Sunday, 15 October 2017

Michelle Chaulk and Rachel Ryan– Two Women's Stories: The Game and Holding Patterns

These two shows are up at the Craft Council Gallery until Nov. 10th

The Craft Council Gallery in St. John's presents two women's stories in textile art and metal art.  Working independently, textile artist Rachel Ryan and metal artist Michelle Chaulk each draw from their life experiences as contemporary women as the basis for their art.  The stories they tell are their own but they have a resonance across generations and social strata.  Together they intertwine to form something of a feminist cautionary tale.

Michelle Chaulk explains, "Over the last few years, most of my work has centered around humanitarian and social issues.  I've recently been inspired by a revitalization in the women's movement specifically in the area of equal work for equal pay.  I spent several years after graduating from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the jewelry industry."  Her day-to-day experience was hardly one of wage equity.  She describes the frustration of asking for the same wages as her male colleagues at the jewelry bench.  "I would be laughed at for asking for the same starting salary as the men…and they had less experience than I did.  So, I would go home broke as usual."

Chaulk has dubbed this wage inequity and the body of work it has inspired as "The Game".  The word game is ripe with irony.  Understood as a noun it refers to an activity governed by rules that judge skill, strength and perhaps luck.  Being "game for anything", the adjective describes a bold individual ready for a challenge.  However, taken as a verb, game can have more sinister connotations.  Instead of something that can be played fairly, game suggests manipulation and the unscrupulous, as in "it is easy for big companies to game the system."  All three uses of the word game have a consistent feature:  games are artificial but have a quantifiable outcome–like a score or money.

Left to right: Michelle Chaulk, Rachel Ryan and myself.

Money is inevitable in a discussion of wage equity.  But in the art of Michelle Chaulk it takes on multiple functions.  She uses currency in the creation of her wearable art.  Look carefully at the card-shaped pendants and you will notice that the coins with the male heads always have a higher value or denomination.  Female-headed coins fulfill the same aesthetic function, as would a gem or precious item, but always with a lower value.  These are three-dimensional and double-sided.  They are displayed on armatures also crafted by Chaulk, which are in effect, miniature ladders.  You can decide who is winning the game of "getting ahead" as your eyes climb the ladder.

Rachel Ryan's body of work is titled "Holding Patterns" and it echoes another dilemma familiar to women, that of putting your life "on hold" while meeting the needs of a family.  Ryan is a daughter who has mourned the loss of her mother, became an ex-military wife, and is a mother to a young son, with whom she lives on an airbase in Annapolis Valley.  The wall-mounted, autobiographical textile art on display is drawn from over eight tumultuous years of change.  She states," I am keenly aware of the sensation of living in a “holding pattern”. I balance the desire for escape and excitement with the awareness of the need to stay grounded and stable."

Ryan's mini-retrospective blurs the boundaries between quilting and textile art.  It progresses from disparate pieces and tangled threads to a composed, lyrical world that is nearly ephemeral.  It reflects not only her experiences and emotions but also her conceptual growth.  Ryan concludes, "In the past I have been thrown off kilter by the swiftly changing tides; I have now learned how to flow with those changes rather than fight them. I have also learned to stop asking for permission to land; I have landed."

The domestic act of waiting has special significance for military families as well as those associated with the fishery.  For centuries, it was the woman's role to not only work alongside the men but to keep the home fires burning and constant while the men were away at war or up the coast, or in the woods, or on ice. Ryan says that she considers "these feelings and ideas in my work, and think about how it links me to other women present and past."  Then as now, these women occupied themselves with stitching as they waited–cutting apart, sewing together and making something that would last another day.  Holding home and family together with the quiet act of repair. 


Friday, 6 October 2017

Gob smacked by Dana Michel's Yellow Towel


The first words to escape my lips after Dana Michel took her final bow was, "gob smacked, we've been gob smacked!"  The audience was on its feet giving an unequivocal standing ovation.  For an entire performance the audience had not been able to take its eyes off of Michel.  But what had we seen? Dana Michel took us on a riveting journey into identity and otherness. 

Dana Michel not so much performs for the audience, as she demands that it bears witness.  Episodes of movement and stillness are drawn out, pregnant with intention.  You could feel the audience squirm and frown in concentration as Michel made her entrance as a struggling, palsied individual.  This persona's gait stuttered and turned inward.  Next, she is smearing her dark coloured face with white cream and sharing a socially savvy observation, which upends the audience's expectations.  As an audience member, your feet never really touch the bottom in security.  She is the kind of performer that operates on a taut high wire without a safety net.


Michel is a dance maker of disturbing skill and visceral ability.  We watch enthralled as one character after another emerges from her creative cocoon as she overlays everyday movements with character-rich vocalizations and ingenious props.  Michel may ritualistically scatter the stage with the detritus of daily life:  toothpicks, kitchenware or elastic bands.  Snatches of narrative from recognizable, dare we say "civilized" events– like a weather forecast or a cooking program– are rendered absurd.  A handful of blonde wig is swung about as if in benediction or interrogation.  Dana Michel delves into herself and into us with both pain and humour. 


Thankfully, Michel set aside her career in accounting and marketing and went to that audition at Concordia's dance program.  She emerged with a BFA in 2006 and has gone on to become a dance virtuoso that has been setting audiences free ever since.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Laying Bare Relationships- Solitudes Duo Daniel Léveillé


The stage is a simple white square space defined on the floor.  There is an absence of colour and props.  The drama of Solitudes Duo is in the body of the dancers: simple pairs, masculine and feminine, sometimes mixed, who are themselves stripped down to trunks and occasionally t-shirts.  There is something of the everyman about this pared down production and the universality of relationships.

It all starts with the stylized circling of hips, a contemporary, choreographed mating call.  Bodies brush up against each other, a tentative but purposeful entering of each other's space.  Quick, articulate gestures keep time to the insistent rhythms of a Bach harpsichord composition.  There is concatenation as the gestures link together to form movements that express states of emotional being and compatible character.  We see the birth of a couple as the individuals interconnect to form a single entity.  And then often through a series of dramatic lifts and supporting moves we see things come undone, defeated by gravity and human expectations.  Frequently, there are memorable slow descents filled with tension.

Bodies overlap on the floor, intertwine, struggle and release.  This is the push and pull of relationships that is at times serene and others frantic and even humorous.  But it is always sensual.  The music shifts into a moody, pop-rock ballad.


Some of the passages are dramatically acrobatic others gentle.  Yet, despite the great clusters of interconnected limbs, the dependence, trust and balance of one dancer's weight upon the other there is surprisingly little eye contact, which might explain the solitudes in Solitudes Duo.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Raices y Alas Flamenco: Unflinching Feminine Power

Volver means return. Williams is originally from NL!

Last Saturday evening at the Masonic Terrace, St. John's was treated to a performance of flamenco music and dance that was nothing short of a transfusion of primal energy.  Forget the lighter, milder versions of flamenco that many of us have experienced in folkloric cafes, popular with tourists, in Spain.  Andrea Williams and Michelle Harding from Vancouver's Raices y Alas Flamenco dig deep into the authentic and share with us all the Andalusian roots that have fed Flamenco. 

One of the joys of the Saturday performance is that we had a full serving of all the vibrant components of flamenco:  live vocals by Sean Harris (cante), Manny Companjen on guitar, Anthony Tucker on a beat box (percussion) and Christina Penney clapping (palmas y baile).  The vocals of Harris had that unmistakable heart-felt wail that carry us from soaring joy to the depths of despair–and that is the emotional torque so characteristic of true flamenco.  That pared-down cry from the heart is an indication of the Jewish and Arab flavours of flamenco and surely takes us right back to the origins of song itself.  All the other components fall in percussive and rhythmic place and the dancers inhabit the music with every cell they possess.

Williams and Harding have a clearly defined vocabulary of dance gestures and communication flows between them.  It is as if they suck the music up through the soles of the feet and without restraint or convention it percolates through their bodies and back to the musicians.  The word spontaneous seems more apt than improvisation.  Their graceful hands circle and air borne arms undulate as if recalling the gypsies' spice route of migration from India to Andalusia.  And all the delicious moments of contrast:  a ruffled skirt goes from sensual to seething, curling lines give way to the jut of an elbow or flat palm.  This is so much more than the attitude-filled dance moves of a pair of dueling dancers; this is skill that has become charisma.

From St. John's to Corner Brook, our local dancers who got to participate in the Flamenco Residency had a rare opportunity to experience professional classes, one-on-one mentorship and community performances with the featured dancers of Raice y Alas.  No doubt, "Olé!" could be heard all the way from St. John's to Gander and Corner Brook.


Watch for the October 21st showing of the flamenco documentary La Chana (see the link above for the trailer) at the St. John's International Woman's Film Festival, accompanied by a curtain raiser performance with local flamenco dancer Christina Penney and musician Sean Harris.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Sept. 7th at The Port Rexton Brewery


This is the image that has put me in my happy place today.  It is Paul Gauguin's Vase in the Form of Leda and the Swan, 1887–1888.  And some lucky devil has it in their "Private collection" but was generous enough to share it with the public through exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Through my 20+-year involvement as a curator and a writer in the ceramics world, I have had many very satisfying opportunities to consider the relationship of surface and form.  It is an inexhaustible topic to me.

This image of Gaugin's work delighted me for several reasons but chief among them was the discovery that he worked in ceramics.  Like most everyone, I thought of Gaugin as a post impressionist painter who worked primarily in two-dimensions.  Luckily for those us in the art-consuming world, Gaugin's career as a stockbroker was short lived and he took up art full time.  But it was art in all its varied forms that intrigued him as Shannon Moore quotes the artist in her article in the National Gallery's e-zine,

…Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) was in fact an accomplished sculptor, ceramist, printmaker and decorator. A new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) aims to celebrate these varied talents, revealing Gauguin’s identity as an artist-artisan, well versed in forging innovative new methods.  “It’s precisely an endless kind of art that I’m interested in,” Gauguin explained in 1903, “rich in all sorts of techniques, suitable for translating all the emotions of nature and humanity.” https://www.gallery.ca/magazine/exhibitions/revealing-the-artists-hand-gauguin-at-the-aic?utm_source=

The detail image of the vase shows a profound understanding on the part of Gaugin.  The way the head is tipped down has an intimacy but the way the gaze is directed at the viewer is almost coy.  The way the female form is integrated with the swan-vase speaks volumes and the way it ties in with its subject matter of Leda and the Swan and its tale of seduction is masterful.  Gaugin has used the 3-dimensionality of his media masterfully.

Look at the red-eyed demon looking at you.

What made me burst out loud laughing is that I found myself wondering, "what if Gaugin in his artistic wanderings had become a tattoo artist?"  Afterall, he did spend his post-stockbroker years in Hiva Ova, Tahiti, and Martinique.  And the indigenous cultures there informed Gauguin's embrace of colour, nature, and an interest in physical form.


Now, I recognize that one of the reasons why my mind is gravitating to these thoughts is because later on this week I will speaking on the tattoo suite of portraits by photographer Ned Pratt.  Tattooing has to deal with the human body, especially its 3-d aspects.  But also on a visual level one of the intriguing twists that Ned occasionally inserted into the process is that the tattoo looks at the viewer.  The subject is seen from the back or in profile.  The gaze determines the relationship.  And that is another inexhaustible topic.
Notice how the lady tattoo on the neck is looking at you.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Thorny Question of Text –Your Daughter Fanny & Carnival of the Animals



Tuesday, August 15th those of us in the Tuckamore Festival audience in St. John's were given the opportunity to hear composer Alice Ping Yee Ho in a Q&A session with Bekah Simms, which was followed by the world premier of Ho's Your Daughter Fanny and Christopher Hall's "updated" version of Saint Saens' Carnival of the Animals.  Aptly named, "The Great War, Words and Whimsy" the evening was an introduction to the composer's juggling act of the commissioning process.  Interviewer Bekah Simms systematically took us through the composer's inspiration and her key relationships with our province and the talents of Duo Concertante, soprano Caroline Schiller, who commissioned the operatic work, and the original letters of Great War nurse Fanny that are the basis for Lisa Moore's libretto.  Ho's accessible answers were further enriched by the participation of archivist Burt Riggs from the audience, who co-authored with Bill Rompkey a published collection of Fanny Cluett's wartime letters.  Jackpot!

The intimacy of Fanny's letters and the epic historical events that they span could have easily warranted a full-blown opera.  Instead, Ho's version is a 45-minute word drama that maximizes the strengths of Schiller as a soloist who alternately acts and sings, richly supported by Nancy Dahn on violin and Timothy Steeves on piano.  All three were in historically appropriate costume and there was a minimum of props against a backdrop of projected photographs and letters.  It is a lean production that would lend itself to touring.

Fortunately for me, I had a direct line of vision with the screen and found myself often following along with the lyrics that mirrored the flowing cursive text of the letters.  Ho's musical manipulations brought out the poetry of the text as well as its frankness.  A simple phrase like "blood and mud" took on a haunting quality in Schiller's soaring soprano.  Some audience members who did not have the advantage of a clear view of the screen commented that projected sub or super titles, as is the convention in some opera houses, would have been useful while others would have preferred to have the text in their programs.


Saint Saens composed Carnival of the Animals in 1886, Ogden Nash wrote the humorous verses in 1949 and comedian, clarinetist and narrator Christopher Hall presented his 2017 updated version– infused with irreverent local content that likened Councillor Danny Breen to a creeping turtle and transformed contender Andy Wells from hairy man to hare.  The audience ate it up.  Hall's light spirits were infectious and the ten string, wind and percussion musicians on stage turned the Carnival into an all-out musical romp.


From the heart felt insights into the Great War to the lighthearted animal antics of the Carnival, it was evening where text and music married.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Tuckamore Festival Provides the Spice of Life


"Variety is the spice of life" as the old saying goes.  And if that is the case, the Tuckamore Festival certainly fills the bill.  On Wednesday evening we were treated to the impressive skills of the Rolston String Quartet that took us from the old world charms of Mozart and Beethoven to the new world creativity of Schafer and Staniland–and all with deceptive ease.  Combine that historical breadth, technical mastery and cohesive sound as a quartet and it is no wonder why the Rolston String Quartet were the first prizewinners of the prestigious 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. 

Music theorist Joe Argentino gave an enthusiastic and illustrated pre-concert lecture on the anatomy of the fugue and how composers Mozart and Beethoven manipulated its complexities, which gave many members of the audience an added appreciation of the near-magical skills of the Rolston Quartet.  They mentioned from the stage that it was great for the four members, who all hale from different parts of Canada, to be back in their home country as part of the Tuckamore as they are currently based at Rice University in Houston.  Beethoven's Razumovsky, which they performed for us on August 9th was also part of their winning participation at the Banff competition. 

It was gratifying to hear Schafer's Waves and Staniland's Four Elements in insightful succession on the program.  Schafer's career spans sixty years and his soundscapes were many Canadians introduction to the world of "new music".  Staniland by contrast is 44 years younger but has been racking up awards for his visionary contemporary compositions since 2004.  Fortunately for us in Newfoundland and Labrador, he is on faculty at Memorial University.  It was heartwarming to see Staniland give his own standing ovation in thanks to the Rolston's performance of his music.


If skipping from classical fugues to contemporary soundscapes wasn't enough variety, the Tuckamore Festival's next offering, on the Thursday evening, was a late night cabaret performance by local, musical theatre darlings Justin Nurse and Jonathan Monro.  They took us through a humorous and affectionate musical account of their 25-year long friendship.  Spanning highschool and college auditions, sharing the musical theatre stage professionally, divorces and the birth of children, the two men performed during the evening in solo and together belting out songs and crooning tunes from cherished memories.  Monro even previewed some of his material from the upcoming musical based on the Roch Carrier story The Hockey Sweater.  It will premier this October in Montreal.  You can imagine how fast the cell phones came out for those tunes!