Sargy Mann, a British painter of portraits and landscapes, began to lose his eyesight in 1973. Mann saw spectral haloes and suffered from oedema of the cornea—corneal swelling that causes a buildup of fluid in the eye. Undeterred by his failing vision, he devised alternative methods to experience his surroundings. Mann assembled pictures through a telescope and used collages of enlarged images and audio descriptions, as though he was piecing together a puzzle. Using a tiny magnifying monocular, he was able to read bus signs and identify common forms.
To temporarily reduce the oedema during his visits to the National Gallery and the Tate, Mann would dry his soggy eyes with a hairdryer. After each half-hour of sight, the artist would discreetly plug his hair dryer into the public galleries’ sockets, affording him a few additional moments of constructive looking.
Inevitably, his sight deteriorated completely. As a blind man, he couldn’t paint from direct observation, so he decided to paint subjects from memory. Mann chose the biggest canvases he could find, pinned them to the walls of his living room, and painted from short-term memory. He had prepared for this moment. Leading up to the retinal detachment of both eyes, Mann would make rhythmical passes through spaces he wanted to paint while recording what he understood of his subject through a dictaphone.
As a child, I spent a lot of time in museums. Of course, with a lack of context, the Monets, Da Vincis, and Titians I saw were nothing more than pretty pictures with strange men and women, flora and fauna, familiar and strange forms. But as I grew up, read books, took art history classes, was guided and misguided by Wikipedia, and became more curious, I gained a deep appreciation for the fine arts. Soon, the stories painted on canvas, or cast in bronze, or drawn on paper, evoked emotional responses.
I visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. recently. I stood in front of Rembrandt Workshop’s The Philosopher. I watched. The darkness of the piece was overwhelming, yet specks of light illuminated the man’s engaged facial musculature—a vein protruding from his forehead and his taunt jaw. The bearded man gazed to the left of the canvas’ extremity. I took a step to the side, meeting his penetrating glare. My lips parted open, similar to his. I realized afew moments turned into minutes when someone nudged me out of the way to take a picture. I exhaled; I’d been holding my breath. In all honesty, I would also dry my eye sockets with a hairdryer to be able to see Rembrandt’s work.
An artist expresses himself through his art—his voice becomes the brushstrokes on a canvas, the notes on a score, the forms in clay, marble, or metal. An image can transcend time, outliving its creator and speaking on their behalf when they no longer can.
My mother grew up in a small town in Soviet Russia. Kirov’s low-hanging clouds made it hard to dream big. Her mother had one expectation of her daughter: that she obtains a university degree. With this expectation, my mother silenced her inner artist, putting away her drawing pencils and suppressing her imagination. She excelled in her classes and was one of the only students in her high school to gain admission to Saint Petersburg State University, granting my grandmother her one wish.
With a degree in hydraulic engineering from the Saint Petersburg State University, my mother did what many her age living in post-Soviet ’90s did—she emigrated. Two years later, in Canada, I was born, and raising a child became a full-time job for my mother.
As a child, I attended Russian school in Montréal. Classes ran four days a week. We learned Russian and mathematics; took dancing, drawing, acting, and singing classes; organized recitals; and fostered a Russia of our own within the four walls of an old estate at the city’s core.
My mother spent most of those years waiting for me in the car. I’m sure part of her yearned for the creative outlet Russian school offered me in spades. In time, she did end up finding it. An artist in Montréal—a fellow Russian—was offering art classes in her home studio, and my mother signed up. She took it as opportunity to reclaim her inner artist, and in doing so, reconcile her artistic sensibility with her everyday life.
Today, I live in a home filled with art—not only my mother’s, but also pieces she’s collected from friends, auctions, flea markets, and famous artists. Art provides us with a medium to think and communicate with others, connecting us all in a web of creative ideas, experiences, and emotions while making sense of our inner lives. Art is the product of human imagination and curiosity coming together to tell a story—a story of our existence.
Art is stubborn.
I remember standing in front of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair at the MoMA in New York City and feeling completely in tune with Kahlo’s state of enervation, despite having felt nothing like it myself. In the self-portrait, Kahlo sits in a wooden chair, stripped of her femininity. Strands of her hair cover part of the floor. She is dressed in a man’s suit, too large for her body. Kahlo’s penetrating gaze escapes the canvas.
On the upper margins of the canvas, the lyrics of a popular Mexican song read: “Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair emulates the violence of her recent separation from her cheating husband, the artist Diego Rivera, and the acknowledgement and acceptance of her new autonomous, androgynous persona. As I stared into her eyes at the MoMA, I saw a fearless woman, one to admire.
In 1925, before she painted Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, Kahlo was confined to her bed after suffering an injury from a debilitating bus accident. Attaching an easel to her bed and incorporating a mirror into the canopy above, she taught herself to paint lying down. She painted her own reality to ease her pain. Kahlo once said, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”
Art enhances our reality, making it rich. Creating art has the same effect.
American artist Carrie Mae Weems’s project The Kitchen Table Series includes 20 photographs and 14 text panels. In 1989, Weems placed a camera in her kitchen every day. The camera stood in front of a simple wooden table illuminated by a single overhead lantern. With Weems playing the lead role, she took numerous shots of an unfolding fictional life, one where the main character eats, cries, talks, argues, and comforts—showing us the intense depth of the human experience. As the series progressed, and others joined her in the room, Weems’s role changed—playing herself, then lover, then friend, then mother.
Her series of black-and-white photographs serve as a mirror, reflecting collective experiences, such as how time changes selfhood, how relationships evolve, the role of a woman in the world, and self-transcendence. Weems is a Black woman, but she notes that the series is not limited to a particular experience. In 2016, Weems told W magazine, “I think [the series is] important in relationship to Black experience, but it’s not about race.”
By saying so, Weems rejects the narrative that art by Black artists is only about Blackness. Art allows us to explore and address social issues through self-expression. Weems’s series resonates with her audience because it provides representation to those who rarely witness their identity in art.
Art helps us engage with history, personal or otherwise. It is both mirror and window. It allows us to integrate ourselves into the lives of others, illuminating the varied experiences of human life. Over 30 years later, Weems’s The Kitchen Table Series remains contemporary, echoing our experiences and emotions, especially those relevant to women. In many ways, akin to moments lived, art can be fleeting, yet it captures something eternal and universal—melodies of forms, ideas, and acts that compose our lives.
When Vincent Van Gogh began painting, he used the world around him as his subject. Van Gogh wrote 800 letters in his lifetime. Most were to Theo, his brother and closest confidant. Van Gogh struggled with poverty—he only sold one painting when he was alive. He also battled mental illness, which caused him to leave his unsympathetic family and live in homelessness. Theo took care of him, sending him money and supporting him emotionally. Van Gogh used up most of his monthly allowances on painting supplies, leaving little for food and drink. Painting was his way of numbing the pain of living, anaesthetizing the turbulence of his mind.
Art is like a drug. Sometimes it makes life easier to live, other times it’s an unquenchable addiction. Michelangelo Buonarroti believed that the human body was the pinnacle of beauty and harmony—God’s most perfect creation. He said that to imitate the human body perfectly meant to create art nearest to God. This master of Italian Renaissance, akin to his counterpart Leonardo Da Vinci, learned to create realistic, elegant human forms through the study of human anatomy, sometimes relying on corpses. Thirsty for the perfect effigy of the human body, Michelangelo traded his works for cadavers and even snuck into morgues at night to espy knowledge of the human form. A desire for perfection plagues the process of many artists—dissecting corpses was Michelangelo’s way of getting his fix.
When I discover a new musician, I explore their entire discography. The music lessons from Russian school turned me into a musician of my own. I continue to sing, write music, and play the piano in my free time. They’re a part of me—music and creativity. Being able to think not only critically but imaginatively. I can never get enough of art, no matter what form it comes in.
I asked my mother what she remembers of her father during her childhood. “Music, the accordion, playing the same passages again and again, for few hours a day, every day,” she told me. He was always busy, immersed in his songs, finding little time to talk to his daughter. He was happy in his own musical world, running from one rehearsal to the next.
My grandfather was born just before the Second World War. In the first year of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, my grandfather lost his father—leaving his mother to raise him and his brother, who also passed away a few years later, on her own. Poverty-stricken, living off food stamps, and eating mostly potatoes, my great-grandmother saved every penny she could to buy her son an accordion.
When he was in the fourth grade, she’d discovered him playing a wooden stool like it was an accordion. With his small hands, my grandfather would strum the wooden spindles, waving his arms in and out as if expanding and contracting the accordion’s bellows. By the eighth grade, she had saved up enough money to finally buy him a harmonica, then an accordion.
He taught himself music, playing known melodies, hitting bass buttons while strutting the keyboard. My grandfather then completed extensive conservatory training to become a distinguished accordionist. As one of only a few in Russia, he travelled to 25 countries with the Russian dance group Dymka, played at the Olympics in 1980, and won countless international accordion competitions, all the while teaching music to young pupils. He dedicated 60 years to music. He retired at 80 years old, and every time I’m back in Russia, the accordion welcomes us at the table, no matter the occasion.
Consciously or not, we dedicate our lives to art.
Art is more than Monets, Da Vincis, and Titians. It is everything around us, from a sprouting flower to a trending tune, from a familiar dish to a paint-by-numbers filled in by a toddler. Creativity is an attempt by humans to adapt to their environment. In 2018, my mother dragged me to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York to distract me from the disappointment of not being able to fly to Russia as my passport had expired. “It’s the next best thing to the Hermitage,” she joked. It wasn’t.
After being underwhelmed by the permanent collection, I was surprised with a special exhibit—a room filled with colourful cut-and-paste art. I wasn’t familiar with the artist. My curiosity piqued. I walked over to the info card and found that these works were from Henri Matisse’s late period, a collection of art crafted prior to his death in 1954. The Cut-Outs series was a ground-breaking shift in the artist’s work—creating art by “drawing with scissors,” as he described. Matisse would cut sheets of paper that had been previously painted with gouache by his assistants into various shapes and sizes. These colourful compositional collages, often abstract, dominated the final decade of his life.
In 1941, Matisse underwent surgery that left him in a wheelchair, bed ridden, and physically unable to paint or sculpt. Eventually, his cut-outs covered walls, then rooms. Even after losing most of his vision, bearing permanently swollen hands, and suffocating with pain day and night, Matisse continued to cut into colours for 14 years, recklessly birthing his own world as he stood at death’s door.
Matisse was like a child drawing random lines and shapes with coloured crayons, somehow creating something worthy of being pinned to the refrigerator. Standing in that room at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I saw just that—a child’s work, oblivious to the extremities of the world, simply existing. The Cut-Out series reminds me of the ephemeral, unstable, and frail nature of art, one that mirrors all life.
Art is inescapable. When Sargy Mann went blind, he questioned what he would do for the rest of his life. Sculpt, he thought. But following that meager suggestion, he was flooded with subjects from his trip to Cadaques, Spain a few years prior. He took his canvas, painting trolley, and a plastic chair into his garden and began painting. He had a percept of the colour ultramarine as he applied it onto the canvas, painting the blue sea escarpment of the small fishing town. It was the kind of percept we experience when dreaming in colour.
An hour into painting, Mann asked his daughter what she saw. She said, “It looks like a little table, bottom left, with Peter sitting on the other side of it in front of a large window, with sky, distant hills and dark blue sea. And then on the right, an open doorway with low sun flooding towards you, reflecting off the sea.”
That was exactly what he’d intended.