3 x 7: Springtime in Edmonton is for Canadian Art Lovers

It truly is an embarrassment of riches this spring in Edmonton.  Yes, the economy is in the tank. Yes, the Oilers are out of the playoffs.  Sure Edmonton continues to chug along in a better economic state than Calgary and the rest of the province, and the Oilers will get to make a new start in the fall at the new Rogers Place, or, as I prefer to call it, Iron Foot Place.  Bright and hopeful civic joys are these, but the most stunning wealth Edmonton enjoys this spring is best enjoyed by lovers of Canadian Art and Art History.  Right now, within a stretch of five downtown LRT stations, Edmontonians and visitors can immerse themselves in three magnificent exhibitions of works by and influenced by two Canadian Groups of Seven.  In a single relaxed afternoon, travelling by LRT or, better, a pleasant stroll through Edmonton’s Downtown Spring, one can lose oneself in the works of fifteen of the most influential artists in Canadian history.

Maybe start at the Borealis Gallery in the Old Federal Building on the Alberta Legislature Grounds, where Alberta and the Group of Seven is showing until May 23.  Alberta and the Group of Seven is actually dominated by Alberta, in my opinion.  Only a few of the Group are represented, and they by small works.  The show is really about the Alberta artists who were (perhaps) influenced by the Group of Seven.  Personally, I find that my favourites in the show, Annora Brown and H. G. Glyde, had roots removed from the Algoma Seven, Glyde’s in the Mexican Muralists and Brown’s in the Italian Futurists. Mais n’enculons pas des mouches.

In any case, Alberta and the Group of Seven is a gorgeous and thought provoking gem which I fear is being overlooked.

After savouring “Alberta and the Group of Seven”, head over to Grandin Station and take the next northbound train a few stations to Churchill.  Or, better, walk north to 100th Avenue and then east to where it curves north to become 102 Street. Here you’ll see the view captured by H. G. Glyde in one of my favourite paintings.
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Turn right (east) on to Macdonald Drive and enjoy the river view until you turn north on 100 Street. Continue to the southwest corner of Churchill Square.  Diagonally across the Square is the Art Gallery of Alberta (that thing with the silver ribbon).
  In the AGA you’ll have your socks blown off by the other two exhibits on this little itinerary.

On the ground floor (a little past a tiny work by yours truly)  we have Out of the Woods: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, an eye-opening  show curated from the AGA’s own collection.  Some of these works are the reason I was excited about the AGA’s rebuild, hoping there would be a room dedicated to rotating the Gallery’s collection out of its warehouse and onto display.  Look at Thomson’s “Fisherman”! The ripples in the pool! And Carmichael’s “The Valley”! And Lawren Harris’ Futurist drawing and print of a Toronto Street!

The works in Out of the Woods, because the Edmonton Art Gallery (predecessor to the AGA) was a little late to the Group of Seven collecting game, are not the popular works which sold well from the beginning.  These are works passed over as less approachable, more difficult, transitional, and exploratory.  In short, these are works most important for an understanding of what Thomson and the Group were trying to do.  On its own, Out of the Woods is a show to make springtime in Edmonton a Heaven.

But, go upstairs to the second floor.  Go into the little RBC New Works Gallery and savour Britney and Richelle Bear Hat’s Little Cree Women and know that if not for the giant, heroic, woman-of-myth Daphne Odjig, whose works you will soon witness, the Bear Hat sisters would never have been allowed to show their art outside a handicraft shop.  Pause for a moment and consider what might have been — what has been — lost.

Now. Take a deep breath. It’s time for 7. The most important Seven. The seven members of Professional Native Indian Artists, Incorporated. Daphne Odjig and these six men changed the world of Art, in Canada, and around the world. In a single decade the shattered the colonial and academic chains that had bound professional art for generations.  Odjig and her colleagues completed the work that other Group of Seven had tentatively started.  These seven people in the heart of Turtle Island tore apart the European vision, they huffed and puffed and blew away the European academic straitjacket.  More than any one person, I would argue, Daphne Odjig, “Picasso’s Mother” in Norval Morrisseau’s words, more than any one group, Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. broke the European Academic cycle of dominance.  They made Art, with a capital “A”, something not just European, but something universally human.

You’re pretty lucky to be standing here, in Amiskwaciwâskahikan, before Daphne Odjig’s Mother Earth, a little way from Alex Janvier’s Cold Lake Sunset, Norval Morrisseau’s Christ,and so on. You stand surrounded by pivotal works in the history of Art.

Enjoy!

Alberta and the Group of Seven is at the Borealis Gallery until May 23, 2016.

Out of the Woods: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until April 17, 2016

Little Cree Women is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until July 3, 2016.

7: Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. is at the Art Gallery of Alberta until July 3, 2016.

The Briefest of Thoughts on Canada Reads 2016 after the first day

Some exceptionally paraphrastic and subjective reactions to the Canada Reads 2016 shortlisted books after the first day of debate (maybe I’ll share more expansive thoughts in days to come):

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter – I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my initial impression is very positive in a sort of David-Adams-Richards-depressive way.

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg – This was the first of the five titles I read and I found myself underwhelmed. I found it to be fairly unenthralling, not terribly engaging, and disappointing considering the positive things I’d heard.

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz – The second book I read and I was enthralled. I totally felt it couldn’t be beaten, until

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami – This is an engaging, enthralling, poetic, beautiful, bitter-sweet, realistic, lovely novel.  The Hero’s Walk is a novel of Classic quality that will be read for generations, whatever happens on Canada Reads.

The Illegal by Laurence Hill – For most of the time I was reading The Illegal I felt like I was reading a somewhat sophisticated version of one of Heinlein’s “Juvenile” science fiction novels.   I felt like Laurence Hill was wielding a sledge hammer of didactic message and a clumsy tissue of coincidence. Seriously: everyone is startlingly in the right place at the right time. Are there only ten people in this imaginary land?

In the end, leaving Minister Without Portfolio out of the discussion as it has been left out of the discussion, The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami is the finest novel on the Canada Reads 2016 short list, whatever its relation to the theme of “Starting Over” is seen to be.

Veiled Thoughts on “Alice Through the Looking Glass” at the Citadel Theatre

That was an hilarious, over-the-top romp! The all-Edmonton cast at The Citadel Theatre in this version of the Stratford Festival-National Arts Centre production of Alice Through the Looking Glass is by turns mystifying, magical, joyful, creepy, playful, and tender, but always thoroughly charming and endearing. This Looking Glass House and Garden are populated by all the characters to be expected from Lewis Carroll’s book with the addition of an at times disturbing chorus of dark-haired, dark-cross-dressed Alice Doppelgangers.

The cast is consistently outstanding – a demonstration of the depth and breadth of the talent pool in Edmonton’s theatre community. It would be pointless to single out individuals as all are a joy to watch in their multiple rolls.

I don’t want to post any spoilers, so, my brief thoughts are veiled:

The Fourth Wall is the Looking Glass, and the characters break the Fourth Wall in a very sweet way.

Everthing is reversed/inverted/turned about in Alice: upstage/downstage, onstage/backstage, House/stage, audience/cast. While the cross-dressing of the Alice Doppelgangers is an obvious inversion, what I found to be  a witty, smart, easy-to-miss, and powerful-in-post-TRC-Edmonton-and-Canada casting decision was to have a White guy play the Red Knight and a Native guy – the brilliant Sheldon Elert (oops! I singled him out!) – play the White Knight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is, of course, a celebration of childhood, a gentle reminder to adults who may have lost touch with their happy, frightened, puzzled, fascinated inner child, and an homage to magnificently successful and sensible nonsense of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. But here, in this production at the Citadel Theatre in its Fiftieth Anniversary Season, I think Alice is also a bit of a love letter, a bit of a note home from a still-young but oh so precocious city to and from itself. That guy up on the wall in the egg costume lives down the road and dresses up like a fountain. That guy in the Victorian little girl’s dress is the guy you see playing in the local ukelele band or walking through Old Strathcona with the bright pink shirt on, a guitar over his shoulder. Alice is the nervous kid starting out at Grant MacEwan. And all of those people on stage you’ve seen so many times before pacing the boards of the theatres – or raising a glass in the pubs or a cup in the coffee shops – of Whyte, Jasper, 124th, 118th, or the French Quarter.

Happy Birthday, Citadel Theatre! And, Thank You! to the larger Edmonton theatre and arts community. You’ve helped make Edmonton both a Looking Glass House and a Wonderland!

Oh, and:

Alice Through the Looking Glass is the most fun you’re going to have at the theatre in a long time. Maybe ever. Go see it. At the Citadel. Until March 20th, 2016.

A Very Brief Visit to “Alberta (and the Group of Seven)”

This afternoon I dropped in on Alberta and the Group of Seven at the Borealis Gallery at the Federal Building on the Alberta Legislature grounds.  For some reason I had it in my head that this was principally an exhibition of works by the Group of Seven with Alberta subjects. What a pleasant surprise when the first work my eye fell on was “Clinging Clouds, Mount Assiniboine” by Annora Brown, one of my favourite Alberta painters! And next works by the Whytes of Banff, and H. G. Glyde, Euphemia McNaught, Evelyn McBryan . . . !  Yes there were a few small Lawren Harris pieces and some by Jackson, Lismer and Macdonald. But really, this is an exhibition of Alberta artists to which the works of Group of Seven members are a footnote.

My visit today was brief, a quick taste which left me desperately hungry for more. Another must-see in Edmonton’s Art Scene.

After the gallery, the Legislative Assembly Interpretive Centre staff encouraged me to take in the show at the Pehonan Theatre next door.  It was a pleasantly immersive tour through Alberta History guided by Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the Province’s namesake.  The venue is impressive, reminiscent of a planetarium, but the script given Princess Alberta forced me to ask “does no one know anymore the meaning of ‘begs the question‘?”

 

Alberta and the Group of Seven continues at the Borealis Gallery until May 23, 2016.

“The Other” at The Roxy on Gateway

 

That was a pleasantly intense evening of theatre!

Tonight (March 8, 2016) the stars aligned and I was able to get to a play with a companion other than my usual, sometimes distracting sidekick. The play was Matthew MacKenzie’s The Other on its world premier run at The Roxy on Gateway.  Run, don’t walk to this play — you’ve only five more chances to see it before it goes off to Toronto or some other hole on its tour of the provinces.

As we sipped our wine before the show we chatted with the lady selling the 50 50 tickets (gotta rebuild the Roxy!) about the state of theatre – and other arts and things – in Edmonton. “My daughter went off to Toronto and Portland and so on and called me saying ‘Mom I wanna come home to Edmonton – I miss the theatre!’.”

It’s true, friends: Edmonton is the place to be for live theatre (and so much else), whether you’re making theatre in the remarkably collaborative and mutually supportive bunch of companies that tread our boards, or out in the audience being blown away by what our neighbours are offering us from beneath the proscenium arch.

Before going into the play, about all I knew about The Other was: the “perpetual other woman” nature of  the main character; that the star was Amber Borotsik, who I knew as Grendel’s Mother and Prospero’s Ariel; that it was from the bunch who brought us Bear, which I regrettably missed; that Dance would be involved; and that it was said to be darn good.

What I found out is that The Other has its roots firmly in the ever rich soil of Classic Greek Drama; that Matthew MacKenzie writes dramatic poetry, that Amber Borotsik and the Good Women Dance Collective are wicked-good performers; that Pyretic Productions and Good Women Dance Collective weave dramaturgic magic; and that I’m inconceivably fortunate to live in this city.

The Other is in a sense a one-woman-show: Amber Borostik has the only speaking role and she speaks constantly, while constantly dancing, for the whole eighty minutes or so of the show.  The intensity of Borotsik’s performance stands for me beside that of Cliff Cardinal in Huff at this year’s Rubaboo Festival and Annette Loiselle in The Mothers at last year’s SkirtsAFire Festival. There is something awe-inspiring to me about one individual carrying the entire verbal burden of a piece of theatre. When I was much younger I had the privilege of seeing Roy Dotrice in his magically stinky Brief Lives at The Citadel.  A wonderful piece of Theatre, but not the Drama of The Mothers, Huff, or The Other.

But wait! Look at the gestures, the facial expressions of the Chorus (Alison Kause, Alida Nyquist-Schultz, Krista Posniak, Aimee Rushton, and Kate Stashko)!  They are a Chorus pulled straight from Euripides but their language is Gesture rather than Greek!  As much as Borotsik’s performance is a tour de force, this is an ensemble achievement. The contribution of the Collective must not be minimized.

As for this “perpetual other woman” thing: that is decidedly not what The Other is about. The Other is about love, lust, hurt, Alberta, food(ie) culture, history, dreams, refugees, Fascism, horticulture, magic, multiculturalism, Edmonton, mythology, NIMBYism, Peace River, loneliness, and how we deal with it. All.

No spoilers there!

The Other, although I had to choke back one or two cosmological quibbles, is everything I could want in Theatre –in Drama.  In fact, I think The Other managed to give me a few things I never imagined I wanted from Live Theatre. And that is a very good thing.

The Other, presented as a part of Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series by Pyretic Productions and Good Women Dance Collective is at The Roxy on Gateway until March 13th.

Don’t miss it.

On the destruction of the Royal Alberta Museum building

Incomprehensible.

 

That’s the only word I can clutch at to describe the news that broke last week.  Alberta Infrastructure has put out a Request for Proposals to demolish the beautiful historically and architecturally important Royal Alberta Museum  building and replace it with a park:

The purpose of this project is to complete a comprehensive demolition/deconstruction assessment of the building and site and develop schematic design to redevelop the site into an open green space

For those unfamiliar with the Museum site in Edmonton’s Glenora neighbourhood, the Museum grounds are already a park. The centrepiece of this green space is the venerable Government House, home to a marvellous publicly-owned but difficult-to-view art collection. The site is a popular location for wedding photos and the Museum building has long been a terrific hall for wedding receptions. The Museum building has a well appointed theatre, a commercial kitchen with restaurant space, offices, exhibition space that could be repurposed easily in a multitude of ways, and vast areas of back room and basement which have always been closed to the public and surely offer tantalizing potential.

The people of Glenora seem to want the building preserved and repurposed.  Margaret Robinson of the Old Glenora Conservation Association is quoted by Global News as saying:

We want to see the [museum] remain intact. It’s a very fine, high-quality building. It would be a very bad thing to see it demolished

But no. Preservation is not a part of Alberta Infrastructure’s Request for Proposals. The only question is the design of  space once the building is removed.

 

Incomprehensible.

 

For far too long in Edmonton and Alberta the default response to buildings older than a quarter century has been neglect followed by demolition.

 

Surely the Minister, Brian Mason, and Premier Rachel Notley, Edmontonians both, will step in to order the broadening of the Request for Proposals to include the possibility, cost, and benefits of preserving and repurposing a gem of Alberta architecture and history. Not at least investigating that possibility would be — obviously — incomprehensible.

 Update, March 9th, 2026: A petition to save the RAM started by June Acorn is picking up steam. Take a look and consider signing.

Update, March 13th, 2016: Minister of Infrastructure Brian Mason tonight in a comment on this post offered reassurances that repurposing the Royal Alberta Museum building is not off the table. Because I so often advise “Don’t read the comments!”, I’ll paste Mr. Mason’s comment right here:

No decision has been made on the future of the former museum building, nor will it for some time. It will take nearly two years to organize the exhibits, including those in storage, and move them to the new museum. We are simply gathering the information needed to evaluate our options. Re-purposing the building is definitely an option. We will discuss with the community before making any decision.

Mr. Mason’s comment on my little bloggy thing is reassuring (and flattering to me!) but I have to suggest that more reassuring would be a parallel Request for Proposals to repurpose the RAM. I hope such is forthcoming. Soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Personal Meditation on “7: Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc.”

It’s just those moments that wasn’t about being Native or not, it was about doing stuff [and just being].
– Richelle Bear Hat, quoted by Angela Marie Schenstead in Brittney Bear Hat & Richelle Bear Hat: Little Cree Women (Sisters, Secrets & Stories)

 

Friday evening (March 4, 2016) I had he great and long awaited pleasure of experiencing 7: Professional Native Indian Artists, Inc. at the Art Gallery of Alberta.  This visit to Edmonton is the final stop of the tour of Regina’s Mackenzie Art Gallery‘s magnificent exhibition of works by the “Indian Group of Seven”.  Curator Michelle LaVallee writes:

 

7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. is not a retrospective exhibition, a simple look back, but rather a retro-active exhibition. This is what could have happened , and should have happened, forty years ago.

– from the exhibition catalogue, p. 13.

This is an exhibit that should have toured forty years ago, but its arrival in the time of Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a most well-timed example of “better late than never.”

Anyone who knows me well or has read much of what I have written here knows of my life-long fascination with the art indigenous to the continent that has been home to eight generations of my family. I have written here and here of conversations I’ve had with Alex Janvier. Through acquaintance as a young man with Jackie Bugera of Edmonton’s Bearclaw Gallery I have been fortunate to enjoy the works of a number of indigenous artists, including one of the 7, in my home for over thirty years. 7 is the exhibition I have been waiting for for half a century, since I was a child, since before PNIAI was incorporated.

Two of the three living members of PNIAI were present at the opening reception.  It was good to see Alex Janvier again and to tell him of my excitement when I heard of his commission for the Iron Foot Place mosaic in Edmonton’s new arena.  Mr. Janvier was resplendent in a personalized Edmonton Oilers Jersey and his signature white cowboy hat. After a moment of chatting (about hockey), I moved away to let others have time with the artist. Joseph Sanchez, in contrast to Mr. Janvier’s casual-comfortable is a stunningly dapper dresser, with careful moustache curls that forever put the lie to the myth that Native guys can’t rock facial hair! The youngest member of PNIAI, Mr. Sanchez appropriately spent a lot of time posing for smiling selfies with gallery members. After mingling  and opening remarks from curatorial staff and sponsors, we made our way upstairs for the main event.

The works included in the exhibition are absolutely stunning. My first impression on walking into the second floor gallery was “they’re bigger than I expected.” Indeed, most of the pieces are quite large, to be measured in feet rather than inches. And the range of styles is remarkable. There can be no confusion over which artist is responsible for which work.  Certainly Morrisseau and Ray are of the Woodland School, but Ray’s focus on earth tones instantly distinguishes his work from his mentor’s.  Janvier’s curves are, of course, unmistakable, as are Odjig’s sometimes-faceted swirling compositions. Beardy takes a different Woodland direction, largely eschewing the black outlines so prominent in Morrisseau and Ray. Sanchez has a distinctly South West, arid, desert quality, in consonance with his Pueblo and Spanish heritage.

Eddy Cobiness’ work is something remarkable to me. He shows a stylistic variation made more startling by his absolute confidence in each work.  Consider the drawing “Wild Rice Harvesting”, the painting “Let There Be Life”,  the symmetrical abstraction of “The Four Winds”, the brilliant stylization of “Caribou”, the detailed study in “Two Herons, and the skilful portrait, “Medicine Man and His Vision”. It seems Eddy Cobiness was a consummate stylistic shape-shifter!

Of course, the works must be seen. If you are in Edmonton before July 3, 2016, be sure to visit the Art Gallery of Alberta and spend time with some of the greatest and most important Canadian art of the twentieth century.

_________

Perhaps in my youth I had something of a “Wacousta Complex”, a desire to BE “Native”. How could a bookish Canadian boy with my name escape the possibility? But a comment from a fellow White Canadian when I mentioned my desire to go to the opening of “7” — you remember ur white right?” gave me reassurance that I’m not following in the footsteps of the character in Major John Richardson’s foundational Canadian novel.  I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the point where, despite and because of my privilege, I can never forget that I am white.

The night before the AGA’s members’ opening reception for “7” I read the marvellous catalogue for the show.  I had ordered it some time ago from the Mackenzie Gallery in anticipation of one day seeing the works in person.  It is a magnificent exhibition catalogue with exceptional reproductions of the works, informative (if slightly repetitive) essays, and moving words from the artists themselves.  Particularly poignant in our time of attempted reconciliation is Jackson Beardy’s poem “A Main Street Indian” on page 108:

. . . As I walk the dismal streets of this city,
Kicking a tin beer can ahead of me,
I think bitterly of that invisible government
That took me away from my folks so early,
Only to be used as a psychological sop
To relieve society’s major hang-up.
They denied me the right to experience
My identitiy and my culture.
They denied me the right to experience
The intricacies of the White world,
While they stripped me of my pride and dignity
In a secluded government boarding school
During the crucial twelve years of my life.
I emerged a learned man with a hollow soul.
After a few faltering steps, I fell flat on my face —
I had never learned to walk in either world.
I was born of the noble Indian race,
Bred in the confines of a government test-tube,
And released a zombie.

The seven artists, Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, Joseph Sanchez, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Jackson Beardy, and Eddy Cobiness came together at Odjig’s gallery in Winnipeg in the early ’70s and decided learn themselves and teach others  how to walk in both worlds. They rebelled against the “craft” view of “Indian Art”, against the criticism of Odjig that her work was “too influenced by Picasso” and “not Indian enough”. They stood together against pigeon-holing and insisted on being true to themselves and to their art.  In short, they insisted on being seen as professional artists, and by so doing, they forced a revision of Canadian Art more radical than the legacy of The (White) Group of Seven.

And yet, just as gallery owners said “you remember ur Indian right?” to Daphne Odjig in 1970, a White guy in 2016 who enjoys the art of Janvier and Morrisseau is asked “you remember ur white right?”  Thankfully, the AGA’s Catherine Crowston opened and closed her remarks on Friday night with acknowledgement of Treaty, now a routine acknowledgement at public events in Edmonton.

But still: “you remember ur white right?”

Somehow that question is linked in my mind to something Alex Janvier said to me the first time I chatted with him: “Maybe someday they’ll let us be Canadians.” As long as being excited about an exhibition of the art of some of the most influential Canadian artists of the last (and this) century is seen as “going Native”, as long as there are people not letting indigenous artist be Canadian, there’s a long, difficult road to Reconciliation, to the place where life is “about doing stuff [and just being].”