Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Last Days of Louise Walker, Part 1

I would call Louise in Halifax every day at 5:30 pm her time. I had since she went into the nursing home four years ago. Louise had always had emotional ups and downs. Her downs most recently related to my father Ken’s daily pressing her to go back home with him to Cook Avenue. I think she used her bad spells to illustrate her general incapacity and need to stay at Melville Lodge.

Louise had had a long bad spell through early March, but was on the upswing by mid month. I remember she told me, as she always did with special things like dresses, coats and corned beef dinners, that she was going to die soon and this would be her last, so she wondered what I was going to send her for Valentines Day. I sent Louise a spring flower arrangement, which she loved. She later told me she hated Ken’s roses, they reminded her of funeral flowers.

Soon after, Louise came down with what was thought by the nurses at Melville Lodge to be laryngitis. My sister Kelly took her to the QE2 Health Center for x-rays. Everything appeared normal except for the laryngitis, so the doctor at the Lodge cut off Louise’s psychotherapeutic drugs and administered antibiotics.

Louise immediately went on a downward spiral. Our daily talks were difficult but we communicated. Louise would try to talk and I could get the gist of her conversation as we ran through our usual subjects, weather, meals, happenings at the Lodge and my big London picture. Louise was fascinated with the picture and couldn’t believe any artwork could take so long to make. Not long before, she tried to put my life and experience as an artist in perspective and said that she didn’t really understand what it was I did, but she knew I was a success at it and that was good enough for her.

After about a week of decline, I noticed a big change. Louise either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to me. At first she’d pick up the phone and say things like, “ help me I’m dying.” Next day it was, “I want to go to the hospital.” After a while I dreaded hearing her gasping, squeaking voice. Ken was sitting with her every day when I called and as he didn’t seem to notice anything unusual, I assumed Louise was reacting to the stoppage of her psychotherapeutic drugs. Nonetheless, I wrote an e-mail to my sisters Kelly and Simone to express my concern. At that point Louise stopped answering the phone.

Two days later Kelly called to say she had found Louise slumped over in her chair and took her to the Halifax Infirmary emergency. The situation was bad from the start. After the first night in the emergency, Louise’s case doctor suggested Kelly call the children, which caused me to recall that I had said to Louise in one of her more lucid conversations, not to worry about dying, because if she were really dying the nurses (at the Lodge) would call everybody and tell them to come home. Kelly called again the next morning and was less emphatic. I had the impression she thought Louise might pull through. The case doctor was sending us mixed signals. At Penny’s urgings I made plane reservations for the next day and started to pack. Thinking hard about it, I decided to take my suit.

I got into Halifax and went straight to the Infirmary with Kelly. I was appalled by Louise’s appearance. She was only marginally conscious and her arms were bruised black from blood taking punctures. She did however characteristically compliment me on my new shirt.

At this point we had a meeting with the case doctor. He was a nice fellow and Kelly said Louise liked him. He told us he suspected Louise had either had a stroke, a heart attack or most likely it was cancer. It was a pretty wide field of speculation and we were all taken aback at the prospect of cancer. I don’t think any of us had considered it. He explained the water building up in Louise‘s lungs was likely a reaction to cancerous lesions, but he wouldn’t know until results came back. Kelly asked if it was cancer, how long Louise would live? The young doctor said weeks to months, then equivocated, “but then you never know?”

Louise Pothier after the war

The Last Days of Louise Walker part 2

Ken refused to believe Louise was dying and said he was praying for a miracle. The doctor tried to console him, “you’re right Ken miracles happen every day," he said, "but Louise right now is in grave condition.” Kelly and I described Louise’s long history of mental illness, a condition Ken refused to talk about and asked if she could at least have her psychotherapeutic drugs restored to lessen her misery. The doctor explained Louise had perilously low sodium levels and psychotherapeutics impeded sodium absorption, but he would consult with Louise’s psychiatrist and see what he could do.

At this point Kelly left the hospital and Ken I took over watching Louise. We talked quietly at her bedside despite interference from a sadly demented former nurse in the next bed who shouted orders to all the people in the room. Louise was now being infused with both sodium and antibiotics and because her lungs were filling with water she was taking oxygen and some kind of puffer medication through a mask. At the nurse's urging I fed Louise some pretty good tasting raspberry flavoured gel and custard. Louise seemed calm, but was in some pain. I had the impression she had discomfort in her stomach or bowel.

Kelly returned at 3 pm to pick up Ken and I spent the night with Louise. She didn’t really say much that I could understand. I just kissed her and stroked her face and held her hand.

Because at that point nothing was determined about Louise’s actual condition the very excellent staff of New Infirmary 8.2 were wary of letting family members spend the night in the ward. So after visiting hours ended at 8 pm, with Louise asleep, I went to the TV room and made a rum and Pepsi, from one of four airplane shots I bought at the Atlantic Super Store Liquor Commission on the way in from the airport.

Every half hour or so I went to the ward and looked in on Louise who was still sleeping. Three rum and Pepsi’s later. A nurse came in and said Louise was shouting for me. I went in and comforted her despite the objections of the Alzheimer’s nurse, who told me to, “shut up!” I kissed Louise and held her hand and she seemed to fall asleep. I was hoping she would die and that would be the end of it.

Morning came and the ghastly routine of drawing blood from Louise’s blackened arms resumed. I went down for coffee while she was being washed. It was a beautiful spring morning. Ken came in later and we sat with Louise until Simone arrived with Kelly. We gathered for another meeting with the doctor who confirmed Louise had cancer, but held out some of hope and said that he would put her back on one of her psychotherapeutics. Louise passed her last night alive with her first child, Simone, who sat with her until dawn.

Next morning the family assembled in the 8.2 conference room with both Louise’s doctor and case nurse. The doctor said that Louise was dying and had perhaps days or weeks to live. We had expected this and asked the case nurse to insure Louise wouldn’t suffer any anxiety in her last days. The nurse assured us that Louise would be made comfortable and described how she would die. She also said Louise would be moved to a private room where we could stay with her and offered us every assistance. Louise was immediately moved to a nearby private room with lots of sun. Simone, Kelly and Gerard all left to prepare for their shifts, while Ken and I settled in for the long wait.

Ken and I had been chatting for a while when the dietary person delivered Louise’s lunch. He suggested we should try some of it. I ate a little of the raspberry gel, which prompted Ken, who perhaps was a little disorientated to ask who was going to feed Louise and wondered why she didn't have an IV attached. I told Louise, who was not apparently conscious that Ken and I were just going out for a moment. I took Ken to the family room and told him directly that Louise was dying and there would be no more feedings or IV’s. Despite this Ken refused to believe this was the end.

Soon after we got back to Louise’s room. My aunt and uncle, Corrine and Paul Wallace arrived. We were very happy to see them. I knew Louise would love a visit from her most confidential sister. We all chatted for a while then Corrine spoke to Louise in French. I didn’t catch it all but she mentioned Louise’s parents and late brothers and sisters. Louise showed no sign of hearing Corrine’s words, but I am certain she heard. Corrine and I then chatted for a while. As we talked, Louise sighed quietly and died. Only two hours after being moved.

Corrine was the first to notice. I went out and asked a nurse to come in and have a look. The nurse confirmed it and said she’d call a doctor to come in and pronounce. While this was happening Louise’s sister Yvonne and her husband Leonard Martell came into the room quiet unaware of what was going on. After greeting them with the news I went out and called Simone and Kelly. Simone cried out, when I told her, but was greatly comforted that Corrine was in the room with Ken and I when Louise died. I asked Kelly to find Gerard and tell him.

Back in Louise’s room a woman doctor came in and did some small tests and pronounced her dead. She asked Ken if he wanted an autopsy. Ken was emphatic he didn't want one.

Curiously, one of the nurses, a person you would suppose accustomed to such scenes, seemed moved by the event and came in to offer condolences. She wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke. Perhaps she empathized with Louise’s struggle. She told us not to worry that they would call the funeral home and take care of everything.

Within 30 minutes Kelly, her husband Brian and son Ryan arrived, then Simone and Gerard, so the room was very full and we took turns saying our good byes. Yvonne and Leonard went back to the lodge to get Louise’s nail polish and as a final gesture Yvonne painted Louise’s nails before we all went away. Kelly and I were the last ones out. We all then went back to Cook Avenue for an impromptu gathering.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

1674 Hollis Street, Halifax, site of the former Manuge Gallery

The opening of Manuge Gallery, Halifax, 1975

The first art opening I can recall attending was in 1975. I was a student at Saint Pat’s High in Halifax and my pal Bill Sigsworth was going out with a girl named Marianne Manuge. Her father Robert Manuge was a retired senior bureaucrat who had amassed the largest collection of Canadian art in the Maritimes.

As one of Marianne’s friends I visited the Manuge house several times. The Manuge’s lived in a historic house at the end of a long driveway next to Tower Road Bridge. The building was originally the home of Joseph Howe’s father and only narrowly missed destruction in 1912 when the south end railway cut was dug.

The lovely two- story colonial home had a long, wide verandah with pillars and still retained period elements inside. I can recall going there with Billy, Mike Campbell and Robert Abraham. Marianne’s mother Elizabeth Manuge was the perfect hostess for teenage gatherings and made sure there were always hot snacks and soft drinks for us when we visited.

But the most outstanding thing for me, that I recall, was all the art in the house. The walls were literally covered with important Canadian art. As Mr. Manuge understood that I was headed for NSCAD, he actually took the time to show me the works and talk about his collection. He had a dozen Group of Seven pictures in the house at least and a Kreighoff in the tv room where the kids hung out. I was not educated enough at the time to recognize his contemporary Canadian artists, but it was an awesome collection.

Robert Manuge had for some time been acting as an art consultant to several wealthy Maritime art collectors, most notably Frank and Irene Sobey and I suppose that lead to the opening of his gallery on Hollis Street. Manuge Gallery was situated next door to the Halifax Club, so the essential connection between taste and wealth, as a precondition for selling art was plainly made.

I remember going out one night with Billy and Marianne, driving all around south end Halifax and through the small enclaves off Purcell’s Cove Road delivering invitations for the gala opening of Manuge Gallery.

The opening itself gravitated between the gallery and the Halifax Club where Robert Manuge was a member and I recall I was really into it, I suppose I must have drank too much free beer as the night is a bit of a blur. I have flashing impressions of the ornate Georgian rooms in the Halifax Club and the press of business suites in the gallery, but I know despite my gaucherie, that I was perfectly polite and well behaved, knowing my presence at an art gallery and in the rooms of the Halifax Club was on sufferance. It was a giddy night though.

Sometimes when I go to openings now, as I‘ve been doing for thirty years, I keep my eyes open for the newcomers, not the art kids who’ve been dragged to art openings since they could walk, but the social jumpers like me, who might mark their first opening as an important and signal event in their lives.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Blue Tokyo, 2010, 82 x 82 cms. mixed media construction on plywood, private collection, Ottawa

Penny in Asakusa, July 2002

Tokyo 2002 Part 1

In 2002 I had a solo Railway Lands Show at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. The process started two years earlier when François Dion brought Ogura Masashi and Makiko Hara for a studio visit. Ogura Masashi was then the consulting curator for the Canada Embassy Art Gallery. He and his colleague Makiko came up from Montreal to view my work on François Dion’s recommendation. The studio visit was very pleasant and Ogura Masashi offered me a show that day, though he was vague about a date, probably two years off.

Because I had to put the show together my self, I asked Emily Falvey if she would be the curator and write an essay for a small catalogue I planned to self publish. Emily agreed and wrote the very beautiful, To Be Heard With The Eye Only essay, which is further down in the blog.

At that time I was in transition from making panoramic train pictures to overhead views. Since neither the Ocean Limited or CN freight train works would fit into the embassy gallery I started a new picture, the Montreal commuter train. Mark McGuigan cut the boards at Carleton University and later built the crates to ship the works to Japan.

Together with the commuter train, I produced a series of locomotive pictures for Tokyo, most of which I later demolished. Though the larger and more resolved works all went into collection, notably to DFAIT, the Ottawa Art Gallery and the Beaverbrook.

In the course of time I received a letter from embassy councilor Bruce Barnett advising me the show had been approved for July 3, 2002 and requested that I submit a grant application to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The embassy exhibition program was structured at the time as a straight grant from DFAIT which the artist used to crate and ship the works and travel to the venue. I received 7000$ for the exhibition out of which I had to pay for everything.

At some point I had a studio visit from a young cultural events manager from Tokyo named Stephane-Enric Beaulieu who gave me the run down on the exhibition and advised Penny and I where to stay in Tokyo.

By April 2001 the work was ready to go. I made arrangements to ship it with Sven Wilcke at Internet Freight. The crates were to be sent by rail, then containership across the Pacific. I remember I asked Sven if I should insure the work and he actually laughed. Insuring the work, he told me, would double the cost and what’s worse, if the ship were wrecked and required salvaging it was very likely the salvage company would sue me for costs.

First and second generation Shinkansen at Tokyo station

Tokyo 2002 Part 2

Penny and I left for Japan on June 25, 2002, via Chicago. There was heat wave in Chicago and stepping off our little Air Canada CJ onto the tarmac, was like walking into an oven. I recall seeing a discarded paper sign lying on the broiling gray pavement. It read “Human Remains.” I hope they were refrigerated.

We got out of Chicago in a crowded United Airlines 747 jumbo jet filled with hundreds of people just like us, the jet setting poor. The flight was long and uneventful and we got into Narita the next afternoon. I was expecting Narita to be a giant complex, but our little part of it, whatever terminal it was, seemed quite small, like Halifax. We picked up our luggage, went through perfunctory customs inspection and walked out the door to a waiting hotel bus.

I was struck while driving into Tokyo by how British everything looked, manicured hedges, slightly exotic plants, small cars. What astonished me however, beyond the urban sprawl, were the canals. I didn’t know Tokyo had canals.

We stayed at the Marrod Inn in Akasaka near the Aoyama Dori. The first night in Tokyo was dreadful. We were horribly jet lagged and further disoriented by the fact Japan doesn’t observe daylight savings time. I sat up most of the short night listening to American Armed Forces Radio, then watched the morning show on NHK which featured a cam broadcasting trains arriving at Tokyo station commented on by two talking heads who were bowing a lot I suppose to the viewing audience as they tuned in.

Penny and I later went to breakfast in the Marrod’s dinning room where we made the terrible mistake of ordering the western breakfast, a plate concocted of a pink cocktail sausage, a lonely piece of lettuce a foamy square of scrambled eggs and a cup of undrinkable black coffee. All our subsequent breakfasts at the Marrod were the Japanese type, sublime concoctions of Kombu soup, tofu, dried fish, steamed rice and pots of refreshing smoky green tea.

Still in shock, we went the Canadian embassy where we were introduced around and met the show preparator a young artist named Seiji Takashita. Seiji and I laid out the pictures. He was very efficient and spoke English well. Once we got the set up sketched, Seiji politely told me to get lost and enjoy myself in Tokyo, he’d do the rest. I could check in a few hours before the opening to fine-tune the lighting if necessary.

So, as if in a dream, Penny and I hit the unnamed streets of Tokyo, where for the next two days we walked miles and miles in the heat and drizzle, seeing what could be seen before going up island to Matsushima.

We chose to go to Matsushima as a getaway trip because the World Cup of Soccer was playing in Japan and our first choice, Kyoto, would be too crowded. Even in Tokyo the ugly foreign element was visible, particularly loutish Australians prowling the tourist sights.

One site stands out in particular in our wanderings around Tokyo, the very strange Aoyama graveyard. Later they told us we missed the beauty of the place because the cherry blossoms had fallen, but Aoyama graveyard with its ravens, feral cats, yew trees and peculiar monuments with Chinese carvings still sits heavily on my mind, a place out of time in the madness of Tokyo. No temple, even the most ancient and blood soaked temple, as they often are in Japan, can match Aoyama graveyard for sheer accumulated gloom.

Penny and Eric in first class yakita, Matsushima Century Hotel

Tokyo 2002 Part 3

Penny and I took the Bullet Train, the Shinkansen, to Sendai on our way to Matsushima. We traveled on a third generation Shinkansen, very new and luxurious. The sensation of traveling in a Shinkansen is not like flying, or like being in a train. You feel vibration and a certain pull of gravity. Despite this, as you look out to the distant horizon your mind is tricked into believing the train is moving slowly, then suddenly, it blows into a tunnel, the ears pop and you feel the carriage body expand as the flying tube puffs up with suction force. Then just as suddenly the tunnel is cleared and the train skin deflates. Service on the train was very polite with a bit of English spoken and the train staff in white gloves, bowing on entering and leaving the car.

From Sendai we took a local train to Honshiogama where we caught the boat across the bay to Matsushima. This extraordinary boat was decorated like a giant peacock with folded wings at the stern and a huge peacock head at the bow with feathery steel fabricated projections on top. The trip across the bay is brief, just an hour or so. The locals passed the time by throwing chips and rice crackers to the seagulls who follow the boats.

We arrived in Matsushima at the Kaigon pier and made our way to the Matsusima Century Hotel a first class hotel with very moderately priced western rooms on the town side of building. The rooms facing the bay were more expensive and Tatami. That first night we walked the boardwalk, relaxed and took in the warm Pacific air.

Roundabout dinnertime we started looking for a place to eat, but were confounded by the minimal frontal presentation of Japanese restaurants. We walked by several places which might have been restaurants, but without any outward glitz or pull, except discreet sets of plastic representation food in small windows. “Is it open”, I wondered’ or “do they speak English there?” We might have gone without dinner, but a lovely woman restaurateur emerged from one of these places with English menus and beckoned us in.

We spent three enjoyable days in Matsushima; saw everything in the place that could be seen except Marine Mammal World, which by its size and antiquity looked like a workhouse for seals. The big tourist attraction in Matsushima is Zuigangi Temple. Founded in 828 AD, Zuigangi features a beautiful main hall constructed in wood in the shoin-zukuri style, where we were told in one side room after the local shogun died, 40 of his retainers threw themselves on swords. Lots of creep factor there.

Tokyo 2002 Part 4

 We returned to Tokyo in a first generation shinkansen, a quaint vehicle compared to the third generation train, with curtains and doilies and a more Chinese feel. The train was light that day, so the car captain in his white suit and gloves bowed to us particularly.

Back in town Penny and I took in more sights, the Tsukiji fish market, boat trip up Sumida, the Hazo-mon Gate, Asakusa Park, Shitomashi Museum and a trip to the Ginza where we shopped at Matsuzakaya, with its astonishing basement level Carrefour, with French bread, rolls and pastries, fancy cooked sausages and viands, and dainties of every sort, but the highlight of the Ginza for us was the Ginza Lion.

We were told the Germans brought commercial beer brewing to Japan. If that’s true, the Ginza Lion is certainly a shrine to German gesamtbrausaufen. Though ostensibly the Lion is a British “pub”, the joint is laid out like a vast, gloomy, underground, Bavarian beer hall with Teutonic details. Everybody spoke English and the beer came in big jugs. The coldest, crispest, sweetest beer I’ve ever drank; just perfect to dispel the sickening heat and humidity of Tokyo in the rainy season.

After a quick check of the gallery, the opening came off on July 3. It was very pleasant. A good crowd turned out. I had a translator for my remarks and chats with the patrons. The show was written up in a few magazines and a good time was had by all.

Penny and I flew out of Tokyo on the 4th of July. We had heard reports earlier that Al-Qaeda had threatened to blow an American airplane out of the sky on the 4th, so when we boarded our United Airlines flight we were conscious of that eventuality and wished the American air crew Happy Independence Day with a feeling of solidarity.

About half way through the flight I noticed the jet had left the big circle route, northerly to Alaska, as first displayed on the flight tracker screen and was heading straight across the pacific. We only found out later in Chicago that some Al-Qaeda moron wannabe shot up the El Al ticket desk at LAX causing an air traffic panic.

It seemed like another year passed before my works arrived back in Ottawa. In 2004 I made an overhead view picture of Tokyo called Blue Tokyo. The work was show at the Ottawa Art Gallery and subsequently at Lethbridge and Charlottetown in configurations of Railway Lands. A picture of it exists in the Ottawa Art Gallery catalogue, but I was never satisfied with it. So when the work came back from the Confederation Art Centre, I demolished it. In 2008 I started a new version of Blue Tokyo. It was completed in 2010.