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!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

André Laplante Holds Audience Spellbound

Salty Wind by Jean Claude Roy graces the cover of this year's program.

The seventeenth season of the Tuckamore Festival has already begun to fulfill its tag-line mandate "Chamber music to Inspire" with its first few days of programming.  Opening night featured the esteemed talent of André Laplante on piano, who is often "hailed as one of the great romantic virtuosos" as stated in the program notes.  Now, whether you are up on your music history and are conversant in your terminology or romantic means something else to you, Laplante made it all come true.  He delivered.

The audience warmly responded to his opening interpretation of Haydn's Sonata in E Flat Major and generously showered Laplante with standing ovations even before the intermission.  The emotional connection he obviously shares with the music is palpable and as I overheard one audience member comment, "that Laplante is some vigorous". 

Next on the program was the Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor with its signature somber funeral march–not what the audience expected as the piece that would take us into an intermission.  But Laplante played it with fresh intentions and surprising clarity that knocked any clichés out of a composition that has morphed its way into our cultural fabric in everything ranging from soundtracks for cartoons to advertising.  Laplante's version gave me shivers, especially the Finale: Presto. Sotto voce e legato.

Speaking of "sotto voce" there were a lot of murmurs during intermission about André Laplante's subvocalizing while playing.  Glenn Gould's name was frequently mentioned.  This is when I resolved to attend the next day's After the Music: Concert Chat and Coffee at the Rocket Bakery to learn more about the audience response. 

Seven outspoken women gathered around a round table at The Rocket Café the next day and dived into a lively discussion about André Laplante's performance.  Some had attended his masterclass earlier in the morning; we varied in background from those with years of keyboard experience and careers in music to aficionados (like myself) without formal training.  It was a good cross section and provided lots of friendly debate.  I'd say that whether you believed that sub vocalizing is a distraction or an access point into the internal world of the performer (the music instead their head) you would have learned something.  There was intense conversation about pedaling, graceful hand flourishes, sustained notes, clipped notes and the variables that a concert pianist has to deal with on tour.  My favourite observation was from one of our participants who exclaimed, "don't you think there should be something called a 'man-piano'?"  Everyone was in agreement that André Laplante had played the concluding two Liszt compositions in the performance with a rare integrity, a seamless relationship between man, piano and music.

Gloria Hickey

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The summer novel you will both love and hate

Craig Francis Power graciously agreed to a Q&A with me about his recent and third novel Skeet Love, which publisher Breakwater describes as, "an uber-cool drug and sex-fuelled critique of the world we think we know."  The story revolves around a love-threesome of Shane, Nina and Brit.

GH:  I was very taken by your editor, James Langer's comments at the launch, in particular that when he got the manuscript he thought it was a dystopian novel but that by the time it was in print (i.e. post Trump) it had taken on an unsettling reality.  I agree wholeheartedly and would put Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in the same category.  I think this is the basis for my love/hate relationship with your book.  Do comment!
CFP:  It’s funny because someone wrote me to say they had just finished Skeet Love in a weekend and the only other book they’d done that with was The Handmaid’s Tale, which they hated and admired at the same time, so that’s a compliment I guess.

Watching the primaries and the election in the States while I was working on the book was a strange experience in that the way things unfolded had an inevitable and nightmarish quality to them, but it did not strike me as particularly surprising that Trump won, or that Bernie Sanders was screwed out of his party’s nomination, or that Clinton ran a campaign that was virtually free of any kind of policy that would appeal to working or middle class voters.

I think the election showed a lot of the justified rage people have toward the political elite in the States and that was something that happened to be coming across in what I was writing. I think there’s a similar feeling in Canada as well, where you have this neo-liberal selling a fuck load of armaments to the Saudis and then saying in this smug kinda way that there won’t be any electoral reform in Canada because everyone’s so happy with the current government as opposed to the Harper regime—all the while paying lip service to being socially progressive.

While Shane, Nina and Brit are young people, and lead these sort of fucked up lives, they aren’t stupid, and this sham of a democracy is something they can see right through. Shane’s take on conspiracies doesn’t really seem that far-fetched given what we’ve learned from Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and WikiLeaks. It is true that there are powerful forces working counter to the interests of the working-class, but it’s not what people like Alex Jones and David Icke describe; it’s more COINTELPRO, and that realization for Shane is something I felt I needed to explore.

GH:  My daily research life and your novel collided,  I had just read the section about violence with a hammer and then came across hammer-violence in an interview.  Next, I'm reading in the Guardian about sex robots as a growing industry in the U.K. (now that dolls can be invested with A.I.) and I come across Shane's rant about clones.  No wonder, I started having nightmares.
 CFP:  There’s an obvious homage to Philip K. Dick in Skeet Love, and that notion of the clone or replicant is at the heart of it, and at the heart of Shane’s paranoia for that matter. Incidentally, “skin job” (how Shane’s Dad refers to his taxidermied animals) is lifted from the movie Bladerunner, and is a colloquial term for replicant. Part of what I was interested in as someone who reads and writes books was my feeling that these fictional characters who take up so much of my time often are more dear to me than real-life people, and the question of whether the fact that these characters are fictional lessens somehow the meaning of my love for them/real people. Thus, the letters from Brit.

GH:  I couldn't make up my mind if the writing was a form of exorcism or indulgence.
CFP:  Both.

GH:   The other "young" writer with an attraction for the "dark" side is Joel Thomas Hynes but I don't know if I am off the mark in saying this:  Joel's territory is around the bay and yours is urban.  Joel is trying for primal and you are more stylish (and I'd say sophisticated).  Share your reaction please. 
CFP:  I think there are similarities in our work, though I’ve only read Down To The Dirt, so it’s tough for me to say.

I remember reading a Ray Guy blurb for that book in which he says something to the effect that Joel’s work was an antidote to the many embroidered fantasies about Newfoundland culture with which we’ve become so enamoured, or something like that, but I’m not a fan of replacing one fantasy with another, even if the things described are “grittier” or “darker” or seem more truthful simply because it is grittier or darker, just for the sake of doing so.

Honestly, some character getting bombed at a dive in St. John’s and fucking his cousin or whatever isn’t much compared to what Angela Carter, or Ta Nahisi Coates, or even Margaret Atwood has going on, so I wouldn’t consider my work particularly dark compared to those.

GH:  Do you think "the angry young man" label goes against you?  I am concerned that older readers will not give the book its due citing "generational" differences. 
CFP:  As a white, straight (?), cis male, I have very little reason to be angry.

And given what I write about, and given that the readers of literary fiction are predominantly middle-class, white, Baby Boomer women with plenty of leisure time, I’m not expecting to be catapulted into literary superstardom anytime soon, so those differences, if they exist, are not generational, but class based.

Many of my characters are angry, and rightfully so. As someone who comes from a working-class background, I’m drawn to those stories, and drawn to representing the beauty and the tragedy of those lives without romanticizing them.  Unlike Shane, I’m no tourist, who’s a phone call away to Daddy for help when the shit hits the fan.

GH:  The book begs to be read aloud. 
CFP:  Agree.

GH:  I kept searching for the music in the dialogue and narrative.  Can you comment on the influence of rap on the rhythms and vocabulary? 
CFP:  Rap is the filter through which the characters speak, but their story is almost classic Canadian. I was thinking a lot about Atwood’s examination of the three generational narrative in CanLit (from Survival I think), and was exploring how it would manifest in a more contemporary or near future setting. 8 Mile was a big influence, and watching the movie and reading that script, I thought how wholesome it is—I was bored with it actually.

GH:  Actually, the example of rap as a way of understanding the novel intrigues me.  Lots of people like rap but don't condone violence, guns, drug culture, perhaps they tap into the discontent or anger.  Is that what they share in –that could make Skeet Love a book "for our times"…?
CFP:  Yes.

GH:  Something in the novel confused me as a reader and you are welcome to tell me I'm just stunned.  I found the "voices" of the three central characters so similar that I had to check who was speaking.
CFP:  There is def some overlap, but I wanted Shane in particular to speak as though he’d just lifted things from Urban Dictionary, while Nina and Brit are more organic and slightly less self-conscious.

GH: I was curious about the convention of the letters to C.F.  I like the emotional truth of them but how did you intend them?  Was it an ironic device?
CFP:  With the letters, I was interested in some of the things Shane mentions when talking about quantum mechanics—in particular the notions of entanglement, superposition, and the measurement problem. Entanglement I find especially fascinating, and is an apt metaphor for the relationship between an author and their characters. To a degree, Skeet Love is a book about art and the artistic process—all of the characters are explicitly creative—and I think that Brit’s final dilemma at the end of the novel is representative of how an artist can proceed (or not) in the face of an overwhelmingly brutal patriarchal culture.

I also find appealing the idea of making myself vulnerable in what I write—if I’m in a position to explore so intimately the lives of Shane, Nina and Brit, shouldn’t I be at risk in some way outside beyond professionally?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

No Longer Taboo, Women and Tattoo Culture in Newfoundland

When Billie magazine's editor, Terry Graff, invited me to write an article about my tattoo research for an upcoming issue I was thrilled (as the cliché goes).  One, I was stoked to discover that the Atlantic region had a dedicated arts magazine and two, I was being asked to write about a cherished topic–tattoo culture.  What gave me a little pause was that the thematic focus of the issue was women artists in the region.  Correspondingly, I was to write about women tattoo artists and women's tattoos.

I tend to shy away from gender-based analysis on most topics and I don't even refer to myself as a feminist.  Tattoo culture has been heavily sexualized in popular opinion, I believe, largely because it is associated with the body and to a lesser degree because it was historically seen as behaviour that belonged on the margins of society–the land of bikers and their "bad girls".  We can all hope that the day of "the tramp stamp" is over.  Anyhow, I was concerned about reinforcing or perpetuating stereotypes and I was uncomfortable.

Precisely because of my discomfort with the topic I decided that I needed to "think my way through" this issue as opposed to dismissing it as irrelevant.  Admittedly, tattoo culture has entered mainstream society but the troubling consequence is that it is often regarded as an ill-considered fashion statement–something you regret "when you are old and wrinkled".  Furthermore, none of the women subjects I had interviewed over the past four years had led me to believe they did it for reasons that were specific to their gender. 
Gerti's memorial tattoo.  Photo by Ned Pratt .

Memorializing the loss of a loved one–parent, partner, child and even pets; marking an accomplishment or rite of passage such as graduation, the first trip to Europe or a battle with cancer; indicating professional affiliation or membership in a group; a passionate interest from popular culture such as song lyrics or comics–all of the most common narratives behind tattoos are shared by individuals regardless of where they are on the gender spectrum.  What was left to say?

I took the question to both female and male tattoo artists.  It turns out, that the long-term historical answer was that we didn't have female tattoo artists in Newfoundland and Labrador with more than ten years experience.  The best-known female artist is the province is Laura Casey who operates Lady Lo's Custom Tattoo Studio with the help of two female apprentices that she has trained.  Interestingly, Casey's clients are roughly 50-50 in terms of gender and none of the ones I interviewed selected Casey on the basis of gender.  It was her professionalism in terms of customer service and the quality of her artwork.  Dave Munro who operates the longest running tattoo studio in St. John's has trained two female apprentices as well.  So, we have a come a long way from tattooing being a macho preserve but the trend is young and still growing.

Jessica's Vidal Sassoon tattoo.  Photo by Ned Pratt.
The most significant societal trend I observed in terms of women's tattoos is that they marked a growing sense of agency.  It was about women owning their own bodies, getting tattooed for themselves.  I spoke with women about their tattoos that were prompted by health crisis and body image challenges.  Also, young Inuit women have reintroduced tattooing to their visual culture that had largely been wiped out by missionary contact.  Far from superficial fashion…no wonder my original tattoo project is called More Than Skin Deep.

Monday, 26 June 2017

I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night –a Gerald Squires Documentary by Kenneth C. Harvey

The highlight of the 17th Nickel Film Festival was I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night–Kenneth Harvey's first feature length film.  I was so determined to see this documentary about the late painter Gerry Squires that I bought a ticket a month in advance and it was a good thing because the screening quickly sold old, as did the one the following day.  I returned on the second day in order to catch the Q&A session with Kenneth Harvey.

Based on the strength of the two-minute trailer, CBC bought rights to the film.  (The duration of the film consequently is what is called a CBC hour, i.e. 45 minutes.)  The trailer shows Gerry Squires in his studio sitting before a pair of huge blank canvases, which is also the opening of the film.  It is a poignant moment, a trembling Squires recalls for the camera the moment he realizes he is deathly ill.  Contemplating a shivering birch tree in the failing evening light of spring, Squires– porous with receptivity– comes to accept his dire situation.  Fortunately, Harvey resisted the conventional wisdom of documentary making and the filmmaker did not go for the close-up.  Instead, he turned off the camera and hugged his friend and subject, something Harvey says happened more than once during the two years of filming and twenty hours of interviewing Squires.

Harvey walks a fine line with this film and the viewer benefits from the respectful distance that Harvey adopts.  Originally, Harvey explained, this project was supposed to be a short film about the painting of a woman's portrait.  It would document that near supernatural process of putting oil paint on canvas to capture a person's essence.  As a photographer, who had also made a portrait of the same woman, Harvey was interested in the shifting perception of the artist and the subject's likeness.  However, the nature of the documentary took a radical change when Gerry Squires' health declined.  The act of Squires painting would remain and it is in Harvey's words "the spine of the film". The viewer gets to see Squires create an expansive landscape and fill those two blank canvases all the while talking about the intimate process.

As a novelist, Harvey brings seasoned narrative skills to the documentary.  The film traces Squires career but also fills it with a cast of colourful characters from his life.  During the Q&A, he referred to artists Clifford George as "the comedian", Stuart Montgomery as "the wild card" and curator Caroline Stone as "the academic".  Inspired editing, juxtaposes Gerry Squires' romantic accounts of how it was necessary to his artistic process to live in the lighthouse with practical wife Gail Squires' version pointing out the perils of living, near penniless, with small children perched on an ocean side cliff.  The hints of humour and outright belly laughs, combined with the universal themes of life, death and the differences between men and women are what will give the documentary appeal to audiences beyond the province and country.