Sunday, 29 September 2013

Cultural Tourism in St. John's, Newfoundland

Arguably the cod are gone, we don't know how long oil with last, or what price it will fetch but culture looks like our best bet as Newfoundland and Labrador's number 1 renewable resource.  It reflects our cultural identity, tells the world what makes our province different and it draws tourists year after year.  We can even make our bad weather sexy or at least tolerable if you live here.  We warm each other's souls with shared visions and delights. And tourists sense this.

What sparks these thoughts?  This week I had the pleasure to work with Kevin Major as he led a group of 13 tourists to many of the cultural sights and sounds of St. John's.  I really enjoy working with these groups because they are genuinely interested in what our culture has to offer.  They ask great questions with complete unpredictability.  And each and everyone of them has an interesting story to share of their own.  They are a joy to meet.  And I get to talk about things I care about.  We share passions.

This past week, I was on tap as a resource at The Plantation and the Craft Council Gallery where we had two shows up.  Margaret Walsh Best's show that traces the relationship between Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador, with 16 artists from the two places.  Plants are the common denominator, which is a grand curatorial theme.  We recreate gardens, foods and accidentally transplant seeds from home when we immigrate.  And this show celebrates our common roots (pardon the pun) with gorgeous jewellery, mats, paintings and pottery.  The ladies really liked the jewellery by Don Beaubier and commented to me that it was reasonably priced.  
This brooch by Don Beaubier was especially popular with the Adventure Canada crowd.  One lady from Scotland was reminded of her country's jewelry traditions.

Ray Cox's show was also on the agenda.  And his creative approach to pewter scored big points. I was glad that he had small sturdy items at the right price point, that they could actually pay for and take away.

In the shop downstairs, knits were the big hit with shawls coming in second.  Trigger mitts, thrummed socks and Mary Hood's dragons were all popular.

Ray Cox's pewter impresses with the unconventional colour palette that is his trademark.

From this Friday's report on VOCM:

This year's St. John's International Women's Film Festival takes place from October 22nd to the 26th in various venues around the city. The festival received a record 500 submissions from around the globe in its 24th year, and will be screening 72 in total. Opening night will kick off the festival with Award Winning Film, The Grand Seduction, starring local actors Mark Critch, Gordon Pinsent and Mary Walsh, and then go out with a bang on closing night with a screening of Hold Fast, the film adaptation of Kevin Major's Governor General Award winning novel.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Tattoo exhibition proposal, round 1

Corey Thomas' dragon tattoo actually started as a tiny shamrock 8 years ago at a flea market. 

Well, it seems everywhere I go the tattoo tribes besiege me and I am being asked about the project and its status.  It is this simple:  last week Ned Pratt and I submitted to Eastern Edge Gallery an exhibition proposal.  Mary MacDonald advised me that about 100 submissions were received from right across Canada, which I think is great news for the gallery.  But it means tough competition for only 5 exhibition spots.  The exhibition committee will have its work cut out for them.  Eastern Edge says it will have results for us in about a month.

Here's an excerpt for the one-page required:

Curatorial Proposal:  More than Skin Deep
An exhibition and publication by Ned Pratt and Gloria Hickey

"None of us got tattooed so we could blend in." Dave Munro

This exhibition is situated at the crossroads of personal narrative and visual culture.  More than Skin Deep is an exploration of the tattoo culture of St. John's – its motifs and personalities –as revealed through a series of portraits by photographer Ned Pratt and a major essay by independent curator Gloria Hickey. We believe Eastern Edge Gallery is the best venue for this project. As an artist run centre it is "closer to the street" and more akin to the forces that shape the creative world and energy of tattoo culture.  The photographs will be presented in concert with gallery programming that provides the public with an opportunity to speak about their own tattoos and learn how they fit in the larger context of visual culture of the province. The essay traces the shift of the tattoo, as self-expression and a marker of affiliation, from the margins of society to the mainstream.

I joke that I know how obsessed I am by tattoos when it governs even my choice of movies, like Elysium.  Normally I am not a Matt Damon fan.

In terms of the work that Ned and I have been doing together, it has been geared towards the exhibition proposal.  There's a lot more to do both in terms of photography and research. I sketch some of that out in the proposal:

More portrait sessions are planned and so far we have secured cooperation for future sessions from: a couple who agreed to pose together; brothers who will do the same; a professional knitter; a civil servant with a double life and a senior citizen with "old school, prison style" tattoos.  The photographs document the ink-art of: professional tattoo studios such as Trouble Bound, independent tattooists who operate "below the radar" from their homes, as well subjects who have tattooed themselves and can be interpreted as indications of the DIY or indie movement of "ink and poke." 

I've received interest from staff at several galleries in three provinces but none can guarantee what their exhibition committees will decide ultimately.  Wish us luck.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines


+ The Residencies List
Andrea Williamson, Dazzle Ship sculpture and performance at the opening of the White Rabbit Festival, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.  - Essential reading for artists!

My week was divided among three projects: taking care of loose ends from HOT MUD, writing an introduction to a catalogue for Two Rivers Gallery in B.C. which will be showing Will Gill's paintings , and writing the exhibition proposal for the tattoo project.  Throw in helping clients with applications for provincial arts grants due middle of the month and you get a general idea of my week.  Busy!  My frustrations however, melted away watching Maaike Charron beam while she got to leaf through–HOT MUD- her very first catalogue, which I hand delivered.

This painting by Will Gill is titled Lost Finger

On Monday I travelled back from Burlington to St. John's.  With layovers it was a long trip but I had filled my carried on with publications, like C magazine, I had not had a chance to read.  Another one of those was Dreamzine, the publication launched during the 24-Hour Art Marathon.  It was a great read and I enjoyed every page.  One of the images was a reproduction of a digital image by Will Gill that showed his finger swollen and stapled shut.  Clearly, some nasty business had gone on and Will's finger was the casualty.  

Coincidentally, I discovered the above painting among the images that the curator George Harris shared with me. It is titled Lost Finger.  There is a visceral and gestural quality to the body of painting that Two Rivers Gallery will be showing.  I am intrigued by the notion of risk and fear that pervades the paintings and how Will Gill manages not to make these negative.  I could say the same is true of the work he showed at the Venice Biennale, which referred to drowning.  One question that bumps around in my head is how an artist works across media and which one does he decide to use.  It is like speaking different languages for different purposes.

Part of the joy of HOT MUD is that I got to trade notes and impressions with my fellow panelists: Alan Elder from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Rachel Gotlieb from the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Greg Payce from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and Sally Michener from the Emily Carr School of Art.  In the day and age of Skype, and virtual meetings it was a treat to be able to have "face time" and try and see into the future.  After all, 2015 the next Year of Craft is just around the corner.  My one surprise is that none of the artists or even the symposium delegates approached us for feedback on the work in the show.  It was a great opportunity… that was missed in my opinion.  I did make a point of sharing some comments with Robin Dupont, who I think is at a crossroads.  Mind you, whichever way he decides to go in his work, he is likely to be very successful.  He is an interesting talent to watch.

Robin Dupont's work in HOT MUD was in the vein of the TOUCH series.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Vote for Michael Flaherty! The RBC Awards, A short lesson in buzz marketing.

Flahety's entry to the competition is a new piece done in the vein of his Rangifers Sapiens/Grey Islands work.

For the second year in a row, I take great satisfaction in pointing out that a Newfoundland talent has a place as one of five emerging talents in the RBC $10,000 competition for emerging ceramic artists at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts.  Michael Flaherty is the entry this year from the Atlantic region.  As before, the competition is going to be tough.  Each of the artists is accomplished, noteworthy and probably has a solid career ahead of them.  But only one of them is going to be $10,000 richer.  Guess who gets to decide that?  You!  This is a People's Choice Award, which means this is a populist, numbers driven event as opposed to an elitist, juror driven event. 

As his nominator, this is what I had to say about Michael:
I have always been impressed by the high level of Michael Flaherty's commitment to his studio practice in ceramics.  Although cognizant of ceramic's rich history, he has never worshipped at the altar of the past.  His work has spanned everything from the potter's wheel to performance art, with each aspect becoming part of an inquiry that is sensitive, intelligent and relevant to ceramic art today.

Here's the link, so you can vote:

In my experience, Flaherty is the last person to promote himself.  When I have gone to bat for him it has been because it has been my idea and not necessarily his.  While this speaks to his integrity as a person it doesn't always mean the best thing for his career.  An artist needs to be a self-promoter in many ways in order to succeed.  This doesn't come naturally for a lot of people.  Artists for a variety of reasons regularly approach me.  Letters of recommendation, reviews, exhibition proposals, references for commercial dealers, studio visits and advice, you name it–it's a growing list.  I have no problem with it as long as the artist is professional in their conduct.  I figure it is their job to ask and my job to say yes or no.  It's really that simple. 

In terms of People's Choice Awards those artists who are skillful self-promoters have a distinct advantage.  It also helps if you have an established constituency, say a school full of colleagues and students, a hometown eager to come out and vote for you, or a wide spread network of grassroots support through other forms of activity or interest.  The digital age makes marshalling the forces a much faster exercise. 

In terms of marketing, a People's Choice Award makes a larger number of people aware of the Gardner Museum than who would have been familiar with it earlier.  It's a great way to build public awareness and of course all of these folks are potentially RBC clients as well.  It is a win-win.  I recall reading a marketing analysis of the American Idol TV program; it was a study of buzz marketing, which is basically a form of marketing that is street savvy rather than standard advertising or formal forms of marketing.  Think of it as guerilla marketing.  In a nutshell, the study said that American Idol's early success was built on the vast numbers of people who had auditioned for places on the program.  The program creators could count that everyone who had auditioned, and their network of friends, co-workers and family would watch the program to see who actually got in.  It had built in buzz and fan base.  As the program moved through cities auditioning that audience would grow and once folks started talking amongst themselves the ripple would keep expanding.  By then the narrative arc of the program would have started.  Audience members would develop relationships with contestants, the judges and so on.  Throw in a couple of newsworthy stories or events and off you go.  Somehow, we have to figure out how to do that in the visual arts world.  Unfortunately, it is usually scandal or outrage that gains numbers for the media.  Say, a kuffle over explicit material or an outrageous price tag.  That's the lowest common denominator.  We're creative people…we should be able to figure out how to create buzz without dumbing things down. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

The death of regionalism in Canadian ceramics

Walter Ostrom was a tremendous influence in Canadian ceramics for nearly 40 years.

This week I have been working on the presentation I will be giving out in Burlington in conjunction with the HOT MUD show.  This is a national ceramics show of emerging artists.  It is proving more difficult than I thought.  Explaining which artists I picked and why is relatively easy.  It is establishing the appropriate context to place them in that is difficult.  Contextualizing a work of art is, I believe, one of the most satisfying but difficult jobs that a writer or curator performs.  A fire is a fire, but I can interpret a representation of a fire as either a book burning or a family campfire.  And once I put it in print or say it from a stage it gets hard to take back.  So, I take it seriously.  And by the way, my rule of thumb is: take your work, but not yourself, seriously.

One of the contexts that I have been trying on for size with this project is the death of regionalism.  I suspect this is really true.  And it is hard to believe seeing as I live in Newfoundland and Labrador, which has an incredibly strong sense of cultural identity.  But the fact is that, rather like the global economy, we live in the age of a global cultural identity.  Our cultural expressions, in this case our ceramics, are an expression that reflects forces that are both large and small.  Take for example, Maaike Charron.  Her suite of mugs that are in effect mini portraits of the books in her personal libray have virtually nothing to do with Newfoundland's distinct culture.  These books range from homesteading to Star Wars.  They are an accurate reflection of her life but that life could be taking place anywhere, judging by the books.  They are not books written in her home province or about her home province. 

Group shot of Maaike Charron's library of mugs.

In addition to the impact of a global economy, there are the other isms that I think have snuffed out regionalism.  Feminism and craftivism are two strong players in this game.  In some ways, they are just bigger forces at play. They are higher up on the food chain. When location really makes a difference it is terms of "buy local" that is in effect.  This is still a celebration of place but in addition to hometown loyalty there are ecological concerns with tremendous ripple effects in politics and economy. 

I first started thinking about how regionalism was disappearing in ceramics when I was thinking about how I used to be able to look at a pot or ceramic sculpture and tell you where it was from even if I didn't recognize the artist.  Clay body, a characteristic way of working, glazes, subject matter, whatever –there was a lot that would tip me off as to where the maker was educated and by whom.  Not any more.  In some ways, this is because of who has retired (like Walter Ostrom) and just the number of graduates that schools have produced in the past few decades.  Those makers went in search of jobs throughout North America and have taken their teachers' influence further abroad each year.  But then there's Professors Google and Youtube.  These teachers circulate the globe at lightening speed and their classrooms have no seat limits and there are few budgets concerned.  This is where the digital age kicks in and with it the self-directed learning experience.  I think this is incredibly exciting because it is genuinely democratic and grassroots in emphasis.  It is also the hardest to predict.  Fasten your seat-belts. 

40 x 40 is the book I've been reading while thinking about the contexts.  It is the exhibition catalogue that the Smithsonian published in conjunction with their emerging artist show.