Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Espresso Nojoya: 88 Comical Ways to Laugh at the Haters

 Thunder Bay, specifically our arts community, suffered a particular nasty shock last week leaving some horrified, some visibly upset, many dumbfounded and a few of us bursting into laughter. We are not laughing because the situation isn’t serious, but because humour is often defensive and generated by a surprise incongruence, that is, two events slammed together so out of whack that we find it funny. 
     Last week an in-depth article of investigative journalism by the online media company, Vice, in collaboration with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, pieced together a plethora of patterns and clues to accuse Thunder Bay resident, Thomas White, former owner of Espresso Joya, of spreading hate speech, primarily through a podcast titled, This Hour Has 88 Minutes. 88 is a numeration of HH, meaning Heil Hitler for those in the know. The Vice article quotes horrific racist comments and support for violence against leftists and brown people of all kinds. 
     The actress, Renee Zellweger had enough dramatic facial reconstruction that for the public she may as well have passed on. The actress we knew vanished to become someone else, nothing horrific, just so different looking and unrecognizable that she may as well have just walked away from Hollywood. 
    A similar transformative vanishing act took place when a friend of the Thunder Bay community disappeared by becoming something unrecognizable and truly disgusting. Espresso Joya was a welcome addition to the North Core, bringing in musicians and artists with events and art shows. Thomas held figure drawing sessions at the Baggage Building and held regular little chess tournaments, introducing a chess board allowing four players to battle against each other simultaneously.
      That the owner of such a hub of leftist artsy and intellectual activity would be a Neo-Nazi is right out of a Monty Python skit, specifically where Mr and Mrs Johnson visiting a small boarding house in Somerset, England encounter Adolf Hitler, von Ribbentrop, and Heinrich Himmler trying to blend in and restart their Nazi movement.
     Or imagine the situ in reverse. Let’s say I moved to Harrison, Arkansas to open a steak shop or to Charlotte, North Carolina to run a NASCAR rally, all in order to raise money so I could purchase First Nations art and send 5 percent of my earnings to the NDP and feminist organizations in Ontario. In my spare time I would organize redneck gatherings featuring yoga and vegetarian dinners. 
    It’s funny while being totally insane. 
    One could imagine Magnus or Cambrian Theatre putting on a musical comedy, like Mel Brooks’, The Producers, where a coffee shop owner, dressed in black sporting a high-and-tight alt-right haircut sings and dances in dramatic soliloquies about his frustration with putting up with all his leftist, women, black, Indigenous and LBGTQ patrons. He hates them all, but is forced to smile and serve them “the best coffee in Thunder Bay,” occasionally seeming to forget who his enemies were.
    His theme song would be of his plot to destroy his coffee making competitors, especially his arch nemesis, the owner of the coffee shop at the Country Market. He would rail against the “mainstream media,” while his lefty employees advising White to spend less time reading Reddit on his laptop. And when he closes his doors for the night, he pulls the curtains, strips off his clothes to reveal his untanned body in order to dance naked to alt-right heavy metal music.
I swear there’s a ton of money to be made in taking down the racists and haters. Not only can’t they think hard enough to see the obvious error of their ways and thoughts, they can’t see themselves for what they really are: a big joke.

Art Without God

     Most artists I know have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but that wouldn’t stop us from getting married in a church or attending a funeral. Most artists appreciate the cultural aspects of religion, but don’t need religion as a guide for life. Some contemporary artists will reflect their concerns for others using their own stories as social or political statements but most often they are geared towards an aesthetic or emotional approach that is without any moral code. Contemporary art is more often about art than about life, to the point where art can become its own ideology with little interest in making moral statements and little room for a competing ideology like a religion. 
    I consider myself a progressive classicist, meaning I do have my own moral code, but it is designed from an idea that art is integral in performing basic social functions that we can’t live without, and that these functions combined with a progressive viewpoint can be a guide for life. My progressive classicism is a blending of classical art functions with popular art and fine art. Many artists take the same approach without thinking about it much or putting a name to it.
    What is fascinating about contemporary art however, is that I’ve known three people who gave up religion for a strong ideological artistic belief. A formerly Christian friend of mine, I’ll call her Liz, in Victoria, British Columbia, has a son who overdosed years ago. At the age of fourteen with only one hit of crystal meth he went from being a shy teenage boy to a raging proselytizing miniature priest, with great lapses in memory and total loss of social intelligence. At the time I knew her, Liz had suffered through divorce, near poverty, health issues, and deaths in the family. Liz was a regular church goer and maintained her faith. Her church provided help and solace throughout her trials. But with her son’s total transformation for the worse Liz completely lost faith. She couldn’t understand how God could allow such a thing to happen to her son after she had already suffered so much while committing her life to God.
     Her interest in art, which brought us together as good friends suddenly became a passion that eventually broke our friendship. Liz returned to becoming a full time student in the  University of Victoria Fine Arts program. Only a few months into the program she became a die hard post-modernist. Nothing wrong with that, but her belief and faith in art also came with the sudden zeal to admonish other artists who didn’t believe what she believed. My illustration work suddenly made me beneath contempt. I put up with her hard core opinions for years until we finally drifted apart. 
     I have a vague understanding of what happened, but I never delved into thinking about it much until recently when reading a book called Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, written by Phil Zuckerman. It is a fascinating study revealing that the most content people live in countries with the fewest number who are religious, and those countries that are often the most religious have the most trouble with poverty, violence, health issues or massive inequality, as in the United States, which strangely claims to be a religious nation.
     We are fortunate enough to live in a country to be able to think and talk openly about such things, to question our beliefs, religious, artistic or otherwise. There were times among Western nations where questioning such authorities was extremely dangerous. Artists like Michelangelo could only hint of their lack of faith in their art, as seen in the Sistine Chapel. It has been thought that Michelangelo hinted at such with his painting of God creating Adam. The strange shape the robe takes, complete with a “stem,” looks amazingly like that of the human brain. The suggestion is that man made God. 
We may be able to live without God, and although man made art too I believe strongly that art is something we can’t live without. Yet what art is and what it does and how it best works for us is an ongoing discussion as deep and lasting and contentious as any discussion of religion.

Susan Ross at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

     Canada’s Rembrandt of the North is represented well at the Thunder Bay Museum in the show, Susan Ross: From the Lakehead to the Arctic. Accompanying Ross’ works are paintings and drawings by other artists she knew well and had influence upon, including her active nephew, Patrick Doyle. Available in the Museum’s shop is a wonderful book in hard and soft cover by the prolific James R. Stevens, titled, Ten Generations, Then an Artist: The Susan A Ross Story. 
     With loving attention to detail Ross had the ability to capture those emblematic and small moments of humanity where words go unspoken. The ability to do this has always made for great art. It includes the ability to draw and paint, but paramount to begin with is the interest, the moral and empathic ability to see the value in what people share between each other, even in quiet repose. 
    Although often sad and sentimental, the beauty of her subjects are captured with a deft handling of various tools. Whether with a stylus for her etchings, a piece of charcoal or graphite for her drawings, or a brush for her paintings, Ross’ approach was to use a certain degree of spontaneity to capture the detail without getting caught up in it. She trusted in her abilities and allowed what was before her to speak. The subject is what she focused on, not herself or commitment to artistic ideology, but the people she clearly loved and respected. 
    Ross’ etchings are exceptional. And comparing her works to that of Rembrandt’s or the 19th Century French artist, Honoré Daumier is not done lightly. Rembrandt captured some famous sentimental moments, but Daumier’s is a little closer to home. Daumier’s love of the poor and hatred of the rich got him into trouble quite often, even kicked out of the country, but when he wasn’t skewering politicians or lawyers he could do the most amazing sentimental works. 
    Third Class Carriage by Daumier is more like a sketch with some paint than it is a full blown painting. This is one of his most brilliant works featuring working class people enduring the numbness of long distance travel on a cramped and crowded train. The mother feeds her child while the older woman sits in quiet contemplation, deep in thought, hands clasped as if in prayer while a boy sleeps against her bulky frame. 
    The painting has the perennial quality of applying to all kinds of people all over the world, no matter their culture. It’s something we can all identify with. It something we wish we could avoid, but know that life will always throw situations like this at us no matter what we do. 
    The same is true for many of Ross’ depictions of people. Here there is no fine art formalism concerned with style, but the functional effectiveness of bringing people alive, in their world in a way in which we can easily identify and identify with. What is here is not just the indigenous people she met on her extensive travels, but everyone, all of us.    
    Stories are told in this show for us with the use of foreground and background, with faces and hands, with clothes and blankets and canvas and gripped pillows. People gaze at each other, beyond one another and they look away from another’s attention, staring off into space, every one of them each telling a story of love and hardship, of wanting and relief. 
    Loneliness is here, loss, separation, anxiety, and the thankfulness that comes from living closely with family and a community that shares the basics. As small as this show might seem at first, the expanse of it is a wonderful introduction to the world captured by Susan Ross.
     Susan Ross: From the Lakehead to the Arctic is on display at the Thunder Bay Museum till June 17. 

By Request: Collective Curation of the Permanent Collection

First Nations art from the Thunder Bay Gallery’s permanent collection graces the walls in a large show titled, by Request, one of the best collective exhibitions of visual art in recent years. Guaranteed to be a popular the works exhibit both quality and variety, representing decades worth of great work by established local and internationally known artists.  
     Described as a “dynamic approach to choosing artworks for exhibition” various individuals and groups involved in the region’s arts community had a say in choosing the work. This democratic process involved a survey employing nine batches of twenty works from the collection, five works to be chosen from each. The individuals and groups are listed in the show.
     Within all the works are references to the land, from the micro to the macro, from catgut to outer space. Nature infuses itself into the works, revitalizing the imagery revealing how nature supersedes manmade creations. Nature has a style all its own that survives artistic movements where style and ideology meld into artistic periods that can end up living in the history books and less so in our hearts, becoming more distant as the years pass.  
     Which is why so much of this work feels alive, fresh again, brought into the light for us to see. Having so much great art stored away for great lengths of time can feel like a disservice to the artists who create the work, and to the public who would love to see it. On the other hand the works are made special, reawakened for us to see again, a practice which happens naturally in other cultures, such as African tribes who bring stools, sculptures, weapons and clothing into view only during ceremonies, some taking place decades apart.  
   With so many wonderful artworks to choose from, I’ll pick a few favourites. 
     Ahmoo Angeconeb’s “The Gifts” is a lovely linocut on textured paper featuring a fish, bear and loon. With only minimal personal than most, especially for imagery that is minimal and stylized. 
     Daphne Odjig’s “The Grand Entrance” has wonderful movement created with a combination of bright colours and swirling lines.  Many of the faces are smiling and bubbling up from the surface of the painting, swirling before the viewer as if exploding through a wall or swarming at you in a dream. 
    “Eunice”, by Valerie Palmer is a beautiful oil painting with a spiritual serenity encompassing both the woman and the beautiful seascape. Connected by mood with somber tones there is an emblematic contemplation as seen in works by Frederick Varley, but with a more controlled use of paint. 

   A painting with one of the best titles, “Head Kicked In By Buffalo,” by Linus Woods, is painted with a more expressionist method employing colours and a style similar to that of Mexican artist Fernando de Szyszlo. A mixed media picture the painting employs characters of both foreground and background that are comic like in depiction, but abstract in execution. The trees make for little background cartoons. The painting is a fun image open to interpretation.

Urban Infill 2018

The irony of hosting a major arts project like Urban Infill: Art in the Core, with the goal and theme of revitalizing the downtown core requiring lots of space is that should the project become successful the space required becomes limited year after year. And this year they almost lost out with empty spaces rented out last minute. Fortunately this didn’t stop a resourceful crew from finding alternates, which in the end provided Urban Infill with even more space giving this year’s show a completely new feel. 
     The big events are held this Saturday night where the public will be able to see work in a variety of locations with the help of a map and guides during the walking tour, but two main spaces have opened up that will be the primary draws: the 10,000 square feet of the lower level in the Eaton’s building, entrance on Park Avenue, and another 1,500 square feet on the main level. Combine this and other transformed spaces and it adds up to a total of about 13,000 square feet to host this extravaganza. 
     The variety of art, performance, installations are too long to list, which is good thing. To see the list you can go online: www.definitleysuperior.com
     “We adapt every year,” states gallery co-director David Karasiewicz. “Every year locations change and there’s new places with new performances appealing to a broader audience. More and more people are exposed to contemporary art.” 
    Co-director Renee Terpstra is equally enthusiastic about the twelfth anniversary of Urban Infill and describes how they have to adapt every year, but that adaptation is an integral part of what makes Urban Infill exciting. “None of us would have imagined what this would like like twelve years ago,” Renee states. 
     Definitely Superior Art Gallery and the many artists under its umbrella can take credit for that revitalization, along with the savvy restauranteurs opening businesses that have drawn both young and old. A long list of sponsors includes the local BIA, Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council, Walleye and a number of local businesses and other sponsors.
     This year there are 400 regional, national and international artist represented in 25 locations including live bands, dance theatre, fashion performance, fire performances, “activated window spaces”, body suspension, a 360 film immersion installation, video projections, karaoke, fringe performance, catered food and refreshments, and more! 
     If it’s possible to narrow it down, there are nine shows/categories of art to see. The Defsup gallery features three shows, a video installation, a member’s show and recent acquisitions of art by Dr. Bob Chaudhuri. Window performances and installations will be on the map and tour. Film installations include visiting works/artists along with our filmmakers from our own Confederation College film and multimedia departments. Lakehead University art students are having a graduates show. The Die Active New Generation Neechee Studio is a youth group will span a number of locations with 24 different projects. Downtown commercial galleries and business are contributing with their own cadre of local and international artists. The number of local artists involved is thought to be over four hundred.
     If you think that’s an exaggeration you’re welcome to come to the show and count. 

    The big event begins Saturday night at 7pm. Come early and get a map. The after party location is decided that night by a group of die-hards. All welcome to join.

The Baggage Building Arts Centre in Prince Arthur’s Landing

The Friends of the Grain Elevators have set up an historical exhibit at the Baggage Building Arts Centre in Prince Arthur’s Landing to tell the story of the grain industry in Canada with an emphasis on railways and the incredible amount of activity in our harbours since 1883 when the railways opened up the west. Thunder Bay was integral in developing the country. We had the the biggest grain port in the world for many years and gave primary aid to feed Europe after two world wars. With over twelve elevators, eight continue to operate, the reason for over five hundred ships passing through our harbours in 2016. 
      Part of the exhibit features a map of the world and twelve glass jars, each containing a different type of grain. Indicators tell the viewer where the grain was distributed throughout the world. All of this information lovingly provided by Rob Paterson while he and other members set up the exhibit. 
     As an analogy we could say that our local artists have been seeding the world with bits of our culture for many years. In operation for five years, a tourist destination is the The Gift Gallery which hosts sixty-five local artists producing paintings, prints, photography, various crafts, pottery, jewelry, candles, stained glass, Ahnisnabae arts of all stripes, locally produced books, CDs, and sundry edible items. 
     Located on the second floor of the arts centre the gift shop is what was once the old Canadian Pacific freight office, an historical site often incorrectly referred to as the Baggage Building, complete with its old tin ceiling. As a commercial and public venture in a city facility it operates as a collective of organizations; All the Days Theatre, the Community Arts and Heritage Program, the Posers Drawing Group, Waterfront Potters, Waterfront Printmaking Group, Connect the Dots: Roots and Branches, and Tango North. 
     Tango nights are Wednesdays and the drop in drawing sessions are Tuesdays at 7pm. Please call the Gift Shop or Facebook page for details. Exhibitions are featured in the mezzanine and main floor with beautiful tall windows and lovely wood framing.
     Upon completion of a beginners class in pottery you can take advantage of the open studio to work on your own. The setup includes mechanical wheels, two kick wheels, a slab roller, kiln, with clay and glazes made available. 
     From February 24th to March 25 the third annual Fibre Arts Exhibition is showcasing a selection of works from members from the Spinners and Weavers Guild and other local artists. You will see over sixty works by just over twenty artists, including works of crochet, needlepoint and felting. Birds of the Bay is part of the exhibition. Organized by Betty Carpick this is a community-engaged art project consisting of fibre arts sculpture to encourage people to understand and protect nature.
     Writers and videographers from Canadian Geographic have visited Prince Arthur’s Landing recently to research the history of the area for a potential upcoming extensive article and video. With ongoing construction and ventures both commercial and artistic we can safely assume that the waterfront will yield attractions for the city for many decades to come.

10th Anniversary Derelicte at Black Pirates Pub

     Black Pirates Pub will burst its seams this Saturday, January 27, with a major fashion show organized by the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. This is the gallery’s and Lakehead University Radio’s tenth anniversary fundraiser. The catwalk extravaganza called Derelicte features models wearing both wearable art sold locally at various retail outlets and outfits that may never be worn again. These singular works are amazingly creative one-offs fashioned by fifteen local artists to make aesthetic and social statements.
    One artistic costume designer, a local artist whose presence in Thunder Bay is stretching nationally is Michel Dumont. He is on a tight schedule. He has to get his costume completed before he flies off to a Queer and Peace show at the Warren G Flowers Art Gallery in Montreal where he has a work exhibited with others created by prominent Canadian artists. He returns on the day of Derelicte to organize his costumes and get the models into makeup. It takes Michel about a month to make an outfit. He started his latest dramatic creation back in December. 
     The models Michel is working with will represent two lovers who will spin down the catwalk in a “whirlwind of obsession and break up,” says Michel. “They will be a tornado circling down the catwalk to open up and reveal their inner turmoil, then get back together.” 
    The dress will be made of packing tape and cellphone crystals to represent the inside of the tornado with an amethyst geode and amethyst heart on the model’s chests. The wigs will employ fibre optics and LED lights to add to the shine. The semi precious pink and purple plastic crystal shapes that mimic semi-precious stones will reflect, refract and project light from the stage. The light will envelop the models and the movement is sure to dazzle. 
    The name “Derelicte” suggests an association with the forgotten, the vagrant and underprivileged undesirables you might find in ghettos of big cities. Yet because of its association to contemporary art and the catwalks of major cities there can be found elements of haute couture simultaneously projecting the rich and elegant. Thunder Bay’s version of such an event might only mimic such a clash of extreme cultural opposites for artistic purposes and for fun, but this event is as close as you will get to the real deal. And the artists who create their wearable art are certainly up to the challenge of creating pieces worthy of any catwalk in the world.   

    Performances are scattered throughout the night with four live bands, eight variety gigs, video mapping projections, a raffle, costume prizes, and catered food. The gigs include acrobatic yoga, flamenco and Bhangra dancing, drag, burlesque, go-go dancer performances, walk-off challenges and a do-it-yourself fashion costume contest.  

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Converging Lines at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Cree Steven's mixed media painting, Fortify This One, is made of acrylic paint/pastes/gels, paper, cheesecloth and leather. 
   With a variety of indigenous backgrounds, Cree Stevens, Shaun Hedican, Elliot Doxtater-Wynn and Kristy Cameron each have unique personal approaches to express their respect for their ancestors, to pay homage to family and to the artists who inspired them. Their work is on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery till February 25 in a show called, Converging Lines: Recent Art from the Northwest.
Cree Steven's sculptural work, Wiigwaasaatig.
     Leaves, feathers, bark, tools, jewelry, craftwork, animals or the remnants of animals appear in a variety of forms and in more than one artist’s work where First Nation’s styles are mixed with traditional and contemporary western art approaches. This variety creates a strong show to make an overarching statement on the value of variety and how variety can be achieved through personal expression.
     Many locals already know Cree Steven’s work from craft shows where Steven’s should get an award for having the best vendor’s booth, a “booth” more akin to a miniature professional gallery with displays that are an art in themselves. Steven’s work sells quickly enough that she practically burns herself out, along with her partner Bruce, in a rush to create new work and set up for the next show. Stevens has sold many of her large birch-bark and antler works along with her intricate and beautiful jewelry.
     So it is a delight to see Steven’s larger wall pieces and sculptures at the gallery. Her work exudes mythological power and beauty that seems barely containable within the clean Scandinavian symmetry of design and gorgeous copper accents within the wood, bark and antlers. Copper acts as a binding element in the works as if it represents the blood, energy and power of living things, creating an elegance that refreshes familiar imagery and objects in unexpected ways. 
Elliot Doxtater-Wynn's untitled piece.
    Shaun Hedican plays with a familiar spidery Woodland style adding depth with a background out-of-focus imagery and shadows. In other works the style is seemingly tattooed to the bones of animals, potential talismans used in ancient rituals. The spear, titled “Family Staff” is both artful and menacing as it exudes it’s function beyond art and the gallery. It almost seems out of place as if it were either a museum piece or a found object, stolen from a ritual and mistakenly placed in the gallery. It’s gloriously alive and threatening. 
Shaun Hedican's
work, Family Staff
     Three large untitled paintings by Elliot Doxtater-Wynn command a wall where the leaves that form the clothes belonging to the man or woman in the paintings have fallen to organize as rectangular shapes on the floor. The bold cartoon-like figures are more animated and seem to belong in an otherworldly space, but they are held in place by the leaves made heavy with their shiny coating. A story is forming in the images with it’s meaning kept mysterious and subjective.
Kristy Cameron's work, Cattail Legend
     Playful in her approach, Kristy Cameron dives into the netherworld with creatures and characters in settings that are wonderfully suggestive of journeys into the mythical. In the painting, Cattail Legend, a man in space is holding up a planetary sized bulb of cattails that supports a massive tree. Without knowing the legend, what happens next is anyone’s guess, but the painting is ideographic in its presentation suggesting that the little man, thus humans in general, are but a small thing compared to nature, yet important for its survival. The little man has the burden of a world on his shoulders. 
     In other works, Christy plays with abstract flows of colour that would be beautiful on their own merit, however with the little woodland style animals, one called, Michi Peshu, the paintings take on other dramatic and fun dimensions. 
Kristy Cameron's work, Trickster Rabbit
     Where today we are fearful of a revival of populism or tribalism, of people going “back to blood,” this show makes a great nod to the idea that we don’t have to play to group mentality or one standard or style in order to be accepted. We can retain our ancestry and still be part of what brings us all together, to share and help launch ourselves into the future without the loss of our cultures, our past, or the opportunity to shape it the way we like for the future.

The Nostalgia We Love

  The film and television business is making a killing with a trend that returns Generation X and some of Y (Millennials) back to the 1980s, rekindling the spirit and excitement of their youth with television shows like Stranger Things, Glow, The Americans and many other 21st Century programs set in the 1980s. The list of 1980s remake movies from Hollywood is even longer and would fill this column with an ever growing list soon to include rebooted versions of Scarface and Top Gun.  
     The trends are notable and usually obvious. In the 1970s and 80s Baby Boomers watched Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Grease, American Graffiti, all set in the1950s and 60s, revealing that trends returning entire generations to the past is nothing new. Not so obvious are the numerous 1980s phrases, songs, fashion styles and suchlike that photo-bomb many shows and movies, shows set not only in our time but in science fiction films as well. These nostalgic nods to the past capitalize on the 1980s reset trend. 
    The contemporary art world is quite different as it is not controlled by public taste. The success of any new contemporary works of art is controlled primarily by the taste of the wealthy one percent and by a continuing ideology of disguised modernism taught in most university fine art departments that work hard to avoid a wholesale return to the past. 
     Yet nods to the past can be very important in contemporary art circles. They show an adherence to the underlying modernist ideology by paying homage to great modernists.     When you see some drips, there’s Jackson Pollack. When you see some dots, there’s George Seurat, or with bigger dots, Roy Lichtenstein. When you see two eyes on the side of portrait profile, there’s Picasso. Anything melting or bending, there’s Salvador Dali. Even when you see flat and colourful collages and patterning in children’s books, there can be Matisse.
    The art field is filled with these nods. However because the general public has virtually no influence in the art world of big galleries and museums many artists are confused about what sells and who they should aim to sell their art work to. Without a big new movement forming in New York City, many artists aren’t sure what art is for or what it is about. Many of us hedge our bets and flail around for a while before settling on a style that either sells or gets praise from an authority, maybe a professor, curator, critic or gallery director. Anyone else, we’ve been taught, isn’t much of an authority. Including our mothers. 
     What is rarely taught or understood is how art has a direct influence on the civic world. Art is all around us and if artists took the time to think outside the gallery and not disdain anything that benefits the public as a commercial exercise they would see that not only is there money to be made, but status and the ability to experiment with aesthetics on a larger scale that would benefit all of us. 
     The stand alone painting or sculpture is meant to be an obvious work of art, but imagine if you could have your art in plain sight, even hide it and make artistic statements with signage,  graffiti, store front window dressing, a contemporary mosaic within sidewalk tiles, or creative use of lamp posts. Opportunities abound for the progressive artist in the civic world which is slow to progress.    
     The blend of contemporary art and its use of new materials within the civic and commercial world of the general public could be amazing and could reignite the past trends of artistic movements. A new contemporary art that removes the influence of the wealthy one percent and the oligarchy of the art world could be one that is truly modern and progressive, even with and maybe more so with nostalgic nods to the past. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Art is Not Therapy

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

Sam Shahsahabi and Christian Chapman at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery

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

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

Quinten Maki and Denise Smith at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

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

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

Sunday, 22 October 2017

ThunderCon Hosts New and Experienced Talent

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

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Jim Oskineegish, Second Generation Woodland Artist

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

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