Sunday, 19 November 2017

Tendonopoly is Not a Board Game

After months of burning the candle at both ends, my body is screaming at me to stop.  I was moderating a panel not that long ago and I was teasing myself over my discomfort saying, "This is what you get for not being moderate."  Anyhow, long story short after doing two biennales back to back – the Bonavista Biennale and the Canadian Craft Biennial– teaching at a writers' residency, curating an exhibition, writing assorted articles and sandwiching in music events, dancing and a little out of province visit with family, I am trying to catch up on the mundane paperwork associated with being a self employed writer and curator.  Those tasks are things like invoicing, bill collecting and updating your resume.  But it turns out, the most overdue item on my list was my own medical appointments.

I have the dubious habit of trying to power through things, ignoring discomfort until after a deadline has been met.  However, there is always a dangerous turning point where discomfort turns into pain you cannot ignore–like tendonitis that morphs into tendonopoly.

Sadly, I have discovered tendonopoly is not a board game.  For me, it means that my foot and calf has been taped up since the start of October.  Several of my favourite comforts are gone for the foreseeable future, like baths, hiking and swing dancing.  I try and practice gratitude and the exercises given by my physiotherapist. 

So, in the meantime I will read more–like the catalogue for the craft biennial, which is a lavish 148 pages.  (I contributed an essay on materiality in it.)  I have just finished The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt and am currently reading Bridget Canning's The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes.  I am also watching the mailbox for my copy of a new book published by Routledge that I contributed a chapter to on curatorial strategies.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

What Should We Be Remembering?

Memorial University's crest.

Remembrance Day in Canada, Veterans Day in the U.S.A., and Armistice Day in the United Kingdom– memorializing the fallen soldier is everywhere.  Nowhere is this more true than in St. John's, NL.  I've lived in a few provinces but Newfoundland and Labrador seems to take its memorial celebrations most seriously.  Even the province's university is called Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador and it was originally established in memory of soldiers who died during the First World War.  Later on, it was rededicated to include those lost in WWII.

This past year or more, Newfoundland and Labrador and indeed much of Canada has seen the war memorialized in film, on stage, in musicals, poetry and art.  Forget Me Not for the Craft Council of NL was my own contribution at that balancing act of honoring the sacrifices of those who served in the military while not glorifying war. 

Note how the sculptor has conveyed the "broken" soldier.
A longtime friend of mine, Mark Raynes Roberts is a sculptor who works in crystal.  He is part of an exhibit called War Flowers that is touring Canada.  I hope to catch it in either Ontario or Quebec, particularly because the curator, Viveka Melki, has integrated the smells of various flowers as one of her strategies.  I like this approach as it acknowledges that smell is the sense most linked to memory and flowers to me are the perfect symbol to convey the beauty, fragility and endurance of life.  That was one reason why my own show was based on a flower symbol, The Forget Me Not.  Also, it focuses on that vital but precarious relationship of the soldier abroad and their family.

Nobody in my immediate family was involved with the military efforts.  During WWII, my father was in the police force and my mother grew up in an Austrian village in the Alps.  Unfortunately, several countries' armies invaded it.  That means I grew up with very different stories than most of my neighbors in St. John's.  

I wish most memorial services would recognize all those who died in wars:  all soldiers on all sides, not to mention those most numerous–civilians.   Today, I learned about Veterans For Peace, which was organized in 1985 for exactly that purpose.  If you have a chance, check out Joe Glenton's video about ignoring the poppy shaped cheeses and the other false feel-good takes on Remembrance

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Women Make Gains in "The Game"

Michelle Chaulk at her workbench in Corner Brook.

My artists teach me a lot and most recently it was about pay equity.  When Michelle Chaulk proposed an exhibition called The Game about the disparity in women and men's salaries, I was cautious.  Her proposal stated that when Michelle graduated from NSCAD, 20 years ago and entered the jewelry trade she was laughed at when she asked for the same wage as the men at the jewelry bench– who sometimes had less experience.  Naively, I thought it surely must have improved since then but I had to agree with Michelle that during the federal election it was back on the Liberals' agenda. 

For The Game Michelle Chaulk created a series of pendants based on playing cards.  Each necklace had two rectangles in the fashion of the Catholic scapula that I grew up with.  These integrated old pennies: King Edward and Queen Elizabeth.  The significant difference is the king was represented with 100 and the queen with 65 to suggest that women were making 65 cents for every dollar that the men were making for work of equal value.  Displaying the art jewelry on miniature ladders created by Chaulk extended the metaphor.

Curious to know more about pay equity I decided to dig deeper with Stats Canada's as a reference.  Especially during a political campaign, numbers can be misleading and words lend all manner of interpretation, take for example "equal pay for equal work" as opposed to "women should get paid the same as a man for doing the same job".  Context can be everything.

However, I was surprised to learn that Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta are the worst two provinces in Canada for pay equity.  For most parts of the country, women earn an average of 72 cents– yet in NL more women are employed then men above the national average.  This is in part due to the decline of goods manufacturing (including fisheries and lumber) and the rise of the service sector.  Also, there are higher numbers of women in low paying jobs and a lower number of women holding leadership positions within traditionally male-dominated fields.

NL is no stranger to pay equity and the issue goes back to the 1980s when premier Brian Peckford committed to pay equity to compensate (1988-1991) underpaid female workers in public sector jobs.  By 1991, the provincial government backed off, cancelling pay equity settlements for 20,000 health-care workers–a field of which 80% were women.  In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the decision to ditch payments citing the economic recession of 1991.  In 2006, the Danny Williams government voluntarily paid the 24 million that was taken off the table in 1991. 

Cathy Bennett is both finance minister and the minister responsible for the status of women.  Her speeches are clear and make good sense of complex situations.  She pointed to inequity as a result of more women in part-time positions and full day kindergarten would be one solution.  Overall, women are currently 50.2% of core civil service–we've made gains in the number of women hired but because they have been in the workforce a shorter period of time they make less than older male counterparts.  The RNC now has 28% female officers but only 20% of them make over $100,000 or what is referred to as the Sunshine List.

This past International Women's Day, Gerry Rogers introduced a private member's motion urging the provincial government to "start the process to enact pay equity legislation."  It received unanimous support from all parties.

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.