LivingArts: Diligence

Back when I was a young buck, trying to figure out this whole ‘life of an artist’ thing, I came across a magazine article on Leo Tolstoy. In it there was this factoid about how he structured his day-to-day life by dividing his working day into even quarters:  six hours for sleeping, six hours for writing, six hours for chores and physical labour, and six hours for family.   This factoid has always stayed with me. From my panicky, distracted point of view it represents an unattainable diligence; comparing my regime to Tolstoy’s has therefore always turned into an act of self-loathing (for example, Tor’s current day: 7 hours sleep, 9 hours day job, 2 hours cooking family meals while drinking, 4 hours Facebook trolling American politics, 2 hours putting off making art).

I’ve had two wildly different encounters with diligence this past month that have affected me. First, I had the privilege to see the graphic novelist and illustrator Seth as part of a film screening and artist talk arranged by the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Epic Booksellers. I have been aware of Seth for years, have read enough of his work to understand his artistic mission, and have seen enough photos of him to understand that he might be a ‘character’. Indeed, I can now say after having seen him, that Seth so satisfyingly fulfills my expectation of what a cartoonist should look and sound like, that I almost still can’t believe he is real. It’s much easier to think of him as a existing in a film noir starring Steve Buscemi.

But the thing that affected me most about Seth was not his round glasses, fedora, and perfectly appointed wardrobe; it was more the stories he told about just how deliberately he set about crafting this persona. Seth described an artistic practice that seemed utterly and rigorously thought out. He worked according to a repetitive schedule. He spent rafts of time alone. He devoted a portion of his working day to projects solely intended for his own private edification, never to be monetized or made public. He and his spouse paid careful attention to the furnishing of their house, building a repertoire of clothes for both their public and private lives, crafting a post-war aesthetic perfectly consistent with the artist’s illustrative work.

I was quite humbled by this degree of dedication. The life and persona he inhabits is a fabrication, but one that he has made real, simply by devoting himself to it as completely as he can, for as long as he can. It strikes me that many art pursuits set out to convert a fanciful idea into something of material weight and consequence; Seth perhaps has just pushed his own pursuit to its most immersive limit, perhaps to greater ensure its transition into the real.

The other experience I had, quite different from Seth, was at a launch for the children’s book I am Not a Number with Ojibway/Anishinaabe author Jenny Dupuis, coordinated by the Aboriginal Health Center, Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, and other local indigenous health and education groups. Ms. Dupuis was virtually the polar opposite of Seth in many ways. She was a reluctant speaker, and she admitted she was also a reluctant children’s author. The story of her grandmother’s experience in a residential school, as Dupuis explained to her audience, was one that needed to be told, a necessary part of the long process of reconciliation and healing.  

In order to take on such a project properly, however it needed to be scrupulously honest. Dupuis described the steps she needed to take to ensure her book took no fictional liberties in the telling. She explained how she almost abandoned the project when she couldn’t confirm her grandmother’s residential school number, knowing that to fabricate a number just for the sake of the story was a betrayal of the truth. She showed the wealth of photographic evidence she compiled so that the book’s illustrator would not commit any unnecessary falsehoods in the illustration.  

This entrenched sense of honesty was thrilling to witness. And days later I kept comparing Dupuis with Seth, seeing less and less difference and more similarity. It seemed that Seth’s world of fiction and artifice and Dupuis’ documentary realism were both governed by a deep commitment to truth, a devotion to a deeper goal.

And in between these two experiences I spent far too much time on Facebook trolling the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency—an abject lesson in deceit, inconsistency, and recklessness spurning out endless hours of vapid responses, easy comedy, and hysteria. It has made me believe again in the value of artists and the slow, quiet things they bring into the world, and what an antidote to the poison of our time is a diligent, authentic work regime.