Sunday, 18 December 2011

Modern Nativity by Rachel Ryan

This glue-gun fiesta is Modern Nativity by Rachel Ryan, which I purchased from her recent solo show, Waking Dreams, at the Craft Council Gallery in St. John's.  It was listed NFS but I was smitten and when I had the opportunity to interview Rachel I asked if she was interested in selling it to me.   It is a fine example of messy craft, an exuberance of glitz and glam.  To me it was funny, irreverent and just what I needed going into the holiday season.  Remember what I said, "life is messy so why can't craft be?"  Rachel Ryan has been known for superb design sense and finely controlled technique.  I was really intrigued when I saw her take on kitsch.  Ryan's life over the past few years has been a rollercoaster ride of events and emotions:  her mother finally passing away after a battle with cancer, the end of her marriage after several years, etc.  She was giving herself permission to color outside of the lines.  This is what I wrote in my notebook at the show, "Rachel Ryan has exploded out of her cocoon.  Ryan has created a body of drawings and wall hangings and mixed media installations that bristle with bold energy and powerful emotions.  Gone are the contemplative landscapes, the icebergs that on closer inspections contained women or the birch tress that housed stately spirits.  They have been replaced with equally soulful work but this latest show is extroverted rather than inward looking.  Waking Dreams is a centrifugal storm, an outpouring of complex colors, spiraling stitches and layers upon layers of quilted swatches of fabric and paper." Ryan's work was about - as one piece was titled- The Wreckage of Change.  Not just her personal life but also the social backdrop of tsunamis, financial crisis and war, which had extra meaning for Rachel as she had been part of a military family, a boat in tow through a succession of postings.  So, when the only thing in life that is permanent is your marker maybe what you need is a little kitsch.  The occasion for the interview was preparation for a tour I gave in mid October to a cruise group traveling with Adventure Tours.  Novelist Kevin Major was their group organizer.  

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Martha Stewart & Craft

What a pair of sourpusses!  Back in 1997 before she was a felon, Martha Stewart visited Newfoundland.  Bill Gates was picking up the tab as he had hired her to do a piece for an e-magazine he had recently launched.  I think it was called Mongopark.  Anyhow, Martha brought her entourage and filmed a segment for her TV programme at the same time.  Martha was not nice, I remember watching her interact with her crew and I never heard her say please or thank you and she really ordered them around.  I thought to myself, "if this is what success looks like I don't want it."  But I was impressed with her ability to focus.  The lady was like a laser.  And she was very intelligent  The Craft Council of NL opened up so that Martha could shop privately.  A few members were invited to be on hand to answer questions about their work.  I was also invited to help with the answers and Martha asked me about hooked mats.  In the end she bought a hooked mat with a moose on it.  She was disappointed that she did not see one during her visit.  Martha did ask questions about Newfoundland's tradition of mat making.  It was clear she had done her homework and already knew about Grenfell.  I wonder about the impact Martha has had on the state of craft practice.  I'll end this post by showing the more public face that Martha usually shows on camera.  Life is messy why shouldn't craft be messy sometimes too.

At this year's University Art Association of Canada conference - an annual event for academics and scholars of art history- her name came up more than once during the craft sessions.  This year the session of 8 papers focussed on the theme of "messy craft" a term we've inherited from Glenn Adamson in the U.K.  It refers to the practice of deliberately flaunting the conventions of masterful technique within craft practice.  Think of it as abstract expressionism versus realism.  You'd never think of Martha Stewart in terms of messy craft unless, as Sandra Alfoldy pointed out in her presentation, it is to describe an amateur's failed attempt to aspire to Martha's perfection.  

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Surface Design Journal-Canadian Perspectives

Barb Hunt's The Old Lie
Each year the Surface Design Journal publishes an international issue with a focus on another country.  This year it was Canada's turn and I was asked to write the lead article.  It was released in late October.  Several months prior, Patricia Malarcher started discussing the article.  What was distinctive to Canada?  Where there any unique historical textile traditions?  I started out looking at things like the hooked mats on the East Coast, etc.  But a hooked mat from Maine looks a lot like a hooked mat from New Brunswick.  That started me thinking about regionalism in Canada, which in turn made me consider how our population is strung along our border.  I recalled how the cowboy culture of Alberta that I experienced out in Banff was similar to the culture I experience south of the border in the same region.  But I didn't expect a readership of textile artists in the States to be interested in a social studies lesson.  Patricia and I agreed that I would discuss regionalism, multiculturalism, etc as seen in the work of contemporary Canadian textiles.  It wouldn't be a dog and pony show with lots of artists but be more exclusive.  So, I picked Barb Hunt from NL to talk about the Canadian position on international peacekeeping, pacificism, etc.  Her work (seen above) made from military uniforms to depict the map of the world was a great starting point.  The piece is called the Old Lie - and represents the military presence through out the world.
Kai Chan, Silk

To discuss Canada's early recognition of gay marriage, multiculturalism, language and tolerance I picked Kai Chan's work for its lyricism and nuance.  Kai can do so much with subtle grace in his work and he touches on these issues.

Sharon Kallis, The Ivy Canoe
The third artist that I selected was Sharon Kallis from B.C. - who by the way is featured in the current issue of Canadian art.  Sharon works with teams of volunteers and communities learning their concerns and talents.  They harvest invasive species and use them as natural raw materials for her fibre creations: quilts, boat sized baskets and installations.  The work of Kallis allowed me to talk about the Canadian landscape, our relationship with nature and touch on colonialism as seen through the lens of ecology.  To quote Kallis, "There is a uniqueness to everyone's mark and what they make even if everyone is doing the same action.  It's like the saying about Canada being a mosaic.  We are part of the ecology and it is important that we don't dominate it."

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Competition for Retrospectives

Back in September I opened the retrospective exhibition of Alexandra McCurdy at the Burlington Art Centre.  From exhibition proposal to opening was about two years of curatorial work.  During that time I became aware of an impending crunch caused by the greying of our crafts community – there's going to be a lot of artists and senior craftspeople competing for available spots to show their retrospectives.  Right now I am working on an essay that will be published for Ann Roberts retrospective at the Clay & Glass Gallery in Waterloo early in 2012.  Our other Ann - Ann Mortimer, I believe, will have a retro soon at the Burlington.  Kai Chan, from the fiber world, just celebrated with a 3 venue retrospective in Ontario of his work.  You get the idea.

Working on Alex's retrospective I formed the opinion that in order to be valid a retrospective had to do more than summarize a career.  I know as a writer I was NOT interested in repeating myself nor did I expect someone to want to see work they'd previously seen  The onus on me was to find a new interpretation and a new way of presenting the work as well.  Luckily, Alex's common thread (pardon the pun) in much of her career was textiles and feminism.  Her career spans 40 years and feminism has changed a great deal during that time and has roughly paralleled her career shifts but no one had pointed that out before.  I also realized that much of the criticism that has been levelled at Alex could be appropriately addressed through her connection to textiles.  She was never a potter's potter but I needed to figure out why.  The other element that I brought forward was her relationship with formalist painting.  Alex had divided her work (in conversation) as "with content" and "without content".  But it hit me like a ton of bricks when I looked up at a Hurtubise print in their guest room that that was the link to the "without content" work.  She agreed.  In terms of display, I wanted to show her early textile work alongside the pots.  And that was very satisfying for all concerned.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Kevin Coates on front cover of Craft Journal

This was published earlier this year but I wanted to point it out.  The article is about the use of the human figure in contemporary craft.  It started out to be exclusively about Newfoundland craft but I came to realize that in speaking to a national audience I would have greater success if I contextualized our art and craft nationally.  I would secure a greater readership and probably do our community here a greater service both in terms of the theoretical understanding and the promotional aspects.  If I had to summarize the article I would say that clay is often seen as a stand-in for  human flesh or the body - think of the creation of Adam from clay- and textiles is our second skin, that which separates us or mediates between us and society.  Craft media allow makers who are interesting in exploring the human condition a metaphoric advantage over painters and sculptors in stone.  

I first noticed the trend towards the human figure in 2007 while visiting the Craft Council Gallery's Celebrate Craft show, which I reviewed for the Visual Arts Nova Scotia.  Later on I was able to build on that insight with an artists panel that included J.C. Bear, Reed Weir, Janet Peter, Isabella St. John and Kevin Coates.  I also wrote a lead story called Figuring Us Out about these particular makers for Studio magazine –that's when I realized how much intellectual meat there was in the theme.  So, it became important for me to write about it for an academic audience and do some disciplined thinking about.  That required a research grant.  What is worth noting about all of this is that it demonstrated for me how to develop a project or theme.  Keep it growing.

Here's a link to the Craft Journal, which is bilingual as reflected in their title.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Crafted with Character

Before Christmas I was approached by Wilma Hartman of Digital Daisy who produced this video with help from many craftspeople in the province as well as the Craft Council. I believe it was funded through our Craft Industry Development Program.   She came to me with a one line concept for the script "the people, the place and the products are indivisible".  It was an absolute blast learning to interweave 3 streams of information: visual, audio and narration – like learning a new language.  I'd welcome the opportunity to try script writing again.  It seemed like a natural progression from the writing I have down for radio and the visual work I do when I curate exhibitions.  Of course, being posted on you tube is a whole new experience.

Critical Eye Award

This is my "grip and grin" photo with Mary Pratt, who is Patron of the EVAs.  I was lucky to be the first winner of the Critical Eye Award for the best piece of critical writing published about a Newfoundland and Labrador artist during the previous year.  The competition is open to writers worldwide so I hope others will seek nomination for the 2012 EVA Awards.

Winners announced for the 2011 EVA Awards

ST. JOHN’S NL:  The sixth annual Excellence in Visual Arts Awards took place on May 27th at the Rooms, St. John’s, Newfoundland. The EVA Awards are the only awards program celebrating the work of the visual artists of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Large Year Award celebrates a visual artist who has enjoyed an exceptional year, with at least one exhibition and critical recognition. The Large Year Award 2011 went to Veselina Tomova, an artist who works in painting, printmaking, design and pottery from her studio in the Battery, St. John’s.
The Emerging Artist Award honours the promising start made by an emerging visual artist in the early stages of their career.  The Emerging Artist Award 2011 went to St. John’s artist Allen Walbourne, whose work includes installation, painting and printmaking.  Sponsored in 2011 by Grenfell Campus, Memorial University.
The Kippy Goins Award – so named for the small pieces of wood one throws on a fire to “keep it going” – thanks an individual or organization whose efforts have helped to sustain and build the visual arts sector.  The Kippy Goins Awardwent to Angela Antle, artist, active arts community member and promoter of all artists in this province through her position as long-time host of the popular Weekend Arts Magazine on CBC Radio.
Painter, printmaker and sculptor Gerald Squires was the winner of The Long Haul Award, which recognizes a substantial contribution to the visual culture of Newfoundland and Labrador by a senior artist. Gerald’s work is in many public and private collections and have shown in solo exhibitions across Canada. Among other accolades, he is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and the Order of Canada. The Long Haul Award 2011 was sponsored by The Leyton Gallery of Fine Art.
A new award for critical art writing, the Critical Eye Award, celebrates the best piece of critical writing about an NL artist in any print or online publication worldwide. The winner of the first Critical Eye Award is Gloria Hickey, a curator and art writer who won for her piece on Jason Holley’s work in Fusion Magazine.
For more information or to arrange interviews, contact Program Coordinator Dave Andrews at or 709-738-7303.
The EVA Awards are a Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador initiative.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Heavy metal in Ottawa

 My favourite metal thing in Ottawa!  Maman by Louise Bourgeois, a lady with issues and the talent to deal with them.  Intriguing that Louise B.  contributed so much to the textile art scene after first dismissing it back in '60s.  Her family had a background in the professional restoration of tapestry.  But the spider, menacing, intriguing was the master spinner of them all.