Thursday, 30 May 2013

Great High School Work at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

    What to do, what to say, how to react, and how to interpret how others treat them as either a child or as an adult can confuse young adults, caught in the child/adult stage of development.
     When it comes to painting, sculpting, printing and being generally creative, they relax a little, and the ratio of the child/adult mix is often obvious in the art. Some young students revel in their childhood interests and paint copies of Johnny Depp, Disney characters, Batman, etc. Others explore a bit of the mix with Goth images, culture mixes (South American, aboriginal), figure studies, faces that drip and clothes that explode with colour.
     And then others leap forward with outright adult work, both in terms of skill and subject matter. A few manage to pull off work that even professional artists would be hard pressed to reproduce.
     As in the case of grade eleven student, Santana Paleske from Queen Elizabeth District High School, in a work called, You’ve Had Enough Sugar. Here you can see the amazing drawing skills of a professional artist, taking advantage of a common theme, and making a wonderful and very human statement about our inability to control our childlike desires. The thrill in the little girl’s face is awesome. We immediately pick up on the feelings she must have, sinking her teeth into that most awesome cupcake. The girl has entranced and startled eyes, and although we don’t see her mouth, the marshmallows mimic giant teeth and the pink of the cupcake resemble lips, as if the cupcake itself were a surreal distorted mouth representing the uncontrollable animated delight of emotions related to eating. Here’s an artist who has used that knowledge of one positive aspect of being a child, and capturing it masterfully. Santana! Do not sell this drawing for less than $2,000.00!
    Whatever stage of maturity these students are at they have the desire to stretch their skills, to see what they can accomplish, and although the subject matter might not be original, as when copied from a photograph, the excitement is genuine.
     Being part of a big show is fun too, and the students get a confidence boost by having their work on display, and a taste of what it’s like showing work. They also get to share and learn what other students are up to in terms of technique, skill and subject matter.
     Crammed on the walls of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery are the works of students from the majority of high schools in town, both public and Catholic, along with Geraldton Composite High, Marathon High, and Nipigon-Red Rock. There are noteworthy young up-and-coming artists from each school.
A particularly rough acrylic painting by Willa Ratz (grade 10 from Superior CVI) called, Don’t Look Back, is very reminiscent of the artist Maxwell Bates. Bates overcame skill troubles by representing the human condition. Messy art with worthwhile subject matter can have associations with us emotionally messy people.       
     Willa picks up on this aspect of our human condition by painting a young man who loves speed, loves life and a little danger. As the road blurs ahead of him he looks behind, but he is not worried. His image in the mirror is also blurred as if speed blurs one from truly looking at oneself. He doesn’t need to look back, but he does for the viewer’s benefit, so he’s not all about himself. He’s taking account of you, the viewer, as a rider on the back of his ATV. He’ll keep you safe. What a great painting. It’s as good as any of Bates’ work.
     There are lots of great works and young artists worthy of attention. This is most definitely a show worth checking out. You will be impressed. It’s filled with humour, talent and surprises in a variety of mediums ­– painting, sculpture, glasswork, printmaking, and more. And this says something about the art teachers in the region as well. Good on you for inspiring so many young artists.
    This show is highly recommended. 

Friday, 17 May 2013

Thunder Bay's Culture Plan

     The creation of the newly developed Culture Plan has quite the history, which involved teams, committees, community groups, city staff, senior city staff, mayors, city counselors, and many others. It’s a wonderful thing to see so many people of different stripes come together to collaborate and share ideas, form an agreement and act on it.     Culture can be difficult to define.
     Culture, simply put, is what we celebrate. What is remembered, what is repeated and what is loved is culture. This could be our ethnic history, hockey, favourite TV shows, War Craft, dancing, scuba diving, art, green fields in which to picnic, trees, greasy hamburgers, pot luck parties, LGBT dances, shags, Christmas, bonfires – culture is just about everything that you like to do regularly. That so many were able to discuss what culture means to the City, and how to move forward is very commendable.
    A plan that looks to accentuate what this city has and to give to it what is needed can be complicated by what we think is important or not worth celebrating, and of course whatever political or economic ramifications are involved. So a plan will not be perfect for everyone, as complaints have and will continue to surface, but at least the start taken and the plan made is an exceedingly excellent one, something that other cities can only dream of.  
     The plan that is the “strategic document” for the City was initiated in 2010. It is intended to help build the city, to make Thunder Bay more culturally relevant for its citizens and for the City’s future prospects.
     The Office of Urbanism in association with AuthentiCity worked with two decades worth of arts, culture, and heritage policy developed by the city and many others in order to form this plan.
     The plan is broken into six parts, describing that those involved will:
     1. Foster Capacity in the Culture Sector, which means developing partnerships with corporate entities to obtain funding and figure out the who, how, where and when, of the finances.
     2. Develop Tourism Potential in the Creative Community, by “supporting collaborative efforts for enhancing tourism opportunities,” etc.
     3. Activate Culture in Urban Places and Spaces, which means supporting year round festivals and other events, with a schedule and resources for both ends of the city.
     4. Enable Cultural Participation in Neighbourhoods, by bettering programming, public policy, and coming up with new initiatives.
     5. Nurture Cultural Interaction and Exchange in Public Spaces, by bringing all kinds of different people together in communal spaces, whether of different ethnic backgrounds, income levels, ages, etc. (i.e., traditional Town Square functions).
     6. Foster the Potential for Creative Entrepreneurship in Youth, by providing “small business support for artists and creative entrepreneurs” and finding spaces for such creative activities in order to activate development programs and create potential cultural industries. An example of this might be the film students who are sticking around in town to create their own film businesses.
     The plan has passed the “Assessment and Visioning” stage and has implemented many of the policies created as it moves forward. Policies go back as far as 1991, with the Arts and Heritage Policy. Policies get revised over time and others are created as new challenges come up.
     It can sound rather complicated, but such is the nature of democracy, that in order to keep most everybody happy rules have to be made. If it were up to a dictator, things would move faster. When Napoleon III decided to beautify Paris he and his “prefect” Baron Haussmann razed entire neighbourhoods without giving the poor people who lived there any other option than to get out of the way. Democracy, by its nature, works a little slower.
     Presently, the “Inspire Thunder Bay Culture Plan Strategic Implementation Team” met a week ago to start implementing the plan. Jennifer Morin, (Cultural Services Coordinator) who works with Leah Bayly, (Supervisor of Cultural Services and Events) was hired this year for this new position to help direct the plan. Their names will crop in future articles on culture in Thunder Bay, as will many others involved in the Culture Plan.
     Writing on this topic is a bit overwhelming as the plan encompasses so much that is of cultural value to the city, and involves all kinds of notable locals. Over the summer I will endeavor to write more about the people involved. The plan itself can be seen at

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

City Beautiful: A True Story leading up to an article about the Culture Plan

   Over thirty years ago, advice from the Ontario government about diversifying the economic structure of Thunder Bay and the region was ignored. During a resource boon for the forest, pulp and paper, and grain shipping industries, this advice was taken to be a holier-than-though attitude towards the North. “Diversity” was a word spoken by a cultured Toronto elite.
     But they were correct. A region, let alone a city, cannot rely solely on its resources. The world progresses and regresses in economic waves from unpredictable international forces that have nothing to do with the good will or hard work of the people in this city.
     Relying on only a few industries is very risky. A city can go from Boom, Bust, Echo, and then to Ghost Town rather quickly. Think of Detroit or many other large dilapidated American cities.
     And Thunder Bay was getting ugly. Real ugly.
     Here’s a true story that might upset you. The couple will go unnamed.
     Seven years ago, a young man from the USA got a good job in Thunder Bay. His wife was under contract at her job in the U.S. and couldn’t move for a couple months. The husband bought a house here. After the wife’s contract ended, she hopped on a plane for Thunder Bay. The husband was unable to meet her when she arrived at the airport, because he was busy at work. “No problem,” she said over the phone. “I will find my way.”
     And she did. She got a taxi at the airport and was driven quickly to her new home from where she called her husband. “I like the house,” she said and added with excitement in her voice, “I’m taking the car to see the city.”
     Half an hour passed, and the husband’s cell phone rang while he was at work. It was his wife. She was crying. He asked, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” worried that something serious had happened. She responded, yelling, “WHY DID YOU MOVE TO THIS F*#@ING UGLY CITY!!”
     His wife had driven from her home, down Arthur Street, along Simpson, Water and a long stretch of Cumberland Street, to stop at a motor hotel, short of the Boulevard Dam.
     Her husband had to restrain himself from laughing. He met up with his wife and drove her to see Boulevard Lake, the Bluffs, Chippewa, Hillcrest Park, some of the old decorated homes and other beautiful locations in the city. She was calmed enough and decided she could stay.     
     You can only rely on nature to provide beauty for so long in order to describe a city as beautiful. A well-traveled, and slightly despondent man once said of Rio de Janeiro, that if it wasn’t for the long beaches, the picturesque hills and mountains, the city would be as much a dump as any other big South American city. 
     While Thunder Bay stagnated over the years, Grand Mirais and Duluth expanded and beautified themselves enough to become serious tourist destinations and economically vibrant. Thunder Bay didn’t follow suit, and politicians would visit both cities and ask, “How did you do this?”
     These cities had a plan.
     Thanks to all sorts of forward thinking people, we now have a Culture Plan. The Culture Plan is but one aspect of diversifying the city, but a major one for attracting tourism, business and other economic development. Last week I lied. I will go into details of the Culture Plan next week. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Legacy of Beliefs and their Intrusion into Community Art

     A book could be written on the history of artists and their relationship and attitudes towards government, the public, popular forms of art, and arts’ legacy. With an extensive and diverse Culture Plan, Thunder Bay is well on the way to making history, establishing itself as a beacon of the North, which could well inspire other communities to follow suit.
Although many artists are thrilled, many others are circumspect on these matters. Even though the plan will directly benefit artists, many are apprehensive, and many are either reluctant to contribute or don’t know how. For some, if they fail at one attempt to win a public competition, they don’t try again. There are many reasons for this.
     Historically, in times when democracy didn’t exist to offer the freedom artists generally crave today, artists relied on commissions from authorities and wealthy patrons. Many artists revelled in their time, fully a part of their community and at times sharing the same beliefs as those in authority, so they could be quite successful and be an integral part of the designing and building of towns and cities, such as the City Beautiful movement back in the 1890s, in which Thunder Bay was also positively affected.
     At other times, artists created what was essentially propaganda, as in the Soviet Union — and loathed doing so. Many artists protested and were often the first to be imprisoned, as in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe today.
     Artists are generally politically leftist, but can be as anti-government as right-wingers, routinely expressing their fears of government influence. And many artists who readily admit to a disinterest in politics can side with conspiracy theorists and retain anti-government attitudes even when, ironically, receiving government grants.
     A stereotype of what it means to be an artist today also depicts artists as anti-establishment and fiercely independent. The belief that the best art is that which expresses the artist’s emotions and aesthetic principles pits the artist against the public, popular arts, and any program where “beautification” is the goal, because such a program, they worry, might impede upon the artist’s hard fought freedom to fully express themselves. And many artists are taught and live with the false belief that to work for others and to be motivated by financial gain is to be a sellout.
     So today, with the result of history, artistic ideology, stereotypes and suspicion, many artists give little credit or are simply unaware that many politicians and civil servants can work hard to build and promote a cultural support system that benefits everyone, especially artists. And it should be noted, that often, politicians and civil servants could also be artists themselves.
     Today in Thunder Bay artists have never had such great opportunities where they can contribute to their community. For example, from the years 1981 to 2007, there were three major public art installations completed for the city. But from 2008 to 2012, 22 public art projects have been completed, not including over 100 individual works of art for the city. Public involvement, mayors, city councillors, the business community and many others have brought about these opportunities.
    A few details about the Culture Plan, some of its history and those involved, will appear in future articles.