Paint and Politics


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by Donna Sinclair

Sunday afternoon at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal, my favourite city to visit.

I am painting my best approximation of an impressionist landscape. Trees and hills, serious brushwork.

My grandson and husband share my table and are ferociously intent on the same task. It is my considered opinion that the six-year-old outshines his grandparents, although my spouse is showing every sign of having studied at the feet of Emily Carr.

I have somehow got green paint on my purse.

We are having a splendid day. We paused at an exhibit of children’s book illustrators while we waited for our workshop to begin, shouting with delight whenever we recognized a work we had encountered in a book. Michael Martchenko has a piece there, for instance, from a Robert Munsch book.  Martchenko was the first artist whose name our then-little grandson could say. He loved the music of the three syllables, pouncing on “chenk” in the middle and drawing out the “o” as long as he could.

After our painting class – conducted primarily in French, but with copious translation by our accompanying child, and English summaries and encouragement by the teacher – we wander the galleries. It will take some time for our landscapes to dry so we can take them home. Gouache on thick, heavy paper. Rich colours. Our grandson has shown us how to mix yellow and blue to make green. I am so enchanted, my artwork is mostly green.

More joy throughout the building where all this takes place (Studios Art & Education Michel de la Chenèliere). I discover our young charge gazing intently at a room filled with boots, hung by wires to look as if all the pairs are marching in time, one boot planted firmly on the floor, one raised as if to step. One hundred pair. We speculate about the artist’s intent, and I make a mental note to stay calm if all our shoes later end up in an art installation in his bedroom. (They don’t.)

I check each gallery as we enter. “No admission fee” is posted outside each one. Only then does it dawn on me that entry to this entire building is free. The family lounge, the galleries, the high quality art paper, the joyous teaching, the paint (which I have also managed to drip onto my coat), the attendants who leap to answer questions.

I try not to cry, but tears are beginning to drip down my face. (“These emotional anglos,” I can imagine the volunteers saying to each other.) I glance over at my husband, who is also struggling. We have been starving, I realize, starving for the common good to triumph over the private, just once. And suddenly we have been handed this feast. Beauty, ideas, images, all offered without cost to the entire community, rich or poor, with special emphasis on the children.

Of course, we are in Quebec, arguably the last unambiguous social democracy in North America. “…Social democrats,” says historian and thinker Tony Judt in Ill Fares the Land, “believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good … social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide for themselves; … a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.”

There’s not much of that sentiment in the rest of Canada today. In fact, I don’t even hear much discussion about the good society. Mostly I hear calls for public-private partnerships (at best), divestment of public possessions (like railroads), and a widespread belief in “unfettered markets” and “the delusion of endless growth” (Judt’s terms).

I also hear, to my sorrow, a fair amount of dismissiveness about the Parti Québécois, its continuation of generous social policies (free dental care for children, for example, day care at seven dollars a day) and its apparent determination to retain the low university tuition fees Quebec currently enjoys. “Oh, let them separate, we don’t need them,” is the fallback position for some in English Canada.

I know all about the PQ’s rumoured xenophobia (although I have never experienced it) and its supposed fiscal imprudence (no shale gas extraction under this administration). But in spite of that, I am clear about one thing: Canada needs Quebec. This province is a bulwark against the American insanity of aiming the bulk of taxation at the middle class, leaving the rich to prosper unconcerned. It stands against too-rapid, careless resource development. It resists Canada’s drift away from courageous peacekeeping toward a troubling new status as “warrior nation.”  It remembers the power of the collective good.

It’s a marvellous conversation. I hope I can remember it when I return to Ontario. Meantime, I am considering whether to clean the paint off my coat or keep it as a badge of honour.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Donna Sinclair is an award-winning writer who has traveled widely in Canada, Africa, Central America, Britain, and Eastern Europe. She is the author of The Spirituality of Bread, The Spirituality of Gardening, A Woman’s Book of Days, A Woman’s Book of Days 2, and numerous other titles. Donna lives with her husband Jim in North Bay, Ontario. Her most recent book is The Long View: An Elderwoman’s Book of Wisdom (2011).

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Categories: Art and Music, Arts, Creativity, Donna Sinclair, Peace, Justice, and Equality, World


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