Article submitted by Emil Sher, Artist in Residence, Royal Military College of Canada
A pebble is tossed into still waters, and circles ripple forward. Sometimes that small stone can be gesture, an offering, a passing remark that can stay with us for years. Whenever Alan Bourassa gave a public reading of his latest work of fiction, he would begin by sharing the words of another author. Alan and I were grad students in creative writing at Concordia University. I have long been inspired by his gesture of carving out space for the words of another before sharing his own. It has been almost forty years since I last saw Alan. Never underestimate the impact of a small gesture, those stones you toss. The circles can ripple for years. For a lifetime.
Art can spring in the most unlikely of settings. You never know when or where a poem, a painting, a single lyric might snag you. A poem by Judah Halevi took hold of me when I first heard it recited by a preacher on a Netflix series set in the Old West of the 1880s. Judah Halevi, a Spanish-Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, wrote “’Tis a Fearful Thing” some 900 years ago. Like all powerful art, this beautiful poem is timeless and timely. A curtain of sorrow has fallen over Royal Military College (RMC), and many are still grasping for the words to navigate, to name the unspeakable loss in light of the tragic accident that took the lives of Officer Cadet Jack Hogarth, Officer Cadet Andrei Honciu, Officer Cadet Broden Murphy, and Officer Cadet Andres Salek. Halevi’s poem also articulates the pain and sorrow many are feeling as we stand in the shadow of the passing of Steven Heighton, RMC’s first artist in residence.
’Tis a Fearful Thing
’Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
’Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
I would like to offer a second quotation that speaks to how art can frame the sorrow that consumes us at times of profound loss. In her latest novel, Fight Night, author Miriam Toews reveals a truth about the nature of grief, juxtaposing the need to mourn and the march of time. Her words carry a particular weight when we struggle to cope with the searing absence of a loved one. In Toew’s latest novel, one character says of her mother, “She said what makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing – which is that life goes on.”
Last month David Last, a professor here at RMC, reached out to me and wrote, “I’m wondering if there are some lessons about the role of an artist in residence for other military academies or defence universities in small democratic countries (and some not so small or democratic). If you’d like to broadcast your thoughts, I’ll put it out as a blog on the ISMS website.” Dr. Last is the Secretary to the International Society of Military Sciences. He described the workings of the ISMS to me and capped his note by writing, “It’s really all about improvement through cooperation, so innovations like an artist in residence might be of interest.”
To the Military University Institute of Portugal, to the Royal Danish Defence College, I would say that an artist in residence brings more than just their art, more than just the toolbox they reach into to build the stories they feel moved to tell. They bring a community of artists they know and has nurtured them. I have the good fortune of having a foot in many arts communities, with colleagues who write and publish books, who perform and stage plays, who produce and direct films. This term, cadets in Dr. Sarah Johnson’s class studied A Man A Fish, a play by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard about the slow creep of colonialism. Amongst the many pleasures of my residency was bringing in the playwright herself to meet with the students who were unpacking her work, to field their questions with humour and honesty. Along the way, the students learned that A Man A Fish is part of Donna-Michelle’s 54ology project, in which she is writing a play about every country on the continent of Africa.
When I learned that Dr. Azza Harass’s class was studying Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a play about socioeconomic changes convulsing across Britain, I reached out to Diana Donnelly, who performed in this tour-de-force when it was staged in Toronto in 2018. She spoke with a radiant passion for theatre and touched upon the similarities between stage directors and military leaders, and how they are both committed to bringing out the best in those they are guiding.
To many Canadians, R. H. Thomson is best known for playing Jasper Dale on The Road to Avonlea. Other Canadians see one of our finest actors in the warm light of deep gratitude. They are thankful for Thomson’s powerful approach to memorialize their great-grandfathers, their great-uncles, and all those who fell during the First World War. Thomson is the driving force behind The World Remembers. What is now a global initiative to commemorate the war dead was known as the Vigil Project in 2009, when the names of more than 68,000 Canadians who died in WWI were projected over six nights onto monuments across the country. R.H. Thomson spoke movingly of his motivation in creating this poignant experience during Monday afternoon sessions in a Zoom room where the door was always open.
Other storytellers who spent time in the Zoom room included The Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown, who unspooled a recent essay he had written about the trucker convoy that had brought downtown Ottawa to a standstill, and Greg Nelson, a co-creator of Afghanada, the CBC Radio drama series that takes us into the heads and hearts of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, revealing inner thoughts and inner turmoil that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Students in Major Dr. Andy Belyea’s class had listened to episodes of Afghanada by the time I met them. In conversations with the deeply committed faculty I have come to know, I came to see myself as an ally-in-residence, working with them to enrich the lives of students. I was flint to a professor’s steel. Together, we used art to make sparks. In Dr. Belyea’s class, students were divided into breakout rooms to map out a single scene for an imagined radio drama. They were given a simple premise: a soldier suffering from PTSD stands on a subway platform, waiting to jump when the next train arrives. At the last moment he is pulled out of the depths of despair by…what? A sudden outburst nearby? The loving hand of someone who feared he was about to leap? That was a life-changing turning point for the student playwrights to explore.
There were more flint-and-steel sparks on the morning I spent in Dr. Chantel Lavoie’s class. The cadets gathered in the seminar room had read Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner, an acclaimed novel that chronicles the story of a young girl who pretends to be a tea boy at a market in Kabul after her brother is killed by a landmine. Years before, I had written a proposal for stage adaptation of The Breadwinner that never gained traction. But in the hands of Dr. Lavoie’s students the proposal became a steppingstone toward imagining their vision of what the book would look like on stage. In these moments it is the process of building a story that is so valuable, not the final product. When a story is distilled and pared, what do you choose to preserve, and why?
Similar questions were pulled apart like a ball of clay in a class discussion about Fun Home, a musical that Dr. Nevena Martinovic brought to the attention of her students. This Tony Award-winning show about a young gay woman living in a dysfunctional family features a closeted gay father. Cadets were asked to imagine a scene where a broken father tries in vain to come out to his daughter. How can the setting speak to his struggles to unburden himself? Might the weeds he is pulling in his garden, his daughter by his side, symbolize his deceptions, his lies, his half-truths?
All these sparks. Will they help make cadets better members of the Canadian Forces? Perhaps the question is, will these sparks enrich their lives, regardless of the path they have chosen to pursue? It would be a mistake to think that someone steeped in culture knows the recipe for civility. Art offers no guarantees. It is not medicine or a decontaminant or a blueprint for a better tomorrow. It is a lens that offers a perspective we might not have considered. Art can unsettle us. It can challenge us. It can reveal overlooked beauty and harsh truths. It can be transcendent. It can heal.
And if a dean at the University of Namibia School of Military Science were to ask me if my residency carried any regrets, how could I resist saying, “Regrets? I’ve had a few. Too few to mention.” Truthfully, there is one worth mentioning. When Dr. Billy Allan invited me to attend the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) of the capstone design project of the RMC Aeronautical Engineering Class of 2022, I seized the opportunity. As I sat in the Sawyer Theatre, watching a team of engineering students discuss their design for a high subsonic, aerobatic aircraft to serve as the RCAF Snowbird’s air demonstrator, it was like listening to a foreign language. For some of us who dwell in the land of the arts and humanities, the sciences can sometimes feel like a foreign land. All the more reason to build bridges. Cue an artist in residence. Had I had the opportunity to connect with a classroom of engineers and only had a merciless 50-minute class, I might have shared passages from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Ondaatje’s novel describes the building of the Bloor Street viaduct. Long after the viaduct spanning Toronto and the city’s east end was built, another structure was added: a suicide barrier known as the Luminous Veil.
Architect Dereck Revington, who designed the barrier, has gone on record as citing Ondaatje’s novel as a source of inspiration for his work. “The character of Temelcoff became a kind of icon for me, the way he scoops the black bird out of the sky,” Revington has said. “A barrier needs the same kind of elegance and grace as Temelcoff.”
Temelcoff is Nicholas Temelcoff, the Balkans-born worker who becomes known as a daredevil because of his willingness to take on all the difficult jobs the bridge building demands. Ondaatje tells us that Temelcoff “descends into the air with no fear.” And it is while he is standing in the air, tethered by rope to the bridge above, when he “scoops the black bird out of the sky.” The black bird is a nun whom Temelcoff grabs in mid-flight after she is thrown off the bridge by an unforgiving wind.
What a novel like In the Skin of a Lion does is put a human face on an engineering marvel. It converts iron into body and soul, steel into a beating heart.
Should the day come when the General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania expresses an interest in hosting an artist residency, one of the first questions to consider is, “Do you have a faculty member who will champion the value of a residency, who will beat the drum, wave the flag on behalf of art not for art’s sake, but for our sake?” Any artist blessed with an opportunity to engage with staff and students alike needs an advocate like Dr. Irwin Streight. During a recent conversation with him, I floated the idea of a dancer as an artist in residence. True to form, Dr. Streight’s eyes lit up. Not with visions of engineers doing the cancan in the hallways of the Sawyer building, or a beefy cadet doing a pirouette by Brucie. Frankly, I think both would be a joy to behold. What Professor Streight saw were the possibilities. There is only one requirement needed to dance: a body. “If you can breathe, you can dance,” is a phrase you will find on the home page of Propeller Dance, an Ottawa-based dance troupe featuring company members who perform in wheelchairs.
No dancer has yet been artist in residence at RMC. Steven Heighton was the first. The artists that followed include playwright Julie Salverson, visual artist Nancy Douglas, novelist Helen Humphreys, business author Harvey Schachter, photographer Chris Miner, filmmaker Clarke Mackey. And those are just the anglophone artists.
I will end with a brief story. A war story. In essence, every artist in residence is a storyteller in residence. There is a story to all art. A sculpture is a story. A painting is a story. There is a story within every photograph. A story doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle or an end to be a story. In a sense, all art is a story-in-progress. It doesn’t end when the last note of a song is played. It’s not contained by the frame around a canvas. It moves beyond the last page of a novel. Once we are given a story, once a story is within us, there is no telling where it may go. It may sit within us, unnoticed. It may incubate for years. We are shaped by the stories we hear, and the stories we tell.
The story I call The Electrician Story contains a thread that connects the past to the present, to a tomorrow yet to be written. It takes place during the Second World War. Most of you are familiar with The Diary of Anne Frank, but consider all the other attic stories we will never hear of families living in fear, having committed no crime. There are stories presently unfolding in Ukraine with the beauty and power, with a necessity that deserves to be heard. As we cherish and embrace the diaries that get published, the songs that are sung, the paintings that are painted, let us circle the void waiting to be filled by the voices rendered voiceless.
An electrician was called to a house in a small town in Poland. World War II is raging across Europe. The house was owned by a Catholic woman harbouring a Jewish family in her attic: a teenage girl, a sister in her early 20s, and their parents. The landlord was paid to hide this Jewish family and presumably needed the money, but she took a great risk. If word got out, she would have been killed. The Jews, of course, were as disposable as toilet paper. The electrician finds himself on his knees, following a wire. He slowly makes his way to a crawl space. Through the wooden slats he sees four sets of eyes. “Do the right thing,” he would have been urged by neighbours, friends, acquaintances. The right thing, as many believed, was to reveal the Jews hiding like caged animals. Perhaps he would get some cash for his troubles, and he would likely sleep better at night. Instead, he turned away. We will never know the story of that electrician’s life that led him to make that very choice at that very moment, the countless stories he heard that led him to follow a path that others would have ignored. What we do know is that because of that electrician’s choice to walk away in that house in Poland almost eighty years ago I am with you today as artist in residence at the Royal Military College. Hiding in that attic was my late mother, my grandparents, and my 94-year-old aunt, who is living in Montreal, fully engaged with the world.
I have shared the Electrician Story but that doesn’t mean it has ended. The end of a story marks a beginning. What becomes of a story once it is shared? Of a book once it has been read? Of a painting once it has been hung on a wall? This I know: it only takes one person to keep a story alive. Perhaps an artist in residence is a firekeeper in residence, poking the embers, preserving a flame.
Parting words from a parting artist in residence: It is never too early or too late to sing the song of your life as you are living it, in the key of your choosing, moment to moment, day to day. Pick up a pen, tap a keyboard, hold a paintbrush, dance on the spot or down a sidewalk. Roll a ball of clay.
Tap into the artist that resides within you.