When the Spirit Moves
Paul Morin’s art and music are inspired by his travels among the world’s aboriginal peoples.
Dawn glows intense and pink very early in the morning at Yangshuo, southern China. Its shadowless light reveals the eerie countryside. Primordial coral reefs now jut into the air, steep hills and snaggle-toothed mountains born under ancient seas.
In this light, Erin artist Paul Morin was seeking inspiration. Paul lives in a cedar house at the edge of a forest and wetland with his wife, Janine, and sons, Palmer and Kadin. His home and studio are on his property southwest of the town of Erin, but his work has taken him around the world.
On that early morning mountainside, “I was working on the illustrations for a dragon story,” he says. “Dragons are very much alive in China. The people see proof of their existence every day, in the way the water flows and the rains come.” As he climbed the limestone slope, Paul realized that every step up the mountain was carved. “Amazing characters and pictographs covered 10,000 stones or more. I was walking up the mountain on the work of many artists over a long, long time.”
Reflecting on why he was there and marvelling at the decoration on each rock as he climbed, Paul’s eyes reached a ledge, an open flat area. An iridescent blue frog sat in the middle of it, perhaps waiting for the sunshine. As Paul wondered what the frog was there to teach him, out of the corner of his eye he saw a small, vivid green snake slithering toward the hapless frog. It lunged and caught its meal.
As the bulge of the frog slid through it, the snake’s scales lifted to reveal a brilliant red. Paul recognized the colours he was looking for and suddenly it seemed only natural that the caves in this karst were the homes of dragons.
“I had just received an answer to my question, where does the dragon come from. I carried on, walking up steps, excited by the inspiration. At the top, I heard the first radio click on in village below. Everyone woke at once and scurried to the river to fill their water buckets as the sun cleared the early morning mist.”
The book he was researching, The Dragon’s Pearl, was published in 1992 and won three literary awards, including one from the Canadian Library Association. In all, his work has been honoured twenty-five times. Paul has now illustrated sixteen books. They are shelved as children’s books, but the illustrations and the mythology have a much broader appeal.
Paul’s early work after art school (Ontario College of Art, Sheridan College, Grant MacEwan College) was as a commercial illustrator, often painting moody landscape backgrounds. “Doing that gave me a taste of the different kinds of art, the different mediums, and I developed different styles. Brush and canvas intrigued me, then I got into textures.”
An early trip to Africa set Paul on another path. His parents were there for his father’s work, showing the people how to operate a new railroad built to supply a remote bauxite mine. “I left Toronto in a snowstorm,” Paul says. “And thirty-nine hours later, I got off the plane in Guinea, West Africa. It was thirty-three degrees and I was smashed in the face with the heat. Dad met me and we flew two or three hundred kilometres to the compound where he lived. I realized then that it was we who were in the cage and it was the animals who came to look at us. I couldn’t sleep. I was living every jungle fantasy I’d ever had.”
The visual experience was striking but the sights were linked to the extraordinary sounds – the scratch and chirp of insects, and the “heartbeat” of the land in the drumming. “I began taking videos and recording the sounds of the environment that inspired the art.” Paul began to collect indigenous musical instruments, as well, and learned to play them.
Today he continues to combine original recordings with his own instrumentation and the sounds of nature to create an atmosphere of place.
A second trip to Africa, this time to Kenya and Tanzania, resulted in his first book, The Orphan Boy, which won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration in 1990.
The musical environments he creates – he has released a dozen or more CDs – not only help Paul to recall whole experiences as he begins to paint, they provide an atmosphere for everyone to breathe in as they encounter the finished art, helping to make the experience whole. In addition to his experiences in China and Africa, Paul has met the aboriginal people of North, Central and South America, and Australia.
The success of his books has given Paul the freedom to exercise his passion for travel to remote places and experience life in indigenous environments. When his publisher commissioned him to illustrate and write a book on the experience of Australia’s aboriginal people, he had to meet them, of course, but he wasn’t sure how to approach them without appearing to be just another tourist with a mild and easily distracted curiosity. So first he went to Mexico.
In the Sierra Madre, Paul took part in an ancient ceremony in a medicine lodge. The shaman was Piaroan, from the Amazon. Paul says the elders knew, without his telling them, what his question and intentions were. They guided him through a medicine wheel and gave him gifts of cigars, tobacco seeds and other items to give to the Australian elders.
In Australia, Paul met one of the last keepers of the “dream time” – their term for all of creation from the formation of the world to its end. The elder, Big Bill Neidjie, spoke to Paul for a day in guttural, virtually unintelligible noises, apparently trying to dismiss him as a tourist.
The second day, when Paul gave him the gifts of cigars and seeds and showed him the medicine wheel, he laughed. Speaking quite clearly, now, he said to Paul that in his sleep “the little people” had told him about Paul’s visit and that he would bring the gifts and the wheel. “I hadn’t told him where I got them,” Paul says. “And I didn’t tell him that the people I had been with were short, but somehow he knew, somehow they had told him of my intentions.” The experience inspired his book, Animal Dreaming.
However, Paul does not have to travel to distant continents to find inspiration. A painting called “Pond Glow” (on our cover) is a scene in his own wetland. “Star Lodge” is the reflection of his sweat lodge roof in the water that gathered underneath. And Paul continues many of the aboriginal ceremonies at his home.
In addition to his sweat lodge, he has built his own kiva, a large pithouse, perhaps twenty feet across. The Pueblo and Hopi people in southwestern United States create them for their ceremonial activities. Traditionally, they are covered with flat roofs with a hole in the centre for smoke.
“People in the Four Corners region have built kivas for thousands of years,” says Paul. “The only access is through the fire hole but mine has a side entrance.” His is also made of concrete and because the ground is so wet, the fire pit tends to fill with water in the early spring, and this year a crawfish took up residence. Paul uses a submersible pump to empty it in time for various ceremonies.
“We put our good intentions into the water before we pump it out and let it flow to the river nearby. In the kiva we celebrate the equinox and solstice,” Paul says. “The harmonics are amazing when we’re drumming or throat singing. There are tones and places where the harmonics make sounds you can feel through your body.”
Paul’s studio is on his property, too. The first floor of the frame building is a jumble of carvings, instruments and other constructions that Paul has made or is in the middle of making. Upstairs, the aboriginal music of the Orinoco basin in Venezuela sets the tone. The music helps recreate the experience and recall the scenes.
As a student and then a commercial illustrator, Paul says he treated deadlines as sacrosanct. Today, however, he paints, records or experiences his surroundings when the spirit moves him, at any time of day. “I get up and walk in the woods at three in the morning. I listen to the spring peepers and watch the play of moon and starlight. I’m always squinting to change my focus, looking through my camera and cropping what I see until a picture is revealed. Then I paint.”
In many of his works, Paul reveals the subject to the viewer as he feels it is revealed to him. He starts by painting, in a sense, what isn’t there. “To paint a tree, I sometimes paint the light that shines between its leaves and branches.” Painting the negative space reveals the tree, just as a sculptor chips away what isn’t needed to reveal the shape that is hidden in the stone.
Paul brings his experiences to life in his seminars on art, music and primitive cultures at schools, libraries and other venues across the country. His books and paintings have appeared in Dragonfly Arts on Broadway in Orangeville. He has had several shows and performances at the Burdette Gallery near Orton and recently he has opened his own gallery on Main Street in Rockwood.
This summer, Paul will present a collection of his new works at the Burdette Gallery, including his own music. A pending commission will take Paul to coastal Labrador to document an archaeological dig for another children’s book. No doubt the sounds of the wind, the birds and the ocean will be an integral part of the art revealed to him there.