An Article for Island Arts Magazine
By John Warden
This article was first published in the Winter 2017 edition of Island Arts Magazine.
While walking along the Sidney seawall at dawn one winter morning, it was cool enough that I could see my breath. What caught my attention though, was the whispery breath of the drift logs down on the beach below me. It had been raining for a couple of days so the logs, stacked along the shoreline were wet. As the rising sun began to generate some heat, wet wood began to steam.
There’s a picture here, I thought to myself. I found a spot among the logs and focused on the wisps of mist, composing for chiaroscuro, light against dark. Breathing out, I watched my own breath float away on the morning light, blending with the breath of the drift logs. It was a magical moment perfectly captioned by Island artist Emily Carr, ‘a breath that draws your breath into its breathing’.
The original Latin for breath is spirare, which has evolved into our modern English word spirit. In her book, Hundreds and Thousands, Carr uses words like ‘mood’, ‘vastness’ and ‘wildness’ to explain her sense of the word and she also talks about the importance of spirit in art:
The educated look for technique and pattern, color quality and composition. Spirit touches them little, and it’s the only thing that counts.
Considering the importance that Carr attached to having a sense spirit in her artwork, I started thinking about how to apply her advice to my own compositions. Some on-line research led me to French philosopher Luce Irigaray’s comment that ‘breath cultivates spirit’. That really caught my attention and took my thoughts back to one of my first visits to Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park.
There is a dark broodiness found in the shadows at Cathedral Grove, but the energy of the old growth forest there both concentrates, and lifts my emotions up through the trees and into the light. It was on the forest floor though that I found the connection between breath and spirit. It was a wet and wintery afternoon when I was there, but the light was strong, slanting down through the trees, highlighting the undergrowth. Where the light lingered, moisture steamed. Lying down in the saturated salal and salmon berries, I focused my camera lens on a misty breath rising up from the midst of the decaying sword ferns. What I captured is a moody, emotional image that still today, takes my breath...away.
This phenomenon of ‘spirit breath’ though, is not limited to sword ferns and drift logs. Watching the surf and surfers at Jordan River one morning, a long slow look revealed sprays of misty vapour rising off the backs of rolling waves. Breathing in the view and the salt spray of the morning, I was inspired not only to photography, but also, to poetry.
Foam and froth,
A curving, curling swath of
Motion, pushing - insistent,
To the shore, to the shore!
Over their cresting shoulders,
They tumble - collapsing,
Out of breath!
The spirit breath of waves and old growth forests meet on the wild edge, a place of transition that is part real and part magical. China Beach at Juan de Fuca Provincial Park is on the edge and the morning I was there, it was indeed, magical. Tendrils of mist curled against the darkness of the haunting forest behind me, while in front of me, waves sparkled and sighed. In the moment, I was caught in between. Standing there on the beach, breathing out, my breath became a bridge to a mystical place where sprites of light danced in a cirrus filigree of morning mist.
I’ve learned more about nature photography from the writing of Emily Carr than any other source and her final comment on spirit, sums it all up for me… if the spirit does not speak, nothing has been said. In the ephemeral fusion of breath and spirit, we can begin to give our images a voice, and from that voice, a story begins.
Carr, E. (1966). Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto / Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd.
Pilarski, P. M. (2012). Tide Lines. In Canada's Raincoast at Risk: Art for an Oil-Free Coast. Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Skof, L., & Holmes, E. A. (Eds.). (2013). Breathing with Luce Irigaray. A&C Black.