Alison Garwood Jones

Virginia speaks

January 26, 2015

What a find! This is the first time I’ve ever heard Virginia Woolf‘s spoken voice.

Her written voice is very familiar to me.

Her book, A Room of One’s Own, is a Bible to me and most of my friends.

Silkscreen of A Room of One's Own by Alanna CavanaghA Room of One’s Own, Silk Screen Print by Alanna Cavanagh. From a fifth edition of 20 prints. Signed and Numbered. Printed on Acid Free 100% Rag paper. Stained with Coffee and Tea.

Hearing Virginia read her own words wasn’t something I was expecting while sitting around in my apartment on some random weekend in January (h/t The Paris Review).

Woolf recorded this essay on “Craftsmanship,” the only known recording of her voice, at the BBC’s London studios back in 1937. No doubt, she spoke into one of the broadcaster’s iconic Type A Marconi microphones.

Here she describes the challenges of capturing the essence of life through words. ”Words don’t live in dictionaries,” she said, “they live in the mind.” The challenge is knowing how “to combine old words in new orders so they create beauty and tell the truth.”

As her particular vocal tone soaked into and spread across her sentences, plumping out each word, I felt like I was being presented with even more answers to life’s Big Questions. Some women’s minds do that —Virginia, Gloria, Maya, Joni— they make you stop everything and listen hard.

Imagine that: a random find on Facebook was bringing all the disparate thought lines in my head together to a single point. Rocks that that usually felt heavy, were light. It coloured the rest of my Sunday.

As you listen to this, I recommend not focusing on the aristocratic roll of Woolf’s r’s, or the way she trills so primly like Eleanor Roosevelt or Julia Child (judging from the comments on the Paris Review’s website, lots of readers couldn’t get past that).

Every generation and social class has had its particular vocabulary and way of speaking. That shouldn’t distract you from the universals Virginia lays out. Humming below the surface of her posh elocution is the sound of a mind painfully receptive to the ups and downs of work and existence. She reads her own writing with so much conviction. By the end of the recording, you may find, like me, that you’ve gone beyond the ideas she expressed and are reacting equally to the tensile strength and frequency of her presence, which is decidedly more tuning fork than talking head.

Now imagine if Jane Austen’s voice was suddenly available to us?


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Dude, you inspire me

January 23, 2015

Just before Christmas I attended an ACI artist’s talk at Massey College. At the end of it, I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said, “Wasn’t that good?” She agreed and we shared our favourite ah ha moments in the life and career of Paul Kane.

Kane was born 150 years before Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the rise of sixties counter culture, but there was something about the experimental and itinerant life of this buckskin-wearing bon vivant that felt modern. And relevant to today.

Paul Kane, Canadian Artist

The Painter, Paul Kane, c. 1850s, M.O. Hammond Collection

Holding back his personality behind a frozen pose — the limitations of Victorian photography insisted upon that — I sense a guy with the same energy as some of the artist bartenders, lumbersexuals and guitar pickers I work with. Blame the bedhead, the buckskin and the sleepy “Cho, dude” vibe in his expression. Here’s a guy who clearly smells of unwashed hair, suede and wind. Beyond the lens, his studio is the experimental mess of a serial entrepreneur, I’m sure of it.

Kane was not the kind of man you’d expect to see walking in downtown Toronto in the 1850s and ’60s. He lived at Isabella and Church, future hub of individuality and misfit pride. If you knew Toronto then, it was not the cool Guardian and New York Times-stamped city it is now. Artistically, it was mute and inward-looking. English writer Wyndam Lewis dubbed it “a sanctimonious ice box.” (h/t Robert Fulford). Vast and distant colonies were like that at the height of Britain’s power. They didn’t assert themselves and they didn’t feel entitled to their own adventures. Originality was feared and frowned upon. You can confirm that with Australia. The books by the late Robert Hughes reveal many cultural parallels between our two nations.


Wyndham Lewis Quote

Kane either forgot or ignored all that. He looks like a man who burned and inhaled all manner of plant life to maintain his chosen take on life. Historians describe him as ”one of the first ‘tourists’ — as opposed to explorer, trapper or surveyor — to travel the northern fur-trade route from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.” His goal: to record his perceptions of North America’s Aboriginal communities. No one sent him. He sent himself. He saw a need to understand the people who populated a significant swath of this land before the rest of us arrived by boat. Kane funded his adventures painting society portraits every time he was back in Toronto.

Kane’s highly unorthodox goals and determination to do as he saw fit resonated with me and my seat mate on that snowy night last month. I think it’s why our conversation went the way it did. On discovering we were both bon vivants crossing this new digital frontier (I write, she edits), she told me, “We have more security than most people.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Because we know every project we take on has an expiration date. We’re not psychologically crushed when opportunities dry up or people stop needing us.”

I nodded.

“We just tap into our contacts and find something else,” she said, almost with glee.

That was just what I needed to hear as I search for my next opportunity. Along the way, I hope I smell like big sky, prairie wild flowers and lots of glee.

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Saying no is hard

January 7, 2015

For writers, social media is like a hole in a tire. It’s a drain on your energy, productivity and ability to sustain a thought.

Sometimes the leak is slow and silent (like the daily Facebook checkin). Other times (Rob Ford), it’s this giant fucking “POP!” Afterwards, you’re left with a big flabby thing that won’t turn. Not the ex-mayor, silly, your inspiration.

All of this would explain the parade of writers who publicly announce their impending estrangement from Twitter. It’s like giving up chicken wings. Or sex. Many of them conduct farewell tours, but are back online in a month.

Their jitters during withdrawal were bad. One can only conclude that being unhappy online is preferable to being unhappy offline.



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Energy report

January 5, 2015

My energy reserves are more precious than oil.

I don’t know if it’s a female thing? The men I know and love and don’t love don’t share the nitty gritty details of their energy metrics. For all I know, they’re concealing some wild fluctuations.

Productivity is what we’re all chasing. It’s the gold standard and only proof, these days, of a life well lived. And it’s a killer.

For women, productivity—corporate/biological/creative/social—has surpassed a sense of duty, although that hasn’t entirely disappeared. More on that in a second. Women go ahead and have children because they can (science hasn’t equalized that, yet), then they layer everything else on top of that because not doing so would mean never knowing what it feels like to exercise their full rights and potential as humans. This idea of  ”having it all,” was the biggest false promise feminism served up, argues Jennifer Szalai.

Women are tired. But so are men. But it’s a different kind of tired; more fed up than bone deep. All this change is destabilizing to the guys. The difference is: many men tend to ignore how tired they’re feeling for the “greater good,” or, more probably, to stay ahead and still be #1.  And the dishes pile up.

Meanwhile, female duty, that Victorian throwback, is still with us but it’s more subtle today. Same with blatant sexism of the “Females need not apply” sort. We can’t say that stuff out loud anymore, but it percolates beneath the surface in ways that are a lot harder to deal with or refute head on.

I’d argue that many men’s abiding belief in female duty is what’s holding them back from participating fully in meeting the needs of their households — from booking dentist appointments to assembling birthday party loot bags to buying new socks and underwear for their kids. All those tiny, energy-depleting details are what women still seem to anticipate first. As important as those things are to the health and happiness of others, men still see them as distractions from grander goals. And this refusal to split their energy at home is hurting women (who also harbour grander goals). Like Gloria said, “Women won’t be equal outside the home until men are equal inside it.”

As the world commits more and more to ecological sustainability, I think we need to push for “female sustainability”: that quality of not being willfully harmful by depleting the natural and spiritual resources of a wife/partner/girlfriend, and thereby supporting long-term balance in the home environment.

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Class reunion

January 3, 2015

When I met Stewart, he was standing outside the coffee shop I’d suggested with his hands pushed deep inside his pants pockets.

“It’s closed, isn’t it?” I said, walking up to him.

“Yup,” he said, and we gave each other a hey-how-ya-doing hug.

“Sorry about that. I called ahead and their message didn’t say they were closed. New Year’s Day is so hit and miss.”

“Yeah.” He grimaced and I wondered if he was mad about waiting in the cold.

“There’s a Starbucks up on Dundas,” I said, pointing north. He nodded and we walked against the wind to get there.

“Does Detroit get this cold?” I asked, realizing that was a pretty loaded question.

“Sometimes,” he said, trudging with his head down. The lines in his face were more pronounced since the last time I saw him. They didn’t look like trails cut by laughter. His eyes sat deep in their sockets. They always had. In fairness, my hair was threaded with a lot more grey than his.

Stewart and I were grad school classmates. We were never intellectual compadres, or even friends, just associates who’d simultaneously put down money so we could study in the same building for two years. Twenty years had passed since we got our degrees (M.A.s in art history). In fact, we hadn’t even acknowledged each other until now. He went his way. I went mine.

Before Christmas, out of the blue, Stewart emailed me  to express his surprise over how I’d turned out. It was a nice note: “I heard your name on the Canadaland podcast, so couldn’t resist looking you up. Let me just say … Wow! Your work (your blog) is so much more rich & compelling than most art history careers.”

He gave me his synopsis. After our M.A.s, Stewart had gone off to Yale to do a Ph.D, then a post-doc at Harvard. For the next dozen or so years he’d zigzagged through the U.S. assuming a string of senior curatorial positions: five years at the Kimbell in Fort Worth, six at the National Gallery in Washington and another five at the Detroit Institute of the Arts — that is, until an operating budget came down and eliminated his position altogether.

That was four years ago, just before the city declared bankruptcy. Stewart is still out of work. “There are no historian jobs in town any more,” he said. But he won’t move; he wants to be near his kids.

To make ends meet, Stewart has been teaching, building a website on sustainable living, testing his chops at blogging, and cobbling together a patchwork of disparate editing opportunities. I nodded while he talked because that was my life too. The economy had leveled us all. As we approached Starbucks, I could tell he was still floored that two Ivy League degrees hadn’t shielded him from the worst. I didn’t tell him about another Harvard alum I knew who was living above a bikini shop on Queen West and giving workshops on confident body language.

Back in grad school, Stewart and I only crossed paths in one class, a museology course we took with two other students. As a group, we were put in charge of curating an exhibition at the university art center. I ended up being assigned a bunch of wall panels to write. After I submitted them, word got back to me that my work sounded plagiarized. It probably was. I couldn’t tell. I was too tied up in knots trying to figure out how to sound like an art historian — you know, long-winded, abstruse, patronizing, full of Art Speak and Voice of God intonations, none of which suited me. (My natural writing voice took years to unearth).

I’m guessing this is what Stewart remembered about me because as soon as we walked into Starbucks and assumed our place in line, he announced, “You weren’t a very talented art historian. I mean you were sweet and a lovely person, but  …” I had put my order in because the barista was waiting.

I admit, my record of achievement was erratic and contradictory. I soared and swan-dived from A’s to C’s (again, C’s in anything that pressured me to be abstruse). And, despite the Governor General’s medal on my bookshelf, I still managed to fail my final thesis, a 200-page romp on Cézanne’s drawings.

I should say, none of that effort was plagiarized. In fact, I whittled and polished and researched the heck out of my topic just to find an undiscovered patch that I could present in a fresh way.

As I wrote and surrounded myself with xeroxed Cézanne drawings, I delighted in providing a lively social and cultural context for my reader whom I imagined living far off campus. For the first time in my life, I was envisioning scenes and setting them. Art history had become cinematic. I described Cézanne’s creative inspiration and his determined pursuit to give the world an order he knew it didn’t have, and how grumpy that made him. I was proud of the result. So was my supervisor, who is my friend to this day.

Later, I found out I’d received a failing grade from the Head of the Department, in part, because he thought my chapters read “too much like a series of magazine articles,” and not a Master’s thesis. Stewart asked me why I hadn’t written more about this epic failure on my blog. I thought I had, but here it is again.

You’d think this particular episode would have been a penny-drop moment for me. It wasn’t. Reacting appropriately to signs and those ding, ding, ding moments in life can take years. So I soldiered on and rewrote the goddam thesis to meet the expectations of the Department Head. “It’s just an exercise,” he kept telling me. Well, it wasn’t for me. I envisioned and delivered so much more than that. Before I had submitted I’d even won a fellowship to do research at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris so I could delve deeper into my subject and add the kind of insights I knew I’d only get standing in front of the art.

The same Department Head reacted to the news of my museum fellowship, saying, “Getting this won’t get you into a better Ph.D program.” It was bizarre. I wasn’t even thinking about that. Jockeying and departmental politics were the last thing on my mind. I was living in the moment, thinking, “Oh my God, I get to see all of this art in person, walk in Cézanne’s footsteps and sip French coffee on someone else’s dime!”

Stewart knew none of this. His eyes were practically falling out of his head as I talked. He never guessed I had failed. Back then, I didn’t think I had to tell him. I figured departmental gossip would fill him in in no time. “Failing must have felt like a death,” he said with the kind of horror saved for German Requiem Masses.

There was something else Stewart didn’t know. I found out I had failed my thesis the weekend after I had returned from a trip to Cambridge, Mass. After Paris, I’d been shortlisted for a fellowship to Harvard and had spent the weekend in interviews.  “I didn’t know that!” Stewart gasped. “What happened next?”

“Well, I didn’t go. I had to rewrite my thesis.” That took another year, much of it spent pounding my head on my desk because I was convinced that my work was already good and why did I have to change it? Politics is such a bitch.

Thesis aside, I still wouldn’t have gone to Harvard. When one of the interviewers, a lovely man named William Robinson who was the Fogg’s curator of drawings, asked me why I wanted this fellowship, I replied,

“I don’t.” That’s right, folks. I told Harvard to go away.

After I had said that, Robinson and his colleague, Miriam Stewart, looked at each other, shuffled their papers together and pushed their seats away from the table before holding out their hands to wish me a fond farewell. I left the Fogg and I walked through the storied campus on my way back to my B&B, letting out this half-confident/half-crazed laugh a couple of times. I knew what I had just done and it felt right. And I knew it was right because I felt good.

I let out the same laugh as I was walking home after my coffee with Stewart on New Year’s Day and going over his seriously lacklustre opinion of me as an art historian. It was so different to the high praise he was now showering on me. In his last email to me, Stewart had this to say:

“Alison, what you’re doing — or, more accurately, who you’re being — is a hell of a lot more vital and compelling than anything that either of us were up when we were beavering away on our art historical careers. By risking something personal, by getting in the habit of putting your true self out there as if it matters, by being, in whatever ways, the artist as distinct from the mere commentator on art or life you are engaging in the Nietzschean project of becoming what you are. By making room for that self in a way that is not just high quality (good thinking, writing, design) but also coherent, honest, vulnerable, self-critical and compassionate, you make room for the rest of us, and inspire us to realize our own selves.”

Sooner or later my failures had to bear fruit. I had no idea it would take this long. I want to thank Stewart for not holding back on any of his impressions of me.

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Consciousness Raising

December 6, 2014

Then and now

Consciousness Raising

This post is dedicated to #RememberThe14,#December6, #MontrealMassacre, #ABetterMan, @EngineersCanada

Twitter eggshell image via @CompDealerNews

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Move over

December 3, 2014

New technology has always been forcing us to change. Here is a priceless vignette by Doris Lessing about the introduction of the television set to the row houses of post-war London.

It was the summer of 1950. Before I left Denbigh Road I saw the end of an era, the death of a culture: television arrived. Before, when the men came back from work, the tea was already on the table, a fire was roaring, the radio emitted words or music softly in a corner, they washed and sat down at their places, with the woman, the child, and whoever else in the house could be inveigled downstairs. Food began emerging from the oven, dish after dish, tea was brewed, beer appeared, off went the jerseys or jackets, the men sat in their shirtsleeves, glistening with well-being. They all talked, they sang, they told what had happened in their day, they talked dirty — a ritual; they quarrelled, they shouted, they kissed and made up and went to bed at twelve or one, after six or so hours of energetic conviviality. I suppose that this level of emotional intensity was not unusual in the households of Britain: I was witnessing an extreme. And then, from one day to the next — but literally from one evening to the next — came the end of good times, for television had arrived and sat like a toad in the corner of the kitchen. Soon the big kitchen table had been pushed along the wall, chairs were installed in a semi-circle, and on the chair arms, the swivelling supper trays. It was the end of an exuberant verbal culture.

Walking the Shade 1949-1962, pp. 17-18

It makes me want to write a paragraph about Netflix, “The Before and After” …

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How to deal with mean girls

November 26, 2014

I wasn’t a mean girl in school. That automatically made me a target. I didn’t solve this by auditioning to join the girls on their power trips. Rather, I tried to exist in the world despite them. My refuge was drawing.

Trays of rainbow markers thrilled and distracted me most of the time. But sometimes the girls’ full court press of taunts knocked me right over: “You can fit a popsicle stick through that gap.” “Look at those hairy arms.” “What did you get on the test?” And the brilliant, “You smell.” I did occasionally lift an arm to confirm whether or not that was true. I also spent years stroking the dark down on my arms wondering what was to be done about it. My dad’s razor felt too drastic. Finally, my mother brought home a box of Jolen and every two months, or so, we’d make a date to paint my down from brown to baby-chick yellow.

Jolen Creme Bleach

This is a tale as old as time. All kids just want to be liked. But I wanted something that felt harder to achieve: I wanted to exist on my own terms and still have friends. The idea of being a follower and having fake friendships felt worse to me than going to math class. But I stuck to my plan. That meant having to occupy a kind of No Man’s Land for a while. I was individualistic, but not a weirdo, and, yet, I wasn’t what the students would have considered “popular.” I was There.

All that changed as I ascended to my senior year of high school. Because I was popular with my teachers, eventually everyone else just followed their lead. What the adults liked about me, I liked about me: I was focused, intelligent eager to learn, and full of laughter. With the support of my parents, I held out and gave those qualities the attention they deserved. Those choices early on have helped me navigate through all kinds of unpredictable and confounding behaviour. As the mean girls and I headed towards graduation, they still went about alternately courting and ignoring people, but now that I had no emotional investment in them they lost interest in me.

Fake Likes

A few years ago, I discovered that a photograph of me being that girl I just described to you had been turned into a work of art. The photo, taken by my dad, shows me drawing on the back of an architectural blue print (see below left). Decades later the Winnipeg art collective, The Royal Art Lodge, ran across my photo and turned it into a silk screen called “Poster Making.” Click here for the full story of how this happened.

Poster Maker Inspiration

Lodge members Neil Farber, Michael Dumontier and Marcel Dzama saw something in me that they recognized in themselves, and all kids. Innocence. Focus. Determination. Click here and  find out more from my interview with Neil Farber. Like all creatives, the artists borrowed my likeness and made it their own. Most notably, they added the words “FUCK OFF” to the blueprint I was working on. It’s not something I would have ever written or said back then. The result is funny, existential, idiosyncratic and became an instant cult hit. The print has been sold out for years, but, from time to time, it pops up on the secondary market at considerably higher prices.

It wasn’t long before writer and publisher Dave Eggers saw the print and featured it in McSweeney’s. Readers loved it and the print was turned into a McSweeney’s Post Card Set. But the story doesn’t end there. Eggers hand-picked “Poster Making” to be in a salon-style art exhibition called “Lots of Things Like This.” It travelled to New York and Amsterdam where it appeared next to the  drawings and paintings of Leonard Cohen, David Mamet, Andy Warhol, Art Spiegelman, Kurt Vonnegut, David Shrigley, and others. Since then, I have seen framed copies of the print show up on Facebook in shots of people’s living rooms, kitchens and home offices from Toronto to Cincinatti. This month’s issue of Design Lines (p. 77) shows the print in the Toronto home of an ad agency exec and his family (below).

Design Lines magazineMy friend Grady spotted this and sent it to me.

The print has also been written about in dozens of blogs, as this screen grab of a Google image search shows:

Viral Poster Making

Being the inspiration for something creative is hands-down the best way to go viral.

Of all the blog posts that write about and feature the image, my favourite, so far, is  “The Post of Bad Swears” by It places Royal Art Lodge’s likeness of me next to the famous picture of Johnny Cash giving photographer Jim Marshall the middle finger salute. Frank Zappa’s famous nose pick and a stream of other art works are also pulled in for comparison (see below).

I have to laugh at the careful and sincere little girl in the red blouse who started it all. Who knew she would  go on a journey with a band of artists and became the standard bearer of a message that resonates with so many of us in this age of digital creativity and reinvention. It turns out, I’ve always been a believer and a dissident. So get out there, people, and create! You know what to tell the naysayers and the bullies.

Massive Collage

Images from left to right: “Poster Making,” by The Royal Art Lodge; Johnny Cash, San Quentin Prison, February 24, 1969 by Jim Marshall; ”fuck” by daveisdrawing on Flickr (as cited by, although not found by  the author); Frank Zappa, Nasal Birdflip (origin unknown – please forward if you find); “Fuck You Is The New Thank You” by beejay at, according to (To the author’s chagrin, original still not found); The Swear Box by Gilbert + George, 2007 (available for purchase here); “Be Polite” billboard (origin unknown); FUCK YOU / a magazine of the arts, 5.2, 1963, Published by Ed Sanders and Fuck You Press.


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New world order

November 21, 2014


Hanging Out To Dry





Feeling small in this world

Comet of change

 ”The imagination of change has to always precede the reality of change.” ~ Gloria Steinem

Words and illustrations by Alison Garwood-Jones - ©2014


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Copy cat

November 20, 2014

As a teen, I spent hours making hyper-realist drawings from magazine ads, Old Master works (some Old Mistresses too, like M. Cassatt and C. Claudel), and anything else I could get my hungry hands on. Despite a few interruptions (jobs, diminished metabolism, rattled teacups), the plundering continues.

#PlayTime #WaysOfSeeing #PlunderCulture

Clinique pencilsMy 17-year old self did this.     Photo: Trevor Garwood-Jones

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