Sunday, 27 November 2016

Seeking rest and old fashioned comforts

Today's weather forecast for St. John's, NL was so fierce that it forced the rescheduling of the annual Santa Claus parade.  I didn't mind putting off Christmas-ness, even though I will admit to having put an angel decoration on my door–that had more to do with my version of sympathetic magic in the wake of Trump's election to the presidential office.  I figured I needed to invoke a guardian angel.  Mine, as it turns out, is handmade by my late mother.

I have been working hammer and tongs on a long string of work projects.  A recent trip to my family doctor was only the latest of warnings that I should do a better job on that elusive work-life balance.  It's been four years since I have taken anything resembling a vacation.  I have traveled with work and even though I pad in a day or two thinking of down time, it never seems to equate with leisure.  Instead, I get swept up in one more day of intense interviews, studio visits or last minute fundraising or promotional opportunities.  And that is part of the problem of working on what amounts to passion projects.

This week something pleasant happened that stood out from the fast paced stressful events.  The good souls at the Craft Council of NL passed on to me a handwritten letter that had arrived at their office.  It was addressed to Gloria Hickey, (sometime reviewer) c/o NL Craft Council (Gallery).  It was a letter written by a kind man I had met more than a year ago on my birthday at a chamber music concert here in St. John's.  We went from being strangers to eating lunch together and speaking German.

This new friend is a professional translator and had set himself the improbable goal of living in three countries in three years.  As it turns out, he wrote the letter I received this week while on board a boat bound for Duncan, B.C.  What prompted the letter is that he had come across an article I had published in Studio Magazine.  The magazine had been purchased in the gift shop of a tea plantation no less.  "See how your words travel" he commented.  He also came across a book of mine in, of all things, a legal library.

The handwritten letter and the notion of a lingering boat trip were the most effective appeal for me to slow down.  This Sunday will be a day of genuine rest.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Resisting the Sea of Sameness

Like just about everyone else, I was shocked when Donald Trump won the election for President of the United States.  I expected Hilary Clinton would squeak in with a slight majority and I reassured myself, even if Trump did get elected, the system of checks and balances in the governmental system would hold him in check.  Now, I am not so sure.  How I feel doesn't matter but I do have one insight to offer.

Even the big picture thinkers I admire the most, like Malcolm Gladwell, had gotten it wrong.  The reason I suspect is that we got drowned in a "sea of sameness" (an expression that I am sure comes from some source, which I do not take any credit for).  I know I have a tendency to gravitate to sources I respect, whether it is the Guardian, The New York Times or CBC.  But these are sources of information that are interpreted in ways that confirm what I already believe.  They are sources of validation for my own personal values. I might acquire new ways of defending viewpoints I already held but I wasn't going to get my opinions changed.  I bet I am not alone.
Until the elections results unfolded, I had no appreciation that Obama was so disliked.  It was unimaginable to me that women would "forgive" Trump's behaviour and comments.  Although I was not a Clinton fan either, I could not foresee that Latinos would vote against her.

I heard a commentary on CBC recently that observed there are basically two ways of rationalization.  You could reason like a scientist and follow the evidence ( a version of the empirical system) or you could reason like a lawyer, which still has its basis in emotion.  You decided where you wanted to end up and then came up with the defence.  I am sure this has applications that I could take into my personal and professional life.  A distant memory surfaced from my days studying philosophy at what was then Loyola College in Montreal.  We had a dynamite professor who divided our session into two halves.  For the first half, you might be assigned the role of a Platonist and in the second half a Cartesian.  The subject of discussion, the issue, remained the same but you were forced into taking opposing sides. It was good mental discipline.  I should practice a version of it to gain a better understanding of the world around me.  I might even watch FOX News every once in awhile.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Edward Snowdon Does McGill

Earlier this week Edward Snowdon gave a talk with a jammed packed auditorium on McGill University campus in Montreal.  I say "with" rather than "to" because it was an interactive video-conference.  There was a capacity crowd of 600 with another estimated 2,000 waiting outside.  Thankfully someone decided to break the rules and live streamed it on You Tube.  How Snowdon can you get?

The event was blighted with glitches:  technical troubles and a strike by McGill support staff that delayed the evening.  Snowdon said it was 4 a.m. in Moscow but that he appreciated people's patience.  Ultimately, he waved aside the formal part of his presentation with a refreshingly frank, "nobody likes lectures so let's get down to the Q&A portion". 

The timing for the talk could not have been more opportune.  He addressed the instance of the Quebec reporter whose phone was allegedly hacked by the Securité du Quebec.  He urged the audience to read the materials handed out by McGill strikers.  And, when asked about the American elections for his opinion Snowdon responded that the important thing to remember was that it was a voter's obligation to be informed and make a private choice.

Privacy is of course the cornerstone of Snowdon's experience and opinions.  He maintains that privacy is what is central to our democratic rights.  So, this is what we've come to expect from him.  However, I found it interesting how deftly he sidestepped the whole Clinton versus Trump issue and did not get bogged down in personalities.  I was also intrigued to hear him say that compared to the U.S.A., the U.K. and Australia, Canada had the weakest oversight of its intelligence gathering.  That's pretty frightening.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

“Come Play With Me” Piano Coming to Avalon Mall

By Business and Arts NL on Nov 01, 2016 08:00 am
Music has a truly magical and transformative quality. The right tune can change your mood and get your toes tapping even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing, while hearing the first few notes of a familiar song can bring back long-forgotten memories.
Soon, visitors to the Avalon Mall in St. John’s will get to experience the magic of community music making with the unveiling of Business & Arts NL’s newest “Come Play With Me” public piano. The piano will be revealed at 11am this Friday, November 4 by the Scotiabank Theatre, with live entertainment provided by Evan Smith and Dana Parsons.
The piano will give locals and visitors alike the opportunity to share their musical talents with shoppers as they pass through the mall, helping to bring people together while adding to the lively atmosphere. This particular piano was painted by West Coast artist Susy Randell and features contrasting black and white stripes punctuated by bold Newfoundland wildflowers – a reflection of Randell’s bright, fun and whimsical style.
Public pianos are part of an increasingly popular international movement, with over 1,300 pianos on public display worldwide. This will be the fourth piano that Business & Arts NL has installed in the province, following others at the St. John’s International Airport (sponsored by JAG (Steele Hotels)); Deer Lake Regional Airport (sponsored by Humber Motors); and the University Centre at Memorial University(sponsored by Penney Group).
As with previous pianos, Templeton’s (paint, flooring and supply store in downtown St. John’s) generously donated supplies and space within the store for the artist to work. In addition to the Avalon Mall, Coast 101.1 FM (Bell Group) has also come on board as business sponsor.
Marcel Elliott, Regional Leasing & Property Manager (NL) with Crombie REIT, says the Avalon Mall is happy to host the newest “Come Play With Me” piano.
“We consider ourselves lucky to have the support of our market area and thus think it is important to pay the support forward to a variety of groups, service providers, etc.” he says.
“Newfoundland is obviously rich in a variety of arts and hopefully the placement of this piano in the Avalon Mall will help showcase the initiatives and talents within Business & Arts NL.”
Andrew Bell, President of Coast 101.1, says it is this business-arts support that helps make communities better and brighter.
“Coast 101.1 is delighted to be an official sponsor of the ‘Come Play With Me’ piano located at the Avalon Mall. Continuous support of the arts is vital. An artist’s ability to tell the unique story of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans is an unmeasurable asset to our province,” he says.
“The partnership that exists amongst business and arts engages and strengthens our communities, creativity and culture. Coast undoubtedly plays a role in promoting our budding and seasoned artists, and we couldn’t be more proud to be supporting this very important initiative!”

Sunday, 23 October 2016

All things Inuit

If there were a recurring theme for my month of October so far, it would be all things Inuit.  From October 3 to the 7th, there was an Inuit Studies conference in St. John's at Memorial University.  While I was not formally attending it did dominate my social calendar with folks who came down from up north.  There were many gatherings around food and drink that allowed me to pursue my interest in Inuit art and culture with specialists and elders on a face-to-face basis. 

There was also Katinngavik, an Inuit Arts Festival, including iNuit Blanche –the first all Inuit, all-night art crawl in downtown St. John's.  These events were open to the public, as were some presentations. 

One of the most popular was a lecture and demonstration of Inuit tattooing by Marjorie Thabone.  She is from Nome, Alaska and practices both ink and poke technique and skin stitching.  Marjorie spoke about the meaning and traditions around the traditional techniques and generously offered to draw some of the patterns on the public with eyeliner!  It was a grand mix of scholarship and fun held at the upstairs space at The Rocket Bakery.
Marjorie Thabone tattooist from Nome, Alaska.

The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery was also part of the festival with Sakkijajuk, which showcases a wide array of Inuit art and craft:  drawings, sculpture, painting, garments, photography and more.  While the conference is over, Sakkijajuk will be up until January 15, 2017 and is well worth a prolonged visit.

It seemed that just when Katinngavik was over and I had waived goodbye to one crop of new friends that the next cultural festival in St. John's had erupted.  The St. John's International Women's Film Festival began October 19th.  Along with an auditorium full of people, I was deeply moved by Angry Inuk.  This is a documentary film made by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, which as the program notes, "gives a voice to Inuit hunters whose existence has been threatened by southern-led animal rights groups and their relentless campaigns against the seal hunt."  This is not a shrill or strident protest but a heartfelt project that took Alethea eight years to complete.  It traces her journey from home in a remote coastal community to the international arena of the E.U.  It captures both the beauty of contemporary life in the north along with its frustrations and challenges–definitely an eye-opener.  No wonder the word at Hot Docs in Toronto was that this was an "important film".

And while these cultural treats were being served the protest against the Muskrat Falls flooding looms large.  In support of those who are taking drastic measures of hunger strikes and cutting through barriers there was a demonstration today in front of the Colonial Building.  More than 600 signatures, from the arts community alone, were collected for a petition.  The open letter states, "We stand by Inuk artist Billy Gauthier and his fellow protesters in their fight to defend their artistic, cultural and human health."

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Forget Me Not

Thanks are due to my co-curator on this show the resourceful Sharon LeRiche.

This is not a typical show about war.  Its perspective favours the personal above the political, the feminine over the masculine, and the sensual over the sentimental.  It is about memory and loss and what that can teach us.  It is a group show of 14 women artists and one male artist who responded to the theme of Forget Me Not.  Some of the artists have a deep family connection with WW1 and others do not.

Susan Furneaux did not have a direct connection but turned to the Rooms Provincial Archive for inspiration.  As a parent she empathized with the mothers earnestly seeking information about their sons and one handwritten letter hit her especially hard.  You will see it echoed in the background of Furneaux's embroidered and beaded piece.  Most eye-catching in the embellishment is a heart with a blank white sash that suggests the heartbreak and silence of a missing son.

For her subject matter, Frances Ennis chose the unknown soldiers who lost their lives on July 1, 1916, including two great uncles of her husband, whose bodies were never found and buried.  She created 3-dimensional hooked figures of young soldiers; tellingly they are faceless.  This is a story of profound loss of identity and a lack of closure.  When Ennis writes about them she resorts to poetry rather than stark facts.

Janet Davis based her textile art on a treasure trove of mail from the Great War period that she discovered in a cardboard box in 1996.  Davis mined these personal mementos of the Kean family– previous owners of the shop that became her studio. Davis has embellished her version of the wartime cards with details almost as an act of healing.  Like a bandage wound over and over or a multiplicity of stitches, Davis uses repetition in her art.

Now, think about the contrast of The Caribou, those proud bronze sculptures that celebrate the bravery of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and the little delicate flower that with surprising resiliency just keeps coming back.  Donna Clouston in her watercolour painting integrates the two symbols but the flower is the dominant.  If you look very carefully you will notice at the heart of one of the blossoms is a tiny caribou head and the word Newfoundland as it appeared on the Regiment's brass pins. Alexe Hanlon also integrates both caribou and forget me not flowers but her chosen sculptural medium of soft felt is a far cry from hard bronze.  It is an inversion.

Donna Cluston's watercolour.  Zoom in to find the brass pin.

It is difficult to make good art that is based on an experience of war.  Perhaps that is because war can be so painful and we wish to protect those we love from pain.  Many soldiers who returned to Newfoundland never spoke of their horrific experience overseas.  Silence was one way they had of coping.  Kevin Coates' wood carving depicts the lone widow at a gravesite and is titled Forget You Not.  Coates never heard of his grandfather's experience in the war.

It requires a rare balance of skill and insight to avoid clichés in discussing war. Without literalism, Lisa Downey uses her skills as a pattern maker to evoke the presence of nurses during the war, while Katelyn Dobbin used recycled military sheeting for her deceptively simple dress embroidered with forget me nots.  Celeste Colbourne used the palette suggested by the flower for her painstakingly woven shawls.  There is a recurring theme in these works, the gesture of giving comfort.  But not all of women's roles around the war were so benign. 

Although it was not a common practice in Newfoundland, ceramic artist Wendy Shirran introduces us to "white feathering", which was encouraged by the British military.  Her art alludes to the custom of a woman giving a man a feather as a form of public shaming for his lack of active, military service and apparent cowardice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mitzi Pappas Smyth chose to tell her grandfather's story.  He was turned down for active military service overseas due to the fact that he was deaf.  Undaunted by the rejection to fight at the front he was accepted into the Newfoundland Forestry Corps which served their time during the war cutting down trees in Scotland to support the men at war in the trenches.  Notice the trees that represent him among the blue flowers in her work.

Family is a recurring feature in this exhibit.  Margaret Walsh Best memorializes her grandmother who was originally a lace maker and came to Newfoundland as a war bride.  She suggests her grandmother's importance by the roots of a flower and the impression of lace.  Best has fond memories of sharing time and knowledge in the garden with her grandmother and it is not by accident that Best would grow up to become a painter of flowers.

Families challenged by the divide of space and time is another connecting thread.  Miro Davis carved a piece of rock native to the Eastern shoreline.  It has a natural cleft down its centre or "symbolic scar" as she puts it.  Davis invites us to imagine a community divided between home and battleground. The rock is solid although it looks like it might split in half.  She was inspired to carve one side with puffins, those sea birds noted for their rookeries along cliffs.  The other side is carved with a likeness of the forget me not flower.

Margaret Angel lost family members from both her maternal and paternal sides.  She also had a nurse in the family, and five others, who served overseas and returned.  Moved by letters she tracked down in The Rooms, Provincial Archives, Angel represents those she lost with two pockets. Inside them she has tucked hooked artifacts that might have been personal effects–a watch, a photo or pay book; she observes that these might have been the last tangible connections between a parent and lost son.

Janet Peter takes the most abstract approach in this show.  Her work in paper maché is loose, highly textured and interpretative.  It combines references to both the forget me not flower and barbed wire fencing.  At its top section is a sky the colour of fresh blood, lit up by a setting sun or perhaps bombs.  It is both ambiguous and haunting like the perennial threat of war.

The work in this exhibit taps a visceral and emotional response to war–just as textiles, be they clothing, a bandage or a comfort blanket– are often described as our second skin.  Narration in fine craft and art can take many forms.  A significant portion of the work in Forget Me Not is textile based but all of the works be it stone, wood or paper maché tells a story.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Immaterial World by Juleyn Hamilton

This past week I have been happily overwhelmed by the New Dance Festival that has invited me to be one of their guest writers.  There have been dancers from everywhere from Berlin to Barcelona here in St. John's.  This was the first post I wrote for them about Julyen Hamilton who has been dancing since the '70s and was originally based in London.

With a title like "The Immaterial World" it begs the question, "what is an immaterial world?"  When the audience streamed in Hamilton was already seated on stage on a stool in the shadows, back to the audience.  Soon we heard a series of familiar but indistinguishable vocalization from him.  Like voices overheard in a multitude of languages, the babble of the subconscious or the regurgitation of a dream.  Eventually, Hamilton fluidly turned round and greeted us in a friendly tone, "Welcome".  This word would be used almost as poetic punctuation through the performance along with phrases like "and I will hold you in my arms" or "help me".

We were no longer in the shadows and had arrived in the well-lit immaterial world where there were a surprising number of material props.  In addition to the stool were standing, shining pipes, vessels with water in them, cloths and perhaps most engaging–a red handled kitchen knife.  All of these objects were well chosen for their versatility and visibility from anywhere in the theatre. 

Hamilton would use these articles with dramatic skill and when creatively combined with his characteristic gestures and vocalization take us through a quick paced series of vignettes that were at turns humorous and tragic and even magical.  They alternated between the everyday and the ritual and pointed to a fascinating universal quality.  These were scenes drawn from human life as it has been played out around the globe for centuries.  When he skimmed the knife blade along the pipe it evoked the purposeful gesture of sharpening a knife.  But was it for sacrificing an animal or himself? Preparing for a meal with a lover or a fight to the death with an opponent?  It was a caress and it was music.  Water was for quenching a thirst, ritual washing or cleansing, rain and of course tears.

Julyen Hamilton is known for his prowess as an improvisational dancer and his ability to command a stage with as little as a stare.  With the freedom of improvisation Hamilton can create suspense and hold the audience in his hand.  With decades of experience, he can play out the variations of his body, his voice and his props.  He knows well what is possible, probable and can respond to what actually happens.  Whether a pipe fell over, lights buzzed or an audience member coughed, it was all skillfully employed.  Improvisation resided not in the random but in the insightful interplay of a series of well-known elements.