Monday, 28 December 2015

Sometimes you really need a laugh

I wanted to end the year on a lighter note because there has been so much depressing news in the headlines, so I will share a short true story of something that made me smile recently.  Memorial University has been exploding with an intake of international students, which has really improved the quality of life in St. John's.  I was in the hot tub discussing the change of culture in the city with, what I believe, to be an Israeli professor of French and Spanish.  We chatted for a while and then went on our separate ways.  I was getting ready to shower and reached down into my gym bag to grab a towel and I noticed that the talkative professor has put his watch on top of my towel.  With a sigh I resolve to try and return his watch before he leaves the men's change room.  I figured I could just stick my arm through with the watch in my hand and remain discretely behind the door.  No such luck.  Sure enough, right on cue the guy opens the door and discovers me sheepishly holding his watch.  He takes the watch and says to me, "don't worry, it's not as if a breast is a weapon of mass destruction."  We both share a laugh and continue our day – with our clothes on.

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Trend of Adult Colouring Books

One of the projects that have recently preoccupied my time is an artists' adult colouring book as a fundraiser for Eastern Edge Gallery.  This idea came from the ever-resourceful Mary MacDonald and as soon as the Board of Directors heard about it we were all in agreement.  The difficulty was that we needed to pull it together in less than two weeks so that it would dovetail with an auction.  I volunteered; yes I really do need to get my head checked.  But, we did it with some serious team effort!

One of the beauties of an artist-run centre is that you are sitting on a powder keg of talent.  It was not difficult to find artists willing to trade a drawing for a year's membership.  And Louis Atkinson from the board came up with the idea of making funky crayons to go with the book.  He melted down crayons into moulds to form rainbow colouring tools in the shape of hearts, stars and skulls.

The reason why I share this project with you is that I became aware that adult colouring books are a trend.  Aside from the latest novelty retail item I suspect the trend says something about us as a society and of course that's where Gloria gets excited.  While working on the book for Eastern Edge I started noticing colouring books for adults in gift shops, bookstores and even (I was told) Wal-Mart.  A little sleuthing on the net and I realized that colouring books for adults were a retail avalanche in the publishing sector.

This is the front and back cover from the Eastern Edge colouring book.  The front shows art by Amery Sandford the back by Mia Penney.  We are selling them with a custom made crayon for $10 as a fundraiser.

I find tracking advertising and marketing very rewarding, as these tend to be very strong indicators of the social significance of an object or activity.  In other words, what were they really selling?  What were consumers hoping to attain with the purchase of a colouring book?  Usually, you look for a benefit or a need met.  At first glance, it was relaxation.  I noticed the word "calm" in titles.  So, this was one more relaxing hobby that didn't really require skills.  Then came "creativity" as colouring books were touted to stimulate your artistic side - using that other side of your brain.  This surprised me a little because I thought colouring inside the lines was the very definition of conformity.  (However, some of the most interesting books leave pregnant blank spaces to lure you into creative play.)  It was also associated with the adult reclaiming of childhood activities.

Next, I started thinking about the angle…there's always an angle to tweak our interest.  So, you will find colouring books that are themed to sell to those with a specific interest in a book, like the Secret Garden, or a pop culture theme like Star Wars, the Game of Thrones or even a twist on Christianity - like martyrdom!  Get those extra red crayons ready.  There are also ways of differentiating adult colouring books through content.  I found one book, Colouring for Grownups with sardonic activity pages that ask you to do things like tell the hipster from the homeless.

Some of the largest selling titles in publishing according to Amazon and other platforms have been colouring books.  How curious that the most recent saviour of the publishing world will be one almost devoid of words.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Coping with the solitary nature of the creative life

Artists create largely alone in their studios.  It is a solitary pursuit, rather like writing, which I know first hand.  That is one reason why I enjoy doing radio or public speaking.  Those kinds of activities allow you social contact that is missing from the hours of private thinking, experimenting and doing.  We may create for ourselves to satisfy an internal need but they are inherently forms of communication, which imply an "other" in the form of an audience be they concert goers, readers or visitors to a gallery.

I believe most artists crave feedback.  Whenever possible, I try and give a little of that or a prolonged discussion when appropriate.  Recently, I got to spend a delightful afternoon with George Horan in his solo exhibition at the Emma Butler Gallery.  I had little opportunity to see much of Horan's painting over the years and it was a real adventure of discovery for me.  This kind of visit allows me to get know an artist first hand, ask questions (which I wouldn't do if I was writing an arm's length review), and share reactions and often more than one good joke.  Emma commented that the time I spent with George was characterized by "explosive laughter".  I take it that was a good sign.

A week or so later, I did the same kind of visit with Valerie Hodder at the Red Ochre Gallery, whose work I hadn't seen in years.  Unlike Horan's expansive abstracts Hodder's paintings were intimate, tiny works.  My opening observation was that I was curious about the immensity of her subject matter, which was landscape, in contrast to the scale she had chosen to work in.  After a period of largely positive comments from me Valerie felt confident enough to ask me for some tougher commentary.  So often, after an artist leaves the academic or educational setting they cease to get anything resembling real critique.

This was one of Valerie's larger acrylic's called
Carnal Knowledge.

I know one of my rules of thumb for years was that I would only cover a show if I felt positive about it (and I know I am not alone in that practice).  This is somewhat frustrating for me because writing a solid negative review is a challenge I would like to master.  I was speaking with a colleague in Toronto not that long ago and I inquired how they handled this dilemma.  Her answer was very revealing, "only write a negative review about an artist whose career is so solid that you know it won't really damage them."  I can honestly say that I think I've published only one negative review in years.

I am a bonafide culture vulture.  I read broadly, attend readings by authors and poets, plays, dance performances, and concerts.  I am blessed to live in a city that is awash in local talent.  Increasingly, I am asked to review theatre, dance and music that stretches from classical chamber music to Balkan funk rock.  More and more, this is for the web or e-zines.  But because of the abundance of local events and talent I feel that I do not make a dent in the cultural offerings.