This was originally posted to facebook on May 1.
I met my wife twenty years ago today. Lucky me!
I’d been serving her beer during her four years at university, and she served me delicious Indian food when she worked at a little restaurant across the street from the Only Cafe (my employer from 1990-2004), so we knew each other in those contexts, but we didn’t “meet” until a mutual friend, Gogo Pandya, came for a visit. We almost didn’t meet even when Gogo came to town, because Caroline was overdue for her departure from Peterborough, but her rides and travel pans kept falling through for three weeks, meaning she was available for the big dinner another friend had planned or Gogo’s arrival. The day Gogo got to Peterborough, everybody met at the Only Cafe, having drinks while they waited for me to get off of work before we all headed across the street for dinner.
There was instant electricity between Caroline and me as soon as we sat down next to each other at the India Food House, and as our group wandered from bar to bar and eventually to Caroline’s place it became obvious that we were connecting and that we would somehow have to address our feelings, because we had both been around the block a few times and knew that whatever “this” was, it was powerful.
I slept on her couch that night while she and Gogo went upstairs, a little drunk and giggly as I remember it; I was still newly sober, so my memories are actually pretty good for a change.
The next morning I was up early having a cigarette out on the front porch, enjoying the warming sun when Caroline came out with a cup of coffee for each of us. As soon as she sat down next to me on the front porch stairs we started talking, no small talk, just straight to the big stuff of life. Since we knew Caroline was leaving in five day’s time, we didn’t waste any time with our first one-on-one conversation. We talked about what we wanted in, and wanted to do with, our lives, in broad strokes to begin with and then on to some of the practical questions of how we were each planning to realise our goals. Until that moment, I had been planning to save as much money as I could over the coming 1 1/2 years and then moving to Halifax with Rocky Green and Bert Thompson to open Green Studio East, while Caroline was looking to spend the summer in Regina with Gogo while she looked at her next steps as a fresh graduate.
An hour and a half later we had covered a lot of ground. We were both at the crossroads of a new beginning in life, she as a new grad with no fixed or driving career goal, and I was, as I mentioned, recently sober after fifteen years of hard, but mostly fun, days and nights and looking to focus on painting and whatever that path would entail.
At this point Caroline took my cup and went to get us fresh coffees. About thirty seconds later, I met her in the dining room and told her I thought I was falling in love with her. We kissed.
The next five days were a whirlwind, but one thing struck me instantly when Caroline came to the studio for the first time. The studio was on the third floor, and there were paintings in the winding staircase on the way up. The studio itself was a marvel, five ;arge rooms with high ceilings and windows to match, with each art packed room painted a different hue. When Caroline opened the door and walked into Green Studio that first time, she looked as if she had finally arrived home without having known she had been searching for it for the past decade of her life. I knew she was hooked on the place, and on the idea of making it her own home and model for her future. I could only hold my breath and hope that I, too, was somehow a part of that future.
On the morning of the fifth day, after spending a sleepless night in the front rooms of Green Studio with Venus in looking over us, we set off for the train station in Toronto She left town on the 11:30 a.m. train bound for Edmonton, taking my heart with her.
The rest of the story is too long for this space; we’ve covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, and have tested the vows we made five months later when we were wed in Regina. And throughout our twenty years together, we’ve watched our bond and our love deepen as we face the good and the hard times together.
I’m a lucky man, and I’m still having the same, and the best, conversation of my life, the one that started over coffee on the front porch steps of a house on Thomas St. twenty years ago today.
Ain’t love grand?
Just to set the scene for what follows, let’s go back to the first part of the story, which ends with Caroline leaving Peterborough behind for good following graduation from Trent University, closing out our unexpected meeting and love affair over those momentous five days in May, amid tearful declarations and expressions of love as her train begins to pull out of Union Station in Toronto.
All right, fast forward to around six weeks after Caroline left on that train, bound for a visit with her dad in Sicamous, B.C. before going to live with Gogo in Regina Saskatchewan, looking to have some time to think about what was next in her future while having fun with Gogo and her family and working as a waitress. Meanwhile, I was back working at the Only, saving money for a trip to see Caroline and for the plan of moving to the Maritime s with Rocky and Bert and setting up Green Studio in Halifax. I had managed to get my old job back in mid-March, a little under half of a year after hitting bottom and sobering up, so by the end of June I had my ticket to Regina and a much anticipated reunion with Caroline.
To give you some background about who Caroline’s friends were, consider this: Gogo is now one of the world’s influential philosophers in the field of bioethics relating to medical practices, her brothers are now upper level executives within government, banking, and casino and hotel management in Saskatchewan, while her sister, who was and is living in Toronto, is now a talent manager in music, with Serena Ryder as one of her clients. Back then, they were all graduate students working in the restaurant and bar business in Regina, a fun and intelligent bunch of people who were up for adventure of all kinds if it was available.
When I landed in Regina, Caroline and I locked eyes on each other, and to put it simply, it was go time. We wasted no time picking up where we had left off in Peterborough, and our five days in May turned into two weeks in July. For the entire two weeks, Caroline and I were besotted with each other. In between Caroline’s shifts at a little cafe, we emerged from Caroline’s room at the apartment shared with Gogo and her brother, Rupen, in intermittent forays for food, coffee, wine for Caroline, and cigarettes, and wherever we went in the city we were so openly punch drunk in love that heads turned as people passed in cars and on foot. We walked around Regina at odd hours, meeting with Gogo and her friends after work for late night dinners, sometimes taking drives out to the country to watch the stars on those clear summer nights on the prairies. We found and made romance in everything we touched, living out the passions contained in the letters–yes, letters; remember, this was happening in 1994–we had been writing each other during the six weeks we were apart.
On my second day in town, while we were lying in bed drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes late in the afternoon, I asked Caroline to marry me. And after just seven days together spread over two provinces and two months, Caroline accepted my modest and intimate proposal. As soon as she saw us while bringing us another cup of coffee, Gogo knew something was up, and she was soon with us under the sheets, giggling and shouting for Rupen and his girlfriend Brenda to come hear the news. I called my boss, Jerome, back in Peterborough and gave him notice I was quitting my job, and following dinner at a higher end Italian restaurant that night, Gogo introduced me to the manager and told him to hire me. After talking over desert and Gogo’s praises of my work at the Only, I was offered a job, topping off what turned out to be, and what remains one of the highlight reel days of my life.
The next ten days and nights were spent tumbling around the apartment and town, revelling in our state of mad, mad love and making plans for my permanent return in three weeks time. In short order we found an amazing three bedroom apartment with generous proportions and a balcony on the top floor of the “sister” building next to Gogo’s place, and by the time I left to tie up my interests back in Peterborough, we had secured a marriage licence and a lease. When my plane took off to take me back to Peterborough, I was bouyed by feelings of love and exciting thoughts about returning to Regina and beginning the next chapters in the adventure of building a life together.
Little did know that our love was already getting bigger.
In The Studio, 1993
I turned fifty last Friday. I was ambushed with a surprise party to celebrate, a risky move in my wife’s part, but grateful for it after getting over the initial wallop when I walked through the door. t was a great party, and a celebration that made up for the dismal way I turned forty. At forty I was in the lowest ebb of a very bad year; I couldn’t walk because of the undiagnosed cancer that surrounded my spinal cord inside of my vertebrae from my L4/5 disc down to the end of my spine, a condition that should have killed me but, thankfully, didn’t.
Yesterday Caroline asked me how fifty feels. I told her it actually feels right and good.
As a teenager, I knew I wouldn’t be fully formed as an artist or as a person until I was the age I have reached, and as it turns out, I was correct. Maybe it’s a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I know the past few years of painting full-time have helped me become a better painter and a happier man. And although I know I’ll be looking over my shoulder to see if cancer is still chasing me, I feel like I’m ok with that fact. I’ve gotten to watch my daughters become beautiful, intelligent young women with their own goals for the lives they want to pursue, and I’m still engaged in the conversation Caroline and I started back in 1994.
Getting older is a privilege for anybody, and for me this knowledge is palpable in a way it wouldn’t be if not for the many times I have managed to beat the odds. I’ve overdosed on hard drugs on a few occasions, woken up in alleyways and bus stations without remembering how I got there, beaten cancer twice, and survived two or three heart attacks, not to mention numerous bar fights and other reckless behaviours over the years. Throughout it all, painting has been the one thing I have hung onto.
I dropped in and out of a few art schools along the way, knowing the degree was meaningless for me. I modelled for classes during those attempts at academia, learning more from having done so than I would have from being on the other side of the easel. When I was a student, I also sat in on upper years art history and theory classes to gain an idea for the reading I needed to do in order to give myself a broader intellectual base for my work.
The two most formative influences on my work, however, have been another self-trained artist, Rocky Green, and my wife, Caroline Tees. I shared studio space with Rocky at his studio and gallery back in the 1990s, and we exhibited together for almost fifteen years. Our conversations and critiques of each other’s work had a huge impact on my work, still do. And that ongoing conversation with Caroline that I mentioned continues to inform my practice. These two people help me to keep working when the work seems to be going nowhere, and they are the ones who constantly challenge me to get better. Along the way, I have had the good fortune to have been surrounded by a number of talented artists, writers, musicians, and actors–in fact, the place I live, Peterborough, has a disproportionate number of active artists in all disciplines, and that is why I decided to stay here instead of moving to a larger city as originally planned.
I also worked for close to fifteen years at a great pub/cafe in town, The Only Cafe, which has been a meeting place for people from all walks of life since it opened in 1990, the year I arrived in Peterborough. It’s where I met many of the aforementioned artists, and its owners are themselves actors. It, and they, provided me with a venue for making those connections while earning a good living, and it’s where I met Tim Etherington, a writer and friend who sometimes seems like my doppelganger in writer form. We worked together at the Only for around five years off and on, and were teammates for over twenty years on a hockey team that evolved from a canal based shinny team to a couple of good league teams, all while embracing an arts based focus and approach. Yes, to hockey. As with Rocky and Caroline, Tim has made me aim higher in all aspects of life, and like them, he has been a shaping influence in matters of art. He also gave me the gift of his insights into ethics and philosophy, and he held onto my chalks when I wanted to throw them away because I was frustrated by my lack of productivity when I was a new father. He kindly gave them back eight months later.
So when Caroline asked me how fifty feels, I consider the paths I have wandered down, and the people who have wandered with me along the way, I know in my bones that I have become the person and the man I hoped to become back when I was a teenager. And it feels very good, indeed.
A couple of weeks ago I decided it’s time to end my days as a beer league hockey player. That might sound like an odd way to begin an article about studio life, but it’s pertinent. One of the reasons I’m calling it a day on the ice is that I have found I have to pay an increasingly high price for playing a game I love. I already have to deal with pain management due to spinal cord damage, and my studio practice is affected by that reality as it means having an unpredictable schedule and limited time on my feet. These factors have a direct bearing on my time in the studio, and as such, I have to do what is necessary to mitigate the negative impact they have on my practice.
So there goes hockey.
I was once asked by my pain management specialist if I have ever thought about making paintings about the pain I live with on a daily basis. My answer was to the effect that I have no desire to make pain the focus of my work, and that it–pain–is in pretty much all of my work already. He was puzzled by that response, so I elaborated for him by telling him that every mark I make is informed by the constant presence of pain in my life–just as those marks are also informed by all of the other emotions and experiences I have lived with and through. My subject matter is increasingly decided by the limited orbit of my daily life, as is my technical approach to making paintings. I work in one of two ways; I work in short sessions when the pain cannot be controlled by medications, and in long sessions (lasting up to forty hours) when the assortment of painkillers keeps pain at bay. When I’m engaged in the latter process, it is because the painkillers don’t allow me to go to sleep, so I take advantage of the prolonged wakeful state to get as much work done as I can, and then come back to the paintings after sleeping for 12-15 hours.
As for subject matter, I have become a landscape and still life painter partly as a result of my limited mobility. I choose scenes that are my favourite views of the city and surrounding countryside in which I live, or else I make paintings using flowers from my gardens and objects from daily life. In either case, I am choosing to paint subjects that are close to home in the figurative and literal senses of that turn of phrase. And in either of these genres I find that the familiarity of the chosen motif allows me to focus on the technical processes of drawing and painting, so that rather than attempting to invent a new form for painting I am allowing my process to determine form. Simply put, I am putting practice before theory rather than the reversing of those elements that has come to dominate artistic and critical practice over the past half century.
This has been very liberating, and it also lets theory inform my work and method without dictating the results. It is a far more inclusive approach than its obverse, as it encourages experimentation while demanding that the experimental aspects cohere with the rest of the formal elements of each painting. It invokes a sense of play that relies on instinct, which means theory is still involved, but in a manner that is organic simply because instinct is based on experience, and experience combines previous practice and thinking. To put it hockey terms, for each game (or painting in a given genre) there is a game plan in place at the beginning, but that plan has to accommodate what is happening as play unfolds. And just as happens in hockey, if you don’t adapt the plan to suit the game, the results are rarely good.