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Seeking solace in the power of art in a world turned upside-down

I couldn't look at Twitter any more and sleep simply would not come. It was Tuesday night – well, early Wednesday – and I had watched what felt like a catastrophic world shift from the comfort of my couch. Looking for refuge or – this may have been a stretch – inspiration to guide my depleted spirit through the darkness, I summoned patriotism and went searching for the first images I had understood to be Canadian. Because more than ever I was aware of how fortunate I was to have been born in this country, not that one.

I apologize if this is hokey. It's all true.

Tom Thomson was freshly on my mind. Earlier that day, when the bubble in which I reside was floating through optimistic, gleefully unaware air, I had been looking at pictures of the Canadian artist's paintings for a story I was working on. That led me down a Group of Seven rabbit hole brimming with swaying trees and glistening icebergs. Maybe it was the heightened atmosphere of the day when the United States was supposed to make history, elect its first female president and put the Trump nightmare to bed – but those paintings made me feel something: an energetic warmth, a complicated familiarity. Hours later, in the middle of the night, those images became a sanctuary.

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In terrible times, truths emerge. And so do the artists.

"Use that anger, yes," Maya Angelou advised comedian Dave Chappelle in 2006. "You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it." As we deal with the consequences of what was, at least in part, an anger vote, we can take our questions to art. In whatever form – a painting, a symphony, a Springsteen anthem – art can help us make sense of the weird world, the humans who make bad decisions and the injuries we suffer – sometimes as a result of those decisions, sometimes from malice or ignorance, sometimes just because. Art can keep us company, help us recognize that we are not alone. Others have faced this before, are facing it right now, maybe reading the same words.

My exercise in election-night self-soothing was not about patriotism. While it was a comfort to lose myself in those colourful Canadian hills and streams, it was the neighbours to the south who were on my mind. I thought about the Walker Evans exhibition that opened recently at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I pulled out the brick of a catalogue published for the retrospective of the iconic U.S. artist, leafing through pages of photos of Evans's black-and-white America – gritty and impoverished, but on the brink of enormous change. In the lean faces of the farming families in the Depression-era South, the ground-down subway riders of New York, the listless men hanging around outside the New Deal Barbershop, I saw desperation but also resilience. And hope.

I would sleep after all. From my bedside table, I picked up the fine Canadian novel that the previous night – a lifetime ago – had won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, sending author Madeleine Thien up to the podium in a swirl of Canlit love, where she delivered a brief, gracious gem of a speech. I reread the beginning, where the strains of Bach's Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4 awaken a buried memory in the narrator.

Wednesday night, still in shock really, I found an antidote in opening night for playwright/actor Tracey Power's Miss Shakespeare in Vancouver. It's a Canadian musical with an all-female cast that imagines the theatrical ambitions of the Bard's youngest daughter, Judith, at a time when women were not allowed onstage.

Did it ever feel empowering to watch this on a day when women felt so let down, so impotent. To be packed into a theatre with people who felt the same way. To laugh at lines like, "We believe that making theatre is like making a child: If you want to be truly successful, you need more than just a penis."

Art, at the very least, can offer you a good time, a distraction. But crucially, it provides an outlet for resistance. It is the language of despair and dissent.

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"How can the life of such a man / Be in the palm of some fool's hand," sang Bob Dylan in Hurricane – about the racism-infused wrongful conviction of Rubin (Hurricane) Carter. Maybe the Nobel Prize jury got it right, after all. When events have us questioning everything, artists make art – and the rest of us can find refuge in it. If the answer isn't blowin' in the wind, it might be in a poem, film or hip-hop song.

Art is how we heal. It is an essential element in how we express ourselves, how we protest and how we overcome. We are going to need to remember that.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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