ARTFUL BLOGGER: Two Aboriginal Artists from Manitoulin Island & Sizzling Erotica in Chelsea

BY PAUL GESSELL

DaphneOdjig-Universe-1970-Acrylic--WEB

Universe, (1970), Daphne Odjig, acrylic

 

Both new and old works from one of the biggest names in the Canadian art world – Daphne Odjig – are to have a rare, two-month-long run at Cube Gallery starting Feb. 3.

Read the rest of this story »

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Ottawa body parts shipped to Halifax

BY PAUL GESSELL

musketball 4sq 3

Musketball!, 2012, Howie Tsui, courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Paul Litherland

There is a distinct Ottawa sensibility to a collection of most unusual human body parts being exhibited in Halifax from Jan. 15 to March 8.

The exhibition at Dalhousie University Art Gallery is called Anatomica and is designed to highlight “the aesthetics, cultural legacies and allure of anatomical imagery.” The exhibition curator is Cindy Stelmackowich, an Ottawa artist best known for her own medically-themed art, often employing centuries-old medical textbook illustrations.

Read the rest of this story »

ARTFUL BLOGGER: John Marok, Rebellion & Meaghan Haughian

By PAUL GESSELL

IMG_0529

Complexcity, John Marok, 42″ x 48″, oil on canvas.

John Marok calls painting “a sublime activity.” This experienced artist from the Wakefield area has developed his own, unique visual language that tells stories combining the contemporary with the medieval.

Marok has a solo show, 4 Strong Winds, at the Shenkman Arts Centre running until Jan. 6. The following is a partial transcript of an email interview conducted with Marok.

Read the rest of this story »

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Tales of roadkill, N.Y. portraits & bejewelled insects

PAUL GESSELL

Marc Nerbonne, 'Meeting about us', 40 x40, mixed media on Dibond, 2014

Marc Nerbonne, ‘Meeting about us’, 40 x40, mixed media on Dibond, 2014

The table is perhaps the most important piece of furniture in the house. This is where members of the family sit to discuss important events, mark celebratory events, and have stressful arguments.

With that in mind, check out the new mixed media works by Gatineau artist Marc Nerbonne on view Nov. 6-19 at Galerie St. Laurent + Hill in the Byward Market. The tables pictured in some of the works should be interpreted as having been the scene of familial debates and confrontations. Atop the tables are the symbols of those confrontations – still-life arrangements formed from photographic snippets of animal body parts Nerbonne harvests from actual roadkill.

Does that sound gruesome?

Read the rest of this story »

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Fabrizio returns as midwest Comet

BY PAUL GESSELL

Fabrizio 9

Poster for Fabrizio’s Comet, an adaptation of Mark Frutkin’s award-winning novel into an opera by James McKeel

Ottawa author Mark Frutkin returned home from vacation two years ago this past August to be confronted by a surprising email. A professor of music and lyric theatre, James McKeel, from a liberal arts school, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, was asking Frutkin’s permission to turn his 2006 fable-like novel Fabrizio’s Return into an opera.

Fabrizio’s Return won the Trillium Award, as the best fiction book in Ontario the year it was published. The story is a magical tale of a remarkable violin, religion, alchemy, forbidden love, and a troupe of commedia dell’arte actors in 17th and 18th century Italy. And now Fabrizio has returned in a most unexpected way after Frutkin consented to McKeel’s request.

IMG_20141016_222823

Making the magic: co-collaborators James McKeel (left) and Mark Frutkin (right).

“Of course I agreed,” says Frutkin. “He (McKeel) worked on it for over two years, including through his sabbatical year. I was officially co-librettist but the work is really his. He would send me music clips (electronic facsimiles) and portions of the libretto as he finished them and I would comment and suggest. So he adapted the novel, scripted it, and wrote all the music for orchestra and voice, and directed. A real Renaissance man!”

comet 8

A performance of Fabrizio’s Comet by students at St. Olaf College. The play is an operetta based on the book Fabrizio’s Return by Ottawa author Mark Frutkin. Photo: St. Olaf College

The result was Fabrizio’s Comet, an operetta, performed Oct. 16-18 at St. Olaf College. Now Fabrizio is about to hit the road. Fourteen cast members, along with their costumes, masks, props, set pieces and pianist will perform excerpts at some schools in the Northfield area, including Sibley Elementary Nov. 6 and Prairie Creek Nov. 13.

But that is not the end of Fabrizio. McKeel has even bigger plans than school performances.

comet 13

One of the student actors performing in Fabrizio’s Comet at St. Olaf College. The play is an operetta based on the book Fabrizio’s Return by Ottawa author Mark Frutkin. Photo: St. Olaf College

“This one feels special and I’d like to work with Mark to improve it and promote it to other colleges and professional companies,” says McKeel. “Seeing it done with our limited resources gave me a taste for the possibilities with a bigger budget for set, costumes, lighting, effects etc.”

McKeel is no amateur. A baritone, he has sung more than 70 roles with opera companies and festivals in the U.S. and England. Performances range from The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, to La Boheme and Carmen. His list of artistic collaborators include Philip Glass and David Hockney. An avid composer, McKeel has written more than 60 operas, operettas, musicals, choral works, arts songs and song cycles, which have received commissions, grants, and premieres from such organizations as the Kennedy Center and Minnesota Opera.

Frutkin and his wife, Faith Seltzer, attended all three performances of the operetta in Northfield.

“The music is absolutely first-rate, the acting was pretty good for student actors, the singing was generally excellent,” says Frutkin. “A live orchestra makes for a fabulous sound. Access to the streaming is up now on the St Olaf home page.”

comet 18

A student actress performing in Fabrizio’s Comet at St. Olaf College. The play is an operetta based on the book Fabrizio’s Return by Ottawa author Mark Frutkin. Photo: St. Olaf College

The tunes are “extremely catching and lovely,” says Frutkin. “They’re still running through my head.”

Frutkin was astounded that McKeel had even learned of the novel Fabrizio’s Return because the book was not published in the United States. McKeel can’t remember how he came to buy the book.

“It was either online or at a local bookstore,” McKeel said in an interview. “And I just happened to read the synopsis, and the characters, plot, and commedia troupe screamed for some sort of musical treatment. Mark is such a poetic and sensitive and engaging writer that tunes and lyrics kept springing to mind as I read the book. I then took a chance and emailed Mark about the possibility of setting his novel and he said that he loved music and opera and was enthused to have it set to music. Off we went!”

 

ARTFUL BLOGGER: The horror show that was Kingston Pen

BY PAUL GESSELL

2_The Dome from above

The Dome from Above, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

The late Roger Caron became one of the most famous inmates of Kingston Penitentiary and not because he was a macabre serial killer like other residents such as Clifford Olson, Russell Williams, and Paul Bernardo.

Instead, Caron was a serial robber. But he was also a writer and won the Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction in 1978 for Go Boy: Memoirs of A Life Behind Bars. In the book, Caron describes his first impressions of Kingston Penitentiary, which closed in September 30, 2013.

“Kingston Penitentiary seen through a winter blizzard was enough to strike terror into the bravest heart,” Caron wrote. “Nine acres of cement and steel perched on the very banks of Lake Ontario and buffeted by a bitter and howling wind blowing off the frozen lake. It had the appearance of a fortress: high, gray walls all around; and tall guard towers commanding each corner of the wall. Seated within, on high stools and cradling high-powered rifles, were the blue-uniformed sentinels with license to kill and maim.”

Cell decorated with Harley Davidson, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

Cell decorated with Harley Davidson, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

Caron’s description is apt, according to a new book of hard-edged photographs taken by celebrated Toronto photo-artist Geoffrey James during the last months the federal institution was operating. The book, Inside Kingston Penitentiary: 1835-2013, from Black Dog Publishing, is filled with dozens of gritty, depressing, and very revealing photos of the architecture, inmates and guards of this infamous place. An exhibition of those photographs continues at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston until Dec. 7.

“I first entered KP at the tail end of its life,” James writes in his book of photographs. “Slated to close after being in operation for 178 years, it was a world that I wanted to experience and document before the prisoners were transferred.”

Recently vacated cell, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

Recently vacated cell, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

James admits he was ill-prepared for the experience, his knowledge of prison based on often inaccurate Hollywood portrayals of life behind bars. But James soon figured out the place. The hopelessness of KP is found in his shots of mournful prisoner graffiti, groups of joyless prisoners idling, not just for a moment, but for lifetimes, and the old stone architecture that is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies.

The one hopeful area James found was an outdoor compound containing a teepee and a native sweat lodge.

“It is the sacred ground of the Native Brotherhood,” James writes. “There are sweats every month and quarterly changing of the season ceremonies. I attended two of the ceremonies and they were a ray of light in a bleak landscape.”

A “ray of light” perhaps, but not brilliant sunshine. The photographs of the Aboriginal men in their rituals still seem drenched in despair.

The book and photographs by James have created an important documentary record of life in Canada’s oldest and most infamous prison. It’s the kind of book that should have been shown to Roger Caron as a teenager — it just might have dissuaded him from embarking upon a life of crime.

Geoffrey James: Inside Kingston Penitentiary is at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston until Dec. 7.

Exercise yard, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

Exercise yard, 2013. Photo by Geoffrey James

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Canadian contemporary art biennial quality over quantity

BY PAUL GESSELL

Howie Tsui      The Unfortunates of d’Arcy Island, 2013 Chinese paint pigments and gold calligraphy ink on mulberry paper, mounted on board 4 panels; 91.5 × 61 × 4.2 cm each; 91.5 × 244 × 4.2 cm overall National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo © NGC  

Howie Tsui    
The Unfortunates of d’Arcy Island, 2013
Chinese paint pigments and gold calligraphy ink on mulberry paper, mounted on board
4 panels; 91.5 × 61 × 4.2 cm each; 91.5 × 244 × 4.2 cm overall
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo © NGC

Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 is more compact than the National Gallery of Canada’s two previous biennials, but this exhibition is far more memorable, with one wow after another. Several individual artists are each given a room to display their wares, making the overall exhibition seem like a series of mini-exhibitions of some of the best contemporary art being created by Canadian artists.

Additionally, most of the art chosen for the biennial is what curators call “accessible” — in that most people will “get” the installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, and films, and not be left bewildered as to what is really going on.

From Vancouver, Geoffrey Farmer is represented by a massive installation, Leaves of Grass, originally exhibited in a somewhat different form at the prestigious international art fair dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany. The installation includes more than 16,000 photographs of celebrities, consumer products, natural disasters, and wars snipped from Life magazines during the period 1935-85 and glued to sticks stuck into floral foam, forming a crowded line 124 feet long. The whole contraption sits atop a long, narrow table with the photos-on-a-stick rising six feet above the table top. One could spend a day just eyeing this photographic review of much of the 20th century.

 

Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Geoffrey Farmer Leaves of Grass, 2012, cut-out images from Life magazines (1935–85), archival glue, miscanthus grass, floral foam and wooden table, installation dimensions variable, installation view, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, 2012. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Another room has seven large format photos from China by Toronto’s Edward Burtynsky. Nearby is a room for Kelly Richard’s imaginative film Mariner 9, revealing an imagined scene on Mars. Vancouver artist Luke Parnell fills a room with an installation about the commodification of West Coast Aboriginal art called A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design. Another Vancouver Aboriginal artist, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, has his own room to display drawings and paintings, including the iconic Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky.

The biennial is meant to showcase the gallery’s contemporary art (including indigenous art) acquisitions from the last two years. Not all new acquisitions are exhibited in the biennial. This time 80 works from 26 artists are on display. That’s only about a third of the acquisitions.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky, 1990 acrylic on canvas, 142.3 × 226.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky, 1990 acrylic on canvas, 142.3 × 226.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC.

That means works by three Ottawa artists — Melanie Authier, Lorraine Gilbert, and Annie Pootoogook — are not part of the exhibition, despite being acquired during the past two years. Last time, one of Authier’s abstract paintings became something of a signature piece for the biennial. Paintings were scarce commodities in this new exhibition. The two drawings and one lithograph by Pootoogook are from 2004-5, before this one-time art star originally from Cape Dorset, Nunavut became a tragic street person in Ottawa.

Ottawa ex-pat Howie Tsui, now of Vancouver, is in the exhibition with his contemporary take on an ancient Chinese scroll painting. Tsui’s work, The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island, tells the story of an island off the British Columbia coast that once housed a leper colony for Chinese-Canadians. Music fans will remember Tsui as part of the band The Acorn. In the last few years that Tsui has been away from Ottawa, his work has matured — it looks less like street art, has more gravitas, and, in the case of D’Arcy Island, a strong connection to Canadian history rather than Asian fantasy.

The biennials are products of a team of curators from contemporary art, photography, drawings and indigenous art. The chief curator for this biennial is Josee Drouin-Brisbois, curator of contemporary art. In a curatorial essay, Drouin-Brisbois explains how the exhibition came to be called Shine a Light: “Artists can be seen as modern-day philosophers and visionaries who shine light on events, places, and people that have been obscured, forgotten, or marginalized by history and societies.”

Shine a Light continues at the National Gallery until March 8.

 

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Ottawa Art Gallery resurrects pioneering artist Alma Duncan

BY PAUL GESSELL

1967 - Untitled (Blue Circle) - Private Collection

Untitled (Blue Circle) │ Sans titre (Cercle bleu), 1967, Alma Duncan. Acrylic on canvas │ Acrylique sur toile 69 x 88.8 | 69x 88,8 cm Courtesy of a Private Collection │ Gracieuseté d’une collection privée

Sometimes the Ottawa Art Gallery gets it right. Really and truly right. And that is the case with its new exhibition honouring the late ground-breaking artist Alma Duncan.

When the history of Ottawa is studied, the focus is usually on the politicians who passed through the capital. Little attention is paid to the entrepreneurs, dreamers, and artists who made Ottawa what it is, beyond Parliament Hill.

Thus, ALMA: The Life and Art of Alma Duncan (1917-2004) gives us a window into the often overlooked past of Ottawa’s cultural life. Yes, Ottawa did have a cultural life beyond the costume balls and skating parties at Rideau Hall. Away from the vice-regal and political hurly-burly, people like Duncan were making this a far more interesting city. Indeed, Duncan was a role model for all women, not just artists, trying to live an independent life.

1958 - Self-Portrait with Red Stripes - Private Collection2

Self-Portrait with Red Stripes │ Autoportrait avec rayures rouges, 1958, Alma Duncan. Oil on masonite │ Huile sur aggloméré 50.8 x 63.5 | 50,8 x 63,5 cm Courtesy of │ Gracieuseté de D & E Lake Ltd. Fine Arts, Toronto

Duncan was born in Paris, Ont., in 1917 and moved to Montreal in 1936 at age 19. She studied under renowned artists Goodridge Roberts and Ernst Neumann, and was soon exhibiting with the Art Association of Montreal.

In 1943, during the Second World War, Duncan received a government commission to create art related to the homefront, specifically Canada’s shipyards, munitions factories and other industrial projects. That same year she moved to Ottawa to become an artist with the National Film Board (NFB). Back then, the NFB attracted some of the most creative minds in the country to come to Ottawa to make films of all kinds, including animated ones.

Duncan invaded traditionally male spheres through her wartime work and her animated films. She was always ahead of the times. Check out the self-portrait done at age 23: Alma is wearing trousers. That must have sent tongues wagging.

Folksong Fantasy, 1951, film still from Who Killed Cock Robin, National Film Board of Canada

Folksong Fantasy (1951), Alma Duncan. Film still from Who Killed Cock Robin, National Film Board

At the film board, Duncan met Audrey (Babs) McLaren. The two collaborated on animated films and lived together for four decades. (That must also have sent tongues wagging). They both quit the NFB in 1951 and formed their own film company, Dunclaren Productions, and made several internationally-noted stop-motion animation short films. In those days, women didn’t just go out to form a company and market their products around the globe. No one, I guess, told Duncan and McLaren.

By the 1960s, Duncan returned to full-time painting and drawing. She was commissioned to create a series of postage stamps for Canada Post. She painted abstract works, including the Woman Series of 1965 that were exhibited in the National Gallery to much acclaim. Those black and white artworks reduce the female form to what the Ottawa Art Gallery calls “geometrically anthropomorphized shapes.” They were a hit.

1966 - The Family - Private Collection

The Family │ La famille, 1966, Alma Duncan. Canvas collage on masonite │ Collage de toile sur aggloméré 60.4 x 103 | 60,4 x 103 cm Courtesy of a Private Collection │ Gracieuseté d’une collection privée

The idea of the Duncan exhibition originated with Jaclyn Meloche from the University of Ottawa visual arts department. Meloche had written her master’s thesis on Duncan. She took her idea to Catherine Sinclair, senior curator at Ottawa Art Gallery. Soon Meloche and Sinclair embarked upon a journey to resurrect Duncan, who just died in 2004.

The exhibition is divided into several parts: portraits, war works, nature drawings, abstracts, and bric-a-brac from her animation films. Some of the films are being shown on a continuous loop at the gallery.

Personally, I find her self-portraits the best of the lot. In those paintings, Duncan usually depicts herself in the act of painting. She was an artist and wanted to be seen as such. And in those paintings, Duncan has a confident look — a bold look. This was not a woman to be trifled with.

Alma: The Life and Art of Alma Duncan (1917-2004) continues at the Ottawa Art Gallery until Jan. 11, 2015 and then tours Ontario.

 

 

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Inuit art’s Japanese connection revealed in new exhibit

BY PAUL GESSELL

Polar Bear and Cub in Ice

Polar Bear and Cub in Ice, 1959 Niviasi Printed by Iyola Kingwatsiak or Kananginak Pootoogook Stencil CMH, CD 1959-012 SS © IMG2010-0207-0001-Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

Most art scholars know that Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and other famous 19th century European artists were influenced by Japanese art. Fewer scholars know of the links between Inuit and Japanese art. A splendid new exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery explores those surprising links.

Iyon Nokka

Iyon Nokka, 1958 Kichiemon Okamura Printed by the artist Kappazuri stencil Gift of Alice W. Houston CMH, 2010.171 © IMG2010-0207-0004Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

The original idea for the exhibition, Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration, came from Carleton’s Miang Tiampo, an associate professor of art history, specializing in Japanese art. Tiampo took her idea to what was then called the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The museum, with the help of Tiampo and one of her students at the time, Asato Ikeda, organized the exhibition and, in 2011, sent it to Japan for a showing. A Canadian tour followed, culminating in the newly opened show at Carleton.

The Inuit-Japanese connection was fostered by James Houston, an artist and federal bureaucrat working during the 1950s in the Cape Dorset area in what is now Nunavut. Houston is considered the father of modern Inuit art for his efforts to link Inuit artists with markets in southern Canada and abroad.

Owl, Fox and Hare Legend

Owl, Fox and Hare Legend, 1959 Osuitok Ipeelee Printed by the artist, with James Houston Stencil CMH, CD 1959-021 SS © IMG2010-0207-0037-Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

In 1958, Houston went to Japan for three months to study printmaking so he could help develop a printmaking industry in Cape Dorset. Houston returned to the Canadian North with new skills and a suitcase full of Japanese prints and printmaking tools.

Inuit printmaking was never the same. The Arctic artists learned better how to create stark black-and-white prints and to highlight so-called negative space — the uncoloured parts. They adapted Japanese tools: Japanese wooden chisel handles were replaced by caribou antler; horsehair brushes became polar bear bristle brushes. Inuit artists even began “signing” their work with a personalized seal akin to those used in Japan.

The Carleton exhibition includes examples of these initial Japanese-inspired works, alongside some Japanese prints of the same era. The similarities in style and content are striking. Call it early globalization.

Three Caribou

Three Caribou, 1957 Niviasi (1908–1959) Printed by Kananginak Pootoogook (1935−) Stonecut CMH, CD 1957/58-003 © IMG2010-0207-0019-Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

The first Inuit printmakers to benefit from Japanese inspiration were Osuitok Ipeelee, Iyola Kingwatsiak, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, Kananginak Pootoogook, and Lukta Qiatsuk. All have since died. Examples of their works from 1959 are in the exhibition.

Houston Kneeling Priest

Kneeling Ainu Priest, 1958 James Houston Printed by the artist Woodcut Gift of Alice W. Houston CMH, 2010.171 © IMG2010-0207-0016-Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

Back in 2011, the Canadian Museum of Civilization loudly trumpeted the exhibition as the museum’s handiwork. Norman Vorano, then the museum’s head of Inuit art, was listed as the leading scholar in the exhibition catalogue. A press conference was held at the museum to unveil the catalogue. But there was no exhibition of the actual prints at the museum or elsewhere in the national capital.

So, why didn’t the museum stage an exhibition of these prints? Some museum officials say it was more a Carleton project than a museum project. But in 2011, it was touted as mainly a museum project. That, of course, was before the Museum of Civilization became the Canadian Museum of History with a mandate that has caused tremendous confusion.

Tudlik Bird Dream Forewarning Blizzard

Bird Dream Forewarning Blizzard, 1959 Tudlik Printed by Iyola Kingwatsiak Stonecut with rolled background CMH, CD 1959-016 SC © IMG2010-0207-0011-Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

The museum claims it is still interested in acquiring and exhibiting indigenous art, although there are signals that leave a different impression. The head of First Nations art, Lee-Ann Martin, retired last Christmas and the head of Inuit art, Norman Vorano, left earlier this year for a job at Queen’s University. Neither has been replaced. The two jobs are to be rolled into one and a curator hired at some time in the future.

Behind the scenes, the museum has debated whether it should be involved in Aboriginal art at all. Indigenous art used to be considered handicraft, rather than fine art. So, indigenous art was exhibited in ethno-cultural institutions rather than fine art museums.

However, the National Gallery and other major art institutions are increasingly treating indigenous art as fine art. So, should the Canadian Museum of History continue to acquire and exhibit Aboriginal art?

Museum officials maintain they have an abiding interest in Aboriginal art. If that is, indeed, the case, maybe that museum could have found the space to display an Inuit art exhibition it created three years ago.

Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration, curated by Norman Vorano, Ming Tiampo, and Asato Ikeda, produced by the Canadian Museum of History, on at the Carleton University Art Gallery until Dec. 14, 2014

Owl

Owl, 1959 Lukta Qiatsuk Printed by the artist Stonecut CMH, CD 1959-004 SC © IMG2010-0207-0036-Dm Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Ghosts haunt book launch at famous pub

BY PAUL GESSELL

ManInTheShadows

D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub on Sparks Street was named in honour of the Montreal MP fatally shot, mere steps away, in the early hours of April 7, 1868. Canada was not yet a year old when Thomas D’Arcy McGee was killed by a .32-calibre bullet as he tried to unlock the front door of Toronto House, a Sparks Street rooming house managed by the Widow Trotter.

Patrick James Whelan, an Irish-born tailor and a Fenian sympathizer, was convicted of the assassination and hanged Feb. 11, 1869 at the Carleton County Gaol, now a Nicholas Street youth hostel. The Fenians were American-based, anti-British, Irish nationalists — we’d call them terrorists today — who staged periodic raids on Canada to destabilize the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald. McGee, an Irish-born Catholic, was perceived as a traitor by the Fenians for supporting Macdonald.

Whelan was convicted of McGee’s murder on circumstantial evidence and, to this day, his actual guilt is often questioned. His possible innocence was certainly raised in the one-man play, Blood on the Moon, written and performed by Ottawa actor Pierre Brault, first at the 1999 Ottawa Fringe Festival, later in an expanded nationally touring play, and also in a television drama.

Henderson_Gordon

Author Gordon Henderson. Photo by Jason van Bruggen

Now Toronto journalist and documentary film-maker Gordon Henderson has written a novel throwing more doubt on Whelan’s guilt. Man in the Shadows is Henderson’s first novel. He will launch it in Ottawa Sept. 30, naturally, at D’Arcy McGee’s Pub on Sparks Street. The ghosts of both McGee and Whelan will undoubtedly be haunting the event.

The central character in Man in the Shadows is a fictional young man of Irish descent named Conor O’Dea, who serves as an aide to McGee. The Catholic Conor is romantically involved with the equally fictional Meg Trotter, the protestant daughter of McGee’s landlady. But most of the characters in the book, such as McGee, Macdonald and Whelan are true historical figures and, under Henderson’s watch, never stray far from the historical record in thought, word, and deed.

And then there is the fictional unnamed man who is the titular Man in the Shadows. He is a Fenian who has come to Canada to wreak havoc — first by assassinating McGee and framing Whelan for the crime, and then by plotting the assassination of Macdonald.

Henderson’s book is a good, fast read that even young readers — especially young readers — will enjoy. The fictional characters, including Conor and Meg, are likable but rather one-dimensional. As well, some of the plot elements, especially the attempt to kill Sir John A. on a toboggan slide at Rideau Hall, are more farcical than serious fictional history. This is definitely literature-lite, but the book does help demonstrate that Canadian history can be as exciting as a CSI crime drama on television.

Gordon Henderson will launch Man in the Shadows Sept. 30 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub at 44 Sparks St. There is no admission charge.