Artists in situ—Russell Hoban, Francis Bacon

March 17 | 2023

I was lucky enough recently to visit Dublin, including the reconstructed studio of maverick painter Francis Bacon. When Bacon died in 1992, his heir arranged for the artist’s London studio and its contents to be dismantled and reassembled in Dublin, where Bacon was born. Inevitably, the word that comes to mind upon first glimpse of the artist’s space is mess—or, more charitably, unchecked exuberance. 

Bacon’s studio is strewn with newspaper clippings, paint brushes and tins, canvases, magazines, a tarnished mirror, books stacked precariously, walls splattered with paint, naked light bulbs, even a pair of corduroy trousers. Although the arrangement evolved organically over the years according to the artist’s creative impulses and material needs, the team dismantling and reassembling the studio treated it as a fixed piece, numbering each item and documenting its precise position in the whole.

I began to wonder whether any writer of renown could rival Francis Bacon in the density and accretion of debris and objects in a work space. After much searching—many authors who’ve volunteered glimpses of their work rooms appear to be scrupulously tidy or have cleared up in advance—I happened upon Russell Hoban.

Like Bacon, Hoban was born in one place, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and concluded his life and career elsewhere, in London, England. (As I set their names side by side, I notice, too, that the pair’s surnames are near anagrams, with a matching four letters out of five.) Hoban said of his writer’s room in a Guardian interview dated November 9, 2007:

This room is composed of tottering stacks and shaky heaps of DVDs and videos, bulging shelves of books, slithery carpets of undiscarded draft pages, and delicately balanced objects of various weight and fragility poised to fall on my head. I have often been buried under DVD slides and video-topplings and once the TV fell on me while I was trying to squeeze between it and a precarious stack.

Are the surrounds of an artist’s space random and superfluous? Inspiring and essential? Russell Hoban supplied a ready answer. The author of the children’s book The Mouse and His Child, along with the science fiction classic Riddley Walker, described the clutter in his writer’s room as no less than his “exobrain.” 

The above image suggests the kinds of items found in both artists’ spaces.

The Language of Flowers

February 1 | 2023

February in the Northern Hemisphere is a chill month, brittle and unripe. Yet it’s also by way of Valentine’s Day a celebration of flowers—bouquets as eloquent as they are lovely. 

The language of flowers—illustrated catalogues of their meanings and sentimental associations—became popular in book form during the Victorian era in England, France, the US, and Canada. The first literary mention in English, however, was some 100 years earlier by Christopher Smart in his exuberant and sprawling poem “Jubilate Agno”: 

For flowers are good both for the living and the dead. 

For there is a language of flowers. 

For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers. 

For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers. 

—Fragment 3, Part B, c. 1759–63

The array of blossoms shown here were plucked from the gardens of 17th-century Ham House on the River Thames in Richmond, England. As transitory as an elegant phrase, each bloom has acquired meanings and associations harking back not merely to the Victorian era but to antiquity and traditions of thought in ancient China, Japan, Turkey, Greece, and Rome.

If these flowers could speak, here’s a whisper of what they might tell us of themselves:

Borage (blue, lower left): Courage, romantic longing, and purging of melancholy, especially when consumed with wine

Cornflower aka Bachelor Button (blue, centre left): patience, hope for love, once worn by young men to indicate they were eligible

Heartsease aka Johnny Jump Up (purple, yellow, and white, upper left): peace of mind, love, three colours interpreted as the Holy Trinity

Marigold (shades of orange, lower left): power, passion, optimism, renewal, vitality, occasionally grief

Nasturtium (shades of orange, upper right): victory, patriotism, loyalty, strength

Nonetheless it’s the rose (pink, centre right) that’s most closely associated with Valentine’s Day. Roses are inseparable, it seems, from love, romance, and beauty. In one telling, red roses originated when Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, ran to Adonis, her mortal lover who’d been fatally wounded by a wild boar. In her haste to save Adonis, Aphrodite pricked her foot on the thorn of a white rose, staining the blossom with her blood. 

“To live and take root”—Louise de Kiriline at Pimisi Bay

December 5 | 2022

As Montreal, city of my birth, prepares to host Cop15, I’m engrossed in a celebration of nature and place written more than a half century ago by a woman for whom a few acres in northern Ontario inspired a lifetime of words. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, author of The Lovely and the Wild, immigrated from Sweden to Canada in 1927 and years later began searching for a piece of land where she “could live and take root.”

Louise considered her discovery and acquisition of her property at Pimisi Bay, 320 km northwest of Ottawa, to be “a dream come true.” But the fulfilment of her dream meant, for this Swedish aristocrat, a life of simplicity and physical hardship as the price for her intimacy with the natural world. Her dream, once realized, thus turned out to be missing “part of the original ingredients,” and yet Louise found that the reality of her life was “acceptable without them.”

Over the decades, Louise mourned the decline of bird life in her small patch of land around Pimisi Bay. Although she undoubtedly would have supported Cop15, the UN biodiversity conference to halt and reverse nature loss, Louise wasn’t by orientation a policy maker. Instead, her contribution entailed observing and recording every rock and vernal pool and woodpecker snag, every white pine and Indian Pipe and itinerant evening grosbeak in the surroundings of her home. Louise was in essence a Woman, Watching, the title of Merilyn Simonds’s beautiful and expansive new book about the life and literary output of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence. 

It was Simonds’s tribute that prompted me to seek out a vintage copy of The Lovely and the Wild with its original dust jacket (shown above). I’m by no means the first reader of this copy still bearing the card pocket from Parish Memorial Library in Albuquerque. But I am not the least admiring, nor will I be the last to acknowledge the stubborn relevance of The Lovely and the Wild

My Mother Unmasked

October 14 | 2022

Among the many vintage photos of my mother (bottom right), I return time and again to this one, where Rene Rutenberg, young and spontaneous, can’t stop smiling. The year, I’m guessing, is about 1950, the event depicted, perhaps a quiz night or a talent show. Nor can I be certain whether my mother and her contemporaries are spectators or spectacles. In a related and more expansive photo, a row of heads is to be seen facing the three young women, as though the trio themselves were the object of attention. Photos, like fancy dress, conceal as much as they reveal. 

With Halloween imminent and Oktoberfest receding, talk of dressing up seems timely. At its most risqué or most nefarious, dressing up can be an attempt to hide from or altogether escape one’s identity. And yet the three women here appear in costume but not in disguise. 

Does dressing up conceal who we are or reveal our aspirations? The young woman on the left wears a Tyrolean or Alpine hat traditional for men in lederhosen. A choice in the spirit of play? In the middle, we note the giggler in the spaghetti-hair wig. The invocation of a brunette Rapunzel? And then there’s my mother in her blonde wig—a pure caprice or a desire to change hair colour? She later did so, briefly, in her courtship with my father, becoming for a single year before marriage and motherhood a peroxide blonde. 

Goldfinches and the season of milkweed and asters

September 16 | 2022

For most of us, seeds are a starting point, the venture capital we invest in our farms and gardens. Yet for the American goldfinch, last of the summer breeders, seeds are an end in themselves. The uncompromising vegetarians of the avian world, goldfinches postpone nesting until mid-summer, when thistle, milkweed, sunflower, and aster promise a banquet for their young.

It’s the female goldfinch that builds the nest, as elaborated by the 19th-century writer and naturalist Catharine Parr Traill in her book Pearls and Pebbles: The female bird “selects or rejects this or that . . . wool that the thorns and bushes have caught from the sheep and lambs; hair that cow or horse has let fall; grey lichens picked from a wall, and tender green moss from a fallen tree. Taking here a bit and there a morsel, to give strength or elasticity, needful warmth or softness, she weaves all together according to the family pattern.”

If goldfinches count among the last to nest and breed, those that migrate are also among the last to leave. Scientists have observed the birds mulling a crossing over a body of water, then abruptly losing their nerve and returning to the shoreline. When they do eventually summon up the will to go, the males, as depicted on this letter box in their breeding colours, will have begun to fade. The last chance to admire their luminous yellow, a distillation of the summer sun, is in September.  

A Breakaway Republic—rule by “dreams, insights, mythologies”

August 15 | 2022

In summer 2013, almost a decade ago, when George Clooney finished it with Stacey Keibler and Edward Snowden announced himself as the leaker of NSA documents, I travelled to Lithuania. I didn’t know at the time that the Baltic country—and the Suwalki Gap in particular—would become a focal point in a once-unimaginable conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The motivation for my travel, to explore my extensive family past in Lithuania, was entirely personal. 

Throughout my weeks in Lithuania, I was to become engrossed in many facets of the country beyond my preconceived itinerary. Among the most memorable was my random encounter with the fanciful “Republic of Užupis” conceived by artists within a neighbourhood of Vilnius and, not least, its extraordinary Constitution. Drafted in 1998, the Constitution remains prescient nearly 25 years later. It expresses the accumulated wisdom of a community governed not only by customary law, but also by “inspirational examples, dreams, insights, mythologies.” 

The first article, “Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone,” anticipated the legal personhood of the Muteshekau Shipu (or Magpie River) in Québec, granted in 2021 and accompanied by nine rights. Article 35, “No one has the right to make another person guilty,” remains a useful precept in our era of polarization and widespread recriminations. Ditto for Article 4, “Everyone has the right to make mistakes.”

Not a few of the articles appeal for their playfulness: for instance, Article 8, “Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown,” or Article 10, “Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.” One of my favourite articles, number 27, strikes me as at once simple, ambiguous, and profound: “Everyone shall remember their name.”

Handmade Ceramic Buttons circa 1930

June 4 | 2022

A duckling, a bunny, a lady bug—tiny emblems of summer. Although near antiques, this trio of buttons, possibly from a child’s garment, haven’t lost their relevance. They’re a reminder of the beauty and vulnerability of small lives that intersect with our own. As handmade objects, they bear the touch and affection of their makers, each button revealing of a modest act of imagination. The cluster of buttons belongs to the collection described in my recent memoir, The Smallest Objective, and I treasure them for how they illuminate the past while enhancing my present.

Malca Cossman Kirsch in Immigrant Story

May 4 | 2022

When Sholom Wargon, creator of Immigrant Story, approached me about contributing a family narrative, I was delighted. 

Immigrant Story is a laudable effort to give voice to every manner of immigrant who made the journey to Canada during the twentieth century, regardless of origin, achievements, or notoriety. All of the stories appear on the website <>, whereas a smaller selection will be featured in an exhibition opening on June 2nd at Bathurst Clark Resource Library in Thornhill, Ontario.  

My own contribution, “The Malca Cossman Kirsch Story,” is now live and will be included in the forthcoming exhibition. I was especially pleased to be able to highlight the story of my paternal grandmother, who, for much of her life—and like so many women of her era—was both overlooked and underestimated. Malca makes a few brief appearances in my recent memoir, The Smallest Objective. Here, however, is her story told more fully and to the extent that I know it:

Man—a springtime coming-of-age story 

April 8 | 2022

“At first Man drank milk from the bottle. … He shared cat food and dog food of all varieties—canned, cubed, or kibbled. … Like any infant, his lips were often dark with sand and dirt.” 

            Man was an orphaned black-tailed fawn befriended by the writer Irving Petite. The fawn’s adventures are related in The Audubon Book of True Nature Stories, with illustrations by Walter F. Ferguson. It’s one among a number of books in my collection of illustrated animal tales from the 1950s through ’70s pairing quality storytelling with superlative visuals. Unlike so much writing about animals, these books are for adults. My favourite titles include Cats in Cahoots by Doreen Tovey, The Year of the Badger by Molly Burkett, and The Wildlife Stories of Faith McNulty.

            In this troubled spring of 2022, I’m finding solace and humour especially in those animal stories celebrating young life. Man, we’re told, developed an appetite for whole flowers, including violets and hothouse chrysanthemums grown out of season. On occasion, he even ate the covers of paperback books—Keats and Shelley, the College Standard Dictionary, plus the Journals of Lewis and Clark!

My great-grandfather from Ukraine

March 16 | 2022

My mother never told me anything about her maternal grandfather, except that in old age he toppled from a balcony—a suspected suicide. Only after my mother’s death did I begin to wonder where my great-grandfather, a Jewish immigrant to Montreal, had come from. 

I asked Howard, my mother’s first cousin and an octogenarian. Howard couldn’t readily answer my question. After a pause, he said, “Ukraine, I think.” 

            “Where in Ukraine”? I persisted. 

            “Kyiv, I think.” 

            A favourite among my inherited possessions is a gold heart-shaped locket my grandmother wore from early childhood, her own locket matching exactly her older sister’s. The lockets’ origins are unknown to me. The necklaces might have been fashioned in Ukraine, where every child in that family, except my grandmother, was born, or equally they might have been acquired later, in Montreal. 

            I’ll never be certain how the locket and the tumble from the balcony fit together, if at all, and whether my great-grandfather launched himself from the balcony because of all he’d lost, an inability to remember, or quite the opposite, because he remembered too much. 

            As I hold my grandmother’s locket in my hand, its lightness evincing its hollow centre, I regret that it is perhaps my only tangible connection to Ukraine. Within two generations, my family had surrendered Kyiv both as a place and in memory. 

For the refugees now fleeing Ukraine, I fervently wish a finer prospect—that, unlike my own ancestors, they aren’t denied the satisfaction of return.