Wednesday, 10 May 2017

KRISTINA SØBSTAD – May 5—May 27, 2017 Christina Parker Gallery

Dreamland II, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 60" × 80", 2016
Well Kristina, you are the new kid on the block, relatively speaking.  The first question anybody asks me about you is whether you are Canadian or Norwegian?  You were born in Halifax, right?

Yes, I was born in Halifax to Norwegian parents and very quickly relocated back to Norway. Having led a fairly transient life, hopping back and forth between Norway and Canada, among other places, I very much identify with my Norwegian heritage but attribute much of my disposition and lifestyle to Canadian influences. 

Your paintings seem to be landscape-inspired but not about landscape in a specific or literal way.  Are you painting about our relationship with the landscape?

My paintings are in many ways a self-portrait, or an abstract narrative. Taking the idea of painting our relationship with the landscape one step further to the point that we are reminded of our ecological selves and in a way become our natural environment, no separation.  I recall reading a beautiful article describing this very idea and that it's the almost physical disappearing delineation of self. This resonated with me so much so that I titled 2 paintings after this idea. I would describe this as a defining moment of clarity where we can witness a transference from an intellectual to a visceral understanding of ourselves.

oil and chalk pastel on canvas,48" × 60", 2016
Often, viewers are anxious to identify place or a location in a painting but you resist that temptation.  Can you tell me a little about your titles–like Transient?  I gather Dreamland is a series of paintings.

I resist the urge to identify any particular place in a painting because it's not what I'm after. My goal is to make manifest an/my experience which will hopefully translate to the viewer, in turn, conjuring a similar experience. My titles relate directly to where in my life I am at the time, serving as much as a time identifier as a date.  My painting Transient was created in transience in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a landscape which at the time served as an anchor in some ways. Dreamland is a series inspired by the otherworldly Icelandic landscape and my experience there. 

One gentleman during the opening fixed on Haerra and asked me about the goddess.  I replied that goddesses were often affiliated with mountains but I thought he was thinking of Hera, the Greek mythic figure.  And my Icelandic mythology is rusty. Can you clarify this?

Hærra is Icelandic for higher, in Norwegian: høyere, which refers to the 'heightened' state of awareness when we are completely connected with our natural environments. On a personal note I'll add that I am very much a good 1/3 Icelandic as well...which is one of the reasons I went there and use Icelandic in titles from time to time.

You've made some very interesting choices with this new body of work.  I was impressed that you carried the large-scale off so well.  Your paintings never look inflated; these are big paintings with big ideas. 

Thank you, I prefer to make larger work, it allows me to really step inside the idea when it's complete. 

That leads me to your sense of composition that is quite distinctive.  Simplest Thing stands out–I thought that was very brave of you to leave such a large portion open at the top.  The spare painting here really evokes a wind scrubbed sky.

Yes, a wind scrubbed sky!  I like that phrase.
Simplest thing, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 36" × 60"

The way you layer your materials is very satisfying.  Could you say something about the visual relationship between the oil and chalk pastel and of course the acrylic?  It seems almost energetic to me.

My practice is very intuitive, spontaneous,  and physical, and I find the relationship between these materials allows me to mirror my approach. Also, I find there is an interesting dynamic between the oil and chalk, a tension that gives way to peaceful spaces if that makes sense, a dynamic that very much reflects our natural environments....even our not so natural environments. 

Do you have any aesthetic goals that you feel haven't come up in this conversation…anything you'd like to add?

Aesthetically in my practice, I would like to keep evolving and taking risks, exploring new materials perhaps, increasing the scale. 

Sounds like you might have some exciting plans to share…

As far as exciting news, I will be beginning a Masters this September through Athabasca University. I'm also planning a residency in Chile with the Museum of Modern Art in Chiloe in 2017, as well as a local residency not too far from St. Johns.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Aaron Draplin at Tall Tales & Thick Lines or when design can earn you a death threat

It is not unusual to have a renowned figure make a speech at a graduation ceremony.  This event did showcase the artwork of the students involved with the graphic and communication arts at the College of the North Atlantic but the similarity to a spring convocation ended as soon as Draplin lumbered on stage.

Aaron Draplin is a wooly mammoth of a man.  He has a bigger than life personality, a shaggy demeanor, talent dripping out of his fingertips and enough attitude to fill Club One wall to wall.  That venue's capacity is listed at 600 and it was sold out– not to proud mums and dads, not even to those professionals affiliated with the graphic arts in the city – although the event was an intriguing hybrid masterminded by a group calling themselves thedesigners (all one word).  Draplin has become something of an inspirational speaker, with slogans like "do good work for good people" as his professional advice.

In the flesh, Draplin swears a blue streak.  Club One's prominent windows facing the street were decorated with a photo of him that was several feet high.  Draplin shuffles on to the stage and says to the audience, "I don't think my face was meant to be 30 feet high.  Look at this stage!  See what happens when you have friends that are designers.  You get props and succulents and shit!"  It was true.  Proper designer table, artfully displayed plants and Aaron with a mass of hair and beard, stretch denim and a baseball cap.  The nurse sitting beside me gasped, "Oh, I saw him outside and I thought 'there's a person who needs a shower'".  Aaron looked liked he'd just gotten off a tractor or left his flatbed truck in the lobby.  "I was expecting a hipster," she continued.  "That's what hipsters look like these days," was my response.

Draplin has designed a staggering number of logos.  He showed us a wide range of them at fast pace accompanied by pounding rock music.  Draplin observed that for some the only payment he received was a burrito and others $30,000.  He is the incarnation of the adage of "find out what makes you passionate and do it".  He comes across as being a completely authentic human being and that is genuinely impressive­ and probably the reason why Draplin got to design for the Obama administration and earn himself a death threat in the process.  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Maudie The Film, The Love Story

The real-life Maud Lewis in her home in Digby.

The image of Maud Lewis the folk art artist gnarled over one of her trademark paintings has a recognition factor that few in Canadian art can compare with.  What is most memorable is that trait that Lewis shared with her paintings.  She suffered a crippling rheumatic arthritis but undaunted, she bears a beaming smile and twinkling eyes.  The paintings she created, often as many as two a day, are radiantly colourful and full of life even though they are of a simple country life.  Both creator and art were radiant and without apology.

The romantic drama Maudie was released at The Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 and is now rolling out in cinemas across Canada's bigger city centres.  It was released in St. John's this past Friday and I would encourage viewers not to wait because it will likely be pushed off the marquees by higher power big box fare.  The film is deftly directed by Irishwoman Aisling Walsh, and it has star power in the form of leading man Ethan Hawke, who it turns out has a summer home in Nova Scotia.  Maudie and her surly fisher monger husband lived in a tiny one-room house in rural N.S. but the film was shot on locations in Newfoundland – the Goulds,  Brigus and most noticeably Keels.  This is in part due to the financial support of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, the fact that one of the three producers is none other than townie Mary Sexton and the screenplay is written by Sherry White, originally from Stephenville.

Many viewers will be drawn to the film hoping to better understand Maud Lewis the artist.  Maud Lewis was the very definition of an isolated, outsider artist.  Not only was she self-taught and lived in a rural community (1903-1970) but Maud was largely shunned by her own family for her nonconformist ways.  Although deformed by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she refused to be shut away as an invalid.  She bore a child that was born out of wedlock and taken away from her and sold without her knowledge.  And Maud Lewis became a painter that never asked to be understood but could not be denied.  The art world beat a path to her doorway that had a simple sign outside of it saying, "Paintings for sale".  Even Vice President Nixon had to pay in advance when he ordered a painting.  Imagine all the plot possibilities!

Screenwriter Sherry White says that she carried the story of Maud Lewis around in her head for more than ten years and resolved to write a script about the love story between Everett Lewis and Maud.  Sally Hawkins plays Maud, convincingly inhabiting the complex character in a role that stretches over years.  What makes the movie a success is its lack of romantic sugar coating or moralizing.  Characters from the art world are fictionalized into the figure of Sandra, whose discerning attention is snagged by Maud's depiction of a robust, russet hen on the wall.  We know that hen was last night's supper.


Monday, 17 April 2017

Timing is everything–Books, Film, Magazines & Music

The Integral Quartet: (l-r) Peter Cho, Maria Cherwick, Peter Ko and Daniel Fuchs.

The month of April is proving to be one of those months where I keep trying to finish projects without much success.  It has to do with the various stages of publishing and the different kind of venues I work with.  For example, three years ago I wrote a book chapter about curatorial strategies.  The editor accepted it with minor revisions collected the other authors' submissions and went hunting for a publisher in a timely fashion.  However, it is only recently gotten to the stage of authors' proofs.  Books are like movies: oodles of research, generating creative ideas, figuring how to sell them, whom to sell them to, and the large cast of professionals that will carrying out a staggering variety of tasks.

By contrast when I am a guest writer for an arts festival, be it the Tuckamore Chamber Festival, The Festival of New Dance, The Sound Symposium or one of our film festivals, I am expected to attend a performance one night and be able to have copy on the festival's blog site the next day–the earlier the better.  Writing for a newspaper has a similar rhythm.  One of the reasons why I'd like to clear my desk of older projects is because festival season will soon be upon us in Newfoundland.  Our short seasons of fair weather seem to make this more acute.

I became aware of this earlier in April, when Christopher Reid Flock was a guest artist here in St. John's.  His plane managed to thread its way through the storms to arrive here and he gave a stellar workshop complete with demonstrations, artist talk and a very memorable Powerpoint presentation.  Alexis Templeton Studio hosted the event and even served up some tasty moose borscht for an authentic Newfoundland experience.  Jason Holley worked on the logistics of equipment and I am sure many others I wasn't aware of contributed to the success of the weekend.  But that's when Mother Nature got cranky.  Reid was storm stayed for two days beyond his scheduled departure.  He took it with good nature and we all did our bit to entertain him but I am sure it threw his work schedule back in Ontario into a tizzy.

Back in March I submitted copy to a new magazine that had approached me:  Billie magazine.  I was very happy to learn that the Atlantic region had a new, glossy publication dedicated to the visual arts.  Like my other projects this one has been winding its way through copy edits, images, layout and final production.  This article is about women tattoo artists and the tattoos women choose to wear.  I'll share more about that soon. 

And all this doesn't touch the show openings I've been to, concerts or new artists I've gotten to meet.  Last week, The Integral Quartet played its final concert as a group as they will disband to pursue their education far apart from each other.  The concert was held as a fundraising event for the Young Artist Program of the Tuckamore, where they all originally met.  It was held downtown at The Fifth Ticket, where patrons could not only soak up the satisfying music but chow down on a great burger and chocolate cake or raise a toast with "The Tuckamore" the Festival's new signature cocktail invented by the creative souls behind the bar and the watchful eyes of bar manager, Andrew Daw.
 To see the Integral in action use this link:

Monday, 10 April 2017

Poems and Songs are Beasts–Amelia Curran

Last Thursday April 13th, Amelia Curran started the local leg of a series of launch events to promote two artistic projects:  the release of her CD titled Watershed and the release of her first book called Relics and Tunes.  I attended the launch at Fred's Records, known for its consistent support of local musicians, knowledgeable staff, and its nearly-all wood interior makes for some very sweet acoustics for the free 45-minute concerts that rival a love-in.

The bigger city centres like Toronto had already had their share of Amelia, as had the national media like CBC's Strombo Show.  Most of this has been covered on Amelia's website, if you are curious or would like to sample the tunes.  (See

Amelia Curran is a celebrated singer songwriter on the East Coast and recognized nationally but within her own province she is especially cherished and regarded on par with the late Ron Hynes.  In 2008, she signed with Toronto indie powerhouse Six Shooter Records and her international ascendant started.  I confess that I had lost track of Curran somewhat.  As a CFA who arrived in the province in 1994, I was not aware of her early days in Newfoundland or of her years spent in Halifax where she was a fixture in the music scene.  In the Foreword of Relics and Tunes, Shannon Webb-Campbell writes,  "When Amelia moved back to St. John's in 2009–where she recorded Hunter, Hunter, with Don Ellis, a 12-track album of daring confession and love's unrequited reflections–she earned her Leonard Cohen-esque lyrical status."

It was precisely that double-barreled lyrical status that intrigued me.  "When is a poet a songwriter and vice versa?" I wondered.  I believe that Leonard Cohen owed his success to a profound understanding of that dynamic, not to mention that he probably would never have been able to make a living if he had not become a recording sensation.  (As a marketing aside, I will observe that the 3-song performance at Fred's was an astute intro to the event that encouraged fans to buy Curran's CD, vinyl album and book and have them all signed.  It was tasteful cross promotion.)  Addressing the relationship between poetry and song lyric Curran reflects.  Beyond the obvious, essential ingredient of music to song she offers, "This may sound daftly romantic, but I think of poems and songs as beasts to be hunted and either tamed or killed, depending on their demeanor."

Curran is careful to point out that Relics and Tunes is a songbook and not a volume of poetry.  The book lists the keys for each song included along with the chord progressions.  It notes verse and chorus for five of her albums, the foreword and Curran's Coda: On Writing, which is a lyrical view from the songwriting trenches.  It is a "this is how it feels" account and not a how-to.  The book is insightfully designed with faint versions of Curran's own handwriting haunting the front and back pages.  There are a few author pics and the cover features a portrait painted by Darren Whalen.

Monday, 3 April 2017

All Things Aboriginal: Music, Film, Art and Language

I never plan it, but it seems as if themes emerge from the events in my daily life.  A day after it was supposed to start, I heard that there was a weeklong conference at Memorial University called Aboriginal People's Week (March 20-24).  I regret missing Chief Mi'sel Joe's information session on the Beothuk but I did snag the Newfoundland premier of Koneline: our land beautiful, which is a documentary about the development of the Red Chris Mine in northern British Columbia.  

What I appreciated about this award-winning documentary (most recently Hot Docs 2016 Best Canadian Feature Documentary) was not just the stunning imagery–imagine a herd of horses swimming across a swollen, rushing river amid the B.C. mountains–but its nuanced account of the impact of mining, especially upon the Tahlton First Nation.  There was a multiplicity of perspectives represented and I was struck by the contrast between generations.  At the risk of over-simplification, I will point to the example of the young family man in the hard hat and a tribe elder who could have easily been his grandfather.  While the elder laments the dwindling wild life that he can hunt, the heavy equipment operator says that he enjoys working outdoors, being able to provide for a growing family and that he doesn't have to move away.  I also enjoyed watching the Tahlton phd student trying to document his native language before his father passes.  And in a surprising turn of events, the student ends up with a dog team and sled–a major commitment that makes returning to university difficult.

Check out the trailer for Koneline:

For years, I've been following the growing contemporary First Nations music scene with artists like Tanya Tagaq and groups like A Tribe Called Red starting with Electric Pow Wow.  My latest CD purchase was ATCR's Nation II Nation, which fuses electronic dance music, hip-hop, dancehall and traditional Native American singing and drumming.  There is something very primal captured in the music by these DJs from Cayuga First Nations and Ojibway, Nipissing First Nations.
Indigenous dancers perform during A Tribe Called Red's
opening of the Juno awards show in Ottawa. justin Tang/CP

Finally, on March 31st, I attended Eastern Edge Gallery's closing reception for the exhibition Mi'kMaq Word of the Day 2.0 by Jordan Bennett and Ursula Johnson.  Jordan was present and Ursula was Skyped in.  For the duration of the show, new words were painted onto the gallery walls as Ursula coached Jordan to learn his native Mi'kMaq.  It was performance art with a cultural impact.  I've been aware of both of these intriguing artists for a long while but since Jordan Bennett's involvement in Earthline, our first school of indigenous tattooing, he has worked his way to the top of my priority list.

The National Gallery in Ottawa has been overhauling its galleries to establish more of a dialogue between its indigenous collections and its European collections.  The Juno Awards this past weekend also featured a strong First People's representation that was multi-generational.  It's my hope that the ghetto walls are coming down and the contribution of First Nation artists will no longer be confined to a category.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Kate Crackerberry Works Magic

Detail of a puppet created by designer Baptiste Neis.

Upon entering the performance space for Ruth Lawrence's Kate Crackerberry audience members were greeted by a woodland setting.  A burlap path meandered from a tree stump, which was festooned with felt greenery and red berries.  A soundscape of wind chimes completed the atmosphere of magic.

On the morning that I attended Kate Crackerberry the room was filled to the rafters with enthusiastic school children.  They quickly got caught up in the timeless folktale of how two step- sisters foil the evil intentions of a step-mother.  I say timeless because such cautionary tales have been with us for centuries.  What is thought provoking is how their relevance is not diminished and how they can appeal to everyone from school children to senior citizens.  What could be more appropriate for today than a tale about blended families, conflict and a persistent battle with body image?

The charm of Ruth Lawrence's adaptation is its artful simplicity.  Two actors breathe life into a handful of puppets created by Baptiste Neis.  The sisters are girl puppets with limbs, faces and hair but their parents are portrayed simply by crowns on sticks.  The adults in the play are iconic or symbolic roles.

Kate Crackerberry is fuelled with music.  Diana Daly is both composer and performer on a number of instruments.  Ruth Lawrence provided lively narration.  The schoolchildren in the audience readily participated by calling out suggestions, energetically clapping, stomping and dancing.  They quickly caught on to the repetitive elements and urged on the action.  With glee they shouted out their opinions that ranged from "Fairies don't exist!" to "Watch out for the fairies!"  It was clear that no one was bored.

As the classes were getting ready to file out of the playhouse I consulted a few students.   Two boys sitting beside me said their favourite part of the puppet show was when one of the heroines underwent a magical transformation at the hands of the witch-like Old Hen Woman, while two girls behind me said their favourite was the dancing fairies, which are evocatively portrayed by lights.  My favourite part was watching how so many of the students waved goodbye to the puppets, wanted to pinch their noses or steal a glance behind the scenery.  Kate Crackerberry, seasoned with South Coast accents, works magic on many levels.

Kate Crackerry Adapted by Ruth Lawrence, Performed by Ruth Lawrence and Baptiste Neis, Directed by Lois Brown, March 23-24, 2017 LSPU Hall, St. John's, NL.