Kelley Aitken is an incredible visual artist, writer, and teacher. When I met Alison Watt a few months ago and she mentioned Kelley, I knew she was someone I would want to feature here. Some people have the soul of an artist and a deep need to create, and Kelley is one of those people. Best of all, her most recent chapbook will be released from Field Notes on Saturday, so if you love this interview, you should definitely contact her to get a copy!
Who are you?
I'm an artist, writer and teacher based in Toronto, Canada.
Where can you be found online? Do you have a blog or other online receptacle for your work? If so, how would you describe it to a stranger you've just met while on vacation? I have a website but I am woefully behind in my plans to blog.
What inspired you to start writing/blogging? When did it happen?
I started writing shortly after my father died, 28 years ago. I always say the death of the patriarch loosened my captured tongue. Up to that point I thought of myself as a visual artist although I'd always dabbled, written poems, bits and bites of stories.
Why do you write? Because, just as images sometimes appear in the brain pan: murky, mysterious, fleeting and beautiful, phrases will drift through my head. And then they need something to attach to, a longer narrative or line. One thing leads to another and another. That's the poetic response. I think it's also about that feeling, which many of us have, that we aren't being heard—or weren't being heard—and we have something to say, an angle of life or vision that we want to express. That's less about the ego than a way of honouring the world through an idiosyncratic vision. I think the expressive arts are the opposite of sublimation, it's about a process that externalizes the feeling, gets it in motion, puts it outside the body. I suppose that's the therapeutic response. The world of the imagination is, quite simply, a place I like to live a lot. And writing, like drawing, is a way of loving something, of paying attention, it gives me a way to understand or to mine a subject. Writing is my pick-axe and shovel.
Your writing inspires me. Who inspires you? So many, many writers. I recently discovered the essays of Kathleen Jamie, the Scottish poet. Her voice is quirky, intelligent, curious. I loved looking at the world through her eyes.
In keeping with the admittedly loose travel theme of Not Intent On Arriving, if you could have an all-expenses paid trip anywhere in the world, where would you go? Because of Sara Wheeler I wanted to go to Antarctica for a while. Because of Kathleen Jamie I wanted to go to any of those little isolated windswept islands she visited, really I just wanted to tag along with her or any of those writers whose writing is a free flight to another place. Good writing shrinks the world and expands us at the same time.
What is your favorite place on earth? Sorry, there's a bit competition for that slot. But there was a hill I used to sit on in the Los Chillos valley south of Quito, Ecuador. Below me was a skinny gorge. I've painted that scene a couple of times, and I go there in my mind a lot. What had formed the gorge was a mountain-fed river, deep and not very wide across; there were places you could just jump from one grassy ledge across to the other side. Anyway, the water in it, coming from the mountains surrounding us, was cold and fast. At another spot on the river someone had jammed a sisal frond into the side of the bank to divert a spring that fed into the river thus making an outdoor shower. It was right at head height, perfect for washing one's hair. On Saturdays, whole families would gather there and the women would beat their clothes on the rocks and the men would strip down to bathe. I had to be careful, when I was heading to my friend's place, not to cross at that place and interrupt naked people at their ablutions.
Anyway I was sitting on my hill one day, looking at the world and daydreaming and a young man came along one of the paths, heading for the river. He was below me and heading away. Beyond him were the sloped patchwork fields edged in sisal cactus and beyond those the toothy profile of Ruminahui, a dormant volcano. At dusk the flanks of the volcano would look pink in the setting sun. Anyway I'm getting ahead of myself. It was morning or early afternoon. There might have been some grazing sheep or cattle around just because there often were, maybe a pig tucked in under a hedge. It's usually the women and children that take the animals out to graze but on that particular day I didn't see any of the shepherdesses; it was just me on the hill and that young fellow winding his way down toward the river. He had his back to me. At the edge of the gorge he stopped and lifted his bamboo flute to his lips. And then he played.
Anything else you'd like us to know?
I have a chapbook coming out this month in Toronto with a small press, Field
Notes. It is an essay about a wonderful sculpture by Guiseppe Penone, "Cedro di
Versailles," that was in residence for about four years at the Art Gallery of Ontario
where I teach drawing. It was on loan from a private collection. When the artwork
was returned to its owners, I and a number of other gallery-goers felt bereft. The
sculpture in its long Gehry-designed hallway was the setting for an exercise that I
gave my students in the last hour of my positive/negative class. You draw the
nothing—air, space—to suggest something: the form, the sculpture. As a work of art
it was so simple and so brilliant—Penone had carved a window in the trunk to
expose the inner core, the inner sapling, if you will—and the sculpture was about
time, time on our little beleaguered planet, and natural time or forest time, the time
it takes a venerable old tree to grow and the small but actually large gap between
youth and old age, and how nature absorbs history. The Cedro conveyed, at one and
the same time, a sense of majesty and vulnerability.
Anyhoo my chapbook is being launched on February 7th in Toronto, should any of
your readers be interested in reading it, they can contact me via my website.