Thursday, 29 December 2016

A Break-through Solo Show for Mike Gough

Here Was Their Beginning
acrylic, pastel and graphite on cradled panel
48" × 108" (diptych)

This December 2 - 23, Mike Gough unveiled a new body of work in his solo show how we get there at the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John's.  This is an excerpt from our animated conversation:
• GH: My first reaction upon walking into your new solo show of paintings was, "Wow, who turned on the lights?  Your pink palette is very arresting–in the best way.  What happened?"
MG:  With each series of works in the past I have let the palette develop naturally – from painting to painting.  I gave a lot of consideration to light and darkness and how to describe time with colour.  Although many of the paintings were night narratives I tried to bring light from the darkness in the form of snow, city lights and the moon.  The pink represented a familiar evening light and it allowed me to bring warmth to the series.  I have really vivid memories of cold winter evenings when the sun started to descend and a ribbon of pink would appear on the horizon.
I also introduced gold and gold leaf to areas of the paintings. The reflection on the metallic added a layer of depth.  I like the associations with the colour, a sense of preciousness which is something I felt about the memory narratives I was painting.
Over the past few years, I’ve made it a priority to see parts of the island that I’ve never had an opportunity to explore.  Many of these places were rugged and barren where you’re confronted with elemental forces throughout the landscape.  The work began to emerge from these experiences.
In July, during an artist residency at 2 Rooms Contemporary Art Projects on the Bonavista Peninsula, I spent time exploring the area alone.  Driving hours and hours across roads and highways, hiking through the woods and spending time considering the landscape gave new breadth to my work.  The moments of solitude made me think about the elements and how they connect and define us.  The environment holds such power in shaping who we are. These considerations lead me to develop many images from my childhood, all of which relate to the elements. 

•GH:  Overall, there is a sense of optimism and openness…I think that comes from both from the palette and the composition. 
MG:  The optimism and openness was a result of embracing the influence the landscape has had on my practice and my life.  It’s a body of work I’ve wanted to make for a while, but I was intimidated by the open space in the paintings.  The work in the past carried more abstracted content whereas this exhibition is a little more direct.  I’ve always struggled with making ‘literal’ paintings out of fear they would not resonate.  With abstraction I found a mental loop hole where if the work wasn’t completely understood – it’s okay.  
By embracing the environment I began to see things from a new point of view – one rooted in provincial pride.  While I once felt isolated living on an island, I now feel protected. 
The painting process conjured early memories of my childhood on the west coast of the island.  Many of these memories celebrated the love in our family and our journeys throughout the province which I’m sure also contributed to the optimism you experience in the work.

Tent at Night
acrylic, paste, graphite and gold leaf on cradled panel
30" × 30"

  •GH:  I was also really struck by your under-painting, which gives you all kinds of interesting results.  The brown of the earth or ground has richness to it and the pink in the snow makes it feel warm.  Can you tell me a little about the process and decisions here?
MG:  I felt it was important to layer the paint in many of the works that featured vast skies or land because of the simplicity of the compositions. I wanted them to have depth and richness.  In some instants I used acrylic on top of spray paint and let the paint repeel to create texture.  I liked seeing the under-painting come through because it stepped away from the overall graphic quality of the image.  I tried to find a balance between the hard edges and the more ethereal gradients.
•GH:  One of your consistent elements in your paintings has been the cursive incident.  You've still got that but it is more relaxed.  Actually, there seems to be less of a fight with the surface compared to your earlier work.
MG:  I recently moved my studio into my new home and expanded my work area.  This meant I was able to sit with the work over the course of many months.  There was no pressure to add marks or drastic changes. The work had the opportunity to evolve gradually and the result was less tension in the mark making.
Once I finished the first few paintings for the exhibition I had a sense of what I wanted to present.  The paintings developed into solitary and quiet images, which made the painting process more meditative.
•GH:  I think you are adding to your range of mark making; this drawn circular line around a pool of colour intrigues me, be it a pond or an arch.  There is a welcoming irregularity that contrasts with the other more precise elements. 
MG:  I hadn’t consciously identified these marks until you mentioned them and they are in most, if not all the paintings.  What I love most about drawing/ mark making is how intimate an act it is.  I think these hand-drawn outlines was my way of creating that intimate moment.  To view a painting and follow an artist's line is something I’ve always appreciated.  Again, I think I was trying to balance out the graphic nature of the taped line and solid horizons with evidence of my hand. 
•GH:  One of the other big changes that I noticed was the inclusion of the human figure.  In the earlier work, the viewer was held more at arm's length by very well resolved design of more abstract elements.  The human figure gives the viewer an access point. 
MG:  The figure definitely acts as an access point.  They appear back to the viewer so the viewer is encouraged to imagine themselves in position – seeing what the figure is seeing.  I began smudging the graphite outlining the figures as ways of introducing the presence of the artist's hand against dominate graphic landscapes.  With some of the paintings the figure was also crucial to give a sense of the vastness in the landscape.  In The Nightfall III the snow and sky almost engulfs the walking figure.
For me the duality of the title, ‘how we get there’ speaks to both a physical expedition as well as a mental journey.  It considers the choices we make and the paths we take that lead us to this moment.  At the same time, the literal notion of ‘getting somewhere’ is implied and we consider how we navigate through the landscape.  The figure played a key role in developing these ideas.  I think without it they would be strictly landscape paintings rather than narrative works.
•GH:  I think the smudging of the graphite is really important.  The image of walking under the stars on a snowy night risks being cliché but your use of the smudge keeps it from being literal.  Bravo!

Nightfall III
acrylic, pastel and graphite on cradled panel
30" × 30"

Friday, 16 December 2016

Assassin's Creed goes to the Symphony

Last week I was in Montreal visiting old haunts including among them the Salon de Musique at Place des Arts.  This is the concert hall where I first experienced symphonic music and I fondly recall throwing red roses on stage decades ago– in the company of men wearing white tuxedos. 

My most recent experience was entirely different but equally heady: l'Odyssée 2016, Musicale du Jeu Vidéo.  I had expected that the event might be similar to ones mounted by Video Games Live and I was wrong.  There was no Internet celebrities, costumed performers or musical stunts with blindfolds.  This was music pure and simple performed by the Montreal Orchestra Company.  Lush, big sounds worthy of the epic, heroic music produced by a radiant orchestra who clearly enjoyed every moment on stage.  The delicious hook was that the vast majority of the music had been composed in Montreal– all of it for the international video game market.

"How had Montreal become a Mecca for the video game industry?" I wondered.  There are currently approximately 30 game developers, with Ubisoft alone employing 2,700 workers.  Curious, I did a little digging.
Guilde Des Développeurs De Jeux Vidéo Indépendants Du Québec

When the global economy unfolded it took with it many jobs from North America such as the textile industries that had been a significant presence in Montreal.  That absence meant empty vintage industrial buildings and an alarming vacancy rate in the city's housing of 25%.  Ubisoft originally had wanted to set up an office in New Brunswick but eventually was sold on Montreal as a city with a reputation for being cosmopolitan, creative and - most importantly- generous with incentives.  Quebec lobbyist Sylvain Vaugeois went to the provincial government 20 years ago because he knew that it was interested in job creation in the high tech fields.  He proposed that the government offer $2,500 per job but the P.Q. declined.  Undaunted, he went to France to approach Ubisoft and sell them on Montreal as their North American office.  They were keen but wanted the incentives Vaugeois described.

Eventually, it was leaked to the press, which in turn basically shamed the P.Q. for potentially missing the opportunity.  Cap in hand, the provincial government went to their federal counterparts and a deal was hatched.  The feds kicked in $1,000 per job if the P.Q. contributed $1,500 and the rest is history.  After Ubisoft opened up in the Peck Building, the Mile End district was revitalized and other video game companies followed turning Montreal into the hub it is today.
I will admit that the crafting of an ethical business deal intrigues me.  Identifying opportunities, finding partners, carving out the benefits and hammering down the details is, in my opinion, a creative act.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Seeking rest and old fashioned comforts

Today's weather forecast for St. John's, NL was so fierce that it forced the rescheduling of the annual Santa Claus parade.  I didn't mind putting off Christmas-ness, even though I will admit to having put an angel decoration on my door–that had more to do with my version of sympathetic magic in the wake of Trump's election to the presidential office.  I figured I needed to invoke a guardian angel.  Mine, as it turns out, is handmade by my late mother.

I have been working hammer and tongs on a long string of work projects.  A recent trip to my family doctor was only the latest of warnings that I should do a better job on that elusive work-life balance.  It's been four years since I have taken anything resembling a vacation.  I have traveled with work and even though I pad in a day or two thinking of down time, it never seems to equate with leisure.  Instead, I get swept up in one more day of intense interviews, studio visits or last minute fundraising or promotional opportunities.  And that is part of the problem of working on what amounts to passion projects.

This week something pleasant happened that stood out from the fast paced stressful events.  The good souls at the Craft Council of NL passed on to me a handwritten letter that had arrived at their office.  It was addressed to Gloria Hickey, (sometime reviewer) c/o NL Craft Council (Gallery).  It was a letter written by a kind man I had met more than a year ago on my birthday at a chamber music concert here in St. John's.  We went from being strangers to eating lunch together and speaking German.

This new friend is a professional translator and had set himself the improbable goal of living in three countries in three years.  As it turns out, he wrote the letter I received this week while on board a boat bound for Duncan, B.C.  What prompted the letter is that he had come across an article I had published in Studio Magazine.  The magazine had been purchased in the gift shop of a tea plantation no less.  "See how your words travel" he commented.  He also came across a book of mine in, of all things, a legal library.

The handwritten letter and the notion of a lingering boat trip were the most effective appeal for me to slow down.  This Sunday will be a day of genuine rest.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Resisting the Sea of Sameness

Like just about everyone else, I was shocked when Donald Trump won the election for President of the United States.  I expected Hilary Clinton would squeak in with a slight majority and I reassured myself, even if Trump did get elected, the system of checks and balances in the governmental system would hold him in check.  Now, I am not so sure.  How I feel doesn't matter but I do have one insight to offer.

Even the big picture thinkers I admire the most, like Malcolm Gladwell, had gotten it wrong.  The reason I suspect is that we got drowned in a "sea of sameness" (an expression that I am sure comes from some source, which I do not take any credit for).  I know I have a tendency to gravitate to sources I respect, whether it is the Guardian, The New York Times or CBC.  But these are sources of information that are interpreted in ways that confirm what I already believe.  They are sources of validation for my own personal values. I might acquire new ways of defending viewpoints I already held but I wasn't going to get my opinions changed.  I bet I am not alone.
Until the elections results unfolded, I had no appreciation that Obama was so disliked.  It was unimaginable to me that women would "forgive" Trump's behaviour and comments.  Although I was not a Clinton fan either, I could not foresee that Latinos would vote against her.

I heard a commentary on CBC recently that observed there are basically two ways of rationalization.  You could reason like a scientist and follow the evidence ( a version of the empirical system) or you could reason like a lawyer, which still has its basis in emotion.  You decided where you wanted to end up and then came up with the defence.  I am sure this has applications that I could take into my personal and professional life.  A distant memory surfaced from my days studying philosophy at what was then Loyola College in Montreal.  We had a dynamite professor who divided our session into two halves.  For the first half, you might be assigned the role of a Platonist and in the second half a Cartesian.  The subject of discussion, the issue, remained the same but you were forced into taking opposing sides. It was good mental discipline.  I should practice a version of it to gain a better understanding of the world around me.  I might even watch FOX News every once in awhile.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Edward Snowdon Does McGill

Earlier this week Edward Snowdon gave a talk with a jammed packed auditorium on McGill University campus in Montreal.  I say "with" rather than "to" because it was an interactive video-conference.  There was a capacity crowd of 600 with another estimated 2,000 waiting outside.  Thankfully someone decided to break the rules and live streamed it on You Tube.  How Snowdon can you get?

The event was blighted with glitches:  technical troubles and a strike by McGill support staff that delayed the evening.  Snowdon said it was 4 a.m. in Moscow but that he appreciated people's patience.  Ultimately, he waved aside the formal part of his presentation with a refreshingly frank, "nobody likes lectures so let's get down to the Q&A portion". 

The timing for the talk could not have been more opportune.  He addressed the instance of the Quebec reporter whose phone was allegedly hacked by the Securité du Quebec.  He urged the audience to read the materials handed out by McGill strikers.  And, when asked about the American elections for his opinion Snowdon responded that the important thing to remember was that it was a voter's obligation to be informed and make a private choice.

Privacy is of course the cornerstone of Snowdon's experience and opinions.  He maintains that privacy is what is central to our democratic rights.  So, this is what we've come to expect from him.  However, I found it interesting how deftly he sidestepped the whole Clinton versus Trump issue and did not get bogged down in personalities.  I was also intrigued to hear him say that compared to the U.S.A., the U.K. and Australia, Canada had the weakest oversight of its intelligence gathering.  That's pretty frightening.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

“Come Play With Me” Piano Coming to Avalon Mall

By Business and Arts NL on Nov 01, 2016 08:00 am
Music has a truly magical and transformative quality. The right tune can change your mood and get your toes tapping even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing, while hearing the first few notes of a familiar song can bring back long-forgotten memories.
Soon, visitors to the Avalon Mall in St. John’s will get to experience the magic of community music making with the unveiling of Business & Arts NL’s newest “Come Play With Me” public piano. The piano will be revealed at 11am this Friday, November 4 by the Scotiabank Theatre, with live entertainment provided by Evan Smith and Dana Parsons.
The piano will give locals and visitors alike the opportunity to share their musical talents with shoppers as they pass through the mall, helping to bring people together while adding to the lively atmosphere. This particular piano was painted by West Coast artist Susy Randell and features contrasting black and white stripes punctuated by bold Newfoundland wildflowers – a reflection of Randell’s bright, fun and whimsical style.
Public pianos are part of an increasingly popular international movement, with over 1,300 pianos on public display worldwide. This will be the fourth piano that Business & Arts NL has installed in the province, following others at the St. John’s International Airport (sponsored by JAG (Steele Hotels)); Deer Lake Regional Airport (sponsored by Humber Motors); and the University Centre at Memorial University(sponsored by Penney Group).
As with previous pianos, Templeton’s (paint, flooring and supply store in downtown St. John’s) generously donated supplies and space within the store for the artist to work. In addition to the Avalon Mall, Coast 101.1 FM (Bell Group) has also come on board as business sponsor.
Marcel Elliott, Regional Leasing & Property Manager (NL) with Crombie REIT, says the Avalon Mall is happy to host the newest “Come Play With Me” piano.
“We consider ourselves lucky to have the support of our market area and thus think it is important to pay the support forward to a variety of groups, service providers, etc.” he says.
“Newfoundland is obviously rich in a variety of arts and hopefully the placement of this piano in the Avalon Mall will help showcase the initiatives and talents within Business & Arts NL.”
Andrew Bell, President of Coast 101.1, says it is this business-arts support that helps make communities better and brighter.
“Coast 101.1 is delighted to be an official sponsor of the ‘Come Play With Me’ piano located at the Avalon Mall. Continuous support of the arts is vital. An artist’s ability to tell the unique story of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans is an unmeasurable asset to our province,” he says.
“The partnership that exists amongst business and arts engages and strengthens our communities, creativity and culture. Coast undoubtedly plays a role in promoting our budding and seasoned artists, and we couldn’t be more proud to be supporting this very important initiative!”

Sunday, 23 October 2016

All things Inuit

If there were a recurring theme for my month of October so far, it would be all things Inuit.  From October 3 to the 7th, there was an Inuit Studies conference in St. John's at Memorial University.  While I was not formally attending it did dominate my social calendar with folks who came down from up north.  There were many gatherings around food and drink that allowed me to pursue my interest in Inuit art and culture with specialists and elders on a face-to-face basis. 

There was also Katinngavik, an Inuit Arts Festival, including iNuit Blanche –the first all Inuit, all-night art crawl in downtown St. John's.  These events were open to the public, as were some presentations. 

One of the most popular was a lecture and demonstration of Inuit tattooing by Marjorie Thabone.  She is from Nome, Alaska and practices both ink and poke technique and skin stitching.  Marjorie spoke about the meaning and traditions around the traditional techniques and generously offered to draw some of the patterns on the public with eyeliner!  It was a grand mix of scholarship and fun held at the upstairs space at The Rocket Bakery.
Marjorie Thabone tattooist from Nome, Alaska.

The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery was also part of the festival with Sakkijajuk, which showcases a wide array of Inuit art and craft:  drawings, sculpture, painting, garments, photography and more.  While the conference is over, Sakkijajuk will be up until January 15, 2017 and is well worth a prolonged visit.

It seemed that just when Katinngavik was over and I had waived goodbye to one crop of new friends that the next cultural festival in St. John's had erupted.  The St. John's International Women's Film Festival began October 19th.  Along with an auditorium full of people, I was deeply moved by Angry Inuk.  This is a documentary film made by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, which as the program notes, "gives a voice to Inuit hunters whose existence has been threatened by southern-led animal rights groups and their relentless campaigns against the seal hunt."  This is not a shrill or strident protest but a heartfelt project that took Alethea eight years to complete.  It traces her journey from home in a remote coastal community to the international arena of the E.U.  It captures both the beauty of contemporary life in the north along with its frustrations and challenges–definitely an eye-opener.  No wonder the word at Hot Docs in Toronto was that this was an "important film".

And while these cultural treats were being served the protest against the Muskrat Falls flooding looms large.  In support of those who are taking drastic measures of hunger strikes and cutting through barriers there was a demonstration today in front of the Colonial Building.  More than 600 signatures, from the arts community alone, were collected for a petition.  The open letter states, "We stand by Inuk artist Billy Gauthier and his fellow protesters in their fight to defend their artistic, cultural and human health."

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Forget Me Not

Thanks are due to my co-curator on this show the resourceful Sharon LeRiche.

This is not a typical show about war.  Its perspective favours the personal above the political, the feminine over the masculine, and the sensual over the sentimental.  It is about memory and loss and what that can teach us.  It is a group show of 14 women artists and one male artist who responded to the theme of Forget Me Not.  Some of the artists have a deep family connection with WW1 and others do not.

Susan Furneaux did not have a direct connection but turned to the Rooms Provincial Archive for inspiration.  As a parent she empathized with the mothers earnestly seeking information about their sons and one handwritten letter hit her especially hard.  You will see it echoed in the background of Furneaux's embroidered and beaded piece.  Most eye-catching in the embellishment is a heart with a blank white sash that suggests the heartbreak and silence of a missing son.

For her subject matter, Frances Ennis chose the unknown soldiers who lost their lives on July 1, 1916, including two great uncles of her husband, whose bodies were never found and buried.  She created 3-dimensional hooked figures of young soldiers; tellingly they are faceless.  This is a story of profound loss of identity and a lack of closure.  When Ennis writes about them she resorts to poetry rather than stark facts.

Janet Davis based her textile art on a treasure trove of mail from the Great War period that she discovered in a cardboard box in 1996.  Davis mined these personal mementos of the Kean family– previous owners of the shop that became her studio. Davis has embellished her version of the wartime cards with details almost as an act of healing.  Like a bandage wound over and over or a multiplicity of stitches, Davis uses repetition in her art.

Now, think about the contrast of The Caribou, those proud bronze sculptures that celebrate the bravery of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and the little delicate flower that with surprising resiliency just keeps coming back.  Donna Clouston in her watercolour painting integrates the two symbols but the flower is the dominant.  If you look very carefully you will notice at the heart of one of the blossoms is a tiny caribou head and the word Newfoundland as it appeared on the Regiment's brass pins. Alexe Hanlon also integrates both caribou and forget me not flowers but her chosen sculptural medium of soft felt is a far cry from hard bronze.  It is an inversion.

Donna Cluston's watercolour.  Zoom in to find the brass pin.

It is difficult to make good art that is based on an experience of war.  Perhaps that is because war can be so painful and we wish to protect those we love from pain.  Many soldiers who returned to Newfoundland never spoke of their horrific experience overseas.  Silence was one way they had of coping.  Kevin Coates' wood carving depicts the lone widow at a gravesite and is titled Forget You Not.  Coates never heard of his grandfather's experience in the war.

It requires a rare balance of skill and insight to avoid clichés in discussing war. Without literalism, Lisa Downey uses her skills as a pattern maker to evoke the presence of nurses during the war, while Katelyn Dobbin used recycled military sheeting for her deceptively simple dress embroidered with forget me nots.  Celeste Colbourne used the palette suggested by the flower for her painstakingly woven shawls.  There is a recurring theme in these works, the gesture of giving comfort.  But not all of women's roles around the war were so benign. 

Although it was not a common practice in Newfoundland, ceramic artist Wendy Shirran introduces us to "white feathering", which was encouraged by the British military.  Her art alludes to the custom of a woman giving a man a feather as a form of public shaming for his lack of active, military service and apparent cowardice. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mitzi Pappas Smyth chose to tell her grandfather's story.  He was turned down for active military service overseas due to the fact that he was deaf.  Undaunted by the rejection to fight at the front he was accepted into the Newfoundland Forestry Corps which served their time during the war cutting down trees in Scotland to support the men at war in the trenches.  Notice the trees that represent him among the blue flowers in her work.

Family is a recurring feature in this exhibit.  Margaret Walsh Best memorializes her grandmother who was originally a lace maker and came to Newfoundland as a war bride.  She suggests her grandmother's importance by the roots of a flower and the impression of lace.  Best has fond memories of sharing time and knowledge in the garden with her grandmother and it is not by accident that Best would grow up to become a painter of flowers.

Families challenged by the divide of space and time is another connecting thread.  Miro Davis carved a piece of rock native to the Eastern shoreline.  It has a natural cleft down its centre or "symbolic scar" as she puts it.  Davis invites us to imagine a community divided between home and battleground. The rock is solid although it looks like it might split in half.  She was inspired to carve one side with puffins, those sea birds noted for their rookeries along cliffs.  The other side is carved with a likeness of the forget me not flower.

Margaret Angel lost family members from both her maternal and paternal sides.  She also had a nurse in the family, and five others, who served overseas and returned.  Moved by letters she tracked down in The Rooms, Provincial Archives, Angel represents those she lost with two pockets. Inside them she has tucked hooked artifacts that might have been personal effects–a watch, a photo or pay book; she observes that these might have been the last tangible connections between a parent and lost son.

Janet Peter takes the most abstract approach in this show.  Her work in paper maché is loose, highly textured and interpretative.  It combines references to both the forget me not flower and barbed wire fencing.  At its top section is a sky the colour of fresh blood, lit up by a setting sun or perhaps bombs.  It is both ambiguous and haunting like the perennial threat of war.

The work in this exhibit taps a visceral and emotional response to war–just as textiles, be they clothing, a bandage or a comfort blanket– are often described as our second skin.  Narration in fine craft and art can take many forms.  A significant portion of the work in Forget Me Not is textile based but all of the works be it stone, wood or paper maché tells a story.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Immaterial World by Juleyn Hamilton

This past week I have been happily overwhelmed by the New Dance Festival that has invited me to be one of their guest writers.  There have been dancers from everywhere from Berlin to Barcelona here in St. John's.  This was the first post I wrote for them about Julyen Hamilton who has been dancing since the '70s and was originally based in London.

With a title like "The Immaterial World" it begs the question, "what is an immaterial world?"  When the audience streamed in Hamilton was already seated on stage on a stool in the shadows, back to the audience.  Soon we heard a series of familiar but indistinguishable vocalization from him.  Like voices overheard in a multitude of languages, the babble of the subconscious or the regurgitation of a dream.  Eventually, Hamilton fluidly turned round and greeted us in a friendly tone, "Welcome".  This word would be used almost as poetic punctuation through the performance along with phrases like "and I will hold you in my arms" or "help me".

We were no longer in the shadows and had arrived in the well-lit immaterial world where there were a surprising number of material props.  In addition to the stool were standing, shining pipes, vessels with water in them, cloths and perhaps most engaging–a red handled kitchen knife.  All of these objects were well chosen for their versatility and visibility from anywhere in the theatre. 

Hamilton would use these articles with dramatic skill and when creatively combined with his characteristic gestures and vocalization take us through a quick paced series of vignettes that were at turns humorous and tragic and even magical.  They alternated between the everyday and the ritual and pointed to a fascinating universal quality.  These were scenes drawn from human life as it has been played out around the globe for centuries.  When he skimmed the knife blade along the pipe it evoked the purposeful gesture of sharpening a knife.  But was it for sacrificing an animal or himself? Preparing for a meal with a lover or a fight to the death with an opponent?  It was a caress and it was music.  Water was for quenching a thirst, ritual washing or cleansing, rain and of course tears.

Julyen Hamilton is known for his prowess as an improvisational dancer and his ability to command a stage with as little as a stare.  With the freedom of improvisation Hamilton can create suspense and hold the audience in his hand.  With decades of experience, he can play out the variations of his body, his voice and his props.  He knows well what is possible, probable and can respond to what actually happens.  Whether a pipe fell over, lights buzzed or an audience member coughed, it was all skillfully employed.  Improvisation resided not in the random but in the insightful interplay of a series of well-known elements.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Joe Ink. + Sara Porter=The Motif of the Ageing Dancer

Joe Ink.'s performance of 4OUR admirably accomplished its goal of expressing the "intriguing paradox that as we mature into the height of our artistic abilities, our bodies begin a slow deterioration, leaving our emotional lives and memories more vivid and potent than ever."

In addition was the consistent, palpable and poetic sense of relationship on stage.  From the opening notes of Bach, with the curling, Baroque-like hand gestures and undulating, interlaced limbs to the conclusion of snowflake- decorated deterioration there was always the impressive partnering and ensemble movement.  4OUR progresses through a story arch of youth, adulthood and demise.  It captures, and is connected, by the relationships of protection, influence and especially at the end–support that is so ably expressed by Giaconda Barbuto, Heather Dotto, Jarrett Siddall and Joe Laughlin.  More than one audience member shed tears during this evocative performance.

Many in the audience murmured about the stagecraft and the versatile use of sheer white garments and the cornucopia like vessel.  A single garment traversed from baptism or birth, wedding to funeral shroud while the vessel expressed fertility, protection as armour and blinding mask.  You can always count on Joe Ink. To exploit costume as prop– textiles are indeed our second skin and augment movement.

4OUR is more than a simple narrative in dance.  Each of the four dancers has significant solos, almost like movements in a musical composition, each with their own distinctive visual signature.  The music itself ranged from the classical to modern and was downright intoxicating.  There was also comic relief as in the episode of the chambermaid and the bellhop with its staccato antics reminiscent of black and white silent film.

The following evening, Sara Porter performed Sara Does A Solo, which also addressed the theme of "becoming a mature artist–with all the richness and the loss."  It was in the vein of docu-dance, where spoken word, stagecraft and dance movement marry.

Porter started with the present and stepped back into her childhood.  She took us from her being a "tense verb" (of course she'd be an action word) to her first encounter of music, through motherhood and a rich fantasy life of glamorous gowns red high heels and a matching ukulele.  She glided, slunk like a cat, lumbered like a beast of burden but expressed the most painful truths with awkward self-depreciating movements. Presented before an audience amicably dominated by professional dancers, many of themselves approaching middle age, her memoir on stage was received sympathetically. 

Monday, 5 September 2016

It's a laugh or cry world

gal·lows hu·mor
Grim and ironic humour in a desperate or hopeless situation.

Last Friday evening I accidentally slopped piping hot soup into my lap.  I jumped and howled in pain and consequently dumped even more soup on me.  Then I ripped my clothes off and headed for a cool shower in an effort to bring down the temperature of the contact area.  By Saturday I had an impressive cluster of blisters on my thighs so I waddled off to the closest store in search of antibiotic cream.  On Saturday evening I called the 8-1-1 Healthline for advice on how to deal with the blisters.  A patient nurse answered my call with a labyrinth of questions.

There is nothing like trying to remember your postal code while you writhe in pain.  I appreciate that the nurse was following a necessary protocol with both medical and legal objectives in mind.  But I couldn't help but be struck by the contrast between my ragged agony and her cool professionalism.  Again, I understand the need for objectivity in these situations.  Still, my mind works in metaphors and descriptive language not inches and number scores.  I did far better in describing the blistered area as twice the size of my palm.  I found it odd that she would ask me the number of blisters.  So, finally in exasperation I asked, "do you want me to give them names?"

I apologized to her saying, "I'm sorry but I just need a little humour to get me through this right now."  And her response was well at least you don't sound confused or disoriented.  In more than one way my wits were about me.  

Monday, 22 August 2016

Tuckamore 2016 ends with a flourish!

Last night, August 21, 2016 the 16th Tuckamore Festival concluded with a splendid finale featuring this year's crop of young talent.   The Festival regularly features world-class quartets like the Shanghai Quartet, which (I believe it was) the New York Times described in glowing terms like "exquisite".  And so St. John'a audiences go into the concert hall brimming with expectations of excellence and are not disappointed.  Can you imagine how intimidating that must be for those Young Artists who take the stage for largely the same audience in the same week?  Talk about a tough act to follow from the 19th: the Shanghai Quartet, Duo Concertante with Vernon Regehr in a Schubert Extravaganza!.

The two weeks leading up to the finale must be something of a pressure-cooker for the young musicians participating in the masterclasses and mentorship program.  Listening to the six performances last night, you would never guess that these quartets and trios were newly minted ensembles.  The timing, the cueing, the balance of instruments was there.  My hat also goes off to the artistic directors, Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves for their crafting of these ensembles.  It takes insight in how to match skill levels, musicianship and then the all-important programming.  The diverse selections of music by Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Beethoven made for a pleasurable evening of musical experience that ended on a highpoint with a flourish of Fauré.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

How to Charm an Audience: Suzie LeBlanc and/or The Gryphon Trio

The second week of the musical marathon that is the Tuckamore Festival is upon us.  But before week one fades from our memories I wanted to salute the soprano talents of Suzie LeBlanc.  Whether it was for her varied programs, Music From the 45th Parallel North or the lieder the following night, she completely charmed the audience.  LeBlanc has an enthusiastic way of inhabiting the music that is infectious and pulls the audience in as if they were co-conspirators along with Robert Kortgaard on piano or her other fellow performers.  Suzie had said that in preparation for the late night concert she was selecting some of her favourite pieces to perform.  It was only after she reviewed her list did the geographic denominator of the 45th Parallel become apparent.

It could be suggested that another theme was possible–and that would be the complimentary nature of opposites.  It was there in the call and response that she coaxed the audience into, the interspecies dating of "l'alouette et poisson", the bittersweet of "si dolce, il tormento" and the American celluloid, blue-eyed doll that is alternately loved and then hated.  And what better role for music than to convey the seemingly impossible, to stretch beyond the logical and literal?  And if you can, as LeBlanc did, give us a lesson in Canada's own musical heritage from Acadia all the better.

Jamie Parker of the Gryphon Trio has a similar way of making music approachable, of knocking the stuffing out of classical music repertoire.  The audience warmed to his comments that likened Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 as to "a Mission Impossible half an hour" complete with a car chase, romantic hotel scene, a trademark quasi presto and concluding with the special effects of a Bach chorale quote that ranged from the pious to the flashy and heroic. 

What was striking was that whether it was Debussy or the compositions of our very own Andrew Staniland the Gryphon Trio has an unusually, cohesive sound.  Never do you hear one lead instrument with a back up of two others.  Rather, it is one integrated sound.  Staniland was represented by two selections:  14 Seconds from the Dark Star Requiem and the Solstice Songs.  14 Seconds started without fanfare but became more insistent and grew more urgent.  The composer in his opening remarks told the audience that he wanted us to be left with a feeling of hope in the face of the world's disasters (the title was sparked by the statistic that at one point every 14 seconds someone had died of a HIV/AIDS). 

Given the program notes that described Solstice Songs by Staniland as "lively, dance-like" the audience might have expected something pleasantly common.  Instead, we were delighted with a composition that ascended and cascaded with vigor, tumbling and at times turbulent!  How many memorable evenings can our memories accommodate?

Friday, 12 August 2016

Satisfying Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget –The Tuckamore Young Artists Concerts

The concerts featuring the Tuckamore Festival's Young Artists have to be one of the best values in town.  These concerts are held at the historic St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, affectionately known as "The Kirk", which has lovely acoustics, carved interiors and original stained glass windows.  It is a perfect setting for an aesthetic experience such as the lunchtime concert series.  This Wednesday, I attended the first in the young artists series and wow did we get a whole lot of music for a suggested donation of $5!

Five musicians, from four provinces and the United States, each played.  No one in the audience knew in advance what was going to be on the musical menu.  We were just there because we knew we could count on the quality of talent and skills.  No to mention, it is exciting to be a part of nurturing tomorrow's classical musicians. Afterwards, I asked several people in the audience what their favourite pieces or performers were and everyone picked differently.

One woman said that she favoured Jade Ley's lyrical interpretation of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu.  Another was impressed by the stage presence of Nina Weber, who played Bach's Sonata for solo violin in A minor.  One gentleman pointed out that Noah Schuster on cello, who played Tchaikovsky's Variation on a Rocco Theme was the toughest act to follow while another Tchaikovsky fan thought highly of Amanda Cassano's rendition of Mélodie.  I picked Luis Ramirez and his committed performance of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.7 because I think it is fiendishly difficult to play well as it twists and turns between the playful, brooding and unsettling moods.

Watch for the upcoming Saturday night concert Young Artists at Play at the Suncor Energy Hall ($15/10) and more 12:30 afternoon concerts at The Kirk next week.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Tuckamore's Opening Night Brought the Riches

Evelyn Hart's dramatic stage presence makes for a potent mix.

To describe "Riches Brought" by its title would be an understatement.  The evening's program by Duo Concertante reminded me of why we so love and so need music.  It was a veritable bumper crop of enveloping emotions.  We were uplifted, engaged, soothed and satisfied.  The program was wide-ranging from Bach to Broadway (via Ira and George Gershwin) for the first half and Maples and the Stream, which comprised the second half of the evening, was soul stirring.

Earlier in the evening, the composer of Maples and the Stream, Vincent Ho, was interviewed by Andrew Staniland.  This was a rare opportunity not just to hear a composer speak about his music but an opportunity to ask questions as well.  Members of the public commented to me during intermission that they came away from the discussion with a greater appreciation of the creative process.  Ho speaks in very down to earth ways about his conceptual work that invites the public into his creative world of contemporary music.  The give and take of discussion makes a greater impact than more formal presentations.

Maples and the Stream was commissioned by Duo Concertante from Vincent Ho and was first performed in Ottawa in 2013 with Evelyn Hart as narrator.  Hart brings a potent mix of narration and gesture to the stage that I would call docu-dance.  Along with the poetic text the performance on Monday night had a profound expressiveness that did not shy away from its difficult, and at times painful, topic.

Here's what Ho has said about his selection of theme and poetry:
When I discovered Lien’s poems, they immediately resonated with me. As a 2nd-generation Chinese Canadian, I knew all too well the struggles my own parents went through when they immigrated to Canada. So when it came to composing the music, I already had an experiential foundation to draw from.

Each poem depicts a scenario from differing points of Lien’s journey – beginning with her early experiences in China, to the change in the country’s political atmosphere, and finally to her arrival in Canada. My aim was to capture the emotional and cultural transition Lien had made in musical form.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

How to Survive a Juried Show- a short guide for artists

The first question you should ask yourself is:  What is the focus or goal of the exhibition?  In other words, do I fit in?  Will it serve my interests as an artist?

Not surprisingly, different shows attempt to do different things.  Study the call for entry.  Does it have a mandate?  Check: location of venue, size, time and duration of show: are they appropriate for you?  Think about traffic to the area; high traffic areas and locations and times are necessary to shows geared for visibility and sales, while a prestigious location is useful in promoting legitimacy.

One of the reasons you should study or assess the show is that it hopefully clarifies two things: the organizers expectations and your own motivation for entering or applying to the show.  Notice they are not necessarily the same thing!

Identifying and if possible coordinating motivations avoids compromise, conflict and disappointment.  It is worth your while.

So, what do you want?  To be discovered by the public, collectors, dealers and the press?  Is it simply wider exposure or do you require the company of the best of your peers?  Do you need to beef up your resume or are cash and awards the real motive?

How does this dovetail with the organizers' objectives?  Try thinking about objectives such as: to spotlight quality work to stimulate informed discussion, to enliven the association and its image, to fulfill its membership obligations.

Meanwhile the jurors are praying that good work will be submitted, that they will pick the best pieces to form a consistent show within the mandate.  Jurors do not set the mandate.

If you didn't get in (it can feel personal when your work is turned down), check to see how well your work fit the theme of the show.  Ask yourself the hard question about quality of the work, how it was represented in terms of photography.  Look at your written support material. Were your application complete and your ideas clear?  Even a title can make a difference.  Was the technique or materials a significant departure from your previous work. 

Be philosophical and submit the piece someplace else.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The tattoo trail takes me to Toronto

Silicone body parts were giving to tattoo artists to "embellish" for the show.

You know you are obsessed with tattoos when it shapes your vacation.  I spent last week in Toronto to visit the tattoo exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.  This is a traveling exhibition from France, the Musée du Quai Branly to be exact.  It has had various titles in its tour.  It is a relatively modest show in physical metres or feet but it feels big.  The research is deep and spans antiquity to modernity, from religion to art, from circus to tattoo studio.  Oh, and the globe!  Japan, Thailand, and U.S.A., continental Europe– you name it.  Sadly, not Canada.  They do list Yann Black from Montreal in their Acknowledgements page but perhaps people will participate in the #ROM ink and that would be a whole other dimension.  And I will give the ROM full points for its day of lectures that did include Canadian scholars working in tattoo culture.

This from the circus component of the show.  It is a tattooist's travel case.
The biggest treats for me in the show were the videos.  Nearly each component or thematic area was complemented with touch screens featuring videos.  So, for example, you could see the pandemonium of a Yantra ceremony in Thailand.  One woman commented over my shoulder "what the heck is going on there?"  And so, I found myself explaining how yantra tattoos are forms of protection, sacred texts and the wearers go once a year to this spot to get them blessed, recharged if you will.  Their energy builds up and then the wearers go into rapture, exhibiting the animal spirits tattooed over their heart chakras.  Saffron robed monks are spraying them down with hoses.  Think of it as a combination of crowd control crossed with holy water.  The two teenagers my co-visitor was with thanked me and asked if I could give them a tour of the exhibit.  I was tempted.

After spending hours in this exhibit and a lunch break, I camped out in the bookstore.  The ROM has put together some pretty good reads on the topic of tattoo culture.  My favourite was a book about traditional tattooing among aboriginal peoples of North America.  But I didn't buy it because my meagre budget was going on the hard copy version of the exhibition catalogue - at $85.  I will admit that I spent the afternoon reading the books I didn't buy.  That's why there are benches in the gift shop, right?

The experience that I found most amusing on this trip, which had many delights, was a completely random event.  I was striding crossing a park the next day in TO.  I was going to read in Allan Gardens under the palm trees in the greenhouse.  I had the catalogue riding on my hip (it is 303 pages) and someone sings out to me, "Do you like tattoos?" Long story short:  I end up looking at "warrior ink", this man was inked in a penitentiary (he named two of them but frankly I am not up on my prisons) as a member of the "Indian Brotherhood"; he was Cree and born on nearby Regent Street. We talked for several minutes before I excused myself.  I got the feeling that the man had been able to turn his life around for the better.  Brian seemed disappointed that I didn't have a tattoo of my own to show him.  I explained that I studied tattoos.  I laughed when he said that I should take his photograph at no charge.  I really never know what my day will be filled with on the tattoo trail.  And no, I didn't take his photograph.
The catalogue is worth the $85.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

An opera without music?

From time to time, I am asked for advice as a professional writer and curator.  When asked for a tip by a junior writer, someone struggling to get published or their parent, this is what most frequently comes to my mind, "focus on content over style" or another version " be clear rather than being clever".  Functionality is key to my writing and career.  So, you can imagine how pleased I was when I was stopped in the post office this week and someone told me that a review I had published in the daily newspaper had helped them understand a local theatre production.  Here's the review:

A Poetic Script Produces Powerful Performance

When Graham Hunt, producer of Beats Around the Bush, characterized the play script as "like Shakespeare with a fresh twist of Hollyood", I thought now there's a lofty goal.  Consequently, I was surprised to discover several soul stirring moments when an extended soliloquy nearly achieves that goal. The play is written by Riley Palanca, who is originally from Manila, and he clearly has a flair for contemporary spoken word.  It was wonderful to be swept up in the melody of the language and sentiment.

The play's subtitle is "The Word Opera."  When I asked Palanca why he chose the term "opera" he explained that when the characters are at their most passionate, when emotions were running high, it was like music to him.  Don't be mislead, it is not a musical.  Opera refers more to the larger-than-life quality of the play and its characters.  And there are plenty of epic meltdowns, lover's quarrels and reunions between the millennial characters.  If this is opera, it is the unconventional opera of the Beat Generation like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who found creative riches in the shadowy underside of society.

Riley Palanca is active in the spoken word community of St. John's.

 For his St. John's debut as playwright Palanca has created a fictional setting called Malate based on the treacherous streets of Manila's gay community.  The Factory's interior with its brick walls and rowdy, street art seamlessly take on the urban character.  Stage lights bathe the actors in bright washes of hot oranges or moody blues helping the audience to focus on the alternating speaking roles of monologue or soliloquy. 

The central characters are four gay couples and the play deals with their complexities and issues. One man has a pregnant wife at home ("who glares at him like an anorexic looks at a buffet table"); another a violent partner; the list goes on.  Diversions abound. They are beating around the bush, avoiding answers and words like homophobia. But in dwelling on the specific the universal is uncovered.  Their stage world is Asian Malate but it might as well be the tragic site of the Orlando shootings.

All eight of the cast held nothing back with their performances but it will be the poetic script that I will remember most.  Streetwise but unschooled, Chance solicits Miguel to teach him how to write a poem. In response, we are treated to a parody of "it is a summer's day" as if it was written in turn by Shakespeare, ee cummings, Pablo Neruda, E.A. Poe, Ezra Pound, Kahil Gibran, Sylvia Plath and those are just the ones I can recall.  Or achingly simple lines like "I find my mother in crosswords, in cross stitch, in too much salt in my pasta, in the front row of my shows…"

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Katajanik utippalianina and other cultural treats

This image is from The Return of Throat Singing  by Jenn Brown.
This past work week was extraordinarily busy with the Nickel Film Festival in full swing - 55 films worth, a word opera to review, and an afternoon of touring with Adventure Canada visitors.

Katajanik utippalianina The Return of Throat Singing
Dir: FRAMED Participants, Women's Film Festival project by Jenn Brown NL (Documentary 7.0)

The Return of Throat Singing is a sliver of a documentary that is a scant seven minutes long.  What director Jenn Brown has done is rely entirely on the spare words and the wide smiles of her participants.  There is no narrator's voice to pose questions, no historical perspective to contextualize the loss of an indigenous cultural practice.  But when filmmaker Jenn Brown heard that young women were teaching themselves to sing in that distinctive, urgent humming she had to go and discover it for herself.  "Imagine, a tradition in Nain, which was nearly destroyed by the missionaries.  And now high school girls are practicing their singing during breaks between classes!" exclaims Brown.

We are shown the girls, face to face, leaning rocking with their voices bouncing back and forth.  The girls are in casual clothes and only in one outdoor scene are they in traditional dress.  This is not cultural processed and packaged for Western tourism.  When the girls introduce their songs it is in the simplest of terms, "This one is a love song", "That one was about geese flying over head and how the sounds change."  The songs are sung with evident pleasure but without fanfare.  Learned through imitation and practice.  Brown says it was important for her not impose her view on the revival although she was struck by the women's spirit of independence.  "It really is like a gift from the younger generation back to the elders" she explains.

Inuit throat singing is usually done in duets and almost exclusively by women.  They describe as a game with a leader and a follower.  The leader sets the pace of the rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of breath.  It is a friendly competition and the first woman to loose the rhythm surrenders.  Laughter is a constant feature and is often the tell tale sign that someone has won.

The Return of Throat signing was screened as part of a diverse selection of 55 films from 10 different countries over five evenings.  As an unadorned documentary it was a most welcome relief from many of the other films that although excellently made, were often intense or dark. The Return of Throat Singing stood out with an engaging freshness from the other genres such as comedy, horror and experimental.
St. John's has a new talent in town: poet and playwright Riley Palanca from Manila.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Spotlight shines on real life

This Friday evening I chose to attend a free screening of the movie Spotlight.  It was an event organized by the Department of Religion at Memorial University.  I went to see the film because the story it tells, of the Boston Globe's uncovering of the systemic abuse of children by pedophile Roman Catholic priests, interested me both as a journalist and as someone who grew up in an Irish Catholic environment.  The city I have called home since 1994 St. John's, NL, is still in 2016 struggling in the courts with the same issues of abuse and its often tragic outcomes of denial, addiction and lives destroyed.  One of the film's most moving moments is in the credits when all the other cities where there have been similar investigations are listed.  It is a very long list; so long in fact that I could not bear to stay for the discussion period after the film.

The story the film tells is well known now.  What most impressed me about the film was the restraint with which it unfolds.  This could have easily been filled with outrage and melodrama.  Spotlight is surprisingly understated and the performances of its stellar cast are reigned in.  It is very hard at times to tell the good guys from the bad guys–hard to distinguish between somebody "doing their job" and being either a villain or a hero.  Nobody is painted with a broad brush.  This is the world we live in filled with status quo, tension and consequences.

Another satisfying twist in the film was that the tragedy of 9/11 nearly derails the team of journalists' investigative efforts to tell the story they had been working on for so many months.  Fortunately, it is an eclipse of events the project recovers from.  When I looked into the background of the film I found an interesting comment about the director Tom McCarthy's intentions. Writer Josh Singer told Creative Screenwriting that one of his goals for the film was to highlight the power of journalism, which he feels has been waning. He explained, "This story isn’t about exposing the Catholic Church. We were not on some mission to rattle people’s faith. In fact, Tom came from a Catholic family. The motive was to tell the story accurately while showing the power of the newsroom – something that’s largely disappeared today. This story is important. Journalism is important, and there is a deeper message in the story."

Amen to that.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Rezendes, left, stands for a photograph with actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays Rezendes in the film "Spotlight, " as they attend the Boston-area premiere of the film. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File) ( Steven Senne )

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Enchanted by Anita Singh's Microorganism at the Craft Council Gallery

I have long been a fan of the varied, but always passionate, art of Anita Singh.  When I first met Anita more than a decade ago she was exploring the world of printmaking.  Even back then, she was fascinated by the cellular world and would build up elaborate patterns based on her observations of seedpods and bugs.   She was playing with repetition and variation.  High impact colours like pink, orange and vibrant greens sang in Anita's organized compositions.  (And they still do today.)  I remember being tempted to link her flair for colour to her heritage– as Anita was born in Guyana, South America with a Russian and Indian bloodline. She grew up in Montreal and Toronto, where she studied graphic design and printmaking, and lived in British Columbia for 10 years. During a cross Canada trip in 1999, she discovered and fell in love with Newfoundland. Today, she lives with her husband and son in downtown St. John’s, where she works as a printmaker, mixed media artist, and art instructor.

Over the years, Anita Singh has added to her mediums:  book arts and paper-making seemed naturally allied with her printmaking but I was surprised when she took up encaustic.  Now, the voluptuous quality of the wax gave a satisfying dimension to her characteristic palette.  Colour could be subtly suspended.  The organic aesthetic of wax seemed to fit her thematic interests effortlessly although it could not have been easy to master a new technique.  But she was hardly finished.

Anita next took to ceramics, working out of the Clay Studio at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador.  First, she made vessels but they gradually gave way to more sculptural works.  They took on a new authority when mounted on the wall.

Currently, Anita Singh has a solo show in the Annex of the Craft Gallery.  It is called Microorganism and it is not to be missed.  From the Gallery website

Start Date: 2016-04-30
End Date: 2016-06-11
Anita Singh

Inspired by an obsession with patterns, textures and color found in our natural world, this solo exhibition presents and combines ceramic sculpture and encaustic paintings.

Sculptures, vessels and wall pieces explore ornate details, textures and patterns found in flowers, seeds, leaves, bugs, crustaceans, anemones; life size and microscopic cellular views; colorful, details of underwater sea life and, organic natural forms.