Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Maudie, The Love Story

The real-life Maud Lewis in her home in Digby.

The image of Maud Lewis the folk art artist gnarled over one of her trademark paintings has a recognition factor that few in Canadian art can compare with.  What is most memorable is that trait that Lewis shared with her paintings.  She suffered a crippling rheumatic arthritis but undaunted, she bears a beaming smile and twinkling eyes.  The paintings she created, often as many as two a day, are radiantly colourful and full of life even though they are of a simple country life.  Both creator and art were radiant and without apology.

The romantic drama Maudie was released at The Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 and is now rolling out in cinemas across Canada's bigger city centres.  It was released in St. John's this past Friday and I would encourage viewers not to wait because it will likely be pushed off the marquees by higher power big box fare.  The film is deftly directed by Irishwoman Aisling Walsh, and it has star power in the form of leading man Ethan Hawke, who it turns out has a summer home in Nova Scotia.  Maudie and her surly fisher monger husband lived in a tiny one-room house in rural N.S. but the film was shot on locations in Newfoundland – the Goulds,  Brigus and most noticeably Keels.  This is in part due to the financial support of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, the fact that one of the three producers is none other than townie Mary Sexton and the screenplay is written by Sherry White, originally from Stephenville.

Many viewers will be drawn to the film hoping to better understand Maud Lewis the artist.  Maud Lewis was the very definition of an isolated, outsider artist.  Not only was she self-taught and lived in a rural community (1903-1970) but Maud was largely shunned by her own family for her nonconformist ways.  Although deformed by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she refused to be shut away as an invalid.  She bore a child that was born out of wedlock and taken away from her and sold without her knowledge.  And Maud Lewis became a painter that never asked to be understood but could not be denied.  The art world beat a path to her doorway that had a simple sign outside of it saying, "Paintings for sale".  Even Vice President Nixon had to pay in advance when he ordered a painting.  Imagine all the plot possibilities!

Screenwriter Sherry White says that she carried the story of Maud Lewis around in her head for more than ten years and resolved to write a script about the love story between Everett Lewis and Maud.  Sally Hawkins plays Maud, convincingly inhabiting the complex character in a role that stretches over years.  What makes the movie a success is its lack of romantic sugar coating or moralizing.  Characters from the art world are fictionalized into the figure of Sandra, whose discerning attention is snagged by Maud's depiction of a robust, russet hen on the wall.  We know that hen was last night's supper.


Monday, 17 April 2017

Timing is everything–Books, Film, Magazines & Music

The Integral Quartet: (l-r) Peter Cho, Maria Cherwick, Peter Ko and Daniel Fuchs.

The month of April is proving to be one of those months where I keep trying to finish projects without much success.  It has to do with the various stages of publishing and the different kind of venues I work with.  For example, three years ago I wrote a book chapter about curatorial strategies.  The editor accepted it with minor revisions collected the other authors' submissions and went hunting for a publisher in a timely fashion.  However, it is only recently gotten to the stage of authors' proofs.  Books are like movies: oodles of research, generating creative ideas, figuring how to sell them, whom to sell them to, and the large cast of professionals that will carrying out a staggering variety of tasks.

By contrast when I am a guest writer for an arts festival, be it the Tuckamore Chamber Festival, The Festival of New Dance, The Sound Symposium or one of our film festivals, I am expected to attend a performance one night and be able to have copy on the festival's blog site the next day–the earlier the better.  Writing for a newspaper has a similar rhythm.  One of the reasons why I'd like to clear my desk of older projects is because festival season will soon be upon us in Newfoundland.  Our short seasons of fair weather seem to make this more acute.

I became aware of this earlier in April, when Christopher Reid Flock was a guest artist here in St. John's.  His plane managed to thread its way through the storms to arrive here and he gave a stellar workshop complete with demonstrations, artist talk and a very memorable Powerpoint presentation.  Alexis Templeton Studio hosted the event and even served up some tasty moose borscht for an authentic Newfoundland experience.  Jason Holley worked on the logistics of equipment and I am sure many others I wasn't aware of contributed to the success of the weekend.  But that's when Mother Nature got cranky.  Reid was storm stayed for two days beyond his scheduled departure.  He took it with good nature and we all did our bit to entertain him but I am sure it threw his work schedule back in Ontario into a tizzy.

Back in March I submitted copy to a new magazine that had approached me:  Billie magazine.  I was very happy to learn that the Atlantic region had a new, glossy publication dedicated to the visual arts.  Like my other projects this one has been winding its way through copy edits, images, layout and final production.  This article is about women tattoo artists and the tattoos women choose to wear.  I'll share more about that soon. 

And all this doesn't touch the show openings I've been to, concerts or new artists I've gotten to meet.  Last week, The Integral Quartet played its final concert as a group as they will disband to pursue their education far apart from each other.  The concert was held as a fundraising event for the Young Artist Program of the Tuckamore, where they all originally met.  It was held downtown at The Fifth Ticket, where patrons could not only soak up the satisfying music but chow down on a great burger and chocolate cake or raise a toast with "The Tuckamore" the Festival's new signature cocktail invented by the creative souls behind the bar and the watchful eyes of bar manager, Andrew Daw.
 To see the Integral in action use this link:

Monday, 10 April 2017

Poems and Songs are Beasts–Amelia Curran

Last Thursday April 13th, Amelia Curran started the local leg of a series of launch events to promote two artistic projects:  the release of her CD titled Watershed and the release of her first book called Relics and Tunes.  I attended the launch at Fred's Records, known for its consistent support of local musicians, knowledgeable staff, and its nearly-all wood interior makes for some very sweet acoustics for the free 45-minute concerts that rival a love-in.

The bigger city centres like Toronto had already had their share of Amelia, as had the national media like CBC's Strombo Show.  Most of this has been covered on Amelia's website, if you are curious or would like to sample the tunes.  (See

Amelia Curran is a celebrated singer songwriter on the East Coast and recognized nationally but within her own province she is especially cherished and regarded on par with the late Ron Hynes.  In 2008, she signed with Toronto indie powerhouse Six Shooter Records and her international ascendant started.  I confess that I had lost track of Curran somewhat.  As a CFA who arrived in the province in 1994, I was not aware of her early days in Newfoundland or of her years spent in Halifax where she was a fixture in the music scene.  In the Foreword of Relics and Tunes, Shannon Webb-Campbell writes,  "When Amelia moved back to St. John's in 2009–where she recorded Hunter, Hunter, with Don Ellis, a 12-track album of daring confession and love's unrequited reflections–she earned her Leonard Cohen-esque lyrical status."

It was precisely that double-barreled lyrical status that intrigued me.  "When is a poet a songwriter and vice versa?" I wondered.  I believe that Leonard Cohen owed his success to a profound understanding of that dynamic, not to mention that he probably would never have been able to make a living if he had not become a recording sensation.  (As a marketing aside, I will observe that the 3-song performance at Fred's was an astute intro to the event that encouraged fans to buy Curran's CD, vinyl album and book and have them all signed.  It was tasteful cross promotion.)  Addressing the relationship between poetry and song lyric Curran reflects.  Beyond the obvious, essential ingredient of music to song she offers, "This may sound daftly romantic, but I think of poems and songs as beasts to be hunted and either tamed or killed, depending on their demeanor."

Curran is careful to point out that Relics and Tunes is a songbook and not a volume of poetry.  The book lists the keys for each song included along with the chord progressions.  It notes verse and chorus for five of her albums, the foreword and Curran's Coda: On Writing, which is a lyrical view from the songwriting trenches.  It is a "this is how it feels" account and not a how-to.  The book is insightfully designed with faint versions of Curran's own handwriting haunting the front and back pages.  There are a few author pics and the cover features a portrait painted by Darren Whalen.

Monday, 3 April 2017

All Things Aboriginal: Music, Film, Art and Language

I never plan it, but it seems as if themes emerge from the events in my daily life.  A day after it was supposed to start, I heard that there was a weeklong conference at Memorial University called Aboriginal People's Week (March 20-24).  I regret missing Chief Mi'sel Joe's information session on the Beothuk but I did snag the Newfoundland premier of Koneline: our land beautiful, which is a documentary about the development of the Red Chris Mine in northern British Columbia.  

What I appreciated about this award-winning documentary (most recently Hot Docs 2016 Best Canadian Feature Documentary) was not just the stunning imagery–imagine a herd of horses swimming across a swollen, rushing river amid the B.C. mountains–but its nuanced account of the impact of mining, especially upon the Tahlton First Nation.  There was a multiplicity of perspectives represented and I was struck by the contrast between generations.  At the risk of over-simplification, I will point to the example of the young family man in the hard hat and a tribe elder who could have easily been his grandfather.  While the elder laments the dwindling wild life that he can hunt, the heavy equipment operator says that he enjoys working outdoors, being able to provide for a growing family and that he doesn't have to move away.  I also enjoyed watching the Tahlton phd student trying to document his native language before his father passes.  And in a surprising turn of events, the student ends up with a dog team and sled–a major commitment that makes returning to university difficult.

Check out the trailer for Koneline:

For years, I've been following the growing contemporary First Nations music scene with artists like Tanya Tagaq and groups like A Tribe Called Red starting with Electric Pow Wow.  My latest CD purchase was ATCR's Nation II Nation, which fuses electronic dance music, hip-hop, dancehall and traditional Native American singing and drumming.  There is something very primal captured in the music by these DJs from Cayuga First Nations and Ojibway, Nipissing First Nations.
Indigenous dancers perform during A Tribe Called Red's
opening of the Juno awards show in Ottawa. justin Tang/CP

Finally, on March 31st, I attended Eastern Edge Gallery's closing reception for the exhibition Mi'kMaq Word of the Day 2.0 by Jordan Bennett and Ursula Johnson.  Jordan was present and Ursula was Skyped in.  For the duration of the show, new words were painted onto the gallery walls as Ursula coached Jordan to learn his native Mi'kMaq.  It was performance art with a cultural impact.  I've been aware of both of these intriguing artists for a long while but since Jordan Bennett's involvement in Earthline, our first school of indigenous tattooing, he has worked his way to the top of my priority list.

The National Gallery in Ottawa has been overhauling its galleries to establish more of a dialogue between its indigenous collections and its European collections.  The Juno Awards this past weekend also featured a strong First People's representation that was multi-generational.  It's my hope that the ghetto walls are coming down and the contribution of First Nation artists will no longer be confined to a category.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Kate Crackerberry Works Magic

Detail of a puppet created by designer Baptiste Neis.

Upon entering the performance space for Ruth Lawrence's Kate Crackerberry audience members were greeted by a woodland setting.  A burlap path meandered from a tree stump, which was festooned with felt greenery and red berries.  A soundscape of wind chimes completed the atmosphere of magic.

On the morning that I attended Kate Crackerberry the room was filled to the rafters with enthusiastic school children.  They quickly got caught up in the timeless folktale of how two step- sisters foil the evil intentions of a step-mother.  I say timeless because such cautionary tales have been with us for centuries.  What is thought provoking is how their relevance is not diminished and how they can appeal to everyone from school children to senior citizens.  What could be more appropriate for today than a tale about blended families, conflict and a persistent battle with body image?

The charm of Ruth Lawrence's adaptation is its artful simplicity.  Two actors breathe life into a handful of puppets created by Baptiste Neis.  The sisters are girl puppets with limbs, faces and hair but their parents are portrayed simply by crowns on sticks.  The adults in the play are iconic or symbolic roles.

Kate Crackerberry is fuelled with music.  Diana Daly is both composer and performer on a number of instruments.  Ruth Lawrence provided lively narration.  The schoolchildren in the audience readily participated by calling out suggestions, energetically clapping, stomping and dancing.  They quickly caught on to the repetitive elements and urged on the action.  With glee they shouted out their opinions that ranged from "Fairies don't exist!" to "Watch out for the fairies!"  It was clear that no one was bored.

As the classes were getting ready to file out of the playhouse I consulted a few students.   Two boys sitting beside me said their favourite part of the puppet show was when one of the heroines underwent a magical transformation at the hands of the witch-like Old Hen Woman, while two girls behind me said their favourite was the dancing fairies, which are evocatively portrayed by lights.  My favourite part was watching how so many of the students waved goodbye to the puppets, wanted to pinch their noses or steal a glance behind the scenery.  Kate Crackerberry, seasoned with South Coast accents, works magic on many levels.

Kate Crackerry Adapted by Ruth Lawrence, Performed by Ruth Lawrence and Baptiste Neis, Directed by Lois Brown, March 23-24, 2017 LSPU Hall, St. John's, NL.

Monday, 20 March 2017

This Place the Way I See It, Ilse Hughes at Red Ochre Gallery

Ilse Hughes with one her paintings.

On Wednesday, March 15th, 2017 the Red Ochre Gallery was a buzz with visitors who had turned out to see Ilse Hughes' latest paintings.  It was a vibrant vernissage.

My first impression was how the colour mauve linked many of the landscape paintings, so I asked Ilse about her apparent love affair with lilac (I am a sucker for alliteration).  She explained that it began in the rocks and that it had grabbed her attention in a certain light.  The particular shade of mauve that Hughes uses can express mystery, moodiness, or serenity and positivity.

In response, Hughes elaborated, "I have been experimenting with strong colour for years now. In my last two exhibitions (2012, 2009) red was a dominant feature. The theme of the earlier exhibition was trees in the winter landscape and I used red to show their vitality and strength. In 2012, the theme was the fishing stores in the outport communities which are predominantly painted in red ochre. Interestingly, even then I often used lilac as a counterbalance in other parts of the paintings.… You are right, purple expresses a moodiness, a cool serenity."

Many of the viewers commented that Hughes' depiction of water reminded them of Monet's paintings of Giverny.  This is high praise for any painter but it is particularly relevant, as Ilse Hughes has spent time painting in France. This is how she responded, "It is true that I spend part of the year in France and no doubt I am influenced by both the French landscape and the art galleries that I visit. France is a warm and soft country. Newfoundland stands out in strong contrast. There is a strength and a severity in our environment which strongly influences my colour choice. There is no room for soft, gentle shades."
Little Harbour East

What I suspect the viewers were responding to was Hughes' skillful way of rendering reflections.  For example, the undulating curves of a mountain range were captured in their liquid, reflected magic with loose but controlled gestures in paint.  It is clear that as much as the artist is attracted to certain scenes, she is in love with paint.  Every stroke matters and there is a characteristic intimacy and freedom to Ilse's compositions.  These are paintings that would be very easy to live with.

Ilse confirmed my observation but lead back to the importance of colour.  She said, "You are right that I am in love with paint. I used to think that it was the brushstroke that mattered most to me but now I realize that it is colour that fascinates me and the way in which it can be used to bring a painting alive."

In addition to the landscapes, there was an earlier floral work and at least one small portrait, recalling for me, Ilse Hughes' earlier portrayals of musicians swept up in the active rhythms of the symphony. Chagall use to listen to music while he painted and his wife also read to him.  I wondered if there is anything in particular that Ilse enjoys while  she paints…it turns out it is CBC radio rather than music.  She calls it her "beloved companion" but when she is concentrating Ilse admits she doesn't hear what is said.

This Place the Way I See It is up until April 4, 2017.
View from Skerwink

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Marc Chagall: Colour and Music, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

It had been far too long since I'd had up my nose against a real Chagall painting, so I decided that a transfusion of his brand of colour and music would be the perfect cure for a long Newfoundland winter.  I was not disappointed.

Self-portrait with seven fingers (detail) oil on canvas 1912.
This is a mega show of 340 works that span decades of Chagall's long and prolific career and it sprawls through several galleries in the new wing of MMFA.  Chagall was born in the Russian Village of Vitebsk in 1887 and lived until 1985, dying in Saint-Paul, France (which is why he is often described as a Russian-French artist).  In between, he lived in NYC, Israel and Mexico.  Above all else, I think of Marc Chagall as a Jewish artist.  He was a dreamy and romantic man but he was determined.  His parents were not thrilled when he decided to become an artist and the Russian Empire was hostile to Jews.  Still, he continued. Chagall was born to a Hassidic family and he paid homage to that heritage throughout his career–his image of the green-faced Klezmer fiddler is an icon.

During my visit, there was a screening of a documentary that featured an interview with Chagall in French, with his wife as a translator; the setting was in the family's French garden.  Being able to hear the artist discuss his work and career, in his own words, is what persuaded me to spend a precious 180 minutes of an afternoon visit.  The closest I could get to an answer for why was the fiddler's face green (many of his figures have green faces) is Chagall's simple explanation, "I paint things the way I see them."

The exhibit held many surprises for me.  Many of the paintings were done on paper or cardboard and later backed by canvas, I imagine for conservation purposes.  The large-scale works were items like the seven panels from the Theatre of Jewish Art from Moscow or the ceiling work from the Paris Opera House.  These galleries are awash in curated music that combined with the visual elements to steep you in a complete experience.  Chagall often listened to music while he worked and with the help of colleagues still alive, these composers and selections were featured.  Special programming follows these preferences; if I couldn't have made it in to the assigned-seat screening of the documentary, I would have chosen a live concert of the Bach Cantatas.  The MMFA has its own superb concert venue, The Bourgie Hall that I can vouch for from previous experience. 

Chagall was a multi-disciplinary artist, who worked in printmaking, as well as painting, stained glass, ceramic murals, book illustration, costume design (for ballet and opera), and scenery both in paint and in tapestry.  It was rewarding to see studies, drypoint and gouache grouped together to illustrate the artist's creative process around a central theme or image.  The extensive collection of costumes is a highlight as they capture the magic and whimsy of Chagall's artistic vision.  The animals, with their near-human faces migrate seamlessly to costumes and masks
costume study by Chagall