#4: On Fish

Today in the free Vancouver newspaper, “The Georgia Straight“, there was an article about Paul Watson, described as an “eco-pirate” who stated that worms are more important than humans…”because  worms can live on the earth without us but we can’t live without them. we need them and they don’t need us.  And bees and insects and fish: we need them and they don’t need us. It makes them ecologically more important than we are.” As Watson says, “A lot of people don’t like to hear that”. This is a succinct statement of the philosophical premise behind the series of sculptures, paintings, prints & drawings I have been working on since 1985 with the working title,  “Back to Nature”.

Sister Fish #1
Sister Fish #1, December 2003,  6’ h x 2’ w x 2’ d,  hand formed concrete and acid stain Shown at Wescott Bay Sculpture Garden, San Juan Island, WA

But whether or not people like to hear that we are no more important than Rockfish, this is a message that humans need to internalize.  Ecologists like Watson prioritize the needs of ecosystems over the social or economic demands of humans and this is as it should be.

Humans are merely one of millions of species in a biosphere  that depends on the health of the ecosystems within it. It is not rational to believe that the demands of one of these species should be met at the expense of all the other species and the eecosystem as a whole.

Unless we lose our human hubris and practice humility, we will continue to obliterate our fellow-species.  One example is Rockfish. Years ago, Rockfish were everywhere and people caught them by simply dangling a line into shallow water off docks & dingys and pulling them in.  They were a favourite catch for children, being so easy to hook. But Rockfish are particularly susceptible to overfishing, because they rarely survive after being caught and released.  Rockfish are long-lived fish (living to about 100 and 60 years respectively), and they do not reproduce until they are at least 10 years old.

Elbow Balance
Me posing for the human part of “Sister Fish” in Elbow balance

Sister Fish, the sculpture shown above is about the interdependence between humans and fish.  As reference material for the human part of the piece, I used images of myself in the yoga pose called in Sanscrit, Pincha Mayurasana, also called elbow balance” or “forearm stand”. Though I used this pose as the basis for the sculpture, Sister Fish, this pose is actually known as “Feathered Peacock Pose”.

Here I am in elbow balance in 2003.  At the time, I had only been studying yoga for a couple of years so I had to use a number of props to get into “elbow balance”.  Also please note that I have since learned to better contain my ribs & belly and develop more strength & control in my core. This pose is all over the place.  As a result, “Sister Fish”‘s Elbow Balance is not a text-book illustration of a fish-woman in the pose.

For the fish part of the piece  I purchased a Rockfish at the fisheries wharf on Granville Island in Vancouver. I took it home, photographed it then baked it for dinner, and I must say it was delicious.  At the time I didn’t know they were endangered and I thought it had continuity to it – I ate the fish and it became part of me and then I made a sculpture about being part-fish/part-woman.

The main point being, of course, that we are all part of the same ecosystem and further that we are all – fish & humans – only slight variations on the carbon-based life forms template. In other words, in the overall scale of things, fish and humans differ only marginally as expressions of cosmic consciousness solidifying briefly in amalgamations of atoms that coalesce into a form recognizable as one species or another.

Below is my Rockfish.  A heartfelt thanks to this fish for providing it’s image for this piece.  Not that it volunteered, or that I killed it for art.  It was already frozen solid when I bought it off the boat. Even in death it’s a beautiful creature.  Certainly more elegant than myself in “Elbow Balance” in 2003.

Rockfish
The fish that was the model for the fish part of “Sister Fish”.

Below is the sculpture in progress before I fattened up the legs, corrected the arms and applied acid stain.

Concrete version of “Sister Fish” in progress in my studio before the studio became filled up with stuff

An Aside on Yoga

I’ve now been studying Yoga for almost 10 years and the more I get into it, the more I realize I have hardly touched the surface of what there is to learn.

BKS Iyengar
BKS Iyengar

Today I got a book out of the library with the teachings of Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga masters in the world.  Opposite is an image of him in a very advanced version of the elbow balance pose was in above. I just read the first few pages of his 1998 book, The Tree of Yoga, but was struck by his philosophy in terms of taking action in the worldly world.  If I understand correctly, he says it is the expectation of benefits or rewards stemming from one’s actions that we must learn to avoid.  The goal is to act according to an understanding of what is the right thing to do in a particular circumstance, rather than acting in the hope of some future outcome.  This sounds like a subtle shift in attitude, but requires discipline for all of us raised in a culture of competition and individual achievement.

Yoga is a path to not only physical health , but clarity of mind and spirit.  Wikipedia defines the Sanskrit word yoga as meaning “yoke”, from a root yuj, referring to the discipline involved.  BKS Iyengar, however, defines “Yoga” as “union”, the union of the body with the mind and of mind with the soul.

After 10 years, I consider myself an advanced beginner in Yoga.  I am making some progress in the union of body and mind through the practice of yoga poses,  but am not gifted in my pursuit of the union of mind and soul. Having been raised in a family of intellectual atheists where religion was viewed as the opiate of the people I have the challenge of overcoming a tendency toward forming strong opinions.  However, Mr Iyengar warns against making distinctions and saying we are doing a better yoga than this or a worse yoga than that.  He teaches that Yoga is one as the world is one and the people of the world are one.

The Fish Pose - Matsya-asana
The Fish Pose – Matsya-asana

One of the reasons I love Yoga is that it is all about the integration of humans and their environment.  For instance, many of the asanas have animal names, such as the fish pose and cobra pose. This is because yogis devised their asanas partly by observing how animals instinctively act in the wild. They understood that animal poses can help us to connect with powerful aspects of ourselves that we often repress in our busy lives.

The fish posture (left) is called matsya in Sanskrit. Matsya  is a divine being, found in Hindu mythology, that saved mankind from a universal flood. The king of pre-ancient Dravida and a devotee of Vishnu was washing his hands in a river when a little fish swam into his hands and pleaded with him to save its life. He put it in a jar, which it soon outgrew. He then moved it to a tank, a river and then finally the ocean but to no avail.

Incarnation of Vishnu as a Fish, from a devotional text
Incarnation of Vishnu as a Fish, from a devotional text

The fish then revealed himself to be Vishnu and told him that a deluge would occur within seven days that would destroy all life. Therefore, the king was instructed to take “all medicinal herbs, all the varieties of seeds, and accompanied by the seven saints” along with the other animals. Lord Matsya is generally represented as a four-armed figure with the upper torso of a man and the lower of a fish.

At the beginning,  I studied Yoga thinking that it would make me a better artist.  I practiced in order to be physically fit enough for the feats of strength involved in moving around the weighty materials of my trade. Then later on I realized Yoga helped me overcome the ego-crushing rejections, disappointments and slights that any artist must learn to  accept and deal with.  As the years went by, I realized that Yoga was not in a separate compartment from my art practice but was an integral part of it.  Now I’m beginning to think that my art practice is an aspect of my Yoga practice which is whole of life.

Back to Art Practice

There have been many iterations of the Sister Fish image.  After the concrete version, there was a wooden maquette shown below:

Sister Fish
“Sister Fish” May 2007; 32” h x 11 in diameter; painted wood, found hardware; maquette for larger work in steel

But I thought that a final full-size sculpture in steel would have more stability if the sides of the body were in one piece rather than two. So the next iteration was a very small maquette that was sent to France as part of the application for a sculpture symposium. The regulation size for the maquettes was 30 cm., so the second model was cut out of sheet aluminum.

The other reason it was cut with a scroll saw out of sheet aluminum was that at the time that I submitted this proposal, I didn’t have the capability of welding steel at that gauge or any other.

Sister Fish, 2006, 30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm; Maquette for larger work in steel

Below is the tiny aluminum maquette that was mailed to France. It was accepted for the symposium and I immediately set about learning how to weld steel.

So my partner Colin & I took a one-day course in MIG welding at KMS Tools in Burnaby BC. As a practice piece, we brought along some steel to KMS to make a smaller version of the steel Sister Fish to be fabricated at the symposium in France.

The instructor, Doug, was a very nice guy and showed us how he would put such a piece together. We worked on it enough that we figured we would be able to produce a steel sculpture for the symposium and left for France.

Symposium Atrium was held in Amneville-les-Thermes, Lorraine, France in 2006.  There were 19 invited international sculptors working outdoors in a parking lot in this tourist-oriented centre.  The sculptors and there work were on display and busloads of people arrived constantly to view the works as they progressed.  Below is a picture of the site with the flags of all the participating nations.  For some reason, the Canadian flag was stolen on the first day, so it is not shown.

The Symposium Atrium site with the flags of participants, except Canada
The Symposium Atrium site with the flags of all participants, except Canada

It was a wonderful experience to be working with so many accomplished sculptors from all over the world.  Sculptors are my favourite people.  The working conditions were quite grim – it was either raining or blasting hot, but everyone helped everyone else and there was no rivalry or competition. Below Colin (R) and Chuan Shu Xing from China are assisting Javier Astorga from Mexico to bend sheet steel.

Artists working together at Symposium Atrium

We managed to complete the sculpture we had proposed on time but it was hard work and I sometimes thought my hands would fall off from overuse. Below, I’m working on the piece in my fetching grubbies.

Working on “Sister Fish” onsite at Symposium Atrium

Below is the completed painted mild steel version of Sister Fish we did in France.

Sister Fish #3, 9’ h x 3’ diameter, fabricated onsite at Amneville-les-Thermes, France

There were stability problems with the piece that weren’t apparent in the maquettes, so when we got home, I added wings to the design to triangulate the arms with the base. Below is the practice version of Sister Fish we did before we left with wings added and re-named Angel Fish.  it was spray painted silver and exhibited at Big Rock Sculpture Garden in Bellingham WA.

Flying Fishwoman at Big Rock Sculpture Garden, Bellingham WA
“Angel Fish”, 5’6” h x 3’ in diameter, shown at Big Rock Sculpture Garden, Bellingham WA

I still wasn’t happy with this piece as the base tended to accumulate debris that obscured the hands and the piece was too low to the ground. So we cast a big concrete pedestal for it and exhibited it again in Port Angeles WA as shown below.

Angel Fish, June 2009; 92” h x 26″ in diameter; Painted mild steel, found hardware, cast concrete with integral pigment;    Shown on exhibition at Port Angeles, WA, 2009

The sculpture was damaged while on exhibition (the drunken, destructive lout factor) so it was taken home, media blasted and powder-coated.  In 2010, Angel Fish traveled to China (minus the 600+ lb base) for the  4th Beijing International Art Biennale. So this fish/human image has been all over the world, spreading the word that fish are people too.

“Angel Fish” entry in catalogue for Fourth Beijing International Art Biennale, 2010

While looking through some old drawings I found a fish image from my days as a committed peace activist.  During the 1980’s my life was devoted to the peace movement, especially the anti-nuclear weapons side.  I was a member of the Peace Flotilla which was a coalition of disparate activists from church groups to communists who were united in their opposition to clear intentions by the USA to use Vancouver as a naval base for their nuclear-armed warships.

Poster for the Peace Flotilla – an anti-nuclear armaments activist group in the 1980’s.

This was a poster I did for a fund-raiser at the now-defunct La Quena coffee house, which was a centre for community political information & discussion on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. Though divorced at the time, I was still using my married name, Marion Dahl because I hadn’t got around to changing back to my original name.  The poster was done on scratchboard using the cross-hatch technique I studied & developed for the illustration work I did for a living at that time.

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