Monday, 20 March 2017

Vik Wilen's sellout shows at Espresso Joya.

Vik Wilen (Photo by Sachicko Bradshaw)
Up until the end of April are thirteen new works by Vik Wilen in a new show at Espresso Joya, 8 Cumberland St. South. Vik is an artist and yoga instructor whose splashy and fun works are a hit in Thunder Bay. Five minutes before the opening of her show last week Vik sold her first painting of the evening. She was a little worried that she wouldn’t get the same response she had with her Joya show the year before, which was a complete sellout. She didn’t have to worry, Tom, the owner of Joya, went dashing for his sheet of red dots and by the end of the night Vik had sold half her show and taken on a number of commissions.
     It’s not hard to see the appeal of big bold friendly paintings done with expressionist zeal featuring pleasant subject matter: mountains, lakes, trees, wind, water and skies. Generically treated, not tied to local landscapes, the freedom of play exhibited is brazen and even brave. Vik is not worried about capturing the likeness of anything, but the feelings of freedom, play and escape associated with beautiful places at beautiful times of the day, whether sunny or stormy. The paint comes alive and still looks wet on the canvas. The trees are painted like little explosions and the mountains look like they are about to roll away or lose their coverage like ice cream in the sun.
     Even when Vik cages the images with black lines to delineate colour variations the energy of the brushstrokes still come through. The paintings technical quality in a few paintings might not appeal to trained artists, but the generous carefree use of paint and love of the subject matter make up for anything lacking. It’s a lesson to artists, not to take ourselves too seriously.
     Vik Wilen is all about getting away from that. “I practice yoga everyday and I have become pretty in tune with the way that I’m feeling and I try to evoke that into each piece that I paint. Nature’s a huge part of my work. I wanted to bring light to the water and just got really obsessed with that. Surf culture is also a big part of why I paint water.”
     If she had to title the show, Vik says, “…off the top of my head it would be called ‘Samadhi’ which is a state of being present in mind and body. I felt that way throughout the series.” Vik adds that she works intuitively. “Technically my style is quite free flowing. I don’t over calculate. I just mix a bunch of colours and try to stay as present as I can so the painting takes on its own shapes and forms.” 
     When asked about her artistic training, Vik states, “No art school for me.” Vik studied fashion before she came to Lakehead University to study environmental management. “I paint and create as innocently as possible. I didn’t want too many influences or techniques impressing upon my own creativity. I remember my ex boyfriend… he got really good at replicating the Bob Ross style and his paintings always turned out so good… but I would just look at his art and think.. that’s so not his. That’s Bob Ross'. I always wanted my style and technique to be completely original so I shied away from youtube clips or classes or getting overly logical about making art look ‘good'" 
     “The inspiration for this series was drawn from my time in California this past summer. A lot of my paintings were of mountains. And I spent the summer in the sierra Nevada range. I also got to rock climb in Yosemite valley which completely blew my mind. A lot of my mountains are inspired by that place. I love to climb, I love the feeling of being high and the fear that is accompanied with the act of climbing. I love pushing myself past my comfort zones and the feeling of being so accomplished after a big adventure up a mountain.”
     Another aspect to her paintings, a fundamental use of art today is its therapeutic value. “For me painting has always been a way for me to express myself. In 2014 I went through some really hard times and that was what helped me open up my creative block and start to channel the things that I love out onto canvas. At that point I definitely used art as a form of therapy and healing.” 
     Vik says she’s working to play with and improve her technical approaches but loves what she’s doing now and doesn’t see any dramatic changes in the near future. 
   Duncan Weller is a writer and visual artist, soon to open a gallery on Cumberland called The Rogue Planet Gallery. In the meantime you can find his books and art Saturday mornings at the Country Market. 
     You can see more of Vik Wilen’s art at: www.vikwilen.com.

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Art of Mary McPherson: Resurrection of A Lost Art and the Way to a New Renaissance

Mary McPherson is a Governor General's Award Winner
(junior category) Her show is on this March at the Calico Coffeehouse
Bay and Algoma, Thunder Bay, Ontario
 If you’re thinking that a lonely late night staffer at the Chronicle Journal, bleary-eyed and dozy, mistakenly placed a photo of a twelve year old girl in this article instead of an older and more mature looking artist, you’d be wrong. Mary McPherson is a petite twenty-year old second year student studying visual art at Lakehead University. Mary is working towards a double major in Indigenous Learning where her father, Dennis McPherson teaches. Although only twenty, Mary displays surprisingly technical and creative ability in her dramatic drawings featuring a rare command with her chosen subject matter, deliberated upon with great forethought and some experience. 
    “Generally I’m speaking about assimilation,” says Mary about her first few graphite drawings at the Calico Coffeehouse at Bay and Algoma. “They are about resistance. The three other works are about how deeply imbedded the assimilation processes are in our communities.” 
    Few artists are as adept or keen to take on issues important in their own lives to reflect longstanding and complicated current issues that are also important to millions of others who share the same history. These works are built upon her deep knowledge of the conflict between Canada’s European heritage and that of Canada’s First Nations people. Conflicts similar the world over.
Colonial Expansion, graphite on paper by Mary McPherson
    Mary’s stagecraft mix of familiar looking landscapes are similar to works by Georgia O’Keeffe and referenced from Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven fame. Mary’s choice of elderly subjects who command the images are taken from turn of the Twentieth Century photographs. Resplendent with Mary’s acute detailing of their skin, she humanizes her subjects with great attention to detail with graphite lines deeply tracing crevices crimped by time. And with Mary’s surrealistic treatment not only is there a hint of Salvador Dali there is also an unmistakable association with the American Expressionist movement when it was in full form in the United States before ending abruptly shortly after the Second World War. A wonderfully illustrated coffee table book on the subject is Bram Dijkstra’s, American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920 - 1950.
     Expressionism’s many dynamic styles began in Europe growing quickly to full fruition with its socialist zeal when the Works Progress Administration came into being, a signature creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Millions of people, including artists of all stripes were put to work. F.D.R.’s New Deal sparked monumental changes in the United States, changes that have conflicted with the conservative agenda ever since. Social progress stalled in the 1950s, and art history took a turn for the worse. Expressionist artists could have continued to fight for social progress had there not been an abrupt change or deliberate turn towards fashion over substance, mostly for political reasons, down a road towards an antiseptic cold and hard “modernism.” 
   And now we face the prospect of our American friends having their hard earned social progress since the 1960s dramatically uprooted by the newly elected and appointed Trump administration. Thus the call by many for artists to fight for what they believe, to make their art socially active and relevant as the Expressionists once did so well. A similar movement could be invaluable today.
       The Expressionists were all about inclusion, diversity and social progress for everyone. In their art and lives they fought for workers’ rights, African American’s rights, women’s rights and other worthwhile causes. Many artists did so with a utopian Marxist zeal. Today, with the disheartening wagon-circling of the right wing, nutcase conspiracy theorists and extremists in our midst it could not be too soon for an uplifting arts movement, a Renaissance spearheaded by First Nations artists. Mary however isn’t looking for Utopia, but she is hoping for and working towards a cultural renewal for First Nations people. 
Popcorn Elder #3, graphite on paper by 
Mary McPherson
     “My desire to draw came as soon as I was able to hold a pencil,” Mary laughs. Born in December her mother decided to hold her back a year before school started, filling the time with all sorts of child crafts. By the age of four, Mary had already caught the artistic bug. Drawing was an important outlet. In high school it was her way of thinking, expressing, understanding and escaping. Influences upon larger themes later in life began in high school where racism was openly displayed. More white looking than native Mary witnessed racism directed at other First Nations students without feeling the brunt of the attack. She still felt hurt and confused by the incidents, stating circumspectly. “There’s that dichotomy between the native population and the non-native and it exists in the city, as well as high school.”
    But the effects of racism stayed with her. In her university studies Mary’s Indigenous research and love of art combined in a most fruitful way. Of one of her works, Modernity, No. 2, Mary says of the woman on the swing, “She is depicted on a colonial structure, the swing, while wearing a long skirt and short hair. There is a residential school in the background. This woman is subjected to the assimilation process. Meanwhile, the landscape is one of Lawren Harris’ vast and uninhabited landscapes. While Harris’ spirituality was embraced as a gem of national Canadian identity, the spirituality of the Indigenous peoples were being outlawed as the people were pushed off the land onto reserves.” 
Carried by the People #1,
graphite on paper 
by Mary McPherson
     A relatively new understanding is that our favoured artists, The Group of Seven and others, although not commissioned by the government for propaganda purposes, found their works popular in a country that still had a residual colonial mindset. At its core was the idea that our Canadian landscape was a pristine unpeopled landscape, a natural Eden for Europeans to explore and call their own. 
    You can see a video documentary by Isabel Smith on Mary McPherson HERE
     Furthering this thinking, and encapsulating her ideas visually, Mary writes of a work titled, Popcorn Elder, as a, “critique of what we know about contemporary Indigenous culture. Indigenous peoples, having been forced into a fast-paced assimilation process are left to determine their culture based on what is left. We have two sources: non-native historical interpretations of our way of life, and our Elders. Our Elders are considered to be the source of culture, and most of them will recall some ceremonies as young children as well as going to residential schools. Philosophies of Indigenous peoples are often missing from their teachings.”
     You can see why Mary at the young age of eighteen won the 2015 Governor General’s History Award in the Junior Art Category. And with plans to get a PhD and study law, “I feel like it could help me understand my artistic practice as well.” It’s no surprise to hear that Mary is committed to being a full time artist, educator and even an activist. 
     “Art for me is more or less a critical thinking process. It’s a matter of applying what I learn outside into a conceptual image. It helps to understand the world around me and to understand myself, especially as an indigenous woman.”
  Calico Coffeehouse on Bay and Algoma has six amazing works by Mary McPherson for the month of March. 
     Duncan Weller is a writer and visual known for his children’s books. You can write to him at duncanweller@hotmail.com. Check out his new gallery, Rogue Planet Gallery, from Thursday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm at 118 Cumberland or drop by upstairs at the Country Market Saturday mornings. 


Andrew Dorland: A Graphic Tale

     “The usual kind of culprit was comics,” laughs Andrew Dorland, also siting Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons amongst his long list of popular cultural influences. But Andrew was also influenced by the great Renaissance artists and the Pre-Raphaelite movement of romantic art. Andrew gave an analysis of how the chiaroscuro effects used dramatically by the 16th Century artist Caravaggio influenced the graphic art of his time and carried through to present day comics. “DaVinci’s grotesque stuff is just like comics too,” says Andrew.
You can see his work HERE
     Originally from a suburb of Holland Landing, farmland area near Barrie, Andrew came to Thunder Bay to study business at Lakehead University. He got his business/administration degree, then worked briefly in a tattoo shop in Toronto, became a stock broker and then headed back into his art. Back in T. Bay he does some bookkeeping to pay the bills.
     Andrew sees a good deal of irony in that his father wouldn’t allow him to study art at university; for the biggest influence on Andrew’s artistic bent came from his father. Although a pilot by trade, Andrew’s father was also a part time painter, taking on the occasional commission to paint airplanes when he wasn’t painting landscapes as a hobby. He taught Andrew perspective tricks, like drawing the typical train tracks receding towards the horizon line.
     Parents rightfully worry that their kids will go down a path that could lead to misery and the sad stereotype of artists suffering in poverty is a reality for some. However circumspect Andrew is about the art scene he knows he would love to be making a living as an artist if he could. As a result you can find him and his buddy comic artist, Kyle Lees, working away at the Country Market Saturday mornings at their vendor’s booth on the second floor where they refer to themselves as the Octilius Studio. They are soon to be joined by fellow comic and graphic novel artists Bry Kotyk, Christopher Merkley and Colin Rackham.
     Andrew is not entirely new to the game of the comic book world. He’s worked for one of the larger comic publishers and done illustration work near Barrie for a small publisher, illustrating children’s books and activity cards. He jump started his desire to be an artist by producing his own comic book series, Scarabs.
     Scarabs is a 22 page comic. It takes Andrew about twelve to sixteen hours to draw a page which produces a comic in just over two months. Once the artwork is done a entirely new workload takes over involving the layout, design and publishing that follows.
     “I’ve illustrated children’s books in the past and it’s nice to just hand over the illustrations and be done with it,” he says. “That said, I’ve got a large oil painting that seems to be taking me forever.”
     Andrew is realistic about what success is. “Success is having the money and time to create the things you want too create. I believe everyone has a drive to create in their own way and being able too do that full time is success.”
    “I'm currently finishing up the next few issues of the Scarabs Comic, but as far as projects goes I'm working on a number of pitches for comic publishers including an Irish Mythology themed story that I'm sure people who like fantasy stories will like. It will be my largest challenge too date as I'm painting each page.”
     The influences of popular culture upon Andrew is not total. “Sure, I’m very influenced by popular culture but I really try and avoid bringing too much of it consciously into any story I create. The Scarabs Comic is all psychological and at least fifty percent based on incidents of my own life. The story is very heavy emotionally so I think by adding some Egyptian gods and fantastic looking creatures I give the reader a "safe" separation too absorb the message.” 
     Andrew also acknowledges that trying to win over an audience with the pizzaz of detail, dramatic settings and violent action, like special effects in a movie, does nothing compared to how interesting characters can grip the reader. Referring to his Irish mythological tale Andrew says, “Having a true understanding of what these characters would do and what drives them is the most important thing.”
      Andrew has some big ambitions, hoping to work with a large publisher who takes an interest in Andrew’s story ideas. Being realist he says he’s trying not to get attached to his ambitions. He’s aware of the old adage of keeping expectations low, but he’s certainly not going to avoid doing his best to make a go of it.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Art of Jasper Schmidt

Constraints aren’t Jasper’s problem. She’s dealt with limited space in her childhood and currently takes great advantage of her living room, packing and unpacking her supplies. As a third year student at Lakehead University in the visual arts program Jasper creates large works with expansive themes of home and place in colourful yet muted tones. Her paintings are currently on display at Espresso Joya at 8 Cumberland St. South.
     A major source of inspiration for Jasper are maps. Jasper employs these everyday functional tools in her paintings to cleverly suggest connections with the intimacies of home life. And not just her own home life, the paintings will soon become mapped portraits for others as well. Having taken on a commission she has found a unique way to generate an income.
     In her younger days, painting at home was too messy for Jasper’s family and she didn’t have a lot of room for it, but she organized with a closet dedicated to art supplies. Her painting journey really began at LU. Previously she had only worked with watercolours and fell in love with acrylics when she was first introduced to them. 
     Jasper’s desire to have the acrylics mimic watercolour effects rather than the plastic look acrylic can sometimes generate, lead her to work the acrylic into raw canvas. Priming a canvas with gesso makes the surface hard, smoother and more resilient. It’s not generally recommended to paint on raw canvas unless treated properly. Most of Jackson Pollack's paintings, worth millions of dollars, are falling apart. Museums and galleries spend millions on restoration, especially contemporary works of art as they contain the most volatile of materials often with no concern for the works longevity. In some museums you can actually see a line of paint dust on the floor beneath a Pollock due to the paint slowly disintegrating. 
    However, if done correctly with sealants and coloured gesso, watered down in order to keep the elasticity of the canvas, the benefits of painting into raw canvas can result in effects that are much harder to achieve with a completely primed canvas.
     “I’ve had quite the journey with painting,” states Jasper. “My beginnings weren’t very hands on.” She first took architecture at the University of Manitoba. “It really opened my eyes to what I really wanted to do. Ideally I would like a job that is very very hands on, whether working in wood – fine carpentry or furniture…. I found my niche in painting and along the way became interested in maps, personal maps, and map-like shapes that people might recognize… the tryptic [for instance] is all Canada.”
     This large triple painting and sectional “map” of Canada actually isn’t as jumbled as it looks. There was a lot of preplanning and projection involved. This tryptic inspired follow-up paintings where Jasper included significant places in her life which she highlighted; her childhood home, favourite lakes, babysitter’s house, friends homes, and more. So when you view the paintings you may now be aware of why it is you find her work somewhat familiar.
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Amanda Burk at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Amanda Burk’s show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, “Stories of Contentment and Other Fables” mix contemporary and traditional approaches to create what could be described as visual poetry or as visual allegory for adults where Burk’s creative use of animal imagery in beautiful charcoal drawings are enhanced by their scale and method of presentation.  
     We are accustomed to animals representing us humans in fables and fairy tales, anthropomorphically telling a humanist story that might otherwise be too harsh and too close to reality for children’s ears. Traditional stories use this method of distancing to cleverly educate children, and even warn them, about the complexities of living a moral adult life, easing them into the adult maze with a humanist map forged in their minds. 
   For us adults, contemporary art can perform similarly where complex realities are transformed into subjective realms of feelings and philosophical meanderings. Quite different from traditional art or storytelling with a moral purpose, the contemporary realm of art has its drawbacks when too focused on itself rather than the subject at hand creating what artists and art historians call the “history of ideas” when the technique and aesthetic approach is demonstrably newer than the last. 
     Fortunately many contemporary artists avoid a pure discussion of aesthetics and use unique and clever approaches to better express the relationship they have with their inner selves, the outside world that affects them, and at their best a combination of both. The results can be visual poetry not intended to illustrate any specific story, idea or moral approach to life. This kind of mental kinship a viewer can often have with the artist is something to be found in traditional art and even in popular culture, but these subjective elements are often taken for granted whereas in contemporary art they are the focus. 
   And a contemporary art gallery has the space for physical creativity where the size and method of presentation of the art can be played with by the artist to help make their shows more dynamic and impacting.
     At the TBAG, Amanda Burk’s work puts you on an emotional journey, very cleverly achieved in the work, its presentation, and sequentially as if in a book, from left to right. Or potentially in the other direction or even from wall to opposite wall. 
    Amanda Burk’s beautiful drawings of animals are both technically brilliant and composed with great forethought to creatively generate feelings and potentially thoughts on current topics possibly similar to what Burk herself felt or thought when the inspiration came or during the work’s creation. In describing her work, Burk relates how present day influences affected her thoughts and feelings. She also described the journey she took in her practice that related directly to her life and world events. As a viewer you won’t learn these specifics unless they are relayed to you verbally or in a written text, but you may feel them in the show, which is quite the feat.
     The moon shaped imagery of sleeping animals on one wall are contrasted dramatically by animals violently lurching out from the dark spaces in the squares within a disorganized display of black picture frames on the opposite wall. 
     When you study the works take note of other opposites: square and circle, day and night, peace and anger/fear, balance and unbalance, black charcoal and white charcoal, white paper and black paper, white on black and black on white, sleeping animals and angry animals, jumbled active crowd and mirrored peaceful balance. 
      These multiple opposites and contrasts are clever expansions upon the drawings. They are like settings or backdrops for our animal friends, combining to make for a brilliant show, simplistic in some ways yet deep and thoughtful in others, a show worthy of your adult mind. 
    This show of recent drawings by Amanda Burk is on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery till March 26. And just to note, Nadia Kurd as curator has done a great job of picking out some amazing artists for us.
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The Rent is Too Damn High!: Greedy and Shameful Landlords are Charging Far Too Much for Rent in Thunder Bay



      What needs are essential in order for an artist to survive? To flourish? To be able to contribute to their community? Few artists manage a full time living selling their wares or working with a publisher or gallery or promoter, yet having these connections is the biggest influence on where an artist lives. Being part of a scenee in important as well. Like-minded groups build camaraderie and help an artist to further engage with the public. 
     One of the biggest influences on where an artist chooses to reside is the rent. High rent won’t completely dissuade them from living in downtown Toronto or Vancouver, at least at first, but if they give their acting career a good try and it doesn’t illicit the work or success they had hoped, they are likely to seek out a more manageable cost of living elsewhere.
   Every human being on the planet requires shelter. It’s a human commonality, not a wanting luxury. And there are good reasons for governments around the world to believe that the most any average income earner should pay for shelter is 30 percent of their income. For someone to take advantage of a situation, like a flood, to take half or more of a person’s income by jacking up the rent without due cause is not just being greedy, it is disgraceful, shameful and it should be criminal. High rent makes life difficult for others and can outright steal a person’s ability to own a vehicle, to have a spouse, to have children, to save for a house. High rent can steal’s a young person’s future from them. On top of paying ever increasing tuition fees, students at Confederation College and Lakehead University will tell you how upset they are about high rent and that no one seems to care about their situation. 
     For artists the cost of materials is high. Framing is expensive. Promoting and selling work requires being an entrepreneur and business person on the side with all sorts of costs involved. They are particularly vulnerable to economic change. And any adult earning a basic income and looking for an apartment is in trouble. 
     The rent has seriously jumped in Thunder Bay without cause. What goes on in the head of a landlord when she or he decides to hike the rent by hundreds of dollars? Where are the great new jobs flooding into Thunder Bay? Has everyone’s pay suddenly doubled? Do landlords think we’re all winning lotteries? 
     It’s not the “market” that is making them hike rent or lack of rental spaces, for even if this is true it’s still no justification for the hike. It’s taking advantage of people. It’s outright shameful greed. Or could it be that people have a fantasy that the future is so bright here in Thunder Bay that we are all going to pick money from trees. It’s not happening.
     High rent will make life harsher in Thunder Bay and lead to a slow suicide for the city. We should be encouraging people to move here. We should make the city amendable to our children so they can have good lives here. We need to make our city beautiful. Economists say we need Thunder Bay’s population to grow by at least thirty to fifty thousand people in the next twenty years if we want a healthy and viable city. The latest demographic study shows that in the last ten years Thunder Bay's population has risen by only twenty-five people. In a bad week, our obit column can feature thirty deaths. So you can imagine how tight the race is.
     Closing schools and businesses won’t help, but likely necessary. It won’t help to defund promotional campaigns that advertise the city. It won’t help to defund the arts or underfund programs and projects that make Thunder Bay culturally attractive and beautiful for those living here. Why would anyone living in other cities with worthwhile amenities want to move here? People need good reasons to brave a Northern living with its isolation and long winters. And they need reasons not to leave.
    Having grown up in Thunder Bay and travelled to quite a few countries I’m suspicious of an undercurrent of fear in this city: the fear of change. I think the reason so many people are jacking the rent and politicians are doing little to nothing about it is because these people secretly don’t want young people to succeed. They don’t want people to move here. Artists, young people and outsiders might change the face of the city, change the culture. They might alter the city’s course and make it something other than what’s it’s always been; familiar, comfortable, low key, stable. 
    Artists and young people are terrible. They like to do research and get worldly experiences by traveling, opening their eyes and being empathetic. When they return they bring ideas with them and open up gastropubs which puts the familiar greasy spoon places out of business. You don’t want more of that, now do you? Imagine if artists, young people, First Nations people and immigrants became politicians or big business owners. They might “change” things. Scary. 
     In the name of human decency let’s start by lowering the rent in 2017 and practice giving to others and not taking what isn’t yours.
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.


Friday, 9 December 2016

Make Art Great Again: A Call to Canadian Artists to help our American Friends Destroy the Trump Train


An iconic Canadian image, Horse and Train, by Alex Coalville
modified with Photoshop for this article by Duncan Weller. 
If Trump isn’t soon ousted from office it will be time for a war effort, one in which artists and others work to prevent him and his cronies from infecting masses of people with fear, hate, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and an ideology that puts money and retarded ideas about success ahead of people, animals and the environment. 
     A number of calls for action have gone out to artists and within the calls are predictions that Trump’s presidency will foster new art movements the likes of which hasn’t been seen since before World War II. If a new art movement does occur it will be one with clear messages and imagery that connects with the public with the potential to protect individual and disadvantaged groups’ freedoms in a diverse cultural landscape where everyone should be treated equally. And it may produce great art.  
      Many American journalists, historians and politicians are proving to be correct in their assertions that Donald Trump is a potentially dangerous president like none before him. But he is only part of the equation as Vladimir Putin is salivating at the potential for more international influence, the lifting of sanctions for his incursions into Eastern Europe and the likelihood of wars in Europe and elsewhere in the process. 
     President Obama has yet to step down and Trump has already inspired hateful acts, worried foreign nations and upset their relationship with China. Internationally the extremist right around the world is reading Trump’s presidency as a vindication of all sorts of regressive acts against immigrants, minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, refugees, journalists and others. The possibility that Trump’s presidency might influence political upstarts, even here in Thunder Bay, using ugly Trump rhetoric and tactics to vie for political power is worrying and very real. 
    In our city worries about minority groups and immigrants affecting the larger group financially and culturally are unfounded and hardly worth laser focus. Our real problems involve high rent, lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs and the difficulties involved in starting a business. These are profoundly more important. But these issues and others can be ignored or played down during an election by someone cleverly Trumping other voices.  
   Artists voices needn't be silent, during an election or any other time. Artists are a strange and sensitive bunch with both great and bizarre traits. They are often at odds when it comes to their art, but what they most usually agree upon is that diversity is a plus. The freedom for an individual to express herself is fundamental to an artist. They have been known to speak out against anyone or anything that might deny a person’s ability to express themselves. Yet, as is all too human, artists fall into camps of thought, grouping themselves by their peculiarities of interest, stereotypes or ideologies that often remove them from the interests of a larger public. 
     It’s time for artists to step out of their comfort zone as this is one of those rare times when the democracy that supports and defends their divergent interests could be used against them. As faulty as democracy is, democracy really needs help from artists. Artists have to hold off on their aesthetic experiments and naval gazing that produces a subjective art for the wealthy one percent. Artists have to hold off on painting yet another barn, pretty flowers or Sleeping Giant. Cartoonists and comic book artists have to hold off or set to work their cartoon characters and superheroes on a cause greater than the comic book world. It’s time to get political. Time to get nasty and pointed in order to expose anyone spouting hatred and division. Artists have to get nasty to fight the nasty people. It’s time to stir things up with honesty and commit to positive change and action for a better world. We were on the right track with progress, as slow as it was. We can’t let everything slide backwards. 
Related Article: Trump VS Harper
   I can only imagine that as an artist you’ll enlarge your fanbase. As we artists are often known to the public for being condescendingly critical of their majority, their slow grasp or desire for change and inability to see the value in what we do. But we can win them over by doing what we’ve done best whenever and wherever democracies have allowed us to “enlarge and enhance man’s mental and moral nature.” For if we deserve to be looked up to for our ability to reflect on our inner selves and the world around us, then we should also be able to actively take part in the world that allows us our frivolities and idiosyncrasies. Rather than simply live in the world, comment on it and react to it, we can change it. We can be the artists who made things happen. How? Well, if you’re the artist. Use your imagination.
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Elizabeth Buset at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery: Swine

This little piggy went to market,
This little piggy stayed home,
This little piggy had roast beef
This little piggy had none,
And this little piggy cried wee wee wee all the way to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery by way of the slaughterhouse to be featured in uncompromising detail in Elizabeth Buset’s solo show, Swine. 
     The bulk of this show, comprised of installation pieces with an audio element are five large oil paintings that are amazing displays of technical craftsmanship, detail, and commitment to a ongoing worthwhile political and social statement. 
     The size of the paintings, the size of the pig heads and amount of detail create a sense of awe, which you may find combines with a sense of unease. You can admire these paintings for their detail and accuracy, the use of colour, and the amazing ability of paint to mimic skin. Which is why Buset’s use of paint dissolve the surface of the paintings into reality. A painting done using other techniques, such as thick, broad colourful brush strokes would be attractive, but then the painting becomes more about technique and less about the subject. 
    High realism, although most often cold and lacking obvious dynamism has the benefit of being both admired for the workmanship while allowing the viewer to be fully engulfed, with access to the subject in glorious and gory detail in a way that no photographer could ever capture, especially on such a grand scale. Various kinds of paint, manipulated subtly by the human hand can have effects that are otherworldly. 
    While we feel sorry for the pigs and for liking the paintings despite the carnage, we also wonder at the startling contrasts that Buset has supplied for us to contemplate. The human tokens that the pigs wear are colourful and associated to activities we do for fun, creating a sort of dialogue between the pigs’ heads and the tokens. The tokens insult the respect we should have for the poor pig who gave up its life for our consumption, while the activities associated with the tokens are put into question. 
     Like a serial killer from a cop show who plays with our perceptions of what is right and wrong, Buset plays with the associations we have with popular culture. The Batman mask or Minnie Mouse bow are supposed to be fun, but placed on a dead pig’s head the fun becomes a bit of a horror show calling into question the purpose of the imagery. For Buset, that purpose is to make us think, to reflect on the kind of destruction that comes from blindly buying into a culture of mass production. 
     Buset rightly points out that it is our consumption that is destroying our planet. So hopefully, that sense of unease you feel may stay with you when you next feel the urge to consume. 
     The work Collective Guilt, which takes up a huge space along one wall is of many pig masks ordered from Shanghai. Without strings to fix the mask to a person’s head you might first wonder if the pigs’ faces were torn from their bodies. Combined in this way on the wall the faces engulf you and stare at you. You might feel guilt. You might wonder how many pigs you’ve consumed in your lifetime. Pigs are, after all, as intelligent as monkeys, smarter than dogs. Here there is a moral issue with what and how much you eat. However, the message is not only that little animal lives are being destroyed by our consumption, it is also that our lives are being whittled away piece by piece by our insatiable North American need for happy little plastic products and the ideologies associated with them supplied to us by corporations and governments who don't always have our best interests at heart. 
     So it’s wonderful to see Buset take up the very real and contemporary cause that conflict with North America’s blind run to make money as represented by Trump’s America. Buset states, “I am very satisfied with this exhibition. Everything from its creation, to display, to the conversations it has started has made every hour painting worth it.” 
    And there were a lot of hours involved. “Swine took three years, or around four thousand hours to complete. That is a lot of time to be alone in the studio. To fill the time I listen to audiobooks and podcasts, many of which were about socio-poetical ideas and observations. Creating this series was a form of research and self-education. It clarified my identity and purpose as a political artist.” 
    “I was first introduced to large scale painting during my HBFA. Painting students were asked to recreate a famous painting and I chose a work by the American Realist, Philip Pearlstein. Through that exercise I realized the physical and psychological impact of scale in art.” 
     This is Buset’s third solo show, with two previous shows held at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. “In comparison to my other solo exhibitions I believe SWINE is my most mature and fully realized series…. Swine is unique because it is the first time I have included installation elements, printmaking and interactive art stations to help augment my content and educate my audiences.”
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Oxen of the Sun: John Books at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery


Emblematic works of bronze sculptures by John Books at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery inhabit and reference the human condition in ways that are dramatic and subtle, historic and present day. You have to be a bit crazy to dedicate your life to such an intensive art form. In John’s case it’s an unending love for exploration of the medium, one that generates a sense of awe and respect for anyone who knows something of the complicated process involved. That process gives bronze sculptures the advantage of being taken more seriously over other forms of art, partly because the expense and process weed out artists who have little talent or patience. Most often works of bronze are truly great and John’s work is no exception.
      Another reason for respecting the medium is that bronzes will last for thousands of years. They immediately resonate with history. And aware of this John has added features that further deepen connections with the past. A beckoning pathway of canvas with topographical footprints stretches across the floor amongst tall ochre lichen earth coloured podiums and walls. The canvas imitates the impressions made by the first humans. The dramatic podiums encourage reflection upon the small sculptures that animate their tops. When in your hands the weight and solidity of the sculptures will take on new dimensions. Along with being encouraged to hold most of the pieces, John also welcomes photography of his works.
          John is interested in sharing his love of art as best he can and he’s particularly proud of this show, putting a lifetime of knowledge into his work so much so that he’s currently taking a breather. This is a signature show revealing a mature artist in love with life, art and literature with an endearing commitment to an exploration of the human subject with all its glories and foibles.
  After thirty years of living in Thunder Bay John now lives in Grand Marais where he continues his study. “in the past two years I have taken workshops using techniques from two thousand years ago that were used to make moulds and pour bronze.” Results of these and other process span works in the show created from 2009 to the present.   
     “I really like where this show went artistically. I feel like I stepped into myself, intellectually and as an artist. Emotionally too.” 
     The bell placed centrally in the show over the pathway is of special significance to John. “I lost a brother a year ago and always wanted to do a commemorative piece for him. For a long while it was a piece of wood I was carving. And then I made the ringer. And I thought of my brother.”
  Of the show, John says, “It was a delight that it came together. It was very satisfying.” John adds, “It looks like I’m taking a break. I don’t know where to go from here. I’ve been thinking about this show for years. I’ve been writing for the past few months and its’ been the writing that’s pulling me together. It’s not postpartum depression. It’s just breathing.”
    A good deal of equipment and tools are required when John proceeds with the 24 to 30 steps in the process from moulding a model in microcrystalline foundry wax, carving it with various tools, then applying wax “pipes” to bring the molten metal uniformly to the mould, brushing it with alcohol and varnish, dipping it into a chemical soup of ceramic material a number of times, sprinkling or rolling it in sand with a final coating of slurry that is a centimetre thick. The piece is suspended while it dries. The wax is carefully melted from the ceramic mould with a propane torch so the mould becomes hollow. The piece gets fired in a furnace at 2000 F for an hour, buried in sand or cast in resin. The bronze is melted in a furnace and poured into the cup on the top of the sculpture. When cooled the mould is removed with a hammer and chisel. It might get sandblasted, then is filed, ground, after which a wax finish and patina are applied. And be aware, this is just a harshly abbreviated version of John’s description of the process.
     John Book’s show, Oxen of the Sun runs till January 8 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. 
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.

Tim Boyce at Espresso Joya

     The Espresso Joya coffeehouse on Cumberland, corner to Red River Road, is currently adorned with unique and fresh paintings of solitary colourful birds perched happily, yet boldly against contrasting backgrounds inspired by the work of modernist painters. 
     Tim Boyce’s affinity for birds began at an early age growing up in Stanley and Neebing areas on the outskirts of Thunder Bay. “There was always a pair of binoculars out at the house and my mother always put out plenty of bird feeders. We had these huge windows and I would sit there for hours watching the birds,” says Tim. 
      Living in various townships can make for a solitary life for a child and can encourage a dedication to various hobbies, including drawing, which was something Tim took to immediately. Tim says, “I could zone out with drawing. It was an escape from reality when I was a kid. I wasn’t much of a painter until I went to university.” 
     There was little confusion in his mind as to where he wanted to go with his work. In the Lakehead University Visual Arts program Tim practiced and studied the fundamentals of a modernist approach brought about by his interest in Piet Mondrian, Gustav Klimt and Pablo Picasso. Yet he never abandoned what he calls his classical approach to painting, as seen in the kind of realist detail and stalwart poses of the birds. To paint them he works with acrylic, painting on canvas garnering imagery from nature, photos, and his imagination.
      Birds can be perennial symbols of freedom, frivolity, and life in general. In Tim’s paintings they seem to be at odds with the seemingly out of focus modernist backgrounds, which also act as a perspective trick to give the painting some depth where the paintings would otherwise appear quite flat. The backgrounds also help to make symbolic reference not only to Tim’s favourite modernist artists, but with our modern world as represented by block-like shapes and sheens of metallic iridescent colouring. “I think it’s really important to balance our natural world with urban cities of today,” says Tim describing his concerns for humanity’s need for industry at the expense of our natural world. “I hope this series expresses my feelings on these particular issues.“
   “I use the block or cube shape for symbolic reasons to mimic human urban development - a sort of natural urban reference.” Although the references are subdued and the paintings come across more readily as pretty pictures than grand statements it wouldn’t be hard for Tim to generate more interesting works by tweaking the contrasts a bit more. And this is what he is planning to do, continuing with his chosen subject and themes. 
     He does his painting in his spare time while working his day job at the Balmoral Centre of the St. Joseph’s Hospital as an addictions crisis worker, a job that firmly grounds his life in reality giving him an understanding of the frailty of human life. In fact it could be said that the birds might represent people dealing with a modern world. This might not be a stretch and a reason for Tim to find so much affinity with the subject matter.

      Having his paintings as a set backdrop for a feature film, a psychological thriller called “Poor Agnes” just last week and having sold two rather expensive, yet reasonably priced paintings from the Espresso show Tim is stoked to do more work, have more shows and explore the possibility of making a mark in Thunder Bay. He’s certainly capable and got a popular subject matter. Familiar with many of the birds traits, habits and some of the science involved in their study, Tim says. “I admire birds. They are simple yet complicated. I love that duality.”

H&R Cartoon

Pottery at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

In lieu of missing text due to Donald Trump (I got mad during the last debate and spilt a dribble of hot chocolate on my laptop that fried it), I am posting pictures for now while I wait for text to come from the Chronicle Journal. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Hardball and Riley Like Art

Michelle Krys and Amy Jones

    Are you looking for great books written by local authors? Have you thought about writing a novel? Two of Thunder Bay’s top authors are happy to talk about their work and to give us an idea of what it means to be a novelist. Michelle Krys and Amy Jones are professional authors who make a living doing what they love. (Two other local writers have just signed contracts with major publishers, and I won't say who they are, but we have two local authors who are getting advances of a hundred thousand dollars per book! And being encouraged to write more books! Think you're living in the boonies? Think again.) They are relatively young and have achieved national and even international attention. They get healthy advances and are promoted by their publishers. However, they cannot remain idle. In a business that waxes and wanes with economic and technological shifts, authors are required not only to do the research, writing, editing, worrying and time-management required to the get the book written, they also do extracurricular work to help promote their published works. 
     Michelle Krys’ fourth novel is in the hands of her agent while her third novel, Dead Girls Society, is about to be released on November 8. And with it she will do book tours in the United States and Canada. Michelle is stoked to chat about the details of her progress and the ins-and-outs of the industry. Her enthusiasm is contagious and it’s hard not to feel the glow that exudes from a truly charismatic author. 
     Michelle is keenly aware of how fortunate she is to have had so much success with her first novel, Hexed, a young adult novel about a teenage cheerleading witch.  Continued success followed with, Charmed. Michelle’s phenomenal success is unusual for a Canadian writer requiring hard work, imagination, due writing diligence and likely a bit of good luck.
      It takes quite a number of deep breaths to embark on writing a first novel, but Michelle was wise enough to get support from a collective of writer friends in both Canada and the United States. Michelle then approached over a 130 agents to find one who saw her potential. Michelle’s agent shopped her novel around and got a great deal, an amazing advance for a first time author and publicity that even established Canadian writers dream about, something she didn’t at first appreciate until the debut of he second novel.
     Getting a good book on the shelves is a long process and being an author is an ongoing full time job, not as some people assume like winning the lottery. For while her agent has a fourth novel being looked over by an editor, the publisher has to take the book to an acquisitions department where they decide what kind of offer to make after they have drawn up a risk benefit ratio to determine whether or not they can take a risk on it. “They ask, who would read it? Who would sell it? Would chain companies like them? How many would they buy? The process is huge,” says Michelle. 
     After reworking the novel for the agent and then the publisher Michelle works on a pre-order campaign to help promote the book using social media; Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and a blog.
     Michelle explains. “Once you have books out it’s important to have a cascading effect take place where interest builds for the launch of the new book, like a special websites with secret codes and special invitations with exclusive material for big fans of the books.” All of this can be a burden, but Michelle understands that it’s part of the job, something she relishes because she genuinely adores her fans. “I’m aware of how lucky I am and I love creating stories.”
      At home, Michelle slams out two thousand words whenever she gets the chance. Being a wife, a mother of two while working part-time as a NCIU nurse plays interference with being a writer, but she’s thankful for all that she has, including a good group of local and international friends to boot.
     With advice for first time novelists, Michelle says, “Hardship and dreaming are compatible friends on a path to success or failure. To much hardship could make you bitter and too much dreaming could blind you from seeing who you really are that only others can see, but are afraid to tell.” 
      Michelle sees one of the benefits of her success as encouraging others to write for themselves or to become readers, as people have told her that it’s the first time they’ve picked up a novel in years. Even at the young age of thirty-one, Michelle Krys remains practical about the chances of continuing to hold a mass audience for decades on. It’s very likely she will. “It is truly inspiring to know that all that hardship may not have been wasted after all, after all that dreaming.”
 Amy Jones says, “Whatever path you choose, nothing is going to happen overnight. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to get rejected.” Amy’s contagious smile is part of a continued high she is riding with the success of her first novel, We’re All In This Together. “Writing is the kind of thing that the more you do the better you get,” Amy adds.
     Inspiration for the novel came with both wanting to write a story set in urban Thunder Bay and wondering if anyone had gone over Kakabeka Falls in a barrel. “I felt it was important to write about a place in which you live,” says Amy. “There are a few themes I’m obsessed with. I’m interested in home and what home means for people, that conflict in wanting to stay in a place familiar to them while simultaneously wanting to leave and see what they can make of their life when leaving isn’t necessarily what they want.” Amy later adds, “I like the idea of outsiders, people who don’t fit in with their family or their city, society.”
     When asked if the characters in her novel are based on friends or relatives, Amy says, “There will always be elements of people I know. There might be a personality trait I borrow, but there’s no person that is actually connected to the story. They’re figments of my imagination.”
     Amy’s book was on a Canadian bestseller list for a few weeks after the book first came out. Already selling a second printing, Amy says, “My expectations coming going into it were pretty low.” But with critically positive reviews in Quill and Quire and the Globe and Mail she was quickly landing gigs at writer’s festivals, in Peterborough, Halifax, Word on the Street in Toronto, and a writer’s festival in Vancouver.
     The Thunder Bay Public Library has chosen Amy’s book for One Book, One Community events, an initiative where a city’s library chooses a book that everyone is encouraged to read while hosting events inspired by and related to the book.
      Amy is thankful Amy is particular in her acknowledgement of the help she’s received from her agent who acts as an advocate for the work. Amy says, “Agents will often be former editors of publishing companies, so he has an ability to see things from both sites, the marketing and business sides of things. He was able to give me advice on that, basically he does everything. He gave me the big picture to get it ready for publishers. He knew where it would be a good fit.”
     Soon Amy was talking to the editor of the publishing company who wanted revisions to improve the story’s pacing and continuity. From there the book went to a copy editor and proofer, while Amy’s agent worked with these people as a team, as he has done before on other book projects. The entire process took about a year.   
      “Writers can be perfectly fine without an agent,” says Amy. “It works very well for a lot of people, but a lot don’t need an agent to find a publisher, but for me the less I have to worry about the more I have to do my work.”      
      Amy is under a bit of pressure as she signed a contract requiring her to produce a second book for the publisher. But she’s not worried. “Ideas have never been the problem. I have too many ideas. It’s just a matter of making it all fit together. And I worry about, like, whether I’m going to write in the first or third person.” 
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.