Art, Arts & Life, City & Politics, Essay

Our perfect Alcatraz

It was an inspired idea – sometimes a notion is just so big that you think it must be the gift of a Higher Power – and it arrived as I watched Vic Toews defend something or other on the TV news.

Now bear in mind that I know Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister for Public Safety. We’ve known each other for 25 years, from when he was a mere prosecutor, and then a constitutional lawyer, and in the private sector, before all this politics. More recently – neither of us could have predicted this – it fell to me to offer him non-partisan communications advice, which he both blatantly and wisely ignored.

We know each other so well, Vic and I – if I may call him Vic – that the last time we ran into each other on a downtown Winnipeg sidewalk he quipped: “Ah, so they’re letting you roam the streets by yourself these days!” And he laughed out loud and went on his way. And I chuckled too.

A mental note

But later, as I thought about it, Vic’s words gave me reason to pause. Here was the Minister of Public Safety and he was taking personal note of the fact that I was at liberty to roam the streets. He also implied there were unknown people who might be empowered to set limits on my freedom, and he noted the gift of the present: “these days” as opposed to some time when I might not be so free.

How could one not be impressed and grateful for such intimate concern for my liberty and well-being?

I wondered if Vic did this for everyone, if this was his job, you know, to make a mental note of who’s out on the street and who’s not. Maybe that’s what Public Safety ministers are supposed to do: likeMaxwell’s Sorting Demon they effortlessly, naturally, and sometimes by fiat, see who is where and somehow know if it looks right and whether some of us should be on the street now or at all.

Anyway my big idea was this: I was watching Vic on TV and I admit I was lamenting slightly that I sometimes have to work for a living.

Because we really crave more time for the living side, rather than the work side, of the equation: to make new things and to sustain endeavours such as this blog. Yes, we know this lament is the time-worn crucible of all lollygagging creative types, to dream of being free to just play all the time.

So it occurred to me that the really perfect place, the place where I might enjoy the fullest extent of my freedom, might be in prison.

Making sense

The exquisite irony of this idea, wherever it came from, is not lost on us. As my friend Cecil recently noted, here we are together on this planet hurtling through space at 70,000 mph, on high speed wobble, and spinning on our axis at 1,000 mph, and so we are quite naturally trying to make sense of it all.

So we dream. And in our perfect Alcatraz, in the bold and woolly Pentonville of our imagination, in our ideal Kingston, we’d enjoy the freedom and luxury of being able to observe and to paint without the distraction of work.

Some of you will argue that an artist should not shun honest work, that time spent getting one’s hands dirty builds character. The artist will reply that he does in fact work, he works at making art. And I will say that I don’t mind work, but when I make either a painting or an observation it does not feel like work at all.

Yes, it is true that even after he published Prufrock and The Waste LandT.S. Eliot continued his day job at Lloyd’s bank. And we know that Wallace Stevens found time to be an insurance executive and that William Carlos Williams was a physician who jotted poems between medical house calls.

We know prison would be no cake-walk. We should not expect to watch porn. There might be other limitations – the lighting on the canvas we are painting might not be great in the dungeon. A guard might, on short notice and rather gruffly, demand a view up the old l’oeil de Gabes. There surely would be, Conrad Black would advise here, other untold indignities that befall the miscreant with creative bent.

Yet at this tender dawning of the 21st century we continually are told that we must consider the overall work-life balance. Who is to say that a Canadian Guantanamo might not be a civilized step in the direction of advancing such balance?

An audacious thought: what if government shut down Heritage Canada, took the savings, and built a giant Wormwood Scrubs to safely house the artists? I fear that would be far too inspired and over the top. They’d more than likely just take the ones who rely on government grants, and leave the rest of us to roam the streets. But I’ll be sure to suggest it to Vic next time we bump.


(Top Image: The Isle of the Gods 9″ x 12″ watercolours)

David Roberts is a writer and painter and combines both at his which is the home of the Illustrated Essay.