Monday, 16 September 2019

Art, Jealousy and Genetics

 Duncan Weller
Back in the 90s Patrick Hurst taught a second year painting class at Lakehead University where one of the assignments involved layering transparent colours to our completed monochrome portrait paintings. I had badly cropped the model’s hand and thought I’d lose a few marks for that, but I got the likeness of the model. She had short hair, wore a red tank top and brown pants. I enjoyed glazing so much that I’ve used the technique regularly ever since. 
    The class ended and I scooted out to the library. I was twenty-two years old at the time and enjoyed learning new techniques. I remember feeling pretty buoyant, happy the painting was going well. 
     I barely got through the doors of the library when one of the few adult students from the class called out my name and ran up to me. She held up her finger and looked disturbed. “Duncan, I need to talk with you!” she demanded, pointing at me. My mind raced to recall if I had said anything to upset her or anyone in the class. I couldn’t think of anything. And I hadn’t spoken to her at all.
   “You can capture a person’s likeness, but you can’t capture their soul,” she stated, waving her finger. 
     Startled, I doubted that she, an adult, could have made herself so jealous and angry that she felt the need to shoot me down. Yet she had presented an obvious problem: “If you can’t recognize the person in the painting, how do you know whose soul you’ve captured?” I asked. 
    To say I got reamed out after that would be mild. I was barely able to respond to the onslaught, a lecture on soul craft, art history, psychology and pseudo-science. It was stunning. This was the first major incident where my art work had made someone this jealous. It’s happened dozens of times since. The strangest was where I was invited to a portfolio party in Victoria, B.C. The art in my portfolio got another artist so jealous that she threw stuff at me. 
    I’ve met dozens of artists over the years who can paint and draw far better than I can. I admire all kinds of artists and some of them make me jealous too, but never enough to get angry or to say or do anything to shoot them down. Certainly never to work behind their backs. That would be ridiculous and pathetic. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn. And I do. 
      What I have learned recently is that at the current rate of progress there will be no wars on this planet within 30 years, no extreme poverty, no famine, a continuing massive decrease in every kind of violence, the disappearance of nuclear weapons, and the ability to comfortably hold the world’s population at 11 billion people, a number which will be reached around 2080. Then it drops precipitously. 
     Forests are already retaking farmland as agronomy improves. Countries worldwide are planting billions of trees. More swaths of nature on land and of the sea are being protected or reserved. There are more democracies than ever before with an increase in international trade causing the growth of the GDP for poorer countries enough that they can invest in education and social programs for the disadvantaged. 
     So, you can tear up your copy of Das Kapital. Democracy and capitalism with a heavy dose of socialism is working. There’s no need for anarchy. No need for communism. No need for one worldwide religion. No need for philosopher kings or guru ideology. No need to listen to them caterwauling about the end of the world like the street person with the cardboard sign on a stick. 
     We still have to deal with climate change and nasty current events, but the world is getting better at a dramatic pace. It’s cause to be happy.
     Much of this good news I’ve heard before, but never put together so well as in Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. (See the PBS interview) Pinker goes beyond reporting the good news by extolling the virtues of science as it applies to the humanities. What he says about artists makes for dramatic reading. The implications are huge. (Youtube: Pinker)
    What makes things worse for the ideologues is that there is the very real possibility that they will not only lose their support from scientists, they could lose their propaganda machines, their art support. For as the world changes for the better there’s no better time to celebrate the positive and what actually works as opposed to ideologies that benefit people who don’t deserve any credit for the positive change. Turns out that where the arts succeed is where innate talents are best put to use. Where art is succeeding dramatically is the popular arts.
    Here’s where I’ll get in trouble, but don’t shoot the messenger. It’s generally understood amongst popular artists that if you’ve got talent, you go to Hollywood. If you can’t draw, paint, sculpt or serve any social function related to the arts you become a “contemporary” artist. You become a gallery artist and search for original ideas. 
    What the scientists are saying, which has been fought against for about a hundred years now, is that talent exists. It’s innate within us. Most of us have some kind of talent, whether it’s math or music, constructing houses, building engines, designing software, whatever. And to make things interesting Nature in her wisdom sprinkles talent indiscriminately amongst populations, amongst all races everywhere on the planet. It’s becoming incumbent upon us that if we Canadians want to compete globally we have to believe in talent, find it, celebrate it, and allow the talented among us to flourish. 
     And whatever the science says about us artists, don’t be jealous. One day I’ll write about the drawbacks of having talent, and there are many. But in the next article I want to write about an extremely talented First Nations artist you likely have never heard of.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Two Art Shows in Town: Club Culturel Francaphone.

The Club Culturel Francaphone has members taking part in two shows. One is currently at the Thunder Bay Museum, 425 Donald St. E., and the other is opening tomorrow night at the Urban Abbey, 308 Red River Road, at 6 p.m.
All are welcome and if you speak French or wish to practice, this will be a fun place to give it a whirl. Many group shows are much like shrink-wrapped trays filled with tiny sampler boxes of cereal. In this instance we have fifteen artists of diverse backgrounds offering all flavours with varying amounts of wheat and sugar. The tray, or theme, in which these artists present themselves is the love they have for French culture, the language and the spirit that comes with sharing.
     Sharing is certainly what we need when insecurities abound today, and when political movements based on being reclusive and divisive shake our nerves. However, the divisiveness won’t last. Keep in mind that an insecure person is someone who needs to stare at themselves in a mirror every day in order to re-convince themselves over and over again that they are worthy and beautiful. A confident person seeks out variety, other faces, other cultures without worrying about losing themselves or losing their culture. Variety and diversity are a great source of energy and inspiration if we’re willing to see what other cultures are up to. This is especially true for artists, and it costs us only a little time.
     Two wonderful people, and relatively recent immigrants from France, Sébastien Hardy and Céline Mundinger were the instigators of these two shows and the CCF the organizer. Sébastien and Céline share their work with Audrey Debruyne, Carole Lapointe, Derek Khani, Liming Yu, Julie Cosgrove, Kelly Saxberg, Laure Paquette, Michel Dumont, Line Roy, Luc Després, Isabelle Lemee, Tom Kyryluk, and Yuk-Sem Won.
      From Quebec, France, and Ontario, these artists have diverse backgrounds, as social workers, professors, historians, professional photographers and as film-makers.
Many names you will recognize. Here they show solidarity with the aim to “reaffirm an identity in movement.”
This identity is based primarily on language, but this and the culture in general is not homogeneous. The organizers will happily point out that the artists represent many geographical differences with a “fragmentation of identities.”
Here and elsewhere the result is that French is spoken with varying styles and accents with a varying usage of anglicized adoptions. This is not, as some assume, a problem barring communication.
The differences add colour to the language and most often these difference are a great and delightful topic for French speakers who find it fascinating how regions, time periods, and even attitudes can embellish a language.
Far from and kind of weakening this variety strengthens the language, removing the nationalistic embodiment that many politicians want language to be.
Variety and diversity is a democratizing aspect of culture, and today upon this Earth there have never been so many democracies, countries developing closer relationships where borders are weakening and wars are waning. Vive la différence.
The double-show, La Franca- phonie Dans Tous Ses Etats is at Ur- ban Abbey from May 17 to June 7 and at the Thunder Bay Museum from May 7 to June 30.
Duncan Weller

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

37 Year Old Crime: Stolen Paintings Recently Discovered Yet To Be Returned to Confederation College

On the left is an image of 1970s artwork by Norval Morrisseau, 
stolen from Confederation College in 1981. On the right is a 
similarly styled Morrisseau painting from 1965

     “Four valuable paintings on display at Confederation College were stolen Thursday night and college officials are hoping that the community will assist in helping recover them.” So read the article in the Chronicle Journal of February 27, 1981. 
     In 1981 it was two young people that the police were hoping to identify. The two had “left the impression with staff they were working and removing the paintings from one part of the building to another – not unusual procedure in the college,” states an article in the Chronicle Journal of March 5, 1981.
    Two of those paintings were stolen from the wall behind the College’s front desk; paintings titled Demi-God Figure 1 and Demi-God Figure 2. These painting by Norval Morrisseau were donated to the College in the 1970s. At the time they were valued at $3,500.00 each. The other two paintings are Carl Ray works. Purchased by the College in the 1970s they were hung on the second floor. Not appraised at the time, the Ray works were of similar value. Today all four paintings could be worth nearly half a million dollars. 
      37 years later, the two Morrisseau paintings have turned up along with one of the stolen Carl Ray’s. According to sources the person who has them lives in Montreal. Although this private collector did not steal the paintings this collector has hired a lawyer in an attempt to retain the art works. At first however, this collector was looking to sell the paintings. The agent hired to assist was knowledgeable enough to recognize the stolen works. She dutifully called the police. Both the Surete du Quebec and the Thunder Bay Police are investigating. 
     Mike Rozic, the Senior Manager of Public Safety and Risk Management at the College states, “Confederation College is aware of the ongoing investigation into the paintings that were stolen in 1981. We are working with the police and are hopeful that the paintings will be returned after more than 35 years.”
    Before purchasing a painting it’s a good idea to know its provenance, especially works by nationally recognized artists. Private collectors are usually keen to loan pieces of their collection to a public gallery for, let’s say a retrospective; it’s of public benefit and helps to increase the work’s value. Every collector would love for the value of a work they own to increase, in spite of claiming a predominating sentimental value.
    Certainly Confederation College and this city has sentimental value for such works. Had the College been in possession of the Morrisseau’s and Ray’s they would have loaned them out numerous times over 37 years. Our Thunder Bay Art Gallery, with one of the biggest collections of indigenous art in the country would be keenly interested in the return of these paintings to the College and would likely put on a show to celebrate such an event. The TBAG as we know is uniquely located just behind the College. Sharing is not a problem. Staff could walk the paintings over.
     That is if the paintings are returned soon enough. The Thunder Bay Art Gallery is getting a 33 million dollar new home at Prince Arthur’s landing in the North Core. An added feature of the opening ceremonies with ribbon cutting and popping corks might be the prominent display of missing artworks returned.
Duncan Weller

The Art of Cheryl Wilson-Smith

     If 21 Pillows was a film feature you could imagine a parade of B-list actors hopping in and out of each other’s beds. But the movie that came to mind when I took a closer look at Cheryl Wilson-Smith’s amazing glasswork splayed across burlap pillows was the animated film by Brad Bird, Ratatouille. 
     In the film the harsh food critic Anton Ego, when first tasting this modest French dish has his taste buds set alight. And then his mind. He recalls a sad day decades ago, turned better by the hot meal his mother made for him. Mr. Ego becomes a child again, momentarily removed from his adult burdens, but his day has changed for the better and he skips away from the restaurant eager to return. 
   Similarly I was sent back in time when I began taking photographs of Cheryl’s work for this article. Careful and patient work went into creating thousands of glass pieces that mimic rocks of various kinds. Cheryl received financial support from the Ontario Arts Council and laborious support from her husband and son. They all spent days and nights in Cheryl’s studio in the basement of a dance hall in Red Lake. Each piece is made of layers of coloured glass and fired together. When you see the work up close you’re likely to be in awe on that front alone. Placed on pillow-shaped sacks that mimic landscapes the glass-rocks look like topographies that you might find all over the world, but in miniature.
     The glass-rocks are not arranged by the artist. That’s your job if you head down to the gallery. So in the photos for this article are the contributions of those who placed and arranged the stones. This democratization of art, the sharing between artist and viewer is a lovely feature of Cheryl’s work. I first thought of the enjoyment and challenge of scrambling up and down, in and around disorganized boulders in different parts of the country. Chippewa’s rock pier came to mind.
My 65 Million year old friend from Mexico.
     Another memory jogged by the show was when I travelled with Mexican friends to a small town in the mountains near Guanajuato. A modern road cut into the side of a mountaintop revealed layers of multi-coloured sediment. Curious, I approached the sediment and to my amazement there were thousands of small fossilized sea creatures embedded into one layer. I pulled out a fossilized cretaceous ammonite shell, the size of my palm.   
     It hit me like a speeding bulldozer. I suddenly realized that the mountain I was standing upon was in the middle of a continent, in a desert! And formed from what was once the sea bed of an ocean! My heart skipped a beat and my mind leaped into a bizarre kind of overdrive. The closest poets get to describing this feeling is by relating it to a religious experience, but it was greater than that because it connected to something incredibly real. I was holding a sea creature that was at least sixty five million years old. In a desert. At the top of a mountain. I had a nature-numinous moment, understanding intuitively how short and humble our lives are in comparison to how vast nature is. God. Art. Politics. Human history. All of it, just a blip.
     So like Anton Ego, I was transported to other times and places, not with food, but a sculptural installation in a gallery. And my day was bettered for it.
Duncan Weller