Thursday, 17 August 2017

Welcome to the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery and Framing Shop


For his next book for which he received a good deal of funding and a sabbatical from his Swiss university, a travelling professor passed through our region recently to interview First Nations people across Canada. Digging into the truth regarding contemporary conditions and the culture of First Nations people he stopped in Thunder Bay where he interviewed several people including Louise Thomas, owner of the Ahnisnabae Gallery at 18 South Court Street. 
   For travelling profs and local writers Louise is a wonderful source of information regarding arts and artists in our region. With over three hundred artists represented and a continual interest to take on new artists and promote the legacy of her late husband and artist, Roy Thomas, the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery is a destination point for tourists and collectors from all over.  
     In business for twelve years this retail shop has an international following. Invested with the spirit of many people, the gallery offers a salon style display of many windows into other realities and approaches revealing talent where so many artists have taken up the challenge of expressing themselves, their communities, their history and their love of place and unique experiences. And what is wonderful about all this imagery and the pouring of soul and effort into these pieces is that you can take it with you, celebrate it and have it blend into the world you have at home. 
      The gallery sells paintings, sculpture, pottery, needlework, jewelry, soap, crafts, scarves, purses, cards and more. New products come in on a regular basis, made by individual artists and companies producing such items as limited edition paddles produced in Grand Marais employing Roy Thomas’ famous image titled, “We Are All In the Same Boat.” 
     A new line of products are coming where Roy’s images will be embossed on leather handbags, wallets, belts, and other wearable items specially created by a company in Southern Ontario. “Something comes in on a weekly basis,” says Louise, as she takes a breath revealing a bit of exasperation with the amount of work involved. 
     Working six days a week and doing her best not to come in on Sundays her relaxed manner is partly a result of pacing herself. In remission since November of 2015 Louise is not totally out of the clear from an agonizing bout of cancer and chemotherapy treatments. To help keep her clear Louise will be taking medicine for another five years. “I feel fine, great. Lot’s of energy,” she smiles, thriving in life and with the success she’s having.
   The North Core has already seen a boon for business and an influx of tourists and locals traipsing around exploring new shops. “Thank goodness for young people having vision and doing things,” says Louise. And when it is suggested that Louise move to a bigger city for bigger and better sales she explains, “Thunder Bay is a great city. It has everything a big city has. I’m known here, I’m established.”
     When moving her business to her current location at 18 Court Street from Westfort Louise declined to use entrepreneurial funds offered to her in order that more money could go to other indigenous businesspeople. “It’s been great being in this business for 12 years and doing it on my own without any funding.” And her business is growing. Last July was Louise’s best month. The picture framing has taken off. Louise’s son, Randy, following in his father’s footsteps is creating his own unique style of art which he sells through the gallery. Randy is also a picture framer fully dedicated to a museum standard quality. 
     Louise receives requests for business ventures through the Internet. She doesn’t buy art, selling work on consignment. She will do some appraising of art and research when necessary to ensure the work is original. 
    After being interviewed Louise welcomes a large group of Mexican students, some with indigenous ancestry who find some of the art and methods familiar to their own culture. Louise gives them a little tour and talk about the art and our indigenous North American community. When the group leaves an elderly gentleman, Michael DePerry, pulls his little tikanagans from a canister. Louise is immediately intrigued and she discussing taking on his work for the gallery.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Art of Eugene Lefrancois

Recently, after confronting a couple local artists who have no issue with adding a few swipes of expressionist paint slaps to the imagery taken or stolen from the Internet and projected onto canvas to avoid using their own imagination it’s wonderful to see the work of an artist genuinely lit up by their own. 
     Examples of free-flowing streams of consciousness art pieces can be seen at the Growing Season restaurant on Algoma where several of Eugene Lefrancois’ ink and watercolour works hang. With limited reference material influences come from the styles of several artists including Norval Morrisseau, M.C. Escher, and Salvador Dali. The connected long strands and lines are reminiscent of the First Nations artist, Cecil Youngfox. Talking on this surrealist approach Eugene states, “When the pen hits the paper there is no idea what is going to happen… sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
     And therein is the risk with using one’s imagination, it’s not always fruitful and it’s certainly not always easy or even relatable to others, but it’s a practice worthy of its own merit. Eugene says, “To copy stroke for stroke is wrong. To get inspired by the work is awesome.”
    Playing around with line, swirls, patterns, colour and composition the results are little composite dreamworlds where shapes could be symbols which morph into landscapes. The whimsical approach to these small, mostly watercolour and ink works on paper might lack the punch offered by larger paintings done in oil or thick acrylics on canvas, but the airiness and flow of his choice of materials intimate stained glass and fabric works. The light seems to come through the work turning them into little windows, a feat that takes longer to achieve with oils and acrylics.  
     Earth, sky, birds and specifically the eyes of birds are most often represented where the sun is drawn in a variety of ways to suggest magical powers. The staring birds add a slight sense of the ominous and strength.
     Eugene says of his work, “I hope that the people who see my work will see things in a different way. Just to look at a tree for instance is looking at a tree. I feel that a tree is a living being. The only thing is we as humans can't communicate with it. Just like fire and plants. They all have a story and I try to get that story to people who see my work, in a small way.” 
     Being creative is also therapeutic for Eugene. “I am also an injured worker advocate. I have seen society make a mess of injured workers. Art is my therapy that I use to make sense of it all.”
     Eugene has shown his work in Thunder Bay often over the years, painting most of his life as a self taught artist with a creative instinct he says has always been with him, that being inspired to draw and paint was not an event, but born into him. Yet he still needed encouragement to follow his artistic interests and he took it to heart when an elder gave him practical advice, as Eugene relates,“do your own thing if you can afford it.”
And so he did. "Just the sheer act of being able to draw and put it out there is inspiration. To copy stroke for stroke is wrong. To get inspired by the work is awesome."

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Incredible Whiteness of Children's Picture Books

It’s a primary complaint I’ve heard from parents that children’s books are too simple. Parents want picture books to have greater depth of meaning and more excitement with clever and imaginative vocabulary. Children want those qualities even more. Parents sense that picture books are being dumbed-down for the masses.
     Unlike picture books, middle readers and young adult novels have taken on big issues and flown off into otherworldly fantasies with exciting story lines, interesting characters and creative language. The result is an explosion of popular and worthy books with adults becoming their primary fans while rejecting violent and over-sexualized adult fiction or abstruse contemporary literary work. 
    It is a very different scene for children. And it's been that way for decades in Canada. It's something I noticed early on.
    It wasn’t long after our librarian at Agnew H. Johnston, Mr. Woodruff, read to our grade 3 or 4 class a story about a man who made his own plane and flew it around his farmland that I turned to comic books; Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat, Spiderman and Weird Tales. Mr. Woodruff pointed out that the book he read had a gold award sticker on its cover. He said that books with gold stickers were the best children’s books in the library.
    I dutifully headed to the cubby hole shelves with all the picture books and collected a stack of gold emblemed books. One by one I read the books expectantly and soon became disillusioned. When a classmate, Allison, sat next to me and asked me what I was doing I replied with some anger and guilt, “Don’t read the books with the gold stickers. They’re no good.” 
     I had reasoned that what adults wanted us to like was different from what we actually wanted from books. I wanted books that could match the mystery and excitement of Where the Wild Things Are or the strange worlds created by Dr. Seuss. I realized years later that I hadn’t outgrown picture books: any really good children’s picture book can be equally enjoyed by an adult. And the real test of any book is longevity. Those books that I loved were also the ones that millions of other children felt were their favourites. Many books have lasted for generations while hundreds of thousands of other books continue to vanish into the ether. We kids weren’t wrong. There were commonalities in the books we liked that made them great.
    Children are smarter than we give them credit for. Often they sense what’s going on when we think they shouldn’t and do so without the words to express themselves and the ability to contrast or compare what they see with other experiences in order to describe something fully to us adults. But they know what they like. 
     And masses of amounts of white space wasn’t one of them. As a child I wanted to be a little older than I was and a little smarter than I actually was. And white space to me symbolized baby books, Dick and Jane books, books that I really disliked as a child. Books with lots of white space aren’t bad books, some are great, but as a child lots of white space on the cover told me that they were lazy books.  
    Sadly children have no one to represent them in the book industry. There are agents and promoters who work for the publishing industry who talk up the value of books. And there are “critics” who love every single damn picture book that gets published, which makes them self-appointed shills for the industry, totally unconcerned that a child and her parent has to wade through continuous stacks of lacklustre books before they can find something they truly love. 
    Why produce so many books with so much white space? Maybe the white space is a result of the illustrators choosing to avoid depth of meaning and depth of perspective in detailed backgrounds with extra characters and animals because it takes too long to create that kind of added value. And in Canada most illustrators are simply not getting paid enough to develop their work further beyond the main characters.  
     Or it might be fashion. White is in vogue. White space makes the illustrations look modern, like a gallery’s walls or a lab in a hospital. Yet lots of white also makes the books antiseptic and middle class where no one is wealthy or poor. Life as you might see it in the street or allegorized in a fantastic tale doesn’t exist. White backgrounds represent the ultimate in generic taste - a kind of egalitarian space, a left-wing utopia. Or conversely it’s a conservative place, a safer place where nothing can jump out from behind trees in the background or from around a corner of a distant pathway. Added levels of meaning might suspiciously harbour left-wing activism like environmentalism or diversity. Some people are afraid of depth and diversity or even the subjective qualities or real world allegories that spring from it.
    But why so much white space in contemporary children’s books? Backgrounds and added characters make picture books much more interesting allowing the story to have multiple meanings, greater depth, or the kind of detail that causes children and adults to return to the book again and again without getting tired of it.
     I don’t know the answer and maybe it’s not a real problem, but parents will tell you, when there’s lots of white space in a picture book… some children love to fill it in.