In 1975 I went to college to study graphic design and 3 years later graduated with a major in sculpture instead. Despite my success as an art student and one of those most likely to succeed, it wasn’t long before I returned to Thunder Bay and started full-time at the paper mill.
I remember a colleague breaking his finger with a hammer so he could get time off. Another who drove a Corvette, sold drugs and had a handgun. There was a disturbingly quiet guy and more than one novelist. I made friends, worked Sundays on Ernie’s Crew for extra money, bought a truck and moved into a musty basement apartment. On Ernie’s Crew we crawled inside the machines, pressure sprayed and scrubbed them down with caustic cleaners. You were considered lucky to be there.
In the apartment, fishing line was stretched between floor and ceiling to isolate and define space. Sculpture. A rusty tricycle was suspended in the kitchen and large rocks were piled everywhere. Beer cases were stacked and smoke hung in the air. I would drive to Lake Superior after night shifts, walk up the shoreline and pile rocks. Mark the landscape. Scratch it. Lay down and doze off. Tell myself over and over that I was an artist and this was my path. I was lost. Biding time. Surviving the shock between school and the rest of my life.
In the summer of 79 a series of serendipitous meetings saw me quickly pack up in Thunder Bay and head to Yellowknife with my older cousin. J who saved me. Took me under his crow black wing. We didn’t stay long in the Territories and by the fall were living in an abandoned log cabin in northern Alberta. We found work as labourers and on the weekend I taught imagination workshops to kids in the back room of an art supply store. Friday night showers at the tavern. Minus 40 winter nights and a tin airtight, stoked and glowing cherry red. Starting the truck mornings with a tiger torch and length of stovepipe shoved under the oil pan. Breakfast at the Husky station. Playing chess by candlelight. Ram Dass and Alan Watts. B arrived before long in his blue Ford Custom with Brautigan and Tom Robbins.
Behind the cabin was a chain of beaver dams and ponds. At night I often walked over the hard packed snow and across the dams. When I stopped in the middle of a frozen pond, looked up and around, I would be overwhelmed with the urge to express myself. A breathing young man, would-be artist alone in a winter landscape. All silence. River of stars and Northern Lights shimmering. One foot lifted, touching the next step.