An article posted by James Strecker april 22 2018 (http://jamesstrecker.com/words/?p=2083)
JAMES STRECKER: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, or have done, in the arts, what would you say?
CATHERINE THOMPSON: Catherine Thompson was a Canadian long rider, instrument maker, musician, composer, performer, visual and material artist. Her work was devoted to connection with nature. After many years in Canada, her final time found her ensconced among the mountains of northern Thailand. She practised Kendo and Iaido.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
CT: My primary motivation in my work has always been focused around my deep personal connection with the natural world and in some way to present my perspectives to the world at large. It really is at the root of everything that I do and care about. Within that broad foundation I might say that I strive for a kind of clear thinking and focus in what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to find English words to express what I mean but it’s not really working. I think that perhaps the Japanese concepts of Wabi-sabi and Shibumi are much clearer meanings of what I mean. To explain Shibumi, Shibui (adjective), shibumi (noun), or shibusa (noun) are Japanese words which refer to a particular aesthetic of simplicity, subtlety, and unobtrusive beauty.
To explain Wabi-sabi, in traditional Japanese aesthetics, Wabi-sabi is a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (sanbōin), specifically impermanence (mujō), suffering (ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (kū).
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
CT: The naturalist John A Livingston, who passed away, if I remember correctly, in 2005, has had a profound influence on my thinking in regards to our human place on the earth. Many might not know him by name but will, if of a certain vintage, know him from the older Hinterland Who’s Who nature vignettes. (https://youtu.be/i9X8RFABXRg)
A naturalist to the core, he refused to call himself an environmentalist and for that alone I adore him. On a CBC Ideas program in the late 80s, he said something akin to ‘the environmental movement is mostly made up with those who want to keep everything the same and still get away with it.’ To my eyes little has changed.
Not too sure who to mention as a second. There are many amongst family and friends that I truly admire, but I’d rather leave that bunch out of it.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
CT: I’ve been doing creative activities since a young child and so there have been quite a few significant changes in my life since then, what with me being sixty years old now. I can say that as I have stumbled about and managed to get myself where I presently am, my focus has become clearer and my willingness to put up with nonsense (or at least what I perceive as so) is at a pretty low bar. I pretty much always did as I wanted, when I could, but now… well life is short and things are so very dire on multiple planetary fronts so… well, I seem to have managed to set myself up, for the time being, with a situation where I can manage to take doing whatever the hell I want to do to a pretty fine and continuous level. Unless it involves pots of cash. I haven’t got that down to a fine and/or continuous level at all.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
CT: Self-confidence. A lack of it has pretty much always dogged my heels. Didn’t really stop me in the end doing what I thought I ought to be doing, but it’s been a bugger for sure. I found, and find, at times, that much of this gets amplified when amongst others. From a fairly young age, I found myself out in the wilderness on my own for extended periods of time. This was essential, these journeys, on so many levels, but not being influenced by pressure from others was a big part of this for me. It is also, I think, why a great deal of my performing has been as a soloist. Seems easier to do it on my own, I suppose. Having said that I have also been lucky to have been a part of numerous collaborations over the years that were deeply fulfilling, so…
Oh yeah. Lack of money has been a hinderance, but I already mentioned that aspect, so I won’t go on about it here.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
CT: For three years between 2011 and 2013 (not during the winter) I embarked on a solo long-distance ride on horseback through the southern plains of Saskatchewan and Alberta. There were also three years of preparation for the journey that were very much a part of the trip itself and two years before that envisioning the damn thing. In the end, it was a long slow meandering that linked the endangered and almost disappeared native prairie grasslands in the region. Because of that journey, I had the great honour of being inducted as a full member in The Long Riders Guild which is the world’s preeminent organization of equestrian explorers.
That trip, in many ways, is what led me to moving to Thailand. I was what you might call ‘nomadic’ for a good 12 years before that and the ride was a kind of ultimate culmination of that life for me. I wondered during the ride if I might find a place to settle somewhere in the southern prairies where I travelled, but no, it ended up being Thailand. It was my mom and brother, who live in SE Asia that brought me here and, on top of that, it was the place and people that ensured my staying.
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
CT: This is a little tricky, as it means me trying to interpret what I perceive from others’ perception of me wondering what they are thinking about what I do when they are thinking of how and then what and wait wait wait… where? I guess, obviously.
I often feel outside the general loop of things and this has been so all along. I’m not really thinking so much about that these days because I am absolutely out of the loop of things now. Physically I mean. No metaphor.
Well… I think that some don’t take me seriously at all, or they doubt me and/or my work, at first especially. Sometimes later this perception seems to change and people like and accept me to my satisfaction. I sometimes get the sense that some in the main stream of things see me as some nutty bush bunny, interesting enough but not really worth serious consideration. No. Wait a minute. Maybe that’s how I see myself. Nah. It couldn’t be. I take myself VERY seriously and I know that I am seriously interesting.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
CT: I really don’t know. It has always been a part of my life and I have the bank balance to prove it. There I go again.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
CT: Ummm…. nothing, actually.
I wouldn’t say no to a long ride in Mongolia and/or Siberia, but I’ve done a major long ride already, so that doesn’t really count.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
CT: The ride, for sure. It seems that a lot of my big achievements take place over 10 years or thereabouts. They are these big ill-defined ‘projects’ that are really attempts to ponder my (our) place in the natural world (it’s not going particularly well). So, it has a centre based in some sort of art or whatever, but that is really just the vehicle to explore the ideas and thoughts.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
CT: Well, there’s the obvious self-deprecation humorous cliché… don’t.
Maybe if the question was more specific that would be easier. I do a lot of different things that need to be approached from different angles. I guess I might say to do what you really deeply wish to do (if you can figure that one out) in your life, do it with as much excellence as possible, never give up, never surrender – that’s from Kendo. I would for sure recommend practising Kendo. Practising a martial art or something that can give a person some sort of potential for mayhem is an excellent idea. We don’t have much of that these days in the west on a mass scale, especially for young people. It’s probably important for us to bonk (I mean hit, not…) one another once in a while just to keep our heads on straight. Get out in the woods a lot, if you like that sort of thing. Pay attention to the world around us because things are changing very quickly now and it deserves being witnessed. The previously mentioned shibumi/wabi-sabi concepts might be something I might pass on, but then that might not be terribly shibumi/wabi-sabi-like of me to specifically do so.
JS: Of what value are critics?
CT: For me, very little. I have been a part of very few media critical revues in the past. Any that came my way were generally from dance projects that I was composing for. But they were few and far between and I always got a short mention, if any. I did get a full two paragraphs – huge, that – in a brilliant review from Michael Crabb for a project that I did with choreographer Eryn Dace Trudell. Otherwise, for the arts world at large, I’m not sure. I guess there’s value in getting the word out for shows and things. It’s valuable to be compared with others in one’s specific practice, one’s peers, community. I guess. To some extent. It’s been a long time since I read any article at all from an arts critic. But I used to read them more often when I wasn’t doing so much galavanting.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
CT: For quite a while now, my performances have been small in audience numbers and venue size and have been acoustic without any amplification and very intimate. I ask (indirectly) that when people come to see me perform that they simply allow themselves to be blanketed in the spirit of what I am doing. It works out nicely for the most part. I spent many years going to The Banff Centre and that was a place where I could set that sort of thing up easily and nicely. I’m not sure if I can play with a sound system ever again.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
CT: Bwahaha! Those who know me would know what’s coming next!
And that would be to rapidly and immediately deconstruct industrial civilization with a medium to long term vision of we humans existing at a stone-age level of technology and pre-agricultural in our manner of living. I don’t think we’d need to worry too much about the arts in that context as that sort of thing, I suppose, would just follow along with the general mayhem of things.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
CT: My first music piece in collaboration with choreographer Sasha Ivanochko holds a really lovely memory for me in so many ways. The piece was called The King and Queen of Ruins. Sasha got me to compose for a number of her pieces after that over the years and they were all wonderful experience,s but that first one, well it was special special and that’s what popped into my mind.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
CT: As I mentioned above, I get very little media attention. I do have a youtube channel, though, and have got into the habit of making videos of late. Many to do with music and my instrument making and I also did a series of videos that I called Water Walks that I made when I would go up the mountain to get my drinking water. It is an almost 4km walk there and back to the spring, about half in the forest and half on our windy village road. I often talked about environmental things, but I seemed to have lost the heart for making those videos. In part, I think, because I probably made enough of them and got my point across as much as I might and, when I’m in a more cynical mood, it seems past needing now. I’ll probably get back at it when I have something pertinent to say. Maybe when we have our first arctic sea ice blue ocean event! That’s something to look forward to.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why
CT: Mongolia and Donegal in NW Ireland.
Mongolia is somewhere I have not been and it has been on my mind as a place to spend time in for a long while now. This place because of its similarity land-wise and climate-wise to south Saskatchewan and Alberta, its long and vital horse culture, and I also love the music from central Asia generally and Mongolia specifically.
I spent a summer in Gleann Colm Cille, Donegal in 2001 taking part in Irish language immersion and sean nós (traditional, literally ‘old style’) singing workshops. A good deal of my family roots are from Ireland (though not Donegal) and it felt like coming home in so many ways. My ideas that a language emerges, in part, from a land, a place, were deepened tremendously during that summer. Somehow the crash of the ocean on the rocks, the specific ways the wind plays over the grass, the rain upon the ground brought to my mind that the land helps to create a very language itself. In that context, English seems quite an imposing entity. If I wasn’t in Thailand, I might consider living in Donegal. If they’d have me. Might consider Mongolia too on that account. It’s less rainy there and then I could live in a Ger. I have spent a huge amount of my life tent living and I love that.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
CT: Goze in the Foothills of the Himalaya (https://gozefoothills.wordpress.com) is the most recent project that I have been working on, though it has been on a sort of hiatus for almost a year now. I need a couple more years away from it to continue on but, all willing, I will do so soon enough.
This project was an honouring and exploration of the Goze who were active in times past in Japan. Mostly blind, the Goze would travel the countryside and perform, sing, play the shamisen and no doubt pass on the news of the day as well as much-loved stories. This idea is an extension of my nomadic past and interests which in themselves come from my roots in traditional Irish music and the itinerant nature of that music in ancient times.
I have had an interest in moving cultures for a long time. Hunter gatherer especially. In terms of why they matter, there is a big aspect for me that it’s important to not get too too comfortable and, in that, whenever possible it is valuable to remember what it feels like to be diminished, to be uncomfortable, to be in danger. To my view, modern societies avoid that sort of thing like the bloody plague and avoidance of it will probably end up biting us in the ass. Hard.
My most recent ‘project’ or perhaps endeavour is a better word, has been shifting over to making guitars. ( https://musicforestinstruments.wordpress.com) I’m making flamenco guitars at the moment and will include classicals as well soon enough. There is something about the making of something beautiful with a lovely sound, and nothing more than that that feels like a really good thing to be doing right now. Shibumi, you know.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
CT: I’ve been so isolated from the outside arts world for so long that it’s difficult for me to comment other than to say that I can’t be arsed. I’ve been looking for a spot to use the phrase, ‘I can’t be arsed’, and now I’ve found it.
I lived in the fringes of the art world when I was in Toronto and it’s been a good 17 or 18 years since I left there. A lot of what I see and hear about now is via the internet and from what friends are up to. It seems that there are lots of interesting things going on. Not too many seem to care much at all about the state of the natural world so that is, I guess, depressing enough for me. Well, people say they care, but it does not seem a true confession, that. From this distance where I am looking from, I feel like identity politics is getting a bit of a foothold on things generally and in the arts specifically and I really dislike and distrust that. We’ll see soon enough where that all goes I suppose.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
CT: Every now and then I get myself pulled into a project and I get the deep feeling and thought that I already know how to do this, that I have done this before. This has happened a number of times over the years, but it is still rare enough. I certainly felt this when I was teaching myself to brain/smoke tan deer hides and then a little while afterwards to hunt and dress deer.
More recently it came to me again when I started making guitars, flamenco guitars specifically. I did have reference materials, certainly, but it was a deep thought that I knew how to do this already and that all I really needed to do was to wait until I had a full image of what I was to do and then I went ahead and did it. I’ve only made two guitars to date but they are both really good – the second technically and cosmetically somewhat better – and sound excellent, pretty close to exactly what I was hoping for sound wise. When this happens, I will often say half-jokingly that it was ancestral memory at work. I don’t really know what it’s all about, but I can say that it is bloody exciting, if also exhausting. I would really like to say that I’ve been channelling Santos Hernandez, but that just seems a tad presumptuous.