Monday, 27 February 2017

The Art of Mary McPherson: Resurrection of A Lost Art and the Way to a New Renaissance

Mary McPherson is a Governor General's Award Winner
(junior category) Her show is on this March at the Calico Coffeehouse
Bay and Algoma, Thunder Bay, Ontario
 If you’re thinking that a lonely late night staffer at the Chronicle Journal, bleary-eyed and dozy, mistakenly placed a photo of a twelve year old girl in this article instead of an older and more mature looking artist, you’d be wrong. Mary McPherson is a petite twenty-year old second year student studying visual art at Lakehead University. Mary is working towards a double major in Indigenous Learning where her father, Dennis McPherson teaches. Although only twenty, Mary displays surprisingly technical and creative ability in her dramatic drawings featuring a rare command with her chosen subject matter, deliberated upon with great forethought and some experience. 
    “Generally I’m speaking about assimilation,” says Mary about her first few graphite drawings at the Calico Coffeehouse at Bay and Algoma. “They are about resistance. The three other works are about how deeply imbedded the assimilation processes are in our communities.” 
    Few artists are as adept or keen to take on issues important in their own lives to reflect longstanding and complicated current issues that are also important to millions of others who share the same history. These works are built upon her deep knowledge of the conflict between Canada’s European heritage and that of Canada’s First Nations people. Conflicts similar the world over.
Colonial Expansion, graphite on paper by Mary McPherson
    Mary’s stagecraft mix of familiar looking landscapes are similar to works by Georgia O’Keeffe and referenced from Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven fame. Mary’s choice of elderly subjects who command the images are taken from turn of the Twentieth Century photographs. Resplendent with Mary’s acute detailing of their skin, she humanizes her subjects with great attention to detail with graphite lines deeply tracing crevices crimped by time. And with Mary’s surrealistic treatment not only is there a hint of Salvador Dali there is also an unmistakable association with the American Expressionist movement when it was in full form in the United States before ending abruptly shortly after the Second World War. A wonderfully illustrated coffee table book on the subject is Bram Dijkstra’s, American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920 - 1950.
     Expressionism’s many dynamic styles began in Europe growing quickly to full fruition with its socialist zeal when the Works Progress Administration came into being, a signature creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Millions of people, including artists of all stripes were put to work. F.D.R.’s New Deal sparked monumental changes in the United States, changes that have conflicted with the conservative agenda ever since. Social progress stalled in the 1950s, and art history took a turn for the worse. Expressionist artists could have continued to fight for social progress had there not been an abrupt change or deliberate turn towards fashion over substance, mostly for political reasons, down a road towards an antiseptic cold and hard “modernism.” 
   And now we face the prospect of our American friends having their hard earned social progress since the 1960s dramatically uprooted by the newly elected and appointed Trump administration. Thus the call by many for artists to fight for what they believe, to make their art socially active and relevant as the Expressionists once did so well. A similar movement could be invaluable today.
       The Expressionists were all about inclusion, diversity and social progress for everyone. In their art and lives they fought for workers’ rights, African American’s rights, women’s rights and other worthwhile causes. Many artists did so with a utopian Marxist zeal. Today, with the disheartening wagon-circling of the right wing, nutcase conspiracy theorists and extremists in our midst it could not be too soon for an uplifting arts movement, a Renaissance spearheaded by First Nations artists. Mary however isn’t looking for Utopia, but she is hoping for and working towards a cultural renewal for First Nations people. 
Popcorn Elder #3, graphite on paper by 
Mary McPherson
     “My desire to draw came as soon as I was able to hold a pencil,” Mary laughs. Born in December her mother decided to hold her back a year before school started, filling the time with all sorts of child crafts. By the age of four, Mary had already caught the artistic bug. Drawing was an important outlet. In high school it was her way of thinking, expressing, understanding and escaping. Influences upon larger themes later in life began in high school where racism was openly displayed. More white looking than native Mary witnessed racism directed at other First Nations students without feeling the brunt of the attack. She still felt hurt and confused by the incidents, stating circumspectly. “There’s that dichotomy between the native population and the non-native and it exists in the city, as well as high school.”
    But the effects of racism stayed with her. In her university studies Mary’s Indigenous research and love of art combined in a most fruitful way. Of one of her works, Modernity, No. 2, Mary says of the woman on the swing, “She is depicted on a colonial structure, the swing, while wearing a long skirt and short hair. There is a residential school in the background. This woman is subjected to the assimilation process. Meanwhile, the landscape is one of Lawren Harris’ vast and uninhabited landscapes. While Harris’ spirituality was embraced as a gem of national Canadian identity, the spirituality of the Indigenous peoples were being outlawed as the people were pushed off the land onto reserves.” 
Carried by the People #1,
graphite on paper 
by Mary McPherson
     A relatively new understanding is that our favoured artists, The Group of Seven and others, although not commissioned by the government for propaganda purposes, found their works popular in a country that still had a residual colonial mindset. At its core was the idea that our Canadian landscape was a pristine unpeopled landscape, a natural Eden for Europeans to explore and call their own. 
    You can see a video documentary by Isabel Smith on Mary McPherson HERE
     Furthering this thinking, and encapsulating her ideas visually, Mary writes of a work titled, Popcorn Elder, as a, “critique of what we know about contemporary Indigenous culture. Indigenous peoples, having been forced into a fast-paced assimilation process are left to determine their culture based on what is left. We have two sources: non-native historical interpretations of our way of life, and our Elders. Our Elders are considered to be the source of culture, and most of them will recall some ceremonies as young children as well as going to residential schools. Philosophies of Indigenous peoples are often missing from their teachings.”
     You can see why Mary at the young age of eighteen won the 2015 Governor General’s History Award in the Junior Art Category. And with plans to get a PhD and study law, “I feel like it could help me understand my artistic practice as well.” It’s no surprise to hear that Mary is committed to being a full time artist, educator and even an activist. 
     “Art for me is more or less a critical thinking process. It’s a matter of applying what I learn outside into a conceptual image. It helps to understand the world around me and to understand myself, especially as an indigenous woman.”
  Calico Coffeehouse on Bay and Algoma has six amazing works by Mary McPherson for the month of March. 
     Duncan Weller is a writer and visual known for his children’s books. You can write to him at Check out his new gallery, Rogue Planet Gallery, from Thursday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm at 118 Cumberland or drop by upstairs at the Country Market Saturday mornings. 

Andrew Dorland: A Graphic Tale

     “The usual kind of culprit was comics,” laughs Andrew Dorland, also siting Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons amongst his long list of popular cultural influences. But Andrew was also influenced by the great Renaissance artists and the Pre-Raphaelite movement of romantic art. Andrew gave an analysis of how the chiaroscuro effects used dramatically by the 16th Century artist Caravaggio influenced the graphic art of his time and carried through to present day comics. “DaVinci’s grotesque stuff is just like comics too,” says Andrew.
You can see his work HERE
     Originally from a suburb of Holland Landing, farmland area near Barrie, Andrew came to Thunder Bay to study business at Lakehead University. He got his business/administration degree, then worked briefly in a tattoo shop in Toronto, became a stock broker and then headed back into his art. Back in T. Bay he does some bookkeeping to pay the bills.
     Andrew sees a good deal of irony in that his father wouldn’t allow him to study art at university; for the biggest influence on Andrew’s artistic bent came from his father. Although a pilot by trade, Andrew’s father was also a part time painter, taking on the occasional commission to paint airplanes when he wasn’t painting landscapes as a hobby. He taught Andrew perspective tricks, like drawing the typical train tracks receding towards the horizon line.
     Parents rightfully worry that their kids will go down a path that could lead to misery and the sad stereotype of artists suffering in poverty is a reality for some. However circumspect Andrew is about the art scene he knows he would love to be making a living as an artist if he could. As a result you can find him and his buddy comic artist, Kyle Lees, working away at the Country Market Saturday mornings at their vendor’s booth on the second floor where they refer to themselves as the Octilius Studio. They are soon to be joined by fellow comic and graphic novel artists Bry Kotyk, Christopher Merkley and Colin Rackham.
     Andrew is not entirely new to the game of the comic book world. He’s worked for one of the larger comic publishers and done illustration work near Barrie for a small publisher, illustrating children’s books and activity cards. He jump started his desire to be an artist by producing his own comic book series, Scarabs.
     Scarabs is a 22 page comic. It takes Andrew about twelve to sixteen hours to draw a page which produces a comic in just over two months. Once the artwork is done a entirely new workload takes over involving the layout, design and publishing that follows.
     “I’ve illustrated children’s books in the past and it’s nice to just hand over the illustrations and be done with it,” he says. “That said, I’ve got a large oil painting that seems to be taking me forever.”
     Andrew is realistic about what success is. “Success is having the money and time to create the things you want too create. I believe everyone has a drive to create in their own way and being able too do that full time is success.”
    “I'm currently finishing up the next few issues of the Scarabs Comic, but as far as projects goes I'm working on a number of pitches for comic publishers including an Irish Mythology themed story that I'm sure people who like fantasy stories will like. It will be my largest challenge too date as I'm painting each page.”
     The influences of popular culture upon Andrew is not total. “Sure, I’m very influenced by popular culture but I really try and avoid bringing too much of it consciously into any story I create. The Scarabs Comic is all psychological and at least fifty percent based on incidents of my own life. The story is very heavy emotionally so I think by adding some Egyptian gods and fantastic looking creatures I give the reader a "safe" separation too absorb the message.” 
     Andrew also acknowledges that trying to win over an audience with the pizzaz of detail, dramatic settings and violent action, like special effects in a movie, does nothing compared to how interesting characters can grip the reader. Referring to his Irish mythological tale Andrew says, “Having a true understanding of what these characters would do and what drives them is the most important thing.”
      Andrew has some big ambitions, hoping to work with a large publisher who takes an interest in Andrew’s story ideas. Being realist he says he’s trying not to get attached to his ambitions. He’s aware of the old adage of keeping expectations low, but he’s certainly not going to avoid doing his best to make a go of it.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Art of Jasper Schmidt

Constraints aren’t Jasper’s problem. She’s dealt with limited space in her childhood and currently takes great advantage of her living room, packing and unpacking her supplies. As a third year student at Lakehead University in the visual arts program Jasper creates large works with expansive themes of home and place in colourful yet muted tones. Her paintings are currently on display at Espresso Joya at 8 Cumberland St. South.
     A major source of inspiration for Jasper are maps. Jasper employs these everyday functional tools in her paintings to cleverly suggest connections with the intimacies of home life. And not just her own home life, the paintings will soon become mapped portraits for others as well. Having taken on a commission she has found a unique way to generate an income.
     In her younger days, painting at home was too messy for Jasper’s family and she didn’t have a lot of room for it, but she organized with a closet dedicated to art supplies. Her painting journey really began at LU. Previously she had only worked with watercolours and fell in love with acrylics when she was first introduced to them. 
     Jasper’s desire to have the acrylics mimic watercolour effects rather than the plastic look acrylic can sometimes generate, lead her to work the acrylic into raw canvas. Priming a canvas with gesso makes the surface hard, smoother and more resilient. It’s not generally recommended to paint on raw canvas unless treated properly. Most of Jackson Pollack's paintings, worth millions of dollars, are falling apart. Museums and galleries spend millions on restoration, especially contemporary works of art as they contain the most volatile of materials often with no concern for the works longevity. In some museums you can actually see a line of paint dust on the floor beneath a Pollock due to the paint slowly disintegrating. 
    However, if done correctly with sealants and coloured gesso, watered down in order to keep the elasticity of the canvas, the benefits of painting into raw canvas can result in effects that are much harder to achieve with a completely primed canvas.
     “I’ve had quite the journey with painting,” states Jasper. “My beginnings weren’t very hands on.” She first took architecture at the University of Manitoba. “It really opened my eyes to what I really wanted to do. Ideally I would like a job that is very very hands on, whether working in wood – fine carpentry or furniture…. I found my niche in painting and along the way became interested in maps, personal maps, and map-like shapes that people might recognize… the tryptic [for instance] is all Canada.”
     This large triple painting and sectional “map” of Canada actually isn’t as jumbled as it looks. There was a lot of preplanning and projection involved. This tryptic inspired follow-up paintings where Jasper included significant places in her life which she highlighted; her childhood home, favourite lakes, babysitter’s house, friends homes, and more. So when you view the paintings you may now be aware of why it is you find her work somewhat familiar.
  Duncan Weller is a writer and illustrator of adult fiction and children's books. You can find them here.