The Thing About the City: On Inspiration Found in Concrete Scapes

The following is an attempt to (as concisely as possible) track the development of my fascination with the city as a source of creative inspiration.

I was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria. There were no skyscrapers there but it was a bustling place.  From ages six to ten, I lived in the building below: a fourteen-story communist era flat (Liulin block 345), which remained incomplete until years after we moved away. Cranes were commonplace.

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On hot summer nights, with the window open, I’d go to sleep lulled by the hum of the neighbourhood. The voices of teenagers hanging out on benches until late into the morning, the bark of dogs, the alarming yowl of fighting or sexually charged cats in dumpsters, the drifting laughter of people having a beer at the basement café across the street, cars pulling in, their clunky doors slamming, people whistling for each other from tall balconies. The constant background noise of urban life.

As a young teen in the UK, I found a photo in a magazine. I cut it out and stuck it to the wall of my tiny bedroom and gazed at it every day. It was of the Twin Towers in Manhattan. I drew an arrow toward the very top of one of the towers. It was meant to depict where I’d stand one day, overlooking the entire world, arms out, free as a bird. That was 1993.

In high school (Regina, Saskatchewan), I dreamed big dreams about skyscrapers. On a visit to Toronto I snapped a photo from atop the CN tower. It became the inspiration for this painting I never finished in grade eleven:

Grade twelve I took AP Art as an elective. (I prepared to go to university in Toronto for Computer Science, so my five core courses were rational things like Calculus and Biology, Physics, Chem). In my lunch hour, though, or after school, I was painting futuristic cityscapes with yellow-red skies.

Here is a sample of my ‘concentration’: the big theme-based project we had to compete before the end of the program. It has sat in storage at my parents' house for the last 20 years. I present it here, in all its limitations and imperfections, to demonstrate my concrete commitment to ‘the city’ as a muse of sorts. Note also the appearance of the Twin Towers. This recurring theme might have escaped me at the time. This was 1999.

I moved to Toronto as soon as I could after high school and drank my fill of buildings, bustle, squirrels, and all the rest. In all, I lived fifteen or more years in and out of the Greater Toronto Area, two on campus in the core. It is perhaps strange, then, that there are no photographs, no drawings, no paintings, nothing, really, to mark this supposed fulfilment of my dreams.

In my early thirties, I lived in the Netherlands for two years. We lived in a ground-level flat, near the heart of Rotterdam, with throngs of students walking past our window during the day, and the occasional drunk passer-by peeing in our 'bakfiets' (box bike) at night. Among other things, I photographed tall buildings, gazing up and up and up.

Rotterdam, 2013

Rotterdam, 2013

Since I returned to Canada, we've been living rural. It's the first time in my life that I've spent more than a few weeks at a time surrounded by trees and sheep. And man, did my longstanding crush on monoliths persist and blossom. Maybe it's FOMO, but my heart trips each time the promise of an urban shoot presents itself. Last year, I followed my Year in the Life family to Toronto:

Toronto, 2017

Toronto, 2017

Most recently, we took a two-day road trip to New York City. I'll post more on that another time, but here's an image from that trip.

New York City, 2018

New York City, 2018

I spoke in an earlier blog about losing part of my identity when I left academia. Writing blogs like this one, and reflecting over bits of my life that have stayed consistent is not only ‘fun’ to do. It helps me to rebuild this lost identity, or at least identify its core, stripped of all immaterial stuff like accomplishments and expertise.

I have a science fiction flash piece about a man who has lived entire eons and he reminisces about his life from the top of his thirty-thousand story loft. Just got a rejection on it yesterday, actually. The feedback was priceless (it's very rare to receive feedback on a short story submission, so this was a real gift).

Feedback for the Author:
I like the concept here, but its epic narrative style kept me at a distance. I never felt immersed in
the story, nor did I connect with the mc. The characters felt more archetype than "real". I like the
beautiful language and the resonance, but the story didn't quite reach me on an emotional level.

How could I not focus on 'epic narrative style' and 'beautiful language and resonance'? What really brought a grin to my face, was the 'more archetype than real' bit. How could that not be a compliment, even if not deliberate? Because, I have realized, it is often my intent to identify and use evocative archetypes - both with photographs and with words. More than that, I hope that the viewer (or reader) can fill the void, can infuse some of their own details into my work. If I can pull this off successfully, it would fit the definition of relational art. I'll keep trying.

And the thousand story loft - that's the cherry on the archetypal cake for me. The top of the world, at the end of the world. A sort of vantage point I futilely dream of ever having.

We're all just archetypes, aren't we, until we identify whatever it is that can flesh us out as real people, distinguishable from the rest?

At the very centre of us all is a collection of smouldering thirsts and predilections for aspects of life we cannot rationally explain. At least not easily. These are the secret driving forces behind things we end up doing with our lives if we allow ourselves the indulgence. These thirsts pop up now and again, but can be easily lost in the fray.

In a broad sense, I'm an archetypal lost soul who searches for meaning in this life - like most of us. But in the narrow sense, I find examples of joy and inspiration in the little things - or in the big, cement and mortar things - that I'm more than happy to dig up for myself through careful self-examination.

And that, my friends, is the thing about the city.