Thursday, 25 April 2013

Youth Arts Week: May 1 - 7, 2013

Youth Arts Week begins May 1 and activities in Thunder Bay are offered at various locations throughout the city. Information can be found at:
     Youth Arts Week was initiated by the Arts Network for Children and Youth two years ago. Alana Forslund ( is one of the coordinators busy with preparations. “It's exciting to see the growth we've had in community response since the first year here in Thunder Bay. A number of local organizations and artists are taking part in this initiative this year, including the Baggage Building Arts Centre, Community Arts & Heritage Education Project, Definitely Superior Artist Run Centre/Die Active Art Collective, and Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The City of Thunder Bay has jumped on board to help promote the event in partnership with Youth Week.”
     Some of the activities include a neighbourhood walkabout to explore photography and digital manipulation techniques, creating soundscapes to go with the images, creating original lyrics and learning how to use them in a song, visual art workshops, creating a live “yarn-bomb” installation, dance and performance art, language workshops, found object fashion inspired by Caribana which includes a parade, creating music with instrument software using computers and webcams, a film night, painting a Mac’s Convenience Store, poetry slams and more.
     The activities surrounding Youth Week sound like a great way to jump start the spring and summer for your kids, getting them involved in activities that they could continue over the holidays. Parents often have trouble getting their kids motivated with something new, and what Youth Arts Week provides is an opportunity to meet with other interested kids in engaging settings with experienced instructors who enjoy working with children. Most of the opportunities offered are free of charge.
     The sheer joy young people get at an early age from finding and strengthening their talents and opening their eyes to a variety of possibilities in terms of life choices and developing hobbies and careers is also something of great value in the future when they retire from work. The number of Canadians who don’t know what to do with themselves after they retire is staggering. Just when they have the freedom to do whatever they want, they don’t know what to do because they haven’t developed any skills, hobbies, or interests that are challenging and close to their hearts. It’s never too late.
     We all have some kind of natural talent or a few, but discovering talent and developing it doesn’t always happen. Even if one is not particularly good at something, like dancing, there’s no reason to quit, and with effort, you can at least get good at something, get healthy, make friends and benefit in unforeseen ways. There’s a great line from the animated movie, Ratatouille, which applies here. “Everyone can learn to cook, but not everyone can be a great chef.” This is worth remembering, and applies to all the arts. And who knows, maybe you can become the great chef, great singer, dancer, or musician, whatever. But it all starts with opportunities and encouragement. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Liar, Liar at the Thunder Bay Historical Museum

A unique collaboration of two groups put their collective talents together to create a show beautifully showcased on the second floor of the Thunder Bay Historical Museum. Nine members of the visual art group, Northern Mosaic, worked with four authors of NOWW (Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop). Chosen by a Workshop jury, the authors, Deborah deBakker, Marion Agnew, John Pringle, and Jack Shedden worked with artists John Books (sculptor), Leslie Shaw (painter), Cheryl Wilson-Smith (glass artist), Debbie Metzler (visual artist) and musician, Wayne Faulconer.
     Each artist had a challenge to create art based on the text with the generous theme of lying. From the info sheets, each artist describes the challenge creating imagery for the stories they selected.
     Cheryl Wilson-Smith had never collaborated in this way before. She found inspiration in the words themselves, transferring Debbie Metzler’s text to glass surfaces and employing other mixed media. A mirror with the words, Liar, Liar, etched directly on the glass becomes a kind of negative affirmation quote. Anyone looking into the mirror is immediately accused of being a liar. Simple and clever.
     John Books found the theme more bold and direct than what he usually envisions for his work. He rose to the occasion with several works. One, a cat sculpture, TOOTS, has a horn sticking out of his butt. All the better to toot with, which is intended to relate to the protagonist of the story Books cleverly illustrates in three dimensions.
     Debbie Metzler’s tall works are intended to confuse the viewer to mimic how lying might function visually by distorting perspective and character within the images. Ascribing falseness to distortion might insult cubists and their ilk, but contemporary artists often try to rip apart what we are accustomed to in order to reveal deeper truths. So Debbie is in vogue attempting to tell a truth about lying, and the beautiful presentation of the subject matter allows the viewer to take their time, to think upon the subjects.
     Leslie Shaw’s paintings similarly use distortion as a means of expressing falseness. The titles indicate the theme of fabrication rather than analysis, so maybe this is not all out lying, as we understand it, but how burying and obscuring is just as good, difficult to pull off using landscape and abstract imagery.
     Wayne Faulconer had a difficult task of relating sounds to lying, easy to accomplish with lyrics as lying is a common theme in popular songs written for jilted lovers. Again distortion is suggested rather than outright lying, as in the form of electric guitar sounds over the acoustic. Bob Dylan took criticism for using an electric guitar because it wasn’t a folk instrument, so he was accused of being a phony. Today, however, it’s a bit of stretch to suggest that the sounds of an electric guitar could be seen as a lie, but for musicians this resonates quite a bit. They get into big fights over this kind of thing.
     Abstracted images and non-objective works (unrecognizable subject matter) on their own are not immediately understood as lies, unless the artists want them to be. The theme is a bit problematic because it is such a wide topic. An illustrator or political cartoonist would portray the theme with obvious images of politicians, psychics, corporate public relations officers, advertisers, and so on. Lies and liars are everywhere. What’s great about this show is that the themes aren’t obvious, they’re tacit, subtle and the results are beautiful to look at, worth discussion and worth collecting.
     The opening reception at the Thunder Bay Historical Museum for Liar, Liar is this Sunday, April 21st at 2pm. The show runs till June 2nd.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tom Brenner at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

It’s a pleasure to walk into a big room filled with oversized objects. The size and repetition of certain objects can inspire a sense of awe very quickly. Large and foreboding objects can make you feel overpowered and fearful, or illicit warmth and mystery depending on the materials. You can be made to feel like a child.
     Tom Benner’s work at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in his show, Call of the Wild, gives the immediate sense that one has entered a room full of the remnants of a storybook world, told primarily in sculpture. It’s size and variety makes a great impression.
     Brenner’s work follows a trend that’s been going on in the contemporary art world for about ten years now, which is to mimic and reference children’s stories and folklore. Last year at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a freak show called Fairy Tales, Monsters, and The Genetic Imagination, featured a collection of contemporary artworks by artists who, in one form or another, referenced stories usually aimed at children. These artists were trying to invert and shock the audience, taking the familiar and making it “different” with a dark twist. They justified their intentions because the stories that inspired them were often reinforcing “beliefs that are now discredited, such as male superiority and the benevolence of the ruling class.” These fine artists were going to “bring to light the messages inside the fantasy.”
     The trouble with correcting the past, and one-upmanship, “I’m smarter and more open minded than you are,” is that those who judge often get judged themselves. And one can ask, for all their analytic intelligence, could the fine artists at the Winnipeg Gallery write a story as good, and as memorable as the stories of which they are critical? And do it without scaring the children.
     So, with relief, Brenner’s show is actually inspiring, for adults and for children. His work pays some homage to the past and to folklore without inverting or shocking. Although he isn’t trying to tell a complete story, he does allow for positive interpretations of the work he’s accomplished. Each piece appears as if a scene from a different story. He employs the repetition of images very well. Individually a fin might look like something else, but many of the same objects means there is a pod of whales in the gallery. One beaver approaching a canoe is just a beaver approaching a canoe. A gang of beavers approaching a canoe is a problem.
     As a whole, the entire show holds together very well, revealing Brenner’s playful love for a variety of materials. He employs familiar techniques, using sculpture, relief, painting, printmaking, and found objects.
     Holding together the show, A Thorough or Dramatic Change In Form or Appearance, is its theme, stated in the title. Transformation and spirituality, which can be demoted to New Age thinking, still resonates deeply for indigenous peoples all over the world. This show brings together a disparate group of artists who often dealt with these themes throughout their careers, offering up examples of how one theme can be credibly accomplished by so many artists in so many different styles.
     Using humans and animals to interpret something as mysterious as a netherworld or underworld without making the art tacky, requires deep-seated beliefs and respect. Your Facebook friends who post images of tacky paintings of swirling galaxies over translucent naked models could learn from this show. There’s a lot to be said for subtlety, simplicity and the defined focus of true believers. 
     These shows and Duane Linklater’s solo exhibition of videos will be opening tomorrow at 7:30pm, running through most of May. Duane Linklater will give a talk. Tom Benner will have a reception and artist talk on April 25th at 7:30. More information is at:

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Galleries in Thunder Bay: A Description for Tourists

Thunder Bay and the region have a rich arts community of painters, sculptors, potters, weavers, glassmakers, quilters, fabric artists and more. Many of these artists and galleries join forces for temporary shows, art auctions or studio and garden tours that occur more often in the summer. Checking websites, local papers and poster boards in coffee shops, shopping malls, libraries, and convenient stores will guide you to many local artistic activities.
      Unlike Grand Marais, the art community in Thunder Bay is spread throughout the city, often in odd locations, with more galleries located in Port Arthur (north end). In the early 1970s, shortly after Fort William (south end), and Port Arthur became Thunder Bay, political representatives of each township fought to have new institutions and box stores built on their end of the city. Unfortunately the compromises resulted in these being built in unusual places where there is little or no walk-by traffic. The result is that Thunder Bay is a “car town,” which is why we are always concern about parking. You need a car to see most of the galleries on this list. Most hotels and galleries will have an art map called “Hand Made in Thunder Bay.” The city and current crop of politicians can be credited with a clear plan to improve the cultural layout of the city. The development of Prince Arthur’s Landing, road improvement, art installations, and other ongoing beautification projects has really helped the city in the last few years.

Galleries of Art and Craft in Thunder Bay
     The most notable gallery in the city is the Thunder Bay Art Gallery (central). The TBAG (or teabag as it is referred to by the locals) is a contemporary public gallery with the largest permanent collection of art in the region. The exhibition space is the most accommodating in the city with three large showrooms. With a focus on Aboriginal art, the gallery has nearly 25 exhibitions a year, featuring local artists and artists of national significance in travelling exhibitions, with themes and art selected by professional curators. The TBAG is situated on the Confederation College campus. Unfortunately, the names of the roads leading to the gallery change often. Check your map. The gallery is most definitely worth the trip.
     Considered an alternative public gallery (non-profit/charitable), the Definitely Superior Artist Run Centre + Gallery is operated by mostly young and cutting edge artists with an emphasis on the experimental and the avant-garde with up to 50 shows a year. The DEFSUP gallery (referred to as the “deaf soup” gallery by locals) supports local, national, and international talent. Much of this centre’s funding comes from dramatic and original campaigns that inspire throngs of young people, with attendance in the thousands, taking over the north end core. The centre contributes dramatically to the growth of the arts community where developing artists, of any background, can experiment with any style and medium, including performance art, video instillations, multi-media, etc. Diversity is key to the function of this gallery centre. It is located on Park St, just up from the Casino, in the basement of the defunct Eaton’s building, the big block sized department store.
     In the heart of Prince Arthur’s Landing (formerly Marina Park) the newly built Baggage Building Arts Centre is intended to be “a workshop for new artistic creations” and “an incubator for creative people and organizations.” So, throughout the year the building will work as a venue for a variety of projects, classes, art shows, etc. There are monthly exhibits, with artists in residence and a gift gallery; the small commercial space located on the second floor displaying the work of local artists, jewelers, authors, and more.
     Before you cross the Kaministiquia River, on St. James St, heading towards Mount McKay, you will see a gallery in a short strip mall on your left. This is the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery. This gallery represents up to 30 different artists, many of the Ahnisnabae culture. Original works and all manner of reproductions, from professional silk-screens and serigraphs to posters are available, catering to a diverse budget. The work is bright, beautiful, entrancing and resonates with the cultural heritage of the First Nations people who live in the region. Roy Thomas was the founder of this gallery in 1997. He was a prominent artist in the community who passed away in 2004. The owner and operator, Louise Thomas, has kept her husband’s legacy alive with this commercial space. This is a must destination for anyone new to the area.
     The Habana Gallery, across from what used to be the Cumberland Theatre, and near to one of the entrances to Prince Arthur’s Landing, offers an eclectic mix of local artists’ work along with works of Cuban artists. Ayesha, the owner, is a young Cuban immigrant and artist. Ayesha continues to regularly bring unique and beautiful Cuban arts and crafts to Thunder Bay. The Cuban influence of rich colour and vibrancy is immediately felt when walking through the door. Local artists who show in the gallery have a unique space in which to show their work and contribute to the art scene. Ayesha offers classes, and beginning in May they will have evenings with live music. 
     The Algoma and Bay St. area has become a trendy hotspot for the locals. It may not quite look like it yet, but it’s as close to a town square as you will get in Thunder Bay, other than the Country Market on Saturday mornings. There are many little shops here that sell arts and crafts, along with a couple famous Finnish restaurants, along with coffee shops and unique boutiques. But the little shop with the longest tradition of supporting the greatest number of locally made arts and crafts is the Fireweed. It is PACKED! It’s small, but take your time upon entering and make sure you put your packsack down or you’re likely to break something – and pay for it. The quality of work is some of the best in Ontario. Uniqueness is the goal for the little shop, and the artists that show work here, do quite well, especially before Christmas. Chiefly known for its pottery, they also sell jewelry, fine art, fabric art, glass, locally produced books, CDs, and much more. There’s no end of small gifts.
     Gallery 33, across from a popular Thai restaurant, is a commercial art gallery displaying up to 50 local artists’ work. The place is very spacious, so each artist has lots of room to hang more than a sampling. The quality ranges from novice to professional. The gallery sells jewelry and books by local authors along with other items. The stairs to the basement leads to The Painted Turtle, an art supply shop where classes are offered. The Turtle is a favourite go-to place for local artists, and in the summer tourists stroll up from the waterfront to check out the galleries and restaurants bringing them to this new space.
     One block further inland, and just around the corner from the DEFSUP gallery, is Chenier Fine Arts. This little gallery is packed with art by established and emerging local artists, as well as 40 international artists. With nearly 250 works this space is a feast for the eyes. The variety of works includes modern abstracts to traditional landscapes and figurative works in all mediums. The owner, Debra Chenier has a long history within the community, continuing a relationship with art that began with her mother’s shop, which opened in 1964 and was the first fine art gallery in Northwestern Ontario. Chenier also offers high quality framing with an incredible variety of moldings from which to choose.
     The Kleewyk Stained Glass Studio is midway between the downtown cores on Simpson Street. Once a bustling street in the 1960s the city is now trying to retake this area’s history and create incentives for citizens to take a second look. On your first drive you can’t miss the dramatic and beautifully decorated studio shop. This is a professional working studio with a display room. The glass artist, Damon Dowbak, produces stained glass windows, abrasively etched glass, and kiln formed glass. The display room features a variety of works in glass and pottery, along with paintings, also created by Dowbak.
     Located in the Victoriaville Mall near the Courthouse and City Hall, The Lake Superior Art Gallery has an eclectic salesroom, divided in two, with the first featuring original art and reproductions, and the other, electric motorbikes. The show room for the art is the larger space. The owner, JP Fraser, a retired photo-editor is usually on hand with his lovely assistant, Tamara. Like Gallery 33, they cater to both novice and professional artists, also selling other crafts and books by local authors. There are five entrances to the mall that is essentially a section of Victoria Avenue with a large roof dropped over it. The main entrances are both on Victoria Avenue. Look for signage, as the entrance isn’t immediately apparent. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Kinetic Installations at DEFSUP blend art, science, technology, and philosophy.

Madman, Ernest Daetwyler’s piece, Life Is But A Dream, is ominous and fragile. It looks like it could explode at any moment and take away all your dreams. As an alien object, with sensors and speakers mounted on metal spindles producing the sounds of children’s toys and other outbursts, one imagines Kirk and Spock could materialize with their tricorders to communicate with the sentient object in order to diffuse it and save Thunder Bay from a black hole. TOO LATE! Ha ha ha ha.
      But seriously, this alien piece does speak, with a critically negative attitude towards technology. “Technology” in our time has become THE magic word. We are in love with it. Nearly every glitzy television commercial slickly mentions the word “technology” to sell a product, including burgers, toys, chocolate and toilet paper. Every marketer is cozying up to the financial warmth of the electric node.  
      Daetwyler’s iconic piece makes a generic yet cold inference that technology can be equally dangerous as it is beneficial. Think of cars. The dream of freedom you obtain owning a car comes with a price. Glossing it over with gleaming cars flying down empty city streets and mountain roads can be dangerous.
     And glossing it over is an activity that disturbs many contemporary artists. As much as fine artists make personal and emotional statements, expressing an inner reality, many are also interested in throwing back the wizard’s curtain to expose the truth.
     As unfocused as Daetwyler’s criticicism may be, without specifics, he’s at least saying loudly, Look Out! It’s not a bad message and it doesn’t hurt to be made thoughtful and disturbed once in a while, especially when we’re in love with something as arcane as technology. 
     In Gallery One, Diane Landry’s, Flying School, also contrasts technology and fragility with an instillation of 24 umbrellas that rise and open, fall and close, automatically with varying noises of sighs and other sounds of effort or joy from the harmonicas at their base. Light cast through the umbrellas project light and shadow on the ceiling.
     Employing ordinary objects to perform in this manner is fun and imaginative. The playful and colourful contrast with the automatic and dead, like a defibrillator. Beautiful, hypnotic and subtlety annoying, this kinetic piece also speaks for itself, and stands on its own as a fun work. If you sit in front of it and reflect on how it makes you feel, that may be the message. How deep you want to go, and how challenging or hypnotic you want the work to be is up to you.
     Both Daetwyler’s work and Landry’s work rely on the more contemporary belief that art has a mission to reveal reality, taking on the philosophical role of bringing doubt to the discussion of the world we live in. Which is why Modern Art can be a bit of a downer, and sometimes a necessary one with intriguing results. When presented in an attractive and macabre manner where ugliness has it’s own dark beauty, the art can make one think, and make one reflect, about the art and life in general.
     So these artists, like many artists today, cozy up to the authority of other fields; psychology, philosophy, and science. Traditionally these fields were limited in the role of art, and the domain of philosophers and scientists. Artists reference these fields generally out of interest and often because there are legitimate crossovers of learning, and it's become the norm today mostly because its expected and the traditional roles of art just don’t seem to be as valid or exciting these days. 
     Although it shouldn’t be necessary to do so, many artists qualify their work and statements because artists can be terribly insecure about the validity of their work. At its worst this can become part of a con, where the artist has no desire to communicate anything or make you feel anything, but to sound impressive. The intent becomes one of trying to be an artist no matter what. In our egalitarian society this is just too easy to accomplish. "Anyone can be an artist", is a refrain often heard, and even spoken by art and museum directors.
    So, although both Landry's and Daetwyler's work are weak on specifics, and don't reveal typical artist skill sets, they both put an incredible amount of thought and work into their pieces, and the general feelings one gets from the work is worthwhile enough to ponder upon. If these pieces were put into a science centre they would be quite mysterious additions. And in a science centre, the crossover of science, philosophy and art might generate as much, if not more of a discussion. 
     Dr. Chaudhuri’s collection of 14 Contemporary Artists in Gallery Two is a contrast from the other two shows. Not relying on kinetics or interaction, most of these works are smaller and poetic, like a little anthology of the styles and ideas from a broad spectrum of artists in a variety of mediums. Here, variety is key.
     Credit must be given to Dr. Chaudhuri for having such an eclectic sensibility and interest in contemporary art. It is rare and welcome to see such pieces by prominent artists, which also help art students and interested parties get a taste of what exists in some of the contemporary hot spots in bigger cities where the following is bigger and more dedicated.