Art from Frostbite


Today’s gratitude, thanks, and love is best shared in a vignette. Yesterday the local temp when I drove to work was -10 F with -35 windchill. The bitter wind created massive snowdrifts over even major highways. I plowed through the first drifts I encountered, which gave me confidence to brave higher and higher mounds. Sure enough, I got stuck. It took me twenty minutes to shovel the car out until some friendly farmers pulled up and made me get back inside the car while they finished the job. In that twenty minutes with gloves on, my fingers got frostnipped.

After work, having driven a total of three stressful hours of sheer nastiness that day, I vegged in front of the TV. Antiques Roadshow is a PBS show where people tell brief stories about how they came to acquire either kitsch or beautiful pieces, which antiques experts then appraise at ridiculous prices. On this particular episode, there was a lot of very old but valuable art that, collectively, was ugly as sin. I was thinking, “Stupid winter! My fingers hurt! What is this cold world that values ugly shit!”

Then came a man who showed some Woodlands paintings, much like the art of my favorite artist, Norval Morrisseau. I grew up the daughter of an evangelical Christian pastor, and Morrisseau’s art speaks to me about my current humanist worldview: that everything is interconnected, and humans as animal are beautiful, terrible and sacred all at the same time. The man on the show told the story of how his father acquired the paintings: the father had been driving in a storm when he passed a man walking along the side of the road, eight miles from any town. As the driver continued, he thought better of it and turned around. He found the pedestrian lying on the side of the road, frostbite already setting in. He took the cold man to the nearest house, and there two women attended to the frostbitten man. They warmed his hands first, and the driver said, “You should warm his core first.” The ladies replied, “He’s an artist, he’d want us to save his hands first.” The artist was Norval Morrisseau in 1968 at the height of his career as one of Canada’s foremost painters. Morrisseau painted the items being appraised as a thank you gift, one on the back of a sheet of plywood in the father’s pickup truck.

The story reminded me that I hadn’t gotten much chance to thank the three farmers who dug me out of the snow that morning. That too late, I shared the love by giving gloves to a traveler I met farther down the road. I hadn’t remembered that my frostbitten hands hold a gift like Morrisseau’s, and that it’s my duty to bring beauty to the world like he did. My hands are very aware of their pain while I typed this story, and it occurs to me that maybe my fingers are healing in order to write.

I’m grateful for: the beauty Norval Morrisseau shared with us, in both defiance and celebration of his culture.

Thank you to: three farmers in coveralls.

Something loving: if life moved too quickly at the moment I should’ve been more aware, I can at least pay it forward to the next person.