Break Week 15

Jeff Powell
9 min readJul 27, 2019


Greetings everyone. It’s been an interesting week for me, and I hope it’s been good to you.

Before I begin I need to address the elephant in the room: this post is, apparently, late. I’ve been contacted by two different readers telling me my “adoring public” — yes one of them actually used that phrase — is waiting eagerly by their computers for a bell to ring, signifying the arrival of a new missive from me. Frankly, it sounds more than a bit Pavlovian, and I hope the bulk of you are not slavishly hanging on my every word.

As you will read below, there are reasons this post is coming out a bit later than the recent past would have you expect. Beyond that, the contract I made with myself is to “post at least once a week.” That’s it. Specifically note nothing says what day my posts should come out. For the last three months (give or take) they’ve come out on Friday, because that was easy to arrange. I was at home during the day, Anne was working, so I could hide in my office and write without seeming to hide from her or any specific duties. But at times that doesn’t happen, and — in this case at least — the post has moved to Saturday. This will happen again. Trust me. Once school is back in session and things are really nuts in the ceramics lab, I might not post until Sunday. The horror!

I trust everyone is OK with that arrangement? Good. Now, on to the real business of the week.

First up, some of what has been going on is all the stuff that a 50+ year old couple has to get done after their immigration status changes. You can imagine that a 20-something non-refugee coming to a new country will have a bare bones bank account and the physical stuff they can carry (more or less). Simply by virtue of our advancing years, our lives are much more complicated. So everything takes longer. In addition, the way we moved here seems to be a bit abnormal. Not a lot of Americans move to Canada on a student visa and then get permanent residency two years later, it seems. Some things that are simple for immigrants arriving in more normal ways are less than obvious for us, but we’re plodding along. Everything can be done, but sometimes we have to ask how to do any particular thing three times before we discover who knows the answers.

That’s as much detail as I am going to put into these posts about this sort of stuff. Anything else is TMI. If you really want to know more you’ll just have to ask in person. Some of my personal life has to stay personal, you know.

But here is an example I can share. One of the things happening at the moment is car insurance renewal. For those curious about the state of things in Canada, I would say mostly it’s better here. There is health insurance for everyone — and it’s inexpensive — and I see a lot of infrastructure work going on all the time. Canadians love to complain about these things — and the traffic — but mostly they really have no clue how good they’ve got it. One place where I actually tend to agree with their complaints is auto insurance here in BC.

In California we dealt with just one insurance agent for 30 years. We saw her in person rarely: once to do the initial setup and after that only when we had to make major changes for something. Insurance renewal was handled by mail (and more recently, over the internet). If we bought a new car we could get it insured with a single phone call. Easy stuff. As you’d expect for the US, it was a private company we dealt with.

By way of comparison, BC gave up on private car insurance in 1973. All car insurance here is provided by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia — ICBC — and the differences between it and what we experienced back in California are stark.

First off, car insurance is expensive. Very expensive, in fact. And even with a letter from our old insurance company stating we had no accidents for — literally — decades, our discount up here only goes so far. I estimate car insurance in BC costs at least twice what we paid in California.

More interesting is just how poor all the technology around managing your insurance is. To renew, you have to go to an agent, in person. There is no way to renew online, or even by mail. And if you’re changing benefits or coverage, all insured parties must be present to provide wet signatures. Apparently, if you want insurance renewal reminders sent to you by mail, you need to sign a form to allow that.

And I suppose I should mention that ICBC is losing money in a big way. Lots and lots of money.

Honestly, as much as I appreciate what Canada has to offer, and just how well most of it works, dealing with car insurance in BC feels like a return to the stone age.

In other news, the big time sink this week is some volunteer work at school. I’ve been handed two projects by the shop manager. The first is a lightboard, which is a device that lets an instructor face a camera and use fluorescent markers to write on a sheet of glass in front of him. The glass has LEDs around the edges, lighting up the text. When filmed using a mirror (or, alternately, left/right reversed in post-production) the resulting video allows instructors to create their presentation manually, in the moment. That avoids powerpoint syndrome and yet allows graphics as part of whatever is being taught.

My project is creating and welding together a metal frame to support an 80 pound, $1000 (CAD) piece of low iron glass. I’ve got most of the frame welded together already, after spending 1.5 days finalizing the design, cutting some stock, and getting my hands on some high strength screws to hold the glass in place. I hope to finish it up next week and get to painting it.

Here’s a photo of the project as it stands as of Friday afternoon:

The other project is a portable, double sided projection screen for the fine arts media instructor. She wants the largest screen possible that she can use in two rooms in two different buildings. That means the shop manager and I found ourselves in the biggest elevator in the relevant building with sticks and a tape measure so we could figure out just how big that really is. (7.5' wide, if you’re curious). This project will involve another metal frame on castors — similar to the one above — but it will also include stretched projection screen cloth over two wood frames and securing them to either side of the metal frame. That one gets started once I have the first project done and out of the way, I think.

As a result of all that chaos I haven’t made any art myself this week, but I did go to the Vancouver Art Gallery last weekend. They got a new exhibition of work by Robert Rauchenberg that I wanted to see.

It turns out two new exhibitions were in place since our last visit. The Rauschenberg, as expected, and another of work by the photographer Vikki Alexander.

I was surprisingly interested in the photography show. Her sense of style was fascinating, and I enjoyed her work. Most amusing to me, though, were a couple of her sculptures. Here’s one:

Glass Bed with Tables, 1988, by Vikki Alexander. Photo by me.

I absolutely love this piece. It’s striking and totally nonfunctional. Very interesting stuff to contemplate. (And yes, some of that contemplation is coming up.)

Then we got to the Rauschenberg show and I was less impressed. Most of the work didn’t hold my attention, and that which did seemed pretty simplistic. I know, I know. I’m not an art historian, and my opinion isn’t all that well informed, but it’s how I felt.

As an example, here’s one of the more interesting pieces from the show:

Cardbird III, 1971, by Robert Rauschenberg. Photo by me.

Without writing a full compare and contrast essay on this and the sculpture by Alexander, there are some reasons to consider them that way.

The first thing to note is that I initially walked right past Cardbird III with only a glance. I thought he’d simply taken found cardboard, cut or tore it into shapes and glued it together. Not all that interesting, in my opinion, and it didn’t hold my gaze for more than a few seconds.

Later, though, my wife asked if I’d read the wall text about it. I had not, so I went back to do that. It turns out that Rauschenberg actually started with blank cardboard and then printed the various things — like “READY TO COOK TURKEYS” — on it with some lithography and screen printing processes.

Ponder that for a moment. He went to all that trouble, and I had no idea that was the case as I looked at the work. Had I not been told to read the wall text, I wouldn’t ever have known. What kind of commentary was he trying to make? And just how successful is it if the viewer misses a big part of the story of the work? Apparently this was something Rauschenberg did — work with trash and other (more traditional) media — in combination. But again, how would I know that just by looking at the work, at least in this case?

Compare that with Alexander’s Glass Bed with Tables. That piece clearly says “I cannot actually be used.” You dare not lie down on that, so what is the artist saying? I think there is some obvious commentary here about our relationship with everyday objects. I could probably write several paragraphs about things this might mean to me — or to the artist — as a result, and I haven’t googled the artist or this work at all. The work carries the message directly. I don’t need more explanation than that. And the wall text for this piece gives the title, artist, date, and materials. Nothing else. We’re literally left to figure it out on our own from the work itself.

See the difference? Rauschenberg’s piece is unable to convey what it means directly. It could be actual trash glued and taped together. And it might mean something when interpreted in that manner, but it takes more information — the wall text and some digging on the internet — to learn there is more to the work. And many viewers aren’t going to figure that out.

In my mind that makes the Rauschenberg less successful. It doesn’t successfully convey the artist’s intent all by itself, unlike the Alexander.

I found that fascinating. And for me it helps define what a successful work of art should be.

A final thought for the week: with this post we are nearest to the second anniversary of our move to Canada. We don’t regret it — in fact, we love it here, even considering the car insurance situation in BC. And now with PR, our options are open in many ways. Not everything has been perfect, of course. Tinkerbelle’s fungal disease and its ongoing treatment was (and remains) less than ideal, but she’s a hardy creature, and is loving life despite having pills shoved down her throat twice a day for something like nine months so far.

The past two years have been a lot of fun, particularly picking up on the the subtly different ways things are done up here. Much is the same as in the US, but some is different, and I am firmly in the “different is at least OK” camp. And learning those differences, combined with moving from a rural area to a city with all the amenities means we’re living very differently. As I say, we love it, and we look forward to the coming years here in BC.

Honestly, I think my wife was right back in late 2016. It was time to do something different, and this adventure is great fun. If you have a desire to change your surroundings, I suggest you consider doing so. Perhaps that means something small, like picking up a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try. Or maybe it means changing jobs, or moving to another city. Our example — moving to another country — is, admittedly, on the extreme end of the kinds of change one might consider, but for us it has definitely been worth it.

If you’re happy as things are, that’s great. But if you’re feeling an itch — something that says “you know, a change might be good” — perhaps it’s time to start figuring out what your next step should be. You’ll never know until you start looking.

Cheers all!



Jeff Powell

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.