The Pool Project Story

by Sherrill Miller, from the Mendel Exhibition Catalogue, The Pool Project

The dignity of the artist is in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.

G.K. Chesterton

It started serendipitously, as do so many things. We had lived for nine years on our stunning 80 acres of aspen parkland in Grandora, near Saskatoon. The pool came with the house, located right outside our patio door. Courtney frolicked in it, had diving contests with the nephews, and an annual birthday underwater swim to test his lung capacity – but he never photographed it. Instead, he celebrated the prairie landscape, and continued to search the world, photographing sacred places on all seven continents. Seven books and hundreds of articles followed, including The Sacred Earth, with a foreword by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Then on the Autumn Equinox, September 23, 1999, in anticipation of the approaching new millennium, Courtney decided to “go out in flames” and set himself the task to photograph something every day for the final 100 days of the 20th century. It was a busy time; he was travelling across Canada promoting his new book, WO Mitchell Country, and he was only home briefly to change suitcases, when he would ‘grab’ shots of the pool to fulfill his promise. In early 2000 when he reviewed his “pick of the litter”, he was stunned to see that his best images were of the pool. Thus, the Pool Project was born.

Life continued to be busy with workshops, presentations, photography, and the production and promotion of more books (Old Man on His Back, 2001, and Emily Carr Country, 2002). In 2005 he produced Saskatchewan, the Luminous Landscape, and Lieutenant Governor Dr. Lynda Haverstock gifted the book to HM Queen Elizabeth and all the dignitaries attending the Saskatchewan Centennial Gala. He was also honored in the Saskatchewan Encyclopedia, and launched a website of Prairie images for Saskatchewan schools with the support of SaskTel. With great modesty and delight, he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Regina, with the accolade as “an ambassador of the land”. Yet he was still drawn to the pool daily, and throughout the seasons. He felt he was continually renewing the boundaries of his seeing, even after 30 years of photography.

As the pool continued to seduce him, Courtney switched to a digital camera. Although learning the computer technology was a challenge, it made the increasing numbers of images easier on the budget. All the images in The Pool Project are from the digital camera. He rarely cropped his photographs; they were composed and framed in the camera as he had always done. He also made minimal adjustments to the sharpness, saturation or contrast in his images, although he frequently flipped them vertically so the original reflections became landscapes.

While the parade of the seasons and the feng shui of wind and light on water captivated him, his true joy was this whimsical ability to look at nature’s feast and see an upside-down world full of magic. Courtney loved building his archive of images; in some way for him it was a measure of his vision. The final total was more than 500,000 of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, 45,000 of which were the pool. The ancient Chinese considered 10,000 to be a very large number, perhaps expressing the notion of infinity: the T’ang poet Ts’en Shen wrote: “When the 10,000 things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning where we have always been.”

It was in a similar fashion that Courtney, after traveling the world, came home to find it all there in front of him, reflected in the pool in our front yard. He realized his experience was a perfect example of philosopher Marcel Proust’s adage that “the real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Courtney was somewhat chagrined, knowing that, prior to the pool photographs, he had not followed his own advice that he gave to his students, to “first look down and see what is at your own feet”. He wrote this poem:

He searched the world over and what did he find?
That Earth’s greatest treasure is the eye of the mind.
For when he got home, as wise as a Fool,
He found the whole world right there in his pool.

Most people could not understand how he could create more than 40,000 different images of one small (20 x 40 foot) place -- he could hardly understand it himself! He was constantly amazed that he could go out every day and find something new. It was compelling, entrancing, all encompassing and enchanting, and he so much wanted to share this experience, as an example of how others might see their worlds in different ways – “with new eyes.” In 2007 we published the Pool of Possibilities, a perpetual online daily e-calendar of 365 different images accompanied by Courtney’s comments, called Poolside Wisdom. He gave each day a name reflecting the interaction between nature and human nature. Then Courtney rearranged the Julian calendar, naming his months for the rhythms of nature and the planetary forces that impact us.

In 2007 he was invited to contribute to a CBC radio program, This I Believe. He said, in part:

This, I believe, is my core ideology: to reveal life’s unfolding mystery — not to try to solve it. In so doing, I not only help myself but also others to connect to their joy and passion. I believe that for each of us, the presence of our being is the greatest gift we can give. Truly accepting and loving ourselves has a ripple effect beyond comprehension.

The Pool Project exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery has been a wonderful example of this ripple effect. Compare what Courtney said in his Poolside Wisdom about the image he called Fullness, to what Jan Henrickson wrote in response to the same image for the exhibition (page 62). Courtney wrote:

This morning as I arrived at the pool I noticed bubbles forming near the intake pipe. I became absorbed by the ongoing parade of miniature domes -- so fragile and fleeting. Their fullness lasted no longer than several seconds, and for the most part they vanished almost as soon as they popped onto the surface.

I am reminded that in geological time my lifespan is as fleeting as one of these bubbles -- yet the opportunity exists to leave an impression of my fullness. The bubble in this picture had a life of about three seconds -- and I made this photograph somewhere between the second and third.

Perhaps it will be a photograph or a piece of writing that will transcend my lifetime and convey my essence to future generations.

What does this bubble express about your life? What words or pictures best portray the fullness of your existence? Sharing your truth makes who you are more tangible.

Courtney lived a passionate life full of exotic experiences. He was the epitome of Mark Twain’s quote: “You cannot depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.” He was playful, joyful, and full of puns. Many people who saw his more impressionistic images exclaimed “that looks like a Monet”. He would laugh and say “thanks for the compliment … sometimes we call them Milnays!” When he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma I called this “our left hand turn” into the darkness and mystery. On Friday, the 13th of February, 2009, I was driving home from the hospital and heard this commentary on the role of contemplation in science, by physicist Arthur Zajonc, on the CBC radio show, Ideas:

Every object well contemplated opens a new organ in us… you have to live in that world of phenomena. You have to attend carefully, every object, well contemplated, not just casually contemplated, but well contemplated. Attended to, over time, repeatedly, changes who you are – changes who you are to the point where you begin to see things that you didn’t see originally … and perhaps which no one before you has seen.

This seemed to me a perfect description of Courtney’s love affair with the pool, and the power of the Pool of Possibilities.

For the next eighteen months he continued his conversation with the pool, although he never picked up his camera again, saying he no longer needed to record the world, just to be part of the experience. “It’s a part of me and I’m a part of it”, he said. Instead, he worked on the computer from his wheelchair, glorying in the time he had to explore the thousands of images he had not yet had time to review. His excitement was palpable – he was still seeing new things, and many of the images he found were mysterious, other worldly, mystical. He worked with grace and verve, inspiring everyone around him, and never lost his sense of humor. He chose the images for his exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery. He followed the days on his Pool of Possibilities e-calendar. His Poolside Wisdom from the day named Preservation was ironic. Composed in 2007, it was almost as if he had written it for himself at this time:

Some of the smaller pools that I have installed in our yard have only about four inches of water. The whitetail deer love to drink from them, often tracking in sand and fine debris in which they leave their footprints. Long after the deer have moved on, their tracks remain preserved as Pool of Possibilities artwork.

I wonder what traces I will be leaving after I have moved on. Will my prints be worthy of safekeeping? What will be the abiding quality of the marks I make?

Perhaps only history can or should search for the answers, but one thing is a certainty. The quality of the footprint I leave can only be as clear and fine as the original marks that I imprint.

In August 2010 Courtney realized his health was declining. He said he was at peace. The ripple effect he had envisioned was perfectly portrayed in this poem by his good friend Wolf Willow, who had accepted Courtney’s creative challenge and wrote a poem every day as each photograph on the e-calendar arrived on her computer. This is her second poem for the image called Leaving, November 29th on the e-calendar, and found on page 34 in this catalogue.

We are drifting, all of us
towards the unknown
It looks like disintegration
we hope it is transformation
it could be imagination
or purification

Courtney said that his purpose in life was fulfilled. He was gratified that his work was done, and had been received.

His last words were: “From now on, the heart is in charge.”