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