Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Warm Narcotic American Night with Bill Rose


The Paul and Danny Show, ink pad print by Bill Rose
On June 10th, I joined artist Bill Rose for a tour of his show, A Warm Narcotic American Night at the Emma Butler Gallery.  What follows is an excerpt of our conversation.

• GH: I think when I first came across your art I would have described you as a social critic and now I'd definitely add mischief-maker.  How would you describe your role or character?

Bill Rose:  It is very difficult to be a social critic without being a bit of a mischief-maker.   Sometimes you have to make something that is disturbing or funny or both, to get your point across.  Maybe, having been the youngest in my family has set me up as a clown or entertainer, in an effort to get attention.  At the end of the day, I like to think of myself as the tall boy at the back of the class who is shooting spitballs at the blackboard.  But of course I am also interested in making "beautiful" objects; just writing text on a canvas doesn't really cut it for me.  Maybe the social commentary in my work is just a way of assuaging my guilt at having spent most of my life making luxury items.

•GH:  Your method of working is incredibly labour intensive– was that part of the reason to include some earlier work in this show?  I found it a welcome departure for a show in a commercial gallery.

Bill Rose: I often get bored just looking at painting after painting when I visit other people's solo exhibitions.  So when I am assembling a show I think about the person who is going to be viewing the work.  I feel a need to entertain.  I like to think of the exhibit as a variety show.  In some ways, I think my recent show at The Emma Butler Gallery looks like a 6 person show instead of a solo show. I had over 60 works to choose from.  I made a list of about 30 and gallery director Alison Butler made a list of 30.  By combining both lists we came up with the final list.  The earlier pieces that we used all seemed to fit well with the show's title. i.e. You Have a Spot on Your Dress, Louise, Hit Parade, There's a Crack in Everything.

•GH:  One of the reasons why I enjoyed it was that it contextualized the most recent work.

Bill Rose: You know the characters may change and the specifics may change but at the end of the day I think my whole body of work can be more or less characterized by the van Gogh quote which I used on one of my first text paintings back in 1989..."There'll never be an end to human misery".  As a teenager I considered being a journalist.  I went to university and got a BA in English.  I was very much taken by the journalist's credo:  To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable" I try to bring layers to the work by using text, juxtaposition, humour, irony…Even though beauty in art seems to be suspect these days, I also am interested in making beautiful  objects. 

•GH:  I was intrigued by the different methods represented, such as stamp pad prints, collages, oil painting, mixed media with inkjet transfers...They were united by a consistent aesthetic.  Do you see it that way?

Bill Rose: When I started doing text back in the late 1980s I found that this was a way for me to be more political in my work.  Before that time I was basically teaching myself how to paint in a photorealistic way.  Once I figured out a way to make photoreal paintings (by way of the grid), photorealism was no longer that important for me.  Photorealism had become a trick...a sleight of hand.  The painting needed something else to anchor it.  However the photorealism does serve the purpose of getting the work noticed.  Our culture puts a great deal of importance in images that are realistically rendered.  The finely rendered image is the bait that attracts the quarry.
The Meek Shall Inherit, oil by Bill Rose

•GH:  Let's explore the relationship between the text over the image.  I've heard you refer to it as a veil.  That brings to mind seduction and a welcome tension.  It's also an access point for the viewer.  Can you elaborate?

Bill Rose: The text over the image tends to make the image recede.  It creates a feeling of visual depth.  It also acts like a veil.  It partially blocks the image or impedes the viewer from having an unobstructed view.  Its a kind of tease...Text also reminds the viewer that this is a painting; as in Magritte's painting of a pipe...C'est ne pas un pipe.

•GH:  I also found it interesting in at least one instance, you've gone back and changed the text.  Can you tell us about that experience?

Bill Rose: I began to feel that the original text on the large Niagara Falls painting was too obvious.  The text was a quote from Oscar Wilde:" Niagara Falls is only the 2nd largest Disappointment in a New Bride's Life".  I had the painting hung in my living room and every time I looked at it, I knew it had to be changed.  Eventually I came across the present text by J. Paul Getty which I immediately knew was the right choice.  The text, "The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mineral rights" was perfect.  It was a clever play on words, ironic and darkly true.  I purposely didn't totally obliterate the original text.  If you look closely you can see the remnants of the Wilde quote ... a kind of scar.

Happy Meal, mixed media by Bill Rose

•GH:  I have to ask you about the two images that integrated the baby blocks.  This felt playful but in an ironic way because they were also very serious.  Is this a path you'll take again?

Bill Rose: I had these blocks around the house for a long time just waiting for something to arise where I could use them.  The painting of the hen was a little piece that I hoped would say something about vegetarianism and the food industry's treatment of animals.  The piece was around for at least 6 months and I couldn't come up with anything.  Also with it being such a small painting, I could only use a word or two.  For some reason the word CLUCK came to mind.  It made me laugh.  And then I thought of the blocks.  As soon as I laid the blocks across the bottom of the canvas, I knew it was finished.  At the time I also had the painting of a refugee just sitting in the corner, still not fully resolved.  I don't know where ideas come from but out of the blue I thought HAPPY MEAL.  It was perfect. In a world where people are starving, we here in the west have to make food fun before our children will eat it. 

The use of the blocks is such a specific solution; I may not use them again.  I don't want to be known as the guy who uses children's blocks on his paintings.  I don't want it to be the easy way out.  But if the blocks will serve the piece, I will definitely use them again.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Portraits by Ray Fennelly with Startling Intimacy


Ray Fennelly
2 large portraits
1 small exhibit
May 14-26, 2017
The Arts & Culture Centre, St. John's

This exhibit of Giga Pixel photography by Ray Fennelly was regrettably short.  I considered myself lucky to spend an hour engrossed in these two images that spanned 48" x 96" and I might have missed it altogether if it were not that Fennelly had kindly flagged me at the opening of the epic Gerry Squires retrospective exhibition at The Rooms, Provincial Art Gallery.  These two images, taken in 2008, are both portraits of Gerry–one in the studio and one on his beloved Barrens.

They go hand in glove, yin and yang.  Quite literally, they are inside and outside and capture two aspects of the artist with startling intimacy.  The studio portrait is bathed in an almost golden light that comes off the warmth of the wood paneled walls and easel, and an adjacent unfinished painting.  The image is neither staged nor posed.  No holding of brushes or palette as props, a plastic bag of supplies sits unruly on a supplies cart.  This is a room where things happen and we have walked in.  Gerry does not smile, his gaze is level and it seems as if he is appraising us as much as we are him.  This portrait records an act of engagement between the subject and the viewer.

The second image is of the artist crouching beside an immense erratic boulder on the Barrens.  This big geological beast that has been carried on to the Barrens by some distant glacier dwarfs Gerry Squires.  It is easy to imagine Squires as some big game hunter beside his prize.


I have maintained that Squires painted the Newfoundland landscape like a self-portrait and Fennelly's photograph communicates that intimate relationship.  Gerry's beard and the scruff of grass seem to be in harmony.  The mottled lichen on the boulder could be the age spot on a tanned hand.  Each crevice tells a story like a wrinkle of experience.  Gerry wears a wide brimmed hat with a pin above the band.  The brooch is a likeness of the map of Newfoundland and if it had been worn on the lapel of a jacket it might have seemed like a decoration.  Instead I am reminded of the medieval custom of pilgrim's who would wear pins on their hats to mark the holy sites visited on pilgrimage.  I wondered if that made the Barrens our Stonehenge or nature's cathedral.


Fennelly explains that the Giga Pixel technology "is a large format amalgam" or " a hybrid of new technology with old school methodology".  His interest started about ten years ago when he began to play with the possibilities of extending the resolution and playing with image overlays.  With an image like Gerald Squires on the Barrens the effect is nearly panoramic with intense textures and sharp details– muted only by the rich black shadows cast by the erratic and carried through in Gerry's jacket.  This small exhibit delivered big on satisfaction.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

KRISTINA SØBSTAD – May 5—May 27, 2017 Christina Parker Gallery

Dreamland II, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 60" × 80", 2016
Well Kristina, you are the new kid on the block, relatively speaking.  The first question anybody asks me about you is whether you are Canadian or Norwegian?  You were born in Halifax, right?

Yes, I was born in Halifax to Norwegian parents and very quickly relocated back to Norway. Having led a fairly transient life, hopping back and forth between Norway and Canada, among other places, I very much identify with my Norwegian heritage but attribute much of my disposition and lifestyle to Canadian influences. 

Your paintings seem to be landscape-inspired but not about landscape in a specific or literal way.  Are you painting about our relationship with the landscape?

My paintings are in many ways a self-portrait, or an abstract narrative. Taking the idea of painting our relationship with the landscape one step further to the point that we are reminded of our ecological selves and in a way become our natural environment, no separation.  I recall reading a beautiful article describing this very idea and that it's the almost physical disappearing delineation of self. This resonated with me so much so that I titled 2 paintings after this idea. I would describe this as a defining moment of clarity where we can witness a transference from an intellectual to a visceral understanding of ourselves.

Transient
oil and chalk pastel on canvas,48" × 60", 2016
Often, viewers are anxious to identify place or a location in a painting but you resist that temptation.  Can you tell me a little about your titles–like Transient?  I gather Dreamland is a series of paintings.

I resist the urge to identify any particular place in a painting because it's not what I'm after. My goal is to make manifest an/my experience which will hopefully translate to the viewer, in turn, conjuring a similar experience. My titles relate directly to where in my life I am at the time, serving as much as a time identifier as a date.  My painting Transient was created in transience in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a landscape which at the time served as an anchor in some ways. Dreamland is a series inspired by the otherworldly Icelandic landscape and my experience there. 

One gentleman during the opening fixed on Haerra and asked me about the goddess.  I replied that goddesses were often affiliated with mountains but I thought he was thinking of Hera, the Greek mythic figure.  And my Icelandic mythology is rusty. Can you clarify this?

Hærra is Icelandic for higher, in Norwegian: høyere, which refers to the 'heightened' state of awareness when we are completely connected with our natural environments. On a personal note I'll add that I am very much a good 1/3 Icelandic as well...which is one of the reasons I went there and use Icelandic in titles from time to time.

You've made some very interesting choices with this new body of work.  I was impressed that you carried the large-scale off so well.  Your paintings never look inflated; these are big paintings with big ideas. 

Thank you, I prefer to make larger work, it allows me to really step inside the idea when it's complete. 

That leads me to your sense of composition that is quite distinctive.  Simplest Thing stands out–I thought that was very brave of you to leave such a large portion open at the top.  The spare painting here really evokes a wind scrubbed sky.

Yes, a wind scrubbed sky!  I like that phrase.
Simplest thing, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 36" × 60"
2017

The way you layer your materials is very satisfying.  Could you say something about the visual relationship between the oil and chalk pastel and of course the acrylic?  It seems almost energetic to me.

My practice is very intuitive, spontaneous,  and physical, and I find the relationship between these materials allows me to mirror my approach. Also, I find there is an interesting dynamic between the oil and chalk, a tension that gives way to peaceful spaces if that makes sense, a dynamic that very much reflects our natural environments....even our not so natural environments. 

Do you have any aesthetic goals that you feel haven't come up in this conversation…anything you'd like to add?

Aesthetically in my practice, I would like to keep evolving and taking risks, exploring new materials perhaps, increasing the scale. 

Sounds like you might have some exciting plans to share…

As far as exciting news, I will be beginning a Masters this September through Athabasca University. I'm also planning a residency in Chile with the Museum of Modern Art in Chiloe in 2017, as well as a local residency not too far from St. Johns.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Aaron Draplin at Tall Tales & Thick Lines or when design can earn you a death threat



It is not unusual to have a renowned figure make a speech at a graduation ceremony.  This event did showcase the artwork of the students involved with the graphic and communication arts at the College of the North Atlantic but the similarity to a spring convocation ended as soon as Draplin lumbered on stage.

Aaron Draplin is a wooly mammoth of a man.  He has a bigger than life personality, a shaggy demeanor, talent dripping out of his fingertips and enough attitude to fill Club One wall to wall.  That venue's capacity is listed at 600 and it was sold out– not to proud mums and dads, not even to those professionals affiliated with the graphic arts in the city – although the event was an intriguing hybrid masterminded by a group calling themselves thedesigners (all one word).  Draplin has become something of an inspirational speaker, with slogans like "do good work for good people" as his professional advice.

In the flesh, Draplin swears a blue streak.  Club One's prominent windows facing the street were decorated with a photo of him that was several feet high.  Draplin shuffles on to the stage and says to the audience, "I don't think my face was meant to be 30 feet high.  Look at this stage!  See what happens when you have friends that are designers.  You get props and succulents and shit!"  It was true.  Proper designer table, artfully displayed plants and Aaron with a mass of hair and beard, stretch denim and a baseball cap.  The nurse sitting beside me gasped, "Oh, I saw him outside and I thought 'there's a person who needs a shower'".  Aaron looked liked he'd just gotten off a tractor or left his flatbed truck in the lobby.  "I was expecting a hipster," she continued.  "That's what hipsters look like these days," was my response.


Draplin has designed a staggering number of logos.  He showed us a wide range of them at fast pace accompanied by pounding rock music.  Draplin observed that for some the only payment he received was a burrito and others $30,000.  He is the incarnation of the adage of "find out what makes you passionate and do it".  He comes across as being a completely authentic human being and that is genuinely impressive­ and probably the reason why Draplin got to design for the Obama administration and earn himself a death threat in the process.  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Maudie The Film, The Love Story

The real-life Maud Lewis in her home in Digby.

The image of Maud Lewis the folk art artist gnarled over one of her trademark paintings has a recognition factor that few in Canadian art can compare with.  What is most memorable is that trait that Lewis shared with her paintings.  She suffered a crippling rheumatic arthritis but undaunted, she bears a beaming smile and twinkling eyes.  The paintings she created, often as many as two a day, are radiantly colourful and full of life even though they are of a simple country life.  Both creator and art were radiant and without apology.

The romantic drama Maudie was released at The Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 and is now rolling out in cinemas across Canada's bigger city centres.  It was released in St. John's this past Friday and I would encourage viewers not to wait because it will likely be pushed off the marquees by higher power big box fare.  The film is deftly directed by Irishwoman Aisling Walsh, and it has star power in the form of leading man Ethan Hawke, who it turns out has a summer home in Nova Scotia.  Maudie and her surly fisher monger husband lived in a tiny one-room house in rural N.S. but the film was shot on locations in Newfoundland – the Goulds,  Brigus and most noticeably Keels.  This is in part due to the financial support of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, the fact that one of the three producers is none other than townie Mary Sexton and the screenplay is written by Sherry White, originally from Stephenville.

Many viewers will be drawn to the film hoping to better understand Maud Lewis the artist.  Maud Lewis was the very definition of an isolated, outsider artist.  Not only was she self-taught and lived in a rural community (1903-1970) but Maud was largely shunned by her own family for her nonconformist ways.  Although deformed by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she refused to be shut away as an invalid.  She bore a child that was born out of wedlock and taken away from her and sold without her knowledge.  And Maud Lewis became a painter that never asked to be understood but could not be denied.  The art world beat a path to her doorway that had a simple sign outside of it saying, "Paintings for sale".  Even Vice President Nixon had to pay in advance when he ordered a painting.  Imagine all the plot possibilities!

Screenwriter Sherry White says that she carried the story of Maud Lewis around in her head for more than ten years and resolved to write a script about the love story between Everett Lewis and Maud.  Sally Hawkins plays Maud, convincingly inhabiting the complex character in a role that stretches over years.  What makes the movie a success is its lack of romantic sugar coating or moralizing.  Characters from the art world are fictionalized into the figure of Sandra, whose discerning attention is snagged by Maud's depiction of a robust, russet hen on the wall.  We know that hen was last night's supper.

     

Monday, 17 April 2017

Timing is everything–Books, Film, Magazines & Music

The Integral Quartet: (l-r) Peter Cho, Maria Cherwick, Peter Ko and Daniel Fuchs.

The month of April is proving to be one of those months where I keep trying to finish projects without much success.  It has to do with the various stages of publishing and the different kind of venues I work with.  For example, three years ago I wrote a book chapter about curatorial strategies.  The editor accepted it with minor revisions collected the other authors' submissions and went hunting for a publisher in a timely fashion.  However, it is only recently gotten to the stage of authors' proofs.  Books are like movies: oodles of research, generating creative ideas, figuring how to sell them, whom to sell them to, and the large cast of professionals that will carrying out a staggering variety of tasks.

By contrast when I am a guest writer for an arts festival, be it the Tuckamore Chamber Festival, The Festival of New Dance, The Sound Symposium or one of our film festivals, I am expected to attend a performance one night and be able to have copy on the festival's blog site the next day–the earlier the better.  Writing for a newspaper has a similar rhythm.  One of the reasons why I'd like to clear my desk of older projects is because festival season will soon be upon us in Newfoundland.  Our short seasons of fair weather seem to make this more acute.

I became aware of this earlier in April, when Christopher Reid Flock was a guest artist here in St. John's.  His plane managed to thread its way through the storms to arrive here and he gave a stellar workshop complete with demonstrations, artist talk and a very memorable Powerpoint presentation.  Alexis Templeton Studio hosted the event and even served up some tasty moose borscht for an authentic Newfoundland experience.  Jason Holley worked on the logistics of equipment and I am sure many others I wasn't aware of contributed to the success of the weekend.  But that's when Mother Nature got cranky.  Reid was storm stayed for two days beyond his scheduled departure.  He took it with good nature and we all did our bit to entertain him but I am sure it threw his work schedule back in Ontario into a tizzy.


Back in March I submitted copy to a new magazine that had approached me:  Billie magazine.  I was very happy to learn that the Atlantic region had a new, glossy publication dedicated to the visual arts.  Like my other projects this one has been winding its way through copy edits, images, layout and final production.  This article is about women tattoo artists and the tattoos women choose to wear.  I'll share more about that soon. 

And all this doesn't touch the show openings I've been to, concerts or new artists I've gotten to meet.  Last week, The Integral Quartet played its final concert as a group as they will disband to pursue their education far apart from each other.  The concert was held as a fundraising event for the Young Artist Program of the Tuckamore, where they all originally met.  It was held downtown at The Fifth Ticket, where patrons could not only soak up the satisfying music but chow down on a great burger and chocolate cake or raise a toast with "The Tuckamore" the Festival's new signature cocktail invented by the creative souls behind the bar and the watchful eyes of bar manager, Andrew Daw.
 To see the Integral in action use this link:

Monday, 10 April 2017

Poems and Songs are Beasts–Amelia Curran


Last Thursday April 13th, Amelia Curran started the local leg of a series of launch events to promote two artistic projects:  the release of her CD titled Watershed and the release of her first book called Relics and Tunes.  I attended the launch at Fred's Records, known for its consistent support of local musicians, knowledgeable staff, and its nearly-all wood interior makes for some very sweet acoustics for the free 45-minute concerts that rival a love-in.

The bigger city centres like Toronto had already had their share of Amelia, as had the national media like CBC's Strombo Show.  Most of this has been covered on Amelia's website, if you are curious or would like to sample the tunes.  (See ameliacurran.com)

Amelia Curran is a celebrated singer songwriter on the East Coast and recognized nationally but within her own province she is especially cherished and regarded on par with the late Ron Hynes.  In 2008, she signed with Toronto indie powerhouse Six Shooter Records and her international ascendant started.  I confess that I had lost track of Curran somewhat.  As a CFA who arrived in the province in 1994, I was not aware of her early days in Newfoundland or of her years spent in Halifax where she was a fixture in the music scene.  In the Foreword of Relics and Tunes, Shannon Webb-Campbell writes,  "When Amelia moved back to St. John's in 2009–where she recorded Hunter, Hunter, with Don Ellis, a 12-track album of daring confession and love's unrequited reflections–she earned her Leonard Cohen-esque lyrical status."

It was precisely that double-barreled lyrical status that intrigued me.  "When is a poet a songwriter and vice versa?" I wondered.  I believe that Leonard Cohen owed his success to a profound understanding of that dynamic, not to mention that he probably would never have been able to make a living if he had not become a recording sensation.  (As a marketing aside, I will observe that the 3-song performance at Fred's was an astute intro to the event that encouraged fans to buy Curran's CD, vinyl album and book and have them all signed.  It was tasteful cross promotion.)  Addressing the relationship between poetry and song lyric Curran reflects.  Beyond the obvious, essential ingredient of music to song she offers, "This may sound daftly romantic, but I think of poems and songs as beasts to be hunted and either tamed or killed, depending on their demeanor."


Curran is careful to point out that Relics and Tunes is a songbook and not a volume of poetry.  The book lists the keys for each song included along with the chord progressions.  It notes verse and chorus for five of her albums, the foreword and Curran's Coda: On Writing, which is a lyrical view from the songwriting trenches.  It is a "this is how it feels" account and not a how-to.  The book is insightfully designed with faint versions of Curran's own handwriting haunting the front and back pages.  There are a few author pics and the cover features a portrait painted by Darren Whalen.

Monday, 3 April 2017

All Things Aboriginal: Music, Film, Art and Language

I never plan it, but it seems as if themes emerge from the events in my daily life.  A day after it was supposed to start, I heard that there was a weeklong conference at Memorial University called Aboriginal People's Week (March 20-24).  I regret missing Chief Mi'sel Joe's information session on the Beothuk but I did snag the Newfoundland premier of Koneline: our land beautiful, which is a documentary about the development of the Red Chris Mine in northern British Columbia.  

What I appreciated about this award-winning documentary (most recently Hot Docs 2016 Best Canadian Feature Documentary) was not just the stunning imagery–imagine a herd of horses swimming across a swollen, rushing river amid the B.C. mountains–but its nuanced account of the impact of mining, especially upon the Tahlton First Nation.  There was a multiplicity of perspectives represented and I was struck by the contrast between generations.  At the risk of over-simplification, I will point to the example of the young family man in the hard hat and a tribe elder who could have easily been his grandfather.  While the elder laments the dwindling wild life that he can hunt, the heavy equipment operator says that he enjoys working outdoors, being able to provide for a growing family and that he doesn't have to move away.  I also enjoyed watching the Tahlton phd student trying to document his native language before his father passes.  And in a surprising turn of events, the student ends up with a dog team and sled–a major commitment that makes returning to university difficult.

Check out the trailer for Koneline:https://vimeo.com/167817503

For years, I've been following the growing contemporary First Nations music scene with artists like Tanya Tagaq and groups like A Tribe Called Red starting with Electric Pow Wow.  My latest CD purchase was ATCR's Nation II Nation, which fuses electronic dance music, hip-hop, dancehall and traditional Native American singing and drumming.  There is something very primal captured in the music by these DJs from Cayuga First Nations and Ojibway, Nipissing First Nations.
Indigenous dancers perform during A Tribe Called Red's
opening of the Juno awards show in Ottawa. justin Tang/CP

Finally, on March 31st, I attended Eastern Edge Gallery's closing reception for the exhibition Mi'kMaq Word of the Day 2.0 by Jordan Bennett and Ursula Johnson.  Jordan was present and Ursula was Skyped in.  For the duration of the show, new words were painted onto the gallery walls as Ursula coached Jordan to learn his native Mi'kMaq.  It was performance art with a cultural impact.  I've been aware of both of these intriguing artists for a long while but since Jordan Bennett's involvement in Earthline, our first school of indigenous tattooing, he has worked his way to the top of my priority list.


The National Gallery in Ottawa has been overhauling its galleries to establish more of a dialogue between its indigenous collections and its European collections.  The Juno Awards this past weekend also featured a strong First People's representation that was multi-generational.  It's my hope that the ghetto walls are coming down and the contribution of First Nation artists will no longer be confined to a category.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Kate Crackerberry Works Magic

Detail of a puppet created by designer Baptiste Neis.



Upon entering the performance space for Ruth Lawrence's Kate Crackerberry audience members were greeted by a woodland setting.  A burlap path meandered from a tree stump, which was festooned with felt greenery and red berries.  A soundscape of wind chimes completed the atmosphere of magic.

On the morning that I attended Kate Crackerberry the room was filled to the rafters with enthusiastic school children.  They quickly got caught up in the timeless folktale of how two step- sisters foil the evil intentions of a step-mother.  I say timeless because such cautionary tales have been with us for centuries.  What is thought provoking is how their relevance is not diminished and how they can appeal to everyone from school children to senior citizens.  What could be more appropriate for today than a tale about blended families, conflict and a persistent battle with body image?

The charm of Ruth Lawrence's adaptation is its artful simplicity.  Two actors breathe life into a handful of puppets created by Baptiste Neis.  The sisters are girl puppets with limbs, faces and hair but their parents are portrayed simply by crowns on sticks.  The adults in the play are iconic or symbolic roles.


Kate Crackerberry is fuelled with music.  Diana Daly is both composer and performer on a number of instruments.  Ruth Lawrence provided lively narration.  The schoolchildren in the audience readily participated by calling out suggestions, energetically clapping, stomping and dancing.  They quickly caught on to the repetitive elements and urged on the action.  With glee they shouted out their opinions that ranged from "Fairies don't exist!" to "Watch out for the fairies!"  It was clear that no one was bored.


As the classes were getting ready to file out of the playhouse I consulted a few students.   Two boys sitting beside me said their favourite part of the puppet show was when one of the heroines underwent a magical transformation at the hands of the witch-like Old Hen Woman, while two girls behind me said their favourite was the dancing fairies, which are evocatively portrayed by lights.  My favourite part was watching how so many of the students waved goodbye to the puppets, wanted to pinch their noses or steal a glance behind the scenery.  Kate Crackerberry, seasoned with South Coast accents, works magic on many levels.

Kate Crackerry Adapted by Ruth Lawrence, Performed by Ruth Lawrence and Baptiste Neis, Directed by Lois Brown, March 23-24, 2017 LSPU Hall, St. John's, NL.

Monday, 20 March 2017

This Place the Way I See It, Ilse Hughes at Red Ochre Gallery



Ilse Hughes with one her paintings.

On Wednesday, March 15th, 2017 the Red Ochre Gallery was a buzz with visitors who had turned out to see Ilse Hughes' latest paintings.  It was a vibrant vernissage.

My first impression was how the colour mauve linked many of the landscape paintings, so I asked Ilse about her apparent love affair with lilac (I am a sucker for alliteration).  She explained that it began in the rocks and that it had grabbed her attention in a certain light.  The particular shade of mauve that Hughes uses can express mystery, moodiness, or serenity and positivity.

In response, Hughes elaborated, "I have been experimenting with strong colour for years now. In my last two exhibitions (2012, 2009) red was a dominant feature. The theme of the earlier exhibition was trees in the winter landscape and I used red to show their vitality and strength. In 2012, the theme was the fishing stores in the outport communities which are predominantly painted in red ochre. Interestingly, even then I often used lilac as a counterbalance in other parts of the paintings.… You are right, purple expresses a moodiness, a cool serenity."

Many of the viewers commented that Hughes' depiction of water reminded them of Monet's paintings of Giverny.  This is high praise for any painter but it is particularly relevant, as Ilse Hughes has spent time painting in France. This is how she responded, "It is true that I spend part of the year in France and no doubt I am influenced by both the French landscape and the art galleries that I visit. France is a warm and soft country. Newfoundland stands out in strong contrast. There is a strength and a severity in our environment which strongly influences my colour choice. There is no room for soft, gentle shades."
Little Harbour East

What I suspect the viewers were responding to was Hughes' skillful way of rendering reflections.  For example, the undulating curves of a mountain range were captured in their liquid, reflected magic with loose but controlled gestures in paint.  It is clear that as much as the artist is attracted to certain scenes, she is in love with paint.  Every stroke matters and there is a characteristic intimacy and freedom to Ilse's compositions.  These are paintings that would be very easy to live with.

Ilse confirmed my observation but lead back to the importance of colour.  She said, "You are right that I am in love with paint. I used to think that it was the brushstroke that mattered most to me but now I realize that it is colour that fascinates me and the way in which it can be used to bring a painting alive."

In addition to the landscapes, there was an earlier floral work and at least one small portrait, recalling for me, Ilse Hughes' earlier portrayals of musicians swept up in the active rhythms of the symphony. Chagall use to listen to music while he painted and his wife also read to him.  I wondered if there is anything in particular that Ilse enjoys while  she paints…it turns out it is CBC radio rather than music.  She calls it her "beloved companion" but when she is concentrating Ilse admits she doesn't hear what is said.


This Place the Way I See It is up until April 4, 2017.
View from Skerwink

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Marc Chagall: Colour and Music, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


It had been far too long since I'd had up my nose against a real Chagall painting, so I decided that a transfusion of his brand of colour and music would be the perfect cure for a long Newfoundland winter.  I was not disappointed.

Self-portrait with seven fingers (detail) oil on canvas 1912.
This is a mega show of 340 works that span decades of Chagall's long and prolific career and it sprawls through several galleries in the new wing of MMFA.  Chagall was born in the Russian Village of Vitebsk in 1887 and lived until 1985, dying in Saint-Paul, France (which is why he is often described as a Russian-French artist).  In between, he lived in NYC, Israel and Mexico.  Above all else, I think of Marc Chagall as a Jewish artist.  He was a dreamy and romantic man but he was determined.  His parents were not thrilled when he decided to become an artist and the Russian Empire was hostile to Jews.  Still, he continued. Chagall was born to a Hassidic family and he paid homage to that heritage throughout his career–his image of the green-faced Klezmer fiddler is an icon.

During my visit, there was a screening of a documentary that featured an interview with Chagall in French, with his wife as a translator; the setting was in the family's French garden.  Being able to hear the artist discuss his work and career, in his own words, is what persuaded me to spend a precious 180 minutes of an afternoon visit.  The closest I could get to an answer for why was the fiddler's face green (many of his figures have green faces) is Chagall's simple explanation, "I paint things the way I see them."

The exhibit held many surprises for me.  Many of the paintings were done on paper or cardboard and later backed by canvas, I imagine for conservation purposes.  The large-scale works were items like the seven panels from the Theatre of Jewish Art from Moscow or the ceiling work from the Paris Opera House.  These galleries are awash in curated music that combined with the visual elements to steep you in a complete experience.  Chagall often listened to music while he worked and with the help of colleagues still alive, these composers and selections were featured.  Special programming follows these preferences; if I couldn't have made it in to the assigned-seat screening of the documentary, I would have chosen a live concert of the Bach Cantatas.  The MMFA has its own superb concert venue, The Bourgie Hall that I can vouch for from previous experience. 


Chagall was a multi-disciplinary artist, who worked in printmaking, as well as painting, stained glass, ceramic murals, book illustration, costume design (for ballet and opera), and scenery both in paint and in tapestry.  It was rewarding to see studies, drypoint and gouache grouped together to illustrate the artist's creative process around a central theme or image.  The extensive collection of costumes is a highlight as they capture the magic and whimsy of Chagall's artistic vision.  The animals, with their near-human faces migrate seamlessly to costumes and masks
costume study by Chagall
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Sunday, 19 February 2017

Practicing Spontaneity–Canadian Improv Games


We have come together
In the spirit of loving competition,
To celebrate the Canadian Improv Games.
We promise to uphold the ideals of improvisation,
To co-operate with one another,
To learn from each other,
To commit ourselves to the moment,
And above all…
To Have A Good Time!


This weekend I was in dire need of a good, therapeutic laugh.  If Trump speeches and a bad back weren't enough, two days of snow storms had made a mess of my work schedule and for those of us who are self employed, or like my friends in the food and service industry, if you don't work you don't get paid.  So, it was clear I was going to head into the LSPU Hall to catch the Newfoundland regionals of The Canadian Improv Games.

For years I have been saying I would do this and somehow managed to miss it.  This year was particularly enticing as the veteran improv crowd would be performing at a special Alumni Show.  I am one of those people who will be probably cracking jokes on her deathbed.  It is simply in my DNA and one of my cherished survival tools.  What so appeals to me about improvisational comedy is its innate resourcefulness.  It requires little preparatory time because you cannot rehearse it.  Granted, there are plenty of warm up exercises and there are always some structural things to push against.  For example, a time limit of 3 minutes per scene and each of the events has a category like theme, life event or character.  But there are delightful wild cards where the audience madly screams out suggestions for these categories such as "style", which can be anything from Disney musical to Shakespeare or a cheesy horror film.  This is a really shrewd way of knitting together the audience and performers through interaction.


These performances are staged as competitive games.  That means that instead of a master of ceremonies you have a madcap referee.  Sometimes, there are as many as three stooges acting as whistle blowing referees whipping up the audience into a hilarious frenzy and trying to contain the antics of competing teams of players.  When you think about it, the Improv Games is a winning mix of the unpredictable and favourite, recognizable elements–like "what's in the box?".  This will be a series of gag prizes raffled off for fundraising tickets that are sold in pairs, arm's length, etc right up to "mummified".  Then there is the oath with which every session starts and all audience members rise to recite with their right hand on their hearts. Believe me, as per the referee's instructions  you never know who will reach out with their left hand for your "G-rated body part". 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Putting the Love Back into Valentine's Day

I have always been struck by the commercialism of holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween and of course Valentine's Day.  A few years back, I decided to try and subvert this by practicing a more conscious approach to celebrating them.  First, I started out making gifts by hand, then it grew into volunteering on these days –like when I went to The Gathering Place to socialize with the homeless or as one savvy nun put it "our guests".  On other occasions, it was supporting Trouble Bound Studio's $100 tattoo days to memorialize loved ones lost to cancer.  This past weekend they raised over $6,000 for Daffodil Place!
I've also supported refugee efforts here in St. John's.  At present, my kitchen floor looks like a warehouse as I am gathering household goods and personal care products for the St. John's Social Justice Network (as a comic book enthusiast, I am always tempted to call it the St. John's Social Justice League).

While I was waiting to go to a concert last week I was approached by a young musician who said, "you must come and hear me tomorrow!"  When I went to the ticket window I decided to buy extra tickets and pass them on to those music lovers behind me as a random act of kindness.  On Friday evening at The Yellow Belly I ended up with a drink that I had not ordered, which I passed on to a grateful student couple at the next table.

I know I will never have enough money to be a philanthropist and some days energy itself seems a scarce resource.  But these small acts seem to be a wise investment in positivity and community. And St. John's being the small city it is, where everybody seems to know everybody, I wasn't surprised to have two acquaintances chirp up in congratulations before I made it out of the restaurant.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Learning from Dinuk Wijeratne


My big indulgence last week was the New Found Music Festival XIV, which was held at the Memorial University School of Music here in St. John's February 1-3, 2017.  I find it always worth my time to listen to composers and musicians speak about their creations and feel lucky when they illustrate their points by playing snippets of music.  It is a whole lot more satisfying than looking at slides of visual art.  Anyhow, it is a peek behind the scenes or inside the creative brain.

Dinuk Wijerante
From 12:30 to 5 p.m. on Thursday I was in sessions that ranged from performances of Meng Jian to an interactive Deep Listening event.  There is no better way of learning than by doing.  And even lowly, little old me can be persuaded to sing in public. It was all rewarding but the cherry on top was Dinuk Wijeratne's Keynote Address that was really a rehearsal of Polyphonic Lively with the MUN Chamber Orchestra. 

It made me smile when Dinuk told the audience that the inspiration for the piece was a painting by Paul Klee.  He said that he couldn't remember what the painting looked like or the title of the book where Wijeratne discovered the image.  It was the title that struck him.  And Dinuk likes to use the symphony as a metaphor for a community based on diversity.

Wijeratne's music has always held my attention in part because it is a fusion of east and west.  He was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Dubai but lives and works in Canada, when he's not playing in places like Carnegie Hall.  I was surprised to learn that he had been raised on western music and that his artistic vision was largely formed in New York City and the global music scene.  Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, I developed a taste for Ravi Shankar and classical Indian music.  Zakir Hussain was my favourite tabla player.  I was thrilled to learn that Wijeratne had had the opportunity to play with Hussain and he shared this little story with the audience.


Tabla compositions usually end on a light treble stroke (nah) but when Hussain played the piece they were rehearsing, he would end the piece on a heavy base stroke (dah).  Wijeratne noticed the sheet music still said nah.  Finally, someone in the group screwed up the courage to ask maestro Hussain about it.  Hussain studied the sheet music and then pronounced, "Well there is tradition and then there's show business".  Clearly, the emphatic dah ending was an audience-satisfying flourish.  Now, that's a lesson you can take to the bank.
One of my favourite instruments the tabla.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Curatorial 101: Kent Jones retrospective

Baldy and Nipper by Kent Jones, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to open a 45-retrospective exhibition about the career of Kent Jones.  He is a very modest guy but enormously talented and works in prints, paintings, drawing and film.  As part of my duties as a curator I took the opportunity of giving a presentation in the gallery about curatorial practice.  I figured why make people look at photographic representations of the work when they have the real thing.

One of my big challenges in putting together an exhibition is not only selecting the work but deciding about the context for the work.  Next, I need to create a visual experience that supports that context.  The Kent Jones show was going up at the Grenfell Campus Art Gallery that is home to Memorial University's Visual Arts Program.  Charlotte Jones and her staff were a dream to work with and agreed to all my presentation concepts.  For example,  a room was built out of temporary walls just to house the print section of the show that was organized chronologically. 

A special pedestal was devoted to an art book of poetry illustrated by Kent.  Each day a new page would be displayed to encourage visitation.  This is ideal with a gallery in a building filled with students and faculty who are frequently in the building.

There is a dedicated room with seating and earphones so that visitors can experience Kent Jones' work in video.

A pair of paintings are strategically placed to greet viewers, one with a air-streamed locomotive and the other with a pair of farm workhorses, named Baldy and Nipper, are in fact dedicated to Kent's parents.


When I was lecturing about my curatorial practice I realize that three key ideas were operating.  One, was my subject:  Kent Jones; two, was the concept of drawing, which Kent always maintained was the seminal artistic activity; and three, was the idea of the retrospective–as a curator I needed to express the scope of this impressive artist both in terms of themes and technique.
Wyoming For My Mother by Kent Jones

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

He just made wonderful stuff - Akio Takamori

I just got the sad news that we have lost Akio Takamori, whom I consider one of the most original talents in contemporary ceramics.  For my friends in ceramics and those who follow it, I am excerpting a moving, longer article that NCECA has just published:

Remembering Akio Takamori (1950-2017)

The field of ceramic art lost an indelible, creative, and generous spirit when sculptor, teacher, mentor, and friend Akio Takamori succumbed to cancer on Wednesday, January 11. His wife Vicky wrote, “ ... his last day was spent working in his studio and loading a small kiln. He left his studio for the last time in preparation to return the next day. 

The work for his upcoming exhibition at James Harris Gallery in Seattle this February was completed. Despite his cancer and increasing limitations, he was moving forward gathering ideas for his next group of work. He told me once, he had so many ideas for new pieces that it kept him awake at night in anticipation of what to make next.”
Contributing to NCECA’s remembrance are lines from Richard Notkin’s message to NCECA President Chris Staley about their dear friend Akio. Born in 1950, Akio Takamori spent his childhood in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, Japan. His father was a physician whose library of medical and art texts fascinated young Takamori throughout his childhood. Takamori has also shared that his father’s dermatology practice, located near a tenderloin district, drew a wide range of people and influences into his sphere at a young age.

Akio’s passing is a terrible loss for everyone, especially those of us who knew him. A fantastic individual, wonderful spirit, the most creative and inspiring artist I have ever met. Akio made art of everything he touched, from deep within himself, as we all know. For me, he was the epitome of what true artists embody. He just made wonderful stuff. It was never about his ego, just about making art. He will always be an inspiration to me, and, I am sure, to all of us.

Akio's fascination with art and culture further developed as he grew older. Following graduation from Tokyo University, he became apprenticed to a master folk potter in Koishiwara Kyushu. Takamori was impressed by a traveling exhibition of new ceramics from Canada, the United States and Latin America, whose anti-authoritarian posture made a strong impact on his thinking about art. Also around this time, legendary Kansas City Art Institute educator and potter, Ken Ferguson met the young Takamori while visiting the pottery. The two soon developed a rapport, and in 1974, Takamori travelled to Kansas City to study at the school. Ferguson's unique approach to teaching and making had a profound influence on Takamori's shift to his focus to more expressive and personal explorations of content and reinventions inspired by ceramic traditions. After earning his BFA (1976), Takamori went on to earn his MFA from Alfred University (1978). In the 1980s, he moved on to a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana. In 1993, Takamori accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington Seattle where he was named Professor Emeritus.

It will be sad to live in a world without Akio, especially in our Puget Sound neighborhood. He was truly loved by all. But he leaves much behind that is so positive, so beautiful, and, above all, that touches so many people in truly profound ways. Both his art and his wonderful life and spirit. All we have while we are on this planet is our time, and Akio used his time as well as anyone I have ever known. We were all blessed to know him.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fresh, witty and wicked- pop up events at The Headquarters at 57


With titles like Landscape Goat and Bad Santa, you know The Headquarters at 57 Gower Street is going to be the place to go for a creative time with lots of attitude.  It is almost a cliché to say but it is true that St. John's has more talent than venues for showing and discussing art–commercial or public.  That's one reason why we need pop-up places like The Headquarters at 57.

Originally the brainchild of visual artist Anne Pickard Vaandering, she discovered that her studio space was attracting many like-minded souls.  A signature Headquarter pop-up event has several characteristics that you can count on even though the events range widely.  Humour, social conscience, a little bit of daring and interactive elements are regular features.  Readings and performance art punctuate openings.


Landscape Goat was organized by curator and artist Shane Dwyer and featured the work of 16 artists, most of whom knew each other from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.  And if it proved one thing, it was that there was no one, correct way to paint landscape.  From romantic to political, paper to panel, savage to sassy this show had it all.  The only common denominators were quality and the landscape.  How the catchy title came into being was when Dwyer noticed that they all carried the same brand of sketchbook at school, which featured a Robert Bateman likeness of–you guessed it–a goat. Ever since the The Group of Seven, landscape has been something of a sacred cow in the cannon of Canadian art history.  It was refreshing to have a new look at this old favourite.

 Bad Santa offered visitors the opportunity to interact with an assortment of real-life Santas that definitely came from the naughty list.  There was a paint spattered one–let's call him the Jackson Pollock Santa, another fine fellow sported a sequined jacket and a guitar as if he could be The Santa of Good times, a cool Santa had sunglasses and one chap with a terrific scowl seemed to be channeling The Grinch.  Artist photographer Rhonda Pelley captured these interactions and each visitor got a photo to take home while another was put on display in an adjoining room.  There were crafts to make from recycled newspaper and donations were collected to make up a gift basket for someone in need.

To be in the know when the next pop up event will be taking place "Like" The Headquarters at 57's Facebook page.
The Bad Santa event subversively upended the tradition of photos with Santa.  Various naughty adults and Santas hammed it up for the camera.  Background painted by Frank Barry, photography by Rhonda Pelley.