Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Women artists who kept me inspired in 2017: Part 1 Dianne Whelan

As I write this, the new year has arrived in crisp white days of hope. 2017 is gone and I am glad to see its back. Nonetheless, I have drawn inspiration and even strength this year from artists whose work keeps going and whose journeys and progress will continue to inspire me in 2018. When I sat down to think about it, they were all women, but it wasn't designed that way. One or two of them face incredible challenges to do what they are doing, but they keep doing it with abundant graciousness. Their endurance was inspiring to me even before the events of September (when my mother passed away), but it has become even more meaningful since. As the new year dawns, here is a tour of some gifted, beautiful and encouraging female artists who speak truth and/or lift and enliven the worlds they are in and all of us by extension. May their light continue to shine brightly in gifts of imagination and commitment to what they hold close -- and illuminate our own paths and spaces. (So it doesn't get too long, I have created separate blog posts. This is Part 1. The others are coming!)


"Northern Lights Lake" - image by Dianne Whelan
Perhaps the most inspiring and engaging discovery for me of 2017 was the 500 Days in the Wild project -- Canadian filmmaker Dianne Whelan's documentation of her ongoing journey along the entire Trans Canada Trail. The Great Trail is a powerful symbol of the land and its peoples. In a year in which the country was counting its birthdays, the trail shone as a timeless way of saying that we have already always been here. In February I decided to make the trail the major theme of an online Lenten devotional project that I create (and which has now come down or I would link it). A search brought me in touch with the strong people who have moved across some major parts of its 24,000 kilometres of land and water trails. Somewhere during that time I discovered Dianne and the fact that she was also a filmmaker immediately intrigued me. Her journey seemed to be unlike others who have done it in that she is attempting to do all of the waterways as well. Having experienced a general drought of blogging or image posting by others on the trail, I was thrilled that Dianne was often synthesizing her own experience as she was living it, offering us Instagram or Vimeo clips of the place she finds herself in any given moment and blogging as well.

"The fog and the butterfly" by Dianne Whelan
on Instagram
; short video (linked)
Despite her strong presence on social media, I soon discovered that her posts were lacking in the self-congratulation or promotion one might expect. At first, moving from east to west (following the path of the sun) the early videos from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia had more Dianne in them. As the project was finding its film centre, it seemed natural to focus on her and her challenges. But as it moves on, the lens has slowly been pivoting and moving outward. Now the videos and images more likely celebrate places and people. (I am struck by a video clip in which she comments that she has many shots of Lake Superior that are simply of the canoe resting gently in water.) Her gaze is always on the land, on the water, on the people of her encounters, the friends and collaborators who journey with her and who also blog movingly on their own life-changing experiences. Perhaps the most iconic image of her past year is a long shot from a cliff on the east coast of Superior, in which her tiny figure in the red canoe she calls Kwimu seems almost one with the glistening water around her. She is distinct and also fully within it. Alone and also accompanied by the ecological world. 

Screen capture of images and video on Dianne Whelan's
Instagram page
. Other people take pictures
of her but her own lens is mostly faced outward.
We don't have her; we have her perspective, what she sees.
What makes Dianne unique is her capacious gratitude and openness to the peoples she encounters and the challenges of the land. Her journey is a commitment of soul: she describes her path as a healing one even as the obstacles seem to us insurmountable. The suffering may be personal but unlike many contemporary bloggers in general, she doesn't tell us much about that (once or twice it turns up in radio interviews along the way). The focus instead is on her outward vision. A huge part of this vision is wanting to work toward reconciliation and healing among the first peoples and settlers of our land. She is one of the very few people I have found who both deeply loves Canada and also honours and journeys with the stories of the first peoples. She belongs to both. Her own heritage includes all of it: east and west, Indigenous and settler. She is showing us that these things don't have to be mutually exclusive. She burns cedar and remembers the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women while on her route. She collaborates with Indigenous artists and meets often with Indigenous and/or local communities of musicians and healers, leaders and walkers. Dianne's pilgrimage is an artist's path in which there is no agenda except to keep going forward, always fully a part of the moment she is in.

"Moon in Old Woman Bay", image by Dianne Whelan
Sometime during the autumn, she and producer Ann Verrall decided to make their project a trilogy of feature films. In addition, with the support of the Canada Council they have been working on The Beacon Project which will offer cross-cultural short films in collaboration with Indigenous communities along the route, peoples whom Dianne sees as 'beacons of light' on her journey. These choices are not gestures; this is the passionate commitment of someone who says she is learning all the time, gaining always from the people of the lands she enters. There is an integrity to what she is doing that is almost hard to believe, except that it's there every day, each time you visit where she is now and what she is up to.

If you donate fifty dollars to her project (here's how you can) you have access to a GPS tracker that allows you to see her movement in live time. I began in fascination, curious to try to simultaneously follow The Great Trail map as well in marking her progress. Her year 2017 was like a sandwich in which winter formed the outside formidable pieces on land and water trails east and west of Lake Superior and the summer was spent paddling the great lake itself. When I started following her story, she was on the Voyageur trail between Sudbury and Sault Ste Marie with her friend Jenica Vaneli and the videos were both hilarious and awe-inspiring. Bush-whacking through overgrown trail would be a returning reality in the late part of the year. Now making her way along the waterways of Northwestern Ontario, again accompanied by Jenica, she was surprised one morning by early ice. (Read her account of it here.) Without knowing what had happened yet, I saw them change direction on the GPS map and leave the trail, moving forward, then backward. It doesn't take an expert to recognize when someone is in trouble. In a video from the bush, her response when she hears that help is on the way is not a sigh of relief, but "Oh Canada", a joyous recognition that at any moment in time we are all bound together and hold each other up. 
There is a never failing sense in Dianne's story that people are essentially kind and good. She often says in interviews that the world is not just the horror show we see on the news; it is the everyday acts of kindness and generosity that are keeping our planet going.

Within days of being free of the bush in November, there was another video. Instead of focusing on her own survival, she turns the camera instead on the men and women family who came to her assistance. She is both a social media marketer's dream and its adversary because she seems no longer willing to make it all about her. Articles that appeared in news media about her stuck time in the bush tried to make the harrowing passage the story -- she did not want it. "I was never afraid," she says, noting that she had food for days and fuel too. This is not an episode of "Survivor", there is no competition -- this project defies the reality-tv climate of mutual exclusion and cutthroat tactics. This is a voyage of continuous collaboration and discovery and gratitude. (Always adapting, Dianne spent December editing and has moved forward to Manitoba to start snowshoeing the land trails some time this month. She will return to Ontario later in the year to finish the now-frozen Ontario water route).

Somewhere in her path, I myself began to experience a sense of my own journeying within hers. After my mother's death in September I found a strange kind of accompaniment and healing in watching her progress. In comparing the maps, in looking ahead at what was coming, in trying to anticipate her strategy, I felt my own inner resources deepening and my own strategies within my own life becoming clearer. I also felt love for my country growing. I understood that losses and suffering continue, but lands, peoples, and individuals survive through their own resources and gifts of community. I found myself watching the SPOT icon move and taking deep breaths for my own self. Watching her string the ten minute dots of GPS on the Omimi Trail, I saw my own survival from unbearable loss ekeing itself out in time. If she could keep going, so could I. If she could get past that tricky portage, so could I. If she could somehow manage to fight her way out of an impossible situation -- and with humour, hope and gratitude for those around her -- so could I.

There is an early video from the water trail in Nova Scotia that is a key piece. It was the very first one I found on the project and what compelled me to it. The video begins by showing Dianne in difficulty in a water trail in Lake Bras D'Or. It then reveals the people who helped her out of it. And it finishes some time later with her arrival on land where she greets (the late) Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy. Her humour and the sense of companionship and survival on the journey, her storytelling, her visual art, is infectious here and in everything else. She often concludes her posts, "blessed be"! May the land and waters and peoples of 2018 continue to bless her path, so that her journey can continue to be a beacon for all of us.


Check back here soon for posts about other inspiring artists of the year.