Banff and the Ravens of Creativity
As the ravens of Alberta came full circle above me, so did my discombobulated history as a troublemaker in arts academia. It took the mountain village of Banff to do this.
In the roaring heat of summer, on Banff Avenue, in the town of the same name, vacationers paraded up and down finely-swept sidewalks, clad in big shorts, pushing double-strollers, eating ice cream, snapping photos of the cranky mountain peaks, scrambling to replace camera batteries, shepherding their teenagers, looking for a bison burger or killing time until a $75-dollar fondue extravaganza of snake and alligator showed up for dinner. I had sampled the alligator years earlier in college, when I visited Banff the first time, but that trip was only starting to resurface in my head as I eavesdropped on all the happy tourist families.
A seemingly endless traffic jam of outdoorsy-looking car-jeep crossovers — green, maroon, black, red or blue, but nothing interesting — clogged the few blocks of Banff Ave. Each one seemed to have a canoe or kayak strapped to its top. Every driver was honking, complaining, trying to turn left where he or she wasn’t supposed to, or looking for parking where there wasn’t any.
But the beautifully cranky mountain peaks overlooked everything, even in the back streets, where the glimpses were more enjoyable than the main tourist drag.
The cyclists were even more plentiful than the cars. They were everywhere, either in packs or just resting in the public spaces. I saw spandex-clad athletes either just back from a strenuous ride or about to embark on one. One gray-haired cyclist, a guy about 50 in multicolored spandex, said he was from Calgary, as he asked the Filipina woman at the information booth if there was a Quizno’s sandwich place anywhere nearby. She said no. Only Subway. She handed him a tourist map and scribbled down instructions on how to find it. Harumph, he seemed to say.
I wound up a block down the street, to the sound of a steel drummer doing Brahms and the earthy aroma of burning hickory in a sidewalk-display fireplace. One of Banff's public art scenarios beckoned me: A large cement area, circular and open, surrounded by three raven sculptures, each on a thin 30-foot cement pedestal. You know the Maltese Falcon, the jade bird Bogey was gunning for in that flick? That’s what these raven sculptures looked like. That kind of hardened detail, that kind of austere menacing profile, simultaneously ominous and delicate. One raven stared downward from his pedestal, one gazed forward, and the third one was peering upward, although slightly hidden by a few tree branches.
I didn’t just ‛find’ the ravens. On one hand, yes, after reading about the sculpture in the brochure handed to me by the information-booth lady, I asked her where they were located. But I didn’t feel like I discovered them; rather, they discovered me. It wasn’t easy. The third raven, for example, discovered me as I was looking for the other two. The brochure hadn’t described the ravens, just that three of them “stared down on Banff’s Heritage Square,” which, turned out, sat right behind the steel drummer and the smell of burning hickory. So there I went.
Among a slew of other significance, the raven represented the Jungian aspect of the Shadow, the darker side of the psyche, and this was not the first Canadian moment at which ravens had discovered me. Various trips all over Alberta and British Columbia had previously presented raven archetypes to make any Jungian analyst proud. This is why writers traveled: to weave previously separated contexts together; to experience a heightened sense of awareness; to discover their multidimensional selves. And the raven was a symbol of creativity, magic and finding balance — perfect for someone like me, who often experienced travel as alchemy.
As such, the ravens helped fortify an alchemical process, inspiring me to banish some repressed misery from my college days 17 years earlier — the last time I’d visited Banff. The inner voyage started to boil as soon as I explored the Banff Centre for Creativity, a world-renowned multidisciplinary arts incubator just up the hill from Banff Ave.
In college, I had been one of those punks who refused to function in a specific discipline — you know, like music composition, UNIX hacking, visual art or creative writing. Instead, I occupied the routes between the pigeonholes, peeking inside each one enough to take what I needed, all the while knowing in my heart that it would probably ruin my chances of ever remaining in academia to teach anything.
At that time, 17 years earlier, I had first visited the Banff Centre while working with one of my professors in order to help administrate an annual international conference, a job I performed for the last half of my decade in college. Even then, I had found the Banff Centre to be a wildly inspiring place, a creative mountain vortex where artists of every discipline showed up to do residencies and inspire each other. Everyone seemed to operate outside of traditional academic compartmentalization. It was an amazing campus even then, attracting anyone traveling the routes between the academic pigeonholes. The conference was one seemingly meant for a place like the Banff Centre: Electronic music composers collaborated with modern dancers. Audio engineers joined forces with violinists. Music professors got hammered with LISP programmers. People delivered papers with titles like: “Digital Waveguide Modeling of the Non-Linear Excitation of Single Reed Woodwind Instruments.” Or: “Toward a CLM Sound Localization Instrument Employing Modified Wavefront Reconstruction.” I felt at home in such a place, even if it was a temporary visit for a conference as part of my job. My real home — San Jose, California — did not feel like home at all. The Banff Centre did.
Somehow, I survived that era with a Master of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, which actually said “Art & Technology,” on a piece of paper, although there was no possible use for such a degree. That is, until I started writing. Then it all came back.
So with the ravens guiding me, I returned up the hill this time around and infiltrated the Banff Centre yet again. The campus was even better than 17 years earlier. Craggy mountain peaks and a crisp summer breeze enveloped the whole property. Deer sauntered around everywhere. I felt like the natural environment was just as much of a creative guide as my professors had been, way back in college.
On my visit this time, so much creativity transpired around me, it was impossible to keep track of it all. Opera, sculpture, critical theory, jazz, dance, leadership seminars and film sound design were among the activities in full force. I felt more than inspired to write down all my experiences. I felt like everything had come full circle, like all that rebellion against the pigeonholes was a good thing and now I needed to write it all down. On the campus of the Banff Centre, my melancholy began to evaporate. A little.
Old wise men of many traditions said that when the student was ready, the teachers tended to appear, or in this case, reappear. I felt like this was one of those times.
The restaurant at the Banff Centre just happened to be called The Three Ravens. I couldn’t have set it up any better had I tried. The name was apparently chosen through a staff contest.
Wherever I went on campus, the various buildings, studios and departments still thrived with creative activity. I was part of a multidimensional, experiential vortex, a synesthetic interaction of different creative disciplines. Dancers collaborated with sound artists. Composers pooled resources with object-oriented programmers. Painters, sculptors and ceramicists set up shop and reaped influence from the staggering scenery that enveloped the entire campus.
For example, music students came here for work-study programs allowing them to utilize “practice huts,” that were integrated into the wilderness across the parking lot from the music building. As I skulked about the area, I heard students practicing trombone, piano and cello. A deer walked by for half a second. What looked like yet another raven flew overhead.
Of course, the Banff Centre hosted numerous artist residencies all year long. Creators made their way here and thrived in a visionary environment that placed them in constant contact with other artists, writers, researchers and folks passionate about whatever their focus happened to be. Categories didn’t matter. Creativity did. Everyone seemed to play off each other’s presence.
The aptly titled Kinnear Centre for Creativity & Innovation had just opened a few years earlier. Inside, the Maclab Bistro said, “May creativity, collaboration and friendship flourish in this place.” Even the employee vans all came stamped with the tagline: Inspiring Creativity.
I began to assume the ravens were looking over the Banff Centre, as the shamans would probably insist. One felt destined to create while spending time on this campus. The muse was bound to emerge for anyone that showed up here, allowing anyone to resolve his or her inner conflicts through creativity — precisely the mechanisms ravens tended to catalyze, according to the archetypes.
And speaking of archetypes, I randomly ascended the staircase in the Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives, with no goal in mind, only to then spot a complete set of Carl Gustav Jung’s works, right there, at the top of the staircase. My gaze went straight to it. I did not plan this. Couldn’t have. No way.
The Banff Centre seemed to integrate me into its interdisciplinary arts and innovation vortex for what seemed like only a few moments, but during my short experience, so much transpired behind every door, I couldn’t keep track of it all. So much activity unfolded in every part of the campus. A group bus tour of probably 50 seniors stopped by to eat and explore. The legendary audio designer Shawn Murphy was lecturing in the Film & Media department. I infiltrated opera rehearsals for both Don Giovanni and the Secret Garden. In another building, a weeklong leadership development program was taking place. All around me, there existed master classes, workshops, gatherings, research and collective theorizing. At nighttime, over in the theater building, The Club, a 180-capacity Cabaret-style venue, was rocking, jammed to the gills.
All the while, a special Banff Centre extension of dOCUMENTA, the provocative contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, was taking place, as part of the Banff Research in Culture (BRiC) residency program. Scholars, radical theorists and cultural critics were presenting their ideas in all formats.
Even after I concluded my experience of the Banff Centre, the ravens seemed to follow me everywhere. They were my guiding light, my ushers and my heroes. I no longer felt like I’d squandered my college years by not focusing on one subject. Everything had led to everything else, eventually bringing me here to Banff again 17 years later.
Back down the hill on Banff Avenue, the swarms of spandex-clad cyclists continued to congregate and the tourist families continued to gallivant up and down the block. Cars still honked and people still complained. No one seemed to acknowledge the ravens, but that was OK with me. No one seemed aware of the international vortex of creativity that existed right up the hill. They would learn. Someday, they would learn.