Blog# 78…February 2018

Figures of Sleep, on now at the U of T Art Gallery, caught my attention recently.  Hidden away just to the east of Hart House, the space is a little jewel -  always presenting something interesting, in a range of media.  Shows are small, vary in theme and span eras, sometimes featuring Canadian artists, but with an international focus. A coup about a year ago was to host the opening of  Shame and Prejudice, Kent Monkman’s show that was beginning a cross- Canada tour to celebrate our 150th birthday. 

I don’t know about you, but there’s not much I long for more than a good sleep.  It’s a frequent topic of endless books and pieces in newspapers, magazines and on TV and, since I’m a pretty regular insomniac, I was curious to see what artists would make of it. “Is sleep in crisis?” was the opening line of the show’s catalogue, setting the tone for the notion that sleep has evolved into less a peaceful repose than an evasive and erratic state.  

Contemporary art takes some work on the viewers’ part (something to fill those fitful nights) and I wasn’t disappointed. The artists have "adopted the motif of sleep as a cipher for...urgent cultural concerns." This show is as elusive as sleep itself, ragged and harsh rather than dreamy and soft .

Right in front of me as I walked in was a large image of a woman lying in a leaf-littered park. Titled Meet to Sleep, it represents women in India who met and slept in parks to protest the violence that made them unsafe in public. At the other end of the gallery, with a similar image and theme, Dream Catcher,  Rebecca Belmore’s unsettling tapestry shows an unconscious indigenous woman wrapped in a blanket stretched out on a sidewalk - a traditional medium startles us with a contemporary subject. 

Ron Muek, a German artist, has modeled a tiny and very realistic old woman curled up asleep in bed. It's from our National Gallery collection and she looks so cozy and relaxed, we can almost see her breathing and feel her comfort. She reminds us of  a baby....
or is she dead?

In Time Clock Piece, Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh took pictures of himself every hour for a year, starting with a  shaved head and finishing with a long bob.   The photos are speeded up to create the frenetic sleeplessness that he must have endured to create the work.                     

From the Vancouver Art Gallery,  Rodney Graham's Halcion Sleep is a compelling continuing video of a man stretched out across the back seat of a moving car. Asleep after a dose of halcion, he was moved to the car, then to his apartment where he slept for a further 8 hours. 

The show runs til March 4th.   If you’re in the mood and the vicinity, you might want to see it, but don't expect it to give you sweet dreams.

Blog # 77 …January 2018

Welcome to 2018 and whatever ups and downs it brings us.   As I was wondering how to start the new year blog, I saw a production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of no Importance and decided to weigh in on what‘s going on in that department…women and their importance. We’ve been inundated with hash tags the past few months... MeToo and now MeToo, NowWhat? TimesUp and from the guys - JustListen. Women all over the world walked last week-end to call attention to the crap deal they’ve been dealt - whether their personal issue was sexual harassment or racial justice, workplace fairness or pay equity, reproductive freedom, migrants’ rights or the whole mess together.

I first met Oscar Wilde in 1957 on the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray and have re-visited him from time to time as I turn to books to find some sense in life.  “Mere words! Was there ever anything so real as words?” And, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” Still words to live by.

The themes in the play (written over a century ago) are still with us - how women are admired, feared, valued and despised, sometimes all at once. We’re still in a state of moral complexity and need to retreat from a black/white, good/bad stance and get comfortable with ambiguity; it seems to be here to stay. It’s some of the status quo that needs to change.

A few days later I heard a promo for a doc called Mummy Wildest, about females in the animal world - did you know that elephant societies value grandmothers most because they remember where the water holes are?  Another item reported that elder abuse in care homes had doubled in the past decade. Then I heard a centre for philanthropy announce a study that found qualities like empathy and generosity have declined markedly in the past dozen years.   In the UK, Theresa May announced a Ministry of Loneliness…see any connections here?

What to do…how to proceed in the never ending quest for justice and equality.  One specific thing,  in the interests of leveling the playing field, is supporting women running for public office.  I have immense sympathy for all women suffering workplace harassment, but women in politics have an extra dose, with death threats often thrown in and sometimes carried out. We need to keep our eyes open for that and stand with them. We can elect some wonderful women to decision making roles, some mediocre ones too, just like it is with the guys.

Although it was a bit predictable and got a laugh, I flinched at Wilde’s last line in the play “He is a man of no importance” Men are in a precarious state and we need to move to a more nuanced position, we’re all important - to ourselves and to each other.
Blog # 76…December, 2017

In case you haven't noticed, Christmas is coming -  that time of merry excesses and jolly anxieties,  you know what I'm talking about, we all have them.

I got a wonderful surprise to launch the season from my friend in Helsinki -  two books about hygge. Hygge has been in vogue in urban centres like New York and Los Angeles where people yearn to escape from the horrors of the news, fake or real and the stresses of survival in the current  climate, threatened in so many ways. And interest is spreading as we all struggle to keep our heads as all around know the rest.
If you’haven't heard of hygge, it's a Danish notion of cosiness, a way to live well, surrounding yourself with soothing things.  Denmark, a small nordic country, free from longing to be a world power, has always paid attention to looking after itself and its citizens. Generous social supports, vigorous environmental standards and a sense of the importance of creating conforting and welcoming environments are some indications of where their heads and hearts are...generally speaking anyway.

Hygge reflects this in a number of ways, first and most important is light.  Their northern location makes for long dark periods, (that probably has something to do with the craving for cosiness). Homes and public places are lit subtly, with soft shades and lots of candles,delivering light in a warm, relaxing way.

And the food...tasty, beautiful open faced sandwiches called smorrbrod and delicious
almond pastries called weinerbrod (which contain 33% of your daily recommended fat intake, but never mind that)

Physical comfort is reflected in their love of warm socks and comfortable chairs and their consciousness of the importance of quiet moments with a few friends...don't mean to make them out as simple and out-of-touch, or perfect either as individuals or as a nation, they just seem to have some priorities that I like.

In summer hygge takes the form of relating to nature - trees, water, sand.  Denmark is a series of small islands and promontories, never far from the sea, so those of us who live far inland may need to work a bit harder at the water part. but we all have nature of some sort and can try to appreciate it when and how we can.

So, as the holidays approach, see if you can find a little hygge for yourself and take it with you into the new year.
And, speaking of unintended consequences, have you noticed the upsurge in the numbers of women running for office in the US mid terms?  We're hoping to nudge that surge along here on International Women's Day in March.
Blog # 75…November 2017
There’s a weird disconnect in the air these days…on the one hand, confessionals where people’s dirty laundry is spread out in full view and on the other, glorious pics ( often photo shopped) of svelte and gorgeous  characters eating delicious meals in fabulous settings.  Neither is anywhere near where most of us live. One minute we seem to be more tolerant of deviance from what used to be thought of as the norm and less so the next. Exposure of men in power and their exploitation of women continues to be a daily feature in the news. We’re caught up in fantasy and immersed in reality at the same time.

So, life is remarkable and full of contradictions, what else is new. I just heard Scott Kelly talk about his book Endurance  where he recounts growing up with his twin brother Mark as distractible, mischievous little demons, not much good at school. Both boys went on to be astronauts: Scott commanded the International Space Station on three expeditions; Mark, who served on many missions also, is the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, former US Congresswoman who was shot in 2011.  Both Kellys have written books and actively advocate for gun control. Not bad for kids who were unremarkable and probably drove their parents nuts.

I was also struck recently by hearing artist Kanika Gupta talk about her difficult recovery from a concussion.  In the hours that stretched to days, then weeks and months when she was unable to do much more than lie still in a dark room, she had a lot of thinking time.  Her show ReThink Recovery opened recently at Lakeshore Arts in Etobicoke (a neighbourhood to the west of downtown Toronto). Kanita’s practice includes painting, ceramics, photography, printmaking and illustrations. She uses visual arts, and storytelling to expand understanding of the healing process and those who find themselves “on the fringes of normalcy”. In her workshops she uses a variety of art forms to explore what recovery means and alternative ways of being.

An example of Kanita’s visual challenge to cultural and medical assumptions about recovery is a ceramic piece, broken and then reassembled.  Not as it was but interesting in a unique way.   She questions our notions of health, beauty, wholeness and worth, and establishes a new set of values that are more inclusive and embody what it means to be human.

Sometimes I despair of where the world is going and wonder if we’re really moving forward or backward since we started walking upright…then I come across something about the Kelly twins or Kanita Gupta and  feel more hopeful. I'm also touched by the pluckiness of our Iraqi family and.appreciate the many very good dudes I know.  So find your own sunny ways to get through dark November and so long for now.

Blog # 74…October 2017

When we’re born, we’re issued a return ticket.  Many of us huddle in the crowd of avoiders and deniers -  referring to dying as passing on, buying the farm – or for sports fans – the final inning.

Images of death surround us, everywhere from the horror of thousands perishing in wars and natural disasters to the personal anguish we feel when someone close to us dies. As a person without the comfort that religious beliefs can bring, I struggle to make sense of life and death along with my fellow non –believers (I prefer wonderers).  As Woody Allen said,” I wish I could believe, it would be a big help on those dark nights.”

Since I often turn to reading for comfort and understanding of what’s going on, I picked up a recent book called The Art of Death by one of my favourite writers, Haitian/American Edwidge Dandicat to see how she linked the two.The book was motivated by Dandicat’s awareness of the approaching death of her mother. As a writer, she gravitated towards other writers and began to read and absorb the way they handled the topic. She shifts from fictional pieces - Toni Morrison’s Sula and One hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to deeply personal writings like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Nothing to be Frightened of  by Julian Barnes.

The book that touched me deeply though, was Canadian musician and writer Paul Quarrington’s  Cigar Box Banjo where he speaks candidly about his feelings about his approaching death, how he mourns himself and the sadness his family and friends will feel. That’s what gets me too. As well as reminding me of other things I’ve read or might read, these writers share their feelings in a way that encouraged me to go there also.

In some other departments...we shared our Thanksgiving dinner with the Iraqi family who have been in Toronto for almost three months, introduced them to cranberry sauce with turkey and they brought us Coba, an Iraqi dish.
If it’s within possibility for you, try and visit the McMichael Gallery this month, while the bus leaves every Sunday from downtown Toronto.  The Alex Janvier show just opened, also very worth seeing are the Group of Seven Guitar Project; Passion over Reason – Joyce Weiland meets Tom Thomson and the wonderful drawings of Annie Pootoogook. 

And, we’re all thinking about how we can treat each other more fairly and kindly, men, women and children, all of us.  Next year will be the 20th time a gang of us has gathered to mark International Women’s Day.  We’ve been wondering how to encourage more women to enter politics or go for other positions of power and influence to modulate the picture.  This week’s news coverage has been important and part of the larger conversation. The humiliation and hurt suffered by women abused in workplace situations of any kind are awful, but women in public life are particularly vulnerable and frequently exposed to death threats... and with Jo Cox, British Labour MP, the most tragic of outcomes.

As I write this, news of Gord  Downie’s death last night reached me…a life well lived, making music and memories  and over too soon.
So Stay Woke, as they say on the internet, keep thinking and talking about these critical issues.
Blog # 73…September 2017

A headline in Saturday’s Globe and Mail read   “How art can nourish a community” referring to Gallery 1313 which opened in 1997 in Parkdale.  I know this blog is often Toronto-centric, so here's some local context - Parkdale is in the downtown west end of the city, an area plagued by drug use and crime. A number of things have contributed to a shift in the past 20 years, but the Gallery was early on the scene and has maintained its presence as a safe and positive space that nourishes the healthy aspects of the community. 

As well as being open and welcoming to the public (as opposed to when it was a  jail) it has an active outreach to local schools, providing a place to exhibit the work of artists of all ages and from near and far.
Recently, members of the large Tibetan diaspora in the neighbourhood flocked to see the work of Tashu Norba, one of their compatriotes who lives and works in Amsterdam.

The Aga Khan Museum is embedded in another neighbourhood feeling some change.   On the northeast edge of the city, originally developed in the last century as an industrial/business area, it's now home to thousands of folks, many of them newcomers. The Museum, opened in 2014, is set amidst beautiful gardens and reflecting pools and shares the site with an Ishmaeli cultural centre and mosque.
On a recent visit we were treated to a wedding party strolling around the grounds, the women’s gowns glittering and reflecting in the pools.

In the spirit of connecting cultures through art, the current programme features several Canadian artists.  i have now seen, a poem by Parliamentary Poet-in-Residence George Elliot Clarke explores identity as an indigenous black.

And...a whimsical piece by Babak Golkar titled, The Fox, the Nut and the Banker's Hand catches our eye, makes us think and reminds us of what cross cultural pollination is bringing to Canadian art.

But the most brilliant exhibit is outside…Skate Girls of Kabul consists of large cubes with portraits of young Afghan girls with their skateboards. Their faces reflect joy or  shyness as they peek out from their helmets (worn over headscarves) or confidence as they don knee pads over their traditional leg coverings. Skateistan is an NGO operating in Cambodia, South Africa and Afghanistan, empowering youth and children through skateboarding and education. A great idea!

Many thanks to Norm Nicholls for the photos.
Blog # 72…August 2017

I was in Quebec recently and was reminded of how much value they place on artisans and the work they do.  In Iles de la Madeleine, where we spent a few days, I noticed the term Economusee kept popping up and when we visited a fromagerie, I got to the bottom of what it meant.

The Economusee Network Society was established in Quebec in 1992 as a means of recognizing and promoting the work of artisans.  Operating in the field of crafts or the agri-food sector, participants use authentic know-how in the production of their commodities.  They also open their workshops to the general public so they can share their passion and knowledge and sell products made on the premises.

We saw cheese being made (and tasted it too) at Fromagerie Pied de Vent - they produce three speciality cheeses, which contain no chemical additives, with milk from one herd of cattle fed only hay and feed available on the islands..

We also visited Le Fumoir d’Antan where three generations of Arsenaults  have been curing and smoking seafood since the 1940’s. with kippered herring a speciality.

Les Iles de la Madeleine are a sand archipelago so sand is everywhere (causing serious erosion problems on causeways and cliffs, but creating exquisite beaches). Artisans du Sable put it to many creative uses, mixing it with an agent to give it structural integrity. One series of objets that particularly appealed to us were funeral urns,shaped a bit like a wasp's nest and with the signature footprint motif.

These three examples of Economusee are but the tip of the iceberg. Since its beginning twenty- five years ago, as well as a number of locations in Quebec, the movement has spread in Canada to the Martiime provinces, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. There are Economusees in Northern Ireland and the Republic, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland  and the Faroe Islands. Products range from maple syrup to bread, berr and wine to beef, garments knitted or made from woven material, articles made from wood, ceramics or metal. There's even a taxidermist. This international network of like minded artisan-entrepreneurs share marketing initiatives, tourism campaigns and are strong regional economic generators.

Visits are currently being made to Haiti to explore the possibilities there. It's a fascinating movement, and a refreshing alternative to our highly mechanized ways of production and consumption.