The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival is in Full Bloom!

Images by Allison Blake

I first learned about the Japanese tradition of Cherry Blossom festivals, or Hanami, during an undergraduate course in the philosophy of aesthetics. I heard about how everyone would take time out from their busy schedules to sit under the trees and immerse themselves in the beauty of the pink blossoms. We discussed how the beauty of the blossoms has as much to do with their fleeting presence as to do with their exquisite appearance. This awareness of the transience of the blossoms themselves and the happiness we derive from their splendor is described in the Japanese aesthetic term “Mono no aware” or “an empathy toward things”. This is an enduring concept in Japanese cultural and aesthetic traditions.

I have always looked forward to and admired the Cherry Blossom season, which is particularly rich in Vancouver thanks to many trees received as gifts from Japan. My parents have a cherry blossom tree that for years served as an exceptional climbing tree and a fortress of sorts. I remember climbing it while it was in bloom, and how I could be completely concealed within the cloud of soft blossoms. Now, every year the first budding cherry trees fill me with anticipation for when warmer, sunnier days will slowly but steadily start to beat back the gray damp walks to and from the Skytrain on my daily commute. I know that the cherry trees will only bloom for a short time, and by the time they are gone, I will be enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin once again!

Until I learned about the Japanese traditions surrounding this season, I had never really considered how brief a time we really have to enjoy these particularly pretty trees in the span of a year. Learning more about the aesthetic and philosophical traditions surrounding the trees deepened my appreciation of these natural art forms. I can’t help but consider how their slow emergence, or sometimes sudden appearance, transform a familiar landscape much the same way a piece of public art can change the experience of a familiar place.

The fluffy blossoms spanning every shade between fuchsia and white are even more moving when grouped together. There are countless streets lined with the blossoms and the VCBF website has 900 suggestions of places to visit and walks to take to appreciate the blossoms in all their glory. They even include updates of when a particularly popular area is no longer in bloom so that you don’t end up disappointed.

My particular favourite  spot is one I visit 5 times a week, twice a day. The entrance to Burrard Sky Train station is a tiered garden lined with rows of cherry blossoms and Magnolias. On nice days, the sun shines through the blossoms illuminating them like a forest of lights! As the buds continue to multiply, so do the number of people who stop to take photos, or simply to sit beneath them and bask in their magnificence for a while. I highly suggest you do the same. It is simply breathtaking. It is one of the best art shows of the year.

An Appropriated Diet for a Full Life

My Dad’s favourite book of the year is Tim Ferriss’, The 4-Hour Body. At his insistence I had to check out the website where I found a bonus chapter, written by Dr. Seth Roberts, that really sent my mind on a tangent. I’ll explain it from the beginning…

“Louise and Brody build the Eiffel tower” by Gedidiah McCaughey

Dr. Roberts is a professor of psychology and a member of the editorial board of the journal, Nutrition. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and The Scientist. He’s legit. The theory that captured my imagination is the basis for what he calls The Shangri-La Diet and springs from Pavlov’s psychological framework of associative learning. The idea is that our brains are hard wired from the days of hunting and gathering to stock up on calories when they detect that there is an abundance of good food.  The brain detects that abundance when it registers familiar flavours or smells. The first time we taste something, our brain has not yet made the connection between the associated flavours and the calories that are derived from their consumption. Because no association exists yet, the impulse to stock up on calories is not triggered and we feel satisfied with less. The next time we have that same thing, we subconsciously remember we like it and want more! Essentially, flavours are addictive and make us crave progressively more and more in order to feel that same initial feeling of satisfaction that a new taste experience elicits. The stronger the smell or flavour, the stronger this effect is. This is the same theory that industrial food brands capitalize on by striving to make their products taste identical each time and therefore making us crave their products at the first familiar whiff of grease or sugar.

This theory about appetite seems to me to be a very apt analogy for many human conditions. Particularly, it seems to me that our experience of time is affected very similarly. It is well recognized that as we grow older time seems to speed up. In the beginning of our lives when everything is unfamiliar and new, a few days can seem like an eternity. As we grow older and more familiar with what it is to experience the passage of time and as our daily experiences become well-worn routine, the months seem to fly by before we have the chance to even flip the calendar page and satisfaction doesn’t come as easily. The weekends seem to get shorter and shorter, and vacations are never long enough. We crave more and more time for the things that really nourish our lives but we are restricted to our standard time tables and schedules.

In this context it is logical that humans strive to perpetuate the feeling of satisfaction that a first experience produces.  Drugs have been used throughout history as a tool to do this. The desired effect being to alter human perceptions, arguably in order to experience the familiar in a new way and ultimately recreate the initial satisfaction of what was once new and novel.

Another tool we can use to break us out of the monotony of our daily experiences and alter our perceptions of the world is art. Consider how a new song can make a routine commute seem fresh again, or an unexpected piece of public art can transform a familiar city or landscape. Art has the power to make us reassess our surroundings and experience them like new again. It can also be the stimulus that makes us reassess our assumptions and see the familiar in a new light. This is why art is such an essential part of a full life experience. It alters and enriches daily experiences and offers an alternative to monotony. In a Big Mac world Art provides the nourishment that makes your life feel fuller longer.

So, there you have it. That is one insightful diet book. Thanks Dad!


Public Dreams is going to be better than ever!

Art, live performance and theatre are essential to any sort of vibrant and cultured city. Sometimes art can be stuffy, populated by wealthy people mingling over canapes and wine as they take in the latest abstract work of art on show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Other types of art and performance are more populist. They feature street performers and costumes. One of my all time favorite memories surrounds the Parade of Lost Souls and the Illuminares Festival put on by the Public Dreams Society.

Parade of Lost Souls attracts thousands of people every year to Commercial Drive. In the old days (ie. pre 2009) the drive was jammed with thousands of ghosts, ghouls, superheros, upaloopas – you name it. In the backyards around the area, neighbors set up puppetry shows and shadow puppets. Grandview Park, long the refuge of the random, was Ground Zero of it all.

Illuminares is another massive festival that’s at the heart of Vancouver’s popular culture. Two years ago, a group of friends and I constructed a nifty little lantern with candles, paper and toothpicks. We descended on Trout Lake park and joined thousands of other lantern-goers.  Flickers of candles everywhere. Giant lantern boats bobbing in the lake. That night brought lightning and then drizzles of rain. The distant sound of drums made the whole environment epically mystical. I won’t forget it.

Recent years haven’t been incredibly kind to the Public Dream Society. It cancelled the 2009 Parade of Lost Souls and scaled it back last year. Illuminares was cancelled in 2008, and last year was moved into an indoor venue, at W2, from its longterm site at Trout Lake, due in part to gaming-grant cuts from the provincial government.

Fortunately there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Yesterday, Karo Kaus, run by branding agency, Karo Group donated $50,000 for a re-branding of the society. With re-branding, I’m hopeful the vision and scope of such an amazing Society will be renewed.  Here’s why I’m hopeful:

Public Dreams Society is the fourth recipient of Vancouver Karo Kaus. Past winners include Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) where Karo was able to help them and boost ticket revenue by 40 per cent in 2010 and secure their first-ever season sponsor for 2011. That’s impressive. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that with the help of the re-brand, Public Dreams will be back and better than ever this summer and fall!

Down with the billboards and up with the public art!

The arts are an unquestionably important piece of our social fabric, providing depth, context and a sense of vibrancy to the world we live in. While nobody would deny this fact, what does often come into question is who should be funding the arts, and how much. In British Columbia, provincial funding mostly comes through the B.C. Arts Council. In addition to the funds received, this relationship often allows B.C. arts organizations to leverage additional funding from other foundations and governments. This past year, B.C. was the only Canadian Province to cut arts funding, in response to the economic downturn. According to the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Service Plan, provincial arts funding is scheduled to fall by more that a whopping 88% over two years, from $19.5 million in 2008-09 to just $2.25 million in 2010-11.

Down with the billboards ...

Down with the billboards ...

While these facts and figures paint a dour picture (pun sadly intended) for local artists and art organizations, the reality of the situation is that money funding art is money taken away from other important domains, such as  health care, transportation, and housing, and is bound to offend some voters.

So what can be done to supplement ailing arts funding while not demanding critically needed funds be taken away from other sectors?

Our dear friends in Toronto (whom I know we all love/love to hate) have just implemented a wonderfully innovative, collaborative, and popular solution: taxation. Yes, you read me right, I have just used the words “popular” and “taxation” in the same sentence. Toronto has just passed a reform package that will see a tax on billboards, with tax dollars being used to enforce the bylaws governing signs and to fund public art. Not only will this help to ensure eye-sore billboards will be kept to a minimum, but will also give the opportunity for public art to take its rightful place in the cityscape. The reform package includes changes to the zoning variance process that will make approving new signs more difficult, and fines for violating bylaws. The tax will generate an estimated $10.4 million each year. According to a local activist who was involved in the process, the victory was a result of activists and industry collaborating from a very early stage. 

... and up with Public Art!

... and up with Public Art!

Vancouver, as a city who proclaims to be progressive, innovative, sustainable, and culture-friendly, we need to be thinking of and implementing innovative solutions like this. The Vancouver Public Space Network estimates that half of Vancouver’s billboards are not compliant with the city’s most recent bylaws … which could translate into much needed dollars for public art. Really, with public support, aesthetic imperative, precedent, and a very real need on our side, how could we not?

Getting to Know Your Community Art

I get to enjoy this mural everyday on my way to work along the Adanac bike route.

I get to enjoy this mural everyday on my way to work along the Adanac bike route.

Community art is one of those things that makes a huge difference in adding color and vibrancy to a neighborhood. One of my favorite things about the Commercial Drive area is the abundance of it on walls, alleys and tucked in corridors almost everywhere you look. Not only does community art serve to promote local artists, its often also pretty participatory (allowing everyone – rich and poor – to take part in it everyday).

artcycle1A good example of this is the recently completed Eastside Mural Project, which brought together 60 local artists, students and  community members to create roughly 8,000 sq. feet of murals all over the Commercial Drive and Strathcona communities. Here’s what mural project was all about according to its organizers:

A quartet of four community-based murals sponsored by Britannia Community Services Society and coordinated by Richard Tetrault has been painted in East Vancouver this summer, marking Britannia High School’s Centennial and celebrating its place within the community. These public murals express some of the history, traditions and contemporary life in the surrounding neighbourhoods.  Strathcona, Commercial Drive and Hastings/Sunrise are dynamic parts of Vancouver, and home to hundreds of artists, arts events and festivals. These include the annual Heart of the City Festival and Eastside Culture Crawl. This set of murals explore the rich qualities of this area, drawing from events, individuals and narratives found within this community.

Talk about colorful!

Talk about colorful!

Community murals like these have the added benefit of creating community landscape that’s less likely to be defaced by graffiti and tags (not that there’s anything wrong with artistic graffiti). In fact, part of the funding for the whole project came from the East Van Community Policing Centre.

If you’re interested in learning more about the public art of East Vancouver, make sure to check out the Eastside Mural Project’s website and take part in their upcoming art cycle (taking place from 2:15 till 5:00PM on October 3), which will be led by Richard as well as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.