Lynne Saintonge interviews Elaine Amyot
Elaine Amyot is a visual artist and writer who has lived in the Moncton region since 1968. She studied with various artists over the years including pottery with Helen Beals, painting with Molly Bobak, drawing with Fred Ross, and printmaking with David Silverberg. She completed her B.A. and B.ED. at the Université de Moncton and taught in primary schools for several years. Elaine has a long exhibition record of both solo and group shows to her credit. In November 1996 she was featured in Radio Canada's series Trajectoires which profiles people who have made a mark in their communities. In 2000 she co-curated the large group exhibition of women artists, Présence 27, which was shown at the Galerie d'Art de l'Université de Moncton, and she also published the exhibition catalogue. I first met Elaine in 1993, when we opened our gallery, Joie de Vivre - contemporary art & craft, and she has shown her work with us since 1996. (Note: the gallery closed in 2007)
In February, 2003, she welcomed me to her lovely art filled home in Dieppe, New Brunswick, where we enjoyed a leisurely, wide ranging conversation about her art and her life.
Lynne Saintonge: Well Elaine, my first question is straightforward: What does being an artist mean to you?
Elaine Amyot: Being an artist to me means living, and I'm impelled to work. I feel I need to work - and if I don't I feel very at odds with myself and the world. When I do work and I'm happy, when I'm really completely myself, things come out in a rather magical way. Being an artist I think means having had that experience of being at one with everything and feeling at one with yourself. That beautiful feeling is something I try to capture, but of course if you want to capture it you don't. It's a gift, I think, that comes to you. To facilitate it though, I write in my journal everyday and I have things I find nourishing. Right now I'm reading The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke. Sometimes you find somebody who, with their words, can express so well what you already know - he's one of those people. Being an artist to me means having access to poets, to poetry, and nature - that is also replenishing. Times of quiet so you can just be, and then times of work where you discipline yourself to work every day - sometimes nothing happens except sweeping the floor, but...
LS: Right. (laughter) It sounds like it's a state of being for you.
EA: Yes, yes it is. And when people say "You're an artist!" or "What do you do for a living?" I hesitate to say I'm an artist because I'm a woman, I'm a human being, I'm an artist - it's all the same thing. I told my neighbour - he wanted to know what I did - I said "Well, I'm an artist," and he said "Oh my mother's an artist and she sells her work - she's sold a lot." That seems to be the mark of an artist for most people. It's if the work they make sells.
LS: That justifies it or something.
EA: And it's the mark of their success. Fortunately it isn't for me. And, I like having exhibitions with this gallery [Galerie12, an artist collective in Moncton] and your gallery [Joie de Vivre - contemporary art & craft in Riverside-Albert, NB]. It means that twice a year I have to put my work together. I work for those times. It's having done the work that's important, not so much people's reactions. Ten years ago if people praised my work I would be up on cloud nine for three days, and if there was criticism I'd be very, very depressed. Now I'm not that affected by what other people say.
LS: It's a maturity too.
EA: Well, I'm glad it's happened.
LS: Yes (laughter). It can be quite painful otherwise, I think, to be an artist and to be too attached to that sort of validation. Do you find?
EA: You can find yourself doing work to please the ones who might say "This is great stuff and I like it," and it might not be what's right for you.
LS: When did you consciously and fully take on, or take into yourself, the role, and the status, of being an artist?
EA: Well... not until I moved here to New Brunswick in 1968, although I began in Nova Scotia. I mean, I loved to draw when I was 3 years old - my father would give us paper and we'd draw. Then, at school I always felt a bit on the margin - you know. I was a French Protestant which meant I had to go to an English school. This meant I wasn't part of the English speaking community and I wasn't part of the French speaking community either because they went to a different school, so I've always felt that I'm on the margin - looking on to what other people's lives are like. There are advantages to that I've discovered but it was hard, hard work. So, when I went to Nova Scotia in 1965 I hated to leave St-Bruno, Quebec, I loved it there, oh yes - such a beautiful place.
LS: That was your birthplace? Or where you grew up ?
EA: No, I grew up Joliette, but we never owned a home so I never felt very attached to it because of the circumstances I've just described, but in St-Bruno - well for one thing, there was a Hungarian couple, they had come over in the Revolution of '56, well it wasn't a revolution, there was Communist takeover, and they were very cultured people. They taught at the Thomas More Institute in Montreal, which was for adult studies, and they noticed there was no art instruction in schools, so they set up private art instruction and were able to fund it from government. It was such a pleasure to work with these beautiful people, you know, and I began working then.
LS: How old were you at that time?
EA: Oh - I was in my thirties, this was '65. Then, I was just saying I hated to leave St-Bruno, because of these people. Suddenly everything was opening up. There was a minister called Tom Miles who is mentioned in Alden Nowlan's biography as the minister that Alden wanted to marry him and his wife. But he [Tom Miles] went away. Well, he went to St-Bruno and that's when I met him. I liked him because he started a small discussion group for study of the Bible - I'm mentioning this because it all has to do with being an artist - he said "We're going to meet, but nobody is to cook (laughs) - we're just meeting to talk and discuss," and we started studying Matthew with Barclay as guide. It was something I had been looking for for a long time. [Previously] I found that every time I would mention to a minister questions of studying the Bible, or God, they seemed to freak out and not want to talk about it.
LS: Yes - "You're not going to ask me questions I can't answer." (laughter)
EA: "You're not going to ask me 'those' questions." (laughs) So, with Tom Miles it was a small group, and a wonderful experience. Then my husband at the time was transferred to Nova Scotia, and I was of two minds. We hated to leave St-Bruno, my family was around, I loved the landscape and the proximity to Montreal. There was, however, a path beaten to our door by Nova Scotians in exile who said "You've got to look up my Aunt Ethel," (laughs) and "Here's a cookbook," and we felt already welcomed. I'd had 4 miscarriages - I had two children and in-between, miscarriage after miscarriage - but I was pregnant again. So when we moved to Nova Scotia, I looked up doctor's names and I liked the name 'Worthylake' (chuckles) and I went to see Dr. Worthylake. I had been given all kinds of medications by doctors in Montreal, and this gentle man said " Oh no - your life here is is slower and it's going to be good for you. I'm not going to advise any medication, however is there something that you have wanted to do that you haven't done?" and I said "I've always wanted to paint." He said "My wife belongs to a Canning group of artists,"- he picked up the phone [and called her] and she said "Yes, I'll pick Elaine up tomorrow night," and we started like that. It was a small group.
LS: Were you teaching then?
EA: No, I was a housewife, I had two children and Robbie [my third child] was born about six months later in Nova Scotia. The chap in charge of this Canning group was a Mr. James, I think, who had come from Boston and had taken over from Miss Beals who had been the director of the Art department at Acadia University. Miss Beals was known to my mother-in-law, and she gave my daughter and I lessons in pottery. We would go to Blomidon and get the clay right there. Oh she was wonderful and this man, Mr. James, was wonderful too. He told me - he said "I don't know - you're looking for something - I'm not sure what it is and you aren't sure what it is."
LS: So this teacher also was picking up on something.
EA: Yes, he said "You're looking for something. You may find it as you keep on working with paint." I think that's part of being an artist isn't it - searching? ...Well, when we talk about 'being' we're not searching then are we?
LS: But, we search for meaning, or to create meaning?
EA: I think part of being is always ...searching. I'm always searching that's why I keep changing media.
LS: Each medium would bring you something quite different.
EA: I've never as yet found one thing that I wanted to have to the exclusion of other things.
LS: That's ok, right?
EA: That's the way it is I guess. (Laughs)
LS: You mentioned to me last year that one of your influences was [Canadian artist] Joyce Wieland. You thought she was so wonderful because she used film, writing to a certain extent, painting, fabric, collage, assemblage. Was that part of the reason that she was inspiring to you?
EA: Well, we all have mentors I suppose, and this is a person whose way of expressing herself impressed me a lot. When she did paintings, she didn't have a preconceived idea but would just discover it as she painted. That's very courageous. I remember seeing a film with her former teacher - quite a well known artist whose name escapes me for the moment and who doesn't work that way at all - she said she admired Joyce for it but that she could never work that way herself.
LS: I like your Joyce Wieland story about (laughs) the Michael Snow performance.
EA: (laughing) Maybe that's why I like her work - I like her. I can just see us, we were about 50 people at the Galerie Sans Nom, at the time it was in the basement of a building that they've since destroyed. It was the Evangeline building and a small stage, and we were all eagerly awaiting some jazz, and then this cold looking Michael Snow comes on the stage and plays us a tape of this very cold, cerebral, not at all jazz to me...
LS: ...not what you were expecting.
EA: Well - not what we were expecting. And my son who loves jazz in all it's forms didn't like that, and when it was time for intermission he got up and very gruffly said [to me] "Give me 50 cents for a beer - I can't stand this," and Joyce digs in her pocket and gives him the 50 cents "Have one on me," she said " I don't like it either." (laughing)
LS: That's really wonderful. (more laughter) I want to ask you a little bit about your actual work now. It can be described as evocative and dreamlike, and by delving into the parallel worlds of poetry, mythology, and also Jungian psychology, you've developed your own symbolic iconography which recurs throughout your work. It's very much your own vocabulary in that respect. When did you develop this connection to Jung in particular ?
EA: That began in...
LS: Is it fair to, do you think, to focus on that?
EA: Yes, because it was an important part of my life. It was in '74 when I was living here in Moncton. It was at a time when I was searching again for something. I had a friend who was part of the congregation of St-James Anglican Church where a minister called Gary McAuley was the priest and he began groups called Centrepoint. This was something started by, I think, [a group of] Americans. It involved the study of the self using Jung's guidelines, that is to say keeping a journal - I had already done that for ten years, so this was fine - and belonging to this group. There were about six of us, and we stayed together for some time. We had access to tapes that would be sent to us, or we would choose Jungian writers, and I found that very influential. I liked the idea of having an animus, and different parts to the self and so on.
LS: What about the Shadow, because it comes up in your work, the idea of that presence. The shadow in Jungian psychology represented Evil?
EA: Well, not necessarily.
LS: You don't use it that way, but...
EA: It's whatever you've not accepted. In my case, I discovered later when I was seeing Raymond Bujold [a catholic priest and therapist] that shadow elements for me would be something I projected onto another woman - usually a very beautiful, successful, happy person. In other words, I wouldn't recognize any strengths in myself, or anything positive, but I could see it out there.
LS: I think it's very healthy in your sense. In your work there's always this sort of presence, these things that, to me, appear and disappear. They're there if you see them, if you can see them, if you want to see them. It's multi layered, but it's not representing a cut and dried [idea of good and evil].
LS: You really integrate [the concept of The Shadow].
EA: I like Robert Bly's interpretation. He's not a fully fledged Jungian (laughs) and neither am I. In fact Jung himself said he didn't like Jungians! If you really follow what he has said, you develop your own [understanding]. But I like Robert Bly's A Little Book of The Human Shadow where he says that we're conditioned to repress a lot of things. We don't want to show these things for various reasons and he said we put then in a bag...
LS: (laughing) Oh the bag!
EA: ...the bag - yes (laughs) - I love bags. And then, he said the bag gets pretty heavy and things in it start to move. That means you're going to open it up which I think is what we have to do with our lives.
LS: I like what you said also, just before, about projecting onto a beautiful woman who represented things that were in you, but you couldn't fully acknowledge at that point. Rosemary Sullivan, in her book Labyrinth of Desire delves into the ways women do that with falling in love - when you fall in love with a man and you just - you go crazy, you would do anything.
EA: In other words, you've got an idea of a man and you're putting it on to that person. You don't really see that person.
LS: That, yes, and also [the idea] that you are seeing things in him that you want to claim for yourself as a woman. You know if a woman is a muse, or falls in love with an artist, but she remains 'the muse' - she's passionately in love with this man who is 'the artist'. In a sense she is seeing [in the man/artist] this wonderful part of herself that she won't claim for herself.
EA: Yes, that's always a danger for couples.
LS: Yes, and I thought her interpretation was very sensitive and revealing, so when you said that about projecting onto another woman...
EA: Well, I like Jung's definition of how a person grows - he calls it individuation. You become more and more yourself, and as that happens you start to detach from these projections and these relationships that are really very negative. I've lived a few - most people have if they're lucky. (Laughs) because you learn so much, you learn so much from them.
LS: And from projections of others onto you as well.
EA: Oh yes - yes, that's a very dangerous thing.
LS: The muse is a projection. The artists can project anything they want onto the muse. She's, not blank, but she's the repository of all their desires.
EA: It can kill her. It has, I think, destroyed people.
LS: The individuation process then...
EA: ...is becoming conscious of what isn't yours, that you're carrying somebody else's projection. You become conscious of that. Or that you are projecting onto someone else, or you had a relationship because - what's the term - you've never really separated from your mother and you want this 'fusion'. That's the word I was looking for. You want to fuse with someone, and when you do, you lose part of yourself. I think that explains why so many really beautiful, talented women have such horrible relationships. They fuse with someone because they feel the need to, but once you recognize that this need comes from a place, an emptiness no one will ever be able to fill except yourself - once you become conscious of that ... [individuation can begin]. [Part of] one of the last works I've done was to press some Hosta leaves that had been touched by frost. I thought they were so frail looking and beautiful. I think an older person becomes like that where they've gotten rid of a lot of the greenery, a lot of the stuff that is full of life. What remains is a structure that is delicate but strong. I think a person's personality changes as their knowledge of themselves changes - their appearance changes, and I think the Hosta leaf, after it's been treated by frost [can symbolize part of this ongoing process of growth and change.]
LS: Not a lot of people that I know in our community, or our immediate environment, work with that depth of symbolic vocabulary or iconography - with the depth of awareness you bring to it.
EA: I've always been fascinated with what's under.
LS: I think a lot of people may make facile interpretations of your work. I guess I'm saying there's a very deceptive simplicity in some of your work, the hosta leaf for example.
EA: I think unless you've had some kind of experience about layers and depths you won't see it in a work of art, you know. You're looking for something that's beautiful and easily discerned.
LS: In relation to all that comes into your work - all the layers of psychology, the different mythologies you draw from, poetry and so forth - how does your choice of media reflect and articulate these influences, this material that you're working with? How do the concepts and media work together?
EA: Well, I always liked playing with miniature things, and I had a very lonely childhood, so of course I'd play with dolls, but to me they weren't babies. We didn't have any babies in the family so the dolls would be people I would invent stories from, and I liked using texture and colour - I would think of people in colour. I didn't start using the little boxes until I had temporarily bad eyesight and trembling hands because of chemotherapy [later in life as an adult]. That's when I began to think about what it is in life that has the most meaning for me, and it was love, friendship. So I wanted to do little boxes which would represent people, particular people - friends. But I couldn't draw - well, I could draw but my hand would shake and I'd ruin three hours of work, so I decided to use objects [to make assemblages] and I liked that so much I continued. I also found that cutting paper [for collages] was like sculpting actually. I like those two ways of expressing myself. But your question was "How does the mythology and poetry enter...?"
LS: I guess the way you're describing it, is that the choice was there for you at the time.
EA: Yes, I had to make a choice. Maybe most artists have discovered things sometimes because they're forced into it in a way. [At the time] the ordinary avenues were no longer available. There's always a way, and if I go blind, you know, I'm going to make pots! (laughs)
LS: Yes! That's wonderful.
EA: I've also been writing because Ed writes [Ed Lemond, Elaine's husband] and we formed a little group called The Breach House Gang. There's only six of us, and what I'm doing is writing memoirs of my childhood. I thought everybody could remember their childhood really well, but I guess not.
LS: No - it's surprising isn't it?
EA: I remember the time when I was two, two and a half. [American artist] Georgia O'Keefe claimed that she could remember sitting in the sun with an Aunt, and she could describe the grass - she was two.
LS: My grandmother could remember being in the cradle, she told me that.
EA: She would remember.
LS: She remembered being rocked - now that's amazing too isn't it ?
EA: Yeah, I think so. I can remember my grandfather's funeral. I must have been less than three.
LS: So, when you say 'memoirs', you're really going back.
EA: Yes, but it was just a vision, an image I had, and I didn't know what it was until quite later. I remember being in a very dark place and seeing a man on an ironing board with a Christmas tree on top of him. Now, the ironing board had metal legs - you know metal supports - and so did whatever was holding up the coffin.
LS: Oh - I see.
EA: I used that language you see. And the Christmas tree would be all the wreaths and flowers, but to me the only time you had anything green in the house was at Christmas.
LS: A man on an ironing board with a Christmas tree on top of him - that was your grandfather in his coffin!
EA: And it was dark because everyone was very sad, you know.
LS: That's wonderful. I was going to say, you are a very literate artist, not that most artists aren't - most artists are. You value poetry, you write...
EA: Words are important.
LS: Yes - you're writing your memoirs and you also write about other artists' work. And, you have that very conscientious relation to your subconscious - you cultivate that. That's what you've been talking about.
EA: Yes, that was the Jungian thing. I believe it's true that only a certain part of us is conscious, only part of us is visible, and most of what we are is not part of what we use.
LS: You're very connected to that world.
EA: I like it very much.
LS: That sort of relation can 'just happen', but you also...
EA: ... you cultivate it.
LS: It's a very conscientious relation. It's very important.
EA: Yes, I pay attention to it, [but I'm not] not overly attentive to it because you can kill it you know. There are so many people who say "I keep track of my dreams and I've got them all figured out," well... (laughs)
LS: Do you figure yours out, or just let them float?
EA: Well, I let them float and then I look at them, and they speak to me sometimes, sometimes they don't. And if they don't that's ok, sometimes having dreamt is enough. That means there's something at work - I don't understand it, but maybe I will someday. It was Raymond Bujold who told me this and I think it's true for me anyway - that having dreamt something, you've resolved something.
LS: You don't even have to remember your dream and it's happened right? [part of the process of resolving something in your life]
EA: That's right. Sometimes it's frightening you know, the dreams that one can have. There was one dream where I was in a monastery and there was a fire. I was stopping people in the street saying "Let's call the fire department," and they weren't paying any attention to me, so the building was burning, and Raymond said "Well, it looks like you're getting rid of some old structures having to do with your religious [beliefs]."
LS: So, he would interpret for you.
EA: He did, but you can accept or reject what he has to say.
LS: Of course.
EA: What I was living through at that time was a conversion, and I think that was very true - those burning structures were no longer used. But my first interpretation of this was "Oh my goodness there's some disaster taking place here and people are indifferent to it." (Laughs)
LS: Yes, but I can certainly see the other interpretation.
EA: Yes, because they're all parts of the self.
LS: You were saying to yourself: "It's my conversion, these other people don't care and it doesn't matter."
EA: (laughing) "Let it burn."
LS: Yes! (laughter) I was going to ask you about the things you do to cultivate your access to this world of the subconscious, the unconscious, and dreams. Do you meditate, do you...
EA: Oh yes, every morning. I find that it's important to have a routine. In the morning I meditate, I do some Yoga stretches which my body needs, and then I read - right now it's Rilke. So, I have some kind of reading that does something to me.
LS: Mostly poetry, or anything at that time of the day?
EA: At that time of the day it's mostly poetry. Although one of my favourite authors for that kind of reading is Henri Nowen - he was published posthumously I guess. He had a series of little essays, only about a page long, and I find that those are also very good. He was a Dutch theologian who taught at Harvard. He wrote I don't know how many books - The Wounded Healer I think is one of his most excellent - and he was very touched by visual art. He put together a book concerning icons that's really beautiful - you open up the icon and read his text.
LS: Isn't it marvellous these people who are gifted at that type of interpretation and contemplation of art?
EA: Oh yes. He said his parents always had art, and he was brought up that way. So, this is another of the readings I do in the morning, then I find that I'm ready to face the day.
LS: This all happens first thing.
EA: Yes, and then the emptying - that's what it is - so that whatever will happen is always new. I find this sense of something new is wonderful and important - mind you sometimes things happen where I become numb and can't 'feel' very well.
LS: Well, it's hard to feel all the time.
EA: (laughs) Now I realize it's normal not to be able to feel all the time, and it's a loss, but it must mean that there's something that needs to be couvé you know, so that it'll blossom later. In other words I've learned to be patient - I'm a very impatient person.
LS: Do you find that in the morning there's a sort of transition from the waking?
EA: Yes - transitions are important aren't they? I used to realize how important they were when I stopped the teaching year and tried to launch myself into a world without teaching for two months. I'd have a migraine that would last for five days until I realized I needed a transition, so I would go to a retreat and then very, very gently I would get up and do things. So, I find that's true of night and day, you have your dreams and you wake up, and before you face whatever is going to be presenting itself [you need a time of transition].
LS: We've talked about this process of cultivation, this process of access to these places in yourself that you need to go to as a person, as an artist.
EA: It has to do with talking with people also. There are certain people you feel so good with, they give you so much and you're able to give to them - I call it 'exchanging soul'. If it doesn't happen periodically, I feel a great loss. I'm not a person who can stay alone in the house for a week. I'm not introverted at all - it's important to me to see people.
LS: So, it's fair to say that to do your work you need contact with people, with ideas - as you say 'an exchange of soul'.
EA: Yes, oh yes.
LS: You seem to have a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery in your work. I could go way back and connect that to a child who simply has that sense of connection to the world. You know how we all have it up to a certain age - it's a natural thing because psychologically we haven't made all those boundaries between ourselves and the world. Up to age four or five.
EA: I'm still a child in part.
LS: We all are really.
EA: A ten year old maybe. (Laughs)
LS: Is it fair to say that you still look for that in your work - that sense of awe and wonder?
EA: I still am struck in the morning for instance when the frost is on the windowpane, I just marvel at that beauty - the reflected colour and the intricate designs - yes, these small things are what make life so beautiful. Being able to stop and giving yourself time once in a while, to just do nothing and look.
LS: What is an ideal working day for you?
EA: To do my work I need some kind of deadline, without it I go off in all directions and I have trouble concentrating. Having to work for an exhibition is very good for me. [For example] towards the end of the deadline of my recent exhibition, I had one particular work I wanted to finish. I'd put it on the exhibition list - it wasn't the end of the world, I could have taken it off the list - but I'd made a list, so I felt I had to do it. Perhaps I need the challenge of a deadline.
LS: That's an external motivation.
EA: Yes, that's external. I need something external - I'm very conscientious, it's the French Protestant in me. I've given my word: I have to do it or the world will fall ! I say that because it was reading Simone de Beauvoir - one of her stories about how she and her friend would go off together, and they had a French Protestant friend who, if he said he was going to be with them at eight, was with them at eight (laughter), and she said "A French Protestant, if they say they're going to do something they do it." My Grandmother was French Protestant and she said "Well, it's because you have direct access to God." (Laughter) I used to envy my Roman Catholic friends saying "At least they've got a priest they can talk to who can absolve them."
LS: Right. (Laughing) So the Catholics - do they not show up on time, or what ! (laughter)
EA: The Catholics can go to their priest and get absolved for having done something wrong, whereas we have this direct contact with God, and you know, if we're late...
LS: No middle man.
EA: ...no middle man to say "It's OK! " (more laughter) We have to learn to forgive ourselves. I don't think many do.
LS: You are Catholic now.
EA: Yes. To me it has something to do with my culture, and I like the ritual - it's such a rich thing - and the people who have helped me in my spiritual search have been Roman Catholic. When I decided to make a profession de foi, the priest - he's a wonderful man - said "Are you sure you want to do this - we're in bad shape you know," (chuckles) and I said "Yes - we are", but you need people who will counteract it from the inside.
LS: That's true. And it's interesting - there are a few people I know who like that sense of ritual in Catholic tradition. It's very important to them - they're artists also, and they mention that aspect.
EA: Many of my friends are Buddhists. I like to read about Buddhism and I think the truths said there are really beautiful, but then so are Christ's and that's my background, and my family's background, and my ancestors' background, and I just want to pursue it. But I think all religions at the moment are undergoing tremendous changes - well to be anything worthwhile you have to.
LS: Yes, exactly. It's important sometimes that something gets shaken up. So, where were we: 'the typical day' - when do you go to your studio?
EA: I try to work two hours a day - minimum. This week it hasn't worked out at all - there are weeks like that - but a typical day is going in around 9 o'clock/9:30, after I've done all the morning things - including works like doing laundry, dishes, and planning meals. Then I go into the studio and I like that world very much. I have music I listen to, and if there's a show I'm working for, I will have a theme as a rule. If not, some idea pops into my head as I'm cleaning up - that's when ideas come. Once I have the idea I'll go to it. The idea is always a beginning, and sometimes as I work with that idea it keeps changing - it's a bit disconcerting but... (laughs)
LS: Ideas have their own ideas.
EA: They're just a launching point.
LS: 'Going to the studio' is very much stepping into that other world you've created for yourself.
EA: Yes it is, yes - I'm surrounded by all these things.
LS: It's wonderful to have that 'place' isn't it?
EA: Well, it's your own place.
LS: Then, you work for a couple of hours or so.
EA: Yes, and if things are going really well I'll just have a quick lunch and then go back, and I go back after supper. There's no hard and fast rule.
LS: I'd like to go back to one of my earlier questions. I think you said that you always had the soul of an artist. It was there - the sensibility, whatever it is that creates an artist ultimately, or helps create an artist. But the artist as a social being - when did you begin to see yourself as an artist in this sense? Was it very much a gradual process?
EA: Well, it's gradual, and up and down. I have a tendency of comparing myself with others and I always felt I was very timidly saying "I'm an artist," because I compare myself with someone else who I consider really an artist - who am I, you know, to say I'm an artist.
LS: So you still hesitate?
EA: Well, I used to - then I feel that's a cop out really, it's a cowardly way of living. If you want to do something, and you feel you need to do it then you should do it, but it's taken me a long time.
LS: I wonder if a lot of that affects women more.
EA: Oh yes.
LS: And also the fact that our society still does not really value its artists.
EA: Yes, those two factors are very hard because if you have children, and in my case I did, then of course anything you do for yourself is seen as taking away from the children. So, I used to do my art from ten at night until two in the morning. The telephone didn't ring, I didn't have to do anything for anybody.
LS: I admire that. I can imagine the energy you need. And now, you also support and nurture other artists - aspiring artists and fellow artists - through the quality of attention you bring to their work.
EA: Yes, the older I get, the more I realize how we're all connected and how important it is to keep the connections - between people who are old and feeble, and people who are your equals, or people who have more energy than you, people who need help, and so on. I'm not expressing it very well, but I think we are connected to animals, and to nature, and to people.
LS: To my mind in doing this - what you're describing - you are also actively assuming a role of senior artist in your community. As in the tradition of the Elder in Native society which is a very respected position. You're helping create these links between people, and you're helping to nurture them.
EA: Yes, I was conscious of that - this is not so much as an artist - but I went to the Peace rally that we had on Saturday [February 15/03] because it was going on all over the world. And I looked at this crowd - we were about six or seven hundred people in the Moncton Market. There was a cord which was passed around - it had blue and white in it. White stood for all the races, and blue was the hope, and we held it. Those of us on the outside - the 'grey haired crowd' just seemed to want to step back, and all the young holding their placards and chanting and so on, were packed in the middle, and we were protecting them really. Isn't that... Isn't that lovely? And many of them were older women, you know, oh yes. It was a wonderful moment. It was significant.
LS: These peace manifestations, I mean the world is changing.
EA: Oh yes, oh yes, well - we're hoping.
LS: There's something going on. But what a mess right now.
EA: It won't stop, I don't think it's going to stop President Bush.
LS: But I think we're having a real shift of conscience across the world.
EA: Well when we saw the number of people at the peace rally in London - did you see that? My God.
LS: I read about it.
EA: The police said 700,000 thousand but...
LS: the organizers said...
EA: over a million...
LS: a million and a half - yes.
EA: Yes - and when you see them all carrying the placards, and the fact that there were a lot of older people there saying "I've never done this before."
LS: It's important.
EA: It makes me cry. (wiping her eyes)
LS: Yes - it does. I think the world is... something is happening. You look back to the sixties and the radicalization, the protests about the war in Vietnam and this is...
EA: this is deeper than that because this isn't only young people...
LS: it's bigger, bigger, so that had an effect back then which is coming further now...
EA: well, it will be interesting to see what develops in the next couple of months, won't it?
LS: To date, what do you consider your most personally significant accomplishment as an artist ? And, I do use the term artist consciously. I believe there is a role and a status attached to being an artist and it's important that in society we recognize that for ourselves, and that people recognize it as well, and come to value it more.
EA: Isn't it strange that you should ask that, I haven't asked it myself, but you know I think it was doing the mandalas (1. see note below) with that many people. I had about a good dozen groups you know, and it's like watching someone give birth every time. Now mind you they weren't all one hundred percent successes because sometimes a person would have so many blockages that they weren't able to [open up to the process]. Still, I think most of the time I was successful in creating an atmosphere of trust, and an atmosphere of hope. Because of that the results were very, very special. When I said what makes me live is having an exchange of soul, this means very deep matter - these are very deep experiences. For people to find out that they have something, they've delved, or allowed - not delved - they allowed something to come up that was unknown before and is out there on paper, and eventually will be part of their lives because it's something that's coming from the unconscious - it's their future really.
LS: That's very significant, yes.
EA: But you see this is not an accomplishment I feel I can talk about very much because it's the doing of it, and the end result is in each of the individuals.
LS: But you did help create the atmosphere of trust.
LS: And to go further, I like the distinction you made: you said "delved, or allowed - not delved..." - which is an important distinction in this context.
EA: Yes, it's important. For a week I gave sessions every day then at the end, I collected them [the mandalas] and we showed them at the [Moncton Public] library. I had a social worker working with me, and I said "These people are doing it themselves, each person is doing their own work - am I really necessary here?" She said "I've seen other people work and you're doing what needs to be done and doing it well. Yes, you are necessary." So, I guess somebody who can create this atmosphere is necessary.
1. Elaine's mandala workshops consist of a period of meditation followed by a period of creativity where the participants focus on creating individual works using their own symbolism. The workshops end with a group discussion on the mandalas created by participants.
LS: I would say. Yes. And you would work mostly with groups of women?
EA: I worked with all kinds of groups. The first groups I worked with were women who were single parents and were very stressed, and I worked with people who were sexually abused. I've worked with women who have been meeting together for about five or six years for spiritual reasons, and I've worked with people who just said they wanted to do this.
LS: Your groups would be about how many people? Do you have a limit?
EA: Six to ten is about the right number. On the Winter Solstice of '95, I think it was, I had a group of 20 - all kinds of people. But this was too many, really - it's exhausting because you have to view the mandalas afterwards, or you want to.
LS: Of course, it's part of the process.
EA: I think ten is probably the right number, but I do like those.
LS: This is something you really consider as a significant accomplishment.
EA: Yes - it's good we're talking about it. It puts me back on track. I think I should not be lazy (chuckles) and start organizing another one again.
LS: In the present, what continues to move and inspire your work?
EA: Well, I have a work which I need to finish within the next week - one that's going with works by Nancy Morin, Yvon Gallant, and Paul Edouard Bourque to France. The theme is the early 1600's in America. We were given 'des bardeaux' - you know, [wood] shingles, to work with and I've done those. I think I'm also going to do something having a moose in it.
EA: (laughter) - Yes, I think I'll call it l'Accueil.
LS: Sorry, I couldn't resist - anima and animoose. (More laughter) L'Accueil - yes ?
EA: I think I'll try to portray what the woods looked like then, I mean here these poor people - they would never have seen a moose before, they don't exist in Europe. And it's my favourite animal, I've got to have a moose in there, so I think that's what I'll do. Then after that - I get too many ideas, this is what happens to me - the Moncton Public Library would like me to do boxes, small assemblages, for October, and I've got a lot of [small plastic toy] gorillas...
LS: Yes - (chuckles)
EA: ...and I think I'm going to work on something having to do with King Kong and gorillas, and nature, and how we're mistreating... that was first seen in the thirties, you know, King Kong was destroyed. It's technically very badly done [the original King Kong film] but there must be something in it because my father saw it seven times and that was his favourite movie.
LS: So ideas continue to be the moving force?
EA: Yes, ideas. I also want to do some erotic works - mostly drawings. I want to toy with monoprints, where the drawing is very important. I think I'd like that - the technique I'd like to use is drawing. Several people have asked me to do erotic drawings, but others have said "well all your work is erotic," (laughs) and it is in a way.
LS: Yes, it's very sensual.
EA: In other words I don't think I can separate [the sensual from the erotic] so I don't think I'll try! (laughs)
LS: Lots of ideas, lots of focus with shows and commitments coming up, and that helps move you, inspires you?
LS: Well, thank you Elaine [for] a wonderful interview.
EA: Yes well, it's been interesting. (Laughs)
© text and photos - Lynne Saintonge 2003 - all rights reserved