A visit to Dirt City/Dream City

It was raining this afternoon as I moved about the Quarters clutching my map of Dirt City/Dream City.  If you get the chance, rain or shine, turn a corner or go down an alley before the end of July and be surprised by a day-brightening bit — or lot — of art. Today the Quarters was alive with people quite obviously not usually there, people seeking out the art.  I understand Tix on the Square ran out of its free maps of the exhibition early in the afternoon.  I printed my own copy of  the one online.

I think I nearly found all the artworks.  Let’s see . . .

First up (on my route) is Jill Stanton’s parking lot sized painted pebble faux mosaic “You will be okay” — the title is the text — a huge statement of reassurance to a depressed and cloudy sky.  The colours are the colours of sidewalk chalk and I couldn’t help but think of “The Edmonton Remand Centre Newspaper” and Lindsay Bond’s photographic project documenting it.  “You will be okay” is a gargantuan shout of all the messages chalked each day on that nearby sidewalk it marvelous.  A marvelous and thought provoking piece of ephemeral art.

A little further west on 102A Ave is “Futile Fancy” by Jes McCoy.  From a distance I thought of the mini-golf set-up at Fort Edmonton Park.  Close up I thought of a playground but an oddly and intriguingly non-functonal and perhaps unfinished playground.  Then I realized it is an obstacle course.  Perhaps the apparent non-functionality and unfinishedness makes Futile Fancy a metaphor for the City itself.

Around the orner, beside the old Koerman Block, present home of the Hung Fung and the Alberta Kwan Ying Athletic Clubs, is Tiffany Shaw-Collinge’s “Garden Reflections”, a beautiful sudden garden of straw planters, beautifully complementing the old wall with its faded painted ads.  Despite the rain, I wanted to sit and enjoy the curve of the paths and the warmth of the soil. Having long been fascinated with Jeremy Bentham, I found the allusion to his Panopticon prison design both interesting and, in this context, thought provoking.

Up on 103A Avenue, there is a “Lonely Mountain” by Mackenzy Albright and Rachelle Bowen, although how such an inviting, stairway riven mountain could be lonely I don’t understand, especially with Jackson McConnell’s whimsical lollipop tree and cartoon city “Campsite” tent right at its foot.

At the far north of the exhibition space, on 104 Avenue, is Holly Newman’s lovely poem of loss and hope, “Crow’s Advice” on a series of banners.  As well there is a wall of tags on which to offer advice for mending a broken heart and tiny fabric hearts to take away as payment for suggestions.  “Crow’s Advice” surrounds Emily van Driesum’s “The Placebo Effect”, a grove of cut poplar saplings, literally (in a figurative sense) stitched into place, drying and fading as the days pass, a bit of a forest in the Quarters, but a placebo, not the real thing.

More than half of the large works in Dirt City/Dream City are concentrate at the corner of Jasper Avenue and 95 Street.  Nickelas Johnson’s “Ripped off and Red” is the most eye-catching, a huge, red-painted severed hand lying palm up in the green grass.  Nearby is Aaron Paquette’s beautiful “Everyone is Welcome”, an uncovered tipi frame sheltering an apple tree and surrounded by a flower garden. The whole is set on something of a medicine wheel.  The coloured cloths hanging from the tipi poles bring to mind a visit to the Rib Stones east of Edmonton, where similar but smaller bits of cloth perpetually hang from the branches of the poplar grove near to the sacred stones.  The Quarters, a very human place,  like every human space, is a sacred space.

Across Jasper is Destiny Swiderski’s monumental rope structure “Dream Catcher” completely prepared to catch some exceptionally big dreams.  I expect such dreams will come.

A number of pieces are on billboards and might too easily be ignored.  Nickelas Johnson’s “Tent City” is a beautiful, slightly abstracted design of tents in blue.  Matt Prins’ “Billboard for 91.2 FM The Mouth Hole” is a lovely parody of the many obnoxious ads for radio shows that litter every city.  As well, the billboard is a real ad for a fictional program on the real very low power radio transmitter (91.2 on your FM dial) that can be picked up in a very limited area around the Artery (9535 Jasper Ave.)

“My Heart is in Quarters” by Aaron Paquette is a truly lovely painting, an image of three peacefully sleeping figures, a family, in Paquette’s usual style of bright, solid colours, strong lines, and gold leaf.  I first encountered and was struck forcefully by Paquette’s work in the Narrative Quest show earlier this summer at the RAM.  For me, “My Heart is in Quarters” is a high point of Dirt City/Dream City.

Carly Greene’s “Simulacrum” is easy to miss:  clothes hanging from lines between buildings.  But the clothes are hung with iron pins, intended to rust and streak the clothing, marking them with history as the old buildings of the Quarters are marked with their history.  Certainly this day of rain in Edmonton will help complete Greene’s vision.

Andrew Buzschak’s “Pulse Points” are scattered throughout the Quarters, easy to miss blue signs on poles, a little like slightly shortened street signs.  But, look more closely:  Buzschak has used phrases from the City’s urban renewal boosting literature in an ironic and cautionary contrast to the current state of some areas of the Quarters.  The signs are lit in the evening by solar powered lights which will certainly make the pieces, and their message, stand out very well.

Unfortunately I didn’t see Adam Waldron Blain performing on his violin.  what a wonderful addition to the exhibition his music would be.  Together with the soundscape provided by 92.1 FM, live music makes Dirt City/Dream City an inspired moment in the history of the Quarters.

And history is something that runs through the entire exhibition.  The history of the community that has been here, that is here today, and that will continue to be here in the future, whatever the bulldozers and builders may have in store.  Dirt City/Dream City is a gentle warning, a firm reminder, and, from what I saw today, a much visited statement that the Quarters is not terra nullius.  This is a community, a community of communities with a rich history and a vibrant present.  Both must be recognized and respected if future redevelopment is to be itself something living rather than just a dead pile of concrete, steel and polystyrene.

It’s summer.  Go down to the Quarters and have a walk around.  See the art.  See the communities so often ignored.  Think.  Consider.  Remember.

And know that no Dream City ever becomes real without a Dirt City to live in.

Update, July 31: it’s just been announced that Dirt City/Dream City has been extended to the end of August.

The Freewill Shakespeare Tempest: a wonderful evening of Shakespeare in the rain

As I sit down to write the rain, which began as an epic thunderstorm, has been falling for twenty-four hours.  How could there be a better evening for an outdoor performance of  The Tempest, the Shakespeare play I love the most, and to follow up my enjoyable time at Julius Caesar a while ago?  The Freewill Shakespeare Company’s production and performances were wonderful — at times glorious — and the weather was perfect.

I’ve read other reviews which have highly praised the opening scene of the titular Tempest and that praise has been appropriate.  The use of the turntable and the stairs at left and right is tremendous, as is the coordinated Star Trek battle-lean of the cast.  But there is more magic on Prospero’s Island than just the opening weather tricks.  The dual-duty-doing set design by Cory Sincennes is remarkable in it’s beauty, in it’s appropriateness to both plays it serves, in it’s variability, and in its functionality.  The sound design from the opening maritime, vaguely foghornish drone is marvelous.  And Narda McCarroll’s costume design ranges from startlingly appropriate (the Court of Naples as a biker gang) to absolutely stunning (Ariel and the sprites).

Again I have my quibbles:  as is Julius Caesar, The Tempest is shortened; Ariel as written is male, not Amber Borotsik’s very clear female spirit; Miranda’s stern (and empowering) lecture to Caliban in Act I, scene 2  is partly given to Prospero, disappointingly; and in Act 4, Scene 1, Ferdinand is given the lines

so rare a wondered father and a wife
Makes this place paradise.

instead of the more strongly attested

so rare a wondered father and a wise
Makes this place paradise.

But these are quibbles, particularly the last:  Such a charming Ferdinand as Mat Simpson would definitely list in paradise such a charming Miranda as Cayley Thomas-Haug.

Simpson nails Ferdinand as the gangly wide-eyed teenager suddenly alone in a very strange and magical world.  And Thomas-Haug, whose performance in Julius Caesar so struck me, doesn’t disappoint, seeming to spend much of the play joyfully building to the most joyous wonder of her “Brave new world” moment.  In the scenes with John Wright’s Prospero, father and daughter play off each other with great — at times painful — realism.  Wright’s Prospero is everything it should be:  undoubtedly powerful, at times fickle, at others forgetful, in the end generous and forgiving — except toward Caliban, to the discomfort of this and generations of audiences.

Nathan Cuckow as Caliban is stinkingly reptilian — is that right hand he waves behind him meant to be a tail?  Or is he waving away a constant fart?  When joined by Kevin Corey’s Stephano and Troy O’Donnell’s Trinculo, these three are the epitome of the Shakespearean clowns and thankfully manage to completely avoid Disney.  So refreshing (despite the smell)!

Something I had wondered while rereading the play earlier today was what director John Kirkpatrick would do with the masque, a sort of theatre very foreign to modern audiences.  To avoid at least one spoiler, I’ll just say that it’s tremendous!

And now, the best, which I’ve saved for last . . .

Amber Borotsik’s Ariel.

From the opening storm scene, in which she bounces about the tempest tossed ship, calling down the lightening, to her final departure when Prospero sets her free, her eyes flash across the stage, watching everything, and her smile shines with glee as she uses her magic.  In her first scene with Prospero, she convinces that she is fawningly in love with the old Magus, but in an instant Borotsik transforms and is at first is enraged that her freedom is not yet, and then a moment later is grovelling, broken at Prospero’s feet.  She flits about the stage, appearing and disappearing, singing and dancing, and then terrifyingly transforming into a Fury, wings flapping above the trembling Alonso (Chris Bullough) and his courtiers.

I found my gaze drawn back to Borotsik in many scenes where she sat silent in the background:  her eyes — no doubt aided by the makeup — continuously flashed around at the others on the stage.  Ariel is clearly attentive to everything around her, taking everything in, drawing everything in.  I can’t help but think that Borotsik has in some sense made Ariel the centre of the play, more than Ferdinand and Miranda (although Simpson and Thomas-Haug take a good shot at that bull’s-eye) and certainly more than Wright’s exquisite Prospero.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the Freewill Tempest.  There’s only about a week left in the festival.  Please, hurry out to Julius Caesar or The Tempest, or both, at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Hawrelak Park.

Alex Janvier at the Art Gallery of Alberta

As a very young high school student, both while it was still a work in progress and after it was finished, I had the great good fortune to regularly see Alex Janvier’s mural in the grand stairwell of the Strathcona County Municipal Building.  I had been hooked on aboriginal Canadian art — and Canadian art in general — since childhood.  I know that in the summer before my sixth birthday I must have seen Mr. Janvier’s work at the “Indians of Canada” Pavilion at Expo ’67  — I still have my stamped Expo passport —

and I’d been exposed to Inuit soapstone work since infancy.  But there was something very memorable about seeing such a major work as it progressed to completion.

Since then I’ve followed Mr. Janvier’s work as part of my more general interest in Canadian Art and Art as a human phenomenon.

The current state-of-his-art show at the Art Gallery of Alberta raised great anticipation in me and now that I’ve visited countless times and made pages of notes I have to say, it’s not as great as I expected or hoped — it’s far, far greater!

The show occupies the entire third floor of the AGA, arranged in four “rooms” and what I think of as a “Corridor” and contains works representative of Janvier’s entire career thus far, from the Residential school to his 2011-12 tribute to the Indian Group of Eight.

The smallest room, inside the west entrance, contains Janvier’s earliest works, mostly monochromatic black-on-white abstractions in what can easily be seen as the roots of his mature style.  The curvilinear abstractions seem to have sprung almost full grown in Janvier’s early years.  The three figurative line drawings from 1962, “Thinker”, “Stoic Philosopher” and “Mother’s Love”, initially reminded me of some of the drawings Hans Erni made to illustrate Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, but after a moment’s examination, the ever-present Janvier lines assert themselves. I was particularly struck by “Piston”, also from 1962, an ink on paper diagram of engine parts which is so much other than just a diagram.  Already much of the vocabulary which runs through Janvier’s ongoing life’s work is visible in the little picture of a recognizable bit of white man’s technology.

The next room follows Janvier’s exploration and expansion of that initial vocabulary through the 60s and 70s and also his exploration and expansion of his own politicization.  Here we see Janvier exploring colour both in his curvilinear motifs and in the negative space of the ground. “Untitled”, 1964 reminds me of Paolo Soleri’s designs for Arcosanti and his other Utopian “Arcologies”.  The piece is a foreshadowing of the large aerial-view abstractions soon to be seen in the Primrose Lake room.  In this room we can see some early exploration of a figurative sort and of colour fields.  The colour field work as well as his “unconscious” method may well have been influenced by a few of the Montreal Automatistes who were still working and exhibiting at this period while Janvier was living nearby in Ottawa. In this the overlap of the Janvier exhibit with the Automatiste Revolution downstairs is more than a little fitting. It is also in this room that we see the first circular pieces such a characteristic part of Janvier’s mature work.

As the second room transitions into the “Corridor” Janvier’s confidence becomes unmistakable.  Here we stand before such iconic works as “Lubicon”, 1988 and works on raw canvas or linen ground such as “Grand Entry”, 1980, “Colony of Alberta” 1980, and “Free to Go”, 1981. On the opposite wall from “Lubicon” hang “Four Colour Face”, 1974, a type-piece of Janvier’s mature figurative style, and “Nehobetthe”, 1992, a characteristic Janvier large canvas narrative/representational series of vignette bubbles containing landscapes, floral motifs and yet more abstraction. From this point on, Janvier’s confidence of expression is remarkable.  Certainly he continues to explore colour including the new pigments he found on his Chinese trip in 1985, which show up in “Liyan Gardens”, 1986 (notice the Chinese woodblock signature) and form and the tension between the ground and the ever-present curvilinear motifs.  But now the works feel not so much as though they were painted so much as they grew out of an inevitability.  Although Janvier’s style always has been something one might call “organic”, now each piece is stunningly unified and whole and clearly an expression of a living process.

Off the Corridor is the room containing pieces very much concerning Janvier’s homeland around Cold Lake and his family’s traditional trapping lands, now the Primrose Lake Weapons Range.  In the centre stands “Blood Tears”, 2001, a memorial of his and his people’s experience of the Blue Quills Residential School and of the meeting with White Canadian society.  The painting itself is typical — although perhaps more highly impastoed than some — of Janvier’s representational/figurative pieces but with a more sombre palette and the noticable addition of trails of red paint, the blood tears of the title.  On the back of the painting Janvier has catalogued the assaults of the school and of white society on him and on his people.  The painting stands as a monument, a painting made sculpture, in the centre of some truly beautiful portraits of the human landscape of Janvier’s people, both the one that was erased by the military and the one that vibrantly continues in, for example, “Denesuline Gathering Lac Brochet” 2002, a stunning aerial vision of one side of Janvier’s family tree gathered in the waters of Lac Brochet in Manitoba.  Another riveting piece in this room is “Spring Equinox”, 2002, a wonderful circular composition of biological solar flames in rose, violet, green and blue.

The final room is dominated by Janvier’s monumental tributes to the “Indian Group of Eight”, a stunning series of abstract portraits of the dominant Aboriginal artists of the last century, beginning with Norval Morrisseau and ending with Janvier himself. Although the tags say “2011”, rumour has it that Janvier was working on the finishing touches until just before the exhibition opened earlier this year.

To me, the “Portrait” of Morrisseau is brilliant.  I have the good fortune to live daily with a few of Copper Thunderbird’s works, purchased in my youth and in a period of Morrisseau’s health. Perhaps it is the colours, particularly the deep reds, more than the shapes in the Morrisseau tribute that gives me this feeling of “Yes, Morrisseau!” when I look at it.

I get a similar feeling from both the Daphne Odjig (check out the charming little bird way up at the top) and the Bill Reid tributes.  I’m less familiar with the other artists’ work so I’ll confine my remarks to a single observation about the Joseph Sanchez tribute:  It was only after a great many visits that I noticed the slightly abstracted — or perhaps even impressionistic desert landscape below the rainbow at the bottom of the painting, a marvelous little reference to Sanchez’ birthplace.

While the eight huge paintings might certainly occupy a visitor for hours, I would recommend turning around to see what I call the “disc series” of watercolours from 2010 on the opposite wall.  These six paintings are a visual exploration of speech and language through this bare symbol of the ochre coloured pierced disc.   Primary colours dominate the centre four while the two end pieces are very subdued, the rightmost, “Lost Disc” contains only the ochre disc.    I did feel on one visit that these subdued pieces were sadly ill-lit, but, please take some time to notice these very recent and beautiful works.

The final piece in the exhibit, “I Remember”, 2011, is a small circular composition of curvilinear motifs on a raw canvas ground.  The motifs spiral inward centripetally, drawing memories to the centre of the self. Or are they thrown outward centrifugally into the larger world?  Perhaps both are true of Janvier’s work.

Alex Janvier at the Art Gallery of Alberta runs until August 19, 2012

Update, August 18, 2012:  I was very honoured today to shake Mr. Janvier’s hand and chat briefly with him as we stood before his tributes to the Indian Group of Eight.  “They had a lot of guts” he said, and he was including himself, of course.  They did, and he does.  And I feel so relieved that they had the guts it took to show non-aboriginal Canada aboriginal visions, to help force First Nations, Metis and Inuit art to be recognized as Canadian Fine Art, and at last to get Mr. Janvier to the top floor of the Art Gallery of Alberta.

And I’m so grateful that he came over to my daughter where she sat, not looking at his art but at her own, and said to her “Hi. How ya doin’?”

Soaring, Farming, Upgrading the Oil Sands, and the Failure of Modern Society

Well, that was a very interesting and emotion- and thought-provoking afternoon.

I’ve just come back from a quiet time in the Alberta countryside . . .

The beginning is the fact that my seventeen year old neighbour is a flying fanatic.  For the past while he’s been ripping through his certification as a solo sail-plane pilot with the Edmonton Soaring Club  at the lovely, grass-covered Chipman Airport just north of the town of Chipman, Alberta,  population 284 reportedly supporting seven churches (I could only find four).

So, after yet another visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta, we headed East on the Yellowhead through Elk Island National Park and clouds of smoke from the raging out-of-control Boreal Forest Fires threatening La Crete and other Northern Alberta communities.  Visibility was frighteningly short and I feared that flights out of Chipman would be cancelled for the day.

A short while after spotting a pair of bison in the Park, we turned north on the newly (almost) paved Highway 834.  A short distance south of Chipman we were stopped by a jolly flagman with an absolutely epic belly who chatted through the window of the truck ahead of us.  After about ten minutes I realized that the epic belly was actually on a flagwoman.  Ooops!

So, on North in a convoy to Highway 15 and then east to the other side of Chipman and a short drive north on Range Road 185 to the Airport on Township Road 550.  We arrived just in time to see our 17 year old neighbour  land solo and then see his fifteen year old sister take off as a passenger on the next flight.  Despite the hopelessly reduced visibility, the cheerful members of the soaring club and my neighbour were taking turns flying short circuits around the field at about 1000 feet.  At one point everyone started asking “Where’s so-and-so?  Did he land and go to the hanger?”  Finally someone in the Control Trailer got on the radio and called the missing pilot.

“I’m at 4300 feet about two and a half miles southwest of the field” came back the answer, followed by a scramble on the ground to work out which direction that was.  We soon found him, a bright silver speck against a bright silver sun in a bright silver sky.  He came back to earth what seemed like half an hour later.

What a joyous, relaxed afternoon it was watching the bright yellow retired cropduster tow the gleaming white gliders into the sky and then see them all drift gracefully back to earth, only to do it all again.

About seven p.m. we pulled back across Highway 15 to take a quick drive through Chipman to count the churches — still only four made themselves apparent — and then East into the sinking sun and Boreal Forest smoke toward Lamont and Fort Saskatchewan, the site of the original fur trade fort in the Edmonton area.  I found it fascinating to look to my left and try to decide if the faintly darker silver band on the horizon was a ridge paralleling the highway or a cloud bank visible through the smoke.  As we passed Lamont it became clear that it had been a ridge all along, and now we were set to climb over it.

Farmland, all the way.  Fields of canola in surreal yellow flower and alfalfa in various stages of harvest.  The only breaks from farmland had been Elk Island Park’s native aspen forests and the rustically technological twine and bailing wire Chipman Airport.  Even as the old crop duster belched its way into the sky, this had been a bucolic idyll. But, a change was coming . . .

As we approached Fort Saskatchewan from the North East, we paralleled not only the North Saskatchewan River, but the bitumen refineries of Upgrader Alley.  Not since driving through Coatzacoalcos, Mexico at midnight have I beheld such an overwhelming image of the human modification of Nature.  Here were endless towering fuming fossil fuel factories stretched along the banks of one of the great rivers of the world, a river that had witnessed little in the way of humanity, let alone human industry, until about two centuries ago.  Here were great steel fractioning vessels rooted to the clay that had been exposed by stripping the topsoil from some of the best agricultural land in North America. On the other side of the highway, to my left, the farmland still stretched to the horizon.  But here was a nerve centre of the extraction of the sticky  riches of the Alberta Oil Sands.  I suppose I should have been horrified, and then driven on with shaking, hypocritical (I was driving, wasn’t I?) head.

But my actual reaction is an embarrasment to my left-wing, environmentalist, artsy-fartsy, pretensions:

I was exhilarated!

I was blown away by this monumental expression of human industry!  I felt a strangely Randian thrill at the unfathomably huge fields of a poisoness plant made food by the human hand, by the vast barns filled with descendants of the Eurasian Aurochs, made tame (and food) by the human hand, by the incomprehensibley complex metropolis of Better Living Through Chemistry on the banks of the North Saskatchewan.  I found the fountain and the flower garden spelling out “DOW” to be remarkably attractive.  These were no dark Satanic mills!  I did not look on these works, be I mighty or not, and despair!  I rejoiced with the heart of Hugh Ferriss!  Here was the glorious, indominatable soul of Humanity made manifest in Its own works.

A few minutes later we came into Fort Saskatchewan and the architecture along the highway was all North-American-polystyrene-lego-inhuman-garbage-and-parking-lot.

We got KFC/Taco Bell at the drive through and ate while we drove.

And here was the pitiful, stupid, lazy soul of humanity.

What am I to do with today’s experience?

Here is a young man, no older than Icarus at his death, rising into the sky on wings Daedlus could have made, and gracefully returning to earth, over and over, with a huge grin on his face and the respect of men three times his age.

Here is the agricultural legacy of hundreds of generations of farmers and herders whose names will never be known, who have provided the fundamental basis of our human society today through their experimentation over millenia.

Here is the inconcievable grandure and power that has grown from the Industrial Revolution, power which has made possible the parkland which lines the North Saskatchewan River Valley virtually uninterupted from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan and beyond, parkland that a century ago was  denuded of forest, filled with coal mines, lumber yards, brick yards and countless other unregulated industries.    We drove between the forested river bank and a soccer game just to the west of Upgrader Alley when we lost our way for a bit.  Fort Saskatchewan uses sheep to mow the grass in its parks, for goodness sake!

And then, here is a “restaurant” built of various combinations of three substances serving a “menu” of various combinations of three substances.  This is what seemed the only true ugliness of the day:  that horrid contemporary strip mall architecture and the matching cuisine in its restaurants and the matching products in its retail outlets.

I try to imagine what beauty, what glory, what joy could be produced if all that energy, all the legacy of our shared past were turned toward actually making beautiful, glorious and joyful things instead of toward another order of cheese fries, another bean burrito, another warm paper cup of flat “diet” Pepsi, another “Zinger” with regular mayonaise “because we’re out of the hot and spicy mayonaise”.  What would our world be like if no one had imagined the “drive thru”, if children still looked forward to the Voyager Restaurant at the Esso on the Trans-Canada because the hamburgers were really, really good and you got to sit down in an air-conditioned place with a table because no one had even thought of eating while driving in a hot car — What if?

Believe me, I have no illusions about the benignity of the extraction of the Oil Sands or of the fossil fuel industry in general.  And please also believe me that I don’t think that the world was a better place in the 30s or the 40s or the 50s or even in the 60s when I was I child.  But I do know with great certainty that, even in the depths of World War II, the dreams of the future and even the dreams of what the present could be were better in the past than they are today, and all of those dreams included airplanes, agriculture, fossil fuels and, yes, nuclear power.  And none of those dreams involved stultifying architecture, cheese fries, or women’s shoes that looked like pigs’ trotters.

My disappointment on good days, horror on bad days, is not with what underlies our modern society — fossil fuels and oil sands and factory farms —  but with what our modern society overwhelmingly chooses to produce: ugliness.

I’m going to go back to Chipman soon to look for the other three churches.  But I heard today that the gas station/corner store, the Chipman Market, which I noticed as I drove by, had closed.  A tragedy.  It’s a magnificent piece of small town architecture.  I think it might be a new construction rather than something historic.  It’s made of bricks, not stucco-covered styrofoam.  If it’s still closed when I return, I’ll be reciting some Shelley beside it’s darkened gas pumps.

Then I’ll flick my blue mantle and hope to find some new pastures and fresh woods and maybe a decent bit of architecture.

And maybe I’ll get a ride in a glider!

Maskwacîs: a hidden gem at the Royal Alberta Museum

I’ve been meaning to go to the Royal Alberta Museum to see Maskwacîs (Bear Hills) for a while now.  Today’s heat gave me the push to take an air-conditioned break viewing another slightly unknown gem at the RAM.  Maskwacîs is a display of art pieces from members of the community of Maskwacîs, also known as Bear Hills, or Hobbema, Alberta.  Hobbema is in the news all too often with the sadly familiar tale of poverty, gang activity, and innocent, senseless death. Maskwacîs is a welcome tonic to the negative picture of this First Nation too often presented to the rest of Canada.

The pieces are arayed along the south wall to the left and right of the front desk, opposite the bronze sculptures of the pronghorns and the settler family.  I began my viewing at the east end, just outside Wild Alberta, making notes as I went.  The exhibit contains only about two dozen pieces, so these refreshing images of/from the community of Maskwacîs can be admired/studied on a quite brief visit, although returns would certainly be in order.

Clayton Saskatchewan’s “Whistle Stick”, a tremendous piece of bead and feather work is the first piece that caught my eye.  In a sense timelessly traditional in appearance, I can’t help but feel that Saskatchewan’s piece is something other and a very modern expression, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  It seems another visit is quite in order.

Llorinda Louis’ “Never Hide” from 2009 is a mixed media piece — what used to be called a collage — made up largely of clippings from newspapers and magazines.  The influence of Jane Ash Poitras seems clear, but Louis’ piece is about more than just the state of her people.  The images particularly — models in underwear, Sophie Loren assessing Jane Mansfield’s cleavage, a Latin American peasant — make clear that this is also a feminist and anti-colonial expression.  “It’s not about the Laundry!” one phrase shouts.  Indeed, it’s about a whole lot more than that.

Felicia Standingontheroad’s 2009 photo “Free” is the overwhelming charmer of Maskwacis.  A young woman (Standingontheroad herself?) is held in mid-joyful-leap, her body twisted into a gentle arch and slight spiral.  Her light smile of pure joy peeks from behind the collar of her jacket.  Behind her, a child is walking toward her across the snowy field from which she has taken flight.  I could stand for hours lost in this image. What joy!  And what a joy!

Shawn Rabbit’s untitled piece from 2008 has the feeling of a contemporary petroglyph — handprints on a synthetic orange background.

Sandy Heimer has photos hung on both wings of the exhibit.  On the left is “The Carver”, a vivid portrait of a man intent on his work butchering a bison.  On the right side, “Portraits 1” and “Portraits 2” like “The Carver”, are evocative glimpses into the complex, vibrant, living community.

Another exquisite piece which on its own makes a visit to Maskwacîs worthwhile is Rusty Threefingers, Jr.’s monochrome gem “Drummer”.  The black ink work is executed with remarkable confidence and fluidity.  “Drummer” is a jewel of striking confidence and absolutely fascinating.

Please don’t miss the last two pieces tucked in the display case at the west end of the exhibit.  Myra Saskatchewan’s “Beaded Infant Moccasins,” 2006, “Beaded Crown”, n.d., like Clayton Saskatchewan’s “Whistle Stick” seems firmly rooted in traditional forms, but somehow they are also something other and more.  These works provide a powerful, thought provoking frame through which to view Maskwacîs.

“Hai hai”, I say to the community of artists of Maskwacîs, and also a “thank you” to Myra Saskatchewan for the curation and Sandy Heimer for coordinating the show.

Maskwacîs (Bear Hills) continues at the Royal Alberta Museum until September 3, 2012.



Update, January 2, 2014: Yesterday the New Year was rung in with the official, long overdue renaming of Hobbema.  Today is the first full day of the town called Maskwacîs.

Freewill Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

I come not to bury Freewill, but to praise it . . .

so . . .

I’ll get my complaints about this year’s Julius Caesar out of the way right off the bat:

The play is cut.  Parts of speeches are missing. Whole scenes are missing. At least two characters are conflated. And the conspiracy is short one conspirator.  These are purist quibbles.  I understand and accept that a single small company doing two plays on alternate nights have an extraordinary burden on them and I understand that it was necessary to get us out of the park before the gates closed at eleven. . . .

Which leads me to the feeling that some of the company were in a race at times to deliver their lines — “festina lente!” Octavius Caesar used to admonish.  The haste agravated the one really important complaint I have . . . .

In some parts of the amphitheatre the vocal sound system really sucked!  I have to ask, what ever happened to the unamplified production?  How did actors do it in the old days?  Actually, I remember how they did it in the old days:  They Projected!

Okay, now that that’s out of the way:

The music/sound design by Dave Clarke is tremendous: regal at the right time, ominous at the right time.  The very first thing I wrote in my notebook after “Curtain” was “like the music.”

The next thing I noted immediately was the costume/makeup design, which is, quite simply, striking.  Modern dress military, Fascist Italy meets Godfather Sicily with skeletal faces all around.  I truly loved the costumes and makeup, from the tattered ‘Nam veteran’s uniform of the Soothsayer (John Write), through the grey 1984 plebians even to the red track suit Marc Antony (Nathan Cuckow) wore at the beginning, but I couldn’t help but wonder a bit about Caesar (Kevin Sutley) in his white pajamas, long blond hair and beard.  Was that supposed to be Sir Richard Branson up there?  I did notice that Portia (Belinda Cornish), who’s suicide death is also in some sense due to Brutus (Chris Bullough), is dressed in similar white pajamas.  The costuming was for the most part wonderfully evocative of a period on the edge of civil war.

And the set by Cory Sincennes.  A quite traditional layout done up with the very appropriate feel of ruined wartime concrete.  The jagged metal bits in the second half were used very aptly in the scenes at Philipi.  All in all a very versatile set.  It will be interesting to see how it is explored in The Tempest.

Now, to the meat of the thing:  the performances.

Chris Bullough as Brutus does an impressive, understated job. In the first meeting of the conspirators in Act II, scene 1 he brings out Brutus’ doubts and vacillation — his goodness, in fact —  beautifully:  “Why an oath?!”  The scene itself is impressively gothic and reeks the whole time of Fascism.  Earlier, when Brutus and Cassius (Kevin Corey)  meet in Act I, Scene 2, I felt that a homoerotic subtext was being worked.  As they prepared to part, I couldn’t help think that they were a couple as much as Brutus and Portia or Caesar and Calphurnia (Cayley Thomas-Haug).

Making the conspirator Decius a women (Nadien Chu), while a pragmatic choice in a small company (like Amber Borotsik’s Lucius), becomes at one moment a most effective choice.  That she will “o’ersway” Caesar carries a different weight and connotation than it would from he lips of a male Decius.  Unless one were to play with the homoerotic subtext.

What I thought was the stand out performance of the evening was actually quite a small role: Cayley Thomas-Haug’s riveting possession — what other term for such a living performance? — by Calphurnia.  She is charmingly overwrought as she begs Caesar to stay home from the Senate.  Her performance shows shattering vulnerability in the domestic time between she and Caesar and wonderfully real nobility in the public moments.  But the nobility crumbles as she flees off stage when the conspirators enter, the weeping being obviously only just held in check even as the exit door closes.  I found it remarkable that Thomas-Haug remained so completely in character through her exit, very much in the background as other things were the focus.  Cayley Thomas-Haug is a young actor to watch carefully.  I’m fascinated to imagine what she does with Miranda — or Miranda does with her —  in The Tempest.

One of the missing scenes is Act II, scene 3, in which Artemidorus explains the content of the warning letter he intends to give to Caesar.  The excision of this scene leads me to mention what I found a very effective use of the amphitheatre space by the company.  As the scene with Caesar, Calphurnia and the conspirators was playing out, my companion whispered to me “who’s that man?” pointing to a grey clad actor walking outside the tent to our left.    Throughout the play I had noticed that the actors moved about, singly or in pairs and sometimes more, around the periphery of the venue.  They moved from exit to their position for next entrance in great circles around the audience, always in character.  In pairs they seemed to be seriously conversing at times.  The man who made this walk this time was Adam Klassen, who would enter as Artemidorus in the next scene.  In fact, his walk at the periphery of the audience’s attention came in relation to the following scene at just about the point where the missing scene would have fallen.  The scene was not completely excised:  rather, it was made silent and moved outside the tent and played parallel to the preceding scene.  Genius? Good fortune?  What say you, Director John Kirkpatrick?

Act III begins with more wonderful music and a beautifully mechanical march of the characters into position, what I describe in my notes as a ballet of the conspirators.  And Caesar enters in scarlet.  Even the shoes.  Very effective.

After Artemidorus’ aborted warning, the Dance continues in the Assassination, Casca (Troy O’Donnell, who bears a disturbing resemblance to Mussolini in this makeup) strikes first and the rest follow in slow motion, with Brutus for the close.  The sound design for the bathing of conspirators’ hands in Caesar’s blood was most effective.  A sort of bestial grunting.  Or was it throat singing?  Or both?

The massing of the mob of Plebians for the funeral oration  was viscerally disturbing.  Although there were only about seven grey clad actors banging pots and pans (a nice, topical touch) it felt like I was trapped in the middle of a raging mob of thousands.  I was so relieved when Antony finally managed to silence his “Friends. Romans. Countrymen”.  Very effective theatre.

And then, the intermission comes.

The stylized fighting of the battle of Philipi was quite effective, as was the battlefield set, a tableau of impaled soldiers.  Havoc has clearly been cried and the dogs of war have definitely been let slip.  But, really, the second “half” seemed quite fast-paced and short, a break-neck winding down of the inevitable to the death of Brutus and entrance of Octavius (Nadien Chu again).   A stroke of ingenious symmetry was the casting of Belinda Cornish, who was Portia earlier in the play, as Strato, the soldier who assists Brutus’ suicide, karmically avenging Portia’s suicide over Brutus .  Nicely done.

I admit I’m a sucker for Shakespeare outside, ever since seeing Northern Light Theatre’s Shakespeare in a Tent productions back around 1980.  Freewill’s 2012 production of Julius Caesar is, on the whole, a very interesting and worthwhile piece of theatre with some very fine performances — extremely fine in the case of Cayley Thomas-Haug — and a number of very intriguing and fresh production and directorial decisions.  In spite of my quibbles,  a very powerful experience for both the audience and for the young cast, I’m sure.

And, it’s outside!

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival runs until July 22, 2012 in the Heritage Amphitheatre in the Park that should still be called Mayfair.

Soon I’ll get to The Tempest.


My references to Act and Scene are to the Arden Second Series Edition of Julius Caesar, T. S. Dorsch, editor.

Oh.  And festina lente means “make haste slowly”.  What do they teach kids in school these days?