Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Photo by Alastair MacKay
From her family’s home in North Vancouver, a retired Lynn Johnston reflected candidly on her experiences in work and life with solemnity and good humour. Producing a cartoon strip for thirty years where the subject matter is much in tune with her own life, Lynn has also gained a good degree of wisdom and confidence to speak her mind. She has influenced society with the twists and turns in her For Better or For Worse comic strip. One such twist was Lawrence’s coming out, controversial enough to garner hate mail while simultaneously getting her mass appreciation and awards. Her influence has been international and most of it accomplished from North Bay, Ontario.
     The Thunder Bay Art Gallery’s “The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston” runs till March 6, so if you weren’t part of half the City who has seen the show already, make the time. Not only will you get a good laugh, you will garner insight into Lynn’s life, the life of her characters and obtain an appreciation of the incredible amount of work involved.
     Writing and drawing a comic strip requires discipline and a great degree of confidence. Lynn didn’t see herself as a comic, a jokester, able to write a gag a day. “I wasn’t funny enough, that’s why I developed stories to work with.” She also chose to have her characters age over time, a brilliant and unusual move. And the Universal Press Syndicate believed in her approach enough to offer her a twenty-year contract. She garnered legions of fans and unlike other comic strips that went stale with repetition or should have gone the way of the dodo in the 1960s, Lynn was able to keep the stories relevant and close to her heart. 
     Talking comics, Lynn balks at the literal shrinking size at which comic strips are now printed, if at all. “You can barely see the text,” she laughs in disgust. “Originally comics were put into newspapers to attract a younger audience, to create the next generation of readers.” Lynn describes how decades ago editors were surprised to discover that more than eighty percent of the readers of comics were adults. Reading comics could also be a family affair. For decades readers took comics seriously as any modern day television drama.
     Lynn laments, “Now even the political cartoons are streamed. That’s why you always see generic cartoons of Trudeau and Obama in every paper. You don’t see local politics any more in the editorial cartoons.”
     Apropos, a film screening of the documentary, “Stripped” will be shown in Room 351 of the Shuniah Building in the Confederation College Lecture Theatre on Saturday March 5 at 7pm. Cartoonists from all-over talk about the historical value of comics, the love we have for them, and the current battling of comic survival in the print and digital world.
     In her retirement, Lynn’s strip is currently running right from its start. She’s thrilled that the majority of papers that originally ran her strip continue to run it.
Photo by Alastair MacKay
      Lynn felt her approach to creating her work for an audience was more akin to acting. “It’s like making a movie. You have to be a writer and an actor.” She had to imagine constructing the story scene-by-scene, placing the characters in settings and sync the timing of events and story lines. Occasionally Lynn had to be a costume and set designer amongst other roles. You will see all this at the show. A great effort had to go into organizing her time and keeping a schedule.
     Lynn produced a number of children’s books and animated short films, one of which is a regular Christmas feature, The Bestest Present. Lynn is horrified by the quality of Canadian children’s books today. “One of the worst stories that somebody came up with was for the Olympics – for you know, whoever those little drippy dippy mascots were. It suuucked! Damn it was a piece of crap. And the rest of the world [artists] that could do a better job, just had to stand there and flap their lips in amazement. So much children’s literature is published and often the art is fantastic, but the writer is terrible.”
     Recounting when she first worked with a Canadian publisher, Lynn was being paid twenty dollars an illustration. The now deceased owner of Potlatch Publications, at one point refused to pay Lynn claiming that he had run out of money. Lynn refused to do any more work for him. He came to her door demanding illustrations. Equally stubborn, Lynn refused. She told him that she needed to get paid in some manner. The publisher ended up mowing her lawn.
     Lynn had to visit another publisher who was refusing to pay her, and when Lynn dropped by his house, he was having a pool put into his back yard. “So, this is where the Canada Council’s money is being spent,” she said. The publisher replied, “Put it this way, I deserve it.”
     Regarding an incident with The Atlantic Magazine, back in 1973, she says with delight. “I did a piece of the art for them. Ninety days I went without being paid. A friend of mine was down there and he dropped by the Atlantic’s office and pulled the publisher across the desk by his tie. So he gave my friend a cheque for 50 bucks.”
    Lynn worked with three Canadian publishers, all who ripped her off in some manner. It was an American publisher who approached her and developed a long lasting relationship. Together they put out a number of books, much to the chagrin of friends who claimed Lynn wasn’t being patriotic. Lynn had to explain; “They came to me. I didn’t go to them.” And after all, there’s only so much punishment an artist can withstand.
Photo by Alastair MacKay
     We discussed troubles in the publishing world, the art world in general, and the lack of recognition of the comic arts in Canada, enough for another article. However, Lynn is thrilled with the show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the public's response to it. She met with some of our talented comic artists and many young people and got royal treatment.
     The show was originally organized and curated at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. Lynn gushed, “The Sudbury gallery did a beautiful job, a very dignified and professional way to show my work. They were very respectful. It was a beautiful show. I learned an awful lot about galleries. I’ll never go into a gallery again without an understanding of how much work is involved.”
     Lynn is hoping the show will eventually crisscross the country and jog over to the United States for a while. The show is sure to bring a better understanding of the value and work involved in the comic world. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Unconstrained: Comic Art by Five Emerging Artists

Andrew Dorland
“It’s the money,” laughs Andrew Dorland, who reflects on the vast change in the acceptance of comic art. “When I was young you couldn’t admit to owning a stack of comic books. You couldn’t get a girlfriend if you did,” he smiles. 
     Andrew is one of five emerging artists selected for a show in the multi-purpose room at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The show, Unconstrained, runs in tandem with Lynn Johnston’s show featuring a great selection of panels from her strip For Better or Worse.
     Money plays a big part of the comic book/graphic novel scene today, more than it ever has, however it’s still not easy for individual artists to make a living, but there are more opportunities for independent artists now than ever before.
     What helped those comic loving kids, both young women and young men living in the 1990s meet one another and create our current seismic shift in the comic world began when Dick Tracey and Star Trek-like technology - primarily the World Wide Web of the 1990s – gave them a huge opportunity to discover one another in online "chat-rooms." Internet communication spurred like-minded popular culture fans to organize, hang out and eventually support their favourite artists in huge comic conventions in which Hollywood later squarely invested. Superheroes and characters from fantasy and science fiction novels, along with rebooted TV shows and movies are now very hot roles for actors. A huge boost came simultaneously with improvements in computer graphics, which made settings and action scenes – one-on-one fighting and mass battles scnenes – less expensive and more believable. A-list actors were happy to take roles that were once afforded only to B-list actors. For the audience, the quality in pop-culture has jumped so much that it’s easier to willingly suspend your sense of disbelief. 
Artist Bios
     Fans are now legion and vocal. The audience has expanded to include high-school "jocks" and university professors who go to conferences to present papers on the subject. 
     Also contributing to huge changes is that for many years now many comic artists have been producing work that is as good as anything put out by serious novelists and professional painters. This is happening at a time when the adult world of literature is getting a major shake-up. One example is that adults today, not teenagers or kids, purchase eighty percent of young adult novels, mostly fantasy based. And more professionals in the arts field question the funding of contemporary art that looks a lot like the modern art of yesteryear. The idea that originality is of prime importance in fine art is waning. Content and social messages are returning to the fine art world.
Callen Banning
     Graphic novels such as, Optic Nerve, Essex County, Skim, Louis Riel, Sandman, Persepolis, Maus, Black Hole, It’s A Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, Ghost World, Love and Rockets, From Hell, Pyongyang, and many more, mostly American, British, Canadian and French, are all having deep and resonating influences on masses of people. This is due to their literary and social merit. Graphic novels are regularly turned into serious movies and television series, getting rave reviews and earning huge profits. And it all comes from the brains and talents of individual artists.
    Andrew is right. It is the money, but it’s also the artistic quality and depth of the stories. Andrew’s work also show’s this, as do the other artists in this show. It's clear that each artist in the show has phenomenal drawing skills, which they use to better play around with pure aesthetic approaches and cartoon panache.    
boy Roland
     Stacey Hare Hodgins, assistant to the director at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery since September of last year has a background in social work, women’s studies, and has lots of coordination work experience in her resume, but this is her first curated show.
     Stacey says the show came about organically in order to fill the space. Stacey’s partner knew Kyle Lees and she discovered they were both Lynn Johnston fans. Stacey’s approach for the show was to have as broad a definition of comics as possible, thus the title, Unconstrained. A few of the pieces tread into fine art territory where a story line is less important than making aesthetic statement. But the talent is still there and clearly displayed. 
    “We wanted to convey that comic art is art,” says Stacey. “That it is valuable in it’s own right and worth sharing. We are merely scratching the surface as to what is happening in town. We are more or less just dipping our toes in to see.” 
    “My intention,” continues Stacey, “was to try and remove this idea that the gallery is elite and for a certain kind of audience member. And because I know there’s a lot going on in the community.”
Kyle Lees
     Even before the launch of the show excitement was generating. Most of the artists in the show have  their own fan-base and a few of the artists have already sold a number of works or printed graphic novels and comics.
     Andrew used to be a stockbroker, and returned to his métier, his love of producing art and comics. His first comic, Scarabs, for which he used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund the printing is based on Andrew’s experience as a stockbroker, mixed with a good deal of fantasy elements. It took him a year to do the writing and drawing. You can see the campaign here:
     Other phenomenal artists in the show include: ­­­­Callen Banning, Kyle Lees, Merk, and boy Roland. boy Roland has a show called ODEUM at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery, with an opening this Friday, February 5th at 7pm, running till March 5th with two other shows. 
     Head to the Thunder Bay Art Gallery to check out Unconstrained. Each artist has projects which you can get information through Google and Facebook. The artists are all actively up to something worth checking out. And soon enough they'll each get their own write-ups. Unconstrained is just the tip of a popular culture iceberg in Thunder Bay. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Art of Kristy Cameron

To say that Kristy Cameron is an up and coming artist would be accurate, but with a 21 year old daughter who is also an artist and entering law school at Lakehead University it helps to say that Kristy has only relatively recently found her métier as a painter. 
     To be more accurate, not so long after discovering more about her Metis roots, Kristy found success reworking traditional imagery to create bold and breathtaking original work, some the result of substantive commissions. Self-discovery as an artist came hand in hand with Kristy’s interest to further explore her Metis background.
Map of Dreams by Kristy Cameron
      As a teenager who liked to paint and draw, Kristy’s favourite subject matter was landscape. She painted the kind of scenery that was easy to observe, not requiring much in the way of interpretation. Although her parents had woodland styled art in their home it would be years later that she would return find inspiration in woodland art.
     In the interim studied at Lakehead University, raised a family and taught primary grades and  special education at North Star Community School in Atikokan.
     It wasn’t until 2005 that Kristy got back into painting in a big way when she began tracing her roots and discovered a rich and mixed history stemming from the Red River settlements near Winnipeg, which was a hub of the west. Voyageurs who married into First Nations eventually gave Ojibwe, Cree and the Huron Nations, amongst others, connections with the fur-trading commpanies.
      Kristy explained how she found a renewed love for the woodland imagery. “I love the nature aspect of it. I spend a lot of time observing and sketching details in nature. If the content is historic, then research plays an important part. Instinct is involved too. Meanings and spiritualism add to the feelings that the paintings evoke. I find it a very exciting type of work to do. I started gradually and had exhibits and got a lot of feedback the community, as well as the Ontario Arts Council when they came through Atikokan.”
     With influence from the works of Roy Thomas and Norval Morrisseau Kristy mixed the traditional with contemporary styles. The awesome painting above, Map of Dreams, is a visual pairing with Rodney Brown's song of the same name. Kristy explains, "It's a representation of David Thompson's map of the North-West Territory." The painting combines map-like river flows done with tiny white dots of paint on a black surface that looks also like a giant brain. The flat 2D dimension of woodland art is combined with the fantastical 3D element of a floating world akin to a Roger Dean (Yes album covers) painting. The animals parade across the surface and some seem to fall and float from the surface. It's a fun and wonderful image combining air, water, and earth.
     Most helpful on her path as a painter were a host of commissioned work, which included creating imagery for the renowned Metis author and speaker, David Bouchard. Bouchard has written a number of popular books for children and adults. Kristy took a year to create imagery for the book, Seven Sacred Teachings: Niizhwaaswi gagiikwewin and painted imagery for a follow-up book titled, Dreamcatcher and the Seven Deceivers. Both books are relatively recent productions and involve educational additions such as a CD and Internet links.
     Kristy is planning to write and illustrate her own books in the future. Recently she has created imagery of local singer and songwriter, Rodney Brown's fur-trading songs. The Ontario Legislative building in Toronto will be displaying one of her paintings. And you can find her work at the Ahnishnabee Gallery at 18 Court St. here in Thunder Bay.
     Kristy’s daughter, Kelly Duquette, has a BA in Aboriginal Studies and Fine Art and will be returning from Ottawa to study law at Lakehead University. The two had a show at the Atikokan Pictograph Gallery last year where Kelly’s work had more of a political and activist angle. Kelly is inspired by Aboriginal culture and recent activism to strengthen Aboriginal communities across the country.

     We can look forward to more wonderful work from both Kristy and Kelly in the future, although, as Kristy points out with a laugh, “It will be a while before Kelly has time to get back into painting.”

The Local, Vintage, Grass Roots Millennial Movement May Save the Arts

     The United States is set to have an incredibly drawn out election process. Canada is on board with the rest of the world to reduce carbon emissions, assist internationally more readily, and to right the wrongs of the last decade under the Harper government. 2016 will be a very interesting year.
      It is good to hear that Trudeau is promising to increase funding for the arts with 380 million in total. 360 million is going to the Canada Council of the Arts and 150 million going to CBC/Radio-Canada. However, as David Karasiewicz of the Definitely Superior Art Gallery points out, even with this increased funding, cuts over the years have been so dramatic that a few publicly funded arts organizations have had to close their doors. They were living a bare bones existence for too long and could no longer fulfill their mandates to support their community. DEFSUP does well with their fundraising campaigns, like the Hunger, but without it they wouldn’t be able to operate. They are running a very tight ship.
     So what can us artists in 2016 expect? It’s not likely that there will be some kind of new national art movement with sudden public appeal. It’s not likely that the television media will suddenly decide to balance arts coverage with sports coverage. It’s not likely the provincial or federal Liberal governments will discover a billion dollars seconded in some hidden account and invest in the arts.  For artists to survive they will likely hold on to their day jobs.
     However, there is potential if artists across the country join the movement that celebrates the authentic, the vintage, and rejects the more commercial corporate domination of our lives. Star Wars, which reached the billion-dollar mark in earnings a couple days ago is both a mega-corporate effort, but also a success story, celebrating what is vintage. You’ll know what I mean if you see the film and compare the plot lines of this remake to the 1976 film.
     Yes, the Millennial movement, where adults in their twenties and thirties want to celebrate what is vintage, natural, and authentic are falling in love with slower less exasperating times. This includes the desire for locally grown foods, which has expanded into gastro-pub successes where atmosphere is important. These venues celebrate culinary culture for its diversity.
     Where previous generations sold their vinyl records for CDs many young people today are willing to shill out thirty dollars for a flashy new record album. Or sift through piles of albums that are easily thirty years old, yet somehow don’t seem old enough to be declared “vintage.” What’s great about walking into New Day Records and Accessories on St. Paul St. in the North Core is not only the feelings of nostalgia generated, but the sudden appeal of the latest album cover art.
     The renewed interest in the vintage has also generated some very diverse, flashy and rich imagery. It almost makes a Generation X guy want to buy a record player. This new movement has also generated a renewed interest in sound, the kind of quality sound that some of used to listen to with speakers that stood floor to ceiling.
      This interest in the vintage has caused writers and sociologists in the U.S. to refer to this new movement as “Generation Yawn,” where the interests and pursuits of the Millennials are more akin to their grandparents than any other generation. The lifestyles of the pre-sixties have the appearance of being worry free and less complicated. The interest in arts and crafts and being self-sufficient makes sense when the Canadian economy is turning into a big joke where the Canadian dollar is incredibly weak and the cost of housing and rent is abnormally high, cutting dramatically into average Jill and Joe’s earnings. Self-sufficiency becomes more of a necessity. But it doesn’t feel good to have no choice in the matter. After all, the last thing we want to believe is that we have no free will. So, in a way this current movement is a practical response to economic conditions, with some really great side benefits.
     With any luck there will be more grass root movements to bring more art to the people, keeping the arts alive in communities across the country where the monies made by artists can cut out the middlemen. And hopefully the added arts funding will get directly into the hands of artists who can better connect with their communities.  
     Most artists have day jobs and the lucky few of us who do make a living as artists don’t have an easy time of it. We have our good streaks and some of us have supportive fan bases for our work. Steve Gerow who has set up his booth at the Country Market always seems surprised by his success. He does have a full time job, but he loves interacting with the public Saturday mornings. Steve has found multiple ways of packaging his art to make his work accessible to almost any person’s budget, inspiring other artists to do the same.
     There are a litany of examples of artists in town form which we can learn to better interact with our community. Hopefully the support from our politicians, local businesses and media will continue into 2016. I know I’m looking forward to the New Year. Happy New Year!!