Friday, 26 September 2014

Three Shows at DEFSUP: Mavourneen Trainer, Paula Thiessen, and Me

     On one side of the sad old Eaton’s building, still a giant waste of space where the telemarketers operate in order to disturb the peace of thousands of Canadians every day, there is a medium sized gallery space in its basement on its Park St. side that is its saving grace, maybe where the building’s last bit of soul exists.
      Here, the Definitely Superior Art Gallery is back in action this fall with three artist’s shows before its mega blockbusting Halloween hit for the city, The Hunger.
     All three shows represent an incredible amount of work done over a number of years with artistic imagery that is identifiably unique to each artist.
     Mavourneen Trainer’s show titled Chambers employs the use of Photoshop, but for those unfamiliar with the computer program, creating an image as detailed and using as many references as Trainer does is a lengthy process. Photoshop’s use of layers allows image after image to be place over top of one another other, and for each layer to be individually altered in hundreds of ways, allowing a creative person to shape entirely new worlds from combined images.
     First the images have to found, gathered, assembled and applied. It’s painstaking work, filling up dozens and dozens of computer files. The results of four years worth of work are stunning. “People don’t realize the amount of work you put into an image. It’s the equivalent of a hand drawing,” says Trainer. Trainer spent four years creating the imagery making making it her own. “I wanted to parody an etching to avoid the garishness you get with most Photoshop images. I put filters on many of the images to get rid of the poster look and to make them look more like etchings.”
     What got Trainer started on this series was “an image I did called Unforseen, of two caribous butting heads. I placed them in a cement room and I really liked the idea of a closed space for content, a chamber.”
     And with the death a few years ago of a close friend, Trainer ran with all encompassing themes of youth, aging and death. Fairy tales are referenced and nearly every image contains imagery from famous historical artists.
     Paula Thiessen’s black and white photography, taken over a 25-year period is featured in Gallery 2 and called Peeps Show.
     On three of the walls are images of a few strangers, but mostly people in her life, a few that some viewers will recognize. The images make for a sensitive and endearing display of human faces, revealing all sorts of subtleties like hope, love, apprehension, joy, thought, etc. Thiessen writes, “I admit that I am one of those people like many others, who feels compelled to document the people and scenery around me through photographs.”
     Thiessen does this in a way in opposition to our “selfie” culture. “I’m interested in spontaneity and trying to capture something about a person you wouldn’t see otherwise in a still photograph, that might reveal a hidden aspect of a person.” This is a consistent element in Thiessen’s work.
     The subject matter featured on the specially painted red wall is different in tone. “The way they’ve been framed, with a camera, ads to it grittiness,” says Thiessen.
I am attracted to photographing people, mostly because they offer me a greater margin for chance. A picturesque mountain lake is not going anywhere, but the person being photographed is often moving, occupying various environments, emanating different moods, may evade the camera, may become someone else in front of the camera, or may be completely oblivious to it.”
    In Gallery three is my own work, illustrations painting in alkyds and oils for an upcoming children’s picture book, Lara Wood. Special thanks go to the Ontario Arts Council for funding a good portion of its creation.
    

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Nude in Art: A Complicated History

     During the iCloud hacking scandal a couple weeks back, comedian Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, made fun of conservative pundits who blamed female celebrities for allowing themselves to be photographed nude, even though these photos were intended to be completely private. As one conservative pundit said, “If you don’t want nude pictures of yourself to appear to the world, don’t take the nude pictures in the first place.” Another pundit said, “Why? Why take nude pictures?”
     Stewart in his incredulous mocking tone asked, “Yes, why? Why would a human being want to look at another human being’s naked body!? It makes no sense!”
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Model and actress, Chandra Wells poses for a painting of her in B.C.
     For thousands of years the naked body has been painted and sculpted, and at various times either accepted as quite normal, as in Greek times, or shameful as in the Victorian Age or 1950s America. Nudity in art, magazines, television, movies, etc. has waxed and waned in its acceptance regularly. But rarely has nudity’s recurrence with vastly different treatments from one generation to the next ever been explained with any great depth. It turns out that even for the art world, it’s a difficult subject to conquer.  
     The treatment of the nude figure, especially of women in a male dominated society, is a great way to learn of political, economic, religious and social changes throughout history. One country’s treatment of the nude can be completely different from another. A wonderful book on the subject that studies the American use of the nude in art and popular culture from the 1700s to the present day is art historian Bram Dijkstra’s book, Naked: The Nude in America.
     The book is brilliant. And likely any artist who reads it will be influenced by it, as I have. When it comes to any desire an artist might have to paint or draw the nude, either out of lustful urges or to celebrate the human body in all its beauty, strength and/or with all its fragility as a celebration of life or as representative of a realistic understanding of our limits, there’s few other images that stirs us or shocks us.
     Bram Dijkstra begins the book revealing how much trouble he had getting well known artists to allow him to use their work for his study. He’s surprised by the response, but he understands why. He writes, “Artists who refuse to assault the body with stylishly perverse psychological or physical deformations are usually dismissed as hopelessly out of tune with today's art world. In fact the rampant imagery of paranoia and obsession rife in the contemporary art world can be traced back to the Puritanism that continues to rankle the American mind. It is not the product of artists who celebrate life by celebrating the body.”
     There are a few opportunities for artists to draw the nude at the university and at the Baggage Building on Tuesday. However, there are very few shows in Thunder Bay where an artist has displayed nude imagery. Foster Gauley, Damien Gilbert and a handful of photographers have had nude subjects and shows, albeit with models who often insist on modesty, as understandable, this is a small city.

     However, Ruth Tye-Mckenzie did a series of unforgettable paintings where the nude figure was worked beautifully into landscapes. Currently, Anna Waciokowski’s stunning drawings are up at Calicos on Bay St. And just to let you know, her prices are too low. Buy now, because I’m writing to her and asking, or rather, demanding that she put her prices up. They are worth three times what she’s asking, which relates to a theme I covered a while ago; artists and the public in Thunder Bay undervaluing artist’s work. When done well, the human figure as interpreted by an artist with good intentions are worth looking at.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Alison Kendall; 1961 - 2014.

     A few years ago I took on the role of a student at Lakehead University. One night I stayed late to work on a print. I stepped out of the printmaking room of the visual arts building for a minute and returned to what I expected to be an empty room. I was confronted with two massive and beautiful Great Danes, the size of horses! They gave me a blank stare. I stood in awe, but wondered if I was seconds away from becoming food. Then Alison Kendall stepped into the room smiling and apologized for leaving her dogs unattended. In her presence the massive dogs were just big puppies.
     With every one of my brief encounters with Alison, I sensed she was wrapped in a story, and she happily extolled an opinion on how she fit into it. She was a bigger than life person who lived a life less ordinary and lived it well, so it was no surprise to hear from her close friends that she was angry that life would be taken away from her far too soon.
     For Alison, the brain cancer that dug into her was just that, part of a story, with an ending she was determined to change. Alison fought back and she took precautions not to exacerbate the cancer with a cold or the flu.
     One of the last times I saw Alison, she was packing art supplies into her dragon trike outside of Gallery 33/The Painted Turtle. Her trike was an electric three-wheeled bike with pedals. Due to her condition, she wasn’t allowed to drive a car any longer. But she remained mobile and certainly ready to work on new art pieces, as well as promote her work. For last year’s Walkabout tour she made a point of delivering flyers door to door. Alison was inspiring.
     Alison taught for over twenty years at Lakehead University, retiring in 2013. Alison’s former students, those who were truly interested in drawing and painting well, think the world of her. She was not only as an excellent teacher, but also a prolific artist who produced both very personal works and successful commercial work. She also served as an example for the students.
      Alison admitted to some of her former students that early in her career she was probably too tough on them. More than a few students knew she was getting them to think hard and work hard because she wanted them to succeed as artists and in life. Like many professors at Lakehead University, Alison was demanding because she felt the high-school system was giving students short shrift, kicking students through the system who could barely write.
      Often, under the pretense of inviting a student over for a discussion about the student’s art or to show her work, Alison would get her husband, Brian, to cook a healthy meal for a student. Alison and Brian never let on to the young student that they served dinner because they were worried about that student’s health. At Christmas and graduation they put on a feast for the students, cooking up a giant pot of stew or chili.
     “Alison was always concerned about the students in more ways than one,” says Brian. “She might have been tough on them, but she cared.”
     Along with walking their dogs and discussing art, people, and life, Alison shared an office space with Sarah Link at Lakehead University for 14 years.
     “Allison was very intelligent and had great insight into human behavior coupled with an incredible sense of humour…” says Sarah. These qualities manifested in Allison’s ability to give wonderful toasts, interviews, eulogies and act as MC for annual student shows. “She always rose to the occasion and not only nailed the content, but kept her audience entertained with her edgy and sometimes irreverent wit.”
     Forever producing and trying out new things, she was obsessive with her art, finding time to write regularly and support the arts, curating shows and writing essays for catalogues.
      Alison’s most personal work made for a great show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery back in 2008 called “In the Name of Healing.” Alison dealt with other health issues for a number of years and with a great deal of research, resolve and creativity, she bought and collected glass pieces and glued them together to make freakish looking structures that were covered in red beads. There were strange looking oversized test tubes, wine glasses, read beaded syringes.
     One of her great contributions for a number of years was to host drawing exhibitions of her student’s work at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. Students, beginning as novices, produced drawings that by the end of the school year were worthy of hanging and selling. This was an amazing confidence booster.
     As much as Alison was capable of producing contemporary self-expressive pieces, Alison would overextend her interests into book making, etching, watercolours, figure paintings, and much more. “Overextend” because Alison had friends who knew that she too, like her students, needed some discipline in order to focus on the great work she was capable of producing.
     Sadly we won’t see what could have been, but we may at some point see the great work that she has produced over the years.
     Duncan Weller is a writer and Visual Artist. His latest picture book for children is The Ugg and the Drip.       Forever producing and trying out new things, she was obsessive with her art, finding time to write regularly and support the arts, curating shows and writing essays for catalogues.
      Alison’s most personal work made for a great show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery back in 2008 called “In the Name of Healing.” Alison dealt with other health issues for a number of years and with a great deal of research, resolve and creativity, she bought and collected glass pieces and glued them together to make freakish looking structures that were covered in red beads. There were strange looking oversized test tubes, wine glasses, read beaded syringes.
     One of her great contributions for a number of years was to host drawing exhibitions of her student’s work at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. Students, beginning as novices, produced drawings that by the end of the school year were worthy of hanging and selling. This was an amazing confidence booster.
     As much as Alison was capable of producing contemporary self-expressive pieces, Alison would overextend her interests into book making, etching, watercolours, figure paintings, and much more. “Overextend” because Alison had friends who knew that she too, like her students, needed some discipline in order to focus on the great work she was capable of producing.

     Sadly we won’t see more of what could have been, but we may at some point see the great work that she has produced over the years.

Go On, Buy Some Art

     Before he died in 2011, Lucien Freud, a British artist, could sell his paintings for up to an insane fifty million dollars. This is certainly a ridiculous example, yet proves the point that an artist doesn’t have to be dead to have their work valued. And although artists would love to make a living in town they understand the reality that Thunder Bay simply isn’t quite big enough. Some artists do well, like Luke Nicol and Greg Zelinski, who also sell their works in Grand Marais and Duluth.
     Although there are a limited number of people in the world who can afford a Freud painting, it’s been said that Thunder Bay has a high percentage of millionaires for its population so there is no reason for local artists to undervalue themselves, as they often do. It’s also said that wealthier residents here, who could be purchasing art from local artists don’t because they prefer buying art when travelling to remind them of places they’ve been.
     Fortunately for us artists, and Thunder Bay culture in general, there are a few collectors in town who not only purchase great art from across the country, and around the world, but also work by local artists. Dr. Bob Chaudhuri is one example. He even shows off his collection occasionally at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. Jaro Kotalik, another collector, has his walls covered with beautiful works by Ruth Tye Mckenzie. And there are others. So, on behalf of local artists, thanks so much!
     Thunder Bay certainly has a good share of great artists and the number increase every year with graduates from Lakehead University and Confederation College who decide to stay or return. A great benefit in the last few years has been the support of the Ontario Art’s Council’s Northern Arts Fund, allowing artists the time to create their works and explore new methods to find their m├ętier. As a result Thunder Bay has become a miniature cosmos of all that is available in Toronto or Vancouver.
     However, for the good number of people who appreciate art, there are still people who think art is silly, all frou-frou and excess, a waste of public money. Popular culture, which for the most part is beamed to us electronically, is certainly greatly supported by the same critics so why don’t they see value in local art?
     By comparison, an original work of art seems expensive. But people will pay over a thousand dollars a year to get the TV channels they desire. And pay for video games, players, and all sorts of technological fixes, which all employ thousands of artists to entertain them.
     You can express your belief structure, social standing, desires, and decorate with all sorts of stuff that isn’t original art, and cheap. So, why should people buy original art? What value does it have for a community like Thunder Bay? Why collect it?  After all, you can get all the basic functions of art from a poster and basic interior decoration.
     If you really are passionate about life, a public person, expressing your beliefs and desires, there is no better way than by having a great art collection.
     “The person who owns the work has the pleasure of living with it,” says artist, Linda Dell. “When they pass away, the art becomes a testament to their taste and values to be enjoyed and appreciated by their heirs. Europeans have known about this about original art for generations. Many are well acquainted with their regional art history and attend art exhibitions and galleries as part of their personal edification.”
      Often collectors and artists become friends. Social interactions are easier in cities that are designed where rich and poor mingle together as they once did in town squares, so even here artists have that ability to create bridges that people can cross.
     “An original piece of art or a quality print is a passionate creation reflecting the soul of the artist and in turn your soul, as a buyer in choosing the art piece,” says artist, Vesa Peltonen.  “An artwork can provide inspiration, escape, and beauty and encourage conversation. Buying art from an artist begins a unique and personal relationship that will last for a long time.”

     Which is why it is important for artists not to undervalue themselves and sell their work at cut rates. If you believe in your work and your community, charging a fair price respects not only the work you do, but also the relationship you have with the person who purchases the work. The work is more than the time and years of experience the artist has put into it. It is also inhibits the relationship with others. For all you know, every day, someone somewhere might be looking at your work.