Ella May Walker, the Gun Sculpture, and my friend Angus

Ella May Walker is one of my favourite painters.  Not just one of my favourite Edmonton painters.  One of my all time favourite painters. The Art Gallery of Alberta has a few of her works on display in “Mistresses of Modernism” right now, but that show ends at the end of the month and as I’m moving slowly on preparation for my own show in October, and there have been unforeseen medical happenings in the family, I’m not certain I’ll get back.  So, I was very pleased to learn that the City of Edmonton Archives is hosting an online Virtual Exhibition of Ms. Walker’s life and works.  So pleased that I went down to the beautiful Archive building inside the magnificent Prince of Wales Armoury and bought a bunch of prints of Ms. Walker’s work. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be at the real life opening celebration. But I very happily and urgently recommend a virtual walk through the gallery.

My first encounter with Walker’s work was, I think, her wonderful painting of “Edmonton City Airport”.  This rapid, oddly static-yet-vibrantly-motion-filled night view of the Gateway to the North captures a wonderful — and counter-intuitive war-time hope in the technological future.  The Northern Lights (of hope?) framing the control tower strangely make me think of the telephone cables enveloping the sculpture/relief which used to greet visitors to the Alberta Government Telephones Building (now the Legislature Annex).  The mechanic in the foreground is heroically preparing the airplane for a winter night-flight North, to the future.

But, the painting that sparked an obsession with Walker’s work was “Edmonton Oil Refinery”.  The refinery in the painting I expect has long since been replaced by behemothic new and newer refineries as the oil industry has boomed and slightly busted over the decades — although there are ruins of some sort of installation and tank field south of Baseline Road which I like to think are connected with the painting.  But, even if the refinery is completely gone, Walker has absolutely captured the impression the refineries still make on a non-oil-industry viewer:  smoke, a maze of pipes, steel shed-like buildings and a tiny human figure both controlling and dominated by the great machine.  Behind it all is the brilliant blue sky — a symbol of hope? or a sign of what is being lost?  Walker’s preservationist career suggests an anachronistic environmentalism, but the celebration of technology in “Edmonton City Airport” might argue the opposite.  I like to think that “Edmonton Oil Refinery” depicts exactly this tension between progress and nostalgia.

I’ll briefly touch on three works I’d not seen before:  “Maligne Lake, Winter Jasper Park”, “The Walter Home” and “The Lauder House”.

One of my teenage loves was the Science Fiction illustration art of Frank Kelly Freas.  When I saw “Maligne Lake” for the first time this afternoon, I thought of nothing other than Kelly Freas.  Now as I look at it I think a tiny bit of Turner.  Certainly it walks close to the edge of “Sofa-Sized Paintings” available at a “Major Art Show and Sale at the Mayfield Inn”, but there’s a little bit of something here that makes “Maligne Lake” a little something more than either Science Fiction illustration or mass produced schlock.  I confess, however, that of Walker’s work that I’ve seen, this piece impresses me the least.

“The Walter Home” is something else again.  This portrait of legendary Edmonton Ferryman John Walter’s house before it was preserved as a museum is a simply charming piece.  I’m reminded of a woodcut by Margaret Shelton of a stylized foothills ranch house which has the same charm in a very different palette.  While stylized, “The Walter Home” is unmistakably the Walter home as it still stands on the Walterdale flats above the timeless Ford of the North Saskatchewan.  Walker shows Walter’s house on the cusp: this house is history about to be lost to the ruin which has taken the leafless and broken trees and is taking the rickety picket fence.  But the green paint on the clapboards is still vibrant and alive.  It’s almost as though Walker knows the house will be preserved or, more likely, has willed it to be so.

“The Lauder House” is, as any visitor to Fort Edmonton Park will recognize, a depiction of the Park’s Lauder Bakery in it’s original location.  The painting is marked by a remarkable economy of both colour and brush.  This painting is winter in Edmonton.  All edges rounded, all palettes flat.  But not grey.  This is ochre and sepia, raw umber and Prussian blue with brilliant white of clapboard and snow in the sunlight inviting us to the makeshift airlock door keeping the warmth inside the laundry.  Another charming piece.

Please, take a tour through the Virtual Exhibition.  This new program of Virtual Exhibitions has the potential to be a wonderful use of the internet by Edmonton’s Archives.  It certainly makes their online presence something to watch.

But, lest you think a real life visit to the Prince of Wales Armoury is unnecessary . . .

I’m embarrassed to admit that until my visit to the Archives this afternoon, I didn’t realize that the magnificent Gun Sculpture  is permanently back in Edmonton and on display in the Prince of Wales Armoury. I offer thanks to Elizabeth at the Archives for steering me to it.

When you visit the Archives and the Gun Sculpture, be sure to also spend time at the Loyal Eddies’ Museum.   I didn’t have enough time today (one of us was limping quite a bit), but I’ll be back!  I must!  With their sacrifices in 1943-45 the Eddies smoothed my way in 1983 at countless Southern Italian shops and restaurants. “No! Canadese!” was like a secret password to the riches for this immoderately Aryan-looking fellow.

When I came home from my time in Italy, which I depicted to some extent in my Apellean Sketches, I became friends with a member of the Loyal Eddies (now deceased) who had had a personal hand in liberating the valley around Ruoti in World War II, before continuing on to Ortona and somehow surviving and helping to win “Canada’s Stalingrad”.  Only then did I realize why “No! Canadese! was such a magic response to the slightly malevolent query,  “Deutsch?”

Please, go visit the Gun Sculpture and the Loyal Eddies’ Museum, think of my friend Angus, and hope that no one ever has smooth anyone’s way in that way ever, ever again.

And visit the Ella May Walker Virtual Exhibition and think about hope, preservation, and remembrance.

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Adventures in Alberta’s Public Health Care System: A True Story

I wasn’t going to do parenting (special needs or otherwise) or politics when I started writing from behind my hedge, but . . .

All this in less than 36 hours:

Yesterday morning, I finally accepted that that inexplicable ulcer on the Kid’s ankle wasn’t going to heal any time soon without Modern Medical Intervention, so, I decided, no school today, let’s go to the clinic across the Ravine.  We arrived a little past ten in the morning and . . .

no other patients in the waiting room.

About ten minutes later, we were on our way to the pharmacy to pick up the prescription and the doctor was on the phone to the Wound Care Clinic at the Firefighters’ Burn Centre at the U of A Hospital arranging a referral for us.  Shortly after, prescription in hand, we were driving across town to drop in on a friend (former nurse and EMT, now butcher) when my phone rang.

“Can you get to the Wound Clinic right away?” asked the doctor’s receptionist.  “They say they’ll see you right now.”

After a quick visit to our friend, we went on to the U of A and found out there had been a mis-communication:  the doctor was in the OR and couldn’t see us for two hours.  We got the usual for lunch, a grilled cheese sandwich on brown, from the Hospital’s food service.  With time still to kill, we hopped on the LRT for a ride, something we had planned to do after the initial visit to the local clinic.

To Clairview and back and then back up to the third floor  to the Wound Clinic.  About 45 minutes later, we were on our way with a newly cleaned and dressed ulcer, a huge collection of dressing materials, and an appointment with a dermatologist for today at 11:30 and a referral to another surgeon in two weeks.

Today we went to the dermatologist who gave us a new prescription for the kid’s auto-immune thing and he took her on as his patient.  Then he arranged for a referral to Home Care for her dressing changes twice a week.  Then to the lab for a blood test and later this afternoon, Home Care called to set up the dressing changes and they also started setting up an assessment for her for any other needs she might have.

So.  Thirty-six hours. A family physician, a plastic surgeon, a dermatologist, a number of residents, a referral to another plastic surgeon, countless nurses (“Katharine was nice”, the Kid told me as we left yesterday),  home care, huge sacks of medical supplies, four prescription drugs, blood test  . . .

and . . .

total out of pocket expenses:

about thirty bucks for parking and lunch and two transit tickets.

Family Doctor: no charge
Specialists: no charge
Nurses: no charge
Residents: no charge
Supplies: no charge
Blood Test: no charge
Prescription Drugs: no charge (thanks to AISH)

In the current election campaign here in Alberta there’s been a lot of talk about our Health Care system being broken.  I’m sure there are problems.  I’m sure people have bad and sometimes horrible experiences.  But I want to be on the record with the fact that for eighteen years now the Kid has had consistently amazing treatment from Alberta’s Public Health Care System.

If this is a broken health care system, let’s fix it.

Then maybe we’ll all live forever!

I also want to mention, there’s a beautiful display of Aaron Paquette’s artwork (see my blog entry on Narrative Quest) on the third floor north of the Wound Care Clinic.  Anyone who’s in Edmonton and appreciates art owes it to themselves to head over the the hospital and ride the elevator up to the third floor.  But watch out for the rightmost of the South elevators — it bites!

Midnight Musing

Tonight, as I sat in my little room at the back of my house on this Dutch-disease-free-American-Elm-lined street, I was reading a poet who will, out of courtesy, remain unnamed.

Suddenly I swore and from the next room the Volscian Maid asked what was wrong.

I replied

“I was pained by infelicitous word use”

She picked up the phrase and repeated it in her rock-tumbling way.

Shortly a gemstone emerged, so much more sparkling than the original:

“Felonious word use!” she laughed.

And she was more right than she — or the poet — will ever know.

Tom Wood’s William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Tom Wood’s William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Playing April 7-29, 2012 (and April 22 – May 21, 2000) in the Citadel’s Maclab Theatre.

I went to the Citadel today.

I don’t want to dis things here.  I told myself that if I had nothing good to say about something, I wouldn’t write about it.  So . . .

This production is very prettily designed.  Here’s how I described it in my notes as I waited for the play to begin:

Submarine rather than sylvan in tone.  Bird song sounds help.  The columned and pedimented balcony is a suitable classical touch.

Something Disneyesque faux-stone about the stairway — left over from Beauty and the Beast?

A rope hanging stage right.  There will be swinging, it seems.

To be fair, later the set seemed more nocturnally sylvan.

The performances of the young cast ranged from very good to excellent.  Shannon Taylor as Helena was outstanding and Lora Brovold as Titania was magically charming.  These two gave glorious performances in very different roles.

The Rude Mechanicals, led by Julien Arnold as Bottom, were suitably hammy in the Disney cartoon sidekick way that sadly seems de rigueur these days.  The audience was very appreciative and the louts (on stage) were enjoyable.

To the audience (this is not a toast):

I really appreciated  the synopsis the lady behind us started giving to her companions five minutes before the play began.  I thought she had completely forgotten the young lovers at first.  Imagine my joy when she got to their part sometime after Theseus (Marc R. Bondy) finished his opening lines to Hippolyta (Sochi Fried).  Imagine my further joy as she continued, only petering out somewhere toward the end of scene 1, just in time for the Mechanicals to hold her attention in scene 2.

My first experience of the Citadel was in the old building, a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat staring Brent Carver, during the 1975/76 season.  I also enjoyed the inaugural production of the new Citadel the next season, Romeo and Juliet, staring Carver again.  A wonderful thing.  I went to the Citadel ,regularly for years and I still go when there’s a bit of Shakespeare or Stoppard on the menu.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Tom Wood’s Romeo and Juliet, but I don’t remember it.  I’m sure I saw his previous Midsummer Night’s Dream but the only thing I remember is the late Wally McSween as one of the Mechanicals, and I may misremember that.

After all that experience, I was pleased today to see that there is still a large segment of a Citadel audience which rises in ovation whenever a company reaches the end of a script.  Don’t get me wrong, the company did a wonderful job (with a few slips) and some performances were magnificent.  But, I’ve always felt the standing ovation needs to be reserved for a truly outstanding production and performance, which this was not.

On the evening of April 1, 1978 (I still have the ticket stub!) I saw a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, UK.  (One day to be Sir) Patrick Stewart played the role of Oberon.  The only thing I remember of that production is Oberon’s hairline.  The production I saw today at the Citadel was more memorable, more exciting, than the one I saw thirty-four years ago (goodness!) in Stratford.  But, like that RSC production, today’s show took no risks, there are no cutting edges here:  the glory is Shakespeare’s words and some remarkable work  from the young cast.

Apart from a few performances and parts of performances, Tom Wood’s Midsummer is a cheerful, pretty piece of live Shakespeare.  It is a comfortable and reassuring – not challenging – way to spend an afternoon or evening.

I do want to single out for mention again Shannon Taylor as fiery Helena and Lora Brovold as the truly enchanting Titania.  As well, Eric Morin as Lysander really took off in the second half, as did Jonathon Purvis as Puck.

And, a final note about the impression made on me by  Michel Antonakos’ brilliantly understated turn as Oberon  – and it’s not his hairline:  I really want to start a “Draft Jian Ghomeshi to play Oberon at Stratford” Facebook and Twitter campaign.

Seriously, go see a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Citadel.  It’s a cozy, happy time and succeeds admirably at what little it attempts.  Those shadows have not offended and nothing need be mended.  I give the company my hands and hope that we are friends.  I had a great, fun, comfortable time.

On “Beowulf The King” by Blake William Turner

First, full disclosure.  I have various dogs of various sizes in this fight.  I am by training a scholar of Old English Literature. I have published a number of academic articles on Old English poetry, at times touching on Beowulf. Some years ago I completed (although I wouldn’t call it “finished”) a verse translation of Beowulf.  And, perhaps the most biasing fact:  I briefly tutored Hrothgar (David Ley) in his Old English pronunciation for this production.

I confess, after reading hints about Beowulf the King in the weeks leading up to opening night, I returned in my mind again and again to Richard Bentley’s on-target criticism of Pope’s “translation” of Homer’s Iliad:  “It’s a very pretty poem Mr. Pope, but you must not call it ‘Homer’.”  I worried that my reaction to the play would be similar or worse.

I’m very happy to report that Beowulf the King is a very pretty play, and, although it is very different from the poem in so many ways, it is perfectly appropriately titled.  This play is not the Old English poem, but it is certainly a Beowulf for our time.

There, with the academic geekery out of the way, we proceed to the play (and strive to avoid spoilers) . . .

I don’t think I’m giving much away if I mention that the play opens, after a brief musical overture(more about that later), in Old English.   Hrothgar (David Ley) strides onto the stage and declaims the first three lines of the poem and then steps aside to be the chorus to a series of battle scenes which effectively condense the genealogies which open the poem into an exciting little pill for the audience to swallow.  The scene is set:  battle, kingship and honour in Denmark.  But, of course, something is rotten in Hrothgar’s kingdom . . .

But, I don’t want to just paraphrase the play or the poem;  I’d rather you went to the play and read the poem (in translation, I expect).   I’ll comment on things which struck me about the play — problems confronted and solved, felicitous interpretations and satisfying expansions and interpolations.

Grendel (Darren Paul) speaks.  An obvious departure from the poem, Grendel’s monologues transform the monster from being a mute threat of the outside world he would be without speech into something more like the poem’s dark alternate of Beowulf — in the poem, many of the same words are used to describe both the “hero” and the “monster”.  Having Grendel speak forces the investigation of his motivation – only hinted at in the poem – and also allows investigation of religion in a society in religious transition – again, only hinted at in the poem.  The speaking Grendel must make us think of John Gardner’s short novel Grendel – was it an influence on the play or are the similarities the result of drawing on the same source?  And, the gorilla in the mead-hall is Caliban, the cursed wildman of The Tempest, like Grendel, the son of a cursed mother.  Darren Paul’s Grendel in another life could go toe to toe with Prospero.

Another interesting and fundamental addition is the curse Grendel’s Mother (Amber Borotsik) places on Beowulf (Sheldon Elter) just before her death.  Beowulf forevermore will feel a mother’s pain at the loss of her son whenever he kills.  This burden explains the half-century of peace (left unexplained in the poem) the Geats enjoy under Beowulf’s rule.  Beowulf’s struggle to maintain peace – completely absent from the poem, but darn interesting in the play – dominates Act Two and provides an interesting twist at the very end.  In the poem, Beowulf’s retainers (except for one), turn cowardly, following his orders to stay out of the fight with the dragon although honour would require them to rush in to his defence.  In the play, the cowardly abandonment is more than just leaving Beowulf to fight alone.  The real abandonment is the Geats’ return to warfare after their king’s death.  Beowulf the King argues that easy cowardice is to do battle, while  actual heroism is to take the difficult road of making peace.

Some things that concerned me anticipating the play:

All those fights!

I’d read that each of the six actors had at least five death scenes, but I was pretty sure there aren’t anything like thirty deaths described in the poem.  I couldn’t help but expect a whole lot of gratuitous fighting, but . . .

. . . the fights are dramaturgically functional things, not extraneous at all.  They make connections for the audience between characters and between narrative elements.  They are actually narrative bridges in dance.  When one considers the battles mentioned in passing in the poem, one of which – the Frisian war — is expanded to a vitally important scene of Beowulf’s character development, thirty-some deaths seem a low figure.  I came dreading a silly blood-bath but was given a stylized battle-dance vitally necessary to the structure and message of the play.

When considering a staging of Beowulf it’s hard to imagine what will be done with the monsters.  Grendel and his Mother are the least of the problem — they’re basically human and imaginative costumes take care of them.  The Dragon is the obvious challenge, but when I heard that Beowulf’s swimming match with Breca (Bryan Web) was going to be staged, I thought “that’s it.  It can’t be done.”

But, they did it! and it is magnificently done!  I’ll say nothing more than the swimming match and the underwater fight with the monsters is a little dramaturgical tour de force worth the price of admission (okay, I had comps, but still) in itself.

The play, like the poem, ends with the dragon fight.  The dragon (David Ley, in the biggest mask in theatre history) also speaks, unlike in the poem, but it is so right!  And again, the representation of the dragon is brilliant, his paws and claws ingeniously so!

But, the dragon’s fire . . .

hmmmm.

Somehow it just doesn’t quite do it.  The smoke seems to be well represented/suggested by the two fabric flags/banners at each side of the dragon, but the lights and sound don’t quite have the lethal materiality the dragon’s flaming breath might need.  But, that shortcoming is minor in what is a stunning execution of what would seem a staging impossibility.

The music by Joel Crichton struck me as a very appropriate blending of faux-Wagner and urban techno-something-or-other.  The beatboxing in the overture gave the exactly right hint of gangsta which was picked up in the touches of inner-city gang in the design of set and costume.  There are Jets and Sharks in the wings.  I’ve long thought that the best modern analogy to the culture of war, honour and allegiance of Beowulf is the twentieth-century urban youth gang.  I was pleased to see the analogy drawn in the play.

Beowulf The King really is, despite the rough edges of a preview performance (and the rough edges of a preview audience) a quite startlingly good and fascinating grapple with the monster that is Beowulf.

Finally, I strongly recommend Anna Dow’s brief essay “Whose Side Are You On, Anyway” on pages 26 and 27 of the program. It succinctly presents some difficulties of the poem and is very insightful about the play.  As well, the “Playwright’s Notes” by Blake William Turner on page 9 contain a few gems.

Workshop West’s production of Beowulf the King is playing in the beautiful theatre space of La Cité francophone until April 29th.

Impressions from a visit to “Narrative Quest”

Sadly, I came late to “Narrative Quest”, which closes April 29 at the Royal Alberta Museum.  In the first week of April I managed to get in three visits, but I know there are still huge gaps in my experience of the art on display.  The exhibition is a display of works from the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the arts by twenty-two First Nations artists.  Most artists are represented by multiple works only some of which are mentioned here.  One artist, William Singer III, somehow missed my attention on all three visits.  My apologies to Mr. Singer.  I will try to visit the exhibition at least once more and I will pay special attention to Mr. Singer’s work and update this entry accordingly.

The works are well displayed within the exhibition (except, apparently, those of Mr. Singer) although the space is slightly hidden behind an exhibition of giant photographs of moths.  Certainly the big moths draw in families and I noticed many families spilling over into Narrative Voices and they seemed genuinely excited and impressed with the art.

A soundscape has been provided by Jason Chamakese   playing the North American Indian Flute.  The music is ideal:  unobtrusively  beautiful and yet worth attending to as Chamakese’s own piece in the exhibition.

On my second visit, on a quiet weekday early afternoon, I had the gallery largely to myself and went from work to work making brief notes on some works of each artist.  On my third visit I tried to fill in a few gaps — artists I had missed before, spellings I couldn’t make out in my handwriting.  What follow are my notes almost exactly as I wrote them as I stood in front of the works described.  I have added links to further information about some of the artists.  As I looked at the works I often noted what I took to be the influence of Jane Ash Poitras or Alex Janvier in the work of artists I was less familiar with, but, with reflection, I can’t help but think that the echoes are the effect of drawing on a common cultural rather than  an individual artist’s influence.  I don’t know.

Narrative Quest is dedicated to the memory of Joane Cardinal-Schubert.

Dale Auger 

“Call of the Blue Medicine Lodge”, 2000, is a fine piece to greet the visitor.  A blue jay stands on a stone on the right, balanced by a pair of eagle feathers on the left, all on a yellow ochre background.  Above is a red band with two rows of blue dots, ten in each row.  It is a very heraldic composition, very balanced and dignified.

Bruno Canadien

– influence of Jane Ash Poitras obvious.

poignant statements on dispossession in collage of ribbons, yarn and found images

Painted maps with water courses, particularly  “Mini Sosa”, 2008,  quietly echo Janvier

Joane Cardinal-Schubert

Very traditional motifs in stunning large canvas and paper.  Teepee decorations in the gallery, where they belong perfectly.

Traditional motifs making very contemporary political comments

“Medicine Wheel (There is no Hercules)”

with two teepee poles acting as frame/supports, a stunning portrait of a medicine wheel floating in the sky.  Spirit figures dance? watch? wait?

Jason Carter

“The Considerate Baby Bison” 2008 wonderstone is almost birdlike, but, is it a children’s slide?

“Mother Eagle” soapstone, 2008 Not so successful — it is just a wee bit too much like a towel holder.

Delia Cross Child

“Take your Hat off Edward Curtis,” 2008

Five faceless figures standing in a field of flame, yellow ochre, seven sun circles across the top.

beautiful monumental painting.

Edward Curtis is, of course, the late 19th early 20th century photographer who devoted most of his life to photographing First Nations people in the western U.S. and Canada.

David Garneau

Fascinating dot paintings.  “Lac Ste Anne” is all golden light as the figures wade in the sacred waters.

“At the Fiddle Camp” is the swirl of sky and air and smoke.  The teepee is almost a blanket wrapped grandmother.

Tanya Harnett

“Persona Grata”

series of 16 photo self-portraits.

Disturbing uplifting, amusing, beautiful in the extreme.

Faye HeavyShield

– “Blood” 2004

a cascade of red ochre cotton strings with tiny cotton bundles also red ochre tied a few inches apart.  The bundles are almost tiny human figures or miniature versions of “Red Dress”.  This is a haunting work.

“Red Dress”

There is a dress in the corner with no gallery tag.  Simple of cut, red with a single line of beads across the chest and metal rim tags (price tags?  artifact tags?)  in two rows below.

an appreciation of Faye HeavyShield

Heather Henry

Heather Henry’s “Untitled” 2007 mixed media is another small gem.  Is it a bird’s nest? a well? an eye? Is it beautiful? Yes.

Terrance Houle 

Terrance Houle’s “Urban Indian” series of photos seems initially marvellously unselfconscious, but it is actually very full of both pride and humour.

Alex Janvier

What to say?  Alex Janvier is a Canadian Icon.  I have known and loved his art since I was a teenager in the ’70s.

“Untitled” 2009

A creamy brightness with a hint of bone.

“Cold Lake Air” 1994

Beautiful, beautiful blues of sky and water.

“Apple Factory” 1989

More representational than Janvier usually is.  A startling (and darkly humourous) statement on the residential school disaster.  This one piece could occupy whatever time is available.

Brenda Jones-Smith

“Transform” and “place to gather” digital prints 2001

shawled women’s figures from the rear in various bands with bands of yellow ochre, green, red, yellow and blue.  Poitras influence evident.

Eric Lee Christopherson

“Red-Tailed Hawk” and “Merlin in flight”

The Merlin’s face is so expressive.  and Christopherson has beautifully solved the problem of sculpting a bird in flight.  The merlin’s wingtips embrace the earth, not anchoring the bird, but lifting and sheltering Turtle Island into the sky.  This is a riveting piece.

“Red Tailed Hawk” from the right comfortably resting from the left about to take flight.

George Littlechild

“Tom Longboat” 1990 A monumental portrait of the Onondaga long-distance runner of the first half of the last century.

“Primal Elements#1” 2006 is another prairie first nations collage.

“CrossCultural Examination #2” 2007 is Littlechild using digital collage to make an expressive, balanced composition of the before and after of Native history.

Terry McCue

Eye-catching and beautiful rainbow portraits of wildlife.  But these and not ordinary animals.  They are spirit creatures.  The Bison’s eyes in “Grandfather’s Tears” are inexpressible.

Frederick McDonald

Frederick McDonald’s small gems “Home Sweet Home” and “Thunderbird’s World #4” Beautiful pieces executed with certainty and precision.

Aaron Paquette

Luminous canvases incorporating gold-leaf exquisitely.  Painting which strives almost successfully to be stained glass.

(Update, April 19, 2012:  a big collection of Aaron Paquette’s work lines the main long balcony/corridor on the third floor of the Walter Mackenzie Centre [University of Alberta Hospital] for those who have missed Narrative Quest or just need a fix.  Well worth a visit whether you need to see a doctor or not.)

Jane Ash Poitras

She is simply stunning!

Each collage is filled to overflowing with memories, history, dignity.  Abstractly expressionist and rigidly formal at the same time.

Her small shadow boxes from 2005 “Da Vinci’s conception” and “Samuel Morse’s Communication” are easily missed, but don’t.

“Gathering Medicine” 2003 is an absolutely beautiful piece, a collage of historic photos of women forming a column in the centre, bracketed by exquisite painted poppies and fly agaric mushrooms on the right, a startling blue jay, sage and sprigs of actual cedar leaf on the left.

Heather Shillinglaw 

“Patchworks”

10 square floral collages in mixed media on black painted canvas. breathtaking.

Stewart Steinhauer

stone sculptures

“In the Sweatlodge” 1992 is a stunningly rich piece.  So many animal figures comprise the sweatlodge:  bison x 2, eagle, goose?x 2, human? face x 2.  Are those fingers forming the floor?

Steinhauer’s “Papamihaw Asini (Flying Rock)” 1999, modelled on the Iron Creek Manitou Stone, is permanently on display in the Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture on the second floor of the Museum, near the Manitou Stone.

William Singer III

Sorry!

Adrian Stimson

“Post Modern Bison” another darkly witty piece, a bison hide stretched into a rectangle but with still a hint of shoulder hump in the top centre.

Justin Wandering Spirit

“Wuskwa” is a beautiful black serpentine bear.

Some general thoughts

Narrative Quest is simply a beautiful exhibition, providing a stunning cross section of the rich art being produced in Alberta by aboriginal artists.  In the context of this exhibition, the fact that the content flows from First Nations is relevant.  I want to emphasize, however, that these works, while certainly reflective of their makers’ nationality, are on display not because they are great aboriginal art (which they undoubtedly are), but because they are Great Art, with no ethnic adjectives necessary and, thankfully,  no justification offered.  Narrative Quest is not an ethnographic exhibition, it is an exhibition of works by professional Canadian artists.  These works could — and should — be displayed in any gallery in the world.

I hope that the Alberta Foundation For the Arts will arrange to tour the exhibition to galleries around the Province.

I dream that one day Narrative Quest will tour the country and the world.

A Brief Appreciation of Tim Bowling’s “Tenderman”

Metaphor’s just a word for life,
nothing to be afraid of, or laugh at,
unless life is.
from “Please Do Not Disturb”

The Tenderman of the title of Tim Bowling‘s tenth poetry collection (Tenderman, Nightwood Editions, 2011) is literally a seasoned — and salty — crewman on a Fraser River salmon packing boat.  But, as becomes clear in the poems — not least in “Real Men Read Jane Austen” Bowling, an actual tenderman of slight ability in youth, is very much a Tender Man as he approaches the end of a half century on Life’s River, ready

to settle in with a sigh
to a few hours bliss
with the masculine prose of the feminine.

The Tenderman, Rosie, to whom many of the poems are addressed, does not seem to be a Tender Man.  In “Seminar in Ladner: Moby Dick” he asks “So does he ever catch the fucking thing or what?”  The image of the poem is  the young educated crewman trying to bring an appreciation of great literature to the older “uneducated” tenderman.  But who is leading the seminar?

Tenderman, it’s because
the story’s so simple
we complicate with meaning.

The Tenderman has cut to the working man’s heart of Melville’s novel with his question:  does Ahab catch the White Whale or not?  That question is what drives Ahab and the novel:  the rest is the complications of meaning.  And meaning is all about memory — and forgetting:

All sorts of things are caught,
forgotten, fixed in our forgetting.

While the Tenderman seems forever in the Now,  pulling the nets, counting the fish, tipping back the bottle, fixing everything in the forgetting, Bowling obsessively looks back at his childhood and youth, at memories and the meanings fixed in his forgetting, the old days of

Handwritten letters and
childhood, things we have no time for,
what our mothers called “common courtesy”

Childhood is always present, even in mortality.  Bowling requests

Inter me, tenderman,
with the blown-glass flaw
a child with absolutely
nothing to do
picks up
on his solitary way
to nowhere

(“After a Trip to the Museum and Archives”)

This flaw, of course, is not something negative: it is the irregularity, the colour variation, the random, contingent bubbles which make hand-blown glass objects more valuable than mass produced utilitarian things.  Bury me, Bowling says, with the uniqueness of the child I was, the child which is the father of the man.  Bowling mentions Wordsworth in “Between Men” but here the reference is not explicit, but there is an echo, not least in the hint of wandering lonely as a cloud in “on his solitary way.”

And here is, I think, a key to entering Tenderman:  this cycle is Bowling’s Prelude.  He is presenting a brief, somewhat impressionistic Growth of a Poet’s Mind.  Although the poems are short lyrics and elegies, Bowling provides epic touches, reference to Virgil and Aeschylus and Beowulf and Shakespeare.  I can’t help hearing an echo of Homer in “Beekeeper and Tenderman”.  Bowling’s poems are pregnant with ancient allusion, something not terribly fashionable these days:

Ah tenderman, who would be an antiquarian
the trembling meat in the piranhas’ aquarium?

(“Despair, or the Technologies”)

The answer to that question is:  The boy from Ladner, the unsuccessful tenderman told to count the Arctic Char (“A Little Song of Carnage”), now the greying father approaching fifty, most of whose friends are dead poets.  He isn’t much concerned with what is fashionable these days

My shadow bag clatters
with discarded cogs and wheels
and gears turning amongst feathers
handpicked off pheasants
and shoeboxes stuffed
with photographs that didn’t
turn out as we expected,
which are the truest images
after all . . .

(“After a Trip to the Museum and Archives”)

The poet would be an antiquarian, and damn the piranhas!

Bowling’s poems grow very much out of intimations of mortality and are no doubt at times uncomfortably melancholic.  But there is such celebration of life in, for example, “Courage” the most Homeric of the pieces in the collection, and even in the most melancholic underlies a celebration of a life lived.  But it is a celebration is of  life being recollected in tranquility:

This coffee’s not instant, tenderman,
this food isn’t fast.  If you flense
the whale of life with only haste
you’re using a dull blade, boyo.

(“Are You Contemporary?”)

Bowling, approaching fifty, has had a longer life than many of his dead poet friends.  They are in their graves.  But he is not, and oh the difference to those who appreciate poetry!  Tenderman is a magnificently rich mid-life Prelude to what one would hope will yet be a long and productive poetic life.

Update, April 11, 2012:  Tenderman has been shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award .