I guess that’s a wrap.

I guess that’s a wrap for my little “Guenevere.”

I never imagined my bare words would or even  could be presented so powerfully! 

Thank you, Director Eric Smith, Captain, my Captain, for being so ingenious, industrious, focused, silly, serious, distracted, and for so totally getting what “Gwenevere” is! 
Thank you Miranda Broumas, Erin Forwick-Whalley, Jesse Harlton, Derek Kaye, Austin Kumar, Kohl Littlechilds, Brooklyn Melnyk, Sarah Spicer, and Catherin Wenschlag for bringing a dying world to life. Each one of you gave “the best performance of the night” in the opinion of various people I spoke to,  which probably means you all made each other better.
Thank you to Karlie Christie for the exquisite liting and to Nicholas Juba for the gobsmackingly evocative sound design!  And Jaimie Lievers! The costumes!  And to all the crew, thank you!
Thanks to Vlady Peychoff for midwifeing two such very different plays into being. 
To Payem Saeedi Varnousfaderani a special thank you for reminding me that not everyone grew up with the tales of Camelot.
And to Brian Dooley and the Citadel Young Acting Company a terribly profound bow for that moment back at the beginning when you showed me in a flash what this thing I’d made so long ago could actually be. Thank you.
And, to the young fellow on Wednesday evening who told us we blew Guy Ritchie out of the water, and to the lady the same evening who mentioned “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (the greatest poem of Winter ever) and thereby spurred me to speak a bunch of West Midlands Middle English verse . . . 
Thank you! I wrote “Guenevere” for the two of you.
Little did I know there were so many just like you!

New Voices

What an inspiring evening hearing New Voices I just had!

I’m still trying to process a bunch of stuff:

A young lady I’ve seen have scary tantrums and whom I’ve also seen around town doing the kind of menial jobs that people with developmental disabilities are sadly so lucky to get when they can — this young lady turns out to be a beautifully soulful singer;

Artists with developmental disabilities hobnob at their music video launch with Miss Sarah Chan and her husband, the Mayor of Edmonton;

The head honcho of ATB Financial announces that his company’s downtown office building is lit up in purple in honour of an inner-city art studio where professional artists mentor artists with developmental disabilities, were artists with barriers of all sorts are given the opportunity to exhibit their work, where musicians and dancers from the larger arts community mentor the resident Collective;

And, I can’t shake from my mind the fact that an outfit “advocating” for the disabled shunned the wonderful institution that brings all these people together, from business, from politics, from the arts, and from the all-to-often-invisible disabled community — I can’t shake the memory that an organization claiming to advocate for the disabled rejected this wonderful, integrated, outward-reaching place as “segregated”.

No. This place, The Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, which I’ve written of before, is a place of true integration. This isn’t a place of art lessons for “normal” people with a chair or two set aside in the corner for “special” people. No. The Nina Haggerty Centre is a place where people are helped to be a part of the larger community, of a larger community than most of us “normal” people ever get to be a part of. The Nina helps people to find their voices, voices they often themselves don’t know that they have.

And what voices they are!

Please listen to Angela Trudel singing words composed by her Nina Collective colleague Alana Gersky, and then listen to Angela singing her colleague Amber Strong’s words as Amber plays her own music on the piano.

Please listen. And hear.

I won’t name the agency that argued that the Nina Haggerty Centre was segregated. I understand their opinion has changed, perhaps in small part due to my online rants.

The Nina Haggerty Centre is all that is best about Edmonton and about Canada. It is about finding the beauty in each of us and helping each other to share and enjoy that beauty. Sure we screw it up a lot. Sure we are often tone deaf and we have bad days or years or centuries where we just don’t seem to be able to hear each other. Sure we’re hateful, impatient, hurtful, stupid and just plain tired lots of the time.

But when we get it, when we listen, when we just darn well work hard for what is right, and true, and beautiful. When we simply ask “what are you feeling?” and listen — truly listen — to the answers, especially answers from New Voices, we do pretty amazing stuff.

Yes, we make a mess of so much. But, do you suppose we can, like Nina Collective artist Yvette Prefontaine, keep on Searching for Hope?

On Bread

Like bread-making, any mugwump can do it.

— Elizabeth David, “Pleasing Cheeses,” Nova, October 1965.

Real conversation:

“You make bread?”

“Yeah”

“You got a bread machine?”

“No.”

“Then how do you make bread?”

“?”

I’ve baked bread as long as I can remember, first with my mother’s guidence and for at least four decades now on my own. Through high school I kept a sourdough starter alive, baking five small.loaves every Sunday as the centrepieces of the next week’s school lunches. Some might argue that I find baking bread to be one of the simplest of kitchen things because of this stupid long experience making the stuff. I would argue, however, that I feel this way because it truly is absolutely dead simple to bake a more than decent loaf of bread with little experience and less effort.

The other day I made a couple of loaves. No kneading. About three minutes of hands on effort. Lots of free time to do other tasks in and out of the house while ostensibly making bread.
Here it is:

Stir together

2 cups of bread flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
a bit of salt
a spoonful of “instant”yeast

Stir in 13 ounces of water

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and go away for the day or go have a good night’s sleep.

Whenever you get around to it, give it another quick stir.

After an hour or two, divide the lump roughly in half and quickly shape the two bits into elongated lumps on well-floured boards. Cover with plastic wrap. Go away for an hour or two.

Put a couple of heavy cast-iron lidded casseroles or pots or something into the oven and crank it to 450°F. There’s only one in the picture because my sister-in-law had my other one.

A while after the oven and the pots get hot, take the plastic wrap off the loaves, pull the pots out of the oven, take the lids off, sprinkle flour into them, flop the loaves into the pots, put on the lids and shove the lot back into the oven.

After thirty minutes or so, take the lids off and let the bread brown for five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, take the pots out of the oven, lift each loaf out of its pot, scrape the flour off their undersides, and put them on a rack to cool, if you can wait to taste your newly baked bread!

That’s it. Bread the easy, old-fashioned, no machine way. I’ve even baked this bread in a fire pit in my back yard (the cooking time was under ten minutes).
To be honest, I don’t know why there’s any sort of market for bread machines.

A Visit to the Neighbour Centre

A few weeks ago with homelessness on my mind I took a few minutes to drop in on the Neighbour Centre, another great Edmonton thing.  I’d been meaning for some time to visit this rare resource for “street people” on the south side of the River.  The visit was a fine and moving experience.

As one o’clock opening time approached about a dozen people gathered at the door, most laughing and smiling, all apparently familiar with each other.  I hung back, feeling myself to be an outsider here.

Finally the front door of the little storefront across 104 Street from Strathcona High School opened, but it wasn’t quite time to go in.  I watched as a mysterious lottery took place. A number, but not all of the gathered, called out to have their names put into a hat.  Four names were drawn and then the doors opened and all filed inside, I at the end of the line.

Unlike many inner city “missions” the world over, the Neighbour Centre doesn’t require that a meal be purchased with a bowed head or an open ear for a prayer or a sermon.  The proceedings began with what seemed a completely voluntary opportunity for individuals to publicly reflect positively on themselves.  Staff, volunteers, and Neighbours all took a moment to either pass or to tell the group what they thought of themselves when they were at their best, a pretty positive exercise.

After this brief self-affirmation, the purpose of the mysterious lottery became clear: four of the Neighbours appeared in yellow safety vests, “The Neighbour Centre” printed on the backs, equipped for their afternoon cleaning litter from the sidewalks of Old Strathcona.  For their work, they would be paid an hourly wage in cash. The fact that a lottery must be held for these jobs puts the lie to the idea that the “homeless” are not willing to work.

The Neighbours now disperssed through the building, some to the back to the showers, some straight to the fresh food in the “kitchen”.  The Neighbour Centre does not have a full kitchen, making to with microwaves and rice cookers and a healthy offering of fresh fruit and vegetables.

As I chatted and learned about some of the philosophy of the Centre, I saw neighbours offer to wash up the dishes. There is little distinction here; everyone pitches in. The Neighbour Centre’s focus is on helping Neighbours become actual neighbours, to help them empower themselves to better their own circumstances. It’s a hackneyed pharse, but the Neighbour Centre doesn’t offer hand outs. It offers hands up.

One particularly exciting program the Neighbour Centre organizes is the Thursday night Dinner Club at the Strathcona Baptist Church.  On these evenings about twenty Neighbours — staff, volunteers, and those who might be called “clients” by other agencies — get together to prepare and share their dinner, side by side. This is not a charity providing “services”, rather, here are neighbours serving each other and building a true community, nurturing individual growth.

Recently the Neighbour Centre has amalgamated with another great Edmonton thing, the Mustard Seed.  This will hopefully bring administrative efficiencies while not undermining either organization’s philosophy or strenghths.  Together with Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS), the Neighbour Centre is a rare bright light for our most disadvantaged neighbours on the south side of Edmonton. Each of us needs to try to be such a light for our neighbours. All of our neighbours.

 

Until the fine future day the Neighbour Centre is no longer needed, I hope all shoppers on Whyte Avenue, when they pass a worker in one of those yellow safety vests, will share a smile and a “Thank you, neighbour!” and maybe a conversation and some laughter.  As I did a few days ago with this fellow:

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.

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].”

Eric Rice’s “Starless” at the Walterdale Playhouse

Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre, now in its 55th year, continues the important by largely forgotten tradition of the Little Theatre Movement, which took as its mandate the engagement of communities and live theatre in each other.  The Walterdale has, like other community theatres, nurtured amateur theatre workers – playwrights, actors, directors and technicians and thereby seeded successive generations of professionals.  The Walterdale has also engaged the community around it both through the writing and production of powerful drama and, perhaps more importantly, by putting up on the stage our friends, our neighbours, and, in the end, ourselves.  The latest product of the Walterdale’s “Cradle to Stage program, Eric Rice’s Starless movingly shows off all the best things of community theatre.

Rice’s drama, a day in the life of Ralph and Mary, a homeless couple, is firmly rooted in the geography known so well to both the audience and the players.  The Park where Ralph and Mary spend their nights is next to the Walterdale Playhouse.  The Church is a few doors north on 104th Street, past the Library where young Paul searches internet to help his friends.  The coffee shop where Ralph nibbles a muffin and meets the blogger, Amanda is a block south, on Whyte Avenue.  The audience knows, with some dread, that across the street from the Park is a funeral home, never mentioned in the play, but looming unnamed throughout.

The concrete rooting in the community reminds me of the way Brad Fraser unselfconsciously made Edmonton the uneraseable seting of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love — even Denys Arcand couldn’t erase Rose Bowl Pizza, Flashbacks and CFRN from his cinematic version.  And, further afield although identical in toponym, I think of how Elizabethan villages north of London are the necessary geography of the sadly underknown play, The Merry Devil of Edmonton.  By so closely marking out the geography of Ralph and Mary’s kingdom as the familiar few blocks at the heart of Old Strathcona, Rice tells his audience that Ralph and Mary, although not portrayals of actual individuals, are not simply types, not Platonic homeless people in som sort of abstracted theatre space.  Ralph and Mary are inhabiting *our* space, and we are inhabiting *their* space, and that space is quite simply daily life.  All the world is *this* stage.

This is, of course, amateur theatre, so there are rough edges.  Most polished is Rice’s script, having been rolled about in the nine months of Cradle to Stage.  The set is happily minimal: a wall or two, a park bench in the centre, a church door upstage centre, beside the Walterdale Tree.  Set and props assist the script, nothing more.  And no more is needed.

The performances, are varied, but on the whole a big cut above what one might expect from amateur theatre.  These actors are only amateur in that they aren’t being paid tonight.  Mark Anderako’s Ralph is flawless and quirkily mannered — I imagined Lear played by the most eccentric form of Nicol Williamson — oh to have seen Williamson’s Lear in Wales in 2001!

I digress.

Dave Wolkowski’s Constable and his smaller role as the Landlord have a certain Steinbeckian bombast which for me spoke to the characters meaning as something other than simply Cop or Slumlord.  Wolkowski’s characters represent all the forces of social order — forced social order — which so terrify Ralph.

Monica Maddaford’s Mary is suitably warm and maternal, the strong but terribly vulnerable centre of the play.  There is no question why Ralph seeks her so desperately.

Stephanie O’Neill’s Amanda, the blogger/journalist out to change the world/get her story is painfully blinkered and defensive, and a painfully sympathetic character.  Amanda is what everyone with privilege wants to be, and she shows us the dangers of our desires to “fix” things for people.

Jim Zalcik simply *is* the artist who chats with Ralph and Mary, and, in other scenes, the Priest who gently wants to help them.

Everyone in the play wants to help Ralph and Mary, but it is only young Paul, played by equally young Carter Kockley, who actually listens to them, who asks questions and listens to their answers, who asks what they want, who does what they want — who actually helps them, however futilely in the end.  Hockley is comfortable and at ease on stage, doing a more than creditable job as Paul.  Like many young actors, Hockley sometimes delivers his lines hastily, but that is a minor quibble .

Something I would like to especially note is how nicely the production worked the title theme of stars into the evening.  From the artist’s revisioning of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in black and white, through the description of night skies, both starless, light polluted urban ones and aurora-filled nights of the North, to the ingenious choice of Don McLean’s Vincent as the music leading us into the intermission.  In fact, Starless is Star Filled on so many levels.

Eric Rice’s Starless is a play I can see going places.  What the play desperately needs is to be given more time with audiences — this week long run is far less than it deserves.  A run at the Fringe would certainly be worthwhile, but, to be honest, I dream of a run of Starless on a Gazebo Park-filled, decidedly Edmonton stage in Toronto, Montreal or Halifax.

Starless runs at the Walterdale Playhouse in Old Strathcona only until May 17, so get down there!

 

(For another pretty much completely positive take on Starless, have a look at  “Starless Shows Us Another Side of the Interactions Right In Front of Us” from After the House Lights.)