ARTFUL BLOGGER: Skinned animals, stuffed birds, and Alex Colville

By PAUL GESSELL

Skinned animals at Museum of Nature

Photo courtesy Museum of Nature

Photo courtesy Museum of Nature

The skinned camel with its head neatly sliced in three is awesome. Ditto the skinless, almost featherless ostrich and the tall giraffe, its birthday suit removed to reveal all its inner workings.

But the star attraction of these anatomy lessons might prove to be human — just an arm, actually, with the skin peeled back to reveal muscles and tendons and slender bones. The fingernails remain intact. Somehow the nails, more than anything, tell us this preserved arm once was attached to a living, breathing body.

Visitors to the exhibition, Body Worlds: Animals Inside Out, at the Canadian Museum of Nature tend to gravitate to that human arm. You are allowed to touch it and shake its bony hand. Nearby, a real human heart rests, its pumping days long gone. You can hold it and speculate on whose life it once powered.

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ARTFUL BLOGGER: Terry Fox, Alex Colville, and a room full of selfies

By PAUL GESSELL

The Marathon of Hope van provided Terry and his companions with more than transport. It serves as bedroom, office, billboard, mileage calculator, equipment locker, clothes hamper, kitchen, warehouse, washroom, windbreak, jukebox, and fortress of solitude. © Canadian Museum of History

The Marathon of Hope van provided Terry and his companions with more than transport. It serves as bedroom, office, billboard, mileage calculator, equipment locker, clothes hamper, kitchen, warehouse, washroom, windbreak, jukebox, and fortress of solitude. © Canadian Museum of History

What would Terry Fox be like if he had not died at age 22 in 1981?

Would he still be a national hero, but one now in his 50s? Would he have become a great motivational speaker, an author, a politician or paralypian? One has the feeling he could have succeeded in whatever field he wanted.

I suddenly started thinking about the “what ifs” of Terry’s life upon seeing and talking to some of his friends and family who came to Gatineau to participate in the opening of an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History called Terry Fox: Running to the Heart of Canada.

These friends and family have all naturally aged since they were first catapulted into the national news in 1980 alongside Terry when he started his Marathon of Hope, his fund-raising run for cancer across Canada.

So what would Terry look like today? Would the curls be gone? A paunch have developed? Would there be a bionic leg to replace the absolutely primitive looking prosthetic he used and is on display in the exhibition?

Terry’s prosthetic leg was built by prosthetic specialist Ben Speicher of Vancouver, British Columbia. © Canadian Museum of History

Terry’s prosthetic leg was built by prosthetic specialist Ben Speicher of Vancouver, British Columbia. © Canadian Museum of History

Those who die young remain young forever in our hearts. But wouldn’t it be great if Terry came back, even just for a day, to pose for photographs with the 1980 E250 Econoline Ford van that was turned into a camper and was his “home” during the 143 days he ran — more of a hop really — from St. John’s, NL to Thunder Bay? That was where the run ended. The cancer that claimed his right leg caught up to him again, this time in his lungs, forced an end to the run and caused his death some months later.

The Ford Motor Co. had donated the van for Terry’s use. When the run ended, the van was sold to a London, Ont. family with the surname Johnston. A member of that family was Bill Johnston, who moved to Vancouver and used the van to tour the country with his heavy metal band Removal. In 2005, Doug Coupland, the celebrated author, artist, and friend of the Fox family, attended a party in Vancouver where someone told him the van was in the city. With Terry’s brother Darrell Fox, Coupland tracked down the van and the Terry Fox Foundation took ownership. Ford has restored the van to the way it looked in 1980.

The van is like the Holy Grail of Canada, a symbol of goodness and generosity and bravery. It is the centrepiece of an exhibition that is bound to leave anyone in tears who can remember Terry’s run and his death and the impact he had on an entire country. The van is surrounded by letters, cards and film clips of people talking about how Terry inspired and helped them. Thirty-five years after his death, we still mourn him.

The exhibition continues until Jan. 24, 2016.

Living Room by Alex Colville

Living Room by Alex Colville

If you go to only one art exhibition a year, visit Colville

Images of Alex Colville’s paintings have been reproduced so extensively over the years on posters, book covers, and other paraphernalia that they have become as familiar as photos in one’s own family album.

You have seen your Colville relatives (and their animal friends) in such familiar paintings as To Prince Edward Island, Horse and Train, Church and Horse, and Dog in Car. These are all snapshots of the menacing, mysterious parallel world of “Colville moments” that lay just beneath the surface of our everyday Canadian lives and threaten to erupt at any moment.

About 100 Colville works, including many of his most famous paintings, have been assembled for an exhibition running from April 23 to Sept. 7 at the National Gallery of Canada. Simply titled Alex Colville, the show ran last summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and attracted 166,406 visitors, the largest number ever to attend a show of Canadian art at the AGO.

The exhibition was mainly organized by the AGO’s Andrew Hunter, who focuses on the relationship between Colville’s paintings and the much larger world of pop culture. Example: The late American film-maker Stanley Kubrick personally selected four reproductions of Colville paintings to hang on the walls of sets constructed for the horror film The Shining. The first Colville seen, Horse and Train, appears early in the spooky film at the home of Danny, the boy with the supernatural power called “the shining.” Danny’s father, played by Jack Nicholson, is soon to go wildly insane chasing Danny with an axe. We always had a sense of foreboding with Horse and Train. We just never knew it could presage an axe murder.

Actually, many of Colville’s paintings exude the feeling that something horrible is about to happen. Call them “Colville moments.” The Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men is filled with “Colville moments,” most involving a psychopathic killer (actor Javier Bardem) patiently waiting for the right moment to unleash what we know will be another bloodbath. Colville, who died in 2013 at age 92, was a fan of the Coen Brothers films. The National Gallery show will explore this Coen-Colville relationship.

Colville’s career as an artist dates back to the 1940s, including a stint as a war artist, and a visit to the newly liberated Nazi concentration camp Belsen. Some of the war art, including horrifying Belsen work, are in the National Gallery exhibition.

We also get to explore Colville’s relationship to his late wife Rhoda, who was a model for many of her husband’s paintings. Their intense 70-year-long marriage is another focus of the exhibition.

If you go to only one art exhibition a year, visit Colville. Think of it as a family reunion of sorts. Colville was the quintessential Canadian – patriotic, polite, and humble. But he was also a regular visitor to that sometimes frightening place the show’s curator calls the town of “Colville.” It’s that town of “Colville” that has made — and continues to make — this country into a far more fascinating and complex place.

The Selfie

Remember when Lilly Koltun was trying to create a portrait gallery for Ottawa? Koltun was bursting with great ideas as to what constitutes a portrait: Maybe just a pair of hands or an article of clothing. Who says portraits have to include the subject’s face?

The Caribbean country of Barbados, for example, has a portrait gallery. Some of the country’s heros in that gallery were former slaves who left no paintings or photographs of themselves. So “portraits” were created by gathering objects owned by those freedom-fighters, letters written by them, and other personal paraphernalia.

Three young Ottawa photographers have taken a similar expansive approach to the notion of a self-portrait. Magida El-Kassis, Olivia Johnston, and Jennifer Stewart have collaborated on an exhibition titled Selfies at Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa City Hall.

In one installation, Johnston, one of Ottawa’s most interesting portrait photographers, has arranged 39 inkjet prints on a wall depicting used cosmetic pads. The smears on the pads are like Johnston’s face removed and then reduced to crude smears.

Both El-Kassis and Stewart have large inkjet prints of themselves as ghostly figures in rooms or in a forest. These images, just like conventional portraits, make you wonder what this person is really like. Why did she choose this media? What does that say about her?

Some of the images in Selfies are far more conventional, some are nudes, some show personal objects such as shoes or gloves. The results are innovative, fascinating and brave. Selfies continues at Karsh-Masson until April 19.

PLUS

Elaine Goble, an Ottawa artist I much admire, has a new exhibition opening April 9 at Wallack Galleries. The show is called The Painted Truth and includes works in graphite, photography, and egg tempera. Goble is best known as a homefront war artist, but her oeuvre is much more extensive. The exhibition continues until April 25.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Jane Urquhart’s Night Stages recalls late Ottawa artist Ken Lochhead

TheNightStagesBy PAUL GESSELL

Jane Urquhart took a huge risk with her new novel, The Night Stages, a sad, poetical tale of complex journeys and complicated love. This is because one of the leading characters in the book is a real person, but fictionalized: Kenneth Lochhead, the celebrated Ottawa artist who died in 2006.

Fictionalizing real people is a risky business. Wayne Johnston learned that lesson some years ago with his epic novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, about Joey Smallwood, the former Newfoundland premier. Johnston was accused of a sensationalized caricature rather than an accurate portrait.

No one bats an eye over a novel about real people dead hundreds of years ago, a Henry VIII or a Cleopatra. Indeed, most of Shakespeare’s plays are fictionalized stories of real people. But fictionalizing people many living Canadians knew intimately is a trickier task.

Urquhart seems to have been extraordinarily careful in recreating Lochhead, a former University of Ottawa art professor and a mentor to generations of Ottawa artists. Urquhart is evidently confident enough of “her” Lochhead that she is coming to the Ottawa Writers Festival to launch her book at public events April 9 and 10. Many in her Ottawa audiences will undoubtedly be people who knew the real Lochhead.

Clearly, Urquhart did her homework to present the true essence of Lochhead, even though she has changed certain details of his life. Before publishing The Night Stages, Urquhart sent a copy of the manuscript to Joanne Lochhead, the artist’s widow living in Ottawa.

“I thought it was great,” Mrs. Lochhead said of the novel in a recent interview. “I really liked the way she handled him.”

Mrs. Lochhead said that her husband, since his death, has become “historical,” giving novelists more licence to recreate him.

As a journalist, I have always been leery of novelists portraying real, contemporary people and deviating from the known record. But I must agree with Mrs. Lochhead that Urquhart did a splendid job with Kenneth Lochhead, a man I met several times to discuss his art, but also to discuss Saskatchewan, where we both used to live, and for a time, to discuss our cottages along the same stretch of the Gatineau River.

In Night Stages, a woman named Tamara finds herself stranded at Gander Airport in Newfoundland during a three-day snowstorm. She spends many hours communing with the 72-foot-long mural, “Flight and its Allegories”, in the waiting lounge. The mural was painted by Lochhead in 1958.

Lochhead, in real life, summed up the complex narrative in the mural this way: “Characterization of each figure has been attempted in order to portray various human feelings that man, himself, often experiences when entering into flight.”

Tamara relates scenes in the mural to her own life, her troubled relationship with an Irish man named Niall and Niall’s troubled relationship with his quixotic brother Kieran. The stories of these three individuals are interspersed with the partly true, partly fictionalized story of Lochhead, his journey through life and his creation of the mural.

Jane Urquhart. Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Jane Urquhart. Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

“There are children of various sizes, placed here and there across the painted surface,” Urquhart writes, as Tamara begins a description of the mural. “Some of them are toy-like – not dolls exactly, more wooden and brightly coloured than dolls. They resemble nutcrackers, she decides, remembering the ballet she had been taken to as a child. In spite of their fixed expressions, they seem to be filled with an anxious, almost terrible, anticipation, as if they sense they are about to fall into a sudden departure from childhood. All around them velocity dominates the cluttered air. Missile-shaped birds tear the sky apart, and everything is moving away from the centre.”

Urquhart has done a service to Canada by reminding us all of “Flight and its Allegories”. There is the possibility the Gander Airport will be torn down, its splendid modernist architecture lost and the mural’s future uncertain. Once called The Crossroads of the World, Gander airport is no longer the refuelling stop of most trans-Atlantic flights. It costs $800,000 annually just for heat and light. Clearly, Canadians must rally to save the airport and its mural. Urquhart’s book makes us realize that a splendid work of art is at risk.

Meet the author:
On April 9 at 7 p.m., Jane Urquhart will be interviewed on stage by author Charlotte Gray at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St.

On April 10, Urquhart will participate in a lunch and fundraiser for children’s literacy at Metropolitan Brasserie, 700 Sussex Drive.

 

 

 

 

ARTFUL BLOGGER: The mayor, a teddy bear, and thousands of dead bees

BY PAUL GESSELL

hatton_Circle 3_2014_48 x 48_mixed media on panel

Circle 3. Honey bees (Apis mellifera), resin on panel, 2014. (48″ diameter)

 

What kind of art interests Mayor Jim Watson?
Well, he owns paintings by such Ottawa area artists as Andrew King, Philip Craig, the late Robert Hyndman, and Bhat Boy. The works of Craig and Hyndman are tame and traditional – art that you definitely could give Grandma. King and Bhat Boy tend to be more quirky and often whimsical, but still safe enough for Stephen Harper.

Watson and I accidentally met up recently at the Ottawa Art Gallery Annex in City Hall where we had both come to view an exhibition called Ottawa Selects: Selections from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

The OAG asked each of nine prominent people, both present and past Ottawa residents, to choose a work from the Firestone Collection for the exhibition. The 1,600 works in the Firestone Collection are managed by the OAG and contain Canadian art from 1900 to 1980. The selections for the Annex show tell much about the people making the choices.

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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.

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ARTFUL BLOGGER: Ottawa body parts shipped to Halifax

BY PAUL GESSELL

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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.

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ARTFUL BLOGGER: John Marok, Rebellion & Meaghan Haughian

By PAUL GESSELL

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.”

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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