I Am An Existentialist Artist
By Cam Mather
I am a philistine when it comes to art. I found this out when I took my daughters to the McMichael Art Gallery north of Toronto when they were young. We were outside when I overheard a well-to-do woman (you know, the kind they mock in National Lampoon movies) ranting on about all of the “philistines” who know nothing about art but take up space in the gallery. I was at the gallery because I am a big fan of the Group of Seven artists, who often painted in the areas of the country where I liked to canoe. I think it’s pretty neat to admire a painting by someone who would have paddled the same lakes and done the same portages as me. Apparently though I didn’t get the art and as far as that woman was concerned, I really shouldn’t have been there. Michelle and I chuckled over that woman’s arrogance.
I was pretty comfortable with not “getting” art, not that I ever really tried. The type of art that confused me the most were those big art installations that aren’t permanent. The artists put all of this effort into something that didn’t last. Eventually all the flags and the fabrics got taken down. Or the ice sculptures that eventually melted when it got warm enough. What’s with that?
But recently I had a little personal epiphany where I suddenly understood those artists who do art that doesn’t last. I was beginning to work on this year’s skating rink on the pond next to our house and I began to think about what a horrendous waste of time it is. I put all this effort into a rink and as soon as we get our first big dumping of snow, I’m just going to let it go.
Really, what a stupid way to spend my time. It doesn’t make me any money. It doesn’t make the world a better place. Oh sure, my friends and family members will enjoy skating on it over the holidays but sometimes I think they just humor me. On the other hand, it doesn’t have a negative effect on anyone. Now that we know the environmental consequences of say flying to a beach in Mexico for a week, I think this is a far better use of my time. No one gets hurts. No one’s life is any the worse because I waste time on my skating rink. In fact, it makes me feel like a wealthy man, having a frozen pond to skate on right beside my house.
But I think this ephemeral, temporary element of a rink is part of its charm. This year the lower area of the pond that used to be pretty clear of plant matter has started to grow in, so I’ve had to hack away at bulrushes and various other protrusions through the ice. We had one of those Decembers when the ice didn’t freeze consistently and we had a bit of snow that made it a bit rough. I used to cut a hole in the ice and flood it with buckets, but now I run a hose from the basement faucet and water the rink with well water. This is a major undertaking for me, living off the grid in a low sunlight month like December. I would never have attempted this before I replaced my batteries with better ones that I know can handle the pump coming on a few times. Also I make sure to do the flooding on a sunny cold day.
First I have to scrape off any of the rough ice and pack snow down in places where the ice is too thin. There’s the hassle of thawing hoses and finding thin enough gloves to fit inside my waterproof ones so that my hands don’t get frozen. Standing out there flooding the rink really freezes your extremities. If there’s been a snowfall I have to shovel it too. And if it’s a big snow it can be an insane amount of work.
When ice is freezing it makes huge cracking sounds. It groans and sometimes will crack right under your feet. It’s quite terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Tom Cochrane has a great song called “Big League” with the lyrics “Sometimes at night I can hear the ice crack, it sounds like thunder and rips through my back…” There’s nothing like standing on 5 inches of ice when a fracture in the ice appears under you with what sounds like a crack of thunder.
We are less than a mile from 6th Depot Lake and West Lake, and are surrounded by some very large ponds created by beavers. As these large areas of ice freeze there is tremendous pressure and the cracking can be very loud. Sometimes when I am standing outside in the inky blackness on a really cold, still night I can hear the ice on these nearby ponds and lakes cracking and groaning. It’s eerie and scary and totally awesome. And since the closest human being to me is about 4 miles down the road, I’m probably the only person hearing these whale-like symphonies of nature.
I really love making a rink. I’ve done it since I was kid and I lived on the St. Lawrence River near Kingston. And now that I’m 50 I think I enjoy it even more. It’s part of the holiday tradition for me. Open presents. Eat. Skate. Eat. Eat. Fall asleep. Eat 5,000 calories a day, burn about 500 while skating. And I really, really love skating. There’s just something about steel blades cutting through hard ice and how little friction there is, and how fast you can go. I can skate around in a circle on my small rink for hours and never get tired of it.
When we lived on the St. Lawrence there was the odd time when the river would freeze thick enough to skate before there was a dumping of snow. It was like skating on glass. If you really wound up and slapped a puck as hard as you could it would go forever. There were times when we would see fish under the ice as we skated. I can remember seeing a huge sturgeon that looked like some prehistoric monster swimming below the ice under my skates. It was magical.
Our pond is perfectly situated. It’s in direct sight of our two solar trackers and it sits right underneath our wind turbine. I find it so invigorating to be zipping around my rink while the sun is charging the batteries on a sunny day, or the wind turbine is making electricity on a cloudy day, or at night. The feeling of independence and joy is totally awesome. In the words of George Constanza on Seinfeld… “I’m bustin!” And to be able to look out my office window at the rink – well I can’t put a monetary value on that. I find it priceless.
By the middle of January the rink will be gone and my energies will go into getting into the woods to cut up dead trees for next year’s firewood. Now this is a practical use of my time. I love cutting wood too, and in this case it actually nets me something in the end… I have no heating bill. The rink is just a huge waste of time. A huge, mindless, joyful, wonderful, existential waste of time.
If you’ll please excuse me, I’m off strap on my skates and pretend I’m Dave Keon winning the Conn Symthe Trophy as Most Valuable Player on the 1967 Stanley Cup Winning Toronto Maple Leafs! Someday I’m gonna play in the big leagues!
P.S. – I’m pretty sure I’ve used “existentialist” wrong, but that just proves I’m a bit of a philistine in this department.