The Proust Questionnaire: Marlene Creates

The Proust Questionnaire started as a Late Victorian parlour game, aimed at revealing key aspects of a person’s character. While still in his teens, author Marcel Proust answered a similar series of questions with such enthusiasm that, when the manuscript containing his original answers was discovered in 1924, his name became permanently associated with this type of informal interview.


Photo: Malin Enström, 2013


Marlene Creates is an environmental artist and poet who lives and works in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, Canada. Born in Montreal, she studied visual arts at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and lived in Ottawa before moving to Newfoundland—home of her maternal ancestors. 

For over thirty years, her work has explored the relationship between human experience, memory, language and the land, and the impact these have on one another. Her current work—which is focused on six acres of boreal forest, where she lives in a “relational aesthetic” to the land—includes projects combining words, photo-landworks, live-art events and a web-based virtual walk.

Her art practice incorporates her work as an educator, environmentalist and community arts activist. Since 2001, she has been leading multidisciplinary place-based art projects in Newfoundland schools, in which students explore their local environment, community and heritage through field trips, drawing “memory maps,” photography, writing and interviewing. In addition to her work with Newfoundland schools, she has taught art at the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College and the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, and has worked with several artist-run centres. 

She has received numerous awards, including the 2013 BMW Exhibition Prize at the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2001. She has been a guest lecturer at over 150 institutions and conferences in North America and Europe, and has also been the curator of several exhibitions.

Since the 1970s, her work has been presented in over 300 solo and group exhibitions across Canada and around the world, and can be found in numerous public collections, including that of the National Gallery of Canada.


Your earliest memory of art:

Around 1960, one of the Montreal newspapers carried in their weekend section a series of full-page colour reproductions of wildlife paintings—a different animal each week in its habitat. After cutting out each one and collecting them for many weeks, I decided I wanted to show them to my elementary school teacher. That day, walking to school after lunch, I was carrying them in my hand, not in my schoolbag. I was only part way there when an older boy came along, grabbed them out of my hand, and deliberately ripped them. I don’t know if the woman living in the closest house saw this happen, or if I was standing there crying and she heard me, but she brought me into her house. We sat at the kitchen table while she taped them back together for me. I didn’t even know her, but I remember she consoled me very much. I probably wouldn’t even remember these images if that incident hadn’t happened.

Another memorable event in elementary school was a day that we had a substitute teacher. She wanted someone in the class to draw something for her and, not knowing us, she asked who would be able to do that. Being a very shy child, I wouldn’t dare raise my hand, but several others called out my name. I didn’t think anyone had ever noticed me, let alone realized how much I loved doing art. For me, it is one of the most moving endorsements I’ve ever received.

When you knew this would become your vocation:

I still have my lined composition book from Grade 3. In answer to the assigned topic, “My Future Career,” I wrote, in pencil: “When I grow up I think I want to be an artist and paint pictures. After I paint the pictures I will give them to the stores and the people would give the money to me for the pictures. I would visit schools and I might teach art lessons on Saturday. Maybe I might visit other countries and get different scenes. I would visit England and paint the Ivory Tower.”

It seems that, even at eight years old, I associated being an artist with going somewhere and looking at the world. (I don’t know if I was thinking of the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but I hope my teacher had a chuckle, as I do now, over my saying I wanted to paint the “Ivory Tower.”) 

I also remember that, at that time, I thought art was one of the greatest human achievements. I have no idea where I got the idea; we lived in the suburbs, and I had never been to an art gallery as a child.

Your greatest influence:

Although my life is radically different from my parents’ and the one they envisioned for me, I realize their positive influences. When I was a child, my mother encouraged me by enrolling me in any Saturday art classes that were available in the area—like at the YMCA and the local library. She understands the importance of education and she was the one who had the ambition for me to go to university, though she didn’t have the chance herself.

My father loves the outdoors, and he wanted to instill in us an appreciation for Nature. When we were children, he took my two brothers and me on camping trips. He also has a great sense of history. And another thing: he’s someone who would stop and talk to anyone about what they were doing, like men working on a road or fixing a roof. I’ve found that talking to strangers myself is very rewarding; there are many excerpts from such encounters in my work. My father was very handy, and he taught me how to use tools. When he could no longer do things himself, I was very touched that he gave his toolbox to me.

I’m also grateful to the leaders I had when I was a Girl Guide. They took us on wilderness camping trips every summer, as well as to some international jamborees. These were all very influential.

Occupation you would have chosen (other than art):

A drummer (either rock ’n roll, African, Garifuna, or Japanese Taiko), or a cellist.

Favourite pastime (other than art):

Poking along quiet, secondary roads through the countryside (any countryside) on a motor scooter.

Favourite artist:

I have favourite genres, which overlap in many ways: Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Site-specific art, Environmental and Eco-art, Relational Aesthetics and Community-based art. These kinds of art correspond to the fact that I’m not a studio artist myself, as it turned out.

Favourite writer and musician/composer:

The literary arts are so important to me that I would not be able to choose a favourite writer. I read quite a bit of contemporary poetry and fiction, especially by Newfoundland authors. I’m amazed by the imaginations of fiction writers, and by the ability of poets to distill. Non-fiction is just as important to me, particularly Nature writing, ecology, and place theory.

My favourite composer has been Franz Schubert since 1973. I remember this because I was visiting Vienna and thought it would be nice to get a recording by one of the great Viennese composers. But what a task! I looked through the LPs at a store and I chose—simply because of the beautiful backlit portrait photograph of the musician, Wilhelm Kempff, on the record jacket—a recording by him of some of Schubert’s piano sonatas. Since then I have acquired quite a collection of recordings of Schubert’s wide range of work. The poignant piano sonatas can still choke me up. For many years, I even tried to learn to play my favourite—the one in B Major, D960, which was the last one Schubert wrote shortly before he died, at less than 32 years of age.

Favourite colour, flower and bird:

White is my favourite colour because it is so luminous.

Many wildflowers bloom in the patch of boreal forest where I live. There are over 45 on the list I’ve been keeping, and they all give me such delight when they emerge every year. I would choose the Pink Lady’s Slipper (a wild orchid) and the Northeastern Rose as my favourites, though (surprise!) they’re both pink, not white. I’ve planted a flower garden that has only white flowers.

The White-Throated Sparrow is my favourite bird, especially for its song, which has been transcribed as Sweet-Sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada in this country (while Americans think it says Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody-Peabody).

Favourite food and drink:

Anything from my vegetable garden—particularly salad greens. I also love big, juicy, Newfoundland scallops, though I’ve never been successful at cooking them just right, à point. I think anything prepared by someone else tastes more interesting, even a cup of tea. Especially a cup of tea.

Favourite smell and sound:

I cannot walk past a blooming wild Northeastern Rose without sticking my nose in it, especially as each one is only open for about two days before the petals drop. But, happily, more buds open over the season.

I love the various sounds of the Blast Hole Pond River, which flows through the place I live. I’ve written a poem about this—about having a very limited vocabulary to describe the river’s voice at different spots and in different seasons, in comparison to the elaborate transcriptions that have been developed for birdsong.

Favourite object:

For usefulness: my woodstove. I burn deadfalls and blow-downs from the forest around me to heat the house in the winter. Hauling, sawing, stacking, and hauling it again into the house (I call it “the wood enterprise”) are some of my main activities. One of the benefits (besides weight-bearing exercise) is that I spend a lot of time outdoors in this place, which is where I look for my subject matter now.

For heartstrings: a glazed earthenware chamberstick (also called a finger candle holder) that belonged to my great-grandmother, Tamar (Freake) Turner, who was born in Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island. On one side, inscribed through the glaze, it says, “Good courage breaks ill luck,” and there’s a cottage decorating the other side. It is unmistakeably Watcombe Torquay Pottery Motto Ware, which was made in Devonshire. This chamberstick was passed to my great-aunt Jen, who gave it to my mother. When I was a child, my mother used it whenever there was a power failure, and in 2005 she gave it to me. Because of where it was made, I like to think it may even have come to Newfoundland with my maternal ancestors—who were from Devon—when they settled on Fogo Island. (By the way, my father’s parents were also from England, both born in London, but they met in Montreal as new immigrants. They probably never would have met each other in London.)

Favourite environment or landscape:

I’ve read that there are several main categories of landscape, and that each person has an inclination to one of them—such as mountains, shorelines, deserts, tundra, prairies, forests and jungles. When I was on Baffin Island in 1985, I couldn’t take my eyes off the ground. Every step on the tundra provided another set of colourful intricacies. The beautiful Barrens in Newfoundland are a similar environment. And I love both shorelines and the boreal forest. One thing for sure: I’m definitely not a mountain person. Mountains are too grand for me. I prefer environments on a smaller scale, seen close up. William Blake said it best, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.”

Favourite weather or season:

I love a really big blizzard—a “snow day,” when schools are closed, ferries storm-bound, garbage pick-up postponed, and even public buses are taken off the road. It feels like a bonus day to stay put, keep the woodstove going, and listen to CBC Radio. There’s a term in Newfoundland for such a snowfall, which hinders your usual work: a “devil’s blanket.” I think it also could be called an “angel’s duvet.”

Favourite expression, catchphrase, proverb or word:

I find many terms and expressions in Newfoundland vernacular are very poetic. This dialect has been an abiding inspiration for me, partly because some of these words would have been in the mouths of my Newfoundland ancestors, and also because of my long-standing interest in the relationship between language and landscape. Many local terms fulfill a beautiful sonic relationship with this terrain. For example, here are a few more terms for ice, snow, and winter weather: ballicatter, clumper, sishy ice, crudly snow, slottery snow, pummy, buckly ice, silver thaw, glitter storm, clinkerbells and ice-candles. I’ve been working on a photographic inventory to match these terms (my research has yielded over 80), as well as a winter video-poem that incorporates them.

Some recent studies in linguistics have found correlations between geographic factors and the shape of sound patterns in human language. I’ve had an inkling there was something like this going on, but never had it confirmed until recently.

Pet peeve:

It bothers me when I hear the word “dirt” (which suggests filth, corruption and obscenity) used when referring to the element in which vegetation grows on our planet, and after which it was named. I think it’s only the bits of earth that get on our hands or clothes that should be called dirt. In the same way that a weed is a plant where we don’t want it, so dirt is to earth.

In French, I don’t think the ground in which everything grows is called the equivalent of “filth,” so this may not translate.

Best quality:

Just slowing down and paying attention to what’s in front of me: looking, touching, listening, and appreciating. (My work does not come from my imagination. If I were to point at any particular philosophical tradition with which I identify, it would be phenomenology.) This not only serves my art, but also renders my life more vivid. 

Worst flaw:

Being slow.

Your definition of happiness:

Being free.

Ideal place to live:

Right where I am, in a six-acre patch of boreal forest with a stretch of the Blast Hole Pond River running through it, on the island of Newfoundland. A writer who was asked to imagine an ideal career, I read in a novel by Michael Ondaatje, “replied that he would like to be responsible for just a brief stretch, perhaps two hundred yards or so, of a river.” I think I do have an ideal career.

And when I’m not in the woods, I’m surrounded by the richness of Newfoundland culture—from my salt-of-the-earth neighbours, to the vibrancy of downtown St. John’s and the congeniality of people “out around the bay.”

One wish:

For everyone to see that what we all have in common is the planet, and the natural world needs to be the new “bottom line.” 

Aspirations before you die:

To try to have “good courage” despite any “ill luck” until the end.

To me art is:

New ways of seeing and thinking.


Click here to view works by Marlene Creates. Click here to view works by Marlene Creates housed in the National Gallery of Canada's permanent collection.

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