Thursday, 17 August 2017

Welcome to the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery and Framing Shop

     












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

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Art of Eugene Lefrancois

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



Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Incredible Whiteness of Children's Picture Books

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

Saturday, 22 July 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Legacy of Ahmoo Angeconeb

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

Marjorie Clayton's Other World

The need or ability to travel to remote areas of non-Western countries is still relatively rare and few who do make the journey don’t always return with something deep and artful that changes their lives and benefits the rest of us.
     As a professional photographer with a love of distant places and cultures Marjorie Clayton returns from her journeys with iconic images of ordinary people. The images allow us to glimpse into the lives of people who are rich at heart yet live in a difficult world without the advantages that we take for granted. Whether in Ghana or Bolivia the phrase “seize the day” doesn’t reflect choice and opportunity as we see it, but of doing what one can to survive on a daily basis. 
     Marjorie spends a great deal of time with her subjects, involving herself in their community more so than most artists and photographers would, stepping into a world that no tourist would see and one in which trust has to be earned. It’s a world that exists beyond our stereotypes.
    Driven by an interest in other countries, peoples, and cultures Marjorie first moved to England which became a springboard to Africa. Failing to confidently master French she chose English speaking Ghana as a destination. Beginning in 1992 Marjorie sporadically returned to Africa to spend an accumulated 15 months in Ghana.
     When first entering the country with only one contact with an NGO, Margorie states, “I figured I'd let life take me where it wanted me to go. I'm really not much of a tourist. I rarely go to monuments, museums or anywhere near a resort. I prefer to get to know what everyday life is like for the people I meet. Often I am drawn to artists, musicians and farmers and they often dictate where I go and what I do.”
    On several occasions Marjorie spent time in Navrongo, near Burkina Faso, as well as visiting Bolgatanga and the capital city Accra.
     “My main photo essays have been taken in Bolivia, Ghana and the Gambia. At the end of this coming year I plan to branch out and will be doing a new photo essay in Peru and possibly Ecuador. My most significant work was self funded with the exception of my first trip to The Gambia which was commissioned by a now defunct magazine in London.”
     Here in Thunder Bay you can see Marjorie’s photos at the Ahnisnabae Gallery at 18 Court St. And online at: www.marjclayton.aminus3.com 
     “I will be presenting 2 exhibitions in Bolivia in 2018. The first will be in February at City Hall in La Paz and the second will be in the Museo Tambo Quirquincho also in La Paz. For the May exhibition I will be creating a talk and workshop using my material from Ghana and The Gambia. I'm hoping to share my experiences in Ghana and The Gambia and show my images to a few Afro Bolivian communities  as well.”
      Most tourists who step tepidly into the fringe world that surrounds a resort or city centre encounter hustlers or “bumpsters,” as in the Gambia, where people resort to tricks and cons to earn a quick buck. 
     “My work can show another point of view, of real families, people who want to earn a living, to support a family in areas where unemployment is extremely high.”
    Marjorie captures people living and working with their families. Most are really happy to have their photo taken, especially if they can get a printed photo from Marjorie, which is a rare luxury. And although poverty is a constant toil, people continue to be optimistic assuaged by the understanding that everyone around them is in the same boat. Yet they are determined to bring joy to their lives, with family and friends and by being extremely creative with the limited resources they have.
And this is what Marjorie so artfully captures in her work, the industriousness and the humanity of people living ordinary lives, yet extraordinary for us.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Kyle Lees and Merk: New Works

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

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hot Topic: Cultural Appropriation

    This is an article in two parts to discuss the current controversy of cultural appropriation. The second part regarding the appropriation of First Nations art will appear next week.
     Most professional artists understand the ground rules of art in general. It’s pretty simple. If you’re a talented, dedicated and knowledgeable professional artist who sells work on a regular basis you don’t need to copy a particular style from another artist or appropriate anything from anyone. Professional artists are influenced by all kinds of styles, past and present, but the idea is to use one or more style in a work in such a limited fashion that you can claim the recombination to be yours alone. The idea is to put your own hand and mind into the work. It’s not about being completely original, which is incredibly difficult and problematic, but about being yourself. This is the western tradition. And professional artists understand that our tradition is one of many around the world and that if we have reason to be influenced by other cultures, either by proximity or by commission, we have to do the research and be respectful.
Ocean Guard is a nine foot long oil painting on canvas
initially inspired by First Nations art. 
     Cultural appropriation is a hot topic because our western tradition can conflict with the traditions and beliefs of other cultures. It’s also a hot topic because all sorts of people who are not artists feel their opinion is equally valid as professional artists. The world of visual arts is different from other practices because all rules have been broken to the point where many people believe that any opinion on art is totally subjective, that there is no such thing as good and bad in art, that everything is merely a matter of personal taste, and no one should criticize or judge. We are all free. We are all equal. We are all human. And there is proof that being creative is good therapy. It’s good to have a hobby. And who’s going to stop you from declaring yourself an artist? Maybe a family member, but likely no one else.
     To make the visual art world even more subjective many people would agree with art historian H. W. Janson’s statement that the history of art is the history of aesthetics, the history of styles of art as they change over time and in different parts of the world. Janson is excluding the history of right and wrong action, story telling, and all sorts of other social functions that art provided for society in their time.
     Anyone in Thunder Bay is allowed to trek over to the Painted Turtle and go home with paints, brushes and canvas and paint whatever their heart’s desire. In the privacy of your own home you can paint beautiful flowers, trucks, rock stars, pornography, or be even more gauche and paint Elvis on black velvet.
     However, the moment you take your painting of Elvis from your home and place it in public view in a gallery and put a price tag on it you are entering the civic world. In the civic world, where you have the freedom to express yourself that expression is limited by laws, copyright laws and customs because in a democracy other people also have the right to be protected from theft, slander, hurtful imagery, damaging lies and hate speech.
      Other people also have the right to free speech and they can say whatever they want about your tacky painting of Elvis on black velvet. If they think you’re a terrible painter they have a right just as you do to say what they think. If your price tag is clearly too high because you clearly have no talent, took only one course in art, and spent only a couple hours on the painting, anyone viewing your work has a right to question its value. If you make false statements about your work, the public has the right to question your motivations. And we don’t know your motivations because we cannot see what is in your heart.
   I can limit my biases in order to benefit the public by writing upbeat reviews for art shows that I don’t personally like. Thankfully, with so many talented artists in Thunder Bay, there are few of those. Art is often mysterious, subjective and so personal that my opinion is only that, my opinion. Yet I have avoided writing about a few shows because I felt the artwork was either terribly unprofessional or because I felt the artist was appropriating another artist’s work.
     In presenting my opinions about appropriation last week I pointed out that artists can’t help but to be inspired by other artists’ works, and that it’s hard to gauge an artist’s sincerity because we can’t read other peoples’ hearts. You would think that writers and visual artists are good at reading their own hearts and avoid appropriating another artist’s work, especially First Nations artwork, but we westerners, the colonizers, have a long history of inbuilt biases and we can be quite clever at creating arguments to assuage any feelings of guilt.
    One visiting professor I interviewed admitted to obtaining images for her drawings by copying directly from photos found on the Internet. In her inflated intellectual answer to my question about her source material she called what she did “research” while her face turned pink with embarrassment.
    Another visiting artist was clearly appropriating First Nations art. Suspicious about his intentions I read articles and an interview he did on the Internet. With only a distant First Nations relative he was whiter than me, and he gave a subjective cultural argument: “We are all human.” More importantly there was not a shred of personal creativity to his work. Although he was a nationally recognized artist I thought it was an act.
     Recently in Toronto an artist had her art show cancelled because of complaints that she had appropriated First Nations art. The controversy spiralled into a national debate to be followed by an equally controversial debate over the appropriation of First Nations literature. The debate was fascinating and pointed out a real misunderstanding about the differences between inspiration and appropriation.
On the left is a section of my painting “Ocean Guard” followed by a typical Morrisseau work, an image by Hundertwasser whose work I went to see at his museum in Vienna. Artist Roger Dean who did Yes album covers had some influence as did my mother’s quilts and sports car designs.
    Often it is a matter of degrees of separation. As an example, my most recent image of a giant fish was partly inspired by woodland art. I copied nothing directly, but I was relying on my memory of familiar shapes. For me the imagery in my painting was too familiar so I reworked the painting to make it more my own. I played with lines and shapes and colour and even perspective incorporating other influences into the painting.
       The result of playing around and being open minded is a painting that could be good or it could be kitsch. Either way I didn’t waste my time. I came up with all kinds of patterns and ideas that I can use in other future works that will have little or no reference to woodland art.  
      My knowledge of the issues is pretty limited and may be biased by my colonial ancestors. For a reviewer like me it’s a joy to write about artists who are clearly enjoying their inspirational rides, but it’s also a thrill to write about art that is not part of my culture at all, about artists who are committed to the telling and retelling of the stories of their community.
    Us colonizers have been living with the fantasy concept of the “noble savage” since 1715. As art historian Alan Gowans points out, “The Noble Savage’s irresistible attraction for the European mind corresponded directly to appeal of the idea of Mankind’s natural goodness, and its concomitant: ‘We’re all right; it’s society that’s wrong.”
  I can’t begin to tell you how this concept messed with white people’s heads regarding our treatment of First Nations people and their culture, mostly because I’m no expert. But there are a number of good books that can help both us white folk and First Nations people, especially us artists, to understand the issues. I defer to Mary McPherson’s list situated on this same page.
In order to write a third part of this article I will have to do a few interviews and a lot of reading. That might take a while.
Mary McPherson’s suggested reading list about First Nation’s culture and colonialism. A few of the essays mentioned can be found online. 1. Unpacking Culture: art and commodity in colonial and post-colonial worlds by Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner  2. Scott Watson and Paul Yuxwelptun’s essays in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art. 3. An essay by Ruth Phillips titled Morrisseau’s Entrance, Negotiating Primitivism, Modernism and Anishnaabe tradition in the book, Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist   4. Carmen Robertson's Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau 5. Nelson Graburn's article in Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism


Friday, 14 April 2017

Chris Stones show at In Common, "Now and Then."


    With his grizzled good looks and khaki coloured clothes Mr. Stones cuts an image worthy of Hemingway, intimating a Cuban landscape and otherworldly experiences. His art seems born of that same frame; exotic yet familiar, stoic, deep and well worn. His show, Now and Then, of sculptural wall hangings, drawings and sculptures are featured at the elegant Resto-Bar, In Common, at 40 Cumberland Street South. Smaller pieces on ledges within the foyer behind glass also deserve equal attention. The crannies are a bit difficult to get into, but the effort worthwhile. Born and raised in Thunder Bay with a number of jaunts to explore the country and better his practice with study, both at Lakehead University and the University of Waterloo, Chris Stones is a inveterate explorer of sites within nature and industrial landscapes. With a unique pursuit to peak his interest in the relationship of man-made objects to nature Chris creates his own thoughtful adventures and memories that are collected by retaining objects from his journeys, reworking the found pieces to make personal statements that are playful and well ruminated upon.    
     In his university studies he settled on wood and stone sculpture as his focus, but was expected to push the boundaries. This resulted in creating installation art. He continued with these interests while obtaining the bulk of his income from commercial work as designer for screen printing companies, namely sportswear and later as a self-employed sign painter. He also created artwork for local businesses.       
     More proficient today his art has become, as he says, more solid, secure, and substantive, taking on much more of a commanding physical presence with specific and expanding ideas that are highly individual. The majority of works in this show are interconnected with the use of materials and related themes. His personal stamp is made through a variety of subtleties that take time to ascertain. Chris’ work here covers a ten year span of thoughtful creativity. Especially thoughtful is the sculptural wall-hanging, Everything Beautiful is Transient.This piece is a brilliant work of art that reflects on manmade objects losing their functions to the natural entropy of time and friction. Rather than be recycled with a functional role, the wooden wheel has been left to rot, sinking gently with a companion, a bit of steal, into the sandy bottom of a river. The river bottom is suggested with the use of the grey/brown colour of the paint. Stained and mottled effects in the canvas suggest light reflections and refractions upon the sand, along with the weight of the water which would be pressing down on the objects. The dead little bird in the wheel-hole might suggest how our man-made objects often cost nature dearly or it could be a secure little burial site for something that once flew above the waves.Chris cleverly gives the viewer the best clue of all with the cutout canvas fish happily swimming above the refuse, somewhere between the bottom and the surface of the water, lively and clearly enjoying a moving living stream. Over the death and rot are the living, that balance in nature of renewal that Chris is able to suggest with a minimal use of information. Especially brilliant is to suggest the existence of the most present substance of all within this work of art, the one most present, but which can’t be seen by the viewer and only understood to exist in this piece; the water. Your mind is taken into a space beneath the waves in a way that is an incredible little virtual reality trip.       
    When asked about his work, Chris reveals what makes him an artist’s artist, reminding the rest of us artists how most of us should think about our process, without expectation. “I’m just revelling in the selfishness of it. I don’t care if anyone is paying attention to it. I’m not making it for Joe citizen to enjoy. It’s a gift and a talent I keep exploring it.”      Inspired by literature, (the large window sculpture is called, Don Quixote) and more so by nature, Chris states, “I’m a water person; under the water, top of the water, shore lines, water in industrial sites, scrapyards even.” He’ll observe the repetition of shapes and lines of bird’s flight or the beauty in their longs necks, as seen in one of his most beautiful sculptures. Many of his works make a statement with the simple application of subtleties, such as changing the natural size of an object. This can result in a cartoonish rendering of an idea, as in the comical drawing of fishing lures. With his drawings he downplays his interest in the subject matter saying, “Drawings are just a way for me to make time disappear.”      Clearly the drawings are more than that; Chris is celebrating the beauty of nature        
     while lamenting its destruction. But he’s an optimist who sees regeneration as a fight against the entropy sped up by human beings’ destructive influences. He even conjures up the idea of an ancient fish, the sturgeon, having become hyper-intelligent, turning themselves into missiles. This is an idea he has for a future series of work, which he discusses with a playful smile, shrugging at how the idea appears silly when described.     These “sturgeon torpedoes” are part large living sturgeons and part metallic torpedoes. “If nature could fight back and self-determine genetically, what would they become? How would that manifest if they decided they didn’t want to be buried in the muck, part of industrial waste? How would they survive? They would become faster, deadlier.”.     Entropy, synergy, dealing with form, finding subjects with lots of texture, Chris has a keen interest in many aspects of his subject matter, which he says is inexorably linked to his own character, explaining that ideas come as much from his own character as much as external sources. Nevertheless, he explains that he is always “taking his eyes for a walk.”      
     “I’ll keep a memory of where things are in the environment and boxfuls of notes. I started using a GPS to document a spot in the bush, so I don’t have to think much about getting back there, to a particular spot in the environment that I thought was stimulating. The sculptures are indicative of where I’ve been.” Chris can look at an old work and recall where he was and what he was doing at the time. This is a side benefit of employing found objects and recycling them into new works. “You don’t have to buy lumber to sand it and render it down to a piece of non-dimensional wood. And it represents a history of where it was found. There is a memory attached to a beach or an island or a lake.” 
     As humble as he is and claiming to be “retired,” he’s nowhere near done exploring or ruminating about his relationship with nature and he has a clear mission to express what he loves. He is more likely more “tired” by the art world and what it takes to be an artist. Wondering why he does it, produce art, he still appreciates the kick he gets, the shot of support he gets from people admiring his work.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Annual Juried Student Exhibition, Great Work from the Lakehead University Visual Arts Department

Local artists! Be afraid! Yet another crop of young people with skills, ideas, imagination and commitment are beginning their incursions into our community that will shatter the ensconced recalcitrant cliques, batter the old fuddy-duddies, and jiggle the juxtapositions of the obstinate ideologues. We, in this small city with too big an artistic community for its working class britches are in even further trouble. Where some of us protested against egalitarianism to support the belief that funding and attention should go to the best of the best, we now say, "Hold on! Maybe this sharing of finite resources is not a bad thing."
     If you're an artist and you want to see what you’re up against head to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery soon. If you're a collector and lover of art, it's only out of duty that I inform you of the amazing talent ready to explode from the forested encampment for intellectuals found on the hill. 
     The variety of mediums used and subject matter vary dramatically. The quality of the work this year is excellent. There are many pieces worth writing about and many young artists who will likely have solo shows elsewhere very soon if they haven’t already done so. 
     Many of the artists featured also had work at the Urban Infill show hosted by the Definitely Superior Art Gallery. Do check out their current exhibition featuring international artist, Diane Landry whose kinetic works employing common materials is a lot of fun. An annual event is Dr. Bob Chaudhri’s latest additions to his art collection, a good variety of contemporary pieces. And a short art film installation appears in gallery 3 titled, A Game of Chess by Marcel Dzama. 
     To categorize this year's student art is difficult. Influences come from everywhere. Execution, aesthetic style and content are all over the map. Personal preferences on which you judge art should be set aside to take in all that is offered; the students are throwing a lot at you to think about. 
     Many of the students are concerned with an unseen world that needs exposure. A visual subtitle to the entire show is summed up the three paintings on the wall across from the entrance. Lisa Makela’s landscape is a perfect metaphor for all that you will see. And with the concerns come a combination of great drawing skills and imaginative use of the materials. Many of the students do this really well: Lisa Makela, Vanessa Ervin, Amanda Toope, Shaylyn Bishop, Cheyeanne Vanderlind, Katy Poirier, Marielle Orr, Katrin Huerzeler, and Katie Kramer. 
      Many works that make environmental statements, revealing our dependence on behaviours that are harmful to the environment and to our own bodies; Lisa Makela, Vanessa Ervin, Bronte Normand, Mary J Kakekapetum, and Robyn Burns. The problems facing bees is of big concern to young people. 
      Using more symbology and allegory are Bronte Normand, Shelby Gagnon, and Mary McPherson. Political and humorous works: Bronte Normand, Aidan Domenis, and Mary McPherson. Bold imagery of our relationship to nature or a man made environment are featured in works by Violet Cross, Mary McPherson, Robin Faye, Cheyanne Vanderlind, Katy Poirier, and Katie Kramer.
     Introspective psychological works that reflect on the creator’s inner life, dealing with change, appearances, the building up or dragging down of self; Violet Cross, Shayla Hickerson, Vanessa Ervin, Asia Schultz, Rebecca Widdes, Amber Leppanen, Claire Everett, Courtney Davis, and Robyn Burns. 
     You can likely come up with more categories than I’ve listed here to include many of the students I’ve missed. All the works are quite wonderful and worth checking out. Make sure you take the time to take in what are likely to be the first works for a whole crop of new artists to influence the scene in Thunder Bay and beyond. 
    The annual Lakehead University juried exhibition for the students of the Visual Arts Department is on display till April 9. Go quick. Capping this gang with great work are the fourth year graduating students of the visual arts department whose show runs till April 16. The opening reception for them is Friday, April 7 at 7:30 pm. They will be presenting Artist Talks Monday, April 10 from 1 – 4 pm at the Gallery.

     

Monday, 27 February 2017

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

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