Blog # 70…June 2017

Hard to keep up and balanced with all that’s going on in the world, isn’t it???   As there’s more and more to cry about, I find myself more and more appreciating a good laugh. And I love encountering people who are smart and know how and when to be funny, offering a fresh view and putting serious matters  in perspective.

Reading always helps me centre myself so it’s not surprising that I’ve found some solace in some new books that take us backstage to look at current issues and help us make some sense of them. 
The first is by Scaachi Koul, who uses her razor sharp humour to share the fears and indignities she felt every day growing up as an outsider in Calgary. The essays in One day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter take us from rape culture to racism with many stops in between to occasionally laugh in the midst of misery. The current influx of refugees and migrants offers Canadians a chance to broaden our notion of what and who we are and struggle to accept people who look, dress and act differently.  Scaachi’s glimpse of how it feels to be marginalized in a white culture points out how some feelings are common to us all whatever our situation.

I remember Al Franken from Saturday Night live and was curious to see how he’d handle his entry into US politics.  Elected as the Senator (D) from Minnesota in 2008 - reelected in 2014 - Al is a serious advocate for the citizens of his state, with an eye on national and global issues.  He’s particularly passionate about the environment and the health of rural dwellers in his state.  Although he’s never lost his comedian’s view of the world, he’s totally conscious that he wants to be effective in his current position and avoids easy cheap shots at the current administration.  In Al Franken, Giant of the Senate he explores truth and laughter in his serious role representing Minnesotans on the national stage.

And as science is buffeted by deniers, two physicists, Neil Degrasse Tyson  (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry) and Lawrence Krauss (The Greatest Story Ever Told…so far) do us the favour of  making their knowledge and views available in language  clear and often funny -  treating us as equals in a curiousity about the mysteries of the world.

Those are recent books; I have some old standbys when I need a laugh, My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome and just about anything by SJ Perelman or David Sedaris.  I hope you have yours too, keep them close, I have a feeling we’ll be needing them more and more.
And, after almost two years, here’s a tiny bit of movement on the file of our refugee family…stay tuned.



Blog # 69…May, 2017
I don’t know about you but what’s going on in the world has me perched much of the time on a knife edge between optimism and despair…BUT… the Greens got 3 seats in BC,  a David and Goliath situation, but look what happened there.
I heard someone say recently (if it was you, please let me know and I’ll give credit where it’s due) “Artists form part of the fragile barrier standing between authoritarian control and open democracy.”  They also serve us by exposing conflicts among our values and making us think.  Many of us are searching for ways to stand up for important gains in freedom and fairness in the world that are slipping away and we need all the help we can get.  Being aware and keeping from being overwhelmed is about all I can manage some days.
As I write this, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood (she’s everywhere these days and always makes me laugh as well as think) speaking about The Handmaid’s Tale - just released on a network that I don’t get but I did read the book.  It’s a prescient warning about the encroachment of dystopia, and is having a surge in popularity along with It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Ms Atwood’s book is by far the most recent, having been written in 1985, the others in the 30’s and 40’s. How useful are these pieces in informing us, mobilizing us, giving us a chance to speculate on how we’d behave IF…

Reading them now has a certain urgency because that IF has come scarily close and some of what seemed unimaginable a few decades ago seems to be here and the rest looming and threatening out there, no longer unthinkable.  Reading current media can be equally frightening, surrounding us and involving us in a giant game of True or False.  We’re losing independent news sources presenting contrary or subversive opinions just when we need them most, so these works from decades ago are important visions of what that IF might look like.

Playwright Robert Schenkkan believes he has a responsibility to influence not just curate.  He wrote his current play Building the Wall in the last week of October 2016, sensing a crisis. “ I don’t see… a struggle between left or right or liberal or progressive or Republican or Democrat.  What we’re experiencing is an attack on fundamental American values.” Schenkkan (who’s a Pultizer winner) hopes his play will ignite a genuine dialogue across the political spectrum. He made his main character a Trump supporter, very careful not to make him a one dimensional stereotype. “It’s all too easy to dismiss people you disagree with as foolish or not having a grasp of the facts or being bigoted or predjudiced or whatever, that’s not helpful.”
Building the Wally is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere and will be produced in Ottawa by Horseshoes and Hand Grenades November 30-December 9. He wants it to be widely viewed so if you have a local theatre group, mention it to them.


Blog# 68…April 2017
Photo by Ed Burtynski


 Ed Burtynski makes art to call our attention to industrial waste, beautiful images until we look more closely and realize what it is and what's caused it.

                                                                                              



                                                                       


                                                                                          



Other  artists show us the beauty that can exist in food that’s been discarded. The aim is different here -  to encourage us to see this food as useful rather than repellant.                                     





Anyone who knows me even slightly gets it that wasting food makes me nuts.  I just heard on the radio that, in Toronto, we waste 1,000,000,000 pounds of food every year. That’s one billion pounds of food that could have fed someone right here…we don’t even need to go into the starving folks around the world. Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the world is discarded -some of it due to the shape, colour and appearance of fruit and vegetables that don’t make the cut for supermarket standards at the food terminal. Some of it is due to the sheer abundance of food here that leads us to over order in restaurants and over buy in stores and markets.

Toronto’s Second Harvest does a pretty good job with re-directing some food from the waste bin to hungry mouths while it’s still fresh and good. And they have a new website – foodrescue.ca – that can respond to calls from smaller stores and deliver to smaller agencies.  Good for them, I wish we could do more as individuals, buy and order just what we need (helps with those weight concerns too).  Enough scolding...think about  making soup with left over vegetables and smoothies with fruit.

And moving west to Edmonton...a while ago I discovered that their Arts Council had established an artist-in -residence at city cemeteries to console mourning families and friends.  Now, they've introduced therapy dogs at the airport to comfort anxious travellers.  Bravo Edmonton, will be watching for the next thoughtful initiative.





Blog # 67... March 2017

Although we all enjoy a visit to the major museums, there’s also an allure in small personal collections - acting as repositories of artifacts from the past, collectors of memories, chroniclers of life.
Masset, BC
I’ve seen a tiny space in northern British Columbia, formerly a hospital, with the beds (4) instruments and equipment used in medical treatment, preserved in place as they looked over 100 years ago. And a few miles away, relics from a long ago general store, from hardware and groceries in their original packages to a few items of clothing, rubber boots and a smattering of things that defy identification.

As we get older and life gets more complicated, there’s an increasing interest in how life was lived in simpler times. We may only want to visit rather than go back - especially to the medical treatments - so these small brushes with nostalgia are precious reminders of how we got to where we are.

Those of us who are collectors (no, not hoarders, that’s a different thing) could all set up personal museums and my friend Jussi has actually done it.  He’s spent most of his life sailing in different parts of the world and his intense interest in things maritime has resulted in an amazing collection of objets.  Several rooms in the basement of his house have been transformed into a welcoming space to pause and look, read and reflect among the materials on show.

It’s curated with a lovely flow that leads the visitor from a corner of photos and newspaper pieces about a young Finnish girl saved from the Titanic (the museum is in Helsinki btw) to another with the landing card and immigration details from Jussi’s father’s arrival by ship in Quebec City in 1922. Across the room are two framed documents from Jussi’s sailing participation in the Olympics - Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico in 1968.

Binnacle from the Ariadne
Outside the door to the museum, serving as an introduction, is a large standing compass from the S/S Ariadne. She was seized by the Russians as part of reparations after WWll and the Finns were ordered to deliver the ship to Russia.  The captain left on Christmas Day 1944 and cannily ran the ship aground in a way calculated not to do too much damage, returned her to Helsinki harbor and sent a less valuable ship in her place.  She lived out her time in Finnish waters, retiring to warmer waters later in life.

The collection has the advantage of being a collaborative affair (obsession some might say) and probably no one in the family escaped an involvement of some sort.  If you’re thinking of doing a project like this, it helps to have an expert in lighting on your team.  The Maritime Museum bears the skilled stamp of Jenni, Jussi’s niece, who works lighting the exhibitions at several Helsinki galleries and has contributed a touch of coherence and style as well  as effectively illuminating the area….makes all the difference.
Since the opening party (held on Mardi Gras) Jussi has welcomed several smaller groups to see his show and plans to continue sharing his enthusiasm and stories from his remarkable life.   


Blog # 66…February 2017

                                                             

After the Women’s Marches recently, as many of us were rejoicing in our feeling of a common sensibility and wondering how to proceed, I heard Jesse Wente say on the CBC, “Now is the moment to begin the hard work and that start lies in art.”   Bingo, I thought.  Did you know btw, that in most indigenous languages, there’s no word for artist? Creativity is inherent in daily life.

From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls to the many other soul destroying things going on here and elsewhere, there’s sadness and outrage aplenty.    But small initiatives are starting to appear as people are trying to come together and make sense of it all and they’re using various art forms to do it

A group of Ryerson students have assembled articles from a murdered woman’s life as an installation to give substance and dignity to her memory.  A bit like a piece of music composed for the 10th anniversary of the Montreal massacre that chanted the names of the women murdered... changing the focus from the vicious act to the lives that have been ended.

In Prince George, Kym Gouchie wrote Cleansing The Highway of Tears while taking part in a healing walk in the summer of 2016. Across the country in Toronto, music instructor Angela  Rudden and her students at Dixon Hall composed an orchestral score to accompany the song. As well as the musical experience, the young students got a glimpse of a world far from theirs both in distance and in complexity.

On a larger scale, Kent  Monkman kicks off Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations with  Shame and Predjudice   running until March 4 at the U of T Art Gallery, then embarking on a cross country tour.
Here’s what Monkman has to say about the show, “It‘s a pretty deliberate effort to have people reflect on the last 150 years in terms of the indigenous experience…the signing of the treaties, the beginning of the reserve system, the legacy of incarceration, residential schools, sickness, the removal of children in the 60’s, missing and murdered women.  There’s a lot of material in the show that tries to encompass and stitch together this narrative.”



The Daddies


What the pieces show is a wicked sense of irony, referencing classical painters of the period, sometimes incorporating  his alter ego, Chief Eagle Testickle often seen naked wearing only Louboutin pumps.

The Scream

























 


                                                                           


The anguish of the "Sixties Scoop"is obvious as Mounties restrain mothers trying to keep their children from being taken by the priests and nuns.      










I was particularly moved byMonkman talking about the urban experience of native people... the city continues a sense of imprisonment -  they're not able to see the horizon, smell the trees or feel the wind. The imprisonment started with the reserves and continues with the disproportionate number of native people in jails, in some Canadian prisons as high as 60% of prisoners are native.

Kent Monkman, with his sly humour, offers some respite from the crushing weight of violence and poverty both for his fellow natives and for us, We'll remember his images long after the candles on our birthday cake have gone out.

And, our Iraqi refugee family is still resting safely in Jordan, awaiting the movement of the machinery that will bring them here.
Blog # 65…January 2017
Well here we are, moving further away from the millennium - people born that year old enough to drive and have a generation named after them.

I’m not in that generation but somehow feel that we’re all in this together.  Many forces divide us - haves/have nots, old/young, black/white /brown/yellow, nationalities or religions pitted against each other, opposing ideas about how to live; competition rather than consensus all are the order of the day in some quarters anyway.  At ground level, in families, difficult situations which could be made more comfortable if people were able to reach out to comfort each other - the mature and intelligent thing to do. We can only write our own scripts, but that’s what’s important anyway.

And yet, there are so many inescapable life forces that unite us, the inevitability of birth and death touches us all. A number of artists who died this year gave us the gift of a gracious goodbye…Leonard Cohen spoke of “running late… the bar closing”. David Bowie sang with courage from his death bed. Gord Downie continues to muster his strength to bring native issues to our attention as well as showing us how to leave life with grace. The Edmonton Arts council is appointing its first Artist in Residence for cemeteries, with a warm and inviting studio space to welcome people while they mourn loved ones.

In its many forms, art makes us feel less alone.  For me, two of the most powerful words in our language are “Me too”.  How my heart warms when someone says that after I express how I’m feeling. Art in its various forms also helps articulate our feelings, writers give  us the words to express ourselves, make us more comfortable with the issues because we have a handle on how to engage in conversation  with people who share our  feelings…or don’t.

A very important book by Canadian physician Danielle Martin has just appeared – Better Now:  Six Big Ideas to Improve Health Care for all Canadians. She feels it’s important not to be defensive; our system is good but needs fixing and we shouldn’t be content with the status quo.  Very useful to arm yourself with this information for the next time you encounter a Yank (or anyone else) yelling about the wait times or how our system is a commie plot.
And at the risk of seeming tangential, I want to finish with a shout out to the Cubans and the Americans who share uncertain futures in the New Year.   So, “Y soy Fidel” to those brave and proud Cubans and to our next door neighbours … “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”


Blog # 64…December 2016

Sometimes life seems to be about nothing but losses and this year has been unrelenting … mourning the deaths of our own loved ones here at home and, far too many of our fellow citizens in the middle east. Now horrors in a Christmas market and an art gallery

We.ve had some pinpoints of light shine through though. Gord Downie touched us all when he pushed indigenous issues into the spotlight by honouring the memory of Chanie Wenjak, the young boy who died attempting to escape from a residential school in the sixties. Gord’s beautiful tribute album Secret Path was followed by Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel The Secret Path which then was turned into the animated film that aired on CBC in October. It’s still viewable at cbc.ca/secretpath. 

“This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were….aboriginal children need to know that history includes them, this is not an aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian problem” words from Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He and Gord Downie both have a place in my personal Hall of Heroes.

I’ve been blogging for five years now about how art in its various and wondrous forms can help us make sense of the world.  I still cling to that notion but its powers are being tested pretty sharply at the moment. Maybe like me, you need to take a break from worrying ocasionally… about how we’re losing respect for the value of work and of liberal democracy and most distressing - our environment. We need to avoid looking at the world outside sometimes, take a breath and relish what we have. A couple of new books may help you feel less "out to pasture"…Tom Friedman’s Thanks for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving and The Revenge of Analog : Real Things and why they Matter by David Sax.

So, enjoy the holidays, be happy and safe, hold close the ones you love.  We’ll pick up the worry beads again in the New Year and discover some art and artists to delight us all.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.