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. 

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? Three 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. 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.” 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

"The Teaching is the Making" at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

    Ending soon, September 4th, at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery is “The Teaching is the Making” featuring the beautiful works of Leanna Marshall and Celeste Pedri-Spade. The show combines two very different approaches to reestablish and enliven First Nations culture by bringing forth the past to the present and highlights how different traditional and contemporary mediums can accomplish such a feat.
     As an Anishinabekwe from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, Pedri-Spade is a member of the Bear Clan. She fills the roles of mother, all round creative person, and teaches at the School of Northern and Community Studies at Laurentian University. She teaches “courses on Indigenous art, culture, photography, qualitative research and modern material culture.”
     With experience in the visual arts Celeste works with textiles and photography to explore “modern material culture” with an activist’s role in decolonization. This is an interesting and worthwhile process where a person or group researches a subject to fully comprehend the history with the intention to actively resurrect the culture from its colonial past. The extent to how this is made possible depends on what is recorded and remembered and then how much of that is viable in the present day. Cultures shift and blend, degrade and progress, so restoration in whatever manner has to be picked up again and celebrated.
      Chance, choice and change, as the Canadian historian George Woodcock noted are the preeminent determiners of history. And a major part of that change, in a very positive way, are artists willing to explore the past to reveal it afresh and possibly find new ways to celebrate a culture once targeted for extinction by an invading culture.
      Celeste’s commitment and determination is definitely felt in her photography where the images bounce between past and present. As juxtapositions with heart and soul they create a variety of endearing, somber, and reflective feeling about the passage of time and a changing world. They resonate with humanism. As we peer into someone else’s personal visual history we simultaneously wonder about our own involvement, our own history. What were our ancestor’s up to? How long were they here? From where did they come?
     A culture to be viable has to be actively performed and celebrated, seen, heard, smelt and felt by lots of people with all that can enrich an individual in a group to bind them spiritually with their kin and friends. Such is the case with Leanna Marshall’s work where the jingle dresses sitting in a gallery are a treat to have available for close inspection, are typically put to use, but here Leanne intends for them to be something more than dresses.
     Leanna Marshall has been making jingle dresses since 2006. As Leanna describes. “My jingle dresses or ‘story dresses’ as I like to call them are from a project called Ziigiidwin, meaning love.” And the dresses show it. Although not ceremonial, they have that aliveness to them, replete with fascinating colour and a sense of mystery about them. The dresses stand as if they are speaking or just ready to make music.
     “The inspiration for Ziigiidiwin came from an awareness of the anger that I was feeling. It was around this time that my mother spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I realized that the anger that I have carried with me my entire life was the outcome of colonial, sexist, & racist policies, the Indian Act, residential schools, and Bill C-31 that govern First Nations people in Canada; and how the effects of the policies trickles down into people's lives in very real and very tragic and sad ways.”
     “My people carry a lot of pain and suffering that is directly because of policies created and enforced by the Canadian government and by mainstream society that live behind and within a colonial context. That is why I feel angry... because of the suffering and the sadness within my own family; and within myself.” 
      Leanna began making jingle dresses since 2006. As part of the Anemki Art Collective she worked with Jean Marshall and Christian Chapman who both contributed to the project. The audio component to the exhibition tells the stories of the dresses. In them you will “hear the love, the pride, the joy, the strength, the relationships, the language and the land.”
    Describing one particular dress with the title, ‘She Swims with the Fishes,’ Leanna states that the dress honour “the women murdered on the ships and where bodies have been placed in Lake Superior. Importantly, this dress explores how men view Indigenous women and the historical context in which Indigenous women have been and continue to be devalued.” 
      Leanna isn’t referring only to history, but to what is an ongoing tragedy in Canada.  Visit the CNN website and search for a story that came out a few days ago titled: ‘Canadian Teens Sold for Sex.’
      Leanna continues. “I don't see the dresses as ‘art objects.’ For me they each have a spirit, they came from somewhere and they will continue to travel forth. The women who dance in these dresses when the show is complete will continue the stories and the healing. In artworld speak all of the dresses are ‘wearable art.’ We chose deliberately not to do a 'performance' because of the intent and spirit of the dresses wasn't to entertain. They were created to heal, share, inspire, and connect."

Friday, 19 August 2016

Diversity in the Arts as Expressed in the Bar and Restaurant Scene.

 Recently the Tate Modern in London expanded in a way that left critics wondering if the additions were designed solely to attract tourists and not out of historical precedent. The interactive and educational advances of the Tate are part of the current reflection in the art world regarding the value of the traditional gallery. Much of the art in galleries never gets a second glance, the average painting or sculpture about three seconds of attention. This has left many in the art world wondering if art can be more relevant if taken out from the gallery and into the community.
    Sadly the obvious never occurs to the hoi polloi fine art supporters that art already exists outside of the gallery. It’s called popular art/culture. Contemporary galleries host mostly fine art, which comes with a totally different set of functions. And it seems that the hipsters are not hip to it, referring to contemporary art as "philosophy on the walls." On Reddit, artists bemoan the fact that for all the supposed progressive thinking displayed on the site there is more ignorant hostility to the contemporary art which they find dismaying. 
     Popular culture has its drawbacks with its primary problem being that of equal representation. Although popular culture is improving there remains a world where stereotypes abound and diversity is not often considered. A wonderful series like Netflix's Marco Polo features only a couple Caucasian actors amongst dozens of Asian, Arab and Indian actors. This is very rare. Television is only beginning to represent the LBGTQ community or admit to human foibles explored more often by contemporary artists and writers. If there is one thing that contemporary art does well it is in its egalitarian mission to allow for diverse voices often at the expense of quality, but not without a lack of great honesty, commitment, experimentation or creativity. 
     Changes are happening rather quickly in the popular culture world as the appetite for honest representation of human life continues to find a bigger audience. Our prejudices are breaking down and we are fascinated by the multiple angles now taken up in stories that were once otherwise uncomplicated by reality. It’s a reality that not even Shakespeare could handle. The paragon of animals is far more complex than we ever imagined.   
Onur Altinbilek of Black Pirates Pub
     So who would have thought a bar or a restaurant might come to the aid of contemporary artists and expand their reach into the community? In a community that is typically blue collar there is enough of a population in Thunder Bay to harbour a great diversity of people, but not so big that groups of people with different interests, different make-ups, can find public spaces where they can share their interests and readily express themselves, share stories and empower themselves.
     In 2008 Onur Altinbilek was co-founder of Black Pirates Pub. He became the sole owner in 2014, and from the beginning ran the space as a live entertainment venue focusing on local and touring entertainment, including bands of all stripes, drag shows, burlesques, cabaret, fashion shows, art performances, movie nights, video and more. Right from the start BPP has been supporting the local music and arts community. “It’s a community I’m proud to be a part of,” says Onur. 
     On any night the diverse make up of an audience is apparent and the the freedom to be who you are and to be with likeminded people goes without saying. But it wasn't long ago when cliques and prejudices abounded, where a gay man would have a difficult time letting himself go in Thunder Bay. Now cross-dressing and transgender sorts can have a ball with supportive straights and the guys from the Mill who when asked how they feel being amongst such diverse people simply reply. "So what?" Or, "Really, I couldn't give a f...."
     Having worked at Jacks, a restaurant that shut down a few years ago, Onur has always been connected with the Definitely Superior Art Gallery, which has sought out venues in the North Core to fundraise, expand opportunities for artists, improve business for everyone downtown and to essentially liven up the city. “I love what Dave and Renee do for the arts community, for the visual arts and the music scene,” says Onur as he unloads the mega pack of raw chicken he’s going to cook for the throng of people who will show up a few hours later. He adds, “It’s little known that they’ve (DEFSUP) even given some bands gas money so they could get to the next gig.”
       The big event in the North Core is The Hunger, a Halloween event in October. It’s less artistic than say, Urban Infill in which artists and models parade artistic statements made into fantastic costumes, but there is creativity galore that comes with the event where young people get to work planning and building their costumes months in advance. BPP and other restaurants get involved in the Hunger, Urban Infill, and the but it is BPP that keeps the contemporary ball rolling with multiple events throughout the year, like the Derelicte fashion show where artists run a catwalk with fabulous creations that are also personal artistic statements.    
      “There’s no stone unturned. We try to cater to every group within the community, which is why we do drag shows, metal shows, punk shows. We’re basically the home for the punk and metal bands, and we do the local festivals and fundraisers,” says Onur.
     Referring to Thunder Bay Onur states, “We cater to everybody, whereas in a big city you go to one place for one thing and another place for another thing. But if you got to BPP you can go to a different kind of show all the time. Places like ours have to cater to everyone. I see myself as a piece of the puzzle in the community where there‘s a lot of collaboration. Collectively everybody downtown has made it come alive. We’re one of the older ones here, and I’m happy to still be doing it. It’s still exciting.”

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Arthur Shilling and the Value of Humanist Art

Arthur Shilling's self-portrait as seen at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery
Many renowned commercial art galleries in Canada represent Arthur Shilling’s work, with price estimates at a few thousand for each painting, prices not unusual for a living Canadian artist showing in a contemporary gallery. Shilling’s work is therefore greatly undervalued, easily worth many times its current value, which should be up there with the likes of David Milne.
     Ojibway artist, Arthur Shilling, was a great portraitist who played with a number of styles and treated his subjects, mostly of Anishnaabe decent, with heartfelt reflection, revealing his subject’s individuality and their connection to their community. His bold expressionist use of line and paint are immediately awe-inspiring. The grand sizes of some of his paintings help in this regard, but it is the unrestrained power of his works that will grip you immediately.
     The Thunder Bay Art Gallery is currently hosting a show organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Peterborough till September 25. Titled Arthur Shilling: The Final Works, the show covers a ten-year period between 1976 and 1986 when Shilling’s boldness of style truly became identifiable. Many of the works in this show are on display for the first time, garnered from private collections. One of the most outstanding paintings is a nine meter long painting titled, “The Beauty of My People.”
     Sadly, as reported by the Huffington Post in June, “a Mainstreet Research poll found that 54% of adult Canadians cannot name a single Canadian visual artist, living or dead.” The author of the article, Grant Gordon, posits a few good reasons why this is so, but misses what could be the prime reason for this problem.
     In this show of Shilling’s work you can see the quality and dedication he has for his own people and for general humanist concerns. Shilling boldly and beautifully expresses himself with great spontaneity and imaginative gusto while allowing us to connect with the very real people that he painted from life. Very few artists can master his skills and the added value of his work comes from his being a fighter and a rebel for a great cause at which he is successful; bringing dignity and beauty and awareness to a people that our Western forefathers intended to extinguish.
     That Shilling is undervalued is a sad statement in itself. In comparison there has been a major effort for many years to make David Milne Canada’s greatest artist. I don’t intend to be mean by picking on Milne’s work so much, but he is the best representative of a major problem we have in Canada and a reason why many Canadians can’t name a single Canadian visual artist.
      Milne’s works are somber landscapes of trees, trees and more trees, featured in thousands of little paintings, each worth many thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet limited talent is required to produce these works, especially in comparison to that of Shilling’s. Over the years I’ve met art connoisseurs, heard talks and watched documentaries about Milne all making the claim that Milne is an underrated Canadian artist who should be known to all as one of our greatest artists if not our greatest.
     Despite all the talk I never bought into it. I was never moved by Milne’s late 19th century and early 20th Century work, which I first saw at an early age of fourteen when at the National Gallery in Ottawa. At the time I thought he painted at a high school level. To me the land and trees in Milne’s works were used primarily as a means to an end, the end being aesthetic experimentation, a dedication to style above all else no matter what the subject matter. This is most obvious in Milne’s war art. Where there could and should be statements of human tragedy Milne’s works reveal a distinct lack of humanism. There is no sympathy, empathy, heart or reflection. Soldiers and guns, fields of debris and bomb craters are all painted as if people didn’t matter.
Wrecked Tanks Near Sanctuary Wood by David Milne
     Milne’s focus was with shape and form and colour scratching, which says nothing about the victims of unparalleled violence. His paintings of war look rather peaceful in comparison to any photograph or any other artist’s work. It even takes the viewer a few moments to see the intended subject matter. The paintings are not totally without merit, but they are lacking in the most basic functions of what art can do with such dramatic subject matter.
     For thousands of years the hierarchical value attached to art started at the top with the subject being humans in conflict, battles that were physical or intellectual or religious where the victors could claim authority. This was High Art and it included humans at the top, with portraiture above landscapes and landscapes above animals and children.
     Fine Art, which existed in spurts throughout history until the present day, were experimental and/or entertaining excursions only witnessed by the wealthy which did not influence the popular arts celebrated by both wealthy and common people. High Art influenced the popular arts throughout history, until the present day. High Art exists in popular art, in spurts, but no longer in major institutions or contemporary galleries. Popular Art today influences Fine Art, but Fine Art rules the day in an intellectual’s mind and for anyone recording art history.  
A better than usual landscape painting by David Milne
     For example: the federal government, at the turn of this century spent a million dollars to properly document, collect and promote Milne like no other artist before him. A grand show of his work crossed the country with pomp and ceremony. In 2012 another million dollars was spent for the David Milne Study Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
     Despite the attempt to make David Milne a household name the public continues to expurgate their confusion (a confusion brought on by the effort of having to compare the big claims of value with the obvious inadequacy of the art), by opening their mouths wide and letting out a big collective Canadian yawn.
     Likely you have no idea who David Milne is. Milne is an example of a Canadian artist firmly ensconced in the world of the gallery system, supported and loved by those in the know (and especially his collectors who have a vested interest in keeping their stock of Milne’s work highly valued), but to whom the public finds next to impossible to feel connected.
A typical landscape by David Milne
     David Milne’s little exercises in aesthetic quiet and stillness are a cold celebration of a land without people. In this respect his work is similar to the more dynamic works of the Group of Seven, whose works command even higher sales figures, yet also reveal a great and sad neglect that is distinctly North American and continues to go largely unacknowledged.
     These landscape painters are firmly ingrained to the settler’s myth of the Canadian experience, a Conservative Harperist view of the land, an “Old stock Canadians” understanding that Canada is a land free and unsoiled, always ready for exploration and exploitation by anyone with enough motivation. Sadly, this ideal completely ignores the existence of First Nations people who have lived on this land for thousands of years before Western settlers arrived.
     Emily Carr, unlike her male Group of Seven counterparts is a great exception to the rule. She acknowledged First Nations people in her work whereas David Milne is a perfect example of an artist wholly uninterested in the people who lived on the land. His work reflects, by neglect, an adherence to the myth of the land as a rugged and free space.   
     The Huffington Post article most notably ignores the fact that visual art can exist quite well without sitting quietly in a gallery. The author suggests that art step out from the gallery from time to time. This comment indicates that the author is biased against popular art, an art form never requiring a gallery in order for the work to be accepted by the larger public. Popular Art is humanistic in nature. Technological advances allowed Popular Art to morph from illustration, cartoons, painting and sculpture into photography, television and movies. Meanwhile a desire to be better and different from the masses has forced cultural elites to value something the public sees little value in celebrating.
     The overused example of the Emperor’s New Clothes can be brought to this argument, but a darker element at play is the negation of human values art is capable of expressing in favour of a history of aesthetics where a minimalist anti-humanist purity has an almost authoritarian resolve to ignore what popular art so brilliant offers and which the public loves. By furthering the divide Canada’s cultural elite is inadvertently creating the kind of division we see in England with its notorious anti-democratic class system; a class divide that resulted in Brexit where the disadvantaged lower classes, kept down and ignorant for centuries (which the EU tried desperately and quietly to help) had an opportunity to go tribal and lash out against the English upper class. This could likely end in England being ripped out of the European Union.
     Ford Nation in Canada represents a similar growing divide and friction with Toronto’s cultural elite out of touch with the average Canadian. Aiding in that process is an art forced upon us rather than celebrated. It is they, the wealthy, who can collect valuable works of art that are in fashion while the rest of us gaze at coffee table books. And it is mostly they who claim to see the value in David Milne’s work where most of the rest of us cannot.
A screen shot on Google's Image Page for Arthur Shilling
     Art can at its best can delve into who we are in our own time and when we do this honestly, representing everyone, we leave a history of art that reveals who we are to future generations. Anything else is a fog. If criticism in the arts is dedicated to appeasing a cultural elite we will continue to undervalue great artists in our midst who could do wonders for celebrating diversity and help create a peaceful world, a world where artists like Arthur Shilling can receive as much attention and be valued as much or more than an artist like David Milne. And I’m not talking about money.
     We have to understand that in our time art historians and critics and artists themselves have so refined their understanding of what art is that the entire history of art can be changed with one word. What if art is not the history of aesthetics, but a moral history? Every painting ever created in this country suddenly gets valued differently. Or change the word to beauty or humanism or democracy or diversity or… you see the point? Art is not any one thing and to make it so, to put the emphasis so heavily on one word, destroys the value of art.
     At the age of twelve I was an enthusiastic visitor to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, attending openings and dropping in often for a second look to check out a show, biking all the way across town. Since the age of twelve I was a great admirer of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s classic paintings. Three months ago at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg I was fortunate enough to lay my eyes on a few more original painting by Rembrandt, some of his best. It was a thrill, but not like it used to be when I was a young adult.
     In comparison, I remember the time when I first laid eyes on Arthur Shilling’s work in the 1980s at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. I was immediately inspired. I recognized Rembrandt in Shilling’s work. I even tried my hand at copying Shilling’s style and I’ve never forgotten Shilling’s name. A promotional card featuring a Shilling self-portrait was nearly always within eyeshot, taped to the side of a bookcase. I’ve always had his imagery in my head, and that of First Nations people, painted as glorious, strong and vibrant individuals sometimes within a swirling world of creatures, myths, and nature surrounding them. That impression on my young mind had value, not only as an artist, but also as a person.
      Drawn to an expressionistic style of painting made popular before the 1950s Shilling adopted a natural drawing style and spontaneous approach to painting which suited his talents. His style and subject matter was a perfect rebirth and statement as to the value of an art where people are more important to an artist than artistic ideology or the whims of fashion in the art world. 
     Clement Greenburg, an American Art critic who made Jackson Pollack famous, practically overnight, anointed David Milne a great Canadian artist back in the 1950s. Greenburg also anointed Canadian Jack Bush, an abstract artist, equally celebrated at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
     Greenburg is also famous for destroying the Expressionist movement that existed before World War II. He wrote extensively about the value of modernism over the moribund art of the past and the popular arts. There’s no direct evidence, but Greenburg came along at exactly the time when the CIA launched propaganda campaigns against the Soviet Union, funneling millions of dollars into literary magazines, art shows, and public performances in Europe and around the world to convince Europeans and others that the United States was far more progressive and accepting of modernism than the USSR. The Soviets made a huge mistake, unlike modern China, in rejecting modern art. They murdered and cast out their artists, which helped to convince Europeans that communism was a dangerous ideology.
     However, CIA agents admitted back in the 1970s that the most successful campaign that convinced Europeans of the American elite’s cultural acumen were the touring modern art shows, shows that featured Jackson Pollock and the like. Fashion in art changed quickly around the world in the 1950s, and all the progressive Expressionist artists, black, white, women and men, gay and straight, vanished due to complete lack of support. With the Guggenheims and the Rockefellers funneling millions of CIA dollars through their institutions the art world was changed forever and for the worse, to the point where no art historian dares mention this alternate, factual and well-researched account of art history.
     These huge influences are with us today and continue to influence how we value art and artists. The undervaluing of Shilling’s work and overvaluing of Milne’s and Jack Bush’s and hundreds of others is a result of mass influences totally unrelated to the human heart and unrelated to our needs. It is weakening the best of what art has to offer and diminishing the ability of artists to change the world to better the world for all of us.