1.10 / Mirror Image

Kalavinka Dress

By Mia Kirsi Stageberg March 10, 2010

This article appears in Talking Cure Fall 2009.

In the early 1970s I wrote for artscanada in Toronto; it offered a uniquely thriving home for insights into art. I reveled in the soulful way of working guided by Anne Brodzky, a consummate gardener of creative connections and shared understanding. Artscanada had a deep affinity for nature, natural processes, and transformation. Many of the featured artists and those of us who wrote about their work had an interest in shamanism. What was the work of traditional shamans and what did they tap into? What tools had they been taught? What realms did they have to go to, in search of healing? If they had what it took to get there, what did they carry back? Under our curiosity, longing gave inspiration new shapes.

As a part of artscanada, I loved the chance to come close to a work of art, respect and befriend it. Often I had generous help from an artist in learning about methods and intent. My resulting piece became a translation of a painting or sculpture’s rhythm and essence. Instead of telling the reader, “Go see these,” I could show what I’d found of value. Art writing, developed in that way, stood as a kind of sign by which to recognize the original’s singular dance. It referred to what had touched the core of me and might draw others to it.

In those times many of us changed names. Instead of causing social embarrassment, it lifted hopes, as certain traditional people take another name when a condition of life demands resources.  As a young woman I’d been married, and when I no longer was, I felt unready to take back my father’s surname. I chose a last name that felt right: Kalavinka. It’s a Sanskrit word I ran across in the ancient, voluminous Japanese Tale of Genji, for a bird that sings in paradise. To me, Kalavinka meant expressing, true as it could be made in a given time, a grateful sense of life – of the world as imagination means it. I called myself Mia Kalavinka through the early 1970s and even my Canadian bank account was under the name. My articles for artscanada were Mia Kalavinka’s.

Three experiences with artscanada I particularly cherish – with Tim Whiten, Nancy Graves, and Sarain Stump. All three artists offered me an open portal into their work, and my recollections are visceral. In Tim Whiten’s studio, I spent a couple of long afternoons wandering through his tables full of large stones. He had collected other materials – bones, fur – that strongly suggested the home of a tribal healer, although he didn’t call himself a healer then. I remember the space as dark and dank; I don’t know if it was, but it definitely felt underworldly. Much of Whiten’s work involved wrapping, and the place in which that happened had the taste of uncanniness. He spoke seriously and well about reverent ways of wrapping stone, clearly representing a unique discipline he’d also taught his students as they helped. I think it’s characteristic of a Kalavinka form of exploration that spending time with the wrapped pieces and being allowed to touch them – steeping in the feel of their home – led me to a feeling of being wrapped. Whiten told me that those who worked with him had said this, too.

I’d met Shoshone artist Sarain Stump at an interdenominational meeting of native and Christian spiritual

leaders, I believe at York University. The conference had been meant to further intercultural cooperation among religious leaders. As I remember, in beginning negotiations they decided the most productive way to talk would be for participants to sit in a silent circle. Anyone who felt moved to speak told what he had in his heart. I don’t think this traditional council method produced any bullet-point agreements, but it was fascinating to watch. (I helped videotape.) A great deal of honest personal expression about the destruction of native spirituality and ways of life took place there. From that gathering, I was invited to others. I remember Sarain playing a wooden flute at pow-wows. He was a young visual artist, poet and educator and, like many native people there, he was generous with me, talking of what he was after in life and work. Anne Brodzky asked me to write for artscanada about his art, and I traveled to Saskatchewan to interview him and see the paintings. One of them seemed to carry a wild, skin-shearing howl right out of a shaman’s dream.

On interviews with Tim Whiten and Sarain Stump, Chicano poet and social activist Cecilio García-Camarillo participated, and he gave me a sounding board as I wrote the pieces. Cecilio was deeply grounded in Aztec and Native American spirituality and had grown up near the Mexican border around curanderas who practiced with massage and herbs. We were lovers who would eventually live together for ten years and have three children; in my early, Canadian times of a Kalavinka way of working, we were about as connected as a double-handled water jar. Cecilio and I made the Saskatchewan trip together, and in the charged spirit of that time, Sarain and he connected like brothers. All Sarain had been asked to do was show his work, but he shared his commitment to help native youth rediscover their heritage, making art in a local institute. He also gave us gifts worthy of royal spirits: rare recordings of Atahualpa’s music and an astounding cassette tape from Peru. Machu Picchu was still fairly inaccessible; there were no tourists to intrude on native festivals then. Sarain’s tape held twanging harp music from elders in the Andes, the plangent singing of women, and the record of a ceremony where young children sang to bring up the sun. Sarain said it had been explained to him that if the children did not do this each year, the sun could never return.

The late Nancy Graves adventured in extreme realms; her early work featured on-site film of camels in the middle eastern desert. Later, through NASA, she had access to satellite maps from distant space that informed her drawings. Her sculpture was brilliantly colored, full of grace and vitality. I visited Graves in New York to write about her work for artscanada. I remember her studio as immense, one cavernous corner of its top floor filled with dismantled armatures from her camel sculptures. Her discipline and the force with which she pursued her projects were formidable. For me, Graves was a full-out priestess of imagination. She made the sacrifices that many serious artists of those days executed fearlessly; she’d suffered serious winter pneumonia, living and working vigorously in that studio too huge to heat.

Graves was the one artist I’ve interviewed for print who tried to direct my subject matter. Seeing me taking notes in front of a particular drawing, she asked me to write on another one instead. I asked why. She said that nobody had covered it yet. I was in my late twenties, thoroughly unfamiliar with the business of art criticism. When I protested that what I wrote for artscanada couldn’t affect her reputation, she told me I had no idea of the power my words might have on a career – that I was a critic whether I meant to be or not. Her worldly history with the politics of positioning shocked me into first awareness of how unusual the artscanada way of dealing was.

I did the piece the way I wanted, and kept to the journal’s policy of showing nothing to artists before it appeared. Graves later wrote me that she loved the piece; I’m still glad and relieved. She had laser-beam focus; it took immense courage for a woman then to follow so isolated and determined a path. Before she sculpted camels she went to the Middle East on a grant and filmed their movements with an anthropologist’s care. The results – her hoary, inimitable, lifesized camels covered with camel skin, and how she found and learned and created them – all of that has remained an inspiration.

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Image: Tim Whiten. Untitled, 1970-71; stone and leather. Courtesy of Anne Brodzky. Photo: Eberhard Otto.


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