Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lantern Festival Lights Up St. John's

The view of the installation on the hill.
This is my summer of firsts.  So, after years of hearing about but never attending the festival this weekend I had to go to the Lantern Festival in Victoria Park, St. John's.  I was not disappointed.  The annual event has been going on since 1998, if not longer (some residents in the neighbourhood said 17 but I could not substantiate that), growing from an attendance of hundreds to over a thousand strong.  The event starts in the afternoon with live music and dance on a community stage, popcorn and other treats, and face painting.  Wandering Brush did a noteworthy job bringing quality to a job where it isn't always appreciated.  For the first time, I was tempted to get a Japanese style cherry branch painted up my arm– a tattoo for wimps!
Air brushing adds to the effect usually reserved for the brush.

What charmed me about the event was it's almost Woodstock feel.  It was democratic and loose around the edges.  Amid the families with jam jar lanterns were some less orthodox types.  Anything that can bring together the diversity represented by a young organic long-haired couple with their pet Nubian goats on leashes with the urban edge of Steam Punk clad clubsters had my vote of approval.  I was surprised but pleased to learn that Newfoundland had its own Steam Punk club that blends the distinctive Victorian corset with leather and industrialism.  It's a look you can't mistake.

The community stage boasted belly dancers and rock bands and acoustic folkies.  The audience was slightly distracted but generally appreciative.  They were sun bleached and happy.

The installation of lanterns was a sight to behold.  Weeks and weeks of work had produced a harvest of lanterns big and small, predictable and outrageous: puffins, spaceships, rainbows and just about anything that can be fabricated out of fire-retardant material into a three-dimensional structure to house a flame.  It was there on the hillside.  The parade path snaked around it and come dusk it was set alight by a chorus of volunteers.  Fire marshals were in attendance.  Music, dancers, families, more than one dog, children with flashlights and illuminated swords processed with gusto behind the percussion talent of the Scruncheons who offered a rhythmic outpouring of cowbells, drums and cymbals.  Everyone looked very pleased with himself or herself.

Once the parade had concluded the fire dancers took centre stage or what was actually a baseball field behind chain link fencing.  There were dancers with hoops of flame, fire eaters, animal clad performers on stilts and let's not forget this year's mascot:  a giant squid with dancing tentacles.  Well past ten the crowds kept growing, no doubt as next year's event will too.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Marlene Creates Makes Art in Tune with the Times

Rob Power improvises on the bridge to the delight of Marlene's guests

I have always been a fan of Marlene Creates' art, whatever form it takes.  Pristine photographs of grass shaped by her sleeping body, texts in the landscape, and maps drawn by others were some of the things I came to associate with her.  But whatever the form, the style was consistent:  disciplined, thoughtful, relevant and usually associated with a sense of place.

The landscape dominates visual art in Newfoundland and Labrador.  That is true both historically and in more contemporary manifestations.  I believe that landscape art boils down to a visual representation of the relationship the artist has with a place.  Perspective is one of the things I like to watch for.  Panoramic vistas, arm's length, or in your face intimacy are just some of the ways artists choose to represent what they are looking at –and most importantly–experiencing.  That's what I think is being shared: the experience of place.

Last week I made a visit out to Blast Hole Pond Road in Pourtugal Cove to experience, along with a band of about 25 folks, one of Marlene Creates' evening adventures in the Boreal Forest.  That evening Rob Power, something of a local percussion hero, was the featured musician.  I said later to a friend, "If I was sentimental, I would have described it as magical".  As it is I am a more analytical type but a hedonist nonetheless, so it was near perfect.

What a visual!  A gong in the Boreal Forest.

Marlene took us through the woods, stopping at key spots and sharing poetry that she had written about the location that inspired the words.  We were treated to the delights of Newfoundland dialect, winged creatures and much more.  Rob improvised musical responses from a series of instruments that appeared from the depths of his bag of wonders.  One encounter that was evidently a hit with all of us was his playing a riff on the arch of a bridge while he teetered over the Blast Hole Pond River.  The slats in the wood bridge became a xylophone accompanied by the wash of water and wind.  And another standout was the big gong suspended from supple spruce trees that bent in response.  When the last note finished vibrating we stood in receptive silence listening to the swoosh through the swaying boughs.  "This is why we need music," I observed out loud.  The evening concluded with a Rob Power concert in the garage and treats shared around a bonfire.

Marlene Creates reads her poetry to us.  All photos are courtesy of Marlene Creates

I knew text had frequently played a part in Marlene Creates' images but I was curious why she had made the leap to an experience shared with an audience from an object that you hung on a gallery wall.  Marlene explained that she had been hand-writing her short poems on card stock and installing them temporarily in situ to photograph.  But some of her poems became too long for that, so she decided to invite people to the site to take them on a walk and read them the poems out loud.  I think this is an especially sensitive choice in a day and age when we are choked with so much stuff and senseless distraction.  Here we had been given the distilled essence of something. It is a decision that we participants all seemed to be grateful for.

Check it out:  Marlene's website.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

KISS: Confessions of a Culture Vulture

 (KISS: Keep it simple stupid)

The skateboard community seems to overlap with the tattoo community.

On the evening of Friday July 5th, Ned Pratt and I had the second of the photo shoots in concert with the tattoo project.  I was really impressed with how strong and beautiful the ladies became in front of Ned's camera and the evening just flowed with energy.  This week Ned has been hijacked by his exhibition out in Duntara and so he has not gotten round to reviewing the images from the shoot.  We've also promised the ladies control over the release of the images, so I am not able to share any of them just yet.

That same week I was commissioned to write an editorial for Studio magazine.  What I enjoy about editorial writing is that I get to be me.  An editorial is basically a well-reasoned opinion piece.  The column boiled down to one of my favourite bitch-tickets: let's weed out art speak.  As a writer and reader I adore words.  They create worlds and bridge individuals.  But I believe that professional communities in their quest for respect and legitimacy indulge in specialized language that lifts them onto pedestals.  Worse yet they alienate the rest of us left below the pedestal's heights.  And this is as true of the medical and legal communities as well as the art and studio craft community.

I realized when I was interviewing Robbie Ryan last week that part of what I want to do with the tattoo project is to come up with a body of writing about the incredibly rich tattoo culture that was meaningful on two levels.  1) It had to make sense to the people wearing the ink and 2) in terms of the general, broader social context of the practice.  I am intrigued and engaged by the individual stories I am collecting but I want to piece them together into a significant whole that isn't some obtuse theoretical study.  I think you can say profound things in simple terms and clear language.  That doesn't mean it is easy.  As the saying goes, "writing is easy, all you have to do is sit down to the keyboard and open a vein."
I like to joke that I spent 8 years at university but that I have recovered. Cartoon from:

My working process is that I research, read and think about a topic until the swell of ideas is too much and it needs to be put onto the page.  As such, it is a release and a giddy rush of words that have a life of their own.  Right now, I am occupied by rewriting, which is the slog work.  Filling in the gaps.  Strengthening arguments.  Chasing down facts and sources, double-checking.  This is for a book chapter about curatorial strategies that the editor has "sold" to a publisher in England.  Good stuff to do but hard work without the thrill of novelty that a first draft entails.  This is when I work on becoming a better writer.

The treat after each section has been an inexpensive concert or performance.  I was fortunate to attend three of the Festival 500 key performances including the gala and grand finale –feel good events to be sure with stellar talent.  I grabbed the premiere of Jus' Watch a high-energy film about our skateboarding tribe in St. John's, which has tie-ins for me with the tattoo project.    Then there was the first Shakespeare by the Sea performance of the season; free is my favourite four-lettered word.  And this weekend –if I am really good–I will indulge in the Wreckhouse International Jazz Blues Festival.  I could use a little, or a lot, of midnight samba.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

"I feel as if I'm in an age gone by"

Robbie Ryan in the barber's chair at Fogtown.  Photo credit:  Ned Pratt
Robbie Ryan is a 26-year old collector with a taste for old time, traditional tattoos.  He is a barber who has served his traditional apprenticeship, "It's all hands-on –barbering and tattooing."  Historical motifs,  bold lines and subtle greys dominate one side of his body: a crying Latina woman on his neck, the pope, the archangel Michael and rosary beads scroll down his shoulder and arm.  Song lyrics and words of wisdom punctuate his hands and knuckles.  The opposite side of Robbie is in colour, a classical statue of Blind Justice with scales weighed down by a mass of people but out weighed by money…a green back bill flutters down.  "Americana is a root of a lot of tattooing…and the working class.  I identify with the blue collar."  Robbie gestures to the barber shop around him, "that's what we're about.  We're for the people."

Although several of his tattoos are done by local tattoo artist Dave Munro and others on his crew at Trouble Bound Studio in St. John's, like the menacing owl swallowing his navel, Robbie Ryan travels to conventions and far flung cities to collect images on his body by artists whose work he has admired.  Ryan's collection spans historical Russian motifs, tattoo classics like the Ace of Spades and memorabilia like portraits of his father and dog –not to mention much of his body from his ears to his ankles.  But his back is a blank canvas waiting for a special artist.  "I don't know who yet," Ryan observes.

Robbie wears religious medals, a gold cross and a gold crucifix.  Old fashioned, ornate and precious, there is a curious resonance between the religious symbolism and the collection of curling lines of ink that arch across his body.  Worlds of meaning meet on his chest.

The above text is taken from my notes during my meeting with Robbie Ryan on Tuesday July 2, 2013 during a photo shoot with photographer Ned Pratt.  Thanks go to Dave Munro who helped me locate Robbie, who generously agreed to "put himself out there".