Sunday, 15 October 2017

Michelle Chaulk and Rachel Ryan– Two Women's Stories: The Game and Holding Patterns

These two shows are up at the Craft Council Gallery until Nov. 10th

The Craft Council Gallery in St. John's presents two women's stories in textile art and metal art.  Working independently, textile artist Rachel Ryan and metal artist Michelle Chaulk each draw from their life experiences as contemporary women as the basis for their art.  The stories they tell are their own but they have a resonance across generations and social strata.  Together they intertwine to form something of a feminist cautionary tale.

Michelle Chaulk explains, "Over the last few years, most of my work has centered around humanitarian and social issues.  I've recently been inspired by a revitalization in the women's movement specifically in the area of equal work for equal pay.  I spent several years after graduating from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the jewelry industry."  Her day-to-day experience was hardly one of wage equity.  She describes the frustration of asking for the same wages as her male colleagues at the jewelry bench.  "I would be laughed at for asking for the same starting salary as the men…and they had less experience than I did.  So, I would go home broke as usual."

Chaulk has dubbed this wage inequity and the body of work it has inspired as "The Game".  The word game is ripe with irony.  Understood as a noun it refers to an activity governed by rules that judge skill, strength and perhaps luck.  Being "game for anything", the adjective describes a bold individual ready for a challenge.  However, taken as a verb, game can have more sinister connotations.  Instead of something that can be played fairly, game suggests manipulation and the unscrupulous, as in "it is easy for big companies to game the system."  All three uses of the word game have a consistent feature:  games are artificial but have a quantifiable outcome–like a score or money.

Left to right: Michelle Chaulk, Rachel Ryan and myself.

Money is inevitable in a discussion of wage equity.  But in the art of Michelle Chaulk it takes on multiple functions.  She uses currency in the creation of her wearable art.  Look carefully at the card-shaped pendants and you will notice that the coins with the male heads always have a higher value or denomination.  Female-headed coins fulfill the same aesthetic function, as would a gem or precious item, but always with a lower value.  These are three-dimensional and double-sided.  They are displayed on armatures also crafted by Chaulk, which are in effect, miniature ladders.  You can decide who is winning the game of "getting ahead" as your eyes climb the ladder.

Rachel Ryan's body of work is titled "Holding Patterns" and it echoes another dilemma familiar to women, that of putting your life "on hold" while meeting the needs of a family.  Ryan is a daughter who has mourned the loss of her mother, became an ex-military wife, and is a mother to a young son, with whom she lives on an airbase in Annapolis Valley.  The wall-mounted, autobiographical textile art on display is drawn from over eight tumultuous years of change.  She states," I am keenly aware of the sensation of living in a “holding pattern”. I balance the desire for escape and excitement with the awareness of the need to stay grounded and stable."

Ryan's mini-retrospective blurs the boundaries between quilting and textile art.  It progresses from disparate pieces and tangled threads to a composed, lyrical world that is nearly ephemeral.  It reflects not only her experiences and emotions but also her conceptual growth.  Ryan concludes, "In the past I have been thrown off kilter by the swiftly changing tides; I have now learned how to flow with those changes rather than fight them. I have also learned to stop asking for permission to land; I have landed."

The domestic act of waiting has special significance for military families as well as those associated with the fishery.  For centuries, it was the woman's role to not only work alongside the men but to keep the home fires burning and constant while the men were away at war or up the coast, or in the woods, or on ice. Ryan says that she considers "these feelings and ideas in my work, and think about how it links me to other women present and past."  Then as now, these women occupied themselves with stitching as they waited–cutting apart, sewing together and making something that would last another day.  Holding home and family together with the quiet act of repair. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Gob smacked by Dana Michel's Yellow Towel

The first words to escape my lips after Dana Michel took her final bow was, "gob smacked, we've been gob smacked!"  The audience was on its feet giving an unequivocal standing ovation.  For an entire performance the audience had not been able to take its eyes off of Michel.  But what had we seen? Dana Michel took us on a riveting journey into identity and otherness. 

Dana Michel not so much performs for the audience, as she demands that it bears witness.  Episodes of movement and stillness are drawn out, pregnant with intention.  You could feel the audience squirm and frown in concentration as Michel made her entrance as a struggling, palsied individual.  This persona's gait stuttered and turned inward.  Next, she is smearing her dark coloured face with white cream and sharing a socially savvy observation, which upends the audience's expectations.  As an audience member, your feet never really touch the bottom in security.  She is the kind of performer that operates on a taut high wire without a safety net.

Michel is a dance maker of disturbing skill and visceral ability.  We watch enthralled as one character after another emerges from her creative cocoon as she overlays everyday movements with character-rich vocalizations and ingenious props.  Michel may ritualistically scatter the stage with the detritus of daily life:  toothpicks, kitchenware or elastic bands.  Snatches of narrative from recognizable, dare we say "civilized" events– like a weather forecast or a cooking program– are rendered absurd.  A handful of blonde wig is swung about as if in benediction or interrogation.  Dana Michel delves into herself and into us with both pain and humour. 

Thankfully, Michel set aside her career in accounting and marketing and went to that audition at Concordia's dance program.  She emerged with a BFA in 2006 and has gone on to become a dance virtuoso that has been setting audiences free ever since.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Laying Bare Relationships- Solitudes Duo Daniel Léveillé

The stage is a simple white square space defined on the floor.  There is an absence of colour and props.  The drama of Solitudes Duo is in the body of the dancers: simple pairs, masculine and feminine, sometimes mixed, who are themselves stripped down to trunks and occasionally t-shirts.  There is something of the everyman about this pared down production and the universality of relationships.

It all starts with the stylized circling of hips, a contemporary, choreographed mating call.  Bodies brush up against each other, a tentative but purposeful entering of each other's space.  Quick, articulate gestures keep time to the insistent rhythms of a Bach harpsichord composition.  There is concatenation as the gestures link together to form movements that express states of emotional being and compatible character.  We see the birth of a couple as the individuals interconnect to form a single entity.  And then often through a series of dramatic lifts and supporting moves we see things come undone, defeated by gravity and human expectations.  Frequently, there are memorable slow descents filled with tension.

Bodies overlap on the floor, intertwine, struggle and release.  This is the push and pull of relationships that is at times serene and others frantic and even humorous.  But it is always sensual.  The music shifts into a moody, pop-rock ballad.

Some of the passages are dramatically acrobatic others gentle.  Yet, despite the great clusters of interconnected limbs, the dependence, trust and balance of one dancer's weight upon the other there is surprisingly little eye contact, which might explain the solitudes in Solitudes Duo.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Raices y Alas Flamenco: Unflinching Feminine Power

Volver means return. Williams is originally from NL!

Last Saturday evening at the Masonic Terrace, St. John's was treated to a performance of flamenco music and dance that was nothing short of a transfusion of primal energy.  Forget the lighter, milder versions of flamenco that many of us have experienced in folkloric cafes, popular with tourists, in Spain.  Andrea Williams and Michelle Harding from Vancouver's Raices y Alas Flamenco dig deep into the authentic and share with us all the Andalusian roots that have fed Flamenco. 

One of the joys of the Saturday performance is that we had a full serving of all the vibrant components of flamenco:  live vocals by Sean Harris (cante), Manny Companjen on guitar, Anthony Tucker on a beat box (percussion) and Christina Penney clapping (palmas y baile).  The vocals of Harris had that unmistakable heart-felt wail that carry us from soaring joy to the depths of despair–and that is the emotional torque so characteristic of true flamenco.  That pared-down cry from the heart is an indication of the Jewish and Arab flavours of flamenco and surely takes us right back to the origins of song itself.  All the other components fall in percussive and rhythmic place and the dancers inhabit the music with every cell they possess.

Williams and Harding have a clearly defined vocabulary of dance gestures and communication flows between them.  It is as if they suck the music up through the soles of the feet and without restraint or convention it percolates through their bodies and back to the musicians.  The word spontaneous seems more apt than improvisation.  Their graceful hands circle and air borne arms undulate as if recalling the gypsies' spice route of migration from India to Andalusia.  And all the delicious moments of contrast:  a ruffled skirt goes from sensual to seething, curling lines give way to the jut of an elbow or flat palm.  This is so much more than the attitude-filled dance moves of a pair of dueling dancers; this is skill that has become charisma.

From St. John's to Corner Brook, our local dancers who got to participate in the Flamenco Residency had a rare opportunity to experience professional classes, one-on-one mentorship and community performances with the featured dancers of Raice y Alas.  No doubt, "Olé!" could be heard all the way from St. John's to Gander and Corner Brook.

Watch for the October 21st showing of the flamenco documentary La Chana (see the link above for the trailer) at the St. John's International Woman's Film Festival, accompanied by a curtain raiser performance with local flamenco dancer Christina Penney and musician Sean Harris.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Sept. 7th at The Port Rexton Brewery

This is the image that has put me in my happy place today.  It is Paul Gauguin's Vase in the Form of Leda and the Swan, 1887–1888.  And some lucky devil has it in their "Private collection" but was generous enough to share it with the public through exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Through my 20+-year involvement as a curator and a writer in the ceramics world, I have had many very satisfying opportunities to consider the relationship of surface and form.  It is an inexhaustible topic to me.

This image of Gaugin's work delighted me for several reasons but chief among them was the discovery that he worked in ceramics.  Like most everyone, I thought of Gaugin as a post impressionist painter who worked primarily in two-dimensions.  Luckily for those us in the art-consuming world, Gaugin's career as a stockbroker was short lived and he took up art full time.  But it was art in all its varied forms that intrigued him as Shannon Moore quotes the artist in her article in the National Gallery's e-zine,

…Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) was in fact an accomplished sculptor, ceramist, printmaker and decorator. A new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) aims to celebrate these varied talents, revealing Gauguin’s identity as an artist-artisan, well versed in forging innovative new methods.  “It’s precisely an endless kind of art that I’m interested in,” Gauguin explained in 1903, “rich in all sorts of techniques, suitable for translating all the emotions of nature and humanity.”

The detail image of the vase shows a profound understanding on the part of Gaugin.  The way the head is tipped down has an intimacy but the way the gaze is directed at the viewer is almost coy.  The way the female form is integrated with the swan-vase speaks volumes and the way it ties in with its subject matter of Leda and the Swan and its tale of seduction is masterful.  Gaugin has used the 3-dimensionality of his media masterfully.

Look at the red-eyed demon looking at you.

What made me burst out loud laughing is that I found myself wondering, "what if Gaugin in his artistic wanderings had become a tattoo artist?"  Afterall, he did spend his post-stockbroker years in Hiva Ova, Tahiti, and Martinique.  And the indigenous cultures there informed Gauguin's embrace of colour, nature, and an interest in physical form.

Now, I recognize that one of the reasons why my mind is gravitating to these thoughts is because later on this week I will speaking on the tattoo suite of portraits by photographer Ned Pratt.  Tattooing has to deal with the human body, especially its 3-d aspects.  But also on a visual level one of the intriguing twists that Ned occasionally inserted into the process is that the tattoo looks at the viewer.  The subject is seen from the back or in profile.  The gaze determines the relationship.  And that is another inexhaustible topic.
Notice how the lady tattoo on the neck is looking at you.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Thorny Question of Text –Your Daughter Fanny & Carnival of the Animals

Tuesday, August 15th those of us in the Tuckamore Festival audience in St. John's were given the opportunity to hear composer Alice Ping Yee Ho in a Q&A session with Bekah Simms, which was followed by the world premier of Ho's Your Daughter Fanny and Christopher Hall's "updated" version of Saint Saens' Carnival of the Animals.  Aptly named, "The Great War, Words and Whimsy" the evening was an introduction to the composer's juggling act of the commissioning process.  Interviewer Bekah Simms systematically took us through the composer's inspiration and her key relationships with our province and the talents of Duo Concertante, soprano Caroline Schiller, who commissioned the operatic work, and the original letters of Great War nurse Fanny that are the basis for Lisa Moore's libretto.  Ho's accessible answers were further enriched by the participation of archivist Burt Riggs from the audience, who co-authored with Bill Rompkey a published collection of Fanny Cluett's wartime letters.  Jackpot!

The intimacy of Fanny's letters and the epic historical events that they span could have easily warranted a full-blown opera.  Instead, Ho's version is a 45-minute word drama that maximizes the strengths of Schiller as a soloist who alternately acts and sings, richly supported by Nancy Dahn on violin and Timothy Steeves on piano.  All three were in historically appropriate costume and there was a minimum of props against a backdrop of projected photographs and letters.  It is a lean production that would lend itself to touring.

Fortunately for me, I had a direct line of vision with the screen and found myself often following along with the lyrics that mirrored the flowing cursive text of the letters.  Ho's musical manipulations brought out the poetry of the text as well as its frankness.  A simple phrase like "blood and mud" took on a haunting quality in Schiller's soaring soprano.  Some audience members who did not have the advantage of a clear view of the screen commented that projected sub or super titles, as is the convention in some opera houses, would have been useful while others would have preferred to have the text in their programs.

Saint Saens composed Carnival of the Animals in 1886, Ogden Nash wrote the humorous verses in 1949 and comedian, clarinetist and narrator Christopher Hall presented his 2017 updated version– infused with irreverent local content that likened Councillor Danny Breen to a creeping turtle and transformed contender Andy Wells from hairy man to hare.  The audience ate it up.  Hall's light spirits were infectious and the ten string, wind and percussion musicians on stage turned the Carnival into an all-out musical romp.

From the heart felt insights into the Great War to the lighthearted animal antics of the Carnival, it was evening where text and music married.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Tuckamore Festival Provides the Spice of Life

"Variety is the spice of life" as the old saying goes.  And if that is the case, the Tuckamore Festival certainly fills the bill.  On Wednesday evening we were treated to the impressive skills of the Rolston String Quartet that took us from the old world charms of Mozart and Beethoven to the new world creativity of Schafer and Staniland–and all with deceptive ease.  Combine that historical breadth, technical mastery and cohesive sound as a quartet and it is no wonder why the Rolston String Quartet were the first prizewinners of the prestigious 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. 

Music theorist Joe Argentino gave an enthusiastic and illustrated pre-concert lecture on the anatomy of the fugue and how composers Mozart and Beethoven manipulated its complexities, which gave many members of the audience an added appreciation of the near-magical skills of the Rolston Quartet.  They mentioned from the stage that it was great for the four members, who all hale from different parts of Canada, to be back in their home country as part of the Tuckamore as they are currently based at Rice University in Houston.  Beethoven's Razumovsky, which they performed for us on August 9th was also part of their winning participation at the Banff competition. 

It was gratifying to hear Schafer's Waves and Staniland's Four Elements in insightful succession on the program.  Schafer's career spans sixty years and his soundscapes were many Canadians introduction to the world of "new music".  Staniland by contrast is 44 years younger but has been racking up awards for his visionary contemporary compositions since 2004.  Fortunately for us in Newfoundland and Labrador, he is on faculty at Memorial University.  It was heartwarming to see Staniland give his own standing ovation in thanks to the Rolston's performance of his music.

If skipping from classical fugues to contemporary soundscapes wasn't enough variety, the Tuckamore Festival's next offering, on the Thursday evening, was a late night cabaret performance by local, musical theatre darlings Justin Nurse and Jonathan Monro.  They took us through a humorous and affectionate musical account of their 25-year long friendship.  Spanning highschool and college auditions, sharing the musical theatre stage professionally, divorces and the birth of children, the two men performed during the evening in solo and together belting out songs and crooning tunes from cherished memories.  Monro even previewed some of his material from the upcoming musical based on the Roch Carrier story The Hockey Sweater.  It will premier this October in Montreal.  You can imagine how fast the cell phones came out for those tunes!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

André Laplante Holds Audience Spellbound

Salty Wind by Jean Claude Roy graces the cover of this year's program.

The seventeenth season of the Tuckamore Festival has already begun to fulfill its tag-line mandate "Chamber music to Inspire" with its first few days of programming.  Opening night featured the esteemed talent of André Laplante on piano, who is often "hailed as one of the great romantic virtuosos" as stated in the program notes.  Now, whether you are up on your music history and are conversant in your terminology or romantic means something else to you, Laplante made it all come true.  He delivered.

The audience warmly responded to his opening interpretation of Haydn's Sonata in E Flat Major and generously showered Laplante with standing ovations even before the intermission.  The emotional connection he obviously shares with the music is palpable and as I overheard one audience member comment, "that Laplante is some vigorous". 

Next on the program was the Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor with its signature somber funeral march–not what the audience expected as the piece that would take us into an intermission.  But Laplante played it with fresh intentions and surprising clarity that knocked any clichés out of a composition that has morphed its way into our cultural fabric in everything ranging from soundtracks for cartoons to advertising.  Laplante's version gave me shivers, especially the Finale: Presto. Sotto voce e legato.

Speaking of "sotto voce" there were a lot of murmurs during intermission about André Laplante's subvocalizing while playing.  Glenn Gould's name was frequently mentioned.  This is when I resolved to attend the next day's After the Music: Concert Chat and Coffee at the Rocket Bakery to learn more about the audience response. 

Seven outspoken women gathered around a round table at The Rocket Café the next day and dived into a lively discussion about André Laplante's performance.  Some had attended his masterclass earlier in the morning; we varied in background from those with years of keyboard experience and careers in music to aficionados (like myself) without formal training.  It was a good cross section and provided lots of friendly debate.  I'd say that whether you believed that sub vocalizing is a distraction or an access point into the internal world of the performer (the music instead their head) you would have learned something.  There was intense conversation about pedaling, graceful hand flourishes, sustained notes, clipped notes and the variables that a concert pianist has to deal with on tour.  My favourite observation was from one of our participants who exclaimed, "don't you think there should be something called a 'man-piano'?"  Everyone was in agreement that André Laplante had played the concluding two Liszt compositions in the performance with a rare integrity, a seamless relationship between man, piano and music.

Gloria Hickey

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The summer novel you will both love and hate

Craig Francis Power graciously agreed to a Q&A with me about his recent and third novel Skeet Love, which publisher Breakwater describes as, "an uber-cool drug and sex-fuelled critique of the world we think we know."  The story revolves around a love-threesome of Shane, Nina and Brit.

GH:  I was very taken by your editor, James Langer's comments at the launch, in particular that when he got the manuscript he thought it was a dystopian novel but that by the time it was in print (i.e. post Trump) it had taken on an unsettling reality.  I agree wholeheartedly and would put Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in the same category.  I think this is the basis for my love/hate relationship with your book.  Do comment!
CFP:  It’s funny because someone wrote me to say they had just finished Skeet Love in a weekend and the only other book they’d done that with was The Handmaid’s Tale, which they hated and admired at the same time, so that’s a compliment I guess.

Watching the primaries and the election in the States while I was working on the book was a strange experience in that the way things unfolded had an inevitable and nightmarish quality to them, but it did not strike me as particularly surprising that Trump won, or that Bernie Sanders was screwed out of his party’s nomination, or that Clinton ran a campaign that was virtually free of any kind of policy that would appeal to working or middle class voters.

I think the election showed a lot of the justified rage people have toward the political elite in the States and that was something that happened to be coming across in what I was writing. I think there’s a similar feeling in Canada as well, where you have this neo-liberal selling a fuck load of armaments to the Saudis and then saying in this smug kinda way that there won’t be any electoral reform in Canada because everyone’s so happy with the current government as opposed to the Harper regime—all the while paying lip service to being socially progressive.

While Shane, Nina and Brit are young people, and lead these sort of fucked up lives, they aren’t stupid, and this sham of a democracy is something they can see right through. Shane’s take on conspiracies doesn’t really seem that far-fetched given what we’ve learned from Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and WikiLeaks. It is true that there are powerful forces working counter to the interests of the working-class, but it’s not what people like Alex Jones and David Icke describe; it’s more COINTELPRO, and that realization for Shane is something I felt I needed to explore.

GH:  My daily research life and your novel collided,  I had just read the section about violence with a hammer and then came across hammer-violence in an interview.  Next, I'm reading in the Guardian about sex robots as a growing industry in the U.K. (now that dolls can be invested with A.I.) and I come across Shane's rant about clones.  No wonder, I started having nightmares.
 CFP:  There’s an obvious homage to Philip K. Dick in Skeet Love, and that notion of the clone or replicant is at the heart of it, and at the heart of Shane’s paranoia for that matter. Incidentally, “skin job” (how Shane’s Dad refers to his taxidermied animals) is lifted from the movie Bladerunner, and is a colloquial term for replicant. Part of what I was interested in as someone who reads and writes books was my feeling that these fictional characters who take up so much of my time often are more dear to me than real-life people, and the question of whether the fact that these characters are fictional lessens somehow the meaning of my love for them/real people. Thus, the letters from Brit.

GH:  I couldn't make up my mind if the writing was a form of exorcism or indulgence.
CFP:  Both.

GH:   The other "young" writer with an attraction for the "dark" side is Joel Thomas Hynes but I don't know if I am off the mark in saying this:  Joel's territory is around the bay and yours is urban.  Joel is trying for primal and you are more stylish (and I'd say sophisticated).  Share your reaction please. 
CFP:  I think there are similarities in our work, though I’ve only read Down To The Dirt, so it’s tough for me to say.

I remember reading a Ray Guy blurb for that book in which he says something to the effect that Joel’s work was an antidote to the many embroidered fantasies about Newfoundland culture with which we’ve become so enamoured, or something like that, but I’m not a fan of replacing one fantasy with another, even if the things described are “grittier” or “darker” or seem more truthful simply because it is grittier or darker, just for the sake of doing so.

Honestly, some character getting bombed at a dive in St. John’s and fucking his cousin or whatever isn’t much compared to what Angela Carter, or Ta Nahisi Coates, or even Margaret Atwood has going on, so I wouldn’t consider my work particularly dark compared to those.

GH:  Do you think "the angry young man" label goes against you?  I am concerned that older readers will not give the book its due citing "generational" differences. 
CFP:  As a white, straight (?), cis male, I have very little reason to be angry.

And given what I write about, and given that the readers of literary fiction are predominantly middle-class, white, Baby Boomer women with plenty of leisure time, I’m not expecting to be catapulted into literary superstardom anytime soon, so those differences, if they exist, are not generational, but class based.

Many of my characters are angry, and rightfully so. As someone who comes from a working-class background, I’m drawn to those stories, and drawn to representing the beauty and the tragedy of those lives without romanticizing them.  Unlike Shane, I’m no tourist, who’s a phone call away to Daddy for help when the shit hits the fan.

GH:  The book begs to be read aloud. 
CFP:  Agree.

GH:  I kept searching for the music in the dialogue and narrative.  Can you comment on the influence of rap on the rhythms and vocabulary? 
CFP:  Rap is the filter through which the characters speak, but their story is almost classic Canadian. I was thinking a lot about Atwood’s examination of the three generational narrative in CanLit (from Survival I think), and was exploring how it would manifest in a more contemporary or near future setting. 8 Mile was a big influence, and watching the movie and reading that script, I thought how wholesome it is—I was bored with it actually.

GH:  Actually, the example of rap as a way of understanding the novel intrigues me.  Lots of people like rap but don't condone violence, guns, drug culture, perhaps they tap into the discontent or anger.  Is that what they share in –that could make Skeet Love a book "for our times"…?
CFP:  Yes.

GH:  Something in the novel confused me as a reader and you are welcome to tell me I'm just stunned.  I found the "voices" of the three central characters so similar that I had to check who was speaking.
CFP:  There is def some overlap, but I wanted Shane in particular to speak as though he’d just lifted things from Urban Dictionary, while Nina and Brit are more organic and slightly less self-conscious.

GH: I was curious about the convention of the letters to C.F.  I like the emotional truth of them but how did you intend them?  Was it an ironic device?
CFP:  With the letters, I was interested in some of the things Shane mentions when talking about quantum mechanics—in particular the notions of entanglement, superposition, and the measurement problem. Entanglement I find especially fascinating, and is an apt metaphor for the relationship between an author and their characters. To a degree, Skeet Love is a book about art and the artistic process—all of the characters are explicitly creative—and I think that Brit’s final dilemma at the end of the novel is representative of how an artist can proceed (or not) in the face of an overwhelmingly brutal patriarchal culture.

I also find appealing the idea of making myself vulnerable in what I write—if I’m in a position to explore so intimately the lives of Shane, Nina and Brit, shouldn’t I be at risk in some way outside beyond professionally?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

No Longer Taboo, Women and Tattoo Culture in Newfoundland

When Billie magazine's editor, Terry Graff, invited me to write an article about my tattoo research for an upcoming issue I was thrilled (as the cliché goes).  One, I was stoked to discover that the Atlantic region had a dedicated arts magazine and two, I was being asked to write about a cherished topic–tattoo culture.  What gave me a little pause was that the thematic focus of the issue was women artists in the region.  Correspondingly, I was to write about women tattoo artists and women's tattoos.

I tend to shy away from gender-based analysis on most topics and I don't even refer to myself as a feminist.  Tattoo culture has been heavily sexualized in popular opinion, I believe, largely because it is associated with the body and to a lesser degree because it was historically seen as behaviour that belonged on the margins of society–the land of bikers and their "bad girls".  We can all hope that the day of "the tramp stamp" is over.  Anyhow, I was concerned about reinforcing or perpetuating stereotypes and I was uncomfortable.

Precisely because of my discomfort with the topic I decided that I needed to "think my way through" this issue as opposed to dismissing it as irrelevant.  Admittedly, tattoo culture has entered mainstream society but the troubling consequence is that it is often regarded as an ill-considered fashion statement–something you regret "when you are old and wrinkled".  Furthermore, none of the women subjects I had interviewed over the past four years had led me to believe they did it for reasons that were specific to their gender. 
Gerti's memorial tattoo.  Photo by Ned Pratt .

Memorializing the loss of a loved one–parent, partner, child and even pets; marking an accomplishment or rite of passage such as graduation, the first trip to Europe or a battle with cancer; indicating professional affiliation or membership in a group; a passionate interest from popular culture such as song lyrics or comics–all of the most common narratives behind tattoos are shared by individuals regardless of where they are on the gender spectrum.  What was left to say?

I took the question to both female and male tattoo artists.  It turns out, that the long-term historical answer was that we didn't have female tattoo artists in Newfoundland and Labrador with more than ten years experience.  The best-known female artist is the province is Laura Casey who operates Lady Lo's Custom Tattoo Studio with the help of two female apprentices that she has trained.  Interestingly, Casey's clients are roughly 50-50 in terms of gender and none of the ones I interviewed selected Casey on the basis of gender.  It was her professionalism in terms of customer service and the quality of her artwork.  Dave Munro who operates the longest running tattoo studio in St. John's has trained two female apprentices as well.  So, we have a come a long way from tattooing being a macho preserve but the trend is young and still growing.

Jessica's Vidal Sassoon tattoo.  Photo by Ned Pratt.
The most significant societal trend I observed in terms of women's tattoos is that they marked a growing sense of agency.  It was about women owning their own bodies, getting tattooed for themselves.  I spoke with women about their tattoos that were prompted by health crisis and body image challenges.  Also, young Inuit women have reintroduced tattooing to their visual culture that had largely been wiped out by missionary contact.  Far from superficial fashion…no wonder my original tattoo project is called More Than Skin Deep.

Monday, 26 June 2017

I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night –a Gerald Squires Documentary by Kenneth C. Harvey

The highlight of the 17th Nickel Film Festival was I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night–Kenneth Harvey's first feature length film.  I was so determined to see this documentary about the late painter Gerry Squires that I bought a ticket a month in advance and it was a good thing because the screening quickly sold old, as did the one the following day.  I returned on the second day in order to catch the Q&A session with Kenneth Harvey.

Based on the strength of the two-minute trailer, CBC bought rights to the film.  (The duration of the film consequently is what is called a CBC hour, i.e. 45 minutes.)  The trailer shows Gerry Squires in his studio sitting before a pair of huge blank canvases, which is also the opening of the film.  It is a poignant moment, a trembling Squires recalls for the camera the moment he realizes he is deathly ill.  Contemplating a shivering birch tree in the failing evening light of spring, Squires– porous with receptivity– comes to accept his dire situation.  Fortunately, Harvey resisted the conventional wisdom of documentary making and the filmmaker did not go for the close-up.  Instead, he turned off the camera and hugged his friend and subject, something Harvey says happened more than once during the two years of filming and twenty hours of interviewing Squires.

Harvey walks a fine line with this film and the viewer benefits from the respectful distance that Harvey adopts.  Originally, Harvey explained, this project was supposed to be a short film about the painting of a woman's portrait.  It would document that near supernatural process of putting oil paint on canvas to capture a person's essence.  As a photographer, who had also made a portrait of the same woman, Harvey was interested in the shifting perception of the artist and the subject's likeness.  However, the nature of the documentary took a radical change when Gerry Squires' health declined.  The act of Squires painting would remain and it is in Harvey's words "the spine of the film". The viewer gets to see Squires create an expansive landscape and fill those two blank canvases all the while talking about the intimate process.

As a novelist, Harvey brings seasoned narrative skills to the documentary.  The film traces Squires career but also fills it with a cast of colourful characters from his life.  During the Q&A, he referred to artists Clifford George as "the comedian", Stuart Montgomery as "the wild card" and curator Caroline Stone as "the academic".  Inspired editing, juxtaposes Gerry Squires' romantic accounts of how it was necessary to his artistic process to live in the lighthouse with practical wife Gail Squires' version pointing out the perils of living, near penniless, with small children perched on an ocean side cliff.  The hints of humour and outright belly laughs, combined with the universal themes of life, death and the differences between men and women are what will give the documentary appeal to audiences beyond the province and country.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Warm Narcotic American Night with Bill Rose

The Paul and Danny Show, ink pad print by Bill Rose
On June 10th, I joined artist Bill Rose for a tour of his show, A Warm Narcotic American Night at the Emma Butler Gallery.  What follows is an excerpt of our conversation.

• GH: I think when I first came across your art I would have described you as a social critic and now I'd definitely add mischief-maker.  How would you describe your role or character?

Bill Rose:  It is very difficult to be a social critic without being a bit of a mischief-maker.   Sometimes you have to make something that is disturbing or funny or both, to get your point across.  Maybe, having been the youngest in my family has set me up as a clown or entertainer, in an effort to get attention.  At the end of the day, I like to think of myself as the tall boy at the back of the class who is shooting spitballs at the blackboard.  But of course I am also interested in making "beautiful" objects; just writing text on a canvas doesn't really cut it for me.  Maybe the social commentary in my work is just a way of assuaging my guilt at having spent most of my life making luxury items.

•GH:  Your method of working is incredibly labour intensive– was that part of the reason to include some earlier work in this show?  I found it a welcome departure for a show in a commercial gallery.

Bill Rose: I often get bored just looking at painting after painting when I visit other people's solo exhibitions.  So when I am assembling a show I think about the person who is going to be viewing the work.  I feel a need to entertain.  I like to think of the exhibit as a variety show.  In some ways, I think my recent show at The Emma Butler Gallery looks like a 6 person show instead of a solo show. I had over 60 works to choose from.  I made a list of about 30 and gallery director Alison Butler made a list of 30.  By combining both lists we came up with the final list.  The earlier pieces that we used all seemed to fit well with the show's title. i.e. You Have a Spot on Your Dress, Louise, Hit Parade, There's a Crack in Everything.

•GH:  One of the reasons why I enjoyed it was that it contextualized the most recent work.

Bill Rose: You know the characters may change and the specifics may change but at the end of the day I think my whole body of work can be more or less characterized by the van Gogh quote which I used on one of my first text paintings back in 1989..."There'll never be an end to human misery".  As a teenager I considered being a journalist.  I went to university and got a BA in English.  I was very much taken by the journalist's credo:  To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable" I try to bring layers to the work by using text, juxtaposition, humour, irony…Even though beauty in art seems to be suspect these days, I also am interested in making beautiful  objects. 

•GH:  I was intrigued by the different methods represented, such as stamp pad prints, collages, oil painting, mixed media with inkjet transfers...They were united by a consistent aesthetic.  Do you see it that way?

Bill Rose: When I started doing text back in the late 1980s I found that this was a way for me to be more political in my work.  Before that time I was basically teaching myself how to paint in a photorealistic way.  Once I figured out a way to make photoreal paintings (by way of the grid), photorealism was no longer that important for me.  Photorealism had become a trick...a sleight of hand.  The painting needed something else to anchor it.  However the photorealism does serve the purpose of getting the work noticed.  Our culture puts a great deal of importance in images that are realistically rendered.  The finely rendered image is the bait that attracts the quarry.
The Meek Shall Inherit, oil by Bill Rose

•GH:  Let's explore the relationship between the text over the image.  I've heard you refer to it as a veil.  That brings to mind seduction and a welcome tension.  It's also an access point for the viewer.  Can you elaborate?

Bill Rose: The text over the image tends to make the image recede.  It creates a feeling of visual depth.  It also acts like a veil.  It partially blocks the image or impedes the viewer from having an unobstructed view.  Its a kind of tease...Text also reminds the viewer that this is a painting; as in Magritte's painting of a pipe...C'est ne pas un pipe.

•GH:  I also found it interesting in at least one instance, you've gone back and changed the text.  Can you tell us about that experience?

Bill Rose: I began to feel that the original text on the large Niagara Falls painting was too obvious.  The text was a quote from Oscar Wilde:" Niagara Falls is only the 2nd largest Disappointment in a New Bride's Life".  I had the painting hung in my living room and every time I looked at it, I knew it had to be changed.  Eventually I came across the present text by J. Paul Getty which I immediately knew was the right choice.  The text, "The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mineral rights" was perfect.  It was a clever play on words, ironic and darkly true.  I purposely didn't totally obliterate the original text.  If you look closely you can see the remnants of the Wilde quote ... a kind of scar.

Happy Meal, mixed media by Bill Rose

•GH:  I have to ask you about the two images that integrated the baby blocks.  This felt playful but in an ironic way because they were also very serious.  Is this a path you'll take again?

Bill Rose: I had these blocks around the house for a long time just waiting for something to arise where I could use them.  The painting of the hen was a little piece that I hoped would say something about vegetarianism and the food industry's treatment of animals.  The piece was around for at least 6 months and I couldn't come up with anything.  Also with it being such a small painting, I could only use a word or two.  For some reason the word CLUCK came to mind.  It made me laugh.  And then I thought of the blocks.  As soon as I laid the blocks across the bottom of the canvas, I knew it was finished.  At the time I also had the painting of a refugee just sitting in the corner, still not fully resolved.  I don't know where ideas come from but out of the blue I thought HAPPY MEAL.  It was perfect. In a world where people are starving, we here in the west have to make food fun before our children will eat it. 

The use of the blocks is such a specific solution; I may not use them again.  I don't want to be known as the guy who uses children's blocks on his paintings.  I don't want it to be the easy way out.  But if the blocks will serve the piece, I will definitely use them again.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Portraits by Ray Fennelly with Startling Intimacy

Ray Fennelly
2 large portraits
1 small exhibit
May 14-26, 2017
The Arts & Culture Centre, St. John's

This exhibit of Giga Pixel photography by Ray Fennelly was regrettably short.  I considered myself lucky to spend an hour engrossed in these two images that spanned 48" x 96" and I might have missed it altogether if it were not that Fennelly had kindly flagged me at the opening of the epic Gerry Squires retrospective exhibition at The Rooms, Provincial Art Gallery.  These two images, taken in 2008, are both portraits of Gerry–one in the studio and one on his beloved Barrens.

They go hand in glove, yin and yang.  Quite literally, they are inside and outside and capture two aspects of the artist with startling intimacy.  The studio portrait is bathed in an almost golden light that comes off the warmth of the wood paneled walls and easel, and an adjacent unfinished painting.  The image is neither staged nor posed.  No holding of brushes or palette as props, a plastic bag of supplies sits unruly on a supplies cart.  This is a room where things happen and we have walked in.  Gerry does not smile, his gaze is level and it seems as if he is appraising us as much as we are him.  This portrait records an act of engagement between the subject and the viewer.

The second image is of the artist crouching beside an immense erratic boulder on the Barrens.  This big geological beast that has been carried on to the Barrens by some distant glacier dwarfs Gerry Squires.  It is easy to imagine Squires as some big game hunter beside his prize.

I have maintained that Squires painted the Newfoundland landscape like a self-portrait and Fennelly's photograph communicates that intimate relationship.  Gerry's beard and the scruff of grass seem to be in harmony.  The mottled lichen on the boulder could be the age spot on a tanned hand.  Each crevice tells a story like a wrinkle of experience.  Gerry wears a wide brimmed hat with a pin above the band.  The brooch is a likeness of the map of Newfoundland and if it had been worn on the lapel of a jacket it might have seemed like a decoration.  Instead I am reminded of the medieval custom of pilgrim's who would wear pins on their hats to mark the holy sites visited on pilgrimage.  I wondered if that made the Barrens our Stonehenge or nature's cathedral.

Fennelly explains that the Giga Pixel technology "is a large format amalgam" or " a hybrid of new technology with old school methodology".  His interest started about ten years ago when he began to play with the possibilities of extending the resolution and playing with image overlays.  With an image like Gerald Squires on the Barrens the effect is nearly panoramic with intense textures and sharp details– muted only by the rich black shadows cast by the erratic and carried through in Gerry's jacket.  This small exhibit delivered big on satisfaction.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

KRISTINA SØBSTAD – May 5—May 27, 2017 Christina Parker Gallery

Dreamland II, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 60" × 80", 2016
Well Kristina, you are the new kid on the block, relatively speaking.  The first question anybody asks me about you is whether you are Canadian or Norwegian?  You were born in Halifax, right?

Yes, I was born in Halifax to Norwegian parents and very quickly relocated back to Norway. Having led a fairly transient life, hopping back and forth between Norway and Canada, among other places, I very much identify with my Norwegian heritage but attribute much of my disposition and lifestyle to Canadian influences. 

Your paintings seem to be landscape-inspired but not about landscape in a specific or literal way.  Are you painting about our relationship with the landscape?

My paintings are in many ways a self-portrait, or an abstract narrative. Taking the idea of painting our relationship with the landscape one step further to the point that we are reminded of our ecological selves and in a way become our natural environment, no separation.  I recall reading a beautiful article describing this very idea and that it's the almost physical disappearing delineation of self. This resonated with me so much so that I titled 2 paintings after this idea. I would describe this as a defining moment of clarity where we can witness a transference from an intellectual to a visceral understanding of ourselves.

oil and chalk pastel on canvas,48" × 60", 2016
Often, viewers are anxious to identify place or a location in a painting but you resist that temptation.  Can you tell me a little about your titles–like Transient?  I gather Dreamland is a series of paintings.

I resist the urge to identify any particular place in a painting because it's not what I'm after. My goal is to make manifest an/my experience which will hopefully translate to the viewer, in turn, conjuring a similar experience. My titles relate directly to where in my life I am at the time, serving as much as a time identifier as a date.  My painting Transient was created in transience in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a landscape which at the time served as an anchor in some ways. Dreamland is a series inspired by the otherworldly Icelandic landscape and my experience there. 

One gentleman during the opening fixed on Haerra and asked me about the goddess.  I replied that goddesses were often affiliated with mountains but I thought he was thinking of Hera, the Greek mythic figure.  And my Icelandic mythology is rusty. Can you clarify this?

Hærra is Icelandic for higher, in Norwegian: høyere, which refers to the 'heightened' state of awareness when we are completely connected with our natural environments. On a personal note I'll add that I am very much a good 1/3 Icelandic as well...which is one of the reasons I went there and use Icelandic in titles from time to time.

You've made some very interesting choices with this new body of work.  I was impressed that you carried the large-scale off so well.  Your paintings never look inflated; these are big paintings with big ideas. 

Thank you, I prefer to make larger work, it allows me to really step inside the idea when it's complete. 

That leads me to your sense of composition that is quite distinctive.  Simplest Thing stands out–I thought that was very brave of you to leave such a large portion open at the top.  The spare painting here really evokes a wind scrubbed sky.

Yes, a wind scrubbed sky!  I like that phrase.
Simplest thing, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 36" × 60"

The way you layer your materials is very satisfying.  Could you say something about the visual relationship between the oil and chalk pastel and of course the acrylic?  It seems almost energetic to me.

My practice is very intuitive, spontaneous,  and physical, and I find the relationship between these materials allows me to mirror my approach. Also, I find there is an interesting dynamic between the oil and chalk, a tension that gives way to peaceful spaces if that makes sense, a dynamic that very much reflects our natural environments....even our not so natural environments. 

Do you have any aesthetic goals that you feel haven't come up in this conversation…anything you'd like to add?

Aesthetically in my practice, I would like to keep evolving and taking risks, exploring new materials perhaps, increasing the scale. 

Sounds like you might have some exciting plans to share…

As far as exciting news, I will be beginning a Masters this September through Athabasca University. I'm also planning a residency in Chile with the Museum of Modern Art in Chiloe in 2017, as well as a local residency not too far from St. Johns.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Aaron Draplin at Tall Tales & Thick Lines or when design can earn you a death threat

It is not unusual to have a renowned figure make a speech at a graduation ceremony.  This event did showcase the artwork of the students involved with the graphic and communication arts at the College of the North Atlantic but the similarity to a spring convocation ended as soon as Draplin lumbered on stage.

Aaron Draplin is a wooly mammoth of a man.  He has a bigger than life personality, a shaggy demeanor, talent dripping out of his fingertips and enough attitude to fill Club One wall to wall.  That venue's capacity is listed at 600 and it was sold out– not to proud mums and dads, not even to those professionals affiliated with the graphic arts in the city – although the event was an intriguing hybrid masterminded by a group calling themselves thedesigners (all one word).  Draplin has become something of an inspirational speaker, with slogans like "do good work for good people" as his professional advice.

In the flesh, Draplin swears a blue streak.  Club One's prominent windows facing the street were decorated with a photo of him that was several feet high.  Draplin shuffles on to the stage and says to the audience, "I don't think my face was meant to be 30 feet high.  Look at this stage!  See what happens when you have friends that are designers.  You get props and succulents and shit!"  It was true.  Proper designer table, artfully displayed plants and Aaron with a mass of hair and beard, stretch denim and a baseball cap.  The nurse sitting beside me gasped, "Oh, I saw him outside and I thought 'there's a person who needs a shower'".  Aaron looked liked he'd just gotten off a tractor or left his flatbed truck in the lobby.  "I was expecting a hipster," she continued.  "That's what hipsters look like these days," was my response.

Draplin has designed a staggering number of logos.  He showed us a wide range of them at fast pace accompanied by pounding rock music.  Draplin observed that for some the only payment he received was a burrito and others $30,000.  He is the incarnation of the adage of "find out what makes you passionate and do it".  He comes across as being a completely authentic human being and that is genuinely impressive­ and probably the reason why Draplin got to design for the Obama administration and earn himself a death threat in the process.  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Maudie The Film, 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: