art reasserted four important things for me)

The unpredictability of the future.
Funny – who knew I’d learn to rake sand, to fluff it up but keep it even?
Who knew I’d fill in the spaces between circles for hours one early Wednesday morning in my 34th year of life?

We never know what’s going to happen to us.
Our futures are unpredictable, even when we make the decisions we do, as I did when I signed up to volunteer to help artist Jim Denevan with his latest piece, part of the Vancouver Biennale.

I awoke early in the morning. 6am.
It wasn’t a work morning – I wasn’t heading to the office.
Instead, I found myself traveling from one end of Vancouver, the far east, mere blocks from Burnaby, to the other end, the west, mere blocks from UBC.
I decided to give myself a rare break, so I threw my bike on the front of a #4 bus, wisely investing in a $2.50 fare, and settled in. As the wind blew through my bike’s spokes, I caught up on some reading.
Through Gastown, downtown, across the bridge to Kits… by 7:40 I was at 4th & Sasamat, some sort of pristine silent hilltop paradise. I haven’t heard that sort of silence in the city, ever.
As I headed north on Sasamat, the hill quickly began to descend – everywhere in front of me were huge houses, parks, a lone hopping squirrel, and the early morning beach in the distance.
I rode down, slowly, soaking up this neighbourhood’s vibe of upper eschelon peace.

I was one of the first volunteers to arrive (about a dozen of us total), yet Jim was already far out on the beach. Taking advantage of low tide, his work had begun.

I don’t think any of us knew exactly what we were going to be doing this promisingly warm morning.
We had, in one way or another, found out that Jim Denevan, worldwide-known professional artist, was creating a new piece for Vancouver Biennale, and that he requested a few volunteers to help.

I believe he normally does all the work himself, even though the scale of most of his pieces are huge.
He has created the largest piece of art ever in the desert – check out the zooming map on his site – it’s utterly mind boggling.

We began by setting up a small tent on shore with prints of Jim’s past work, as a base station for our operation, as well as an “info booth” of sorts for passerbys to today’s project.
While we were introducing ourselves, setting up the tent, and slapping on sunscreen, the artist was busy drawing circles – many many circles – far out toward the waterline.

Jim Denevan’s work is often temporary – he creates art in nature, not introducing new elements, rather, working with what exists, and today was no different. Jim was drawing in the sand. Superhumanly, though, he was drawing circles of all different sizes, and perfect circles at that.
Drawing a perfect circle freehand on a piece of paper is quite tricky (try it right now – I dare you). Often it will be almost perfect, but something will be wonky – it’ll stretch out too far on one side, or the connection won’t quite match.
But Jim seems to have an incredibly powerful inner compass, and all day long, from 7:30 till 12:30, he drew. With a tall stick, this tall man picked a spot, honed in on his centre, and then paced in a perfect circle, dragging his tall stick in the sand, creating the line that would meet up, perfectly each time, to complete a circle, some five feet in diameter, most 10 or more feet, some easily 30 or 40ft.


Our job as volunteers was to support Jim’s physically arduous day by putting our backs into it, too. We were handed thin wire rakes – they felt old fashioned to me – and told to rake the spaces in between Jim’s circles. By raking, the sand broke up, almost fluffed up, and it darkened because we were releasing the wet, deeper sand to the surface.

All along Spanish Banks, the volunteers were completing an integral part of the art piece – we were simultaneously adding two types of contrast – value (light circles vs dark between) and texture (smooth circles vs rough between).

The idea with Jim Denevan’s work is to alter nature by drawing into the surface – sand, earth or ice. His work is called “temporary drawing” and his piece on Spanish Banks was especially so – his work was to be created and washed away in the same day. Actually, it only existed in its completed form for a few minutes, because it took all day to create (work began before 8am), and as it was finished (at 12:30), the tide began to reclaim it (I was told that some pictures were taken as the tide came in, and that the drawing could be seen through the shallow water!).

This day was more for me than simply working with a professional artist, which was the original reason why I volunteered. I wanted to observe an artist at work and to be part of his creation.
But what I did not expect was to experience so much more.
Four points stand out:

  1. The physicality of it all.
    Raking all day long is not an easy task. But being active, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is something I enjoy a lot.
    I enjoy feeling my blood rush through my body, I love feeling my muscles heat up, really feeling my hands, limbering up my joints. Having my bare feet in sand all day was a touch-sense overload! I loved it. Plus being out by the water, in the fresh air and sun for all those hours was magical.
    I spend a lot of my time indoors, on my computer, so I truly appreciate these days of being active, getting away from my crouched-at-the-desk position to move my body.
  2. Community.
    The group of people that arrived to help Jim were all amazing. Everyone was happy, excited, and proud to be part of a special event.
    No one complained when we were told we’d be raking in between the circles. Instead, we struggled with this surprisingly challenging task (raking sand so that it doesn’t clump into mountains, striving for an evenness, is tough!) together, trying new techniques and sharing the successful methods with each other. We found a Zen state as the repetitiveness of the task sunk in – it was compared to those mini-Zen gardens – until JIm told us to speed up or else we’d lose to the tide.
  3. Unpretentious artists.
    Jim and his assistants are amazingly down-to-earth people. This day restored my belief that artists do not have to be pretentious stuck up elite, who believe they are better than everyone else because they can communicate their voices.
    Most of us have a deep seated dream to find our voice – a way to express ourselves. Even if no one listens, we all want a way to say what we think and we feel in a way that is uniquely us, because it feels good to feel connected to ourselves. In the rare times that I have made that connection with my true voice, there is a sense of satisfaction, a sense of being in my place in the world, that is unlike anything else. But this sense of being special, of being unique, can be taken to an egotistical extreme, and there was none of that from Jim or his assistants, Molly and Christy. This added an unexpected level of enjoyment that made the day enjoyable in a refreshing way.
  4. Temporary art.
    This is somewhat related to lack of pretention. Art, separate from the artists who create the art, can be pretentious. There is a sense that art is precious, that every piece of work should be framed and never touched – hell, some people treat it like it should never see the light of day because light can break down the paint, for example.
    While I love art, and appreciate that we do not want to treat art pieces like old socks, the glowing barriers that are placed around art, especially the art of those artists who are magically deemed “important” artists, can sometimes be taken to an extreme. For example, I have trouble with sculpture. What is sculpture, if not a physical, three dimensional medium that begs to be touched? Yet we cannot touch it, for if everyone touched it, the damn grease in our collective hands would prematurely age it. Or some jackass would break a figure’s finger off.
    Long ago, I experimented with making one-of-a-kind drawings, then taping them to street posts, knowing they would get ripped, postered over, or rained on, and that I would never see them again. But I wanted to release myself from the high-class, framed and behind glass treatment of art. I never took that project very far, but I see the same purpose in Jim Denevan’s work. He knows his work will not be around forever, yet he stills creates. And he obviously loves doing it.
    Though it doesn’t hurt that he has fantastic photographers who fly up in helicopters to capture his work, and through those photos, his work will be immortal.

The future is unpredictable. Being involved in THE MOMENT is a choice. On a wonderful June morning in Vancouver, we took in our moment and lived it, breathed it, sweated it, and soaked it in fully.
Thanks Jim, thanks Vancouver Biennale, thanks wicked volunteers,
cheers, Ash


I Dream Of Sun, My Reality Says Your Dreams Must Stay In Your Head

It started with a dream:
Last night I dreamt that my girlfriend and I jumped on our catamaran right from the shore, from our house, and took off with amazing windpower across the water.
It was amazing, it was beautiful. We were beaming with smiles. The sky was perfectly clear, the sun was bright and hot, and the wind was perfectly cooling, refreshing.
My girlfriend was steering as I moved about the craft, looking for the best place to hold on and enjoy the ride (seems even in the dream, I knew that I had no experience with water craft)

We bombed along the middle of the water, and within a minute or so, we were at our destination: downtown Vancouver.
This was some romantic version of Vancouver.
For one, the trip between our home and downtown wasn’t coated in rigs and cranes and transport ships, it was open clean water, with nothing but beautiful coastline and other boat owners enjoying the day on the water.

Then it continued with reality:
I awoke and looked outside.

Today the sun is trying desperately to shine through the clouds.
It’s admirable. The weather, considering that it is June 22 today, has been abysmal.
Normally I abhor when people go on and on about the weather, but I realize there is a reason: the weather directly affects us in ways that cannot be denied.
On the few clear, bright, and hot days we’ve had since April, my outlook on EVERYTHING is better. I feel like there is possibility in life. That my dreams are worthwhile pursuits. My body feels energized. I want to do things, I want to explore my physicality, and I want to challenge my mind.
I look around me, and I see the same. People are smiling when it is sunny. There is a bounce in people’s step.

When the sun is shrouded in dark clouds, as it has been for 80% of the days since April, all of those positive possibilities seem like dreams. The thought of challenging myself tires me. Physically exploring myself? That would be a waste of time.

I have traveled to a handful of cities in my life.
In Australia: Sydney, Brisbane, and everywhere in between, Bangkok and beyond in Thailand, all the way through Malaysia to Singapore to Bali, landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, and visiting many cities there, Manchester, London, and Leeds (England), Edinburgh and Glasgow (Scotland), cities in Ireland on a lovely spring road trip, Amsterdam, Chania and all over on Crete, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, Santa Cruz and more in the US, and many more in Canada, including Halifax, Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal, Markham, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria, and Nanaimo.

The reason I list these to such extent is to prove that I make the following comment from experience, not purely opinion:
if there is anything that I’ve learned, it’s that no one city has everything.
You will always find the city you’re in lacking in some way.

For example, I lived in Manchester for 2 years.
Manchester’s music scene and nightlife is unbelievable. But the city lacks natural beauty and does not foster a positive physical active lifestyle.

Vancouver, which is the city I have lived in for most of my adult life, has so many things that I love: water, beach, music and arts (yes, it’s true, perhaps not as burgeoning as in Montreal or Toronto, but still…), a strong cycling culture (and a mayor who champions it so much he has created many bike lanes in his short 1.5 years in office), and easily one of the healthiest lifestyles in the world, with mostly everyone active in yoga, cycling, running, swimming (5 outdoor pools + 9 indoor), climbing, skiing and snowboarding – you are out of place if you are not active in at least one form of exercise.
Plus the healthy, organic, vegetarian/vegan options abound.
Even for a meat-eater as myself, many times, both at home and at restaurants, I choose vegetarian because there are always delicious options, rather than “the pasta without chicken” as tends to be the case in many cities.

But one thing is sadly disruptive to a happy existence in Vancouver, and it is the weather. For 3/4 of the year, residents put up with the rain.

I know the ceaseless rain is not Mother Nature simply being a pain in the ass; we live in a rainforest. This part of the world is lush with trees and grass, and it grows as it does thanks to the precipitation.

But after 7 or 8 months of rain and the accompanying dark grey clouds, we yearn for clear skies and sun – a little taste of warmth and brightness to recharge us for the coming Autumn.

Usually, the little burst of summer is intense, hot, and, as I said, recharging. I feel like a solar panel battery, not simply wanting, but actually NEEDING the sun and the heat for energy.
By April, I am at critical. I am at the stage of needing power or I’ll go to sleep to preserve my memory contents.

I hate when people complain about the weather.
I don’t think we should complain because even though we may be homo sapiens and we may have a god complex, thinking that we control the universe in the palm of our hands, we must admit that we are just a large colony of ants running amok on a beach ball. We have no right to say it should be sunny or not.

But, in order to exist, we need reason to exist. And if the skies remain dark and grey 12 months a year, how would we find the reasons? Without solar recharge, I fear we wouldn’t.

If I don’t have the equivalent of my ride aboard that glorious catamaran, skirting along the water, glistening from the bright sun’s rays, a beaming smile on my face, then I may shrink into a ball and forget that I’ve fostered some dreams that once had some life.