Category Archives: Liz Snell

From Penguins to Paintings: CNF Night in Canada

By Liz Snell

It’s not often that invasive ivy, clumsy penguins, and cheap reproductions of famous paintings get to hang out together. At “CNF Night in Canada”, a precursor to WordsThaw, The Malahat Review’s annual literary symposium, the three non-fiction readers (Malea Acker, Jay Ruzesky, and Madeline Sonik) respectively covered each topic.

In the basement Russell’s Vintage, light glinted off the gold spines of old books around the little stage below the staircase. Malea Acker read from her book “Gardens Aflame”, which is about Vancouver Island’s endangered Garry oak ecosystem. Her hands gestured gracefully and frequently as she read about removing invasive species from Trial Island, an ecological reserve just off Victoria that is home to many rare species of flora. Full of specific plant names, Acker’s writing evoked the particularity of the windswept island environment.

Jay Ruzesky read from his book “In Antarctica: An Amundsun Pilgrimage”, which recounts his journey to Antarctica to follow in the footsteps of explorer Roald Amundsun, Ruzesky’s distant relative. He read an excerpt about asking for a bank loan to finance his expedition; the audience laughed as he recounted the employee’s incredulous response: “There’s no candid camera here?”

In an excerpt from the Antarctic expedition, Ruzesky captured the humour of penguins “clean as scrubbed potatoes” and their endearing awkwardness: “I think we love them like we do because of their imperfections.”

The penguin passage also touched on how serious discussions around the environment can often become, and how penguins are a kind of relief from that. “There’s something about humour that’s its own kind of reverence,” he read, which seems an apt description of his reading as well.

Madeline Sonik shared an essay about her childhood, when her father became obsessed with buying reproductions of masterworks from a local gas station. He gave his children a bogus education on the paintings’ significance, encouraging them to speak with “great pretension and confidence” about art, regardless of their knowledge. Sonik demonstrated a deft hand for capturing her family’s antics and kept the audience laughing.

An open Q & A period followed the readings. In response to a question about how the authors see themselves situated in the Canadian lit scene, Ruzesky commented on the difficulty of keeping up with the constantly emerging talented authors. The three authors’ general consensus was that the literary community has been very supportive of their work, despite, according to Acker, “some fractiousness and disagreement, which is a healthy part of a growing community.” That support seemed apparent in the packed room. Though Canadian literary events probably won’t be filling stadiums with towel-swinging fans any time soon, “CNF Night in Canada” proved our writers (and readers) still have their sticks on the ice.

Frontier still with us, author says

By Liz Snell

Bruce Kirkby looks like a typical surfer dude: tall and tan, with a ready smile and grown-out blond hair. The Kimberley, B.C. writer, explorer, and photographer is certainly familiar with the ocean; he recently paddle- boarded from Vancouver to Victoria over four days, enlisting a high school student to film the trip.

But Kirkby’s adventures stretch far beyond the sea. Speaking at a recent event for Nature Conservancy Canada, he rattled off fantastic tales of his world travels, from hikes in Canada’s far north to traveling the Republic of Georgia by horseback with his wife and young children. Spectacular photographs accompanied his stories. He barely stopped for a breath as he spouted comments and jokes about his adventures in Myanmar: “We ultimately ended up trying to escape from [the military] and getting tossed in the clanger. But that’s a different story.”

Kirkby frequently dropped names, but rarely people’s titles; rather, “vetch,” “locoweed,” “reticulated python,” and “plain-pouched hornbill” freckled his stories as naturally as the rest of us might talk about TV show characters. His language made it clear he feels at ease in nature, though he appeared equally at ease speaking in front of a crowd.

During his stories, he frequently seemed overcome by enthusiasm: “You can hardly believe what you’re seeing.” Describing Burma, he said, “I can’t believe it. It feels like Eden; it’s like the books you read as a child.”

Kirkby communicates a deep passion not just for foreign travels but also for preserving Canada’s natural beauty. He frequently discussed the “archetype of the frontier,” which people first applied to the west coast, then to the far north. “It feels primal and enduring,” he says of the north. People  assume, “There’s always one more valley to go over.” But, Kirby says, “There is no more next valley. The frontier’s given and given and given, and now we’re at the point where we need to protect the frontier.”

In 2011,  Canadian Geographic published Kirkby’s article on the Darkwoods wilderness conservation area in BC’s Selkirk mountains. At 55,000 hectares, Darkwoods is the largest area in Canada ever purchased for conservation, and its caretakers face unique challenges. Kirkby visited Darkwoods 10 times over one year.  He exuberantly described the incredible vastness of the landscape and his encounters with both animals and the humans involved with the property. “I was just beside myself,” he says of swimming with bull trout in Darkwoods.

Kirkby noted his frustration over the politics surrounding conservation, saying that the ‘60s and ‘70s produced a view that “you either cared for the environment or cared for the economy, but not for both.” The two are not mutually exclusive, he said. “I don’t think a love for the environment makes you leftwing or rightwing; it makes you human.”

He encouraged people to develop an appreciation for nature and wilderness in themselves and those around them, as a first step toward conservation. He described the incredible opportunities we have for exploring in Canada, paradoxically stating, “We still have the frontier with us.” (

Liz Snell is the editor of Campus Confidential:  A UVic Modern Love Anthology.

Biography turns lens on famed photojournalist

Photo credit: Kevin Doyle

Review by Liz Snell

“They say real men don’t cry – that’s crap.” Photographer Ted Grant, 84, wasn’t afraid to get emotional in front of a packed auditorium during the launch of his life’s biography.

Grant’s biographer, UVic graduate Thelma Fayle, met Grant as his student at Camosun College. Years later, she hesitantly emailed him to ask his help in photographing someone for an article. Since then Fayle has conducted over 50 interviews with Grant. She saw the necessity in honouring his legacy: “Everyone knew his work but nobody knew his name,” she said. “My goal in writing this book was to honour a hardworking Canadian artist.”

Recognized by many as “the father of Canadian photojournalism,” Grant’s contribution to Canadian culture was a particular emphasis during the launch. Whether through his story about his famous photograph of Pierre Trudeau sliding down a l banister in the Chateau Laurier, or his experience organizing photographers at Victoria’s 1994 Commonwealth Games, Grant’s connection to national history was evident. Grant had intimate access to famous lives and was even on a first-name basis with prime ministers.

Yet Grant’s presence conveys humility. He called much of modern concern with technique “garbage” and downplayed his own skill by emphasizing timing: “I’m a photographer, not a technician.” He advised photographers to “shoot someone when they’re listening” to capture the intense focus in their eyes, and to be “first to arrive and last to leave” to capture candid moments. His work exhibits a striking ability to portray someone’s unguarded essence.

His vibrant, wry sense of humour had the crowd laughing through most of the presentation, but he was also moved to tears multiple times during his talk, particularly when discussing a photo of his wife, who passed away last year. He noted, “I’ve shot over 100 babies being born, and I’ve cried at every one.”

His passion for photography was evident when, during a question period, a young photography student asked him for advice. At first he joked, “Go over to the medical building and become a doctor.” Then he said, “If it’s totally consuming and you love it, it doesn’t matter what you do, what hours you put in.”

He described photography as a “magical career” in which he’s been “constantly alive.”

Many recounted Grant’s popularity as a photography instructor. One of Grant’s former students told how Grant had staged his own in-classroom arrest, to test whether students would respond by pulling out their cameras, as a photographer should.

For Grant’s 76th birthday he photographed himself flying upside down in a fighter plane. He discussed plans for his 100th birthday, and joked that he’ll have the undertakers present so that when the news person announces his birthday, he can “drop dead” and the party will start.

While his photographs may be more recognized than his name, Grant emphasized the photographer’s duty take a backstage role. “If you’re unseen but you’re in the same room, that’s when you get to be appreciated.”

Fayle’s biography (published by Heritage Group in Victoria) finally turns the lens on Ted Grant to capture his own light.

Liz Snell is a freelance writer in Victoria

“Everything” worth writing about, poet says

By Liz Snell

Emily McGiffin’s bright-eyed, earnest face contained no pretension. She spoke her poems with confident resonance, but also vulnerability, as if they were letters written to a close friend, not intended for everyone else in the room. She seems like the kind of person you’d meet in a small town or on a farm; when she speaks, you feel she’s not just wasting words to impress you, but is sharing a homespun and heartfelt wisdom.

Her poetry is full of solitude’s topography: one person leading the blind speaker through a fog, someone living in a car and playing solitaire. Wild mountain landscapes butt against domestic acts like woodcutting and carding wool. Her writing, both on the page and spoken aloud, conveys a tension between closeness and distance.

Victoria poet Carla Funk, who conducted the evening’s Q & A at the Open Space event, asked McGiffin which three dead poets she’d invite to dinner. McGiffin bowed out of the question, saying she knows little of classic poetry, and instead cited her favourite “dead poet” poems: “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, “Ode to Autumn” by John Keats, and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. These poems encapsulate both the joy in and loss of an Eden-like, harmonious world, a theme close to McGiffin’s own writing. One gets the sense that she’s attempting to write her way into the feeling of home, struggling to trust in a tenuous place: “And when, walking through the enormous and solitary land,/you grow hungry for company, you will find it underfoot…”

McGiffin began “fiddling with lines” of poetry in high school. She took writing courses at UVic as a side to her focus on geography and biology. Of studying writing she says, “It might have had an impact in that I never really did anything with my biology degree.”

Now pursuing a PhD in environmental studies at York University, McGiffin seems to still be searching for ways to explore the relationship between her scientific studies and her poetry. “I’d like to find a way that they can talk to each other a bit more.”

McGiffin initially struggled to see her creative writing as a worthwhile pursuit: “Poetry’s kind of a marginalized art form… It took a long time to feel it wasn’t something I was just doing on the side.”

To an audience member who asked, “How do you know what’s worth writing about?” McGiffin replied,  “Once I decided anything was worth writing about, it became less of a question of what was worth writing about – everything is.”

McGiffin recently moved to Toronto from Smithers, B.C., where her writing was often influenced by the Skeena River, which has been threatened by coal mining. She spoke of her concerns about conservation, and how we view the world in terms of “resource management.” In response to such environmental destruction, does McGiffin’s writing take a stance of hope, or despair? She’s not sure. “The question is, is there hope for humans? I don’t know.”

Liz Snell is a Victoria writer

“Sofa dogs” big hit for artist

Sofa Sitters of Victoria Exhibition. Showed September 12-24, 2013 at the Art Centre at Cedar Hill– CACGV Main Gallery, 3220 Cedar Hill Road.

View Durrand’s work at

Reviewed By Liz Snell

Two older women stare at the framed photographs in the gallery. “Sure is different,” one comments. “What a funny idea.”

“That’s our church!” the other points out. In the photo, Sophie, a golden retriever, sits on a checked sofa in front of Victoria’s soaring Christ Church Cathedral.

Another woman stops at a photo of the Beaconsfield Inn, which is perfectly matched with the plaid armchair set in front. Lily, a grinning Labrador retriever, poses on the chair. “I worked in that building. Oh for heaven’s sake, isn’t that something. Is it still there?”

Victoria artist Diana Durrand, 62, spent two years photographing passersby’s dogs on Victoria’s discarded furniture. The ordinary scene of a dog on a sofa, transplanted to an unusual setting, creates both whimsy and pathos. Durrand’s inspiration for The Sofa Sitters of Victoria arrived after she lost her own dog and began to notice everyone else’s. On her walks around the city, she’d stop at a roadside sofa and wait for the right dog to come along. “It was always an adventure; I never knew what I’d find.”

Dog owners were usually excited to participate. “Some of them have become friends; I met some really interesting people.”

Many of the dogs in the series had been rescued by their owners. In one photo, a rescued dog, Sir James Douglas, lounges calmly on a discarded loveseat in front of an abandoned house, as if to say, “I’m the lucky one.” The description alongside each picture includes the dog’s name. This specificity was important to Durrand: “They’re not just ‘a dog.’”

Durrand studied visual art at the University of Victoria from 1968-1972 and has been painting for many years, but photography was something new. The Sofa Sitters project was a crash course on “learning to see like a photographer.” She printed the photos in black-and-white then re-coloured them with chalk pastel. This allowed her to add softness and limit her palette. She describes this process as creating an intimate connection with the subject: “It’s almost like touching.”

Durrand particularly enjoyed working collaboratively on this project, noting the dog owners, sofa-sighters and those who helped her perfect the photo/pastel technique. “I don’t really feel it’s my show.”

For a project so rooted in community, this seems right. Durrand describes the public response to Sofa Sitters as “over-the-top.” One of the comments in her guestbook calls the exhibition “the quintessential Victoria art show.”

Durrand agrees. “It’s so about them.”

She sees Victoria as the perfect setting for this project because of its high number of pedestrians (especially dog-walkers), its toleration of roadside sofas, and its friendliness. “You couldn’t do this in Detroit; there’s not the trust.”

Durrand is no stranger to the magic in roadside cast-offs; she’s found inspiration for a previous series in a discarded McDonald’s fries carton, and for another in Vancouver’s abandoned gloves. Even as a child she formed creations from her mother’s old cigarette boxes.

“The beautiful stuff’s already beautiful; I’m not interested in painting flowers. I want people to have a second look at things. There’s beauty everywhere.”

Liz Snell is a writer and recent UVic graduate.