Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Ranting versus reviewing

“The unexamined life is not worth living” or so the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates supposedly said–and I am willing to bet that if he were alive today he’d add something like, “and bitching doesn’t count”.  Socrates was a proponent of critical thinking, which is often confused with criticism.  

I’ve been pondering the topic of critical thinking because I am currently involved as a mentor in a critical art writing project organized by CARFAC Saskatchewan.  Decades ago, when I first starting writing art criticism there was much more of a cult of the critic.  Print media encouraged coverage of the novel and the controversial and that certainly rubbed off on art critics.  “Painter paints picture” is hardly news nor were most journalists trained to analyze fine art.  What happened is that we ended up with human interest stories about artists, often with a regional slant, or articles that focused on the financial aspects.  It was a narrative approach or story telling, if it was an outrageous story or an extraordinary event all the better.  Think of finding a Maude Lewis at a flea market for a fraction of its market value.

What troubles me most is that the negativity that is sometimes attached to criticism has morphed into something more potentially sinister.  Ranting is replacing reviewing.  The well reasoned argument has changed into a seductive sound byte or a punchy tweet.  Now that we are equipped with phones that rival professional video and audio capacity combined with near-immediate access to digital broadcast platforms there is little to hold back the unfiltered “really, really stupid” comments.  Everyone can become a critic of almost any topic–and one without an editor. We live in a visual culture and unfortunately lots of finger waving and fast paced, loud talking mixed in with animated exclamation marks can be convincing to a surprising number of people.

Perhaps we are vulnerable to caustic ranting because we live in a society that is equal parts anxious and distracted.  We are over-stimulated and our attention span is splintered. We consume flashy headlines but not balanced debate. The more uncertain the future becomes the more attractive is a romanticized version of a slow-motion past.  We are bombarded with tragic and frightening events both at home and globally. A dose of gallows humour may relieve stress but it is no match for the roar of the rant.

Monday, 14 May 2018

A Transfusion of Colour

Susan Parson's painting on the traffic box was a welcome boost.
My Mother's Day was not turning out the way I had hoped.  Without going into details, my plans and expectations went awry but I knew better than to complain.  I didn't want to feel sorry for myself.  Instead, I prescribed myself a walk in the sunshine.  At least I could count on a Newfoundland breeze to clear the cobwebs from my mind.  Instinctively, I reached into my closet to put on the brightest piece of clothing I had.  No black outfits today.

Colour has been my remedy on many occasions.  When I first moved to St. John's, I couldn't get over the persistent grey skies and fog, which I knew would affect my moods and my comfort with my new home town.  So, I painted the living room yellow.  I couldn't change the weather but I could change my immediate environment.  It's like the Russian expression, "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing".  I've always been amused how men will wear navy blue business suits but women's power suits were usually a bright red.  Take charge…I decided I would also paint my toenails, what I call, rich girl red.

Fortuitously, the sun came out for my Mother's Day stroll and I was rewarded on what could have been a day of drudgery.  When I went to Churchill Square to do some errands I was greeted by an eye-catching piece of traffic box art by Susan Parsons.  It was a giant sunflower against a vivid blue sky.  The yellow and blue painting sings with optimism. 
Katie Voutour's Crayons appeals to the kid in me.

The traffic box program is a project of Clean St. John's and has the goal of local beautification.  The transformed box I encountered is one of forty nine in the city; the project started in 2012.  With at least 100 boxes in the city there is plenty more "canvas" for local artists. Each year, a call for artists goes out and eight proposals are selected.  Most of the imagery is upbeat but is definitely not ho-hum.  Encouragingly, I have never seen any of the artwork on these boxes defaced.  The success of the St. John's project has spread to nearby Mount Pearl and Torbay.

And on a positive note, my Mother's Day ended with two of my favourite young servers giving me three red and three yellow roses.

Monday, 30 April 2018

My Leonard Cohen is not a Planetary Icon

I was not amongst the nearly 300,000 visitors to the Musée d’art contemporain’s blockbuster exhibition, Leonard Cohen Une Breche en Toute Chose/ A Crack in Everything, which closed this April 12th.  This show was three years in the making and I recall director and chief curator John Zeppetelli saying that he was both delighted and relieved when Cohen agreed to the concept of the show and generously made his entire artistic output available to MAC and its participating artists.  A Crack in Everything would evolve into a sprawling show that would take over six exhibition halls at MAC for several months.  It was a massive multimedia undertaking and wowed audiences.  Discussions are underway to see if a version of the show might travel to international venues.

As it would turn out, the show opened exactly one year after Cohen’s passing.  It transformed from an ardent celebration of a universally acclaimed Montrealer into something more solemn and commemorative.  It was an exceptional project that fulfilled its goal of marking Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

I am a native Montrealer and I happened to visit the city in March.  I could have gone but resisted the opportunity and this puzzled me.  So, I decided to reflect on that decision and I realized that I did not want the MAC’s version of Leonard Cohen as a planetary icon.  My reasons were entirely personal, emotional and subjective.  I wanted to hang on to my own version of Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen was very fond of my mother’s BBQ sauce and she was a cook at the BBQ Chicken Chalet in Montreal.  As a little girl, I would frequent the family restaurant, entertaining myself in a booth.  Occasionally, when I got restless I’d visit with customers.  If I was bold, I’d sing and dance for the regulars.  Cohen as a young man had a favourite booth and I remember him, keeping to himself reading and writing in notebooks.  Back then you could smoke in restaurants and eat your french fries.

I could never shed that image of Leonard Cohen at the BBQ, even as I grew up and became old enough to buy and read his novel Beautiful Losers or listen to his music.  Still, decades later I bumped into the now famous poet and bard at Concordia University.  I was with friends who were taking a class in Jewish mysticism.  Leonard was a fellow student in that class, which was taught by a conservative rabbi.  I remember standing in a circle after class and the students introducing themselves to the rabbi.  Cohen presented his hand ceremoniously and intoned “And I am Leonard Cohen”.  “Nice to meet you Lenny!” the rabbi exclaimed.  It was clear that this rabbi, who neither watched TV nor was in tune with popular culture knew who his famous student was.  It was delicious.  

I believe that as life worn on, with all its ups and downs–including financial upsets–Leonard Cohen grew into a humble man.  Perhaps, it had to do with his lifelong interest in spirituality, including Buddhism.  Whatever the cause, his acute sensitivity to the human condition of suffering was a magnifying lens for his talent, which indeed did connect with audiences worldwide.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Looking Through Painted Glass-Rosemary Lawton's Debut CD

Rosemary Lawton’s premiere CD, Painted Glass is a delightful listen–full of colour, tone and nuance and a few surprises.  What follows is an excerpt of our conversation:

GH:  Can we begin by talking about the title, Painted Glass?  It is a very evocative title and I can imagine so many interpretations, what did you have in mind when you picked the title?

RL:  Well, when I was working on this project, I thought of how each tune I had chosen came from someplace different in Newfoundland. The whole project is comprised of old and new tunes but all fits together somehow. It reminded me of a patchwork quilt or something pieced together to create something special.  When I finally got the artwork from Trevor de Verteuil, It made me think of stained glass, which still fit that idea so I thought I might name it “Pane of Glass.” When I mentioned it to my dad, he thought I had said “Painted Glass” and I actually liked it better so that’s what it became.

GH:  The first track is your arrangement of the Emile Benoit tune, Sally’s Waltz.  It is sweet but not sentimental and has a mellow quality.  What would you like to tell us about this track?

RL:  When I was working on my undergrad at Memorial University, I took a course from Dr. Andrew Staniland. Throughout the course I learned how to compose and arrange for all different types of ensembles.  After I graduated, I was hired by Beyond the Overpass Theatre Company to work out in Twillingate for 4 months.  During that period, I had time to write and compose, and that is when I started to fool around with some arranging of traditional Newfoundland tunes.  Sally’s Waltz happens to be the very first one I arranged and it is what ignited the flame that is now “Painted Glass.”

GH:  It is followed by the traditional Kitchener’s Army.  I found this arrangement driven by melody rather than rhythm.  It made for an easy going army!  Can you tell me about some of the decisions you made with this piece?

RL:  I was guided towards this tune set by Christina Smith who recommended that I look in the Memorial University Folklore Archives and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies for a specific set of field recordings from the Codroy Valley done by Margaret Bennett at the University of Edinburgh. They were tunes performed by the MacArthur family and from these field recordings, I transcribed their versions of the tunes. The tunes are both commonly known Scottish session tunes however; I thought it was very interesting that the tunes were preserved in such a rural area of Newfoundland.  Not only were they preserved, but the second tune was also assigned a Gaelic name when its original name was in English.  Looking back on the process now, I suppose I took the feel of their recordings with me when I arranged them, which provides a more peaceful arrangement to something with “army” in the title.

GH:  Next came one of your own compositions, The Siren, which I thought made a great contrast with the prior tracks.  
RL:  Thank you. 

GH:  You sing on The Siren!  I realized that although I’ve heard you play violin for years, I was unaware of your vocal talents.  What do you want to tell me about this side of your creativity?

RL:  When I was a kid, I loved all forms of music including dance, musical theatre, violin, and singing. I was very shy and had trouble performing in front of people so my mother put me into singing lessons.  I pursued singing throughout my school years and actually got accepted to do vocal studies in university as well as violin but I had to make a choice and the choice was violin.  I never stopped singing although, I was eventually labeled as a violinist.  When I decided to record this CD, I saw it as a chance to break out and sing more.

GH:  The image of the captain having to choose between the pull of the deadly siren and the safety of home harbour is a wonderful metaphor for so much in life.  It’s universal and yet very appropriate to Newfoundland.  What was going through your mind when you wrote The Siren?

RL:  I am absolutely passionate about traditional Newfoundland music.  I had heard of many songs of men leaving their wives and children behind while they work on the water, but when I was living in Twillingate, I started to branch out and do some more research. I heard of songs written about women dressing as men to rescue their husbands and fathers, ghost stories, mermaids, and more.  I decided that I wanted to write my own Newfoundland folk song. I really liked the idea of having two powerful female images in a folk song and that is really where the story unfolded.  I had read a book called the Sea Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning, which I found to be a great inspiration.  In the book, a young woman’s husband is off at sea when she gives birth to her daughter, and he does not get the chance to meet his child until she is three.  I used this story in the song and her child became “the daughter he never knew” in the song. The fear of her husband never coming home was always present, thus the repetition of “head towards the rocks,” which I decided to include as a percussive type of vocal sound.  I really wanted the arrangement to create the soundscape of a stormy sea, and the high vocal lines were meant to imitate the call of the Siren.

GH:  The progression or build on the Dave Panting medley of Circumstance Waltz, Stomp and Rockaway was very appealing.  Why did you pick this one for your CD?

RL:  When I was putting this project together, I knew I wanted to create this blend of old and new, with well-known tunes and lesser-known tunes too. I contacted Dave Panting who was incredibly kind to give me three of his tunes that have never been recorded before. I decided that I wanted to have a Dave Panting tune set so I strung the tunes together.  I started with the waltz because I really liked the idea of making the arrangement grow throughout and leave the audience “rocking away” by the end.

GH:  There has got to be a story behind your composition The Movie Jigs.  Can you share it?

RL:  There is indeed! While completing my undergraduate degree, I took many courses from the incredible Dr. Andrew Staniland as mentioned before and another one of those courses was Electronic Music. During the course, I had to write a score for a short film about a girl who adopts a baby dragon.  There is a scene where the dragon gets loose in the market and has fun chasing some chickens and another scene where he is kidnapped and the girl has to set off on a quest to find him. I decided to write some jigs to fit the score and thought they would be a good addition to this project.  Looking back, I could have called them something more interesting like the “Dragon Jigs” or something but as of now, they remain “Movie Jigs 1 and 2”. 

GH:  Your album ends with the traditional, Ghostly Lover.  I’ve always found the lyrics to this piece almost achingly beautiful.  Why did you choose to end your album on such a melancholy note?

RL:  I actively sought out a ballad to end the album. I liked the idea of fading out for the end.  I looked through various ballad collections and found this song in a Greenleaf edition.  The supernatural aspect of the tune interested me but what drew me to the piece was the melody.  I am a very melody-driven musician and I will often hear a song many times before I even notice the words.  There were many ballads that I saw with stunning poetry but the melody decided it for me.  It was my producer Ian Foster’s idea to add the gentle strings to the background, which I feel really set the scene for the last song.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Sleeping: I'm Just Not Good At It

Some people count imaginary sheep when they cannot fall to sleep.  Other people, like poet Ryan Buynak, make lists–lists of favourite songs, games, words or countries to visit, and on and on into the sleepless night.  In 2017, Buynak released a collection of his insomniac lists under the title Sleeping: I'm Just Not Good At It.  In the perfection of an imperfect life, I was given a signed copy of this book by a kind employee of the Chateau Versailles, my favourite boutique hotel in Montreal.  In the course of seven days I had two stints of insomnia that lasted more than 24-hours a piece. 

Buynak's book did not put me to sleep but it did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion during my vacation.  One of my cherished personal maxims is to "take your work seriously but not yourself" so you can imagine my enjoyment of Buynak's flair for the irreverent. When I was going through the fine print of the inside first page–the place you would normally find copyright and credits–I read the usual statement about copyright but with an endearing addition, "But any part of this book can be used or burned for money."  Further down the page, I read "Author Shit-" followed by a notation for Buynak's blog, which is www.coyoteblood.blogspot.com as well as his e-address.  This was a man after my own heart.

That impression was deepened when I next flipped to the inside back page and encountered a diagonal swath of bold type that proclaimed Proof, which I took to be an insider's jab at the convention of the author and editor's proof copies that predate final releases. 

Another of the conventions that Buynak defies, is the practice of numbering pages.  His lists are titled and have numbered entries but none of the pages of the book are numbered.  There is no sequence; I suspected that the poet wants to facilitate the random.  It is a flip book of mind candy.  Sure enough, I find tucked into the lists a Things to Know While Reading This Book list, entry "8.  There are no page numbers for a reason (entry) 9.  That reason is to encourage people to just pick up the book and flip to a random page".  There was also a phone number to call if you had any complaints–that was entry 6.  I didn't call, I just smiled bemused savouring the possible outcomes.

I did Google Ryan Buynak hoping to find out more about this quizzical creature.  When I visited his webpage I pulled up his bio.  Do you know what it said?  You guessed it, "Blah, blah, blah" for about three paragraphs worth.  Buynak does appear to have other titles out in print and works as designer.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Waterloo Library staff recommend books based on your tattoos

A photo of this tattoo was sent to the University of Waterloo library 
as part of a project to recommend books based on tattoos. - Courtesy of the University of Waterloo
This article from the local newspaper in Waterloo, Ontario was recently brought to my attention.  The paper is called The Record.  I know that many folks who share my fascination with tattoo culture would enjoy this so:
WATERLOO — Could your literary tastes literally be tattooed on your body?
The latest initiative undertaken by the University of Waterloo library suggests they could be.
For two months, a number of library staff members are volunteering to interpret tattoos belonging to members of the community by offering up a book recommendation from the Waterloo Reads collection. The collection consists of more than 600 books.
"We call it the Tattoo Tuesday task force and there are 10 individuals, nine of whom take turns conducting the readers advisory based off the tattoos," said Michael Myers, the 24-year-old library co-op student who came up with the idea. He was inspired by the Kitchener Public Library's recent campaign to collect stories behind tattoos.
Every Tuesday, images of the tattoos, along with the book recommendations, are posted to the UW library's Instagram account. At first, organizers didn't know what to expect from their social media audience.
"UW's pretty serious and we weren't sure what kind of response we'd get from the campus community, but it's been really positive," said Mary Lynne Bartlett, a library associate who oversees e-learning and user experience.
Since the library launched the program three weeks ago, it has posted about 15 book suggestions.
"We've been getting a really good response," said Myers, adding that the tattoo submissions just keep coming in. "We've had a couple of staff members as well as several from the student body. We even had some people from Wilfrid Laurier (University) submit tattoos."
To date, Myers' favourite submission is a delicate ink image of lavender.
"The tattoo itself is very beautiful," he said. "It looks like someone just pressed in a (piece of) lavender into someone's skin."
But he was even more impressed by the book recommendation — a graphic novel by Craig Thompson titled "Blankets." The social media post describes it as a coming of age story about love and loss.
"I actually haven't read that graphic novel, so I picked it up," he said.
And that's the goal of the initiative — to get more people reading.
All of the recommended books are available at the university's Dana Porter and Davis Centre libraries.
lbooth@therecord.com, Twitter: @BoothRecord

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Black Panther –Hype or Racial Equity?

A scene from “Black Panther.”Matt Kennedy/Marvel — Disney 

I have a weakness for superhero films and I am a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel fan.  So, of course I had to go and see Black Panther.  Typically, I go as close to the film’s release date as possible so I can sit in the cinema with an audience of like-minded fans and share in their enthusiasm.  We are like an unofficial club and it’s very easy to separate the hardcore from the casual among us.  Who watches for the Stan Lee cameo?  Who waits until after the credits roll to catch the teaser for the next film in the sequence? –not to be confused with the previews before the film.  And then we all stand around and trade notes.

Much has been made of the Black Panther film as being “the first Black Superhero film”.  The problem with that pitch is that it’s just not true.  What about Blade in Tomb of Dracula in January 1973?  I thought it was interesting that Wesley Snipes, who played Blade, came out and said that he wanted to make Black Panther 20 years ago but was unable to for a varied of reasons.  Oh!  I forgot about Luke Cage in Hero for Hire in 1972.  And then there was Storm in 1975; many will remember Haile Berry playing her in the X-Men trilogy.

The iconic image of Black Panther crouched on the hood of a pursuing vehicle  (in the film) struck  me as downright funny.  I thought it looked like a pun on the Jaguar hood ornament…indirect product endorsement?

One of my favourite scenes in the film took place in a museum.  In it, the film’s villain comes to reclaim an artifact that originally belonged to his tribe.  I got a kick at the banter between the museum curator and villain and all the post-colonial digs.  I am not going be a spoiler and tell you how the scene ends because I want you to see it for yourself.

Oh and as for me and comic books, we go back far enough that I remember when I could spend 12 cents of weekly allowance and buy one.  I never bought Archie like the other girls.  I went for Marvel or Golden Key.  I first discovered Plato’s philosophy in Golden Key. Here’s to encouraging kids to read!