Friday, 10 November 2017

Art is Not Therapy

     Therapy is good. Art is good. Both are good together, and being creative has therapeutic value, but art is not therapy. Imagine a carpenter on a rooftop in the summer, hammering away and someone yells, “Hey, you have a great job! That's great therapy you're getting!” Yes, he is getting exercise and he’s out in the sun, but likely he never thought his job was therapeutic. He’s focused on the task at hand and bringing home the bacon. 
    If therapy is to be described as anything that improves your mental health then anyone who has a job that keeps them out of poverty is doing something that will bring some form of mental health. Poverty and underemployment suck and one’s mental health can spiral downward as a result. Seems obvious, that is if you take the meaning of the word at its weakest. Therapy is a form of medical treatment, usually performed after a diagnosis by a health professional. The word's meaning may have been distorted humorously to take away the stigma associated with the word. Now we all get therapy by laying in the hot sun on Baia do Sancho beach in Brazil.  
Apprentice, assistant and an artist in her own right, Claire Douglas-Lee
learns what it takes to be a full time artist. 
     The drawbacks of a creative job are offset by the benefits of doing a job one at least enjoys and at most loves with the dangling hope that one might become successful at it and earn a professional living. Since creative people generally enjoy the act of using their brains and hands to make something they are generally happier in their jobs, which is why many people dream of the day they can give up their day job to follow their passion. The trouble with following your passion and making your hobby your full time job is that you have to sacrifice what other people need from you with what you love to do. And in order to make a living you have to compete with other creative people doing the same kind of thing, some professional and others pretending to be. 
    Living as an artist is complicated, requiring about five jobs just to earn a living, along with the hope and expectations beyond what is possible. It’s hard work being an artist, mitigated by its enjoyment and made opaque by the product. If the product is beautiful and everyone loves it they will most likely still have no idea what kind of anxiety and frustrations and effort went into its creation. Nor how long it took to learn, perfect and practice the tools and methods required to get to the point of creating a good work. 
    Many artists in our egalitarian society like to give the impression that they are cosmically linked to the source of their inspiration and that ideas and creativity just flow through them. And the results often go without criticism because in our society anyone can call themselves an artist. Art is no longer offered as part of the curriculum in many schools. The result is that artists have to battle many stereotypes. We can sadly be misunderstood. Although it does create a mystique about being an artist that can be beneficial, but there is little value otherwise.
    The current growing stereotype is that the arts are therapy, one in the same. It’s an argument used by artists themselves to defend the arts, used because it’s assumed that it is easier for the public to relate to, but likely it’s causing more harm than good. It’s certainly not a convincing argument to use when imploring politicians to improve funding for the arts. 
     I prefer the older stereotype where artists lose their minds battling with their souls and spending decades trying to create the one masterpiece, constantly struggling, fighting it out with other artists and their patrons, demanding exposure in the galleries and then dying in poverty, but leaving the world with a bounty of great work that is one day enjoyed by the public worldwide. It’s still a terrible stereotype, but the current feel-good friendly new age version of what it is to be an artist lacks the weight and seriousness that really is part of our lives. 

Sam Shahsahabi and Christian Chapman at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery

     Sam Shahsahabi has created a series of works for his show, Beneath the Reflection, at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery where copper acts as a canvas on which enamel paint and acids are applied to create patinas of varying colours. Inspired by Persian poetry and postcolonial philosophy, Sam states, “I wanted to explore how in my personal life I came to learn about East and West and if there are any windows of opportunities to bridge the two.”
     Sam got his BFA in painting from Azad University in Tehran, his MFA at York University in Toronto and then after several years of working and exhibiting he began teaching in the Visual Arts department of Lakehead University.
     “Most of my work in the past ten years concentrated on the division of mankind and its environment and the fact that these days we mostly learn about distant cultures through media and brief news feeds in social media.” Concerned that meaningful understanding of different cultures is disconnected by cultural stereotypes he also looks for healing. “I try to create positive works, which have literal and conceptual healing powers by employing the power of copper and sacred geometry.”
    Whether mystical powers actually come into play and influence the viewer of Sam’s work or not, the inspiration has resulted in unusually interesting wall hangings and sculptural pieces with detailed traditional patterning and colouring. What little imagery there is, flowers and oil rigs, contrast some of the beauty and the ugliness, the growth and entropy of our world. This makes for a worthwhile show that has the physical weight of sculpture with details that add to the suggestion of meaning.

     In gallery three are two works by Christian Chapman, a small print that is humorous, yet a bit hard to decipher, and a very large acrylic painting that makes a big statement. Called, The Time is Now, and Yesterday, and Tomorrow…, Christian continues to explore themes mixing the worlds of the indigenous with the colonialist in this show called, Fight For Your Life. Christian employs the Woodland style, often inverting and subverting subjects and styles using humour combined with a critical voice, often allowing for multiple interpretations. 
     This new large work is less open to your interpretation. It is whimsical in its use of sea creatures and cartoon-like approach, but like an oversized political cartoon the painting is clearly making a comment on the fate of indigenous people in Thunder Bay; the location given away by our Sleeping Giant resting in the background. 
    The painting incorporates one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Raft of the Medusa, by Th√©odore G√©ricault. In that work an incompetent captain, given the position of captain as a result of nepotism rather than experience, runs his ship on rocks at sea forcing surviving crew members to build a raft from parts of the ship. It was nearly two weeks before they were rescued, but not before some starved to death, some were murdered and others resorted to cannibalism. 
    Homaged and allegorized for political and social statements by many artists this version by Christian faults the captains of our community for their failures, either through inattention or incompetence that has resulted in increased racism, the four year torture of indigenous man in prison, and an inordinate number of suicides and murders. 
    The painting isn’t a master work, but it gets close. It’s missing the specifics to truly hit home with a hard message or multiple messages, but one can’t fault Christian for not getting into the details. For him it must hit home too much. It must hurt. When speaking of the painting during the opening night for his and Sam’s show, in front of a large audience, or when responding to questions for this article, Christian is reluctant to get into details. And he doesn’t need to. The painting speaks for him.
     Both shows are on display at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery at 250 Park Ave. till November 11.

Quinten Maki and Denise Smith at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

With the task to fill Gallery One of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Quinten Maki produced a stunning show called Kohesion. Filled with bold expressionistic works, both intense yet playful, Maki used various mediums, often paper on canvas in order to mimic the worn and weathered age of dilapidated walls, abandoned construction sites and sheets of metal (as if dragged from a site and hung on a gallery wall) and the colourful treading of the wheels of Caterpillar vehicles.
     The occasional drip or splatter is reminiscent of Jackson Pollack and other expressionist artists of the 1950s and 60s, yet with the combination of stencil, paper, some figurative drawings, various gels and paint mediums, the works are updated and more dynamic. 
   The constructivist elements are contradicted by a sense of hope, a celebration of returning beauty amongst the decay where glazing gives the stencil and painted layers an extra depth and the gloss varnish coats the reflective and iridescent paint splatters to make sections shine and allow for the impression that sections of the painting are tissue paper thin and could be blown away at any moment by a gust of wind. This creates an unusually delicate and temporal feel. So while the works are simultaneously mimicking the heavy weight of sheets of steel or aluminum they also mimic the beauty and translucence of butterfly wings. This is most obvious in the work “Tango with White.” This combination is a very difficult effect to pull off. 
     It’s companion piece on the opposite wall seems to be dominated by electrical tape and has a heavier feel. Similar experiments or playing with mediums are made in works where the additions of charcoal drawings of humans are glued to a variety of pieces. Although these aren’t the most dynamic works in the show they have their own humanist weight and offer the viewer another avenue to ponder.

     The world of ceramic cartoon delight in Denise Smith’s works in her show, On The Trail, have just enough hint of the austere and arcane nature of the world to save the art from being legitimate ceramic kitsch, the kind where a porcelain dolphin leaps from the waves, the thing your grandmother might have collected. That isn’t to say the show wouldn’t be fun or worthwhile for adults without a good social statement, but the artist is using a theme to create something deeper and a little disturbing, yet not intrusive enough to alter our impulse to want her little worlds to be wonderful play parks in their own right. The incredible amount of time, skill, talent and patience found in this show are phenomenal and Smith's dedication to the underlying effort to educate her audience about our complicated relationship with nature is commendable. The show's message is better understood this way than presented in an essay or a hundred other ways by artists who could take the same subject and make their work shocking, overly abstruse or coldly analytical and dull. Smith has made this show one worth returning to and talking about because it inhabits a number or worlds, both contemporary and popular, a perfect blend. 
     On the popular art side, this show is a kind of advanced story book for children where some of the arcane reality of nature is exposed, and some of the fakery involved in maintaining a peaceful stereotype of nature is typically hidden in our manicured parks. Our national parks might be free of the indigenous people who once populated the land and the parks may hide the circle of life where death results from animals feeding upon one another, but Denise’s little windows with her hints into reality will only add to your enjoyment. Whether her intended message is truly inculcated in the works is debatable, but there is no reason to 
     Children will love and appreciate her honesty while adults will read the statement and agree that what is made safe for us, sanitized, is something to worry about. There is, after all, a great loss in not truly understanding nature and appreciating its beauty and potential danger merely as it exists for and with its own right to exist as such. Nature is nothing to be afraid of if you learn from it.  Both shows are at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until November 19.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

ThunderCon Hosts New and Experienced Talent

     ThunderCon at the Valhalla Inn last weekend was a great success. Amongst the plethora of activities were young vendors hawking fan art and original designs to comic culture fans. One of the most common ways for young artists get started is to match their skills with professionals in the field and delight in something they love, which can also guide them meaningfully through life. And where imitation is the best form of flattery it’s also a great way to get experience. A few young artist at ThunderCon are already planning excursions into their own original comics and graphic novel creations. 
     The following are only a few of the artists at ThunderCon. You can Google their names to find their websites. Most are on Facebook as well.
     Freelance artist, Kaisa Eila at 21 years of age began drawing anime at the age of 13. She plans on heading out to Vancouver to take animation courses, preferably classic 2D animation. She played with a variety of styles to settle on her own focusing on strong yet feminine women featured in her original designs and fan art sold as originals, prints and bookmarks. 
     Only fourteen, Jada Ferris is enjoying her first time at ThunderCon. Inspired by anime, particularly Japanese filmmaker, Makoto Shinkai and San Francisco artist, Happy D, Jada is already creating realistic portrait commissions to earn money. Jada is hoping to have her work juried for the next High School art show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.
     Hailey Dunn says she’s been drawing forever. She minored in Fine Arts at Lakehead University and is studying recreation therapy at Confederation College. Hailey creates mostly fan art and creating a comic with the amazing cosplay expert and costume prize winner, Emma Cavar. Hailey’s experience came from personal requests and creating artwork for birthday presents. She loves her dark brooding characters and big metal masks. 
    Kaitlin Lebrun studies psychology at the University of Winnipeg. At 23 Kaitlin has been to a number of comic conventions in Canada. She’s a fan of Japanese manga superhero, My Hero Academia. Her unsupportive father who owns a truck company inadvertently supplied the material that inspired Kaitlin to draw, pick up truck calendars. From drawing trucks at the age of 3 Kaitlin is wanting to move to Japan to work with artist, Kohei Horikoshi. 
    With influence from his mother and grandmother who painted in acrylics Sudbury professional artist Josh Coulter, at 25, creates comic book art and album covers. He sells graphic illustrations, some printed on shirts, and other merchandise worldwide online. He is working towards larger projects and bigger sculptures. For the band Desolate State he was happy to produce an image of a giant cyborg mole digging through the earth. 
    Randy Monteith is the elder statesman of the group. He took up creating images with Photoshop as a hobby which turned into fourteen years worth of experience. Randy is as an electronics technician for Bombardier who was inspired by an image years ago of a hybrid animal. He tried his hand at reworking imagery and was hooked. He works from his own photos, friend’s photos, and stock photos  from online image banks. He does not copy from Google. His imagery often sells like hotcakes, and he’s won awards and takes pride that the CEO of Creative Magazine was following his progress, asking him to do the cover of the magazine.
     First time attendee, Gabrielle Cosco began drawing princesses at the age of 8 and her own strip at ten featuring a gang of bank robbing clowns. As a professional artist for the last ten years she studied at Georgian College in Barry and now works for the Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Centre in Sioux Lookout illustrating books for children. Gabrielle was promoting her book, City of Sirens, an ongoing series. Taking her inspiration from Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other strong pop-culture female characters Gabrielle is hoping her comic series will be taken up as a television show. 
     Hopefully these artists and a new crop will join the rest of their flock at next year’s ThunderCon. Special thanks to the organizers.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Jim Oskineegish, Second Generation Woodland Artist

     Back in 2005, Jim Oskineegish made a conscious decision to paint in the woodland style, a move away from his surrealist works, which sold well. Both a nephew of Jim’s and Norval Morrisseau were living in British Columbia at the time so Jim sent his nephew three of his new woodland styled paintings for Morrisseau to see. 
    Although Jim’s paintings were blessed by Morrisseau and Jim was granted approval to continue painting in the woodland style, Jim was asked by local elders not to depict First Nations stories or to depict imagery and narratives from dreams that might come to him. With a bloodline descending from medicine men, the elders thought it best for Jim to respect imagery as private messages from the spirits.
     Respecting this request Jim paints primarily animals that intrigue him and is today incorporating the style for a series to celebrate the heroes of his seriously troubled childhood. The likes of Bruce Lee and Freddy Mercury will get the woodland treatment  and will be incorporated into a film by local filmmaker, Michelle Derosier some time next year. 
Hummingbird, Acrylic on Canvas
     Any subject Jim endeavours to paint will have the power, colour, composition and energy that we’ve come to appreciate from the woodland style, not in an inverted critical contemporary fashion, but with the knowledge of an artist who delights in beauty and bold imagery using skills obtained from years of practice since childhood and from a formal education with three years spent in the Lakehead University visual arts program. 
     Although represented by five different galleries, here at the Ahnisnabae gallery and out west, painting for Jim is still a hobby. He is employed full time in Sioux Lookout at the Ahnisnabae Friendship Centre, working with people off reserve from children to seniors. He is also renovating his house but manages to find spare time to paint. 
     Jim was born in Nikina, near Geraldton in 1964 to an Ojibwe mother and Polish father. His mother is of Fort Hope First Nations and his father was an immigrant after World War II. His mother was affected the the 1960’s scoop where the OPP took children and sold them for profit to other families often in other countries. In Poland Jim’s father persevered under German rule and survived a Nazi death camp.
     This combination of violent history and emotional trauma did not make for a pleasant upbringing for Jim. He was taken from his abusive parents at the age of five to be tormented and nearly murdered in foster care. With three foster placements, each traumatic, but one more than the others, he was beaten, cut with knives, put out in the cold, and often choked. Jim states, “One of the beatings I got was so bad that I eventually got a tumour.” 
Sleeping Giant
     After dealing with pain for years the tumour was spotted with a Catscan and Jim was sent to Ottawa to have a kidney removed. Jim sights as an example of one of his beatings a time when he was sent out to get groceries from the corner store. He missed one of the items on the list and he was severely beaten by his foster mother. 
     Jim has children of his own and is proud that they’ve grown up happy and educated. Yet he still deals with issues of his past. He excelled at sports, which gave him strength and physical confidence, but it was his popular culture icons that gave him hope and a way of dealing with his emotional trauma. Being active gave him strength, but Jim took on bullies in Westfort by pretending to be Bruce Lee. “Bruce Lee gave me courage. A gang of bullies were going to beat me up, but I told them I had to get my Bruce Lee socks first. So I ran home, and I could have just stayed home, but I did what I promised, came back with my Bruce Lee socks and beat all five of them up.” 
Thunder Bird
     He was able to find meaning and emotional release in lines from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and cry for the first time in years. “Freddy Mercury helped me to express myself,” he says.
     As a child he drew goalies and other hockey players that he admired. “I am currently doing a thirteen part series called My Heroes, paintings of people who were my inspirations, who generated ideas, who helped me to continue to push forth and survive as a child from five years of age to nineteen.”  

     Keeping the few galleries that represent him stocked is a challenge. On average he does a painting a week. He applies quality Liquitex acrylics with watercolours to get a smooth texture, laying the paint three times or so with bold colours and then twice with black lines. He’s noticed a change in his skill level, improving gradually, and keeps the prices in all the galleries the same. “I do not undersell my work as that would hurt my relationship with my business partners at the galleries.”

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Gallery 33 and The Painted Turtle Art Shop in Thunder Bay

Run separately yet conjoined under the same roof, a young Kristen Wall has run Gallery 33 for two and a half years while her cohorts, Lorraine Cull and Angie Jenson have run the Painted Turtle Art Shop for fourteen. Together they have served Thunder Bay well with art shows, procuring art supplies for individuals and groups, especially schools, and offering classes and contributing to the community extensively. Further progress was made with their move from the downtown North Core to the corner of Balsam and River St. next to George’s Market where they have benefited from free parking and walk by traffic.  
     About forty visual artist and ten authors are represented in the gallery where sections of the wall and displays are rented to new and emerging local and regional talent. The quality and variety vary, but there are enough stunning works to make the gallery a professional space with noteworthy artists. Other items such as soaps, jewelry, books, cards, sculpture, pottery, glasswork and prints are sold throughout along with specialty items like Wolfhead coffee and Chocolate Cow. The chocolate is soon to be restocked as it had a habit of melting in the summer months.
    As part of the mission to support artists, the public is offered classes, the most popular being Paint and Wine Nights, occurring multiple times a month. These are public and private parties, a fun way to get together with friends and try out acrylic paints. As Fall hits, classes for children and youth are offered where they can draw and paint using watercolours and oils. 
     At a youthful twenty-seven, Kristen has an Honours Bachelor in Fine Arts and has lived in Thunder Bay her entire life. “I’ve always been into art,” says Kristen, “and always imagined the business would be attached to my house, but this opportunity fell out of the sky and I jumped on it. The work is a lot more commercial than I thought it would be, but I’ve been able to shape it in the image I wanted, which is to give the gallery that homey feel.”
     With a faux fire place and tan coloured walls Kristen designed the space to be warm and welcoming, unlike a typical white-walled gallery space. “We have CBC Radio on all the time,” she smiles. 
     Kristen has had little time for her own art, earning some of her living by teaching most of the classes. Other income is generated through art commissions, space rentals and the occasional sale of her own art. Artists Linda Dell, Ken Crawford and Betty Nash have been brought in to teach classes. Coming soon is Rene Beerthuizen who will teach oil painting. 

 Bursting from the corner of the gallery is a virtual potpourri candy display for artists. Here is the Painted Turtle Art Shop where you get that magic feeling of opportunity, where you can enter other worlds by creating your own portals. Shelves crammed with gleaming art supplies are offered to professionals and novices alike, the tools of the trade that every artist and wannabe needs in order to play around or get serious. It’s a challenge worth taking.
     Formerly owned for many years by artist Ruth Tye-McKenzie, the art supply shop moved around from Red River Road to Cumberland. Co-owners Lorraine and Angie took it over in 2003 before the moves feeling the need to keep Ruth's legacy and the shop running. Angie spends her time managing the books and the waterfront’s “Baggage Building” these days. Lorraine is the constant stalwart of the shop and thus a virtual window to the arts community. Recalling the days of Norval Morrisseau and Roy Thomas, Lorraine offers up stories of wild artists and art crimes that I can’t disclose. Instead I can say Lorraine is a wonderful source of information about the supplies, local talent and events.
     The Painted Turtle has also contributed to the city with a long list of membership on boards to improve the arts within the city, with donations to schools, galleries, and to artists with prizes at various high school and University shows. It's been a tradition to give back to the art scene since the shop's inception. 
     On a personal note, the Painted Turtle is where I ordered my first batch of linen to paint large oil portraits when I was eighteen, knowing that the master painters of the past used only the best materials I was determined to emulate them. So I saved my pennies for top quality oil paints and quality linen, thinking my paintings would last for hundreds of years. Time will tell. 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Welcome to the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery and Framing Shop


For his next book for which he received a good deal of funding and a sabbatical from his Swiss university, a travelling professor passed through our region recently to interview First Nations people across Canada. Digging into the truth regarding contemporary conditions and the culture of First Nations people he stopped in Thunder Bay where he interviewed several people including Louise Thomas, owner of the Ahnisnabae Gallery at 18 South Court Street. 
   For travelling profs and local writers Louise is a wonderful source of information regarding arts and artists in our region. With over three hundred artists represented and a continual interest to take on new artists and promote the legacy of her late husband and artist, Roy Thomas, the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery is a destination point for tourists and collectors from all over.  
     In business for twelve years this retail shop has an international following. Invested with the spirit of many people, the gallery offers a salon style display of many windows into other realities and approaches revealing talent where so many artists have taken up the challenge of expressing themselves, their communities, their history and their love of place and unique experiences. And what is wonderful about all this imagery and the pouring of soul and effort into these pieces is that you can take it with you, celebrate it and have it blend into the world you have at home. 
      The gallery sells paintings, sculpture, pottery, needlework, jewelry, soap, crafts, scarves, purses, cards and more. New products come in on a regular basis, made by individual artists and companies producing such items as limited edition paddles produced in Grand Marais employing Roy Thomas’ famous image titled, “We Are All In the Same Boat.” 
     A new line of products are coming where Roy’s images will be embossed on leather handbags, wallets, belts, and other wearable items specially created by a company in Southern Ontario. “Something comes in on a weekly basis,” says Louise, as she takes a breath revealing a bit of exasperation with the amount of work involved. 
     Working six days a week and doing her best not to come in on Sundays her relaxed manner is partly a result of pacing herself. In remission since November of 2015 Louise is not totally out of the clear from an agonizing bout of cancer and chemotherapy treatments. To help keep her clear Louise will be taking medicine for another five years. “I feel fine, great. Lot’s of energy,” she smiles, thriving in life and with the success she’s having.
   The North Core has already seen a boon for business and an influx of tourists and locals traipsing around exploring new shops. “Thank goodness for young people having vision and doing things,” says Louise. And when it is suggested that Louise move to a bigger city for bigger and better sales she explains, “Thunder Bay is a great city. It has everything a big city has. I’m known here, I’m established.”
     When moving her business to her current location at 18 Court Street from Westfort Louise declined to use entrepreneurial funds offered to her in order that more money could go to other indigenous businesspeople. “It’s been great being in this business for 12 years and doing it on my own without any funding.” And her business is growing. Last July was Louise’s best month. The picture framing has taken off. Louise’s son, Randy, following in his father’s footsteps is creating his own unique style of art which he sells through the gallery. Randy is also a picture framer fully dedicated to a museum standard quality. 
     Louise receives requests for business ventures through the Internet. She doesn’t buy art, selling work on consignment. She will do some appraising of art and research when necessary to ensure the work is original. 
    After being interviewed Louise welcomes a large group of Mexican students, some with indigenous ancestry who find some of the art and methods familiar to their own culture. Louise gives them a little tour and talk about the art and our indigenous North American community. When the group leaves an elderly gentleman, Michael DePerry, pulls his little tikanagans from a canister. Louise is immediately intrigued and she discussing taking on his work for the gallery.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Art of Eugene Lefrancois

Recently, after confronting a couple local artists who have no issue with adding a few swipes of expressionist paint slaps to the imagery taken or stolen from the Internet and projected onto canvas to avoid using their own imagination it’s wonderful to see the work of an artist genuinely lit up by their own. 
     Examples of free-flowing streams of consciousness art pieces can be seen at the Growing Season restaurant on Algoma where several of Eugene Lefrancois’ ink and watercolour works hang. With limited reference material influences come from the styles of several artists including Norval Morrisseau, M.C. Escher, and Salvador Dali. The connected long strands and lines are reminiscent of the First Nations artist, Cecil Youngfox. Talking on this surrealist approach Eugene states, “When the pen hits the paper there is no idea what is going to happen… sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
     And therein is the risk with using one’s imagination, it’s not always fruitful and it’s certainly not always easy or even relatable to others, but it’s a practice worthy of its own merit. Eugene says, “To copy stroke for stroke is wrong. To get inspired by the work is awesome.”
    Playing around with line, swirls, patterns, colour and composition the results are little composite dreamworlds where shapes could be symbols which morph into landscapes. The whimsical approach to these small, mostly watercolour and ink works on paper might lack the punch offered by larger paintings done in oil or thick acrylics on canvas, but the airiness and flow of his choice of materials intimate stained glass and fabric works. The light seems to come through the work turning them into little windows, a feat that takes longer to achieve with oils and acrylics.  
     Earth, sky, birds and specifically the eyes of birds are most often represented where the sun is drawn in a variety of ways to suggest magical powers. The staring birds add a slight sense of the ominous and strength.
     Eugene says of his work, “I hope that the people who see my work will see things in a different way. Just to look at a tree for instance is looking at a tree. I feel that a tree is a living being. The only thing is we as humans can't communicate with it. Just like fire and plants. They all have a story and I try to get that story to people who see my work, in a small way.” 
     Being creative is also therapeutic for Eugene. “I am also an injured worker advocate. I have seen society make a mess of injured workers. Art is my therapy that I use to make sense of it all.”
     Eugene has shown his work in Thunder Bay often over the years, painting most of his life as a self taught artist with a creative instinct he says has always been with him, that being inspired to draw and paint was not an event, but born into him. Yet he still needed encouragement to follow his artistic interests and he took it to heart when an elder gave him practical advice, as Eugene relates,“do your own thing if you can afford it.”
And so he did. "Just the sheer act of being able to draw and put it out there is inspiration. To copy stroke for stroke is wrong. To get inspired by the work is awesome."

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Incredible Whiteness of Children's Picture Books

It’s a primary complaint I’ve heard from parents that children’s books are too simple. Parents want picture books to have greater depth of meaning and more excitement with clever and imaginative vocabulary. Children want those qualities even more. Parents sense that picture books are being dumbed-down for the masses.
     Unlike picture books, middle readers and young adult novels have taken on big issues and flown off into otherworldly fantasies with exciting story lines, interesting characters and creative language. The result is an explosion of popular and worthy books with adults becoming their primary fans while rejecting violent and over-sexualized adult fiction or abstruse contemporary literary work. 
    It is a very different scene for children. And it's been that way for decades in Canada. It's something I noticed early on.
    It wasn’t long after our librarian at Agnew H. Johnston, Mr. Woodruff, read to our grade 3 or 4 class a story about a man who made his own plane and flew it around his farmland that I turned to comic books; Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat, Spiderman and Weird Tales. Mr. Woodruff pointed out that the book he read had a gold award sticker on its cover. He said that books with gold stickers were the best children’s books in the library.
    I dutifully headed to the cubby hole shelves with all the picture books and collected a stack of gold emblemed books. One by one I read the books expectantly and soon became disillusioned. When a classmate, Allison, sat next to me and asked me what I was doing I replied with some anger and guilt, “Don’t read the books with the gold stickers. They’re no good.” 
     I had reasoned that what adults wanted us to like was different from what we actually wanted from books. I wanted books that could match the mystery and excitement of Where the Wild Things Are or the strange worlds created by Dr. Seuss. I realized years later that I hadn’t outgrown picture books: any really good children’s picture book can be equally enjoyed by an adult. And the real test of any book is longevity. Those books that I loved were also the ones that millions of other children felt were their favourites. Many books have lasted for generations while hundreds of thousands of other books continue to vanish into the ether. We kids weren’t wrong. There were commonalities in the books we liked that made them great.
    Children are smarter than we give them credit for. Often they sense what’s going on when we think they shouldn’t and do so without the words to express themselves and the ability to contrast or compare what they see with other experiences in order to describe something fully to us adults. But they know what they like. 
     And masses of amounts of white space wasn’t one of them. As a child I wanted to be a little older than I was and a little smarter than I actually was. And white space to me symbolized baby books, Dick and Jane books, books that I really disliked as a child. Books with lots of white space aren’t bad books, some are great, but as a child lots of white space on the cover told me that they were lazy books.  
    Sadly children have no one to represent them in the book industry. There are agents and promoters who work for the publishing industry who talk up the value of books. And there are “critics” who love every single damn picture book that gets published, which makes them self-appointed shills for the industry, totally unconcerned that a child and her parent has to wade through continuous stacks of lacklustre books before they can find something they truly love. 
    Why produce so many books with so much white space? Maybe the white space is a result of the illustrators choosing to avoid depth of meaning and depth of perspective in detailed backgrounds with extra characters and animals because it takes too long to create that kind of added value. And in Canada most illustrators are simply not getting paid enough to develop their work further beyond the main characters.  
     Or it might be fashion. White is in vogue. White space makes the illustrations look modern, like a gallery’s walls or a lab in a hospital. Yet lots of white also makes the books antiseptic and middle class where no one is wealthy or poor. Life as you might see it in the street or allegorized in a fantastic tale doesn’t exist. White backgrounds represent the ultimate in generic taste - a kind of egalitarian space, a left-wing utopia. Or conversely it’s a conservative place, a safer place where nothing can jump out from behind trees in the background or from around a corner of a distant pathway. Added levels of meaning might suspiciously harbour left-wing activism like environmentalism or diversity. Some people are afraid of depth and diversity or even the subjective qualities or real world allegories that spring from it.
    But why so much white space in contemporary children’s books? Backgrounds and added characters make picture books much more interesting allowing the story to have multiple meanings, greater depth, or the kind of detail that causes children and adults to return to the book again and again without getting tired of it.
     I don’t know the answer and maybe it’s not a real problem, but parents will tell you, when there’s lots of white space in a picture book… some children love to fill it in. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Two Summer Shows in Thunder Bay, Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Definitely Superior Art Gallery

     With nearly two hundred artists from our region represented in two compelling group shows each showcasing a potpourri of aesthetic approaches and personal expression I didn’t know how to begin to cover it all in such limited space. Bumping into children’s book author Bonnie Tittaferrante at the Superstore I joked about the difficulty of writing about such shows. Bonnie smiled and suggested, “Why don’t you write about that, how difficult it is.”
     Good idea! 
Untitled, Painting by Kamila Westerback
     Interspersed amongst artwork submitted by local and living artists are works from the Thunder Bay Art Gallery’s collection including artists long deceased for The Perspective From Here: 150 Artists From the North. This show runs till September 24. It is massive with a great deal of First Nations Art represented. For although we are, for the most part, celebrating colonial consolidation the Trudeau government is attempting to make the effort more expansive and inclusive. This show does just that, scooping up a great deal of First Nations art for the show to represent a broad selection of local contemporary, traditional and experimental art. Local art fans will find most of the familiar names amongst younger less established artists. 
     Meanwhile the Definitely Superior Art Gallery hosts an annual member’s show to celebrate its youthful 29th birthday. This show is represents a diverse selection of work with heartfelt and inspiring videos, stop motion animation by guest artist Amanda Strong, a successful Indigenous filmmaker. This show runs till August 12. 
A ceramic work called "Flocks" by Katie Lemiux.
      So although the TBAG’s retrospective is one of scale and size that make this a must see show DEFSUP adds another dimension to represent our community and a bit beyond. You can make a day of pretending to be a tourist this summer and hit these two major art hubs as a starting point. 
     Having accomplished the general to then dive into specifics becomes much harder. The first rule for writing about group shows is not to mention that you have work in the show otherwise it might look egomaniacal. So I won’t. And you can’t favour your friend’s work. And you can’t pretend all work is equally worthy of attention. But to discern worth can be one of personal bias so I have to be mindful while fighting the urge to be sappily egalitarian and randomly pick works to write about. Being egalitarian is not fair to the artists who have gone out of their way to put in greater effort, to make a work supremely beautiful or to make a statement. Or with almost no effort to make a humorous and pointed statement with a souvenir straw. And thus the size of a work is irrelevant. 
Kristy Cameron, Acrylic
    Also, admiring works for their craft or originality of approach is not enough. Artists often go beyond the aesthetics with a message. Finding it might take time. Another challenge is finding commonalities in works to see if the curator had a plan or if the theme of the exhibition is successfully presented. How artists take on a similar subject can expose a viewer to a variety of ways that the same subject can be expressed. That’s useful to artists and others in their every day lives where ideas might be transposed into every day living. 
     Dealing with such variety is an opportunity for any viewer to appreciate an artist’s potentially new and unusual method of expression. And each artist may be progressing in ways that stretch their abilities and fully encompass the spirit of a theme that might be the inspiration for a group show. To discern who is up for the challenge and to what degree takes time. And therein lies the beauty of the difficulty. Group shows can be a massive landscape taking many days to traverse. I know I’ve missed something important simply because I just didn’t have the time, feeling swamped by it all. I’ll return to the shows for a second or third look over the summer adding both to my delight and guilt.  

Duncan Weller is an award winning author and illustrator of children’s books. You can find him hocking his picture books, art and other books Saturday mornings at the Country Market and at his gallery and studio at 118 Cumberland St. You can write to him at

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Legacy of Ahmoo Angeconeb

A photo of Ahmoo Angeconeb by Alastair MacKay
 for the opening ceremony of his 2007 exhibition titled,
Ahmoo's Prayer at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery
We are naturally geared to be impressed by dramatic effects, bold and bright colours and clever artistic hijinks that we often neglect the beauty and ability of drawing techniques to make bold statements, to inhabit and exhibit powerful links to the past and other cultures.
     As a professional print maker, Ahmoo Angeconeb’s deceivingly simple and unique use of line in his prints and drawings make powerful impressions, intuitively felt first before one realizes how much work, thought, history and referencing of other cultures is incorporated into his work.
    Angeconeb passed away a few weeks ago succumbing to health issues related to diabetes. He left a lasting legacy of art and influence in the arts community stemming not only from his art, but from his instruction as a teacher of adults and children, primarily in Northwestern Ontario. He was also a surprisingly upbeat and inspirational despite his acute condition in the last few years of his life.
     Born in Sioux Lookout in 1955 he was raised Lac Seul First Nation of the Whitefish Bay community until he was six when he attended a residential school in Pelican Falls with his siblings. Ojibway culture and language came by way of elders he met when getting a high school education in Kenora. There a teacher from Ireland introduced him to oil paints and he attended traditional First Nations ceremonies. Already drawing at the age of four, having used a bullet to draw with at one point, he was inspired at the age of thirteen by the work of Norval Morrisseau. He later studied visual arts over the years at York University, Lakehead University and Dalhousie University where he was also an instructor.
     With his art being curated and collected internationally, Ahmoo’s art shows featured thirty years worth of drawings, serigraphs, linocut prints and etchings. Across Canada his work travelled through Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, Winnipeg, London, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. He had shows In Santa Fe, Paris, Monaco, Basel in Switzerland. He was especially loved in Germany with many shows in Cologne, Berlin, Zurich and Munich. He was an artist in residence to the Sami, the Laplanders in Northern Finland. Prince Albert of Monaco has some of his work.
     His travels abroad influenced his style greatly. As an Ojibwe ambassador he  met with indigenous artists from other parts of the world. Not only was he introduced to their art and to the original art of their ancestors, Angeconeb was surprised by the commonality of imagery, thousands of years old, having visited  sites in the South of France to see ancient pictographs and petroglyphs.
    Although Angeconeb’s subject matter of bison, birds, stags, thunderbirds and other animals were solidly woodland art based, influences upon his style came from other indigenous cultures and traditional Japanese and ancient Egyptian work. He even incorporated the design elements of European heraldry. 
   His art is particularly known for their human figures looking much like bears with wide eyes and ghostly appearance. Both animals and humans often morph into one another to suggest spiritual realms beyond our physical reality. He personalized these worlds with his own symbology relying on his artistic temperament rather than employing static imagery out of habit or tradition.
Two of his sculptures sit outside the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The gallery regularly pulls his work out of their collection for retrospective shows as in the gallery’s current show: The Perspective From Here: 150 Artists From the North. His work can be purchased at the Ahnisnabae Gallery at 18 Court Street.

Marjorie Clayton's Other World

The need or ability to travel to remote areas of non-Western countries is still relatively rare and few who do make the journey don’t always return with something deep and artful that changes their lives and benefits the rest of us.
     As a professional photographer with a love of distant places and cultures Marjorie Clayton returns from her journeys with iconic images of ordinary people. The images allow us to glimpse into the lives of people who are rich at heart yet live in a difficult world without the advantages that we take for granted. Whether in Ghana or Bolivia the phrase “seize the day” doesn’t reflect choice and opportunity as we see it, but of doing what one can to survive on a daily basis. 
     Marjorie spends a great deal of time with her subjects, involving herself in their community more so than most artists and photographers would, stepping into a world that no tourist would see and one in which trust has to be earned. It’s a world that exists beyond our stereotypes.
    Driven by an interest in other countries, peoples, and cultures Marjorie first moved to England which became a springboard to Africa. Failing to confidently master French she chose English speaking Ghana as a destination. Beginning in 1992 Marjorie sporadically returned to Africa to spend an accumulated 15 months in Ghana.
     When first entering the country with only one contact with an NGO, Margorie states, “I figured I'd let life take me where it wanted me to go. I'm really not much of a tourist. I rarely go to monuments, museums or anywhere near a resort. I prefer to get to know what everyday life is like for the people I meet. Often I am drawn to artists, musicians and farmers and they often dictate where I go and what I do.”
    On several occasions Marjorie spent time in Navrongo, near Burkina Faso, as well as visiting Bolgatanga and the capital city Accra.
     “My main photo essays have been taken in Bolivia, Ghana and the Gambia. At the end of this coming year I plan to branch out and will be doing a new photo essay in Peru and possibly Ecuador. My most significant work was self funded with the exception of my first trip to The Gambia which was commissioned by a now defunct magazine in London.”
     Here in Thunder Bay you can see Marjorie’s photos at the Ahnisnabae Gallery at 18 Court St. And online at: 
     “I will be presenting 2 exhibitions in Bolivia in 2018. The first will be in February at City Hall in La Paz and the second will be in the Museo Tambo Quirquincho also in La Paz. For the May exhibition I will be creating a talk and workshop using my material from Ghana and The Gambia. I'm hoping to share my experiences in Ghana and The Gambia and show my images to a few Afro Bolivian communities  as well.”
      Most tourists who step tepidly into the fringe world that surrounds a resort or city centre encounter hustlers or “bumpsters,” as in the Gambia, where people resort to tricks and cons to earn a quick buck. 
     “My work can show another point of view, of real families, people who want to earn a living, to support a family in areas where unemployment is extremely high.”
    Marjorie captures people living and working with their families. Most are really happy to have their photo taken, especially if they can get a printed photo from Marjorie, which is a rare luxury. And although poverty is a constant toil, people continue to be optimistic assuaged by the understanding that everyone around them is in the same boat. Yet they are determined to bring joy to their lives, with family and friends and by being extremely creative with the limited resources they have.
And this is what Marjorie so artfully captures in her work, the industriousness and the humanity of people living ordinary lives, yet extraordinary for us.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Kyle Lees and Merk: New Works

Two of the local gang spearheading the burgeoning scene of the comic arts in Thunder Bay are Christopher Merkly and Kyle Lees. They both have new books out and they often work together to promote their separate projects at book launches, comic conventions, markets, festivals and book stores. Their work is quite different from one another’s, but fall into that low-brow category of popular arts that is an ever growing shelving problem for bookstores and libraries: continual expansion. The comic world is experiencing boon times with the support of the movie industry and huge comic conventions. No longer an underrated genre, the typically spotty teenage fans have been joined (if not superseded) by millions of adult fans who live for qualities in their comics and graphic novels that are typically found in more respected forms of literature and the visual arts. 
    Christopher, otherwise known as Merk, spent three years working on his graphic novel, Season of the Dead Hours, his third graphic novel. With his Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign he raised nearly eight thousand dollars for printing costs, an extraordinary success. 
     Once printed he took the book on the road. Merk states, “I go to comic conventions all over Canada every year and I have been for probably about five or six years. I've been to the big fan expo in Toronto, C4 in Winnipeg. I go to Calgary every year in the spring. This year I went to Regina as well. And I just  got back from Orillia's first ever convention, which was super fun and a big success.”
Merk, Kyle and another local comic artist, Bry Kotyk, “go full on nerd” as Merk says, with a weekly podcast called Zero Issues Comicd where they discuss all aspects of popular culture. They also share a vendor’s booth at the Country Market with other comic artists Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.
     In his book Merk sends his two protagonist companions on a dark journey of past reflections with the promise of a dramatic conflict for the climax. Based on Merk’s interest in swamp bogs in Europe that continue to turn up mummified bodies, the swamp in the book is not only an ancient burial site but a purgatory and portal for lost, once sacrificed and murdered souls who can be resurrected under the right conditions. 
     And so an ancient Druid named Sitchenn rises from the swamp and befriends a boy named Fionn who helps him search for an ancient talisman that can be used as a weapon. Crossing a bleak Irish night-scape the characters speak a wonderful otherworldly Gaelic. These foreign features heighten the mystery, increase the sense of magic, and deepen the history creating a wonderful moody read. 
      Kyle Lees’ compilation of cartoons called Ski Ninjas spans his most productive year, 2013, and Ski Ninjas ran for a good eight years in a dozen student newspapers and elsewhere across the country giving him some national acclaim. Kyle is working to illustrate a children’s book and will soon put out another instalment of Ski Ninjas.
      Kyle’s bulbous cartoon characters and abstract incongruous segues are insightful and often hilarious. He uses a good deal of wit and sarcasm, taking on contemporary issues and making occasional popular culture commentary. The strips are sometimes a rambling guide of a young person’s doubts and insecurities in a world made more complicated by social media and changing relationship expectations. So, it’s a lot of fun and gets you reflecting on your own situations in life, an art in itself. Is there wisdom here?
     Kyle states, “Wisdom's a strong word! A lot of the book's content is made up of me, my life and experiences. That's the sort of thing that you have to heavily lean on with no recurring characters or plot.”
    Merk’s website is and Kyle’s is Their books are available at Chapters and soon at the Waterfront Art sale in the Baggage Building June 24th and 25th. 
Merk saliently adds, “Comics aren't  for kids anymore. And they haven't been for a long time. But it's only just in the past decade or so that seems to have come into the mainstream. With the success of all the comic book films, I think a whole new audience has been introduced to comics. They are an artform unto themselves and are taken seriously.  Whether it's the superhero aspect, which I view  as modern mythological tales, or a host of other genres & approaches for comics… there's something for everybody.”