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Work: My Visual Arts Background

This was originally published as Why Am I Here and Where I'm Coming From? at Photongraphics.

What lead to my becoming a photographer? As a child, I was fascinated with technology, but, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered "artist". My teachers at school made it a point of telling my parents how talented I was at art and written composition. (Academically, I was barely a "D" in everything else.) But photography is a technology so really it was a combination of my love of art and of technology that got me on my current path.

I got my first formal art lessons at 12, when I lived in a Montreal suburb. Every weekend I visited the home of a local artist for semi-private lessons. She lived in a stone cottage that had so many annexes it was hard to tell where the main entrance was. There was no space on the walls for all of her pictures so the ceilings were also covered. The place was awesome: a real inspiration for me!

Whenever my grandmother visited, I got oil painting lessons. She was an accomplished painter and art teacher. It was from her that I actually got my serious grounding in visual composition and colour.

As for technology, I don't remember exactly when I first became fascinated with it. But as a child I just had to take everything apart that I could get my hands on. Nothing worked once I got hold of it, much to the chagrin of my mother, but I was obsessed with finding out how all those mysterious geometrical pieces could combine together to make working appliances. I continued to disassemble whatever I could abscond with, but got few answers. The major technological breakthrough was when I got a cat whisker crystal. This is the key component in a "crystal radio". I followed the tiny instruction sheet on how to build a radio from scratch and, voila... it didn't work! And nor should it have: the instructions failed to mention a few equally important other key components. (Since you're going to ask, there was no coil or capacitor mentioned in the instructions).

Building a working radio was an achievable goal and learning what I needed in order to build it gave me some needed focus. The radio that finally worked didn't use the cat whisker (it used a germanium diode) and was build from acquired knowledge, rather than merely following instructions. I still remember my excitement, the first time it worked, as the sound of Glen Campbell singing Wichita Lineman chirped out of the earphone. (That should tell you what year it was, too.)

Photography didn't come until I was about fourteen or fifteen. I went to a meeting of the school camera club and it was there that for the first time I saw a murky print image emerge from the developing bath. Whoa, more technology! I was hooked.

I later became a volunteer in the Audio/Visual department of my high school, which gave me access to all kinds of creative tools. Everybody talks about "multimedia" today. The stuff you get on your computer today is "single medium", not "multi" media. And it pales when compared to the kind of stuff we were doing back then with projectors and high-powered sound systems.

I continued to be active in the camera club and was the club president for my last two years in high school. I was also a major photo contributor to the high school yearbooks. I attended Sheridan College (Applied Photography) and worked hard academically for the first time in my life. But I had to drop out for lack of funds. (I still think about going back.) I worked on and off doing weddings and newspaper photos but lack of artistic expression left me cold, so in the late 1970s I stopped pursuing photography in a serious way, all the while lamenting what I might have accomplished.

In the 1980s all my creative energies continued to go into technology. I worked in electronic instrumentation doing calibration & repair, which gave me tremendous practical experience in measurement and control. (Today, I apply those principles to my photography.) The instrumentation experience led to jobs in computer hardware and which in turn led to doing customer support and training. It was with a company that specialized in computer products for the food service industries. I happened to have a love of food and restaurants so doing customer support in restaurants and hotels was... well, surprisingly, I didn't gain much weight, but I was definitely in my element there.

I eventually went freelance consultant which allowed me to cover more aspects of the hospitality industries. I trained staff, trouble-shot ailing restaurants, did audits, developed menus, developed food service software, took on partners and went corporate.

Those were heady years. But the day-to-day stress was hammering at me so I decided it was time for another change and I set the wheels in motion to come to Japan. When I finally came to Japan in late 1990, I had no idea how long I would be here; only a vague notion that would learn the language and culture, but my interest in Japan ran deeper than bonsai coffee table books. There was something in the pure adventure of it that beckoned me.

More than thirteen years later there is still some sense of adventure which is part of what keeps me here. But I confess that the only thing that really stops me from moving on to new places and new adventures is that I have an established livelihood.

The most significant thing about coming to Japan was that my stress dropped and my free time became creative fuel. I got back into photography and, with the moral support of a great bunch of local photographers, started doing exhibits. The exhibits have been a tremendous for giving me goals to focus on, and have been a real boost to my credibility as a professional, not to mention they get me new customers. And, while Shizuoka is not cutting edge in the visual arts, it has given me opportunities that I probably wouldn't have got in Tokyo or Osaka, or anywhere in my birth country of Canada. In Shizuoka there is less sense of urgency that has kept my stress low and my eyes and ears open. It is from observation that my creativity flows. And it is my background in various other arts and sciences that has given me some valuable tools and a never-ending flow of new directions.

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