Although Bill Bissett is an important figure in modern Canadian literature, I had not heard of him until a couple of weeks ago. This is probably because, although I got a thorough grounding in British literature, I am much more familiar, as a French teacher, with Canadian literature in French than in English. I told Bill that when I met him. He says he has French ancestry and also Micmac and American, so he is not only affiliated with Canadian English speakers. In fact, although he did not bother to say so because it is such a well known fact, he makes reading his poetry as difficult as he can, since he groups his words into clusters of sounds spelled phonetically.
Reading his poetry takes quite an effort, but once you have made that effort, he reveals himself as very lyrical and spontaneous. He was young in the sixties when he started writing and he seems never to have lost that youthful freshness and exuberance. There is something so forthright and direct about his expression of his feelings that it seems quite childlike. Jesus said that we had to become like little children and find the kingdom of heaven within us. I do not know if Bill subscribes to any official religion and it did not occur to me to ask him, but he did tell me that he attaches great importance to practicing meditation.
There is no barrier to getting close to his painting. It is very spontaneous and direct, full of strong, bright colours, especially red, yellow, blue and violet. He even uses quite a lot of gold. They are painted full on without any compromise, often in squiggly lines which look as if he just picks up his paintbrush and launches a direct attack on the canvas without stopping to think. I asked him whether he paints without planning. He said that he often meditates before painting, but without making any preliminary sketches, and if anything interrupts the flow he stops. I felt very sympathetic to this approach.
People are portrayed in his show but there are very few depictions of human bodies. Instead there are a great many faces in simplified, graphic outlines. Some bodies under the faces are reduced to masses of squiggly lines in primary colours. His pictures are quite large, allowing for the full sweep of the painter’s arm. Some of the faces look straight at us and some are profiles looking at each other, but what he seems to prefer is to show one profile impinging on another, forming an egg shape. Something about this makes me think of Pre-Columbian art in its directness. He seems very concerned with communication in its most genuine form.
His use of colour is very strong, direct and emotional. Besides faces, there are quite a few free hand circles enclosing circles in contrasting colours. Although these circles do not contain geometric patterns but remain empty at the centre, I take them to be mandalas, which Bill does go in for. They also make me think of the art of Zen. But Zen art is freer, airier, less substantial and solid.
He also paints what one would be obliged to call abstracts, although they do not use geometric patterns but rather resemble thick tree branches. However the colours are not naturalistic.
The paintings are what first catch one’s eye, but there are also a number of small black and white drawings composed of small, circular clumps attached together to form designs that lead one into fantasy. He uses them to illustrate his poems.
I am very happy to have met Bill Bissett who, in spite of being famous, is so friendly, natural and unostentatious in his approach. He seems like a special human being.