'An Unromantic Story' Once in a Blue Moon: An Artist's Life by Marie Elyse St. George
I get the impression, only a few pages into Once in a Blue Moon: An Artist's Life, that Marie Elyse St. George is a woman of many interests, of many talents. Always, though, she is devoted to the creation of art, through her painting and her poetry. Her creations are as much a part her life as her siblings or parents. It's as though the only way she can tell her story, to convey any sort of information, is through the language of painting and poetry. Appropriately her autobiography is filled with the artistic endeavors that have consumed her years. You find the usual assortment of photos -- grainy still images of St. George's family and friends -- but alongside them are her paintings, vibrant and captivating. It's a pity most of the book contains only black and white reproductions of her otherwise rich and colorful work. Without considering their artistic merit -- I must confess my own ignorance as an artistic scholar -- these painting give the reader a window of St. George's mind that rarely comes across in her prose. As an autobiographer she is distant, giving the reader only the barest glimpse of her personality and motivations.
Sometimes St. George uses her paintings to elaborate on important moments from her life, a sort of visual extension or augmentation of her memories. Other times, the artwork itself becomes the focus of the written word. She begins the section "Speculation as to the Origin of Angels" with one of her paintings (titled, predictably, "Origin of Angels") and explains how earlier artists have influenced her work. Her poetry follows a similar pattern, appearing intermittingly throughout her autobiography to enrich her prose. The combination creates a dimension to her storytelling that would be impossible (or incredibly difficult) to convey otherwise, such as her use of the poem "Cutting Spring Asparagus" to convey memories from her rural childhood: "Their cracked shells cup swatches of slick wet feathers, claws curled, delicate as sprouting ferns, embryos alive with fat red maggots turning in a slow roil. Ice crawls along my spine. I turn, grab the asparagus knife, run out into the light" (79). Once in a Blue Moon matches the recent autobiographies of other Canadian writers, such as Al Purdy's Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, where the poet's life and art similarly play off one another. Together, they work in unison, but rarely in an uncomplicated way. By her own admission a bit of a chaotic spirit, St. George often leaps from one thought to another; the reader catches glimpses of "An Artist's Life" but never the whole picture.
As you might expect, Once in a Blue Moon progresses through a chronological account of St. George's life: a rural childhood in Ontario, frustrating adventures in Britain, a marriage, children, and a move to Saskatoon and induction into that city's bustling arts community in the 60's and 70's. She spends the majority of her time -- more than half her autobiography -- recounting moments from her early years, explaining how this formative time shaped her creative spirit. She speaks of later accomplishments (along with the obligatory name dropping), but it only seems as though she's going through the motions of writing such an autobiography. She does not dwell on her successes; as she moves along she is just as likely to focus on her inadequacies as her triumphs. What captures her attention is her personal and professional failures, such as dropping out of college in England and then being unable to enter art school. Nevertheless, there is little bitterness in St. George's recollections; she maintains a consistent level of good-humor and mild detachment. Despite working among the avant-garde, she lives a life of stability and comfort, a peaceful time full of art, family, and friends. So much so that she often turns to the lives of others for her more entertaining stories. If you were looking for a sensationalist memoir of scandal and intrigue, this is not the place. As she writes at one point, "The 70s and 80s were an electric time not only in the arts, but in society generally. I was aware that, while all this freedom was liberating and exciting, I needed to keep myself grounded in my home, children, and marriage, because it was easy to get carried away" (216).
Disengaged from her city's artistic community -- at one point she tells the reader, a bit dejectedly, that she can't even count on an invitation to the party celebrating a book she helped create -- St. George is able to look over her life with (relative) objectivity and to focus only on the people who made valuable contributions to her personal success; she spends as much time talking about her associations with famous poets (such as Lorna Crozier) as she does describing Minny, one of cats she owned growing up. St. George is content presenting herself simply, without lavish praise or over embellishment, an unassuming person who cringes at sentimentality or grand, overblown statements. Even as I write this, however, I realize my description of her is misleading. She's also a person who has the audacity to write a poem that attempts to describe the history of all art ("Art History 101"). Hers is a 'plain' life but it is nonetheless remarkable. It's only afterwards that you appreciate the uniqueness of her autobiography, the easy artfulness in her writing.