Conversations form personal collection of art in every soul

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Drawing on the Arts - Eliza Fernbach

Study for a red dress watercolor on paper by Eliza Berry

"You have lumpy breasts. Get to know them.”

Having admitted my lack of attention to the suggested self-exam that can potentially save my life, I was smiling in gratitude at the pointed and well-delivered admonishment of my general practitioner. This doctor who had a wildly divergent career before deciding to devote himself to the care of other souls, is one of my favorite advisors. He knows how to have a conversation.

In conversation, as in life, timing is everything. Really important conversations, the kind that form the personal collection of art that is in every soul, arrive unannounced and make indelible marks in the heart and mind. Sometimes memories become an endless source of continued conversation. Masterpieces that are a part of the never-ending conversation we exist within. 

Here in Merigomish my neighbor often bids me adieu with the phrase “Keep your stick on the ice.” This reminds me that I am still learning to skate. It also brings a vivid image of the delights that are to be had on the skating rink and my admiration for anyone who can speed around a rectangle handling a stick or just holding a loved one. 

Some winters ago on a Saturday evening at the Stellarton rink I stared in awe at couples demonstrating the physical conversation that the art of skating can be. As I stumbled along on my newly sharpened skates, I longed to respond with the same grace and elegance these skaters embodied. But my experience doesn’t lie in skating. Art is the way I glide on life’s rink.

My conversation in art began on one of my first visits to a museum. At the Rodin sculpture garden in Paris I was astonished. I was stopped literally in my tracks by the immensity and power emanating from one of Auguste Rodin’s massive statues. It was as if he was reaching through time to draw my attention. I had to respond.

Instead of hiring a medium or psychic to communicate with Rodin through the mists of time, I started to dedicate myself to the dialog that is my ongoing art practice. Some of what I do confuses people. Some of what I do seems to speak directly to folks. It is not up to me how the statement of my truth is responded to. It is simply for me to state my truth. I did that when I wore a red dress to get married and discovered that my seemingly bold statement actually had roots in a rather old conversation started at the beginning of the last century. 

It turns out that wearing white dresses to wed is a fabrication of the fashion industry’s marketing strategies combined with a population’s desire to ape royalty. Until Queen Victoria married in a white dress most people simply wore their “Sunday best” which was rarely white. Once the Royal precedent had been set, people hoping to be considered more by looking regal, began wearing white. The suggestion of virginity was added by the fashion industry who saw potential profit in attaching virtue to an expensive one-time purchase.

This I discovered when I entered into a conversation with a priest. The one who was to marry me. I asked him if it would be a problem for me to wear red. Especially today, many people won’t ask a priest about anything. Fortunately I’ve known for a long time that some priests, like some people, know a great deal. I can take or leave what they have to say. Sort of like my doctor. In fact today more people treat their doctor’s and self-help gurus like priests without really thinking about it. Substitution does not necessarily create a solution. But investigation can extend an enjoyable conversation. 

Indeed I discovered that Indian and Chinese brides often wear red as it symbolizes success and good fortune. Since I had a particular affinity for India after a childhood friendship with a delightful, kind and caring Indian girl and her family, I wanted to honor that conversation, I suppose. Here in Pictou County there are natural artworks in our environment that beg discussing and there are works by artists that extend those discussions. And then there are other sorts of art. Like the ad in the Mr. Barter some years ago that read “wedding dress for sale size twelve, white, worn once.”

I’d share that with my Doc but we always have more pressing things to discuss. As I left his office he persisted “It’s near your heart. Feel for your heart. Then feel again on the other side. It’ll be a conversation, of sorts, with yourself.”


Eliza Fernbach is a filmmaker and vice president of the Visual Arts Nova Scotia Executive Committee.

Organizations: Visual Arts Nova Scotia Executive Committee

Geographic location: Merigomish, Paris, India Pictou County

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