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

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:

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.