art boxes

A few years ago a studio neighbour gave me some cigar boxes. I’ll be interested to see what you do with them, she said. And so they sat on a shelf above my studio door, amongst many other useful/useless things, because that’s what humans do when given things they know they know the why of but not the how.


And then, while on a collage tear (I’m starting to believe collaging is an addiction –– this white noise automation that takes over while one keeps adding and subtracting, smoothing and removing) one morning, I looked over my shoulder to see them up there, and within a minute they were down and being primed.


The thing with a cigar box is this: it’s already an imperfect object. Half industrial weight card, half light wood, all nicks and torn labels. So adding the stressed texture of collage just feels natural.

And there is something wonderful about images revealed, whether it’s by pulling back a curtain or opening a lid.


I think I’m done with these for now, knowing full well that I’ll return to the idea when that internal lightning strikes again. But they’ve been very enjoyable to do, and just knowing that I’m making one-of-a-kind things that people will always keep is more than enough for me.

You can see these and more art objects here. Good luck with Christmas!


DECEMBER IS FIRE // cigar-tin stories number sixty nine

Trying to escape the supermarket on a Sunday night, my way is blocked by a floppy-headed man (is his head too heavy?) talking to an elderly woman with the tiny-eyed face of a Russian doll about his lack of plans for the holidays. “I used to do stuff,” he says. “I used to do stuff every year. Mostly with my cousins. But now they’re all dead. Would you like to hear how they died?” The woman begins gesturing towards the door and front windows. “I think that’s my bus,” she says, and performs a neat scurrying manoeuvre to get around him.

Driving, driving, driving. In the left turning lane, I notice a car coming in the opposite direction and the driver of that car has decided to create a new lane for herself out of my very own turning lane(!), which would be a fantastic idea if only …

(a) it was remotely legal
(b) my lane didn’t run out in thirty metres and
(c) I wasn’t physically blocking her flight path.

Squeezing out her way, I do what anyone does when otherwise powerless in a driving situation: I lay on the horn. The car rolls past, going that I-know-I-did-something-wrong speed, and all I can see is her contorted potato face of confusion and horror.

At my last shared studio space I once had a conversation with the women there about aging, and I remember laughing when they talked about how, as one heads into your fifties, your body begins to betray you. Well, guess what corner I turn this winter, and guess what I no longer find so goddamn funny. And I think it’s this inconstancy of the physical, combined with the diminishing returns of one’s relevance, that can make middle-age such a discouraging business (if you were a superhero, you’d be losing the capacity to soar while gaining the ‘power’ of invisibility). Especially as a white, middle-class male in 2017, I can be shouted down by pretty much anyone (even children!), for any reason, and all opinions I might have on anything are invalidated by history. Someone has to pay the piper, I guess.

Go around, go around, go around: some coping mechanisms are easier than others. My typical response to any physical complaint is to ignore it (hospitals are appalling places and should be avoided at all costs, especially when dying). This usually works until it doesn’t. Some things function in opposition –– beer improves my mood but continues to make my silhouette more and more bear-like. The rest of it is a mixed bag. Work is no problem whatsoever –– I just don’t talk to anybody at all (see: hating my fucking job). Writing is more difficult, but generally I move my characters through the world more as distorted or wounded psychic entities than as persons defined by race or sex. Aside from this electronic newsletter, social media is now strictly for sharing art and episodes of cognitive incoherence. When talking to real people, out in the real world, concentrating on holding my face in a kind of half-wince will usually keep me from saying anything exceptionally stupid or remotely meaningful (read: offensive).

Oona and I are reading the Bible –– a children’s version of the Old Testament. It’s old, once owned by her mom, complete with a charming drawing by her of a little pig on the inside cover. Being a vintage book (1973), it doesn’t shy away from or try to sugarcoat any of the Bible’s batshit craziness. God creates. God destroys. God puts candies on the table and then smotes anyone who touches them. Don’t look back, Lot’s wife! Oh, too late, now you’re a bag of salt (is this where ‘old bag’ comes from?). Now Abraham and his ninety year-old wife Sarah are having kids. Sweet! That should kill them.

Still, Oona seems to enjoy it. Sometimes, on the way home from school or Brownies, I’ll put on the religious channel for her, because they’re always telling some kind of choose-your-own-holy-adventure type of story, and she really likes it. They’re talking her language, where everything can be solved by some last-minute deus ex machina or glittering magic, and there’s always rewards as long as you say sorry.

The Globe and Mail has done, in a middle-of-the-night kind of way, a total redesign –– if by redesign you mean making it physically smaller and printing it on cheaper paper. But I notice lots of little ‘pop-up’ articles, too –– like the “BREEZE THROUGH AIRPORT SECURITY THIS HOLIDAY SEASON” item in the new “Pursuits” section. And said breezing happens when you …

1. Keep presents unwrapped.
2. Have electronics handy.
3. Watch your liquids.
4. Be prepared.
5. Learn the new rules.

… and might I also suggest …

6. Faux-grovel in the face of faux-authority.
7. Do not be Arab or Persian.
8. Shave that beard!
9. Do not be Muslim.
10. Have no luggage and no personal effects.
11. Have no dignity.
12. Do not fly.

Just when I think I’m done with collage, it pulls me back in. It has a special addicting power, this stuff –– the layering upon layering. Like adult colouring books, except not for children.

Some podcast things I must recommend before I forget:

How democracy will end (soon, I hope!).

Why the future of work is awful.

The President of the United States is run by the Russians.

How is the CHRISTMAS SEASON treating you? Are you FILLED WITH JOY? No? WHY NOT? You’re probably not trying hard enough. TRY HARDER. You don’t want to let down Baby Jesus, do you?

Anyway, good luck with all that,

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

cigar-tin stories number sixty eight / / computer says no

Where are we going for the holidays? What should I get Aunt Melinda? What kind of tree should I put up? How should we decorate the house? What services or choirs can we attend? Do I need a new dress for the party? Turkey, goose, or duck? Vegetarian? These are just some of the meaningless, stress-inducing questions that land with all the subtlety of a V2 rocket in your soft, straw-roofed consciousness for the month of December. Take that, Jesus!

The leaflet in the letterbox asks, WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW THE TRUTH? Christ, yes! But instead of answering, it just goes on to pose more questions …

  • Does God really care about us?
  • Will war and suffering ever end?
  • Is there any hope for the dead?

And while it *is* satisfying going around answering “Hell, no!” to everything, it does very little to cast any light on one’s desperately diminished existence.

Christmas, computers, dictators and children –– all things that are fantastic when they are treating you well but are absolute ruin and misery when they are not. Just to crush December a little bit more, my work computer recently decided not to let me use about half my software. It has declared it trial software, even though it’s not, and demands a password, even though neither I or our computer support administrator has one (the way we buy it is deliberately separated from that). And it won’t load any newer software. So: computer say no. And there’s nothing you can do about it that doesn’t involve fire.

The new iOS on my phone is shit, and I keep updating it in the hopes that it will become more than shit, but it never does. Again, computer says no.

Pinterest sends me a notification: WE PICKED SOME SALEM WITCH TRIAL PINS FOR YOU. Yes, but why, exactly? I don’t remember looking at any Salem- or witch-related materials lately. Or ever.

Whenever I see Trump’s picture now I can’t help but think, There’s something wrong there. It’s that same feeling you get when you see sudden movement at the back of an alley. Like something shifts or drops inside of you.

The front cover of the magazine by the checkout reads, I’M BETTER OFF WITHOUT ANGIE. I very much doubt he said that. Surely, now that they’re separated, he would call her Angelina.

And then on the paperbacks display was a book entitled, OVERCOMING HURT AND ANGER.

Thank you to everyone who stopped by my table at the Fat Goose. It was slower this year (the craft fair market might be at saturation point), and I did sit down a few times, but I still appreciated all visits. One person told me about their family’s plans not to exchange any gifts at all this year; instead they’re going to exchange stories. Excuse me? I said. I was sort of incredulous. Opting out of the abuse –– yes, obviously, I get that. But trading it for a more intense form of intellectual punishment … I mean, why not exchange knock-knock jokes? Or descriptions of pies never baked? Or farts? Even if everyone involved was a working writer, this would still be an exercise in bald, unadulterated psychological malfeasance.

So yes, good luck with December. Like so many things these days, now that any real means of collective action no longer exist, and we are all stupefied and helpless before events (incredibly, even while still believing in the idea of progress, or that if we can just find the right technology or diet or fitness program, or attend the right march, then things will get better), I think you just have to move around it as best you can. This is tough, considering the length and hot-faced aggressiveness of it. But you can have more individuality that your consumer choices. Find some random acts of kindness and otherwise stick to your own plans. Your wishes will probably get ignored or hijacked several times along the way, but remember –– Tomorrow is nothing, today is too late; the good lived yesterday.*

~ djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

Marcus Aurelius

cigar-tin stories number sixty seven / MORE SEQUINS

This one’s going to be short and sweet. It’s the end of November, I’m tired, the crushing psychic indignities of Christmas are looming and, while the world wobbles into the final lurid, senseless stages of late fever-dream capitalism and cultural decadence and regret, all the biggest headlines go the engagement of a second-tier prince and ginger. What more do you need to know?

On Sunday I spent ten hours packaging merchandise for the Fat Goose Craft Fair this coming weekend. Come by my table and talk to me. You don’t have to buy anything. If you do want to buy something, I’ll have original drawings, cigar-tin stories, library card art, book art objects, prints, painted journals (blank journals with painted covers), and decorative art boxes (mostly converted cigar boxes, the 8 x 10 kind, some with an added latch). And I always throw extra things into the bag.

You can see examples of my merchandise here or here.

We went to A Passage to Bollywood at the Grand on Saturday night. It made me laugh, both for its sheer exuberance and the way it leaned into its own pulpiness. Some random thoughts:
• flamboyant gangsters?
• I’m always in awe of anyone who can do intense physical activity while grinning maniacally.
• SHEER FABRIC. I once had some lovely sheer curtains, but then a certain someone threw them away, commenting that they belonged in a bordello. EXACTLY.
• I cannot look at low-slung parachute pants without thinking of MC Hammer. I know this is unfair.
• Oona had some minor behaviour malfunction when, during the intermission, both her mother and I failed to explain the plot of the performance (there was no dialogue –– just minor narration and dancing, dancing, dancing) to her satisfaction. She and I had to go for a little walk in the lobby. My point is always the same –– once you start allowing an eight-year old to dictate the action, all is lost.

While not a complete bust, NaNoWriMo was not the transformative event it aspires to be. I did write about 18 000 new words, and they are mostly edited and good to go. But I just had too much going on.

I hope everyone is steering themselves into December with whatever degree of false confidence is necessary.

Good luck,
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

The Hobbit is a sausage-fest // cigar-tin stories number 66

Oona and I have been reading, as her bedtime story, The Hobbit. We’ve just finished the chapter where Smaug (great name), a bit too caught up in berserk rage and the carnage he was causing to a town full of hapless men in wooden houses(!), catches one in the weak spot (dragons, Death Stars, last level bosses –– there’s always a weak spot) and goes down in flames. We’ve also reached the point where I feel comfortable making some comments about the book, and few of them are in line with my fond (read: murky) memory of my last contact with it (assigned reading in Grade Seven, I believe).

The Hobbit is a total sausage-fest. Unless some female characters emerge in time for the Battle of Five Armies, the entire enterprise is completely estrogen-free. This is weird. Even Tom-of-Finland-friendly Conan mixed it up with the occasional witch.

So Bilbo … he’s what … some kind of confirmed bachelor? I mean, he’s little more than a Winnie the Pooh who blows smoke rings. What the fuck does he want adventure or gold for?

And then there’s the dwarves, who seem to be on an extended version of one of those male-bonding camping trips. With about as much of a plan.

Because exactly how did they think they were going to kill a fucking dragon?

And then there’s the goblins. It’s difficult to see how these no-hopers even get out of bed in the morning, so predestined they are to lose lose lose all the time, in everything they do. Could we at least give them some temporary victories? They’re organized, they’ve clever with machines, they even ride giant wolves, for fuck’s sake. But no, they’re the Montreal Expos of Middle Earth. Thanks for having black blood, here’s your 7-3 off-suit starting hand, forever.

The Hobbit is a strange, perplexing book. Plot-wise, it’s something an ambitious thirteen year-old Dungeon Master would cook up. And then I think about Tolkien and his Oxford professor friends, getting together at pubs and dens to discuss the finer points of elvish grammar. As adult men. Who had seen the blood horror of the First World War. Firsthand.

I don’t know. Let’s just say I can’t wait for the day when Oona and I can watch Alien together.

But not Prometheus. Never Prometheus.

Have a good week, everyone,

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

cigar-tin stories number sixty five / / we have powers you cannot match

I’m running an experiment this morning: instead of chasing (read: yelling at) Oona to do her morning routine (get up, use the washroom, wash her hands, eat her breakfast, clear her place, brush her teeth, wash her face, get dressed, not be mental), I’ve retreated to my basement ‘study’ (read: a half-ransacked storage room with a folding table along one wall) to type this. I’ve left her in front of her breakfast with my watch and some indication of what she should be doing by when (she has a weird respect for timers and clocks), and there is the promise of a new Rideau Public t-shirt somewhere down the line (“Let’s just see how the week goes, shall we?”). Really this all started last night at dinner, when I flatly refused a request to buy more Rideau Public Spirit Wear (‘spirit’ seems like an antiquated word, doesn’t it?) because she’d just lost her Rideau Public bunny hug (or ‘hoodie’, FINE), and I took the opportunity to negotiate something. Now I can hear her moving around up there, so we’ll see.

Speaking of negotiations, we’re now into WEEK FIVE of the Ontario colleges strike, and management has forced a vote on an offer that is certain to be rejected. You can almost smell the groupthink around the management table, aided and abetted by colourful Powerpoint slides and oversized Excel spreadsheets, lots and lots of stats and acronyms and projections about money, money, money, with loads of arrows to demonstrate an end run around collective bargaining, resulting in performance bonuses for managers, because we are the good people, the smart people, just look at us, we all went to the same schools for Christ’s sake, have you seen what I drive? Do you trust us? I definitely trust us. WE HAVE POWERS YOU CANNOT MATCH.

I started making art boxes.

Just finished the audiobook for High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard. Ballard is an interesting writer –– very much on the exposition side of things. The chapters of his books are really just an opportunity to set the table over and over again, with him then telling you what’s for dinner (hint: something terrible and disturbing). But God, that Tom Hiddleston is a suave bastard.

Some similar crashing and burning in my efforts with NaNoWriMo … several days of no output at all. Can I suggest a restart? Yes, let’s just see how the week goes.

Take care, everyone,

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

p.s. And how did Oona do this morning? Pretty good, actually. I came up to find her fully dressed. She even showed me the stages of her progress according the big hand of the watch. But then things did fall apart a bit, when it came known that she’d lost both right hands for two different pairs of mitts. Oh well.

p.s.2. If you like this kind of personal essay, please subscribe to my Tinyletter (it’s free).

cigar-tin stories number sixty four // hope is a waking dream

Can you guess what anniversary is tomorrow? On some level you probably can, instinctually, because it’s the kind of thing you feel, deep inside, all the time. Something you very intentionally don’t think about but somehow still remains. Ignored but always felt.

I am doing NaNoWriMo again this year. Last year’s effort was really more editing than writing, and reaching the goal of fifty thousand words by month’s end was relatively easy (this is the upside of a drifting attention span –– one has so much stuff in the way of half-finished, half-assed stories just lying around, all these notebooks and text files with titles like “late_summer_2015” and “fragment_38”). But this year I’m determined to create entirely new writing, at least a story every day, so while the output is lower, it is, at least in terms of the project’s energy and intent, better. Today is Day Seven. My word total at the end of yesterday was 8072, which projects an end date well into December. We’ll see about that.

I don’t consume much in the way of writing advice or tutorial (one doesn’t need research into a decadent and insolvent enterprise), but a remark by Salman Rushdie sticks with me: don’t listen to anyone. And if you doubt this, then just look around at how many seminars and courses and coaching there is on offer, and ask yourself why so many writers are really in the business of teaching (with festivals and prizes as secondary industries).

Standing in line at the bank. The people in front of me seem to be in pajamas? One woman (people get so upset these days when I say ‘girl’, but all I mean is that she seems young) stands there with a hoodie in her hand, letting it drag on the floor like Linus and his blanket. Her friend one spot ahead holds his bank card and some form in one hand, an unlit cigarette in the other. The acne and missing teeth prompt me to add holding single unlit cigarette to my ongoing list of NEGATIVE INDICATORS. This is a Kingston-centric project and perhaps I can get a local grant for it –– pitching it as some kind of ironic and wholly negative tourism scheme, with a David Foster Wallace-ish title like A FIRST CLASS TICKET TO THE UNDERCLASS or something. I mean, people already love the prison tour.

C’s strike is into WEEK FOUR. I had a feeling that this would be a long one, in that it represents a watershed moment for management: if they can keep the hammer of using temp and contract workers to fill most positions, then they can effectively bypass the union. Even better, eventually they can shrink it out of existence.

When I start thinking about my own workplace, it suddenly occurs to me that my department (and several other ones in states of mild anarchy and persistent disrepair) would become a wilderness if it wasn’t for our collective agreement. I mean, Jesus, the talent show is pretty thin as it is, but who would you get if there was no security, no dental plan? People would just cycle in and out, taking what they could, expecting nothing, and effecting just as much.

At the end of the day, a coworker regularly breaks into a run when he gets within fifty yards of his car. It is an enthusiastic, heel-kicking kind of run, like little kids have, spontaneous and effortless. It always makes me stop and stare.

In some fit of sleepwalking or psychosis, I visit No Frills at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon. I fully expect the worst. In fact, I’m dressed for it, as if going into a robbery –– black toque, black jacket, scarf, black gloves, running shoes, burial money. But the experience is weirdly quick and u-shaped, less Guantánamo Bay, more seedy tavern where you just run in and use the phone. I celebrate by giving away my cart to a woman who offers me two dimes and a nickel for it. “I looked into my wallet and thought, oh no!” she says. “That happens to me all the time,” I reply, walking away.

And then more work: trying to make new things for the Christmas season and the two-day Fat Goose Craft Fair on December 1st and 2nd. In the links below you’ll find some of the newest stuff, a book art object, cigar-tin story, art journal and mixed media collage. And then all I can do is keep moving.

Have a good week, everyone,

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.