Monday, 30 November 2015

Ron Hynes dies at age 64

There is no doubt that the cultural world of St. John's took another big hit when we lost Ron Hynes to cancer.  Weeks prior the word was out that the cancer had spread from his lungs into the rest of his body.  His death seemed inevitable, the countdown had begun.

November 19, 2015 Hynes passed away and as if in some bizarre coincidence the power also went out in downtown St. John's.  I was at the university gym when a little girl excitedly told me that it was the ghost of Ron Hynes that put the power out and that was the exact moment he died.  "Now", I thought, "This is folklore in the making". 

Days later there was an impromptu community gathering in Bannerman Park.  Folks assembled to sing a couple of Hynes tunes and chat amongst themselves.  If the Park had walls I could have said there was wall-to-wall respect in that space.  There was no surprise at that love-in.

The big surprise came with Ron Hynes's nephew - Joel Thomas Hynes.  He posted on Facebook a very raw and angry outburst about his uncle's drug addiction that was quickly picked up by the media.  Reaction to his message was, I think, very interesting.

Some in the community lauded the statement, saying it would help de-stigmatize drug addiction and help others to recover.  What I believe Joel was trying to do by going public about something that most families would have brushed under the carpet is point to the growing problem of addiction in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Joel compared the province to Ireland, which has identified binge drinking as a problem.  He pointed to the inadequate resources for addicts in the province and the crumbling penitentiary.  Joel made a plea for leadership; ironically some in the cultural community suggested he should run for office.  At any rate, Joel Thomas Hynes' statement was heartfelt and certainly struck a chord amongst many in the city.  Let's hope it makes a difference.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

HUNGER satisfies

Ruth Lawrence's new production grapples with a difficult topic in difficult times

 Like many in the audience I felt a certain amount of trepidation during the start of HUNGER.  This is a play that purports to be about what we, as humans, are willing to do for others in need.  You could add "in times of crisis".  Whether it is the current terrorist attacks in Paris, the dilemma of Syrian refugees or any acute conflict on the globe there is no shortage of crisis with which to drive home the impact of this play superbly written by the young talent, Meghan Greeley.  The only question in my mind was, "how dark is this play going to be?"

The first thing the audience sees is the stage set, which to my surprise was created by Lois Brown. This is only the second time she has designed a set to my knowledge.  It is deceptively simple to the eye, a wash of camouflage patterned browns and tans.  The whole of the stage, which is a farmhouse interior of furniture, drapes, etc, is a mass of dappled foliage that culminates in treetops.  It is an apt visual metaphor for the central action of hiding the hunted, the innocent.  It is at times a cozy nest and others a suffocating trap with ingenious visual solutions.

The beauty of the script for me was that it was unassuming.  It was never strained or clever.  It managed to say a lot in natural sounding terms.  The ensemble of actors is relatively small and intense.  The real power in their acting came to me through their physicality, the way they inhabited the eroding physical and psychological states of their characters as their challenging circumstances escalated.  The actors went from supportive, tender embraces to the surrender of crawling on their bellies but made it all appear inevitable as opposed to melodramatic. HUNGER never succumbs to hyperbole.

Often, the most productive way of delivering medicine is sugar coating.  In the case of HUNGER the audience is seduced by a gentle start and when the going gets really rough by a sense of an almost lyrical surrealism.  The hardest hitting sequence has an almost dream like quality.  So be assured those of you considering buying tickets, that this is not a depressing production.  It is thought provoking and it will make you question the motives of many as it probes the fragile divide between chaos and control, profit and philanthropy, benefit and risk.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Musical Balm or a Musical Binge?

This week I've been on something of a musical binge:  repeated listening to a new CD by emerging talent Ilia Nicoll (with its surrealist cover art by Pepa Chan), attending a concert called Percussion Magic and then attending the love fest that was Duane Andrew's CD launch at The Ship.  This lead to my thinking about the role of music in the face of adversity, which of course was prompted by the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday.  This is what I posted in Facebook on Saturday morning.

Last night I enjoyed the sonic delights of a concert by Rob Power and his latest crop of Scruncheons and the caramel and chocolate laced pleasure of a soothing friend. It was only after a stroll home that I discovered the horror of the attacks in Paris. Never have we needed love and beauty more.

I found myself thinking beyond the protest songs of the folk music traditions, say those around the Vietnam War.  When I was 5 or 6 years old I was in North Carolina visiting family and I encountered segregation on buses and bathrooms and even chain gangs.  Digging ditches, picking up litter supervised by state trooper with a shot gun.  But they were allowed to sing, to keep rhythm, to bond as a group and to work more efficiently.  Even to my young mind the contrast between these men in chains, their captivity and the power of their singing, their vitality…was apparent.  Slavery began to be real for me.  

I also thought about the uprise in popularity of musicals during the depression years in North America.  The fantasy, the escape to a magical world of tuxedos and dancing feet along infinite staircases was offered up for the price of a ticket.

This was music as medicine and I found myself craving it this week. 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

How Gerry Squires Shaped Newfoundland's Cultural Identity

While other artists would have painted leaves Gerry went for exposed roots.

By now everybody has heard that we have lost Gerry Squires.  He has been hailed as this province's most influential artist, treasured by many for his kindness and talent and honored by all.  The Canada Council, NL Arts, Craft Council of NL and Visual Arts NL plus a wide variety of media outlets have recognized Squires' passing and our profound sense of loss.  Let me try and explain why Gerry Squires was so significant– not just to family, friends and creative peers but– to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  It has little to do with the honors bestowed on him from Memorial University (1992), the Order of Canada (1999), the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts or the many other organizations.

When Gerry Squires returned to this province from the mainland in 1969 a cultural tidal wave was forming that was part of larger social forces.  Scholars have variously called it the Newfoundland cultural renaissance, revival or revolution.  It was the first time many Newfoundlanders saw themselves reflected on the stage, television, canvas or page.  Gerry Squires was instrumental in helping shape Newfoundland cultural identity.  He was part of a generation that produced a period of sustained creativity across disciplines that reflected and validated a sense of self that could have only evolved after Confederation, the establishment of Memorial University, and the glimmer of economic prosperity.  It would be the result of intense inquiry into what it meant to be a Newfoundlander, the questioning of authority and the rise of a generation not directly impacted by the poverty associated with World War II.
This photo (of himself) was originally
supplied by Gerry to a Peruvian newspaper.

Think of the groundbreaking work done in comedy by Codco, Figgy Duff in combing rock and roll with traditional music, innumerable plays and novels and then there was a holy trinity in the visual arts:  David Blackwood, Christopher Pratt and Gerry Squires.  This burst of creativity fed a sense of discovery and pride for the province.  Blackwood mythologized the past, Pratt interpretated the contemporary with a cool minimalism and Squires depicted the landscape with the authority of a self-portrait that was never pretty. (He always smiled when I said that.) Gnarled tree roots, epic boulders …wind scrubbed skies, Squires celebrated the common place and helped stamp the reputation of Newfoundland and Labrador as a hotbed of creativity on the national map. 

This article is a reprint from the November 2015 edition of the Overcast newspaper.

Gerry Squires made art everyday because he had no choice he had to.  Kind and encouraging, he always had the time to give advice and guidance to a growing generation of younger artists.  The man was like a benevolent and gentle ruler.  If he were in a two-artist show, he'd be pitching the other guy's work–coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, singing the praises of a fellow artist to a collector.  What was staggering is that Gerry Squires did it with a rare integrity.  His gallerist, Emma Butler had it right when she said on CBC Radio that Gerry was never in it for the money or fame.  It was all about love and the consequence was that it contributed to the recognition that all artists of this province are a significant force in its economy and society.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Is it possible to have too much fun?

My apologies to all those unnamed in this article who turned up in
fabulous costumes and who made great contributions to the meeting.

The highlight of my week was, believe it or not, the annual general meeting of Eastern Edge Gallery, which is an artist run centre here in St. John's.  I normally avoid committee meetings like the plague and AGMs are often the worst of all: lots of boring reports, no real discussion of ideas and oodles of formalities.  However, we really shook it up at EE.  It was a Halloween meeting that started with a delicious brunch cooked up by our chairman Andrew Harvey, who came dressed as Pippy Long Stockings. Our intrepid Membership/Outreach Chair Louis Atkinson was dressed as Count Elvis - talk about a photo opportunity.

So in between the food and frolic we had a costume contest, which I believe  was won by Makeout Bandit Chris Shortall.  Chris even had little fortune cookie style slips of paper with come-on lines.  Mine said, "How much does a polar bear weigh?  Enough to break the ice."   We also had fun prizes.  I rustled up some gift art magazine subscriptions that were generously donated by Visual Arts Nova Scotia, C magazine and Canadian Art.    (I went as Minnie Mouse.)  And we wrapped it all up with fake awards to keep the laughs and cheering going.  Of course we did all the business stuff.  Who wouldn't listen to a budget report given by John Weber as Obi Wan?

But the absolute piece de la resistance was a visit from Thriller Grams.  Nothing breaks up the tedium of minutes and reports like a troupe of dancing zombies!  I think this idea from Neightbourhood Dance Works is nothing short of inspired.  I believe it costs $100 to be surprised and thrilled by this group of dancers who perform the choreography from Michael Jackson's Thriller music video.  I kept thinking that in a perfect universe I would be in their ranks.