Friday, 20 February 2015

Entertainment or Insight?

Colin Furlong holds the stage as Joseph Smallwood.  Newfoundland's Napoleon?

On Wednesday night I traded in my Ash 'Wedndesday ash for a bit o' newspaper smudge.   I was at the opening of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.    When I walked into the Arts and Culture Centre I was handed a program of - guess what- newsprint.  Sweet!   Even for mainlander me that spoke of Joey Smallwood.   Newsprint!   I read Wayne Johnson's book years ago, 500+ pages.  What I wondered what  would make the stage? 

I tucked myself into a seat for the ride.    My first impression was of the stage design monochromatic choices that had been made: grey upon grey (not 51 shades there of) the - as the performance would prove- perennial snow.   (Aw come on people even in NL we have spring!).  

I did however like the wheels that characterized all of the sets.  We can live with wheels.  The whole visual presentation of the play spoke volumes. (I could write an article on that alone.  The hand gestures.  The use of colour.  Mucho wonderful.)


This it seems is how you condense a big book for the stage:  love interest.  Yes, even though it is based on a fictionalized character.   Let me tell you here and now.  Astrid Van Wierlan as Sheilagh Fielding steals the show.  She portrays a fictionalized character who is a journalist, bigger than life and Smallwood.    Ummm.   What else needs to be said?  He never loves her as she wishes.

The pacing was tight enough to take the audience across three acts with an intermission.  (Did anyone count how many people left at intermission?)

The acting was solid.   And the portrayal of Smallwood interesting enough to capture the attention of an audience who probably all had first person experience of the man.   My feeling was that the character on stage- played ably by  Colin Furlong– was Smallwood as he liked to think of himself.  Dedicated to the every man, trudging through the snow, capturing their stories. The whole walking metaphor was well developed for those who like to think.  It was a feature that last through two acts.

I was taken by the transformation of Smallwood as an idealistic young man to the politician champion of socialist programs in Canada.  Remember the baby bonus?  Ok, so that's how you get from socialist to Liberal.  But if you want to know about Smallwood the Sleeveen you will need to pay closer attention to the unsympathetic character of Fielding.  She called it like she saw it.  Too bad she didn't exist.

This is a genuinely good play.  Go see it.  
Astrid Van Wieren as Sheilah Fielding, the woman who dominates.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Public Art that Succeeds at the Faculty of Medicine

This is one of those rare examples where public art succeeds.  The instance is Crafting a Legacy, a ceramic mural that was unveiled at The Faculty of Medicine's new extension at the Health Science Centre in St. John's Newfoundland.  The joke about the camel is that it is a horse designed by a committee.  That problem often afflicts public art.  What impressed me about this new mural is that it was democratic in philosophy and employed the skills of fifteen amateur artists but it did not result in anything watered down or amateur.

The mural is the brain child of Drs. Jim and Leslie Rourke–Jim is the current Dean of Medicine and he refers to his wife as his co-visionary. (That won my vote.)  While they were visiting a museum in British Columbia the Rourkes encountered a ceramic mural produced largely by students.  The secret ingredient was a B.C. artist by the name of Lynda Faulks and the Rourkes knew they needed her.  Faulks has the talent to harness and focus groups of untrained individuals to create community based art.  My own politics is a politics of inclusion but at the same time I very much respect professionalism and the recognition of professionalism within the arts.  Faulks seems to pull the balancing act off.

Speaking at the unveiling, Faulks summed it up by asking a rhetorical question of the audience.  "Remember when you were told that anybody could join the choir and then being asked not to sing once you were in it?  I don't want anyone to have that experience of art."  Faulks was brought to Newfoundland and Labrador and worked with fifteen individuals who were students, one-time students, faculty and staff with the school of Medicine.  Two other professional artists were recruited to assist with the project.  They are Wendy Shirran, who is the co-ordinator of the Clay Studio of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Vesselina Tomova, a St. John's based painter and illustrator.  I asked Wendy what it was liked working with so many amateurs especially those who were untrained in ceramics.  She responded that what struck her most was the meaning behind the imagery the amateurs selected.

The subject matter of the tiles that made up the mural ranges from the history of medicine in general, to topics like genetics, anatomy, midwifery, telemedicine or Grenfell's legacy.  Each tile had deep personal meaning, for example, Sharon Buehler is a retired professor of epidemiology and she chose to depict the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 in Okak.
Maker of tile #12, The History of Medicine, Christina Dove, Clinical Research Assistant and Art Therapist before the mural.  Dove is also known in the community as being part of the Newfoundland Chocolate Company, which helped "fuel" the troops during the making process.

Visually speaking, what impressed me was how well the tiles were married.  Despite the variety of subject matter, styles, proportions, etc the mural comes across as a harmonious whole.  I think this was in large part due to the glazing of the ceramic.  The metallic tones of the mural help to pull it all together and give it a visual cohesiveness.  It also keeps the large amount of content in check.  This is important as it keeps the mural from feeling like propaganda or advertising, which are instances where the content overwhelms the formal aspects.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Keeping Lucky Rabbit on its Good Luck Streak

This show was at The Art Gallery of Burlington.  And yes, the piece on the invitation sold.

One of the bright spots in my week was an e-message I received from Deb Kuzyk of Lucky Rabbit Pottery (which she operates with husband Ray Mackie in Annapolis Royal).  Her subject heading was "a small brag" and in it she described what professional activity they had been up to recently–including a show at The Art Gallery of Burlington.  They have some exciting shows lined up in 2016 and generously trace their success to curatorial work I did with them here in St. John's for the Merchant Vessels exhibit at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery and later a solo exhibit for the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in Halifax.  These shows signalled an important shift for the collaborative couple, allowing them to raise prices, get collected by institutions, and gain representation by commercial galleries. 

Also important to their creative evolution was a Canada Council grant that enabled them to see ceramic collections in Europe.  If any artist is trying to "grow" their career, it is worth noting how one show leverages another.  It is like a series of rungs on a ladder or stepping-stones.  But it all has to start somewhere.

7" teapot in porcelain: lavish and luscious!

In the case of Deb Kuzyk and Ray Mackie I believe that when they found the time and means to travel occasionally their work took a quantum leap forward.  First it was to Asia and most recently it has been Europe.  From their website, "Deb and Ray gratefully accepted a Creation Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, allowing them to visit Europe in late winter to study and research the major collections of historical ceramics in the world. They spent 10 days each in Barcelona, Paris and London, with side trips to Chartres and Oxford. Back in the studio, with thousands of photographs for reference, they produced the work for the exhibition." It's funny but I can usually tell when a source of inspiration comes from seeing, handling and experiencing something rather than through a classroom, print or digital experience.  There is something very different qualitatively about first hand experience rather than a more passive, arm's length relationship.

Kuzyk decorates the surfaces of the large vessels and so she has drawings of them.  Recently, she was asked by a collector if she is willing to share them.  In my experience, this is not usual and I would recommend any creator to hang on to this kind of documentation.  It enhances the value of the work and helps the collector build a relationship with the piece.  I once had a prominent collector tell me that he figured the value of a carving was $500 and then there was a $2,000 story that went with it.  Collectors like to talk about their collections with visitors to their home (often other collectors) and a drawing certainly supports that.

It is significant however, that Deb and Ray are also still working full-time running a pottery and selling work from their own storefront.  This is not uncommon for artists and craftspeople.  It is an exhausting juggling act trying to create a production line with a high enough profit margin to raise a family on and still find time and creative energy to pursue a creative studio practice, scout for opportunities to exhibit, network, so on and so forth.  It is easy to become a victim of your own success.  But nothing beats doing what you feel you are really meant to do.

Monday, 2 February 2015

To Have and to Hold–Art

Audrey Hurd's first training was as a printmaker.
It is interesting to think of sculpture show in terms of mark making.

I have been thrown out of more than one gallery for touching the art.  The first time was many years ago at the Montreal gallery of Mira Godard.  I am trying to remember if the work of art was a Lichtenstein or a Pollock.  Either way, what I want to express is that I have a profound need to touch things and I don't believe I am alone in that regard.  (Wanting to touch the art is probably one of the reasons I became a curator wearing those white cotton gloves the conservators give you.)  The primal need to touch reminds me of those experiments where they offer the baby monkey the choice between the bottle of milk or a simulated mother monkey to cuddle with.  The cuddle wins out. 

Well, there is an exhibition currently up at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery that should appeal to your inner monkey because it invites you to touch the art by Audrey Hurd.  Coincidentally, there is an exhibition by Deb Dumka at The Craft Gallery that opens this weekend and it is also encourages viewers to interact with the pieces through touch, sight and sound. 
Detail of the Plasticine pillar by Hurd being held.

Audrey Hurd's centerpiece in the exhibition Until it remembers you incorporates three "hugging" columns that are roughly the height of the artist.  They are made of Memory Foam, Plasticine and concrete.  Oh that magic number 3.  I couldn't help but think of the storybook connotations:  the three wishes, Goldilocks and the Three Bears with their three chairs, beds and porridge.  Like Goldilocks we are all in search of our "just right".  "Was this show 'just right'? I asked myself.   

I think Hurd's basic concept for the show is solid and suitably intrigued to learn more I went to her artist's talk.  Hurd is an enthusiastic, engaging speaker.  She seemed liked a natural hugger.  It is easy to see how her infectious, bubbly persona persuaded the tech crew of The Rooms to assist her in constructing her sculptures.  In the talk, she pointed out that it was the first time she had ever tackled such a project, which was accomplished through an Elbow Room artist residency at the in-house studio of The Rooms. 

Hurd shared that in preparation for the "Holding Pillars" (as they are called in the exhibition brochure) that she had first experimented by embracing her bedding and documenting it as it released from the impact of the hug.  Using what is at hand is the time worn strategy of penniless artists worldwide.  Unfortunately, she did not tell us what other materials with which she had experimented or whether they had any special meaning for her.  To her credit, Hurd did raise the thematic topic of desire shaping matter, which is a juicy thought.  And on that note, the concise exhibition brochure has an essay by curator Mireille Eagan that is well worth reading.